David Byrne of Talking Heads on new book

How Music Works is part memoir, part theory on music

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At the ripe age of 60, it’s only fitting that the Scottish-American founding member of ’70s band Talking Heads should write a book about his life. Yet How Music Works is much more than a memoir. The Grammy-winning musician’s book covers music history, musicology and his own theories on how the art form has developed during his 40-plus years in the business.

You mention that you don’t get writer’s block writing music, but did you find writing about music more difficult?

I didn’t sit down to write a book. I’d done a piece about architecture and acoustics as a blog post, then I suggested to the people at blog site TED that I could do it as a TED Talk. And I thought, okay, I have to be serious! [Laughs] I have to get all my facts straight here, all my dates right.

The notion of context – the circumstances under which an artist is creating something – is important in this book. But how easily can an individual escape their own place and time to create something different?
There are plenty of exceptions, but for pop songwriters, you tend to think in three- to four-minute chunks. You don’t sit down to write and wonder, “Is this one going to be 15 minutes long?” Maybe that three- or four-minute thing is determined by, say, the size of the vinyl and what works best on radio, and so many other factors that have nothing to do with what you’re trying to express. But we fit ourselves into whatever parameters seem to be around.

You write about dance and theatre in foreign countries, and the ways in which performances you encountered influenced your art. Why was this important to you?
When I started, I wanted to eliminate everything that had come before. I didn’t want to move like the other rock stars out there, because they were doing it. What has meaning for us? Can we borrow and be influenced by certain things or not? What happens when you’ve stripped everything down to nothing, and you have a world of possible influences?

You say the ‘music geek’ in you wouldn’t allow you to write three-chord rock any more; yet you argue that the divisions between highbrow and lowbrow music should be eliminated. What gives?
You start by playing that three-chord stuff, and by the time you learn that fourth or fifth chord you go, “This is a slippery slope; how much sophistication do you go for?” I’d judge myself and say, “You have to do something more musically challenging or interesting.” And you don’t, really. For me, sometimes it took a collaboration with somebody who only used two chords or whatever, and then I’d realise, Oh! [Laughs] I know how to do this, and I didn’t make that decision. They did it. I don’t think I’m as dogmatic about it any more.

How much do you think bringing music into our homes changed the way we take in live performances?
Our immediate expectation is that we want to go to a live thing and hear the record, but louder. I’m as guilty of that as anyone. I’ve been to those Bob Dylan shows where you have no idea what he’s singing. It’s disappointing. It’s the rare kind of performer that can mess with their own stuff live and make it new, and make it so you don’t miss the recorded version at all.
How Music Works, from Dhs75 at www.amazon.com.

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