From: Goldmine, 25 December 1992
Inside Talking Heads: Seventeen years of Popular Favorites and Naked Truths
Hair lank, eyes glazed, his tropical suit hung with
sweat, he looks like a man who's been lost too long
in the jungle. Behind him, the rest of his stray
troupe weaves in and out of the shadows, suspicious
of the light.
This is a band called Talking Heads. It's the
summer of 1976. In the urban bush of a misspent
Manhattan. The city is strapped, busted, burnt-out.
The man in the sodden suit sees this. A gaping
squawker whose jerky movements and disjointed words
comprise a spare new vaudeville, he offers a song
about the times he's groping through. He wrote it
with the band. It's about a psycho killer. He and
Talking Heads are performing the song in a warehouse
club near SoHo called the Kitchen. Their expressionless
audience forms a human atrium around the musicians,
straddling pillars of packing crates, legs dangling
from rafters in the steely haze. These onlookers
could be refugees from the Young Americans for Freedom
or a midwestern bible college, so blandly prim are
they in appearance and deportment.
This is but a small corner of New York City's downtown
music and art scene of the late-1970s, its denizens
helping to redefine the distances between popular
culture and serious culture. Around them, punk music
has been stealing into the vacant lot of corporate
rock, throwing itself against its high, flimsy,
hoardings, knocking them over, pounding them into
long splinters and strange angles. But this particular
band, being well-educated and self-disciplined, elects
to make sense of a portion of the rubble, fashioning
something abstract yet functional. Neatness counts.
The lead singer of Talking Heads is David Byrne,
born May 14, 1952 in Dumbarton, Scotland, the son
of an electrical engineer Thomas Byrne and wife
Emma. The family soon after relocated to Hamilton,
Ontario (where daughter Celia was born), and then
to Baltimore. Music, (Scottish and American folk)
was frequently heard in the house, as were the
tolerant philosophies of Emma Byrne's Quaker faith.
David's parents encouraged his own interest in
painting and music (which intensified after the
Byrnes visited a cultural exposition in Montreal
during his fifteenth year), and he took up the
guitar, violin and the accordion,. Although refused
a spot in the Arbutus Junior High choir because he
was too "off-key and withdrawn," he summoned the
extroversion and tunefulness to strum Dylan songs
at a coffeehouse near the University of Maryland
campus. Byrne himself attended Maryland Institute's
College of Art (meantime playing violin beside an
accordionist in an act they called Bizadi) and
then transferred to Rhode Island School of Design.
He tired of conventional classes after two
semesters at RISD, and dabbled in conceptual art.
He met Chris Frantz, a Kentucky blueblood. They
worked together on the soundtrack for a friend's
film about "his girlfriend being run over by a car."
Frantz suggested he and Byrne form a band. It grew
into a quintet. Sometimes the group was called the
Artistics. Sometimes the group was called the
Autistics. Frantz's girlfriend, student artist Tina
Weymouth (a California girl), joined in.
Byrne, Frantz and Weymouth moved to New York City
and got a loft together. They formed Talking heads
in 1975, with Weymouth playing bass, and gave their
first concerts that June at CBGB, the leading lower
Manhattan punk-rock showcase. Their name (taken
from an old issue of TV Guide) came from the
television term for a camera head shot of a
speaking figure. Talking heads began to tour New
York state, from Long Island to Albany and beyond.
New England too. Mostly campus gigs and small clubs.
Their music was playful but poker-faced, combining
two or more simple melodic lines while maintaining
the rhythmic independence of each. It sounded
nervous and, because the lead singer was nervous,
it also looked nervous. Swallowed whole by
listeners, it felt jittery but stimulating.
Like the decaying city as experienced by the
well-educated and self-disciplined.
Jerry Harrison, the Harvard-educated former
keyboardist for the Modern Lovers, was added to
the band. He lent Talking Head's spatial mechanics
a sonic richness. They became the finest fidgety
rhythm and melody brokers in rock. Reacting to
hope and expectancy in a world in descent. And
because of their artistic and audio-visual
interests, they let everyday tactile intake
determine execution. And because they were often
agitated in each other's company, that
circumstance became a subtle component of their
sound. And each time they set out to record an
album (for Sire Records) they would seemingly
break up the band and re-form it with the same
As a boy, David Byrne had wanted to be a
mailman, reading the postcards of strangers
and acquaintances as he made his rounds. And
that idea was also somehow incorporated into
the band's eclectic intake, until Talking Heads
had a whole catalog of work that resonated
with the sympathetic joy of eavesdropping.
In 1988, on the eve of their release Naked,
all four members of Talking Heads came together
in the old NBC Radio studios in Manhattan's
Rockefeller Center to discuss the band's body
of work. Since the then-current Naked album
would prove to be the last Talking Heads album
for the foreseeable future, the interview
session (and a supplementary talk shortly
afterward with Byrne) represented a rare chance
to experience Talking Heads reflecting frankly
on their entire catalog as well as specific
sources of inspiration.
In October 1992, the still-dormant group
released a wistful anthology. Talking Heads,
Popular Favorites 1976-1992 - Sand in the
Vaseline. Besides featuring a number of Naked-
era tracks, it also contained three new songs
(including the apt single "Lifetime Piling Up")
as well as unreleased material discussed in
the Rockefeller Center talk, such as "Sugar
On My Tongue." All in all, what follows is
Goldmine: Let's begin with the Naked album,
which you cut in Paris with African musicians.
It seems to be a departure from Little Creatures
and True Stories, in the sense that you've
again gotten away from conventional western
song structures. Was that intentional?
David Byrne: Yes. We'd done our "song" records;
you kinda get bored with anything after a couple
of records of it. And we decided it was time to
do something else.
Tina Weymouth: I should say - because some
people might get the idea that we were a bunch
of white Americans just going to Paris to play
with a bunch of Africans - that while we were
displaced, so were they. Most of them were
into a lot of different kinds of music, had
heard our music previously, and also liked a
lot of the same things we liked. So we were
all sharing the same kind of sensibility.
There wasn't a planned thing whereby we said,
"We're going to make African music here." It
just happened that this was the kind of music
we were currently jamming on.
Goldmine: You've given keyboardist Wally
Badarou the credit of "Chief Inspector" for
his organisational role in Naked. Wally had
a bit hit in the 1980s with a song of his
called "Chief Inspector."
David Byrne: [nodding] Big hit. We first met
Wally in the Bahamas, where he was living and
working at Compass Point Studios. He's from
Africa, and he's classically trained, so he
has this unique sensibility. He previously
helped us on one Talking Heads record,
Speaking in Tongues, and played on a number
of songs, "Burning Down the House," "This
Must Be The Place." The stuff he played on
those songs helped cement them into what they
are. So at what point recently we'd talked
to Wally about producing Talking Heads for
a project like Naked, and he was too busy.
But he helped us make contact with a lot
of musicians in Paris. He recommended
musicians that he thought we would get
along with, that would understand what we
were doing. It made for a really nice
Goldmine: In the midst of this cultural
exchange, I believe there were certain
specific records that influenced you.
David Byrne: Often myself and the band
would listen to contemporary African and
Caribbean records and they do have an
influence on you. Manu Dibango's "Big Blow,"
for instance, helped us think of the horns
we wanted on "Blind." The song "Tell Dem"
by calypsonian David Rudder influenced
"Totally Nude" on Naked. King Sunny Ade's
"Ma Jaiye Oni" moved me to write "Ade" for
The Catherine Wheel album. You don't end up
stealing, you end up being inspired, which
is nice. But in some stuff the theft is more
obvious. [laughter]. An example is a song
called "Belle Amie" by Kanda Bongo Man. I
first bought his record 'cause I saw the
cover and I didn't know what it was. He's
a guitar player from Zaire, and he sings
mainly in French. I think he lives in Paris
Goldmine: He was a soukous musician working
in a factory in Kinshasa to subsidize his
career, but he has a big breakthrough when
he moved to France.
David Byrne: [nodding] And his guitar
playing really sparkles. The guitar tracks
are contemporary; they don't sound like some
kind of funky recording done in the bush.
I'd put his record on a dance to it every
morning. So when we were cutting a track
for the song, "Nothing But Flowers," the
French-African guitar player [Yves N'Djock]
and myself and the drummers and Talking
Heads were all jamming at the end of our
song and we were playing in this style. It
came out pretty naturally, and at the end
they said it sounded like somebody from the
old country, which is a great compliment.
Jerry Harrison: I think the process we
choose causes each record to sound a little
bit different from the others. Naked was
written music, first, and lyrics and
melodies, second. In that way, it was
similar to Remain In Light and Speaking
In Tongues. Because of that, the music
flows and interweaves in a different way
than when you compose songs with music
and lyrics coming at the same time.
David Byrne: The music in some cases,
especially on side one, is pretty up.
But overall the lyrics are pretty foreboding
and express disillusionment and anger.
Goldmine: In discussing the album's moodiness,
there's a coherent subtlety that darts out
again and again throughout the keyboards.
Jerry Harrison: We try to make the keyboards
like the glue that holds the other parts
together, because they have the ability to
be more sustained.
Tina Weymouth: When we were putting the songs
together, we were switching instruments, and
I was playing a lot of keyboard parts after
the drums were down. But Jerry got a groove
happening by playing a repetitive riff that
was trance-inducing. I often compare it -
because I was a painter in school - to abstract
painting, where the first color or line or
form you put on canvas suggests what you do
next. Because of the kinds of musicians that
we are , and because we respect what the
other musicians we play with might choose
to play, there's a lot of freedom allowed
for other things to happen.
Goldmine: While you recorded Naked in Paris,
there was a two-week jamming gestation period
before that. Where did that preparation take
Chris Frantz: That was here in New York, and
it was very helpful to me at least to get my
chops back, because as a drummer if you don't
keep playing it's like tennis, where without
constant exercise you can become totally inept.
Goldmine: Chris, are there certain songs or
grooves you and the band like to jam on to
find your edge again?
Chris Frantz: James Brown's grooves are
always a personal favorite of mine.
David Byrne: We cut most of the tracks
where Chris would be playing the kit and
at least one other percussionist would be
playing simultaneously; sometimes two other
people. So the groove would be the result
of a balance between everybody. It wasn't
like - as often happens - the percussion
being added on later for spice or sprinkling.
In this case it became integrated.
Chris Frantz: We had quite a few different
percussionists. The two that come to mind
are Abdou M'Boup and Brice Wassy. Brice on
the track "Ruby Dear" pulled out this
instrument that was to us really great. It
was a pair of western chaps like rodeo
artists wear, except covered with beanpods
that rattled. So on "Ruby Dear" where you
hear what sounds like a huge shaker, it's
actually Brice dancing with these pants on,
Goldmine: Alongside a Bo Diddley beat.
Chris Frantz: Yes. We said to the guys,
"Do you know the Bo Diddley beat?" They
said, "No, no." These are African fellows.
So we played them a cassette we'd made up
of those beats, and they said, "Oh yeah!
That we know!!"
Jerry Harrison: That was the track where
the drummer [Moussa Cissokao] said, "I need
to tighten up the heads." And he goes into
the bathroom underneath the control room and
starts a fire, and takes his drum and puts
it down on the flame. So this smoke was
billowing up through the control booth.
Goldmine: So he had to temper his drums
with an actual flame?
Chris Frantz: That's really the only way
to do it, I guess. After that, we got them
some electric heaters to use. We sprung for
the heaters, rather than have the studio burn d
Goldmine: Paris is a great international
locus for a lot of cultural exchange. Another
track on Naked, "Mr. Jones," reminds me that
in African and Caribbean folklore those Anglo-
Saxon surnames are always the names for ghosts,
for the aliens in the storytelling.
David Byrne: My thought was to take the same
guy from Bob Dylan's "Mr. Jones," but now he's
having a good time. [laughter] He's at the hotel,
there's a convention going on, he's with his
friends, he's not on the outside anymore. He
walks into a room and it's his friends there
instead of a bunch of strangers. He's getting
loose, getting down, his pants fall down, he's
dancing on the table, and he's having a pretty
good time. He's found ...
Tina Weymouth: ...His perfect tacky environment.
David Byrne: At least for that evening, anyway.
Goldmine: "The Facts Of Life" from Naked
could be the album's most disturbing track.
It seems to be saying that the facts always
fall short of a satisfying explanation.
David Byrne: It tells you that, if you watch
monkeys, you'll find out that we're pretty close.
Jerry Harrison: One of the things I like
about "Facts Of Life" is that it has a "musique
concrete" quality to it. I think it's a nice
contrast to some of the more flowing rhythms
on the album. It shows that we have other
interests beyond integrating African music
into our stuff. This song hearkens back to
the more urban music we made when we began.
David Byrne: It's like a little old lady in
the city, complaining about sex and violence.
Goldmine: Nothing about the Talking Heads
and their music has remained the same for
long. David, going back into the history
of the group, was "Psycho Killer" really
the very first song you ever wrote?
David Byrne: Yup, that was the first one
that actually got performed. I attempted,
when I was much younger, to write some songs.
Gosh, they were really terrible! [laughs]
They were like fake Bob Dylan songs. And I
never finished them. That one was the first
one that got finished. It was a way to see
if I could do it. And we all worked together
Chris Frantz: David and I had a band together,
and David came in and said, "I've got this song,
it's like an Alice Cooper song - sort of." He
started to play it, saying "This is as much as
I've got." Between the three of us, we managed
to make it complete.
Goldmine: Whose idea was it to add the French
Tina Weymouth: That was David's idea.
David Byrne: You guys really helped.
Tina Weymouth: He originally wanted Greek.
David Byrne: No, it was French.
Tina Weymouth: No! [communal laughter] Listen,
I know the real story. David had asked somebody
else to do it in another language because he
wanted to create a split personality. He was
trying to recreate a person who has a criminal
mind. The people who he originally approached
to do it said, "It's about a psycho killer? No,
we won't contribute to that song." They were
David Byrne: Ahh, that's right! That's right!
Tina Weymouth: So he came to our studio where
we were painting, because ...
David Byrne: ... These people had no morals,
and would do anything! ... [laughter]
Tina Weymouth: ... And I knew French. So I
put in the stuff that sounds like a Napoleonic
complex. Then David said, "Okay, we've got this
French. So what would a French band do with
this rock 'n' roll song?" I said, "Well, the
French right now are really into what they call
'Yeah Yeah' music, because of the Beatles." So
he put in all those "Fa Fa Fa"'s instead of "Yeah
Goldmine: Didn't you guys used to play 1910
Fruit Gum Company songs in club concerts?
David Byrne: Yeah! "1,2,3 Red Light."
Chris Frantz: It was a showstopper! People
couldn't believe it, that song - because we
had this scary reputation for "Psycho Killer."
They'd hear "Red Light" and didn't know where
we were coming from.
Tina Weymouth: An audience we were playing to
out on Long Island at that time, I heard them
talking between songs. They said, "Is this band
a comedy act or something?"
David Byrne: [chuckling] It's a cover band!
Tina Weymouth: We often find out what really
is gonna work live. You have a lot of layers
of things happening, and then you find out what's
really gonna serve the song. It's a shame that's
the way it works these day, where you have a
studio record and then try to support it with a
tour. Because you're learning to play these
songs after you've made the record! It would be
best to tour first with new material and then
record it - but nobody wants to hear the new
material, they always wanna hear the old stuff.
David Byrne: I think Elvis Costello tried that,
doing dates with all-new material to break it in.
It's tough to do, because an audience that has
no familiarity just sits there and listens.
Chris Frantz: It's like if the Who doesn't do
David Byrne: Yeah, it becomes a courageous act
to do this.
Goldmine: You performed a rare but memorable
song during 1977 called "Sugar On My Tongue".
David Byrne: [laughter] It has a little bit
of innuendo in it, you might say. It went,
"Is she gonna put sugar on my tongue / Is
she gonna gimme gimme some / She put it right
there on my tongue."
Chris Frantz: It was highly suggestive, and
it was recorded by fans on cassette machines
Goldmine: Another Talking Heads rarity is
"Love Goes To A Building On Fire", which
was a limited edition B-side.
Tina Weymouth: It's out-of-print and it was
never put out on any of our albums. I think
it demonstrates that even when we were a
three-piece and had never made many recordings,
we were already thinking of expanding our sound.
Goldmine: Good point. It's got horns on it,
just as "Naked" does.
Tina Weymouth: Yes, and when we first put it
out, our fans from CBGBs were shocked .
Because we'd always been labelled as minimalists.
That was one of the reasons we threw the wrench
in with the bubble gum music. We were considered
serious, dramatic, minimalist artists. And we
were trying to move away from that kind of label.
We just didn't want to be categorized.
Goldmine: David, you joke about being a cover
band, but you got your first Top 30 hit in 1978
with Al Green's "Take Me To The River." What
made you decide to cover that song?
David Byrne: Chris and I, while we were in
this band in Rhode Island, we had done another
Al Green song, "Love And Happiness." [grinning]
I can't imagine what that sounded like, now,
because it's this very sensuous, dreamy kind
of song and very difficult to sing. I must
have mangled it terribly.
Chris Frantz: We did the song a lot, and
people really liked it, but I don't think
they had any idea it was a soul song. This
was the "Disco Sucks" days, and anything
that had a remotely sexy syncopated beat
to it was pretty much taboo. Everything
was punk: straight and preferably fast.
So we played "Take Me To The River" to
shake people up a bit. We were a little
bit leary about doing it, even though crowds
liked it, because the emphasis is always
on doing your own material.
Jerry Harrison: I had never heard "Take Me
To The River" before we worked that out
for the record. I had never listened to it.
David Byrne: Al Green's version?
Jerry Harrison: That's right, or Syl
Johnson's So you guys just showed me the
chords and I started playing. One of the
reasons it sounds different is that I was
taking it through your understanding of it,
and then adding my understanding and not
trying to cop anything from the original
Goldmine: "And She Was" sounded like a
Buddy Holly song for the 1980s, with a
modern-sounding aura of abandon. How was
David Byrne: That was written in the old
style, the way I imagine Buddy Holly or
someone like that would have written a
song. It has the "La Bamba"-type chorus.
Tina Weymouth: David came to us, as he
did with all the songs from the Little
Creatures and True Stories albums, with
demos on which he had himself playing
guitar and singing to a beat box. We put
in our parts as we saw fit.
Chris Frantz: I put in the "Cherry, Cherry"
guitar. So it isn't just Buddy Holly and
"La Bamba" in there. There's also some great
Neil Diamond. [laughter]
Goldmine: David, you've told me that a
song called "Left Right Salute No. 4" by
African artists Shasha and Jackey was an
influence on at least one track on the 1979
Fear Of Music LP.
David Byrne: The Shasha and Jackey song is
from a record I think was South African
called 17 Mabone, which I picked up in a
store in New York. I bought it because the
cover had a drawing of a car with 17 headlights
on it. This was one of the first records I'd
heard that was of people from another culture
playing music out of their traditions but
using electric instruments. They're not trying
to imitate the Beatles or the Temptations or
whatever. I was fascinated by the guitar style
and tried - and failed - imitating it in a
Talking Heads song, "I Zimbra." When we
recorded that track we could never get any
lyrics to it, so we ended up using the words
of this nonsense Dada poem written around
1915 or 1920.
Goldmine: There's a Cajun feel to parts of
the Little Creatures album. What might have
triggered that songwriting direction?
David Byrne: Clifton Chenier's "Eh Tite
Fille" shows a bit of what wound up on
"Road To Nowhere" from Little Creatures.
We used an exotically flavored accordion
like Clifton's on that song. When you're
down in Louisiana, you can go to a local
bar or club and hear a band playing this
kind of stuff. Although the lyrics of the
song might sound depressing, we wanted it
to have an upbeat feel - like everyone's
exuberant and joyous about their imminent
Goldmine: True Stories in 1986 drew from
a number of sources for ideas and composing
catalysts, some of them Louisiana-based right?
David Byrne: Yes. The Staple Singers' "Oh La
Da Da" was a partial inspiration for "Puzzling
Evidence" on True Stories. Pop Staples is the
sire of the group, and the other singers are
his daughters. They're basically a gospel group
that makes secular recordings - but only if the
material has a wholesome message. At one point
I got this phone call and they wanted to do a
version of one of our songs, "Slippery People."
I got to meet Pop when they recorded our song.
Later, when I was doing the movie True Stories,
among the people who came up as possibilities
to play one of the characters was Pop. I'd
written a song, "Papa Legba", that was basically
about a healer who used voodoo and Catholic
saints and African things all mixed together -
as happens a lot in Texas, Louisiana, that
part of the country. In the film, the character
I wanted Pop to play was a force for good,
helping another man to find his wife. He wasn't
casting evil spells, but he was having to
sing this song about Papa Legba, who was the
African God of the crossroads. It was a great
loss to me that we never got to release the
version of "Papa Legba" that Talking Heads
did with Pop, which was blues-based gospel
with a little Latin flavor.
David Byrne: The song was a popified version
of the Mardi Gras songs and chants they do.
The Tchoupitoulas are some of the black
Indians of New Orleans. These are not Native
Americans. I heard one story that this musical
tradition came about because during slavery
days in that part of the country, the black
people were forbidden to dance and make their
own music. One way around this was to form
these social groups and say they weren't
black, they were Indians. So it became a
Mardi Gras tradition. On "Hey Now," the
children singing were backed up by the
Neville Brothers on instruments and backing
Goldmine: Tina, you and Chris are completing
another Tom Tom Club album, but you've also
just finished producing Ziggy Marley and the
Melody Makers' Conscious Party album.
Tina Weymouth: That was a thrilling experience
for us. We were only sleeping just a couple
of hours a night because of the work load,
and we still felt good. Yet in many ways it
started through a tragedy. A mutual friend,
Alex Sadkin, who engineered and co-produced
Speaking In Tongues, was going to produce the
album for Ziggy and the Melody Makers, as he
had a couple of Bob Marley's records. Alex had
the reggae sensibility as well as their trust,
which is really important. But then something
really terrible happened: Alex was killed in a
car accident. It was upsetting news for all of
us. Later on, Ziggy's record company called us
up and said, "Look, we really like your Tom Tom
Club stuff. Would you be interested in taking
Alex's place?" We thought about it, and decided
we were interested, but we wanted to meet the
group first. So we met them in New York last
October at an Indian restaurant and we looked
each other over. Ziggy is 19 but he was 18 at
that point last October. Ziggy's comment
afterward was, "By the way, is he gonna bring
his wife to the studio?"
Chris Frantz: [grinning] Obviously, we were
just getting to know each other at that point.
So anyway, we went down to Reggae Sunsplash
in Jamaica to see the Melody Makers perform
and we sealed the bargain there. Ziggy said,
"Yeah, we can do a few songs!" A few songs
turned into 13 and we were delighted.
Tina Weymouth: It blew our minds to watch
this kid in the studio. He's a natural singer
and can ad-lib like nobody's business. And he
has that spiritual, poetic, prophetic vision
that his father had. It was so weird to us at
first, because the first thing we thought was,
"He sounds so much like Bob Marley!" But the
thing that frequently struck us from time to
time during the recording in Kingston was how
often it felt like Bob was there too - not as
any influence, but as this benign presence.
There were moments throughout the project when
we'd all get tired or run up against a dilemma,
or encounter a snag or a technical problem -
and then suddenly a magical thing would happen.
This greater spiritual intervention would occur,
a force that solved things, and all of us would
spontaneously agree it was Bob there amongst us
again, helping us out. I believe Bob Marley's
spirit is powerful and good enough to have that
kind of effect, whether on Ziggy and us or
Goldmine: Speaking of the presence of spirits
of various sorts, we should also talk about
Jerry's superb second solo album Casual Gods.
Jerry Harrison: The album was recorded over
the course of a few years. I was always being
interrupted to do other production work, for
the Violent Femmes or the Fine Young Cannibals,
and I'd have to stop to take on these assignments.
But those distractions somehow brought a lot
of variety to the material, and enough of my
original ideas endured to provide some consistency
to my record.
Goldmine: I notice that Ernie Brooks, a colleague
from your days with the Modern Lovers, was
involved as assistant producer.
Jerry Harrison: That's right. I'm putting
together a band with Ernie on bass that starts
touring in a week! Others in the band are Alex
Weir and keyboard player Bernie Worrell, both
of whom were part of the band for our Stop
Making Sense film. So it's the old gang together
Goldmine: "Rev It Up" from Casual Gods has
become a college radio favorite.
Jerry Harrison: Yes, and I understand that
the people from the Moonlighting TV show heard
it, and are about to use it for a scene in an
upcoming episode where someone is stripping!
Goldmine: "A Perfect Lie" is another sexy s
ong on the album.
Jerry Harrison: The idea of "A Perfect Lie"
is that you're making love to your girlfriend
and she suddenly is a much better lover. This
is after you'd been away for a while on a trip
or whatever. So you have these twin feelings
of excitement and wondering, "Where did she
learn this? Who else is involved?" It's a
funny position to be in. [communal laughter]
Goldmine: Regarding strange positions, David,
I know you worked with two Asian composers,
Cong Su and Ryuichi Sakamoto, for your Oscar-
winning soundtrack to the film The Last
Emperor. Were you three surprised to be
sharing the assignment?
David Byrne: Bernardo Bertolucci, the director
of The Last Emperor, was putting out feelers
to see who would be interested in the project.
I think what happened was, because of short
notice, neither Ryuichi nor Cong had time to
score the whole project - which worked out
for the best. So we were assigned different
scenes by the director. At the time, Ryuichi
was fascinated by Hitchcock movie scores,
and I was delving into Chinese music as
thickly as I could. Oddly enough, the stuff
I wrote was very Chinese-sounding, and the
stuff Ryuichi and Cong did was very much in
the way of an epic American movie score!
Goldmine: Listening to the soundtrack, I'm
interested in the stringed instruments on
"The Main Title Theme," which you wrote.
What am I hearing in the foreground?
David Byrne: [smiling] It's a very good
violin player in London imitating Chinese
stringed instruments. I was mixing western
instruments with Chinese instruments, and
sometimes the mix was very successful, but
sometimes the tuning of the Chinese
instruments is so different that I had to
substitute western instruments playing
I got a notice the other day that a
Chinese pop singer has written words to
this music and is going to do a vocal
version. Here I am, imitating Chinese
music in what must be the sincerest form
of flattery, and now the Chinese are imitating
this imitation Chinese music! [laughter] To
me, it's just great that music and ideas can
go around the world like that.
Goldmine: You'll shortly be releasing Beleza
Tropical, the first of a series of albums
you're sponsoring that compile some of the
best of modern Brazilian pop. How did you
fit that in?
David Byrne: I've been listening to Brazilian
music for quite a while. I just loved it, and
I thought, "How can I get more people to hear
this?" It's a personal mission, because I
think if they hear it they'll go, "Oh, this
was something missing in my life."
So I've put together an introductory package
called Beleza Tropical, which means "tropical
beauty," and it features a lot of the big
stars in Brazilian pop music who mainly came
up in the late 1960s and early 1970s and
revitalized Brazilian pop music: Gilberto Gil,
Milton Nascimento, Chico Buarque, Caetano
Veloso. These people picked up electric
guitars and drums from American and European
pop music, played them Brazilian-style, and
created something entirely new. A lot of
Brazilian music has African rhythms and
sensibilities woven into it. But the blend
and the way they've melded them down there
are very different from the way they have
in America, Cuba and Trinidad - other places
where the slave trade brought African culture
to this side of the Atlantic.
Goldmine: When one first hears this music,
it could be misperceived as merely, pretty,
middle-of-the-road pop, but actually it has
a very serious intent and was quite
controversial in Brazil.
David Byrne: [Nodding] It's hard to imagine
the songs as pretty as these could feel
threatening to anyone, and it's the same
way with a lot of South African pop. It
just sounds incredibly buoyant and exuberant.
So, it's difficult to imagine this as protest
music, but in a lot of Brazilian music, the
social criticism is so subtle. It's in the
wordplay, in the whole attitude, in the
decision to make the music. But this music
inspired an entire generation in Brazil,
and these singers became icons and heroes.
Goldmine: Some of these artists were even
driven into exile.
David Byrne: Yeah, Caetano was thrown in
jail for a while, and he and Gilberto moved
to London. At the moment, Gilberto is running
for mayor in the city of Salvador in Brazil.
Goldmine: David, you also did a recent film
score project with the first lady of salsa,
David Byrne: Celia Cruz was always one of
my idols. She's incredibly popular, and can
sell out Madison Square Garden, yet the Latin
music and the pop music world have been
pretty separate. Jonathan Demme, the director
of Something Wild, asked me to do a title
tune for that movie, and I said I would if
it could be a duet with Celia Cruz. I thought
that would give the song a feeling of two
different sides of Manhattan.
I don't think she ever heard of me, but she
was up for it. I wrote the song with Johnny
Pacheco, another great Latin star. So we
cut the music tracks and then Celia came
in to sing. She's not a young woman but
her voice was knocking me across the room!
The song talks about Manhattan as being a
woman. She can drive you crazy, but crazy
for love, too.
Also, there's a vamp at the end of the
song, right a the point where it gets
steamrolling, that has some of the same
kinds of chord changes as "Wild Thing,"
the Troggs' song. Meantime, she's singing
part of a similar song of hers, "Ay Mi
Cuba." It's hard to believe it could all
fit together, but near the end you could
almost sing one song on top of the other.
They merge! I love salsa, and I plan to do
more with it.
Goldmine: It is rather modest and generous
of you to openly acknowledge the debt you
and Talking Heads have to so many other
David Byrne: Well, it's important to
remember that none of us works in a
vacuum. Hopefully, talking about the
creative ties to all these other artists
will encourage fans to go out and get
their music too.
Our whole discussion represents only
a small sample of the music that's had
a real effect on my music and Talking
Heads' music. And, we hope, vice versa.
[smiling] This conversation is the same
as having friends over to our house and
us saying, "Sit down, I've gotta play
you this thing I've discovered!"