Rewind: Martyn on “Fear Of Music”

Posted: January 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Features | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

In discussion with Martyn on “Fear Of Music” by The Talking Heads (1979).

What got you into the Talking Heads? Can you remember the time and circumstances you first became aware of the band?

My father was an avid vinyl collector, he was a football player and played in the UEFA cup tournaments at the end of the 70’s and early 80’s. Wherever he played he managed to find a record store and buy new music. I’m not sure where he picked up “Fear Of Music” but I’m quite sure he bought the record when it was released (in 1979). In 1984, when I was 10 years old, my dad bought “Stop Making Sense” and I remember both that album as well as “Fear Of Music” being played at the house many many times. “Stop Making Sense”, a live album, came with a booklet with pictures from the live show, so I browsed through it whenever the album was played. I loved the “Fear of Music” sleeve as well, as it has an embossed pattern, it was the only record I had seen at that time which had that.

Why did you opt for “Fear Of Music” over other of their albums? What makes it so special for you?

Musically, I remember liking “Stop Making Sense” better at that time, it features a lot of the big Talking Heads tracks like “Psycho Killer”, “Burning Down The House” and “Once In A Lifetime”, and although I knew “Fear of Music” practically by head, I revisited it many years later and came to appreciate it more. My dad didn’t own the other Talking Heads albums, but he did have Tom Tom Club’s first album.
I started buying vinyl around 1982, with my first allowance money. It started with pop music obviously, and my own collection started to grow and grow. Later, when I got into late 80’s / early 90’s hip hop, I started digging in my dad’s soul and funk records (as hip hop used many of those to sample from). I left all the new wave and 70s/80s pop for what it was at that time, but about 5 years ago I went back in big time, to Roxy Music, David Bowie, ABC, Human League, Ultravox, and some of the New York bands like Talking Heads. I was moving houses a lot and dragged my vinyl collection everywhere, for some reason I felt that some of my dad’s records needed to be in the collection just to carry a part of my “home” with me. Even now that I’ve moved to the US, I had some of my favourite records shipped over and some of those have indeed been “in the family” for 30+ years, including “Fear Of Music”.

If you love “Fear Of Music” up to this day, what makes it so timeless?

Well as said before, my love for this album is 75% sentimental. When you’re a kid, you listen and digest music completely different than when you are older. Especially in your early teens, you develop a frame of reference when it comes to what you like and dislike about music. You start to judge music not only for the music itself, but also for the information you have gathered about the music. Notions such as “this is a cool 80s band” or “the singer used to be a drummer” or “he’s got cool hair” suddenly adds to the appreciation or depreciation of the music. When you’re 8 years old, this frame of reference is not there and you solely judge music for what it is: music. Add to this a few childhood memories and you have the answer as to why I would call this a timeless album. A book that explores this process and that might be an interesting read is Daniel J. Levitin’s “This Is Your Brain On Music”.
When I ‘revisited’ “Fear Of Music” somewhere in the early 00s, my appreciation for it went beyond the childhood sentimental value and I was able to digest it with fresh ears, and judged it more for the music than for the memory. It was only then that I discovered what the album was about lyrically, at what moment in time it was recorded, how ingenious some of the tracks are constructed and played, what it meant musically in regards to the NYC new wave movement, how it influenced bands of today etc. All this cemented it as taking one of the top spots in my all-time favorite albums list.

Are there standout tracks you particularly like or do you like the album as a whole? And another integral part of the album are David Byrne’s words. Whereas on the two preceding albums the lyrics were often weird but also charming, “Psycho Killer” certainly excluded, here they are often downright disturbing and have some kind of cool unreal quality. What do you think of this album’s lyrics and its subjects?

Almost every time I listen to this album, I like to listen to it as a whole, not the separate tracks. When I was working on the final few things of my own album “Great Lengths”, I was trying to decide on the order of the tracks, to create a flow for people who listen to the CD from beginning to end. For me it was very important to keep it interesting all the way through, and ever since I spent time doing the line up for my album I’m listening with a different ear to other albums as well. This album is great because of its pace, there’s a lot of speed in all the tracks, and still it takes you to all sorts of different places. Kicking off with “I Zimbra” which is basically an African rhythm track, very four-to-the-floor, the pace is set (there is a really cool 4×4 house edit that samples this track by Jeva Du called “I Zebra” on Platzhirsch Schallplatten). This pace is continued with “Mind” and “Paper” and to show off how all these fairly simply structured tracks are like shards of creativity from Byrne’s brain, “Cities” intro fades in like it were a passing thought, and fades out at the end to make way for another uptempo track “Life During Wartime”. Side 2 of the album brings a wider variety of places and tempos, much darker and otherworldly with my favorite track “Air”, with its spooky sounding synth line and breathing vocals on the main riff and the bluesy guitar solo (the only one on the album). “What is happening to my skin? Where is that protection that I needed?” are the lyrics, it’s sort of a protest song against air, it’s about someone who has such a hard life that even breathing air is a chore. After that comes “Heaven”, a bittersweet ballad and my second favourite track, with the best lyrics of the album “it’s hard to imagine that nothing at all could be so exciting, could be so much fun, heaven is a place, a place where nothing ever happens”, illustrating how everyone seems to long to go to heaven, but that it’s really not much more than an ever repeating state of nothingness in which you float with no direction. If you thought this was not enough, the album goes darker and darker with “Animals” (”Animals, they’re never there when you need them! I know the animals are laughing at us – don’t even know what a joke is!”) and “Electric Guitar”. To leave you completely unsettled after listening, the album ends with “Drugs” which is sonically the most disturbing track on the album, and lyrically: “All I can see is little dots, Some are smeared and some are spots. Feels like a murder but that’s alright, Somebody said there’s too much light, Pull down the shade and it’s alright” Says it all really..

It is often said that “Fear Of Music” was some kind of transitional album for the band, darker and more dense than its two predecessors and already foreshadowing the complexity of “Remain In Light” and “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts”. How do you rate “Fear Of Music” soundwise? What do you think are the recognizable musical footprints Eno left here?

What’s kind of cool about Talking Heads in general is that they had this philosophy that since every album they would do needed to sound different, they’d prefer to not record an album in the same location as the previous one. Since they were having a hard time finding a place to record, they eventually decided to record it where they were most comfortable playing, which was in the loft space of band members Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz. I’m sure the space in which the album was recorded added to the overall sound of the album, as well as the involvement of Brian Eno as a producer. Singer David Byrne had a special interest in world music and especially african rhythms, which you can hear on “I Zimbra” and on many other tracks on Talking Heads’ later albums as well as his album with Brian Eno “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts”. Apart from this track most of the songs on “Fear Of Music” have a fairly simple, almost loop-based structure, usually only a main riff and a chorus, no bridges or other stuff. Judging from the alternate takes of some of the tracks that come with the iTunes version of the album, I assume that Byrne (sometimes together with Brian Eno or the other band members) wrote the music first, then the melody lines of the vocal, and then the actual lyrics all the way at the end. Writing songs this way is interesting, as you usually come up with different melodies for a vocal, sort of ‘freestyling’ on top of the music instead of just singing a vocal and having the band accompany you. Apparently, David Bowie records all his music this way. David Bowie is an interesting link as Brian Eno worked intensively with Bowie, recording his Berlin Trilogy (“Low”, “Heroes” and “Lodger” albums). In “Bowie In Berlin”, a real interesting book about Bowie and his friend Iggy Pop living in Berlin and working on those three albums (and two more for Iggy), it’s argued that however Brian Eno was a huge influence on Bowie and on his sound, he sometimes gets too much credit for being the person that introduced Bowie to synthesizers, ambient music etc. The book states Brian Eno was more of an ‘enabler’, someone that brought out the creativity in a person and channeled it in the right direction. Byrne and Eno’s “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts”, which was recorded just after “Fear Of Music”’s promotional tour in 1979 shows clearly how forward thinking the both of them were when it came to sound experiments. That album contains so many great examples of found sound, tape loops, collage techniques and (ethnic rhythms). Compared to “Fear Of Music” this album is much further ahead sound-wise, although “Drugs” has loops of Byrne’s voice, and other soundscape-like things going on, very far removed from the usual rock band sound (and very appropriate for the theme of the song!) and “Air” and “Electric Guitar” have some real spacey sounding synth action in the background. Brian Eno is credited on the album for “Treatments and Additional Vocals”. The release of “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts” was delayed due to clearing issues for some of the album’s ’sampled vocals’, so it came out after Talking Heads’ “Remain In Light” album but in reality it needs to be placed in between “Fear Of Music” and “Remain In Light” as a side project. The actual last project Brian Eno worked on with the Talking Heads and David Byrne is the “Remain In Light” album.

“Fear Of Music” seems to draw a lot from the austerity and bleakness of other Post Punk music from that era. Who do you think might have been influential for the album’s production? Why do you think so much of the music of that time turned out to sound the way it did? Did it aptly reflect a historical context?

I think the period between 1978 and 1982 is a very interesting period in history, where the rebellious upset of punk in all its extravertedness makes way for a much more introverted, sober 1980s. This is not only a musical progression but also in terms of political and social developments and fashion you can clearly see a transition in those years. On both sides of the Atlantic, the younger generations were more and more politically restrained than in the freer 60s and 70s. Fashion turned more and more futuristic and musically I suppose one of the biggest developments was the acceptance of electronic, synthesized sounds in pop music (synths were present much earlier of course)
As far as “austerity and bleakness” goes, I’m not sure I agree with these terms, and I wouldn’t call this particular Talking Heads album “Post Punk” either. First of all, there’s definitely a difference between music in the UK and in the USA in this period of time. Thatcher’s United Kingdom, with its huge economic problems (especially in former industrial strongholds such as Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle) was reflected in a music that directly draws influence from punk. The difference however, was that while lyrically, punk music had a very general political message, Post Punk brought it back to a more personal (not very happy) message. It was still anti-establishment, but on an individual level. I think Joy Division is probably the best example of this. In New York at that time, bands like Blondie, B-52’s and the Talking Heads were direct descendants from CBGB’s punk scene (The Ramones and Iggy Pop), yet musically as well as lyrically they are further removed from these bands than their UK counterparts were at that time. I think these bands are much more forward thinking musically and drawing inspiration from the melting pot that is New York, so instead of referring to them as “they came after punk” I’d rather call them “part of a new wave” and connect the music they made to all that follows in the 1980s. David Byrne and Brian Eno were both interested in African rhythms, as well as synthesizers and new recording techniques such as tape loops, while Blondie experimented with early hip hop, most NY new wave bands adopted disco in their music at some point or other; all this contributes to a much more diverse and colourful cluster of albums, of which “Fear Of Music” is definitely an important one.

How do you place “Fear Of Music” in the band’s history? Are there any other albums by the Talking Heads you like just as much?

“Fear Of Music”, the Byrne/Eno album and “Remain In Light” are definitely the three strongest moments of the Talking Heads in my opinion, but that said, their biggest success as a pop group only started with “Remain In Light” (with “Once In A Lifetime”) but even more so with their later albums, especially “Speaking In Tongues” from 1983 which had “Burning Down The House” on it. Though, if I would have to introduce someone to Talking Heads – ‘the pop group’, I would have him/her listen to “Stop Making Sense”. Or watch the wonderful concert registration DVD, directed by Jonathan Demme (who did “Silence Of The Lambs” amongst others) which is regarded as one of the best live music films ever made.

Did you regret that they eventually split up, or was it inevitable?

I don’t really have an opinion about it to be quite honest, from what I know they split up due to personal differences, probably also involving a fair bit of money. Things like that happen, I think it’s admirable of David Byrne to not reunite the band, like so many other 80’s bands do, just because musically it hardly ever adds anything to what a band already has achieved. Most of these reunions are just about rehashing old songs, play them on a lucrative tour and make some money. Fair play but not very interesting.

Can the music of the Talking Heads be traced in your own approach to producing?

Very difficult to say really, obviously all the music that has made an impact on me at some point or another in my lifetime has influenced my own music. Besides this I’ve always found David Byrne’s lyrics and general appearance in interviews and such very intriguing, especially in his younger years he seemed to be borderline autistic sometimes, or at least completely immersed in his own artistic world.
Musically I’m obviously interested in rhythm, and in simple song structures (but that is also because I’m not able to write more complex ones!) but to say that this directly comes from listening to the Talking Heads goes (way) too far. Then there is the use of ‘found sound’, especially on a lot of Eno-supervised albums from that era. It’s also something that has come back into electronic music over the last couple years, as a reaction perhaps to the very sterile sound of techno, to bring back a more organic and ‘human’ feel to the music again. That is the reason why I like to use these sometimes undefinable sounds, things I’ve recorded at certain locations, that capture a certain feeling for me, or that can bring me back personally to a sort of emotive state I’m looking for when making music. Many other musicians use sound in that way though. Again it’s not a direct Talking Heads influence but together with Brian Eno they’ve been undeniably instrumental to this development in popular music.
Over the last two years I’ve been playing many gigs and I find it really refreshing to NOT listen to electronic music or at least NOT listen to the music I play on gigs in my downtime, but relax with revisiting older favorites instead, such as the Talking Heads albums, Prince, Bowie, Human League, The Smiths and Ultravox. Especially this last year, those have been high in my playlists. The last few remixes I have done have all featured vocals much more prominently than before, maybe this is because I have been listening to more music featuring vocals than ever before. What this will mean for my solo stuff, and for my next album I wouldn’t be able to tell you as of yet. We will see what the future brings!

Sounds Like Me 01/10

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