I’m Mark Ronson, and this is The FADER Uncovered podcast. In this interview series, I’ll be speaking with some of the most influential and groundbreaking musicians in the world, from genre-defining stars to avant-garde trailblazers, about their lives and careers. Each episode will be rooted in these musicians’ iconic FADER cover stories, an institution that over the past two decades has told artists’ stories like no other. The podcast is a chance for us to talk about the past, present, and future, reflecting on their breakthroughs, diving into their lives when their covers hit shelves, and discussing what the future might hold now, and it’s an opportunity for me to speak to some of the artists I most admire. This is The FADER Uncovered with Mark Ronson.
Today, I’m talking to one of my heroes, the legendary David Byrne. Byrne graced the cover of The FADER issue 61 in the summer of 2009, almost two decades after his pioneering band Talking Heads had broken up. He was, as he has been ever since, still pushing boundaries. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, his first collaboration with Brian Eno in 30 years, had been released to critical acclaim six months earlier, and he was already working with Fatboy Slim on what would become the ambitious concept album, Here Lies Love. As a hip-hop DJ coming up in Downtown NYC in the ’90s, it was a rare night I didn’t drop the Talking Heads’ seminal “Once in a Lifetime” during my classics set. I only have to imagine that intro snare hit … and all the hairs stand up and I can fully recall the euphoric rush of the dance floor.
Today, Byrne is still on the cutting edge of music and culture. His incredible concert performance, American Utopia, was one of the most visceral, incredible-sounding musicals I’ve ever experienced. It’s already the subject of a film by Spike Lee and set to return to Broadway before the end of the year. His influence can be felt as keenly in popular music now as it has been in any of the past four decades, with artists like Vampire Weekend, St. Vincent, Danny Brown, The 1975, and The Weeknd all citing Byrne as an inspiration.
Mark Ronson: Maybe we could just start ... Because in 2009, for that FADER piece, you were really there to talk about Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, that album had just come about, and, now, I wondered how you see albums when you look back at the canon. I always think of records, and I'm certainly not comparing my oeuvre to yours, but the albums are like children. You have the popular one, the black sheep, the overperformer, the one that didn't do as well as others but you still root for it and it gets you excited. I wondered if you had that when you look back at those records and specifically that one.
David Byrne: Absolutely. I feel like, as with a lot of artists, bands, whatever, the first few records tends to be just collected material that you've accumulated. After you've drained that, each record starts to be about a particular time and place or idea, so that this record feels like this or says it's about this and this one's about that and each one has a different thing to say. This is kind of a holdover from the age of the album. I remember that Everything That Happens record, that was a collaboration with Brian Eno, and it was one where the lines of collaboration were pretty well-drawn. He had a bunch of tracks, and they weren't done, but they were pretty fleshed out. I'd sat with them for many, many months because I said, "Let me have a go and see if I can write something over these, a melody and words and sing something." It took me a long, long time, and then, eventually, I came on something, the song that became "One Fine Day," which, interestingly enough, is one of the songs on the American Utopia show.
We had this implicit agreement that I would not touch his tracks. I might loop a section, I might repeat a verse, cut and paste and just repeat a verse, but I'm not going to mess with rerecording his stuff or have a bunch of other musicians and myself replay stuff or anything like that. I was going to leave his stuff alone with the assumption that he was going to let me do whatever I wanted with the melodies and the singing and the words and that kind of thing, which is the way it worked out. I think I might've said at the time that that record, the kind of tracks that he did, it took me a while to figure out what kind of words and music were going to go with the music he'd done. I decided it would be kind of spiritual folk music. It had that kind of vibe, whatever that is.
Yeah. Certainly, when I think of you and Eno, whether it's [My Life in the Bush of]Ghosts or whether it's the stuff you did with Talking Heads, it's so much percussion and it's very dance-y. There's the found sounds and samples. This was a very spiritual, wholesome record. It has wistfulness. It's a record of the heart almost, I find. Was that just what the music conjured?
That's what the music conjured, and I felt I had to honor that in the words and melodies that I was writing, which I felt like I kind of succeeded, not on every song, but in some of them I managed to succeed in doing that. I remember a couple of other things happened. We decided to release the record ourselves. This was back in the day where that was just becoming possible. So we did that, and we also did a thing where we experimented with basically having no marketing. I mean, I did some interviews, like the one I did for FADER and everything, but we didn't have a big ad campaign or other kinds of things like that because we were curious whether the Internet would do our promotion for us.
To some extent, it did because we were one of the first people to do this. It did it in North America, but in Europe, where the Internet is really fragmented and people weren't quite used to getting their news and everything from the Internet, they still were buying music magazines and print newspapers and all that sort of thing, it didn't work as well at all. I'm not saying it completely failed, but it didn't work as well, nowhere near as well as it did in the United States.
Right. It's kind of crazy going back and listening to "One Fine Day" now having seen ... I got to see American Utopia live. Obviously, I watched the Spike Lee version. Now, I have obviously have it in the framework of where it comes in the musical, and it's this really heartfelt moment when it needs that towards the end, and I just thought it was ... I guess this isn't really a question, but I just loved the way that that works. I guess that's how a lot of American Utopia really works.
That song was not in the touring show. It was only in the Broadway show. In the touring show, we used to end with "Hell You Talmbout," the Janelle Monáe song, as an encore, and that was it, and we felt like, "We can't follow this. This is a big statement. We're not going to try and follow this with a song that everybody knows." But, in Broadway, that song, that Janelle Monáe song, is still there, and we felt like we needed just one more thing, basically, to give people a response to that, like, "Okay, we're talking about some serious shit that needs to be dealt with, and then we want to give you just a little spoonful of hope, like, 'We're up for this. We can deal with this. Someday, we're going to get this sorted out.'" So that song fulfilled that need at that point.
I remember when you played "Hell You Talmbout," the Janelle Monáe song, and it was kind of amazing because I'm seeing 60-year-old, Upper West Side, Zabar's-shopping ladies standing up, roaring, saying the names. Now, I realize it was the Janelle Monáe song, but it sort of pre-dated what happened with BLM and the marches and very much the same spirit and the energy. You obviously put that together in the wake of Trump, but it felt like everything ... When I watched American Utopia the other day, everything happening in that was just eight months before what suddenly happened, really, in America. Do you think about it like that? You're quite modest. I feel like you're not going to stand up and say, "Yeah, I predicted all of it," but it's there.
Yeah. I just felt like it was in the air. It might've been Trump. I think I was planning the tour and doing my last record, sort of working on that, before that election. I think I had a feeling that this was a moment, we're still in that moment, where the country is fracturing, all these curtains being pulled back, a lot of ugliness is starting to emerge, and I thought, "We can't just do a feel-good show the whole time. We can do parts of it that are feel-good and everybody's going to dance." But I thought, "We have to acknowledge, at least, the world that we're living in, the moment we're living in. Not that we're going to fix it, but we have to acknowledge it."
There's a lyric in "Strange Overtones," because I guess "Strange Overtones" is probably the song on there that feels the most like maybe what you would expect a Brian Eno ... It's got more of the percussion and the dance-y thing of what you do with Eno. I was just listening to it the other day, and that lyric that comes out that says, "This groove is out of fashion, these beats are 20 years old," it struck me in a way that I was like, "I must've really remembered that lyric when I first heard it," because it came back. It speaks to the thing that all musicians or creative ... Whether you've had a level of success or not, it's this sort of like, "Am I relevant? Where do I fit into what's going on?"
I remember just thinking to myself, "God, if David Byrne is having a fucking crisis of conscience about these beats, I can just give up." Because I think if you played "Seen and Unseen" tomorrow and told someone it was this brand new record that someone just made, it would be Pitchfork Best New Music, people would be falling over themselves. So I wanted to ask you about some of that. Were you talking literally that some of those beats that Eno was sending you were old or just that's how you feel when you sometimes sit down to right?
I wasn't specifically talking about the beats in that song. I could've been, but I don't think I was. I was just talking about what you're saying, that sometimes you have this moment of doubt or this moment of anxiety where you go, "Am I just completely of my time, and the kinds of beats and sounds and references or whatever that I do, my default stuff, have people moved on from that? Am I going to be an oldies band at some point?" You have those moments of thinking about that. Most of the time, though, I find that that's not the case. I worked with a lot of younger musicians on my last record and some other records, and the Broadway band and from that tour, most of them were younger musicians, so I'm pretty much aware of what's going on.
It's pretty crazy to think that Talking Heads were the first band to go from arthouse to arena. Bands like Radiohead, whose love runs so deep they're actually named for a Talking Heads song, Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend, hell, even Lady Gaga, their path was all forged by what Byrne and his band started. You hear it as far and wide as Justin Timberlake. I mean, you can imagine Byrne singing "SexyBack," (singing). They very well might be the band whose footprint is felt most in today's music. But outside perspective is one thing. It's always interesting to hear if the artist hears it, too.
It's also sort of regardless of age, isn't it, too, because James Murphy's first single with LCD Soundsystem was called "Losing My Edge."
Obviously, we realize he was the coolest thing that happened in music for a long time. He was obviously referring to the fact he was starting off a little bit late out the gate. But do you remember when you first started to have that ... Because, obviously, in the first few Talking Heads records, I'm sure you didn't feel that because you were actually just making the rule book as you went. But do you remember the first time you started to have some of those doubts?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I remember, it must've been early '90s, I think, I made a couple of records with Latin musicians, which put me way outside of the rock-pop mainstream. But I was still doing tours, so I remember touring with this fairly large Latin band, and we'd be at a festival sandwiched between Pearl Jam, who were really nice to us, and Soundgarden, and we played in the middle. It was just like, "Something here is" ... Yeah. But that was what it was. That was my own decision to put myself in that position.
Then, a few years later, I remember doing a more straight-up rock record or rock-funk record or whatever, and I realized that my currency had dropped. I was no longer getting the kind of gigs that I used to get, not even with Talking Heads. I wasn't even getting the stuff I got with the Latin band. I had thoroughly alienated my audience. Then I thought, "Whoa. Well, okay, all I can do is put my stuff out there and play. If I'm playing little clubs," which I was at one point there, "so be it. I still enjoy playing, so I'm going to do it and see if I can win people over again." Right there was a point where I thoroughly enjoyed what I was doing but I thought, "I may have made myself irrelevant in a certain kind of way." I didn't think I was musically, but I thought maybe as far as connecting to an audience.
I have a very ... It's my own theory. It could completely sound nonsense to you. Because I sat through American Utopia, and, obviously, I'm there as fan, but I can never switch off the part of my brain going, "Why does this feel so good, why does this sound so good," just from a technical aspect, just from my day job. I think that it's just when the basic ground foundations are human percussion playing off each other in the greatest way and you just have a really good kick drum and a snare drum and you have a good rhythm section and then the vocals are not predictable in some sort of way, that's never going to not be fresh to me. I just think that that's what it is. It's never going to not be joyous.
I was sitting through that thing, and I was like, "This is the best sound that I've ever heard in a fucking theater, and there's not even a drum kit." I was really blown away. I do think that the way that you use human percussion, the way that a certain Roland or a LinnDrum or just a great kick drum will always be timeless, and I do feel like that has something to do with why the music never dates.
At some point in my live performing life, I've realized that the sound mixer that you get, that you tour and travel with, is really ... That's your ambassador. That's the person who translates what you do and gets it across to the audience. So I would get the best person I could afford. In this case, it was a guy named Pete Keppler, who in the past has worked with Bonnie Raitt and Katy Perry. There was a few of them out there who were just amazing at getting a group of musicians, making that sound fresh in front of an audience and not all muddled and stuff, which we've all been to those gigs, too.
Well, also, a song like "Lazy," which, in essence, it's a dance song ... This is really funny. I went on a date with this English girl. I took her, and she was quite ... She was Shakespeare, Cambridge, this thing. She's not exactly super versed in old-school, avant-garde indie music. So she had listened to the soundtrack before she went, and she told me, she's like, "But these lyrics are very strange to some of these songs, something about, 'You may find yourself living' ... But I know that one "Lazy" song, I know that." So she had no idea that these were famous songs and thought this was a brand new musical with all new songs. But "Lazy" was the thing that she knew because that was a giant pop hit in her youth.
Yes. It was a giant pop hit in U.K. and in Turkey and I think maybe Germany and some other places. In the U.S., no.
Because you kind of pre-dated the whole EDM thing. If that had come out, Calvin Harris featuring David Byrne, 20 years ago, it'd be a different story.
Yeah, it might've been a thing. Yeah.
But that's the example of the song in the show that's not supposed to sound like, in essence, a dance song, especially in a Broadway theater, which is not kind to sonics. It's not supposed to sound like you're in a fucking club, in the Berghain in Berlin or something, and it does because everyone's sound is so good. The keyboard player sounded so good, the kick drum. It's so sparse. I don't know. There's so many reasons, but beyond the sound mix, it's the arrangement, the sounds, why that works, and I guess it's the songs.
Yes, the songs, the arrangement, the sound mix, the players, all that stuff. I think we sort of bucked the Broadway way of doing things. We wanted a proper sound system in there. You go to a Broadway show, and it's a band that's hidden in an attic or hidden in the pit or whatever, and it doesn't quite sound like real music to me some of the time. So I just thought, "No, this has to sound real. This has to sound like" ... There was a little bit of a fight to get that to happen, but thank God we'd been on tour, so we knew how to do it.
American Utopia was the best-sounding Broadway show, actually maybe the best-sounding concert, I have ever been to, the interplay of the musicians, how they rhythmically played off each other. I mean, I was up and dancing in 30 seconds, marveling the entire time at how this performance could sound better than a record. It was such a communal happening in that theater as well. At the end, as the entire crowd spilled out, I could've high-fived everyone on 44th Street.
At that point, in the FADER article, you were talking about touring the record you did with Eno, and you said there were certain songs you hadn't played in ages, like Air. That was kind of odd because it was conjuring old ghosts. Then there are songs that you've played so often. I wondered, are there any definitive versions now of "Once in a Lifetime" or one of these songs that you've played that's been so well-documented in Stop Making Sense and now American Utopia and different tours and Ride, Rise, Roar and stuff you've done along the way? Are there some of them now that are your favorite performances of these songs at this point?
I'm not one to go back and listen to a lot of live tapes, but my memory is that some of them had kind of memorable performance aspects, like on that tour that you mentioned, the Everything That Happens tour, there was a song called "I Feel My Stuff." At some point in the song, one of the dancers jumps over my head, and I thought ... I don't know how impressionable that was for an audience, I don't know if it made a big impression, but onstage I always thought, "If he doesn't get up high enough, he's going to clip my head, and it's not going to be good."
So you have PTSD at that point in the song no matter where you play it now? You're just always worried that some dude's going to...
Yeah. So, "Oh, yeah, he's going to jump right here. Here's where it happens." There's probably other ones where there's similar kinds of things, like there was a tour that I did before that where I did "Psycho Killer" in a costume where it looked like I'd had all my skin stripped off. All you saw was musculature. It was a body suit, covered my head, too. Every part of me was covered. I remember having to quickly, and in a backstage tent, get into that thing and then do the whole song with a head mic and all that kind of stuff. I have a feeling it musically might not have sounded as good as other versions, but I remember the experience.
Was American Utopia ... Was that still supposed to be running through when the pandemic started, or when did that end? Had that already ended?
It had already ended. It ended maybe at the end of February. I know we did Saturday Night Live during the break. We were going to start back up again last September or something because they had promised Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick that they could go in and do a version of this Neil Simon play, Plaza Suite. The theater was promised to them, so we had to leave, and we were going to come back when they were done. But, obviously, that has all changed.
Yeah. I feel a tiny bit like some budget Charlie Rose, but I do have to stay on the template a little bit.
In the article, you say something like, "I love touring, but I don't want to be like Bob Dylan, playing the same thing every day," and in some ways, Broadway, you couldn't have picked anything more than having to play it every day, sometimes twice a day. I guess, did you still love it by the end? Obviously, the joy comes off the stage, and in some ways it wouldn't work if you didn't feel that. But how did it change maybe, being on that Broadway schedule?
It was actually kind of liberating. When you're touring, the size of the stage is going to be different every day every place you're in, and so the lighting is going to adjust to that and the number of steps it takes to get from here to there and how much movement you have to do. There's all these little variations that you have to keep in mind when it's changing every day. You're still playing the songs. But when all that stuff is fixed, basically, after a while, you don't have to think about it anymore. It kind of becomes second nature. You know five steps, I'm at the chain, I'm offstage, and so your focus can be on the audience, which is where it should be. You're not thinking about any kind of technical stuff that might be happening because you've got that down by that point, and so your focus is on connecting with the audiences, which is, yeah, exactly where it should be.
Of course, Broadway houses are smaller than some of the places we've played on tour, so you can kind of see the audience, not all of them, but you can see a lot of them. You sense that they're looking right at you, they're listening to you, especially when I do the talking bits. You're talking right to them, and they get that. I felt like I had to really honor that and not fall into the trap that we're talking about, not fall into the trap of doing it by rote, and, yeah, these are the same words I say every night and this is the same song I sing every night and it sounds like I'm just reading it off a teleprompter or whatever. No, I have to try and keep it as real as possible.
That's one of my favorite things in How Music Works. There's a lot of reasons I love How Music Works, but I was asked to do a TED Talk, and it was on the history of music, and I was just like, "I don't know where the hell to start." Someone actually just said, "Read that book. Just start there." Then not only was it your book but books you reference, like Greg Milner, Recording Sound Forever, I butchered the name already, but it became my bible and roadmap. But one of the things that I love so much about it is, a., how it explains so succinctly things that I'm asked all the time, whether it's by my grandmother, who still doesn't understand what I do, to a layman at a dinner party, conveys the kind of magic and the more ephemeral stuff around recording music and puts it out in such nice terms.
But one of the really specific things that you say that always stays with me is music is made for the space it's designed to be performed in. It's created for the space that you imagine playing it. So in the early Talking Heads, you're thinking about CBGBs, and then as the venues get bigger, the music gets bigger. Obviously, playing in a Broadway theater must have reframed how, knowing that, "Okay, these songs, actually, that I imagined for this thing work so beautifully in here for these people."
Yes. I mean, there were challenges. There were some moments where the sound mixer would say, "That kick drum or that snare is so loud, I don't even have it in the mics right now." Because Broadway rooms are kind of modest-sized, and so we had to figure that out and go, "Okay, we have to re-choreograph this so that you're in the back of the stage so that Pete can get your snare into the mix and integrate it for there." So, yeah, there was all this stuff going on like that. Starting with the beginning of what you said, what do you say to somebody if you're, whatever, at a dinner party or whatever and somebody has no idea and just says, "Oh, so what do you do?"
I say I make music, I guess, because there are a few throngs to what I do. I love DJing, and that's how I came up, as a hip-hop DJ in clubs in New York in the '90s. Then I became a producer, but I always played in school bands. My main job now and the bills get paid by me being a record producer, which is the absolute most difficult, vague thing to describe to anyone because they just instantly think, "Oh, like a movie producer. So you raise the money," and then you have to go, "Well, no, it's kind of different because" ... Then, when you're a producer in the hip-hop context, you're making the beat, which you provide to a rapper or singer.
If I'm producing the stuff that I did with Amy Winehouse, she would bring me a song in its most bare-bones form on acoustic guitar, and then we would dream up the arrangement together and what all the things would do. But I just felt like there were so many things in that book that just helped really just quantify it. I don't know. It was a nice spiritual way to get to explain some of those things, and it made me think a lot about music in different ways. Then, sometimes, I just quote it to sound smart at dinner parties. I mean, I give you credit.
Yeah. I make music. That kind of encompasses a lot. That leaves a lot of open ends. That includes producing, DJing, writing. That's a pretty good umbrella.
The thing I love most about Byrne's book, How Music Works, is his incredibly smart yet simple, Zen-like approach to describing music and the process of making it and listening to it. I find the greatest comedians, people like Chris Rock, will say something we've all thought of 100 times but just way more funny and succinct. I feel like Byrne does this over and over again in his book. In fact, if someone asked me to recommend one book that describes modern music the best, there's no doubt I would pick his.
2009, I guess, when the FADER cover was ... I imagine you were working on How Music Works for quite some time. I mean, it's so well put-together, and it covers such a vast range.
Yeah, I worked on it for ... It was at least a few years. The chapter about music and architecture and acoustics, that had been already done as a TED Talk. I think maybe at least one of the other chapters I maybe had written up as a blog post in a sketched-out form, and I realized, "Oh, there's more. I could do a chapter on this. I could do a chapter on this and all these things that affect how music sounds and how it gets to us that are not about, 'Well, I wrote this song because I was breaking up with my girlfriend,' but what recording technology, how recording technology affects the kind of music that we hear, and all that kind of stuff." I thought that would be an interesting kind of book because most of the books about music are about the other thing, like what the music actually sounds like and what it makes you feel. I thought, "I'm going to talk about the stuff outside of the actual music and how that affects the music that we hear."
Just in case there's people listening that haven't read the book, it talks very much about how early music and religious spiritual music was played in these giant cathedrals, so, tonally, it had to leave room for all that reverb so there's no discordance, and then as places get smaller ... Basically, the places music was played changed the compositions. Is that fair to say, a very basic nutshell?
Not only allowed other kinds of writing and composing to happen, but it almost demanded it in some ways.
So one thing that you said in the book that I wondered since then, at that time, you weren't sure if there's been a compositional response to the MP3 itself in the way that there was a compositional response to halls, cathedrals, clubs like CBs. Has anything happened since then that's made you change that? Have you heard of anything that feels more like that?
Wow. Lately, I've heard quite a few productions where things are really, really stripped down. There might just be a beat and a bass and maybe a little hint of a keyboard or something and, of course, a voice. But, sometimes, that's all there is. Sometimes, the beat will be really, really sparse, and I've thought, "Wow, I don't know if you could get away with that 10 or 20 years ago." This might be the result that we listen in cars, we listen in headphones, and so we can have that space in the music now that we maybe couldn't have before. I don't know. I'd be interested if you have any ideas.
I hadn't thought about it in this context of this question, but now I remember, I've always thought one of the most dominant colors in all of modern music, hip-hop, which is essentially pop music, is the hi-hat now and the very busy hi-hat and the tickiness of the trap hi-hat, the ... all that. That is one of the main frequencies that you can hear out the speaker on your iPhone, so I definitely think that there's something about the sounds or the things that are going to cut through, almost like they used to have the loudness wars of who could master their things to sound the loudest on radio. Now, it's like what are the frequencies that are going to sound the most distinct and pronounced coming out of somebody's phone speaker, which is essentially probably where they'll be listening to their music, I guess.
Yeah, so it's going to be those frequencies and then sub-bass for people in cars.
Okay. Just to cover other ground, too, there's a section in your cover story about where The FADER picks artists that they see influenced by you. So, at the time, it was Grizzly Bear, Micachu. Because you do seem like such a generous fan to new music and you're not really the kind of person that I feel like sits around pointing a blog going, "They stole that from me, they stole that from me, they stole that from me," do you hear yourself in artists? You must hear yourself in current-day artists. Are you kind of psyched? Does it give you a bit of pride, or do you want to be like, "Hey, go find your own thing to do?" I'm just curious, and maybe some of your favorites today.
Occasionally, yes, I'll hear something and I'll go, "Is that me? Does that have a little bit of me in it? Is that really there?" Then, sometimes, I go, "Is that what they think I sound like? I don't think I sound like that. Do they think I sound like that?" It's really confusing. The other thing that happens is I go, "Oh, I really like this band," or, "I love this artist," and then I'll have a friend go, "You like them because they sound like you. That's why you like them." I thought, "Oh, that's kind of predictable." I don't think it's always true.
Well, there was an article I remember in The Times. I don't know where it was, but it really just felt like the last wave of bands ... And we always say these different things, is band music on its last leg, whatever. But certainly the last wave of weighty, important bands, LCD, Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend, you're certainly the patron saint of these bands, whereas, at one point, you could tie things back to The Beatles, the Stones, Stevie Wonder. In some ways, the last remaining important guitar music kind of points back to you. I know that you've talked about those bands. You have good relationships with these guys.
I know those people.
Yeah. As my friends say, I like their music, too. I don't have my playlist in front of me, but I remember a few months back I did a playlist. I'd been hearing all this really glitchy-sounding music. What was that group? 100 gecs. There's the person that just passed away, SOPHIE, and there's a bunch of other ones. There's a whole lot from Japan, of course. I thought, "Wow, is this a thing, or is it just me collecting this stuff that makes it a thing?" Is this really something that's happening, where it's just like the beats and the sounds, everything sounds really kind of fucked up. There's no straight beat in there. Everything was kind of fractured. I thought, "I really like this, but what does this mean? Does this say something about how we're feeling these days, the fact that this music is so jagged and fractured?"
I remember the first time I heard some of Arca's production, this is 10 years ago, 11 years ago, for FKA twigs. I was like, "How much can you play and stretch time and syncopation before ... Is there a point where I no longer how to move my body to it, which this is awkward, or am I afraid of this because it's a new thing?" I do think there's only 12 notes in the scale or the Western scale and all these things. Yes, for music to progress, people have to break down the foundation of the roots of some of the foundation, rhythm and things like that, the glitchiness you're talking about.
Yeah, and I remember hearing those tracks as well. Those were also some of the ones where it feels very, very stripped down, and I've thought, "Do I like this because I like listening to it just at home while I'm wearing headphones? I can't imagine hearing this at a club. I can't imagine people dancing to this." But maybe they do.
I remember the first time I went into the dubstep tent at a festival. I was playing a festival in England. This must've been 2005. I walked into this tent, and it was packed. Everybody was losing their minds, but at the same time nobody was moving. There was just this slow-bodied through the whole thing. Then dubstep became a bit of a different thing, it almost met up with Rage Against the Machine somewhere. But this was this moment where it was this very somber, solemn music, and people were just losing their minds. I was like, "But they're not dancing." As a DJ, you feed off seeing the rise and the ebb of the crowd, and I don't know how I would know when people are enjoying it or not. Obviously, it was just a new scene and something that was out of my wheelhouse, and it was exciting. It's like the way people dance to juke music and stuff. I mean, I can barely dance to Michael Jackson. But I love watching it, and as a curiosity ... I was speaking to Santigold last night, and she said to say hi, obviously. She-
Oh, yeah. I miss her.
She told me a really beautiful story, that she said that you had come to a gig of hers, because I know you love to go to at least one gig a week, and she had no idea that you went, and then you sent her a really sweet email. Of course, if she had known that you were there during the show, it probably would've terrified her because so many people look up to you so much. Then there's also this vulgar thing of going backstage after to say hi to the artist and let them know that you came. You did none of that, and then you just sent her a message after. I thought, "That is quite emblematic of who you are." I just wanted to talk about that thing, going to shows every week, obviously, we can't do that now, and how you're filling the void. Are you just a little bit miserable over it or ...
Yeah. A lot of us really miss that, going out to the club, hearing live music, DJ music, whatever, yes, being with other people. It's been a year without that, pretty tough, pretty tough. I think, somehow, I don't know exactly how it's happened, people have continued to release a lot of music in the last year. There's a lot that's come out. So I've been doing, yes, a lot of listening at home, sometimes exchanging playlists with friends and that kind of thing. But, yes, a lot more listening at home than I ever used to do, just listening or listening while I'm cooking because now we cook at home a lot more than we used to. People are desperate to get out.
The cooking, it's crazy. I've only really learnt to cook since COVID. I could make an omelet, but I just mean as far as, like you said, we're all cooking at home. I've enjoyed and discovered music in a way I've never discovered it and loved it at home. I have a little record player in the kitchen, and leaving that record on from start to finish, and whether you're listening to a playlist or a record, it doesn't matter, this period has made me love music in a completely different way and made me stop ... Of course, that's why I have a job, because people like listening to music at home, but I don't ever see myself that way. When I'm listening to music, it's more ... I know what you mean. This period has made me appreciate music in a way that I haven't before.
It's true, yes. I now have a turntable in my kitchen.
Do you? You have one as ... You as well?
Yeah. I mean, I also listen to playlists that I've made and streaming music and everything and play it through the speakers. But, yeah, just put something on and start slicing onions. Yeah.
Yes. And then I have to turn the music down while I Google how to dice an onion. Then I turn it back up. But, yeah, bands that I know one song by that I like, like Prefab Sprout or The Durutti Column, and who I never would have listened to their album otherwise, I would've probably put that song I really liked on a playlist. Now, I'm just ... By virtue of leaving the record on, it's been kind of nice. I feel like I'm in 1985 or someone discovering that band for the first time again.
Oh, yeah. What was that Prefab Sprout record? Was it called Two Wheels Good or something like that or ...
I'm not sure.
I think it had somebody on a motorcycle on the cover of the record. It was-
Oh, yeah. The whole band is on the motorcycle, yes.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I love that record.
Yeah. Me, too. Then one other thing that you said in the FADER article, you said you're not usually nostalgic except maybe occasionally when a building comes down. I think of you as such a New Yorker at this point, I mean, you are a New Yorker, that maybe there are no buildings coming down, but New York has changed so much, the landscape, storefronts, everything, during this time. But there's still something pretty great and exciting and there's the feeling of just whoever stayed here, at least, is in it for the long haul. In June, when a lot of people left following the riots and stuff, I was like, "Okay, that's kind of great. Downtown looks a bit like a freak show again, or at least when I started going out in the early '90s." I wondered how you felt about that.
I first noticed it when ... It was probably late summer or summertime. I would often go for fairly long bike rides, just to get out. Sometimes, I'd meet up with band members or friends or whatever, and we'd go explore some neighborhood that we didn't know about. I remember coming back home and riding down 5th Avenue from Central Park, and almost every store was boarded up. It was like the whole avenue was made of plywood. It had kind of gone up overnight. I'm not sure exactly. This might've been just before the election. It might've been before something else, but the day before something else was going to happen, and they expected people to come smash windows, which I don't think it ever happened. It happened that once and kind of went away.
It was kind of extraordinary. People were then painting a lot of the plywood, which a lot of it's still up. People are now selling or archiving some of these paintings that were done on the plywood. Yep. Coming down 5th Avenue, with a lot of luxury stores and things like that, I thought, "Oh, this really looks like a city under siege. This is a city that's afraid of its own citizens. They're barricading it against their own citizens." I thought, "And I live here. How's this going to be?" Yeah.
Yeah. And now, with a few months since then, and then, obviously, there wasn't the same apocalyptic, like you said, the siege mentality, how are you feeling about New York right now?
Every couple of weeks is a different feeling. Right now, we're in the feeling where some people are getting vaccinated. I'm old enough that I qualify, but, of course, like a lot of other people, you'd go on the websites and just forget about it. It was like trying to get the hottest concert tickets in the world. It'd be gone the minute that the new batch came out. I eventually got-
Oh, you did? Okay, good. Good.
I eventually get it, but it was ... Like the stories of some of my friends, it was through a friend of a friend who said, "Oh, there's this high school in Brooklyn where they usually have a few shots left at the end of the day. If you can get out there at 6:00, they'll give you a call, and if you can get out there, they'll give you one of those shots," which is what I did. So, right now, it feels like we're in this in-between period where there's this really clunky, chaotic rollout of the vaccines and people are wondering, "Okay, when do we all get this? Then we can start going out to restaurants. Can we do that again, after we all get vaccinated?"
Yeah. We're in that kind of period where it's kind of hopeful but also kind of like, "Can we do this a little faster so we can get there? We see that there's an end to this. Can we get there? Can we get there a little faster now," whereas there was a period there where it just seemed like, "Oh, this is never going to end."
As David sat down to write to those Brian Eno instrumentals some 15 years ago for what would become Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, he found himself channeling what he felt the music called for, a spiritual, folky vibe, as he puts it. There were no pretensions of, "I'm going to do my David Byrne thing here." He was just looking to do what best served the music. It's this lack of pretension, ego, and his genuine thirst for finding that next shit that makes Byrne who he is. It's why we love him, and it's why we love his music.
When you said the thing about the hardest tickets, I just pictured you calling in like, "Look, I can give you four box seats to American Utopia when we get back up on Broadway," and just getting to the front of the line. Will that extended run somehow continue when ... I know it's hard to say when Broadway's going to be up and running and stuff, but would you do that? Would you-
Yeah. We're looking at a different theater because Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick are still booked. They still have that slot.
Still got that Suite. Still got that Plaza Suite.
Yes. So we're looking at a different theater, and we're hoping for September or something like that. It's not announced, but that's kind of what we're hoping for.
How did you decide on Spike Lee? Because you're both, obviously, quintessential New Yorkers. The one thing that I always think about, the boom box itself, which is so iconic in Stop Making Sense, and it's the first thing I think of when I think of Do the Right Thing. It's essentially such a New York artifact. So there's so many parallels between you and Spike, and you must've crossed paths somehow in the '80s in New York. But how did you decide he was the guy to direct the film version?
Yeah. We crossed paths a lot over the years. We could say hi, and I think I participated in a couple of documentaries that he'd done, just being interviewed. It's not like we were great friends, but I kind of knew him. So when it came time, I thought, "He's filmed live shows before," which is a special skill. You don't get to go, "Oh, oh, I didn't get it. Can we do that again?" You can do that a little bit on a live show, have a day of pick-up shots, but you can't really keep stopping the show and do it like, "We need another take of that one. The camera wasn't quite ready." That's a skill he obviously has.
There's a lot of stuff that gets talked about in the show, social and political stuff, that he's going to be totally behind that. And he's a music fan. He loves the music. He was kind of begging me to do other songs and add more songs to the show. You're right, that having crossed paths a number of times, I had his phone number in my phone so I could text him, which kind of helps. There's a little bit of an upside to being known enough that you can have Spike Lee's phone number.
Yeah. First of all, I think he did such a great job because I guess one of the things ... I had really nice seats, but one of the great things about the film is you get the grandeur and the scope of the stage as if you were sitting on the balcony one night and on the sides one night and really up close, which you're never going to really get if you only get to go to the show once. It did remind me how deep the stage is you really see. It reminded me of some of the great feeling of Stop Making Sense with the deep soundstage. It's just beautiful. I'm glad that I watched the film because it gave me a different experience than even going to see it in person.
Yeah, you never know if that's going to happen. I mean, we certainly hoped it would. You never know whether it could very well just be a flattened-out version of the live experience because the live thing, it's like you're there, it's happening, you're in the moment. But Spike really got it.
I used to go up ... Because I was a diehard Knick fan in the late '90s or the mid-'90s when they actually had their little championship runs and just from growing up most of my life in New York, Spike, he's an icon. I'd go up to him whenever I'd see him because I'd occasionally DJed a party for him. One time, he interviewed me for some documentary he did on Michael Jackson. Every time I'd go up to him, I'd always just feel like this tiny kid and I'd be like, "Hey" ... It'd be in an airport or getting off some long flight. I'd be like, "I'm Mark Ronson," and each time ... I think it must've been three or four times. So I go up to say hi this time. He goes, "If you tell me one more fucking time who you are ... I know you are, Mark." It was a very sweet moment.
I thought that the other thing that's sort of sweet watching the film as well is the only maybe marked different between a Broadway crowd and maybe a crowd that would go to a concert, like more music fans, is that they clap on the one and three as well. So they're going (singing), you know?
A crowd at the show would be just clapping on the (singing). Yeah.
Yes. Nothing we could do about that.
No, it's very sweet. Another thing that you did since that FADER or that you had a part in was the William Onyeabor reissue that really, like Shuggie Otis previously ... Some of those things that you've reissued on Luaka Bop really have entered into the zeitgeist and then even influenced music after it in such a remarkable way. So I thought it'd be great if we just talk about William a little bit and how you discovered him. I know you wrote something quite beautiful when he passed.
This guy, William Onyeabor, yeah, he was an African pop musician. We heard, I think, one of his tracks on a collection maybe that had been done in England or some compilation record that had one of his tracks on. We maybe put that on a compilation that we were doing as well, and then we thought, "But wait a minute, who is this guy? This guy has all synthesizers and drum machines and whatever. Is he the only person doing that, and how'd he get this stuff?" Sure enough, he was vertically integrated, horizontally integrated. He built his own recording studio. He went to Italy and got these Russian and Italian synthesizers. We did some shows of his music, and Money Mark played some of the keyboards. Mark, of course, he knew all the keyboards. He goes, "Oh, I recognize that sound. That's the sound from this Italian synthesizer that was made in"-
Yeah, there's one called the Elka Synthex, which I learned about weirdly from Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran, but he had a lot of these Italian synths as well. Yeah.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's exactly it. So he had a bunch of those, and he was playing all the stuff and mostly doing it all himself, really innovative and fun tracks. Occasionally, he had lyrics that were more political or conscious or kind of dealt with social issues, and then sometimes he just talked about some woman he was fixated on. Then, eventually, he became born again and gave up pop music completely. One of the folks from my small record label at the time even went there, went to find him, but he was not going to budge. He was not going to perform. They got some footage of him, but he was not going to perform, so my label buddies said, "Well, why don't we do this stuff? We'll put a band together, and we'll play his stuff." I thought, "That is the craziest promotional thing I've ever heard, but I love the songs, and I'd love to do it a few times." They had a band called Sinkane. They were the main part of the group, and then they pulled in a bunch of other people.
But he was okay with the music being reissued even though it didn't fit anymore with his beliefs? That was okay?
I guess that was okay. I think even that was a bit of a struggle, to get him to agree to have his music come out. But people remembered him. There was an African community out in Brooklyn, and they go, "Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. We know those songs." It was a lot of fun.
Shuggie Otis as well, I know that was some time ago, but that's a record that just influenced so much ... Strangely, a reissue, it must've been 30 years old around when you put it out, then goes on to influence an entire new generation. I can't tell you how many times I've looked to "Island Letter" or one of those songs for just a sonic palette. Thank you for rescuing those records.
And he was another kind of iconoclast, playing a lot of the instruments himself, again, using some drum machines and different kinds of things that not too many people were doing that and then writing these beautiful songs.
Yeah. His is almost, to me, the kind of weird, sort of eccentric answer to There's a Riot Goin' On, a lot of the same sonic palette and the things but just a bit more acid, whereas Sly was probably a bit more coke-y at that point or something. I mean, I don't actually know. It might be too early.
Uh-huh (affirmative). Shuggie did like to smoke, so he had a cloud going around.
Yeah. Yeah. Because he's still around and playing shows and stuff. Did that then feed back into his sets? Did he start playing those songs again? Did you play any of those songs with him? Did you end up doing anything after the fact?
We tried to get him to do some live shows, but when he'd get onstage, he'd default, go back to being a blues guitar player.
Yeah. It's hard to tell someone ... I mean, you talk about that a lot in the book, too, this responsibility to, "Okay, well, why do we have to go out and play it exactly like we put on the record when we're talking about two wholly different environments?" But, in some ways, we really fell in love with Shuggie Otis because we discovered him, most of us, from that record, so it's not a 12-bar blues record. Even if you can't get the exact same drum sounds or something, I guess the spirit of that record is just a different thing.
Can we talk bike racks just for the last bit before-
Okay. Sure. Yeah, of course.
Okay. Because that is something I'm super fascinated with. I always used to see you riding around SoHo. I used to have a studio at 19 Mercer Street, and we'd be like, "Holy shit, there's David Byrne. He's got a bicycle helmet on, going in and out of" ... Maybe it was around Gourmet Garage. Then I've learned, obviously, since then you're a bike enthusiast. But I learned that you actually helped design bike racks around the city. I had no idea about any of this.
Yeah. There was a moment when the city was going to put out a whole lot more bike racks than they have now, and they were holding competitions for design and this, and they wanted me to be a judge for this because they knew that I get around by bicycle a lot. So I did, but that got into my head, so I started drawing and designing my own bike racks for specific neighborhoods, like I had a man for West Chelsea, I had a guitar for Williamsburg, one in the shape of a guitar, I had a high-heel shoe for outside Bonwit Teller or something, Fifth Avenue, that kind of thing. Each one was very specific to where it was going to be, not very practical. But it was a lot of fun, and an art gallery said, "Well, we'll help you do these." The city said, "Yes, and we'll take care of the permitting and make sure these go up." It was fun to do, but the city still needs a lot more bike racks than what they have. Ah, they'll get to it eventually. Yeah. You see-
I loved that at the end of the-
Yeah, I still do that. I still get around that way a lot. When I go on tour, I sometimes take a bike around. I remember biking around Tokyo, which is pretty crazy because people bike on the sidewalks in Tokyo. Old ladies bike on the sidewalks, and God forbid you should get in your way. They got their groceries, and they are going home. Don't mess with them. Then they have these other things. Of course, they had these automated bike parking things in Tokyo, where you drive into what seems like a garage or something and there's these slots. You just put your bike in the slot, and then the robot takes it from there, and you get a number or whatever. It'll bring it back to you when you come back. I thought, "Oh my God, they are so far ahead of us."
Yeah. The only guys that I see riding the bike is the Domino's guy when he nearly kills my dog and I give him the evilest glare. I do even try not to ride my bike on the subway. All right. Is there any way in the couple of minutes ... It's supposed to talk about what's the next project or the next year ahead. Is there any way to just get into that very briefly?
Very briefly, all right. I don't know if it's going to happen because of the pandemic and we don't know how to schedule things, but I've been working with a choreographer and a set designer on a thing called The Social Distanced Dance Club, where we're basically ... We're looking at the Armory here, which is a giant big room. So we could get 100 people in there, all nine feet apart in their circles. Everybody has to stay in your circle, wear a mask, and we'll have a DJ in the middle, and we'll do just an hour set. I'll be calling out how they should move. I'll be giving them moves.
Yes. Please. Please. I will pay you to be able to play. If you really get down the rung of the first list of DJs you really want, I'm just putting myself out there. That sounds like a dream.
Oh, that'd be great. That'd be great. Okay, so our fingers crossed. We haven't got it locked in because of, well, the COVID. Everything changes every week. But we're hoping that sometime this spring we can do it.
That sounds beautiful. Thank you so much.
It's been a pleasure.
Good to meet you virtually.