Peter Remes Interviews David Byrne
Saturday, September 8, 2012 @ 11:30am CST
Remes: We’re super excited to talk to you about the upcoming project, Playing the Building.
Byrne: I’m thrilled you guys are doing this.
Remes: Absolutely! We think it’s going to be a unique project that’s going to bring a lot of excitement. Do you want to just comment on your feelings on Minneapolis and your relationship with the Walker Art Center and the various projects you’ve done? Feel free just to take it any direction you’d like.
Byrne: Oh sure, I remember one time playing a concert that a lot of people came out for…there was an Experimental Music Festival that one year was held on a roof. It was called New Music America. I don’t think it exists anymore but it was a lot of kind of adventurous composers. It was big in the African inspired little string instruments.
Remes: Oh wow.
Byrne: That was a lot of fun. Did a thing with Robert Wilson at the Walker. Odd that it wasn’t at the Guthrie being that it was theatre. But we needed a really kind of regular for singing stage instead of a thrust stage that the Guthrie had. And I worked with a brass band on that. And worked with Wilson on staging.
Remes: Nice! Fantastic! Also, obviously David, you are a huge advocate of bicycling. Minneapolis is ranked the number one bicycle community in America. Just curious if you had a chance to ride any of our trails lately and just your thoughts overall on the bike culture in Minneapolis.
Byrne: Yup, I was there like a year or so ago when the bike share program went in.
Remes: Oh, sure.
Byrne: And a bunch of the…what would they be called…like rails, trails, were opening up. They’re like bicycle highways. The form of rails, the sunken rails that go underneath the street, those are really great for getting from one part of town to another. And the last time I was on tour I went for a long ride around a whole bunch of lakes and it took me around to the river and I could ride alongside the river and it was just great! Although Portland is probably very annoyed that you guys got that award.
Remes: Haha, we’re in a competitive mode with Portland. We have a lot of similarities between the two cities. David, I’d like to talk about Playing the Building just a little bit. I’d like to get your sense of the idea of the democracy behind the experience or the project and bringing this experience of playing music to the masses without the notion of any intimidation. Do you want to just respond to that?
Byrne: Oh sure. It wasn’t intentional when I conceived the piece. But as soon as it was up and running and people came into the space and started playing it, I realized it had this other effect. It had the effect of…the people who come in and play it, they realize that nobody is better at playing it than anyone else. A six-year-old kid is as good as a trained composer or a trained musician. So people sometimes get the mistaken idea that “Oh, oh, I can’t do this because I’m not a musician and it’s a keyboard” but then they see kids jumping down on it and people who are obviously not trained musicians and pretty soon everybody realizes that really no one’s any better at it. It’s this leveling thing where everybody, all of a sudden, becomes a musician, of sorts anyway.
Byrne: You can’t really play Bach on it. Or you could but it would sound really weird. But I mean it is arranged so the low sounds are at one end and the high sounds are at the other end so you have some control over the keyboard. But the kind of sounds that it makes…although a building has pitch, it’s not scaled like a regular instrument. So you have no hope of becoming a virtuoso.
Remes: Right, right. Which I think is a very interesting concept. You know, I’ve always felt that art and buildings are sisters. And I personally have a deep affinity for art and historical buildings that sort of exude a patina whose history can only be earned. To me, a patina communicates trust and it appeals to a very different audience. I’m wondering if you think that Playing the Building would work in a new building or is the use of a historical building a critical part in the concept or the roots of the project?
Byrne: Using an old building, especially one with exposed grid work or pipes or some kind of super structure which a lot of older buildings do, that seems to be pretty critical, pretty essential for this piece. A normal art gallery or museum space which tends to be white walls, white cube, no exposed pipes or radiators or light fixtures or anything, everything is hidden behind sheet rock…you just couldn’t put this piece in there, there’d be nothing for it to attach to. All the super structure of the building is kind of hidden in most modern buildings. But in these older buildings, some of that is sort of visible and especially these older buildings that have been kind of renovated or gone through a number of life cycles, various parts of that stuff tends to be exposed. And the piece kind of makes it evident what those things are. And I find it exciting for people. They hit a key and they hear a sound coming from part of a building that’s thirty yards away and then the next sound comes from over on the right and the next sound is over on the left and the next one’s here and one’s far away. And the things that they’re playing are all around them.
Remes: I would agree. It’s sort of like hearing the souls of things that cannot speak to us. I am wondering, do you think people are attracted to this installation because it has some sort of a spiritual nexus for some people?
Byrne: It has a little bit of that. I mean, it’s pretentious to claim that, but yeah…
Remes: Let’s be pretentious.
Byrne: It tends to have that look. The shell is an old pump organ set by itself in a shell of a large empty space which tends to be kind of reverberant. So it does have that kind of sound where something like a girder or some radiator or something gets struck or hit or wind blowing through it. It tends to resonate in a space like that.
Remes: Yeah, I would agree with that. You know Andy Warhol wanted the word “figment” etched on his tombstone. He understood that this is the only place that actually existed and will exist forever in the imagination of others. For me, Playing the Building is about creating an experience that will live in the imaginations of those that experience it. I am wondering if you agree with that.
Byrne: Yeah, I think people who’ve done it, who play this thing, they look at buildings in a different way. Not that they’re going to go around with cameras and start banging on every building they go in to. But they realize that there’s a kind of….the structure becomes evident, the structure that’s in the building. And the sound makes it evident.
Remes: Yeah, I would agree. Innovation is often the act of taking something that worked over there and using it over here. And reworking this old organ and reusing it into an orchestra of sound with this old building is an incredibly innovating idea on various levels. With all of the fascination in our culture on the new, sometimes the old and existing get left behind or not given a second chance. I’m curious if this had any part in your original idea.
Byrne: Yeah, part of the idea was to use an old organ rather than say an electronic keyboard or something like that to help emphasize the fact that all of these sounds are being made mechanically. The technology that’s being used, for the most part, is very old fashioned. This thing probably could have been made a hundred years ago and use the exact same technology.
Byrne: We might be using a little bit of electronics from the switching but that could have been done another way. Having this old organ kind of emphasizes that this is not a bunch of electronic sounds coming from speakers that are hidden or reproducing prerecorded music. This is all stuff that you can see, you can see how it’s done, you can see how it’s happening, and it’s in some ways really primitive.
Remes: Yeah, I would agree. The idea of finding, of creating new sounds, it seems to be a well worn tapestry through your career, through your life. Stop Making Sense is obviously an iconic concert film which almost thirty years later is still appreciated as one of the most innovative and original concert films ever produced. Personally, I found it curious the title is essentially what Steve Job’s said in his famous Stanford quote: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” I’m wondering if that had ever crossed your mind.
Byrne: Yeah, yeah, I can see there’s something somewhere going on there.
Byrne: Sometimes rational thinking is not going to get us exactly where we want to go.
Remes: No, that’s very true. Another question on the Talking Heads: the Talking Heads broke new ground because of the extreme innovation and diversity in their music. They also remained true to themselves. I think that often is the more difficult path, yet one that ultimately has the potential to be the most satisfying. And I’m just curious if you feel that pushing into new territory has always come fairly naturally to you or have you ever doubted this approach.
Byrne: I never doubted it. The musicians and artists that I kind of emulated and admired when I was young as an adolescent growing up and going to art school did that kind of stuff. So I just assumed that well, if that’s what your heroes did, that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to try and keep pushing as much as you can because that’s what they did.
Remes: Sure. Interesting. One of your first projects, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts incorporates the very early use of found sounds and sampling in your music. That’s obviously a very well worn theme today. I was just curious if you’ve thought about that in terms of its relationship or any tie-in to Playing the Building and the use of found sounds there.
Byrne: Yeah, well, only in the extent that on that record, we kind of tried to find sound producing objects that weren’t necessarily instruments. We were using cardboard boxes and pots and pans and all kinds of stuff as a way of just breaking out of using normal instruments. And maybe you can say the same thing. I mean, once you start looking at anything as a sound producing object, then you can look at girders and radiators and steam pipes that way as well.
Remes: David, I’m curious, you’ve had a long and varied career and have changed lanes effortlessly with respect to visual arts, Talking Heads, musician, author, speaker, photographer. Is there one of these disciplines that you gravitate more toward or have a personal affinity toward or do you enjoy them all?
Byrne: Well, music is probably kind of a comfort zone by default. That’s something where I have enough confidence to say I know how to do this, I have some skills in this area. But probably, the one that was the most fun, I directed a couple of movies and I don’t know exactly why I haven’t continued to do that but that was probably the most fun of all.
Byrne: Because, well, you get to be a total megalomaniac. You basically, not that you get to be obnoxious, but basically you’re creating a whole world. There’s music and sound and dialogue and everything piled in there and it’s pretty exciting.
Remes: Absolutely. For your next movie project, we’d love to have you shooting here in Minneapolis.
Remes: David, can you just give sort of a high level opinion or summary on the music industry or the state of the music industry today?
Byrne: Uh, wow.
Remes: Yeah, it’s a wide open question, I know.
Byrne: Haha. Yeah, sure is. The music industry seems to be in a pretty frightened state at the moment. They’re fall was pretty steep there and I don’t know if it’s leveled out now or going down for them. But it’s pretty insane. They’re kind of looking left and right for sources of income. But at the same time, there’s a tremendous amount of really exciting music being made out there. Young bands and young musicians doing stuff that technology has allowed them to kind of create stuff without having to go to say a record company for support. So they don’t get themselves heavily into debt the way a lot of musicians used to do.
Byrne: So the fact that they’re not always intimately connected with the record company isn’t always so great for the record company. But it’s working out pretty well for a lot of musicians. But that said, they probably still need the efforts of a kind of marketing team and promotion and all the things only a big record company can bring.
Remes: Sure, absolutely. To your point, it seems like it’s never been easier to make an album today, which is incredibly democratic and entrepreneurial and amazing and that opportunity probably didn’t exist as little as ten, twelve, fifteen years ago. To me, that’s a great thing. But at the same time, the way the status quo, how things have been going obviously has been incredibly disruptive from where they were before. And I think change can be often quite difficult for people.
Byrne: Oh yeah, it’s pretty scary for a lot of people. I mean, yeah, I don’t know where it’s going exactly.
Remes: David, I’m curious, your early days in New York with the founding of Talking Heads and performing at CBGB and just those seminal moments where you were on the forefront and the leader of this thing called New Wave… Do you spend any time thinking about that or is that part of a past life that you don’t reflect on too often?
Byrne: I don’t think about that much. Yeah, I’m not very nostalgic about it. I do think about why do certain cities or certain scenes or certain little communities become kind of a nexus for creativity for a year or two or three years or whatever and then moves on to something else. I’m curious how that happens. To me, it seems that often it’s the venues are there. It’s the performing spaces are there and available to the local musicians or performers or whatever… They will kind of make stuff to put on stage whether it be music or whatever. And a kind of scene will emerge based on the fact that there’s actually some place for people to perform. And the music or the other kind of work, it’s there, it’s latent, but it won’t really be heard unless there’s a way for it to come out.
Remes: Right, I would agree with that. It’s sort of an ecosystem, isn’t it?
Byrne: Yes, I think so. It’s not just down to the performers or the writers or composers or whatever. They’re kind of essential, you wouldn’t have anything if they didn’t… But they also need a whole ecological support system.
Remes: Yes, I would agree. I would agree. Where do you derive your inspiration today?
Byrne: Wow. Hahaha. It’s hard to say. I’m not sure. I’m not sure where that comes from. I think it’s often the context that’s presented to me. I just did a collaborative record with a young woman, Annie Clark. And we decided to do the whole record with a brass back and part of the reason was the place where we thought we were going to perform the material has no sound system. So we thought oh well, if we had a brass band, they could be heard acoustically and all you would have to do is amplify the voices. That never happened but that was the inspiration that got us going. It was purely practical. So sometimes I think that’s what gives me the kick in the pants to get something going. It’s often a very pragmatic reason behind something.
Remes: Yes. And you are touring with St. Vincent, correct?
Byrne: Yes, exactly.
Remes: That’s exciting! David, what keeps you up at night?
Byrne: Hahahaha! You mean, what do I lose sleep over?
Byrne: Haha! Well, St. Vincent and I are in rehearsals now. We’re getting to the last few days of rehearsals and it’s gotten to the point where there’s just a lot of stuff to remember. We’ve just kind of added tons of choreography and movement and stuff to what we’re doing. So besides having to remember the words and every other part of the music, there’s this other layer of stuff that’s going in there now and I wake up in the middle of the night going, “Wait a minute, where am I supposed to stand at that point on the stage? I forgot.” But it all will get worked out in the next few days.