Tag Archives: Talking Heads

David Byrne: How Music Works

DavidByrneHowMusicWorksDavid Byrne’s How Music Works couldn’t be more different to the last music-related book I read, which was Morrissey’s Autobiography…actually, that’s wrong, if that last sentence was true Byrne’s book would have to be an iceberg or a classification system for light aircraft or a herbal treatment for verrucas, whereas it is, like Mozzer’s, largely an account of the late 20th century music business written by the former singer of an original, literate, musically accomplished and critically adored band. But you get my point. Morrissey’s effort (or at least the second half of it) is a hilarious and highly subjective broadside against the massed incompetent and grasping industry forces that he perceives to have been responsible for sabotaging his career and indeed life over the last quarter century. Byrne’s on the other hand is perky, user-friendly and downright educational, consisting as it does of a series of self-contained chapters that each address one aspect of how music is made, appreciated and marketed. You can imagine these units starting life as a lecture series, to be delivered alongside audio-visual material organised via Powerpoint – there are even helpful, referenced, illustrations of the type typical of this sort of presentation included in the book.

Despite its preppy, slightly earnest approach though How Music Works turns out to be an excellent read, putting forward some genuinely revealing and valuable insights into what makes musical performances and recordings really live and hacking efficiently through some of the mysteries and contradictions of record company practices. Byrne is fascinated by the way that collections of noises and voices can combine to make compelling tunes, grooves and atmospheres and uses his own experiences and those of many artists he admires to illustrate the sometimes random and unpredictable nature of creativity. He starts with the history of music and over the course of the book takes in anthropology, architecture, astronomy, computer science and even some politics, all of which is admirably well-researched and explained in clear, and often unexpectedly funny and self-deprecatory, prose. A central theme is that our appreciation of music both recorded and live is highly dependent on context and nebulous variables such as one’s mood – a piece that has a room full of people happily dancing for ages in a nightclub may well sound bizarre and repetitive if one heard it played in a cathedral or at a dinner party. One therefore shouldn’t set too much stall in establishing critical hierarchies or canons of acceptable work in any genre as it’s just as possible that you’ll come across a life-changingly wonderful song in a disco or at a local jam session in a bar as in an opera house. In the spirit of encouraging serendipitous collisions of musical ideas the author also provides some advice on how to set up and foster a thriving music scene, based on what he observed back when Talking Heads were a regular band at CBGBs in New York (a good tip: provide customers with pool tables to give them something else to do when the groups are playing other than just being a captive audience for a bunch of malnourished freaks).

Byrne’s candour about his working practices and many collaborations extends to a willingness to discuss the economics of being a musician, using himself as an example. In one chapter he provides detailed breakdowns of the costs involved in making two of his albums, one funded by a record company in the traditional manner and one a self-released project with Brian Eno which the two of them paid for themselves: although the two sold a comparable number of copies he made much more on the second, which demonstrates why a lot of record labels are getting hot and bothered these days about the ease with which the internet has allowed artists to bypass them. Byrne has decidedly mixed feelings about innovations like Spotify which provide ultimate convenience to consumers but don’t necessarily pay the people who actually made the music anything more than pin money but on this issue, as on all others that he covers, he keeps an open mind and argues his case fairly and convincingly (it would be hard to imagine Morrissey, say, taking such a balanced approach if he had suspicions he was being ripped off). How Music Works is ambitious, detailed and wide-ranging and it’s a must-read if you want to know about the nuts and bolts of how and why you get to hear the songs and pieces you love and the various creative and financial challenges of the artists who make them.

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The Mountain Goats at Koko, London 25/5/2011

I was surprised at the length of the queue to get into Koko in Camden to see The Mountain Goats, given that I was convinced I was the only person in the UK to have heard of them, but there you go: a long line of generally young and studious-looking folk, some of whom were filling the waiting time by reading Shakespeare or poetry. I sensed that the probability of any trouble kicking off was low. After the line eventually started moving I was surprised again, this time by the interior of the venue: it’s essentially a very well preserved and maintained Victorian music hall, with high twisty balconies and alcoves that function as private boxes, all done out in vibrant scarlet with chandeliers and mirror balls. It’d be perfect for a burlesque show.

The support act were The Submarines, a boy/girl, electric guitar/acoustic guitar duo from Los Angeles, whose sound was supplemented by both a MacBook which provided beats and guitar effects and, rather charmingly, a glockenspiel. They were pleasant, melodic and definitely Californian, and singer Blake Hazard has a clear and powerful voice, but there didn’t seem to be much about them that was terribly original. The crowd seemed to like them though, and a good vibe was established.

The main act came on stage promptly at nine o’clock, and are surely the nerdiest looking band I’ve seen since those clips of Talking Heads awkwarding their way through Psycho Killer on The Old Grey Whistle Test. All three Goats were wearing suit jackets, and while drummer Jon Wurster could just about pass muster in dudedom with his designer stubble, bassist Peter Hughes comes over like a preppy sixth-former who’s secretary of the chess club and head Goat John Darnielle resembles a slightly-gone-to-seed FE lecturer, complete with uncool spectacles and slightly-too-long hair. They have the air of a group of teachers relishing the chance to be let off the leash and play their music in public, and Hughes and Darnielle seem almost alarmingly free of inhibition, lolloping around the stage grinning maniacally between verses. This is not standard behaviour for major cult figures. The slightly shambolic feel extended into the sound mix, for the first couple of numbers anyway – the vocals were getting lost, and the instruments were hard to pick out, which isn’t too impressive when the line-up is as basic as acoustic guitar, bass and drums. Thankfully, the mix improved (or I adjusted to it), and for the bulk of the set Darnielle’s distinctive and slightly whiny voice could be heard just fine, and as The Mountain Goats are most definitely a lyrics band this is just as it should be.

There can’t be as many bands as spoiled for choice for material as the Goats. Darnielle has been releasing records in profusion for twenty years and has apparently written over 500 songs so there’s really not a lot of point trying to predict a setlist. Sure enough, there was a pleasing contrariness in the song selection – out of around twenty numbers played there were only four from the recent (and brilliant) album All Eternals Deck, and only one from the two albums that preceded it, whereas there were three representatives from the 1994 album Zopilote Machine and a liberal smattering of obscurities and unreleased songs. Darnielle took a couple of solo turns, where he seemed to be deciding on the spot what he would play (this may have been stagecraft, but it seemed pretty genuine) and was generally garrulous, enjoying banter with the crowd and requesting that the house lights went up a couple of times to make the show more inclusive. The band cracked through the songs, and it was a blessed relief that none were extended or padded out with gratuitous solos or extended climaxes. Darnielle knows how to please a crowd when he wants to, mind – the main set ended with the rousing This Year, and the encores featured both No Children, which may be the finest Goats song of the lot, affording the opportunity for a roomful of people to holler “I hope you die, I hope we both die” in unison, and The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton, the opening track from the immortal All Hail West Texas. There was one cover version: a seductively creepy version of Houseguest by California band Nothing Painted Blue, for which Darnielle put down his guitar and stalked around the edges of the stage, working the crowd.

The Mountain Goats are my favourite band of the last few years on the basis of their albums. The live experience is a lot less polished, but I was far from disappointed, and the audience certainly lapped it up – the bloke in front of me was even punching the air a bit. May the nerds inherit the Earth.