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For David Byrne, Talking Heads was about making emotional sense — not literal sense

"I really enjoy writing the songs and performing and the other things that we do," David Byrne says of his work in Talking Heads.
Jordan Cronenweth
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Courtesy of A24
"I really enjoy writing the songs and performing and the other things that we do," David Byrne says of his work in Talking Heads.

Talking Heads founding member David Byrne says the first song he heard that really hooked him on music was The Byrds' version of "Mr. Tambourine Man."

"This jangly guitar and these really kind of lush harmonies mixed with that — I'd never heard any sound like that," Byrne says. He remembers thinking to himself: "There's a whole 'nother world out there."

Byrne bought himself a few songbooks — Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Smokey Robinson — and set about teaching himself to play the guitar and to sing along. His voice wasn't great; "it sounded better to me in my head than what I heard on recordings," he acknowledges. He was even asked to leave the school choir for singing off-key, but he wasn't discouraged.

"Why is it that people don't give up? That's a real puzzle to me," he says. "I just thought, 'No, I love this. I'm going to keep doing it myself. I'll just do it in my bedroom or to a smaller group.'"

But Byrne did, in fact, go on to find a broader audience. When he was in his 20s, he co-founded Talking Heads. The group, which specialized in what he calls "twitchy, angsty songs," would become one of the seminal bands of the punk new-wave period of the 1970s — despite the fact that they weren't exactly punk.

"Musically ... and visually we felt very, very different than what was then considered punk rock," Byrne says. "But [we had this] this kind of DIY, the do it yourself, idea that was prevalent amongst the punk rockers ... and we [could] speak to the concerns of our generation and our contemporaries."

In 1984, Talking Heads recorded Stop Making Sense, a concert film directed by Jonathan Demme that's widely considered one of the best of its genre. It's a masterfully kinetic live performance with the whole band and backup singers and dancing — an ensemble performance that shows how collaborative music can be.

Byrne says he's personally changed since that time — and he sees the changes in himself mirrored in his performance in the film. "You see this person in the beginning [of the film] who's kind of angsty, ... stumbling around and singing about 'Psycho Killer,' " he says. "And then, by the end, he's surrendered to the music and is fairly joyful — as much as he could be at that point. And he's found a kind of community."

A newly restored 40th anniversary version of Stop Making Sense is currently playing in theaters.


Interview highlights

On the first song he ever wrote for Talking Heads, the hit "Psycho Killer"

It was an experiment, to see if I could write a song. Chris [Frantz] and I, we had a band and we played other people's songs at school dances and things like that. ... I thought I would try and write something that was maybe a cross between Alice Cooper and Randy Newman. ... I thought I'd have the kind of dramatic subject that Alice Cooper might use, but then look at kind of an interior monologue, the way Randy Newman might do it. And so I thought, let's see if we can get inside this guy's head. So we're not going to talk about the violence or anything like that, but we'll just get inside this guy's kind of muddled up, slightly twisted thoughts. ...

I imagined that he would imagine himself as very erudite and sophisticated and so he would speak sometimes in French. So I went to Tina [Weymouth], who had grown up some of the time in Brittany (and her mother's French). And I said, "Oh, can you help me? We want him to say something pretty grand here, but say it in French so as if he's going to tell us what kind of ambitions and how he sees himself."

On deliberately making their act stripped down – no rock moves, solos, lights, etc.

Other contemporary acts, people around us, some of them were adopting poses or clothes or guitar styles or whatever that seemed to be from a previous era, from a previous generation. And I thought to myself, well, those were invented or created by other people and they belong to them and they express something about their generation. But how do I do something that belongs to us, that speaks to our generation, that speaks to our concerns? And I thought, well then, I have to jettison everything that went before and be very careful not to adopt any of that stuff.

"When I started wearing the big suit, I realized that it had a life of its own," Byrne says.
/ Courtesy of Sire + Warner Music Group/A24
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Courtesy of Sire + Warner Music Group/A24
"When I started wearing the big suit, I realized that it had a life of its own," Byrne says.

On the construction of the big suit for Stop Making Sense

I had a little drawing of what I wanted the end product to look like. Very sketchy, just a little line drawing. But it was basically a rectangle with feet sticking out the bottom and a little tiny head on top. And so I went to a kind of small clothing manufacturer, a designer in downtown New York, Gail Blacker. And I said, "How can we do this?" I'm influenced by a kind of Japanese theater, the Noh costume, where it's wide, it's rectangular, but when you turn sideways, it's not fat. So it's not really a fat suit. It's more like a box, a flat box that's facing the audience. And it's meant to face forwards. So we had to realize I had to wear a kind of girdle underneath and the pants attached to this padded girdle thing, so the pants kind of just hung down. They barely touched my legs, and same with the jacket. The jacket had a big shoulder armature and the jacket just kind of hung down from that and barely touched my chest.

On what it was like to wear the suit and dance in it

I had to wear a kind of girdle underneath and the pants attached to this padded girdle thing, so the pants kind of just hung down. They barely touched my legs, and same with the jacket. The jacket had a big shoulder armature and the jacket just kind of hung down from that and barely touched my chest.

When I started wearing the big suit, I realized that it had a life of its own because it kind of just draped down like curtains from my hips and shoulders. I could wiggle a little bit and it would ripple like curtains or sheets or whatever. So you could do all these things with it. If I wiggled side to side, it would kind of shimmy around. I could do all these things with it that I couldn't do just by myself. It had its own properties that you can kind of activate that way. I thought it was kind of odd, kind of slightly surreal. ... People have interpreted it as meaning like, oh, this is the archetypical businessman kind of imprisoned in his suit, imprisoned in his whole situation. ... That might be unintentional, but it might be there. I don't deny it. But it wasn't my intention to ... kind of make fun of businessmen.

On writing "Burning Down the House"

The phrase "burning down the house" I'd heard being used as a chant at a Parliament-Funkadelicconcert that I'd seen. They didn't have it in a song. It was just a kind of chant that they started chanting and the audience joined in and it meant, like, "We're going to blow the roof off the sucker. We're going to set this place on fire. We're going to have a really amazing time here." It didn't mean literally, let's set fire to our houses or anything else. And the rest of it, I thought, let me see if I can make a song that is basically a lot of non-sequiturs that have a kind of emotional impact. That they have some sort of emotional resonance, but literally they don't make any sense. ... Like the film title, it doesn't make literal sense, but it makes emotional sense.

On drawing inspiration for his dance moves, like jogging in place or stumbling around

I had to resist adopting moves that I loved that I'd seen other people do. By that time I'd worked with Twyla Tharp. ... I thought, oh, the vocabulary of what is available, what you can do is really wide. ... I was inspired by her and the stuff that she was doing. I was inspired by a lot of folk dance or a dance that I'd seen on ethnographic films of rituals. Like stumbling and the stuff on a "Once in a Lifetime" by kind of the Baptist Church people going into trance, whether it was in Baptist Church or in Santeria or whatever. I thought ... it may not be choreographed in the same kind of way, but it is a kind of dance. It's definitely movement and it's definitely connected with music.

On considering himself on the autism spectrum

[In the] early 2000s, late '90s, a friend of mine picked up a book about the autism spectrum [and] she read aloud to me the various aspects of people who are on the spectrum. She said, "David, this sounds like you," and I couldn't disagree, at least on the mild, mild end of the spectrum.

"I might be a little bit different than some other people, but I'm not unhappy," Byrne says.
Ian Gavan / Getty Images
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Getty Images
"I might be a little bit different than some other people, but I'm not unhappy," Byrne says.

[I relate to] the ability to kind of intensely focus on something that interested you to kind of exclude other things and really kind of be intensely focused. Maybe being somewhat socially awkward, socially uncomfortable a little bit. Taking things sometimes very literally, which I still do that a bit. ... I've read about it, and there's other symptoms that I don't think I had. Sometimes there's a lack of empathy with other people, not understanding what you called theory of mind, not understanding what another person might be feeling or thinking. I feel like I don't have that part. ... Over time — I mean, it's been 40 years or so — a lot of it gradually fades away. Some of that thanks to music, thanks to playing with this incredible band, the joyous music that we made. It allowed me to kind of feel that I'd been adopted by this little community.

On why he didn't seek an official diagnosis

Probably because I thought, this is just me. I'm not unhappy. I might be a little bit different than some other people, but I'm not unhappy. This is the way I experience the world, but I'm doing fine. I really enjoy writing the songs and performing and the other things that we do. So why act like I have something wrong that needs to be treated?

Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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