Talking Heads | Jerry Harrison
After a nine-year career with America's foremost contemporary rock band, Talking Heads' keyboard player Jerry Harrison reveals some of the playing secrets behind their success. Tim Goodyer takes notes.
During Talking Heads' decade of rock innovation, frontman David Byrne has been the focus of most media attention. But arguably, keyboardist Jerry Harrison has contributed more to developing the band's sound colour.
THE YEAR IS 1975. David Byrne, 23, is attending the Rhode Island School of Design on America's East Coast. There he meets Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, and between them they decide to form a band. Byrne takes up guitar and sings, Frantz sits behind the drum-kit, and Weymouth fills the vacant spot on bass guitar. They steal a name Talking Heads - from the American TV Guide.
Eleven years later, Talking Heads have carved out one of contemporary rock music's most startlingly consistent careers. Eight albums of scintillating, constantly innovative music have made their way into the homes of millions around the world, since the band played its first gig at New York's CBGB club, supporting the Ramones.
At the time of that performance, the group was strictly a three-piece. But after two years of gigging and formulating ideas, a fourth member, keyboardist Jerry Harrison, became involved.
"It was at a time when I'd gone off at a tangent in my music, and it took a while for other musicians to reach a place where they could appreciate what I was playing", the keyboard player recalls.
Harrison came to Talking Heads' attention following his involvement with Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.
"Ernie Brooks, a friend of mine from the Modern Lovers, ran into them in New York. They said they were looking for someone who played keyboards and he suggested me. They'd heard one of the Modern Lovers' albums so they called me up and I came down to Boston.
"It took me a while because I was pretty broke at the time. In the end I couldn't even bring a keyboard so I showed up with a borrowed guitar - which surprised them a little bit - but we got together and played and it really worked out right from the start.
"At that time I was at the end of Architecture School, so they had to wait a semester for me. During that time we reaffirmed that it was working by playing together every so often. But I feel very lucky that they were so patient with me, because anyone else could have come along and done the job just as well. I finally joined in January of 1977, about two months before we began making the Talking Heads '77 album."
The completed Talking Heads line-up saw the punk revolution arrive, and can quote as New York contemporaries Tom Verlaine's Television and the Ramones. They also shared the musical attitude of the punk movement itself, though that in itself was pre-empted by a number of forward-looking bands.
"I think the Modern Lovers were about the same thing that the punk and new wave scene was about: honesty in music and commitment to what you were saying, rather than playing technique. Because of all this there was a certain simplicity in means. It's hard to remember what it was like back then, but music had taken on a rather rococo flavour, a little like it has again with people falling into the music 'specialist' categories, like studio musicians who do certain things extremely well but often don't have that much to say."
Reading between the lines, it appears Harrison's pragmatism was the key to his acceptance in Talking Heads.
We had formulated certain principles about what we wanted Talking Heads to be. In the beginning those principles were based on what we could do. Every musician has limitations and we wanted to turn ours to our advantage and, as a result, we went off in a real left-field direction.
"Over the years I suppose people's tastes have acclimatised to our style, and our abilities have drawn us back into the mainstream. Certainly on this last album, we've played music we would never have played on Talking Heads '77. It's ridiculous to be unusual just to be unusual."
A SOBERING REVELATION from a band generally regarded as being anything from revolutionary to just plain weird. Eight albums on from Talking Heads '77, Harrison is promoting the band's latest, and in many ways strangest, recorded work. True Stories is the soundtrack to a film of the same name, conceived and directed by Byrne. But in contrast to the musical innovation of tracks like 'Psycho Killer' from '77 and 'I Zimbra' from 1978's More Songs About Buildings And Food, True Stories marks a return to more conventional, if varied, forms of songwriting.
"Because the songs were written for the characters in the movie, they were written in idioms", Harrison explains. "To try to make those idioms sound different would be missing the point. The other thing is that, no matter what we do, we've progressed to the point where we always sound like Talking Heads, so there's no longer that fear of doing things the same as other people. Somehow our personality will shine through in a plain song.
"A perfect example is 'Puzzling Evidence'; it has the feeling you used to have when you went to your favourite dance at high school. It would have been pointless to have interesting sampled sounds or synthesised sounds, because they wouldn't have conveyed that feeling at all."
True Stories - the movie - is a cinematic look at the oddities of American life, portrayed in a series of short stories set in Texas. The stories, while not actually true, are based on facts drawn from press cuttings, a process Byrne began during Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense tour.
Despite its critical standpoint, the film is currently meeting with widespread approval in the States on the strength of Byrne's humour.
"The movie is really interesting", comments Harrison. "Tina, Chris and I only appear in it within videos, though they will be seen outside the film. It's a movie that's quite charming - it offers a kind of idiosyncratic view on life. It'll be interesting to see how it moves people beyond just being a movie. There's no question that people who are into seeing movies in a different way will find it really fascinating and quirky."
But while True Stories - the album features the singing of Byrne, Harrison, Weymouth and Frantz, the film allows the characters to sing their own lines. Apart from Byrne, this effectively limits the involvement of Talking Heads to that of session musicians.
"I was involved when David was first coming up with ideas. I went out with him to Los Angeles to help select some writers, then we went down to Texas and looked at locations. But we made a group decision that it was going to be David's project. There was a great fear that being an actor directed by someone in your band could be humiliating, or in some way upset the normal balance that we have.
"It's like a fraternity or a secret society. I think we all make a great effort to be unanimous, but if someone really doesn't like something then we won't do it - and anyone in the band can exercise that right of veto.
"Little Creatures' and 'True Stories' are a return to melody; with 'Remain in Light' the rhythm was the essential feature of the music, but once you start concentrating on melody, rhythmic aspects become quieter.
"Understanding that made us a little more cautious about handling something like a movie. Movies, don't forget, are very expensive, and when you get into shooting, they can't afford to be run on a very democratic process; they have to be run by one authoritarian. That's OK unless you've been used to having give and take with someone.
"Also, as the script was written the roles started to emerge and we were constantly begging the question: 'What role can I have?' There was one I thought I could handle - the computer whiz - but the roles weren't written with any of us in mind. I think we shine quite a lot in the videos we're in anyway."
So there are videos as well as the movie...
"David has documented that movie in more ways than I could have imagined - there's a movie about the movie, there's the book about the movie, there's the record that goes with the movie. He's really covered every base."
BACK TO HISTORY. The 1979 release, Fear of Music, was Talking Heads' third album, and marked the beginning of two significant periods in the band's development.
The first of these was the involvement of Brian Eno as co-producer. Eno's influence extended to full production work on the following album, Remain In Light, and finally to a collaborative LP with Byrne entitled My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts in '81.
One of the results of this association was discontent within the band - Harrison, Weymouth and Frantz feeling threatened by the influence of an outsider.
So the band split up temporarily, Byrne scoring for Twyla Tharp's ballet The Catherine Wheel, Weymouth and Frantz forming the commercial Tom Tom Club (remember 'Wordy Rappinghood'?), and Harrison producing his own solo vinyl debut, The Red and the Black.
But before that, Fear of Music had borne the first evidence of a fascination with percussively based material that came to fruition on Remain In Light.
"Remain In Light was born with the song 'I Zimbra'. I remember how excited we were making that song. Originally it wasn't going to be on Fear of Music but I had a demo-tape at home and I just loved it. We were actually at the point of listening to the masters for Fear of Music in the studio and I said, 'can we just put that rough mix of 'I Zimbra' up?'. It was an instrumental at the time, and we ran it and it sounded so great that everyone said, 'God, we've got to finish this song'. We all went to Australia and Dave and I flew back to finish it off. It was that song that set the root of the next step.
"I think it depends what you focus on. Little Creatures and True Stories are a return to melody, which is great; David's singing is better than it's ever been. Once you start concentrating on melody, the rhythmic aspects become a little quieter. In the Remain In Light period, rhythm was the essential feature of the music. I think there are some great rhythms on the new tracks as well, but they're not mixed as far to the forefront."
The trial separation ended in 1982, in a grand tour recorded and released as the LP The Name of this Band is Talking Heads and immortalised on film by director Jonathan Demme.
The film and album are considered by the band to represent the end of an era, a statement that invites the question: "What do you do upon reaching the end of an era?"
"Begin a new one", says Harrison, without hesitating. "It's the great problem with all bands that have had successful songs. It's also a reason for us taking so long between tours. Unfortunately we didn't come over here with the Stop Making Sense tour so it's been even longer since Britain last saw us play live. But I certainly don't want to be in the position that Chuck Berry is in where, for 30 years, he's played songs that are classic songs that he wrote in the first five years of his career.
"So we're always looking for a way to have new with old. There's no way people are going to latch onto something new unless it becomes such a hit that it takes on the same importance. So far we've always been able to re-invest energy in old songs. We've played songs like 'Psycho Killer' in a multitude of different arrangements so it can still seem fresh.
"I don't have any problem with playing old songs because I love them all, but you can play them for too long. Sometimes I think we should do a tour of entirely new songs and announce that in advance, then you could do another tour for people that want to hear the old songs. Perhaps we'd play smaller places with a more intimate environment to which people that now love those old songs could come to love them.
"There's no question that the larger you become, the more you're working with the memory of the audience because they can't be involved closely in the performance. But, because of what they've heard before at home, they have a picture in their minds already, so you're just adding to that. That can be an advantage, but overcoming those expectations can present even more of a problem. Personally, I'd prefer to state that there'd be no old songs, only new ones.
"We're talking about another tour at the moment. David, I think, feels that we have to he entirely different from anything we've done before. It's only now that he's finished his movie that he's giving it any serious thought. Until we come up with what our plan is, we won't be able to set any dates."
ON THE SUBJECT of equipment, Harrison has gravitated through the use of sampling to the Emulator II.
"When the Emulator II first came out, E-mu were smart enough to invite a number of musicians to be the first user group. And in the States, there's a large user group that is pretty open to trading. You can buy samples, and it really appeals to me that there's a great experimental base out there.
"I do like sampling, but you tend to spend so much time collecting samples and thinking about it that you can lose your ability to remain objective about the sounds. What's starting to happen with sampling is what happened to the DX7, in that you're starting to be able to recognise sounds throughout other people's records, like the shakuhachi sound that the Emulator uses. I used it too with the Violent Femmes and then, suddenly, I was hearing it everywhere and that was a drag.
"I've sampled sounds off the DX7; generally I like it better but the touch-sensitivity is different. Just opening up the filter or making it louder isn't the same as what happens with the DX's touch-sensitivity."
"I recently bought the Optical Media CD ROM for the E-mu, but I haven't used it much yet because I'm waiting to get the hand-held CRM3 controller. Going through the original Macintosh interface is a bit slow. It's wonderful for the studio because everything's there: you haven't got to shuffle through disk after disk of samples."
For Harrison, though, digital sampling hasn't entirely replaced favourite analogue techniques.
"When I was looking for a synthesiser I was directed towards the Prophet 5, which was new then. I had my first Prophet 5 through England because I just couldn't get one in the United States. Now the trouble with the rev2 Prophet is that no-one makes a good MIDI retrofit."
Mention more modern synth gear to Harrison, and your words are met with a knowing smile. The problems of keeping abreast of developments without falling into the trap of "too much technology, too little creativity" are obviously familiar to him.
"I think what happens is that it takes so long to learn one instrument these days, it gets to be very hard to want to change. For instance, I can't imagine trying to recreate all my samples on another sampler. Although you can move samples using the Digidesign software, they're still not the performance things, all the balancing and setting up of how you want to access them from your keyboard.
"With the DX7 you have such a tendency to page through sounds 'til you find one that fits your needs. Generally I like to blend sounds together, like a couple of DX7 sounds along with a sample. That way it's different to anyone with the same DX7 sounds or sampled sounds - they're not going to automatically sound the same as you.
"Now I'm using a TX816 rack, but before I was using two DX7s. I got on with the programming all right for a while, but now I've got the Emulator I'm spending more time with that.
"I feel I've lost a little of my remembrance of the DX7. What I mainly do now is search for a sound and then change the envelopes a little bit - that gives you the most immediate change in sound. If you're trying to make a sound a little more dynamic you can have trouble with recording - the top becomes just too much. If you start making it less dynamic, you've got to start changing so many things just to remove some of the touch-sensitivity. If you simply lessen the sensitivity, the sound becomes duller because you're taking it from the top and not the bottom; that's such a pain.
"I've sampled a few of the sounds off the DX7; generally I like it better than just playing them on the DX7, but then the touch-sensitivity is different. Just opening up the filter or making it louder isn't the same as what happens with the DX7's touch-sensitivity.
"I've been working on another solo album for a few years. When I first started I only had a DX7 - it had only just come out and all the sounds were so new. Now you've heard them all. The sounds I began using were all cartridge sounds because I didn't know how to program, but some of the results are wonderful where I've mixed two sounds together.
"The trouble is, I didn't write down what I'd done. I try to write down the things I do but I'm not too good at it. What happens is you get excited and you start moving more quickly, and you hate to keep interrupting your process. So they're lost to me now."
IN KEEPING WITH the solo projects that first evolved during Talking Heads' period of recuperation, Harrison has a number of projects of his own currently underway. First there's Harrison the solo artist, with the new album just hinted upon.
"I used Alex Weir who played on Stop Making Sense, but he's the only musician that's contributed. They're all my songs, but there's been people that have contributed. It's closer to the Remain In Light Talking Heads than our latest album."
Then there's Harrison the producer...
"I was over here in October to see It's Immaterial, who I did a single called Driving Away From Home' with a while ago. But I asked for my name to be taken off it because they did a remix and took away the life of the drums.
They came out from England to Milwaukee, which must have been quite a shock for them on their first time in America because it's not the most glamorous place, but I had this little studio I worked in there. I was between a bunch of things but I fitted it in.
"I had a lot of real great musicians around there; I had a great real drummer and they made him sound like a drum machine. I think drum machines are great in their place, but I can't see why they wanted to do that. It's one of those songs that grabs you and you don't know why it's not the lyric exactly, there's just something kind of mysterious about it. It was an unfortunate situation because I never spoke to the band again, only the record company, so l didn't know who was doing what.
"We were joking about how successful it had been in England after I'd asked for my name to be taken off the other day, but it was a matter of principle more than anything else."
So is Jerry Harrison enjoying himself now?
"It's an exciting time because there seems to be a number of things to do, but the hardest thing is scheduling. People take on outside projects and, when they don't last the amount of time they were intended to, things overlap.
"It will be interesting to see what we next do as Talking Heads. I really don't know what it will be because the making of True Stories is like the end of another era. Talking Heads actually made two albums during that period. I think David's theme will be casting around a little bit looking for what comes next, and seeing whatever takes his attention.
"The rest of us will not have something as monumental as True Stories. For me I did the Violent Femmes album, the It's Immaterial single, a single for Fine Young Cannibals, and I've been working on my solo album. But I've been working on the solo album for as long as David's been working on the film. It was just about done right before the Talking Heads album came out; now I've stopped working on it but it shouldn't be released until sufficiently after the Talking Heads album, so we won't be competing with ourselves."
And so it is that with two distinct and contrasting eras behind them, Talking Heads face yet another crossroads. Will they continue working together as a unit?
"As long as we enjoy working together we'll continually return from doing these solo projects to make records", Harrison asserts.
"With Remain In Light I started to see this circuitous path that we had followed, and that the albums marked the directions of that path. To me it's continuous."
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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