'The everyday can be just fine'
For any critically beloved band, anniversaries tend to be pure, uncomplicated commerce: You can set your watch by the stream of reissues and deluxe editions that roll out once or twice a decade, boasting bonus material but few revelations. But when the news broke this summer that Stop Making Sense, the documentary showing art-rock icons Talking Heads in their performing prime, would be re-released to mark 40 years since the 1983 concerts captured indelibly by director Jonathan Demme, the reaction in the music press was something close to ecstatic disbelief.
The shock wasn't how the film would be presented, though that's quite something: Overseen by indie powerhouse A24, the new release's remastered sound and picture, projected in larger-than-life IMAX, has already produced reports of crowds leaping from their seats at preview screenings to dance and shout along. But the true bonus feature was one few thought possible: The band's four original members, all in one room, celebrating their achievement together, beginning with a live Q&A at the restoration's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The dissolution of Talking Heads is one of those hell-freezes-over breakups that becomes inseparable from a group's legacy. Frontman David Byrne split from the group in the early 1990s, and sued his former bandmates not long after. In the years that followed, the members continued to develop their own performing careers, produced albums for other artists and, in Byrne's case, even made it to Broadway, but rarely appeared in public together. Even as recently as 2020, drummer Chris Frantz's book Remain in Love — a memoir of his life in music with his wife, bassist Tina Weymouth — described Byrne during the Talking Heads years as intense, at times disrespectful and overly possessive of songs the group had written collaboratively.
The awkwardness of those years of distance — sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not — was apparent when Byrne, Frantz, Weymouth and multi-instrumentalist Jerry Harrison gathered in a New York studio to speak with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, ahead of Stop Making Sense's return to theaters this weekend. But perhaps more remarkable was the warmth, nostalgia and sense of growth permeating their words as they traded insights about the film's lasting influence, the surrealness of watching their young selves onscreen and how some of their worst disagreements have changed their approach to music for the better. Listen to their conversation at the audio link, or read an expanded version below.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Steve Inskeep: Let me ask about your experience in watching this film from decades ago. When you sat in a theater and watched your younger selves, what went through your mind? You can start, David.
David Byrne: I hadn't seen the film in probably a decade at least, and I'm kind of looking at it and thinking, who is that guy? I mean, I'm impressed with the film and impressed with our performance. But I'm also having this really jarring experience of thinking, "He's so serious. He's very intent. He kind of loosens up towards the end, but in the beginning, he's really focused."
Inskeep: In what way are you a different person now?
Byrne: Well, I think I'm a little bit more easygoing, and a little more comfortable talking to people and all that, than I was then.
Inskeep: I feel like what you're describing is almost part of your appeal at that time, part of your stage persona. You're performing for the crowd, but you almost seem to be in your own place.
Byrne: Yeah. I think there might have been something attractive about watching this guy going through this struggle in front of your eyes.
Jerry Harrison: David is 100% in the moment of that performance, and I think that's part of the attractiveness of the film. We took great joy in what we were playing on stage and our interactions with each other, but we really wanted the audience to come away and go, "That was one of the best things I ever saw" — like, every night. That was the ethos of this band. And David being the lead singer, he led the way with a focus on the song, and on getting that across.
Inskeep: Do any of the others of you feel like you're a different person now than that person you see on screen?
Tina Weymouth: Well, I was a lot cuter. But no, I wish. George Bernard Shaw said it probably takes about 300 years for a human being to become emotionally mature, so I'm still working on that.
David was focused, but I saw that in everybody on that stage. Of course, he was our frontman, and he was riveting. I had to remind myself to remain focused in the moment, otherwise I would forget to keep playing, because I was watching — I was a fan of the band. We had amazing singers, who were so sensitive and attuned to whatever was being played and whatever David was singing. Jerry was right next to Bernie Worrell, and the two of them had an amazing twinship on those keyboards that was just phenomenal. We were all very conscious of not stepping on each other's parts, of blending properly, but also of keeping the minimalism that we had started with still intact — because we really thought of our music as having integrity, and being consistent to it was very important to us. So I guess we were all serious. But who's going to keep a straight face when that big suit comes out?
Inskeep: How about you, Chris?
Chris Frantz: Well, I must say, I'm just feeling real, genuine gratitude that the movie looks and sounds even better than ever — and also, that I'm able to enjoy it with my bandmates. It's been a long time since we've been in the same room together, and it's a great pleasure for me.
Inskeep: Why has it been a long time?
Inskeep: That's one of those lawyer things where you ask a question that you sort of know the answer to.
Frantz: Yeah. Well, let's just say that we all had separate projects.
Harrison: Lives diverge. Everyone in this band has done some pretty great work outside of Talking Heads. There's something quite special about when we work together, but it's not like everyone's just been sort of sitting around and not doing anything else. And of course, that pulls you apart.
Inskeep: Given some of the difficulties and the disagreements that you've had over the years, was it hard to decide to come together for events like this?
Frantz: Not for me, not a bit. You know, we have all said things and done things in the past. But right now, we're focused on the celebration of Stop Making Sense and the music of Talking Heads, which is greater than any one of us individually.
Byrne: Yeah, I agree. When we saw how good this was going to be — and we're all super-proud of the movie and what we did at that time, and how well this was going to be presented — I think we all just kind of said, "OK, we're in."
Inskeep: Did you need to take a moment and talk about the past — about differences of opinion, about authorship of songs and any number of other things?
Byrne: No, no. We just decided we're all excited about this film.
Weymouth: Mm-hmm. We're just focused on this.
Harrison: It was just the embrace of making the new production as good as possible. It's been gratifying to see that we're getting that same reaction from audiences, that people can't contain themselves. There was a screening where people stormed the stage at Grauman's Chinese Theater in LA, and were dancing on the stage. The fact that 40 years later, people still can't stop dancing, feels pretty damn good.
Inskeep: The energy you show on stage, David, is amazing. You're running in circles around the stage. You're laying on your back and singing. The thought I keep having is, even though I run, I would be out of breath at some point. You seem like you're having an amazing time up there.
Byrne: Yeah, I am having an amazing time. And as I said, I sort of loosen up as the show goes along and the entire band gets assembled, and it really kind of kicks into gear.
Inskeep: But I think you've said, looking back on that time, that in some ways you were not enjoying yourself in those years.
Byrne: Enjoyment is kind of ... it depends on how you define it. I was enjoying the work that we were doing, and very, very proud of it. But as I said earlier, looking at the guy you see in the beginning of the movie, I was very intent and focused and kind of single-minded about, Yeah, this is what I want. I see this going this way. As Jerry said, I'm 100% focused on that. Which sometimes doesn't make for the best kind of social relationships. We've all known people who are obsessed with their work. But I've gotten through that.
Inskeep: Are you saying that the very thing that made you successful also caused you difficulty?
Byrne: Uh, I'm not sure about that.
Inskeep: Or maybe you didn't need to be so serious.
Byrne: That's what I'm thinking, yes. That's the way I was, but now I find that I can collaborate with people in a much more relaxed way.
Inskeep: And you feel just as successful — this is a useful thing to know, I think.
Byrne: Yes, I think it's a useful thing for people to know that. Take it easy once in a while.
Inskeep: What advice would you give to a young artist who is aspiring to do something great, given what you've just said? What would you tell them, based on your experience?
Byrne: I would say similar advice to what we got early on: Pay attention to your business and don't get yourself in debt.
Harrison: This is slightly an aside, but I've been very involved in producing bands, and I've seen many bands where there is definitely a leader — a person who sometimes is intimidating to the other members of the band. And as a producer, I would always try to make sure that anyone who is possibly getting disenfranchised, to try and bring them in. I would almost always insist that everybody have a chance to listen to the mix, or be there at the mix. Because sometimes the drummer goes, "The fill going into the third verse is wrong. The third tom has to be louder." And the mixer goes, "... OK?" And they go, "That's much, much better." And it was not necessarily better to me! But now this person feels that they own this mix too; the mix wouldn't have been right without them. This person is going to have to go out and support this album for the next year, and if we can get everybody here to feel that they have ownership in this, the band's going to do better, the record will do better, and the internal politics of the band will be better.
Inskeep: Even if the record got a little worse, it might be better for the band.
Harrison: It's possible. I wouldn't let that happen. But there are many times where it could be this way or it could be that way, but if it's important to someone else that it's a certain way, let's do it. The way that teams work best is when everyone feels that they got listened to.
Inskeep: What was your creative process as a group when you were writing the songs in the '70s and '80s that made you famous? How would a song begin? Where would it come from?
Weymouth: That's a really long answer, but I can tell you that there was something so special about the way we made music together; I've never found the same exact thing. Chris and I‚ we work with another band, Tom Tom Club. And, you know, the band is just like the happiest band in the world, but it's a completely different situation, because they aren't always there when we're creating the music. With Talking Heads, it was always the four-piece would create the studio album, and then we would learn something different in live performance, when we had other players. So we really do appreciate how special our relationship musically was. I mean, you're trying to talk about conflicts, but conflicts are just human.
Inkseep: I agree with you.
Harrison: The other thing is, we very deliberately tried to mix up how we were doing the songwriting for each record. For the albums Little Creatures and True Stories, David came with pretty complete songs, and we helped with whatever rearrangements or parts that we were going to play. But albums like Speaking in Tongues or Remain in Light were far more ensemble writing. I think the big thing about us is that we were always open to experimentation. We very deliberately, in the early albums, would say, "Let's record this in a different way." One was, let's go to the Bahamas. Another one was, let's record at Chris and Tina's loft. We were always trying to find a new way, so that the album had its own character.
Frantz: You know, when you're making a record, you have to — at least I have to — agree with what the best idea is. Somebody else might have an idea, and I think, Oh, yeah, that's a better idea than mine. Or maybe not better, just different. I think of the lyrics, for example, to ... oh geez, what's the song about, "My building has every convenience / It's gonna make life easy for me"?
Weymouth: "Don't Worry About the Government."
Frantz: David came up with that, and I don't think anybody else would have come up with that. Like, he falls in love with a beautiful highway. He imagines himself as a billboard. Who thinks of that? Well, David Byrne does. So I might have had a good idea, but it wasn't that wild.
Inskeep: Do you feel you understand where that comes from? This is kind of an analogy, I suppose: The cartoonist Gary Larson, who used to draw The Far Side, would draw these totally absurd one-panels. He would describe getting into a particular state of mind, a mood that he could only describe as utter silliness — and then he would, you know, draw a picture of dinosaurs telling each other they're screwed because of evolution. When you write something that, to a lot of the rest of the world, sounds weird or really unexpected, do you feel you understand where that comes from?
Byrne: Well, sometimes I do in retrospect, after the song is written. Maybe a year later or whatever, I can go, "Oh, now I see what this is about." Sometimes it's kind of psychological: Whatever is churning around that you're trying to work out within yourself, you can't articulate it, but you can kind of articulate it in a song, in a sort of unconscious way.
Inskeep: I want to ask about something else; you can refuse to talk about it if you want. In a 2019 interview on NPR, you described yourself as being on the autism spectrum, or believing yourself to be — which is of interest to me because I have autism in my family. Is there some connection between that and your difficulty in connecting with people?
Byrne: Oh yeah, absolutely. As often happens, it's much less now, maybe none at all now, but then, yes. And it was a friend of mine who — the idea of the spectrum and Asperger's and all of that was becoming more widely known, and she was reading about it and said, "David, listen to this. This is you." And I said, "Oh. Yeah, OK. That sounds right."
Inskeep: What were the things you did that made her say, "That's you"?
Byrne: Maybe being slightly socially uncomfortable, or not picking up on the signs when you're engaging with people. Being very able to focus on something, whether it's something you're writing or whatever, and just being very intently focused on that. So there's an upside to it sometimes.
Inskeep: That's what I was wondering about. Because it's not a disease like cancer; it's a characteristic. It's who you are. And watching you on stage, listening to your distinctive lyrics, I wonder sometimes if who you are produced those lyrics.
Byrne: I think you're right. There's probably some of those songs, some of those lyrics and things that I wrote — I could never write those kinds of things today. Although occasionally I do; I've been working on a song about moisturizer, so it's not gone completely. But to a large extent, I see those songs and watch the performance and go, you're not that guy anymore. You wouldn't do a lot of the same things now.
Harrison: I remember, when I joined the band, that conceptual art was sort of coming into its forefront, and I remember you guys talking about David making lists — lists about what you saw on the New Jersey Turnpike on his way to Providence, stuff like that. And so I always felt that these lyrics were an outgrowth of this kind of concept: Let's make this list of what we see in everyday life, and make some rhyme or reason out of that.
Inskeep: You're making me think of Andy Warhol, or Roy Lichtenstein, where you take popular or everyday objects and elevate them in some way. Is that what you're doing with those lyrics?
Byrne: Sometimes, yes. Sometimes it's just looking at what we actually do in our lives, and kind of celebrating that — celebrating the ordinary part of our lives rather than the kind of spectacular, dramatic events.
Inskeep: I had an opportunity a few months ago to talk with John Mellencamp, who is in his 70s now and has seen a lot in his life, and has arrived at some bleak conclusions. One of them being that we're all trapped in our own skin — we're all basically alone, even if we're surrounded by people. That's what he's learned from the last 50 years.
Weymouth: That's a fact.
Inskeep: Go on.
Weymouth: I mean, Carl Jung, that was his conclusion. The "other" is unknowable.
Inskeep: Do any of you feel that you've learned something that is simple and big in that way, that your experience has brought you to?
Byrne: Seeing how I've changed over the years, I've learned that we are social creatures. We're not quite like ants or bees, but we are very much social creatures. There are people who are happy being alone and solitary, but for a lot of people, that is a kind of punishment. I mean, that's why they put people in solitary in jail, because it is an extreme punishment to be kept away from other people.
Inskeep: It's torture, yeah.
Byrne: And I thought, that is a big part of who we are and how we imagine ourselves. It doesn't stop here — it's how other people see us, and how we see them.
Weymouth: I have to admit — I loved the pandemic, the lockdown. I never get enough alone time. And I love people! But I just sat outside in nature. I had a little wild squirrel that would come and gather peanuts from me. I could read books. I didn't have to be social if I didn't want to.
Byrne: I agree, there were parts of it that I liked. I sometimes go to a restaurant and read a book at the counter by myself. And I can tell people are sometimes looking and going, "That poor man. He doesn't have any friends."
Inskeep: Don't people recognize you in that situation, and come up and shake your hand and ask for a selfie?
Byrne: Well, once in a while. But no, not all the time. They just see what they might perceive as this poor, lonely fellow.
Harrison: But you know, that brings up an interesting thing, because of our wearing our everyday clothes. The first time we played at Central Park, we all took the subway there with our instruments. And we got recognized on the subway because we were all together, but I think we sort of knew how to blend back into obscurity. We had just the right amount of fame.
I think we really have been one of the luckiest bands. We have intelligent, interesting fans, so if they come up and talk to you, usually you're happy to have a conversation with them. But we also could, a lot of times, just walk down the street and no one bothered us at all. They weren't thinking about it, because we didn't try to carry ourselves in a way to draw attention to ourselves. We embraced the fact that the everyday can be just fine.
Inskeep: Chris, did you want to add anything to that?
Frantz: I was just going to say, I don't feel like John Mellencamp at all. I'm a social guy. Tina says, "Chris, you're the happiest man in the world." I enjoy making friends. I enjoy when my friends reciprocate. And I'm just happy to be here.
Weymouth: This is true. I mean, we're still alive.
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