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David Byrne: “We did okay”

November 5, 2013

Mr. Byrne, do you write songs differently now than you did 30 years ago?

I couldn’t write the same kind of songs now that I wrote then. I am not the same person and you don’t have the same anxieties and passions as you do when you’re in your twenties. But I find other ways of writing. I found that I can write from another person’s point of view or I can even use someone else’s words and make a song out of that. And that is liberating for me because it allows me to express emotions through another person that I would never ever express on my own.

I imagine the Talking Heads’ song “Psycho Killer” falls into that category…

It was not autobiographical. (Laughs) That was the first song that I wrote, so it was the way of discovering if I could write a song. And after that one I knew that I understood the form and then I knew I can write something more personal. Everything after that became more personal.

I love your performance of that song at the opening of Stop Making Sense.

Thank you. That was the show that we were doing on tour back then. The film just makes it a little bit shorter so you get the narrative a little bit faster.

And now it’s one of the best concert films ever made.

I thought it was a really simple idea and I was really surprised that no one had done it. I thought, “No one has done a film where you start with nothing and you make the show, you create the show as you go?” No, so…

You also directed your own film, True Stories, years ago. Why haven’t you made more movies?

Somehow it was my fault. After that movie I was seduced by it and tried to get other movies going in Los Angeles and it was a disaster. You hear the story over and over again of people who spend years trying to get something done and if it takes too long, so I thought, “No, I don’t have the patience. I’ll write some songs and make a record.”

Was it more difficult because of your musical success?

It is more difficult because you don’t have the patience. If you focus on making a movie everything else is gone.

Do you like it when your music is used in films?

When it works it is great. When it works you really get something special, but when it doesn’t work then it is a disaster.

Can you keep that from happening?

I do not hold all the rights on my songs, but I can control where they go. But generally, if the financial thing is as it should be, I don’t say no to any films. I don’t make any editorial judgments.

Ever?

Well, once somebody wanted to use “This Must Be the Place” for a scene where a woman was being hacked into pieces and I just thought, “No, I don’t want that image connected with that song.”

You’ve also done several movie scores over the years, you even won an Academy Award for your work on The Last Emperor. When you are asked to do the score for a film, what makes you say yes?

If it seems like it will be a challenge and fun, then of course I want to do it. Also if what is needed is not something that somebody else can do better than I can. There is a kind of more conventional soundtrack thing and if that’s what they are going for I’ll say, “You know, there are people that do this better than I do. You need to go to them.” But other people want to try something new. They want to try something maybe a little different.

That makes sense – you always seem to be trying new things. Recently you even wrote a book about music.

I had done a couple of articles for magazines and newspapers and I realized that I was drawn to the idea of how the various contexts affect how music sounds. So I was interested in how music is molded by the acoustics of a space, by the economics, by the technology, and I thought, “Oh maybe I’ll write a whole book about all these different ways music is influenced from the outside, not from the inside.”

You think it’s a shame that we listen to such low-fidelity music nowadays, right? Thanks to the proliferation of highly compressed mp3s and cheap headphones…

Of course I wish the quality were better, but I also realized when I was young I was listening to music on a little radio that was this big. It completely changed my life and the sound was terrible. In fact, sometimes I was listening with the radio under the pillow in the bed and the sound was coming through the pillow – completely muffled – but it was enough.

Did that kid with the radio under his pillow ever think he would be on the radio himself?

Of course when we started out I thought the music we were doing was good and that we were going to replace all the dinosaurs. But I also realized that the dinosaurs are really good, some of them are really good – all of these bands, whether it’s Fleetwood Mac or whoever – and I am not so good so I thought, “No, not likely.”

Well, luckily you were wrong.

Yeah, we did okay.

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Short Profile

Name: David Byrne
DOB: 14 May 1952
Place of Birth: Dumbarton, Scotland
Occupation: Musician

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2 Responses to this Interview

  1. There are three people who have left an indelible imprint on the soundtrack of my life. Lou Reed, Frank Zappa and David Byrne.
    My wife and I were fortunate enough to switch on to these people when we were quite young, thirty nine years later our son has been well exposed to our taste in music and is grateful for the opportunity.
    It’s possibly a generational thing, however after Lou’s Berlin and David’s recent tour with St Vincent, we don’t think so – it’s as brilliant now just as it ever was. Unfortunately David you are the only one left…and for that we are blessed.

  2. I saw the talking heads in new York when they first came onto the scene, right away I saw and heard something special , I knew that David would take music to a new height. later I saw him at the ampitheather in los Angeles with a allstar cast that was brewed into a fine wine intoxicating to the senses.

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