Blesok no. 27, July-August, 2002
Interview with David Byrne
"Working by Instinct"
NG: In 1988 you founded Luaka Bop, an independent record label, that promotes musicians from a region called Afropea. Could you tell me what Luaka Bop means as well as what Afropea is?
DB: Afropea is of course a virtual continent. It's physical location is Europe, but it's ethos and attitudes are Europe overlaid with African sensibilities. Not all of Europe is part of this continent, and some have been members longer than others – but all reap the benefits and are effected by the invisible continent.
The overlay of Jamaican over British culture is obvious, the combination of French and Belgium cultures with Congo, West African and Arabic cultures is pretty obvious too… Spain and North Africa have exchanged cultures for centuries… and as these hybrids proliferate their influence ripples out to the surrounding countries… sometimes leaping oceans and seas.
NG: To those who never heard of Luaka Bop and its releases, or who don't know the musicians from the regions that you are promoting or pointing at, what would you recommend as introductory listening?
DB: We release a samplers of our stuff from time to time– one of the recent ones was called Zero Accidents On The Job, a double CD set for the price of one– it should be available on-line. Other than that the website luakabop.com has downloadable files and streaming audio of many of the records. At present Susana Baca, the Peruvian singer and Los De Abajo, a hybrid ban from Mexico are out on tour… in Europe and North America
NG: What were some of your early goals as to what Luaka Bop should be and what it should not be?
DB: I had no goals at first– initially I was simply thrilled at the opportunity to put out compilations of my favorite tracks from Brazil, Cuba, India, Japan, etc… later, we began signing new artists, which was thrilling too – to be able to help an artist you admire make a new record is a wonderful feeling… but the business part is sometimes difficult and depressing… but we have survived so far… sometimes barely. My goal I suppose was to be home for music that I couldn't find elsewhere – and to share it with anyone who might be interested. Sometimes the public seemed to like my choices and those of others at Luaka, and other times people just thought they were strange.
NG: Does Luaka Bop have a musical philosophy as to what type of artists fit best within its framework?
DB: We tend to be attracted to artists working on the fringes– working on hybrid styles that don't fit already established genres – although sometimes they make a record that has a measure of commercial success. We don't set out to make commercial records, but have no problem if some of our records and artists become popular– if they can remain themselves at the same time.
That is another one of our policies – one I learned from Warner Brothers records in the old days, before the mergers – which is that the artists have the final say about their own records. If they want to make an unusual record they should be allowed to do so, but they should also be realistic about the amount of money to be make from those records. They might get lucky, and sell a lot of records, and we hope they do, but they should not presume this will happen.
NG: How do you balance the duties of running the label and being an artist yourself?
DB: In the past it has been easy. I spend mornings at the label when I'm in NY and keep in touch daily by Email when I'm on the road – lately though the business part has been harder due to changes in the music business.
I usually tend to see things from an artists point of view, not surprisingly, but I also subscribe to the old idea that the artist who doesn't pay attention to his or her business will soon enough not have any business. I help as I can – I suggest graphic ideas, designers, mixers, producers, approaches to touring, etc etc… all as suggestions to the artists – based on my own experience. The artists are free to make their own decisions of course, but I might offer them some insights.
NG: Are there any musicians that have turned your attention lately or that you would like to sign to Luaka?
DB: We are more or less full up at the moment, and are concentrating on some of the artists who have records out now or have just completed records. There are a few unusual compilations in the works as well. That doesn't mean there aren't many things I hear that I would love to be involved with.
NG: There are people here in Macedonia that have fond memories of Talking Heads playing live in what used to be known as Yugoslavia. How well are you acquainted with the music from this part of the world? (the Balkans)
DB: I am familiar with some of the traditional music – the Macedonian brass bands are famous for their unique structures, unusual time signatures and arrangements. I heard a number of bands in Zagreb some years ago – one was a kind of balkan tribal goth band that was pretty cool…of course I've seen Goran Bregovich's performances and those of Emir K's No Smoking band.
NG: Luaka promotes such names as Gilberto Gil, Tom Ze, etc. which are considered to be innovators in Brazilian music. Have you ever heard of a producer/musician called Suba? During the 90s he moved to Brazil from Yugoslavia and he was a major influence on the Brazilian scene especially the brasilectro movement. Unfortunately, he died in 1999, after trying to save the material he produced for Bebel Gilberto from fire.
DB: Yes, I am aware of what Suba was doing– his own record is wonderful as well as his Bebel production. (Bebel sang harmonies on my David Byrne record… we go back a long way). It was a great loss for Brazilian music that he died– and oddly enough it seemed it took and outsider, from Yugoslavia of all places, to set an example for other Brazilians as to what direction their own music might take. Sadly it often does take an outsider to see the larger picture.
NG: On the 18th of March, Talking Heads were inducted in the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame. What do you think, from this time distance, the band would have sounded like, if there had been a different turn of events?
DB: Well, it's hard to imagine what we'd sound like now. Our style was always to continually change and evolve and who knows where that might have taken us– it has taken me to some strange and interesting places. But judging by the records the others have made recently I think we might not have agreed on a common direction…
NG: Has there ever been an interview in which you were not asked questions about the Talking Heads?
DB: Yes. I sometimes talk about music, art, politics, anything really – there's a lot to talk about.
NG: On the Internet there was a huge essay written by a girl that analysed your song writing. As far as I am concerned every line has its own meaning, regardless of what the subject of the song is. Do you know what you are writing about when writing something?
DB: Sometimes I know exactly what I'm writing about – some songs have obvious subjects. Others however, reveal their true subjects later… and when they're being written I'm working mainly by instinct and intuition. I may not in these cases not even know exactly what a song is about… but sense when the words (and music) are right.
Some of these songs, the good ones, therefore don't make literal sense, but they do mean something– to me and to other people. And some even forecast what I'm feeling and thinking before I can articulate it.
NG: During the TH days you had a fruitful relationship with Brian Eno with whom you had one collaborative album and a few guest appearances on your first solo projects. What was the initial idea behind Bush of Ghosts and what is your opinion of it now, looking from this time distance.
DB: When we started that project we were 3 – Jon Hassell was going to be part of the project as well – and there was talk of making a record and presenting it as if it was a recording of music from a foreign or hidden culture. A fake ethnic record, more or less, by an imaginary culture.
It evolved into something very different than this… something that I heard has influences artists ranging from Public Enemy to Moby.
NG: Do you think something like that can happen again?
DB: It already has, many times over – many people have made records using these ideas– from Moby to DJ Food to maybe even Radiohead.
DB: I didn't know about Holger Czukay's record at the time– although while we were making the record someone mentioned it and I could see the similarities. Same with CAN– his former group – after we made Remain In Light (which was done AFTER Bush of Ghosts) someone mentioned that some of it reminded them of CAN, which led me to buy those records and I could see the similarities there as well.
NG: Is there a possibility for a future Eno/Byrne project? Even if there isn't what do you think that project would look or sound like?
DB: We haven't seen each other in quite a few years, but I have seen Brian recently a few times in London,, so who knows?
NG: What are your plans for the future? What other projects are you working on (not necessarily related to music and Luaka Bop)? When can we expect another David Byrne album?
DB: I have a number of projects in the works –
A Bulgarian edition of The New Sins, a fake religious book I did last year
A soundtrack in collaboration with some young Scottish musicians.
A recently released collaboration with DJs X-Press 2 called Lazy (a no.2 hit in UK!)
An art installation in Japan in August… And an interactive art show in LA in September.
After those I'll begin work on some new project… probably with songs… but who knows?