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In the course of interviewing David Byrne for this short piece about his design work and music in May's Departures Culturewatch section, I realized that Shallot friend Hillman Curtis had done a really cool commercial (embedded above) for Byrne's joint album with Brian Eno "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today." For people who aren't in the know (which could have been me if I had not done this piece, sadly), the album has been freely streamable on the Web for some time. For those who like to hold amazing design in your hands and play with dice, you can still buy a Sagmeister-designed Deluxe (CD) Package that includes an original Hillman Curtis film about the album as well as a full book and other goodies (watch a video that explains the contents here).
Byrne told me the following about why the duo decided to offer the album in these different forms. "We had both been thinking about the changes the music business has been going through," he said. "There are now many more ways that musicians can get their messages across than before, though the industry typically lags behind. We decided to try some of those out for ourselves by initially selling the record exclusively through our website and allowing people to stream the whole album if they simply wanted to hear what it was like. It just seemed obvious. I wanted to sing these songs more, so I asked my booking agents to book some tours -- so that kind of gave the project an endpoint -- and the only way to get the music out to people before the tour started was to make it available online. That said, there are many among us who still love a physical object. A well-designed package can enhance the experience. It used to be that an eye-catching package helped sell a record: it would shout at you like a box of laundry detergent. But I don't think CD package design is meant to do that anymore. Now it's more about adding another layer to the experience. I'd worked with Stefan (Sagmeister) many times before, so he was a natural choice."
Other questions broached in my interview included prompts about the joy of performing. "At my age and situation, I don't need to tour simply for financial reasons (though I do make money touring)," Byrne said. "Though I would love to believe otherwise, I don't think touring sells many records either. I do it for two reasons: it's immensely pleasurable these days and because I can (immodestly, I can say that I do know how to perform and put on a show). The show we've created -- the band, crew, singers, dancers, choreographers, etc. -- is like nothing I've ever done before, so though half of the show consists of older material, it's been placed in a new context. At some point, performing changed from being a thing that I psychologically had to do into something that was actually pleasurable. Some edge in my demeanor might have been lost with those changes, but songs from that period remain, so the edginess can be dredged back up."
Byrne, as the article points out, also writes the music to the HBO show Big Love (coming back soon), which actually opens with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys's "God Only Knows," so I was curious as to how he might add music to such a thoroughly branded motion picture experience. "It's an interesting show and doing a score like this allows one to exercise some musical muscles one doesn't always use," Byrne said. "It's good to stretch oneself sometimes, to get out of a comfort zone, which forces some kind of creative response. Initially I thought I'd try to base much of the music on Mormon hymns -- not use them but write in that style. Having seen the 1st season, I sensed that many of the characters felt that their behavior and decisions were based on deep spiritual beliefs -- as wacky and unusual as some of it might seem to us. I therefore imagined that hymn-type chord progressions and melodies would hint at this spiritual underpinning without saying it out loud. The hope was also that this music would also help one empathize with the characters, even, or maybe especially, with some of the more extreme ones. Music can hint at their motivations and justifications, where their hearts are despite what we see them doing. Well, in the end, that approach only worked a few times: it tended to draw attention to itself and to draw you out of the intimate scale of the drama. That music tended to pull you back to a God's eye view of things -- yes, music can do that. So, in the end I had to use other muscles and write some other material that was subtler, more character driven."
Intriguing, especially for film music buffs (of which there are few, apparently). More au courant, perhaps, was Byrne's answer to my question about how he and Eno both influence(d) each other. He answered: "The process of using the recording studio as a writing tool was something a few of us learned from Brian. Not that he was the only one to do it, but they way he encouraged us in Talking Heads (and myself) to start from zero and create new tracks was something we were ready for...it was the right idea, the right nudge, at the right moment. It wasn't that strange, really, as it basically was taking the writing process, which usually goes on in one's head, hidden, invisible, or little my little with a guitar in hand and some notepaper in front, and it made it all -- the creative process -- explicit, visible, and most important for potential collaborators, available for others to enter into. How did Talking Heads and myself influence Brian? I think we encouraged him to be a little more funky, more groove oriented."
Posted on June 01, 2009 at 04:08 PM | Permalink