Pitchfork had a pretty great interview with David Byrne recently, where he discussed his new album and collaboration with Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. A few highlights that are particularly interesting regarding their work process:
Pitchfork: Could you tell from your vantage if his way of working has changed much over the past 20, 25 years?
DB: Well, on this record it was very different from what we did before. Obviously, when he works with a band, like Talking Heads or any of the other bands he’s worked with, he’s generally working with their material. Sometimes he’ll kind of ask them, as he did with us and as I think he does with other bands, to maybe improvise so that he can start to interfere at the kind of ground level of the stuff being written. But this one was a really clear split between me taking his tracks and writing on top of them. Occasionally I’d throw in a guitar solo or something else, but for the most part I stayed clear of it, because I thought, OK, then we’ll stay out of each other’s hair. But in another way he does do a lot of the same or at least similar things. In the past we had early synthesizers or effects racks that he’d run stuff through. He’d twiddle with it while you were playing. Now it’s the same kind of thing but on a computer, plug-ins and effects that you do on the computer. But it’s very much the same kind of thing.
Pitchfork: The nature of collaboration on the new record is kind of unusual. Usually when people collaborate long distance it’s a matter of practicality– the two principals can’t meet because one is in Papa New Guinea or something. In this instance, you chose to stay separate even though I imagine it would been pretty easy for you two to get together in a studio.
DB: I did go over to London a couple of times, but only one time did we work for a week solid. The rest of the time was this back and forth. Brian pointed out that it’s nice for both of us to be able to kind of live with the tracks, not feel the urge to respond right away to what someone else had done. I could work out a tentative melody to something, then work out little changes over the course of a few days or weeks or whatever, whereas in a recording studio working immediately with somebody, the pressure is on to perform and do something right away. So this took a lot of that out. I mean, there was still pressure to keep stuff going back and forth, but it was over days as opposed to hours or minutes.
Pitchfork: In terms of technology, a lot has already been written about what you and Brian were doing with Bush of Ghosts. Not only are those techniques now more commonplace, but it’s become a lot easier to do what you did.
DB: Oh, jeez, if we had this stuff then– Protools, Logic, or something like that. Or even samplers! Although objectively it sounds like what we did must have been incredibly difficult without those kind of handy tools, it meant also that we relied more on luck and happy accidents. We also realized that when we would fly in some vocals, even if they weren’t exactly in the right place or doing what you might have done as a singer, your mind would kind of fix it and you would hear it working in ways that were better than what we were actually doing. It didn’t have to be as perfect. Your mind would kind of self-correct it while you were listening to it. It didn’t have to be as perfect as people can be now with samplers and digital editing. Which may be, in a certain kind of way, an advantage. It meant that we didn’t make everything perfect, and we didn’t clean everything up, because we couldn’t.
UPDATE 10\15: AV Club ran another great article with David Byrne. Read it here. Here is one of my favourite sections:
AVC: You’ve become known for, as you call it, “working in parallel”â€”moving from one medium to another, often concurrently. When you’re formulating an idea, what factors enter into choosing which medium you use to express it?
DB: [Long pause.] Wow. [Laughs.] I’m trying to think of some good examples, but they all seemâ€¦ All right, I’ll choose the bike racks that I’ve done recently for New York City. Because of the involvement I have with bicycles, the Department of Transportation got in touch with me and said, “Do you want to judge a competition for new bike racks for the city?” And I said, “Of course.” And in my reply, I also did all these drawings of my ideas of bike racks for different neighborhoods. You know, a dollar-sign-shaped bike rack for Wall Street, a high-heeled-shoe-shaped bike rack up by Bergdorf Goodman, that kind of stuff. It was just kind of sketched off as a riff. It wasn’t meant to be a serious proposalâ€”and besides, I was going to be one of the judges. But they said, “Hey, if you can get these made, we’ll put them up.”
I guess the only way to answer your question is that when they turn from a drawing to a physical thing, does that make a difference? In other words, would a bunch of drawings that look like New Yorker cartoons or something, would that be enough? Is that the best medium for something like that? Or the painstaking fabrication of making something like that in steel, is that the end result? I don’t know. In some ways, people looking at the drawings could say, “That’s it. The idea’s right there. You could imagine what it would look like. You don’t need to realize it.” But that’s like writing a song and just having a demo on your laptop and not really finishing it up, just because you can imagine where it’s going to go. I think in that case, the painstaking and sometimes expensive part of making it and realizing it is necessary, because sometimes people can’t make the leap from the little sketch to what it wants to be.
AVC: What about an idea like “Playing The Building”? Does the medium come first on that? Did you wake up and say, “I’d like to turn a warehouse into an instrument today”?
DB: [Laughs.] No. It was in a way very similar. I got asked to do something in a factory space in Stockholm. It’s an art center, one of those converted warehouse-type buildings. We knocked around different ideas of exhibiting artwork I’ve done and this or that. But I also made two or three proposals that involved installing stuff in there instead of just hanging stuff on walls, and that was one of them. Because it’s an old building, it had pipes and exposed girders and all those kinds of elements. I knew that if you rapped on them, they’d make noises like gongs or whatever, and I thought, “Oh, if you had a central controller for this stuff, you could activate it all and turn the whole building into an instrument.” So it was like being thrown a question or problem to solve, of somebody going, “Can you think of something to do with this?” Rather than me going, “I want to turn a building into an instrument, so where can I do it?”