Q&A: David Byrne on the future of music and his new book, 'How Music Works'

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Legendary Talking Heads frontman David Byrne has become a jack of all trades over the past decade: bicycle tour guide, tech expert, TED talk lecturer — not to mention rock star. His recently-penned book called How Music Works does in fact try to explain everything about music.  There are by-the-numbers breakdowns of different record label contracts; musings on the ways in which technology and society influence the kinds of music composed and performed; discussions of public arts funding; even an analysis of the mathematical and cosmological contexts of music throughout history.

But never fear, Talking Heads addicts: he spends ample time recounting his experiences touring and songwriting with the Heads, working with superproducer Brian Eno and shifting to becoming a solo artist.  It’s a loosely-ordered, quasi-academic work of non-fiction with plenty of anecdotal and generally well-researched credibility.  And given the breadth of the content, there is something here for virtually everyone (for instance, an aspiring musician could start with the section on self-producing an album, while a casual Byrne fan could soak up his memories of the late CBGB).

As Byrne prepares to embark on a nation-wide press tour–not to mention an actual tour with recent collaborator St. Vincent–EW spoke with the quirky Scottish-born Manhattanite about the book’s expansive contents.  How Music Works, published by McSweeney’s, will be available Sept. 12.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made you want to write the book?  Did you want to dispel the popular mythology about the songwriting process and the music industry?

DAVID BYRNE: It kind of started out as shorter articles that were written for Wired magazine, one was a TED talk.  And I realized that I was kind of circling around an idea of music emerging to fit the various contexts, social or whatever, and that has a huge effect on the form and shape and sound that we hear.  And I thought, ‘Oh, there might be a whole book in this.’ And yeah it does try and show a little bit of a refutation of the idea that music comes out of somebody’s trauma or childhood injuries, the interpretation of a purely emotional act.  Well it is emotional, but a lot of other things go into shaping it.

Can you elaborate on that point just a little bit, because you wrote, “We don’t make music – it makes us,” talking about the way that the actual process and the music itself is what elicits these emotions and not the other way around. 

I think that when someone writes a successful piece of music, it’s like a drug or something that creates an emotion in the listener.  And if it’s really successful, it seems like that emotion, the singer is having it at that moment.  But obviously the singer’s not having that emotion every time they sing the song.  It’s the song that brings up those feelings and you re-experience them, the way an actor would do.  And so I feel like the song or some other kind of piece of music, if it does its job well, it brings back or recreates or digs out these emotions that are latent in us.  To me that’s what happens, whether its dance music or folk music or hip-hop or whatever, when it really moves people, it doesn’t mean that that person is having that feeling, it means that they’ve managed to make a device that recreates that feeling in the listener.

I think that could be said of the majority of artwork, that it’s meant to evoke those subconscious emotions, those subjective emotions in whoever is listening to or seeing or watching that particular work of art.

Yeah, a pure emotional experience is usually just somebody completely ranting or regaling or crying or laughing hysterically or something like that.  It doesn’t really convey the experience; you’re just watching somebody experience that.  But when it’s shaped into some sort of art, then it actually does convey that.

When did you first develop this idea that technology and societal norms are what shape music, and not music emerging as some kind of independent force?

Well not right away, but I think in my own experience of performing and touring, you start to realize that, let’s say, the same show works really well in one place and didn’t work as well in another place.  Maybe it sounded better in one place, maybe the way the audience was physically situated, like maybe they had to stand in one place, so they felt more inclined to dance than in a seated venue.  You realize that all these little factors start affect how the music works for people and works for you as a performer, and after a while you realize oh, there’s a lot that does that.  People talk about all kinds of minutia of their musical experience, like the experience of turning a vinyl record over or having music in 30-minute chunks instead of an endless playlist.  All that kind of stuff.

NEXT: Byrne on stripped-down music acts and John Sousa

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