“Ask me a question in the form of a question”
Last night at a talk at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music, David Byrne opened the Q&A portion of the evening by saying, “Ask me a question in the form of a question.” From row K, it was hard to read the expressions on interviewers Dave Haslam and Mark Mulligan’s faces, but had they not been completely oblivious to the woolliness of their questions/elongated statements masquerading as questions for the hour prior to that point, one imagines they might have wished the floor would open up beneath them.
Byrne is on a short tour of the UK promoting his new tome, How Music Works, with a handful of discussions about the themes explored within the book. Last night, the theme was the future of music— where do we go from here?— which Haslam introduced by saying how he admired Byrne for setting these topics in order to avoid tired questions about his “big suit” from Talking Heads’ 1984 concert film, Stop Making Sense. Which Haslam asked anyway, as a sort of weak final punchline at the end of the talk.
Byrne turned 60 this year, but remains pretty deeply engaged with new music and new technologies. His last release was a collaboration with St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, who is precisely half his age, and last week, I received an email from his mailing list (which he writes himself) praising a new art-pop collective called People Get Ready, who are signed to Brassland. Talking about the future of music with David Byrne should be so exciting, exploring the perspectives of a musician and artist who has made his name on progression. I wanted to know about whether he ever felt beholden to his legacy when embarking on new projects and collaborations, how he wields his patronage, aware of its power, and more simply, which labels and bands he looks at today and thinks, “There, there is the future encapsulated in that small, innovative group of people.”
Instead, we got dreary truisms from the inquisitors— who spent a lot of time talking about themselves— about whether people still “feel” music, wafty bullshit about the so-called “orthodoxy of genre,” rambling digressions that folded in upon themselves, culminating in a raised tone that indicated that a sort of question was being asked. Haslam and Mulligan’s technique was like going to the shop to ask for a pint of milk, but pontificating for 10 minutes on the origins of the cows and farmers that had produced it. Byrne often seemed a little flummoxed, or slow to respond to these quasi-questions, which was frustrating in the extreme; here was one of the greatest brains in music being forced to quickly come up with polite, nonsensical generalisations instead of being able to explore his theories. Though one of the unexpected highlights of the evening was Byrne’s discussion of “Lazy”, his 2002 hit with English DJ duo X-Press 2. I was 13 when it was released, and it was the first time I had ever heard of David Byrne. (I didn’t think I liked him all that much then.)
He spoke tantalisingly about the difference in economics between making Everything That Happens Will Happen Today with Brian Eno— which they released themselves, taking on a distributor to get the record on Amazon, iTunes and so on, and for which there was little marketing— and recording Love This Giant with Annie Clark, which was released via 4AD. That album was much more expensive to make, he said, because they had so many brass players on it, a cost that he and Clark split between them, but having 4AD on board meant that their marketing was much better. “Just make it back,” was his accountants’ approach to how much the record cost. The economics of indie has been much discussed recently, in part due to Nitsuh Abebe’s excellent New York Magazine profile of Grizzly Bear and how much money they make. To a lesser extent and perhaps only on this side of the Atlantic, Field Music have provoked a similar debate, disclosing that they usually make as much per year as a part time employee at a cafe would. The fact that the cost of projects is still a concern for an artist like Byrne is fascinating, but, unsurprisingly by this point, the topic wasn’t explored.
One of the most baffling points of the evening was when Haslam attempted to make a question out of his theories that, since 1994 (he was very precise), when Kurt Cobain died, the internet went mainstream, and people really started getting interested in film (just linger on the peculiar and apparent coincidence of those examples for a second), kids just aren’t bothered about music any more because there are so many distractions. His thoughts on the subject were bleak, uninformed, and smacked loudly of the “things were better in my day” argument that Mulligan had been laughing about minutes before. This is exactly what the pair of them were doing throughout the entire talk. Terms were never defined about what sort of music they were discussing— I do think that the aggressive nature of modern pop demonstrates an awareness of shorter attention spans among younger people, with bombast being key to snagging their interest momentarily— but anyone claiming that “young people don’t care about music” is clearly so far removed from either sphere that they have no business commenting on it in the first place.
You expect this kind of flimsy questioning and pontificating from the Q&A, but not the main event. It almost feels cliche and scripted to point out that the best received question of the evening came from a 13-year old girl who just wanted to know what kind of music Byrne listened to when he was her age. Haslam didn’t understand the question, and made her repeat it. Byrne spoke thoughtfully about how people rail against kids listening to music on their phone speakers today, but reminded us that his first forays into pop music came courtesy of a crackly old transistor radio with a speaker this big— making his fingers into a circle the size of a tangerine— which probably sounded just as bad. This young lady, likely as unbeholden to Byrne’s legacy as he is, saved the evening.