By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Let's take a song from David Byrne's latest CD, "Feelings,'' as
an example of our post-postmodern everything-and-the-kitchen-sink
era of art. Knitting together the unabashed, knee-slappin'
country-and-western chorus are delicate, jittery jungle techno
rhythms. Sounds absurd, but it works beautifully.
Or "Daddy Go Down'' — a Cajun fiddle see-saws on a playground
of droning sitars and tell-tale scratching. Walk into your local
record label office and pitch that to a talent scout. See what kind
of looks you get.
David Byrne is used to strange looks. In the 20 years since the
debut of the Talking Heads' first album, he has led that band and
his own solo career through a series of unbelievable and harrowing
stylistic twists and turns, and every time he pitched one of his
art-student ideas, he met numerous odd looks. He's racked numerous
successes — personal (a wedding — at which Brave Combo played --
and a daughter) and commercial (you know the hits — "Once in a
Lifetime,'' "Wild, Wild Life,'' "And She Was,'' etc.) — in those
20 years, though, and there's no good reason to stop now.
"I'm used to the look of bewilderment,'' Byrne said this week
in a telephone interview from a tour stop in Florida. "I just have
to explain that I'm from the same planet you are — you just don't
realize how strange it is out there. You're living in some TV dream
Fortunately, Byrne has reached a position from which he can act
on his whims with relative freedom. For instance, his record label,
Luaka Bop (a subsidiary of Warner Bros.) signs and produces artists
from around the world that normally wouldn't get looked at twice by
American labels. It cuts out the middlemen and those looks of
"Look at the new Cornershop record. It looks like it's making
some kind of impact, but if you went to someone and said, 'We have
this band with an Indian singer and their single is about Asha
Bosley, this woman who stars in Indian musicals, and we think it's
a hit record,' they'd look at you like, 'What planet are you from?'
But it worked. Every now and then one of them clicks,'' Byrne said.
Cornershop found success for the same reasons Byrne continues to
astound listeners: they both realize the patchwork potential of pop
music now. They mix styles. They bridge the gaps between musical
genres. They play to our expanding awareness of the world.
It's not intentional, of course. Byrne doesn't hunker down next
to his wall of gold Talking Heads records and plot ways to better
communicate with today's collage minds. His consciousness is a
collage, too, so the music comes out that way.
Upon the release of "Feelings,'' Byrne explained it this way:
"We all seem to have these musical styles and reference points
floating around in our heads, things we've heard at one time or
another that rub off on us — sometimes in small ways, as a feeling
in a melodic turn of phrase, other times in the overall style of a
song. There's a subconscious cut-and-paste going on in our heads
that doesn't seem strange at all. It seems like the most natural
thing in the world. It's the way we live now ... borrowing from the
past and future, from here and there.''
It's the way Byrne lives, anyway, and he said the ideas for
style-melding sneak up on him.
"It doesn't come when you have your forehead furrowed, figuring
out what to do with a song. It comes when you're not paying
attention, when you're making coffee late in the afternoon and
there's a record playing in the background,'' Byrne said. " 'The
Gates of Paradise' is an example of that. I had a jungle record
playing while I was in the kitchen, and my ear caught something. I
realized that the rhythm I was hearing was the same basic beat of
the song I had just been working on.''
In the making of "Feelings,'' those moments came with greater
frequency, Byrne said, because of the way the album was made. The
songs were recorded with musicians and producers all over the world
— the dance trio Morcheeba in London, the Black Cat Orchestra in
Seattle, Devo in Los Angeles, Joe Galdo in Miami and Hahn Rowe in
New York City. No big studios, either — everything was economical,
in home studios.
That contributes largely, Byrne said, to the natural, relaxed
gait of the songs. Nowadays, with advancements in technology and
lower prices, home recordings sound as good or better than those
from big, complicated studios. This is not breaking news to
musicians, but it's a new dynamic to the musical marketplace.
"All artists have gone through this — you make a demo at home
that sounds great, that has this intensity and feel and
spontaneity, and it gets scrubbed clean in the studio. They listen
to the final product and go, "There's something missing here. Why
doesn't this sound as exciting as the demo?' That's an old story,''
Byrne said. "Now we're coming around to where if you take a little
more care when recording the demo, you can release that as the
That's what Byrne did this time around. The result is an album
that packs a suitcase of musical styles that ordinary musicians
wouldn't be able to carry across the room, but the disc holds
together with a surprising fluidity and coherence. It may be the
most enterprising effort Byrne has tackled since the heady days
with his old band.
"In the beginning, the Talking Heads were always kind of
beat-oriented. Always in the living rooms and the loft there was
R&B in the air as well as experimental music and rock stuff. That
resulted in the same fusion that I think I still capture from time
to time,'' Byrne said. "It's a natural tendency to end up putting
together the different things in your experience. You act out what
you love. That's how different music comes into being. What we call
rock 'n' roll is a patchwork of many different things. It's not
like Elvis Presley had no roots.''
Byrne prefers continuing on his own path, too. The other three
members of the Talking Heads reunited last year without him,
calling themselves simply the Heads and using different vocalists
for each song on the resulting CD "No Talking Just Head.'' Bad
blood still exists between Byrne and his former bandmates, so his
part in the reunion was never an issue.
"Years earlier I had tried to talk to them, and they didn't
want to even talk to me,'' he said. "It's been going on for a very
long time. It just finally got to the point where I realized I was
not in this as a masochist and that I don't need to be whipped and
berated. Music should be a joy. It was time to move on.''
Even when Byrne gets venomous or angry, though, his music
somehow maintains an air of cheer, optimism and hope. Even with a
foreboding lyric like that in "Daddy Go Down,'' the song's
rhythmic momentum instills a crucial air of confidence.
In fact, it's that rhythmic element that pulls off that trick,
"You can dance to it,'' he said. "For me, you can say
something very bleak and pessimistic, but if you counter it with a
groove, it implies that the human being is going to persevere and
survive. At least, that's what it feels like. Despite what ominous
clouds gather, the groove and the life force is going to pull you
with Jim White
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Cain's Ballroom, 423 N. Main St.
Tickets: $20 at the Ticket Office at Expo Square, Mohawk Music,
Starship Records and Tapes, the Mark-It Shirt Shop in Promenade
Mall and the Cutting Edge in Tahlequah
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.