Speaking in Tongues
From KJ 30, WORD
ROBERT BRADY INTERVIEWS DAVID BYRNE
ROBERT BRADY: Paradoxically, you appear to be an introspective performer. Are you really a poet first and a singer second?
DAVID BYRNE: ….. In a way; I think of myself as a poet who works in every medium available, pretty much except poetry. It’s either song, or in pictures or something else.
RB: So the spirit of the word is in there somewhere. Does your inspiration come from words first? How does it evolve?
DB: No, not necessarily; I think it comes from the poetic idea that maybe one thing stands for something else.
RB: Does this come to you as a feeling? Or a phrase… perhaps a musical phrase?
DB: I guess initially as a feeling. Sometimes I latch onto something, whether a musical phrase or an image, that resonates in some way, and then that kind of becomes a linchpin, and I can kind of hang things on that.
RB: Where in your body do you feel your inspiration?
DB: I’m not sure exactly where, what part of my body, it doesn’t seem intellectual. I can intellectualize and rationalize about it later on. Sometimes years later. I can realize what I was actually doing, what I was actually getting at…. sometimes it’s embarrassingly simple, but sometimes it takes a long time to see it.
RB: One characteristic of your work is that your words are very simple but the ideas behind them go on endlessly it seems. Do you arrive at that quickly, or is it a process of elimination or...
DB: I guess like with anyone, the initial inspiration is pretty quick, and then sometimes then the crafting of it can take a while.
RB: In your song Once in a Lifetime, the words are very simple but deep, and echo in the mind, sort of an obsessive chanting… Did you impose that on the words or did that come together with the words?
DB: That came together fairly quickly, ….and the…. it was almost like I acted it out, or it was a kind of mild case of possession… where… I’d been listening to a lot of radio broadcasts and tapes of preachers… gospel preachers and baptist preachers, and TV and radio evangelists and whatnot, for the rhythm of their speech, which is very musical, and also their use of the language, that’s very repetitive and very rhythmic, it’s almost… it… by the way it breaks up the breaths and the rhythms, it almost encourages a kind of hyperventilation. So it almost by its nature puts the speaker into a kind of trance… Anyway, I found this all very close… very musical… very close to music, it kind of jumps back and forth on the borderline between speech and music, and I thought this was really interesting, so I started imitating it, imitating the kind of words that they would use, the speech patterns, and then I would just scribble them down as fast as I could. I may have had a little tape recorder or something. I was either scribbling them down as fast as I could or just rambling into a tape recorder then I’d edit it later. And then the chorus bits… the melodic bits, the “underwater” stuff was completely separate, and then I’d paste it together later.
RB: Acoustically you mean…?
DB: No, just kind of, conceptually paste it. Musically, I already had a structure. I already knew what the structure was going to be musically, and I was trying to fit words into that… I often find in a song that one section, if it’s an obvious section like a verse or a chorus, that one section should comment on the other in a way… or should… often… jump from first person to third person or… take a completely different perspective on the same thing in a way… so that in the course of the song, you’re constantly shifting perspective, jumping from one perspective to another.
RB: Do you know your source of that idea?
DB: It just seems to be almost a trick or a device that I learned.
RB: It’s like the jump from subject to commentary in the Greek chorus tradition…
DB: Yeah, yeah. I wasn’t aware of that, but I didn’t think it was a new idea. …………………………………
RB: For many poets and writers, the feeling is that language is undergoing tremendous change in the technological culture. What’s your take on that?
DB: To me, it seems… well, kind of like the Marshal McCluhan thing, that people are becoming more oral. Becoming more of an oral culture. Not that it hasnÕt taken anything away from the words, but the sound and the rhythm of words… become more important.
RB: It’s said that because of TV and computers, for example, kids today are losing the ability to write, the ability to express ideas in words. Are you trying to counter that at all by using poetry as effectively as you do in your songs? Is that a motive?
DB: To me, it’s a little different. To me, when it’s oral, when it’s in a song, or spoken, it doesn’t really counter that tendency, because it’s oral, because it may be a different kind of perception than being able to write and put together something that reads well, or that is well structured. Oral things that seem to have a completely different structure can be a lot more fragmented in some ways; and, as with the preachers, it’s a lot more about rhythm and how it sounds, with catch phrases, key phrases, buzz words, all that kind of stuff. It’s kind of pre-literate. Which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing… if people follow up on it, follow through on it, but I do see that there are… people who can’t write a letter, or whatever. It’s just a jumble.
RB: If the spirit of the word is lost, the value of spoken word is lost, or is eroded at all… you work with media, maybe more now than you did before, without words…
DB: But whatever meaning it is I think that… there’s kind of an analogy to words or a sentence or a paragraph or a page or whatever. There’s the sense that you can look at something or hear something on different levels. And that it’s not just a series of fragments, one after another in an order. There is a gestalt that orders these things together, and if you pull back further, there’s another order there; the things are arranged the way they are for some reason, it might not be a rational reason, but there is a reason. And that to me is analogous to words, and maybe that’s what’s crumbling. That sense of there being different gestalts or orders or whatever or structures.
RB: You mean the ability to see that?
DB: Yeah the ability to see that, or the ability to create it, that instead it’s just a series of images or a series of phrases or a series of sounds or whatever that don’t paint a larger picture.
RB: To get back to something you said earlier, that you do all these things that you do poetically without poetry. Could you elaborate on that?
DB: In every medium that I can lay my hands on, except poetry as a medium. But to me, itÕs all poetry.
RB: Could you say why you exclude poetry specifically? Is there a reason for that?
DB: No, not that I know of.
RB: Is there something of poetry in your future?
DB: I started… I’ve been working on a book that combines a lot of this photography that I’ve been doing, with a little bit of text. And some of the text is sort of journal entries that have been worked over a bit. And some I would say border on poems.
RB: Is that a conscious avoidance?
DB: No, no, not at all.
RB: Do you think somehow if you went into poetry it would change the rest? Is there a reason?
DB: No, not that I know of. To me, it…
RB: This is your poetry.
DB: Yeah… I don’t differentiate. A number of years ago, I was in Brazil and I did a TV documentary on an African religion there called Candomble. And when they would ask me, What’s it like? when I was working on it, and it wasn’t done yet, I’d say, Well, I’m doing it in a poetic style. And that seemed to satisfy.
RB: That was enough? They knew what that meant?
DB: They knew what that meant.
RB: Did this documentary involve words?
DB: A little bit, but not that much.
RB: So you were talking about music?
DB: Yeah, I was talking about music and image. Again, it was poetry but not really written poetry…. which seemed appropriate to the subject. It’s a religion where they’ll kind of venerate a stone or a tree or… it involves a lot of dance, and costume.
RB: Any litany?
DB: Yeah, there is, but it’s mainly…. the songs are sung in Yoruba most of the time, which is not a language that most of the people understand. There’re very few speakers of Yoruba in Brazil. So it’s like the church services in Latin. Presumably someone understands what they’re saying, but often, most of the participants don’t. So it’s a ritual language rather than a rational or daily language.
RB: How did doing it “poetically” aid you in portraying this religion?
DB: To me it meant I could make associations and jumps, kind of leaps, to make connections I felt but that…. weren’t always obvious. And I felt that if I had to come in with a voiceover, and explain it, that would destroy it. The ambiguity would’ve been lost. And it would’ve been nailed down to “this means this”.
RB: Then it wouldn’t be poetry.
DB: No, not anymore.
RB: Would you say that modern technology, television, computers etc. is having a positive effect? How do you view that from your multimedia perspective?
DB: To me, it’s… I’m not ready to generalize about how it’s affecting people’s perceptions. To me, it’s mainly a convenience. Television, or computers or fax machines or telephones…. They’re an incredible convenience. And in a way, that’s what a lot of contemporary culture seems to be about, making things more convenient. Sometimes, at the expense of something else, but… I hadn’t thought about this until recently, but then i just thought, “That’s what it’s about. It’s just about making things convenient.”
RB: A tool.
RB: I’m wondering about the extent to which the tool is beginning to manipulate the user.
DB: To me, the effect is of convenience; I don’t get wrapped up in it. I’ve gone into the Internet and all that sort of thing, and I can easily see that you could just while away hours exploring different pathways and seeing what’s there and in the end, it’s 4:00 in the morning or whatever, and you go, “what did I do?”
RB: What happened to my…
DB: Yeah, nothing. You end up feeling like you’ve gone somewhere but you haven’t gone anywhere. There’s a real convenience about retrieving information, using it like a library or research tool or as a communications tool. That’s great; but as a way to just while away the time or whatever, it’s terrible. It’s a waste. As to all the claims that it’s gonna bring people closer together and all that sort of thing, to me, that’s nonsense. It really comes down to what an individual wants, how open they are to whatever… how they use the tool, and not the tool itself.
RB: Could you tell how you got into the business you’re in, I mean from your younger days… what pointed you in all these directions?
DB: Sort of… I was in high school in the late 60’s, in suburban Baltimore. It was a period when a lot was coming in, and there was feeling of openness, to different kinds of music, different kinds of visual, arts, whatever. There was a kind of general feeling that it was okay to be open to things that were going on. This was in the late 60’s. I think that’s true now too for the younger generation, the people now in their 20’s I think….they might, oddly enough, feel that now. The same thing. And so I would draw, or paint, play guitar, experiment with sound collages or whatever, and primitive kinds of technical things I would do with tape recorders or whatever. All these kind of things. And so… I just continued from there. Almost like a number of parallel paths, and I never felt the need to make a hierarchy; I never felt that one was more important than another. I ended up going to an art college, mainly just because it seemed like there you had the opportunity to exercise your creativity without having to go through four or eight years of whatever else. And I continued during that time to make music, but with no ambitions of being professional about it.
RB: You said in one of your comments about your photographs that you were comfortable doing photography because you were shy. How did you ever get on stage?
DB: I started performing pretty early on, when I was in high school. Not really so much original material then, but I’d jump on stage and stuff. I think it was a way of compensating for shyness, that unconsciously, I could get on stage and be outrageous or do everything that I would never do offstage. And so the two people made one person. Which was great, but it meant that there were two different people always.
RB: I remember seeing you first in a music video for This ain’t no party this ain’t no disco, and you looked like you were a bank manager or something. And the contrast between those words and your image was poetry, a gestalt; was this a conscious endeavor on your part or…
DB: Some things were conscious, but I don’t know if I could say why… for instance I made at some point a conscious decision to attempt to dress in a way that was not outlandish. I didn’t really stick with it, but at some point I tried to blend in physically, dress sort of normally, in a way not to shock, not to outrage; with the reasoning that this way I can slip in what it is I’m saying or doing, and people won’t pre-judge it by how I look, by my appearance. They’ll be more likely to accept it, and some of the communication might actually get through instead of them already having made their minds up about what you represent, what you’re saying.
RB: So this a sort of poetic device? DB: In a way, yeah. I don’t think it actually worked, but…
RB: Oh, but it worked on me. And then the big white suit in Stop Making Sense. That was the opposite pole, of shocking with your appearance…. was that part of the same idea?
DB: At first it was. I had the idea here in Japan, when I realized that in Japanese theater, gestures are bigger, the voice is bigger, and everything is more stylized, so I thought, why not take just a normal, generic outfit and just make it bigger? And see if I can do it in a way that doesn’t alter it in any other way. It’s just as if you’ve taken a drawing and put a magnifying glass over part of it.
RB: So that idea came from traditional Japanese theater?DB: Partly, yeah. And the idea that in general, in theater, and it’s very obvious in Eastern theater, things are exaggerated. Pauses are exaggerated, gestures are exaggerated, it becomes very stylized and ritualistic. I realized that that’s what being on stage in some ways is about. It’s not about artificially creating something that’s naturalistic. As soon as you step up there you’ve entered a stylized world, an artificial space. And you may as well go with it. Other aspects of that, I didn’t realize at first. Like the fact that that costume makes the wearer look smaller. It has other implications as well, like the person is being swallowed up by their appearance, or their costume or whatever.
RB: The Suit makes the man….
DB: Yeah, that kind of thing. Of course, I didnÕt realize that at first. At first it was a real simple gesture.
RB: What do you predict will be the next big revolution in regard to media; where do you think it’s all going to go?
DB: In some ways, I think there’s gonna be a split, so that things that can’t be part of that system or captured, or expressed in various media will become more valuable. A good conversation will become something of value. A live performance… but not one that’s on film or anything like that… a real experience, in the here and now, that’s ephemeral, and that can never really be captured. So there’ll be two senses of reality, there’ll be one sense of reality… as a kind of information exchange. Data exchange. And there’s another sense that’s completely ephemeral, and I see that split widening. And along with that, I see recognition of that kind of ephemeral experience as being more valuable. I think that might be a return to, for want of a better word, kind of pagan religious traditions. They wouldn’t be called that here, but in the West that’s what they would be called.
RB: So you’re still surfing this whole phenomenon?
DB: Yeah, kind of.
RB: Where are you going with that at the moment that people aren’t anticipating? Are you surfing more on the virtual side or more on the more actual side, or mixing them together or…
DB: Maybe mixing things together a little bit. I don’t know. I guess I am. I just went to a photo lab where they use computers to manipulate images. IÕm not interested in computer-generated images, but this lab specializes in manipulating existing images. And I wanted to do some stuff, so I thought, “Let me talk to them and see what they do.” So, yeah. Maybe I use that stuff in a way, but to me, it’s just a tool. I mean, it’s just a convenience; you can do the same thing with a pencil and eraser sort of, you know, though it’d take a lot longer…. it’s just another tool that’s out there. A new kind of hammer or pliers or whatever.
RB: In the brochure for your photographic exhibition at Kiyomizu-dera, you speak of the photograph of the book as preventing the reader from seeing what’s inside the book…
DB: It’s kind of paradoxical but…
RB: Why do you want to present that paradox?
DB: I’m saying that books are becoming tactile objects. They’re becoming objects of veneration, or they’re tactile things. They’re not simply a source of information, that they’re kind of an experience. If you want just pure information, then go to your computer or get on the net, or somebody can send you a fax or a telegram.
RB: Is there somewhere in there the fear that books are going to disappear?
DB: No, I don’t think so. I think, in line with what I was saying previously, that the experience of reading, the holding of the book as object, opening it, handling it, looking at it… that part of the experience will be valued. I don’t know where that’ll go…….. people who read romance novels or whatever may not give a shit about that part of the experience. So they may as well get their literature off the computer or whatever. It may be all the same to them. For others, I think, and as for myself, I really like the whole physical experience. Anyway, though I can’t really tell because I’ve never wanted to do it, get a book on a disc. Sometimes I travel with a laptop or whatever. And I thought, maybe I should get one of these electronic books and just see what it’s like to try and read…. I guess every time you turn the page, you hit a little button….
RB: When I first read about the idea of an electronic book, I felt a frisson of fear that when I’m 70 years old, I won’t be able to get a book, a big hardback, paper-paged book of my favourite poets, or Greek plays…
DB: But it might be great, it might be great, it might mean that chemical texts, books on the law or whatever will all be just in the ether… ThatÕs a really positive thing, ’cause those things take up just tons of room. But as to no more books, somehow I kinda doubt it. I mean, there’s something about… just the… physical experience of… looking at the page… underlining words… and you have a sense of where you are but you have a sense of where you’ve been, and where you’re going. You have the physical thing of holding the corner of the page, when you’re just about to finish that page, or whatever.
RB: It’s really an intimate experience.
DB: I do know that often when I’m in the office if I’m working, if I’m writing one of these little essays, or things that I’ve done… or if I’m writing even a longish letter, I’ll tend to print it out, and then do the editing on paper. Not very ecological, but then I have a sense of the whole thing. Otherwise, you only have a sense of… I get a sense of the whole shape of it, you know, a beginning and a middle and an end, of how an idea develops and how it connects to the next thing instead of it just being… isolated chunks, that seem to have no connection to past present or future, they just kind of float there.
RB: Do you find any difference between writing with a keyboard and writing with a pen?
DB: Yeah; I print it out and work on it, especially if it’s prose. But when it starts to be song lyrics, I tend to work completely with a pen or a pencil. Because there’s so much editing.
RB: And it’s good to see the mess, see where you’ve been and what….
DB: It’s good to see the mess because you may wanna grab something that you wouldn’t see on the screen, or you may say, oh, actually now that you’ve changed this, I can go back to this one, and it’s still there, it just has a line through it or whatever. And you also get a sense of the… say when I work on a song lyric, I try to do it so that I can get the whole thing on one page. So I have a sense of the whole shape of it, you know, the beginning middle and end, and I see where it’s going and where it started and all that. So I’m constantly getting the larger picture. And so I can go in and tweak bits and scratch out and erase or add or whatever, but I’m constantly aware of how that fits into the whole, which you don’t get on a screen. But a lot of times if it’s prose, I can do it on screen. I’m not a fast typer, but… I can throw out a first draft of prose or something that way. And then edit it and kind of draw lines through or scratch out, whatever, on paper.
RB: Do you write lyrics with the song in mind? Or does the song come after the lyrics? Or both?
DB: Both. Sometimes one, sometimes the other. I don’t generally have… there’s a few, but I don’t generally have piles of lyrics waiting for music. I tend to work, if not simultaneously, almost simultaneously. Because of the nature of the thing. So that when I’m say working on words that I know are going to be for a song, not even a specific song, I have to have a sense of rhythm, or a meter. You know, like a poetic meter. I have to have that in mind so that I’m always tapping my foot as I write.
RB: Speaking in Tongues…. could you elaborate?
DB: That’s, again, the religious thing, coming out of a kind of a gospel and baptist tradition. Glossalalia. And I thought… in a kind of metaphorical way, that’s what I’m doing. And then I thought, let me take it further. So I attempted to write a whole record, although I didn’t succeed. Almost a whole record, where none of the words had any narrative. There was no narrative almost in any of the songs. There were no logical… at least to my mind, when I was working on it, there was no logical connection between one phrase and the next phrase. There would be an intuitive connection, a connection that felt right, sounded right, but there was no kind of narrative flow. To me, that felt like glossalalia. It was kind of utterences, that had a hidden logic or a hidden structure.
RB: What were you after?
DB: Well… maybe I was feeling in a way that having to write lyrics that had a narrative flow was really confining. And that it only, that again, it didnÕt have enough ambiguity. Didn’t fit. Again, it lent itself to saying, this is what this is about and that’s all that it’s about. And it leaves it kind of smaller. Then you end up with something that… Well, there are ways around it, I’ve since learned. There’re ways to have a kind of narrative and than just break it or add a little twist to it that throws it outside of that. But at the time maybe I was just feeling very trapped and trying to find just another way of working.
RB: Talking about the spontaneous flow,speaking in tongues, is there any other experience in your physical reality that you can liken that to? For example you’re making love, there are sounds, there are utterances that come forth…
DB: Yeah, that’s probably the experience that for most people comes closest to that kind of… if they’re not members of a Baptist church or whatever, where they go into trances or speak in tongues. For me, also I’m used to being on stage and that seems fairly similar. I would tend to twitch about, or gestures would come and I wouldn’t know where they came from or what they were about and I realize that they’re… I wasn’t getting possessed but that there was a gestural connection.
RB: Isn’t it possession?
DB: It is, of a sort, but to me it seems very mild. But it is connected. Both gesturally and phsychologically or physiologically or whatever, that you’re in some ways a different person, that you do things that you wouldn’t ordinarily do.
RB: It seems that we’re losing the sensual aspect to the word. And I see this in techno music, for example…
DB: I love that, that people go into trances but it’s all coming from machines. Isn’t that amazing?
RB: What do you think of that? All just… electronic beeps, with people jumping up and down; what is the depth of that?
DB: I don’t know. To me, the fact that it’s machine generated… in a lot of cultures, like in Latin America, and these religions like Candomble in Brazil, the trance is generated from drumming, which is also real repetitive; it’s not about virtuosity or solos or a text or anything else. It’s really just about this pounding repetition. But I think… to me it feels different, because it’s generated by a group of people, even though their playing is for the most part completely repetitive, for when they’re playing one part it’ll be fairly repetitive, but then what they’ll sometimes do is they’ll throw in… I guess they do this with techno music, too… they throw in an occasional surprise. An occasional thing that breaks it… and that’s often when people go into trance. They kind of sink in deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper, they kind of get lulled into this thing, and then when there’s the break or if the drummer just… they suddenly throw in some loud or harder beats or kind of shift it a little bit, people are kind of jolted, and that’s when something happens. So I can see the connection with the repetitiveness of techno music… but the fact that techno is “perfect,” whereas with the other one there’s a little bit of slippage, which seems more body-related, in some ways, even though it’s repetetive, there’s just… I’m aware that the beats aren’t perfect, that this one comes just a shade early and this one’s just a shade late, and that’s why it feels good. And as with these religious ceremonies, it’s not about any message, or the virtuosity or the ego or anything, of the performers. The performers are completely anonymous… of course somebody may know, okay these drummers are really good, but for the participants, they couldn’t care less who the drummers are, as long as they do their job; they don’t care who’s doing it; personality and ego don’t come into it. It’s not about a solo; it’s about performing a kind of function.
RB: What does the muse ask in return for your inspirations? How do you honor that obligation in your creations?
DB: A couple of different ways, I guess. I try to be true to whatever the inspiration is; sometimes I succeed, and sometimes fail, because I always have to then go through a kind of crafting process. You have this glossalalia that comes forth, and then you have to shape it into something, clean it up in some ways. So you try to honor it, and not betray it. In the same way, maybe naively, one assumes that this is some kind of divine gift, and that therefore it shouldn’t be sold, or betrayed in that way. There are certainly commercial aspects to it, but in some ways it’s beyond or above them.
– Kyoto, April, 1995
Copyright held by the author