Head Boy & Casual God
Talking Heads keyboard player Jerry Harrison talks to Nicholas Rowland about a forthcoming Heads LP and a solo project he calls The Casual Gods.
A melodic interlude over, rhythm comes once more to the fore in a new album from Talking Heads and another from their keyboard player, Jerry Harrison.
IT'S JUST OVER 12 months since Talking Heads' keyboardsman, Jerry Harrison, first peered from the pages of Music Technology, surrounded by the Heath Robinson decor of a very English hotel room. That rare visit was occasioned by the release of the band's ninth album, True Stories; just one of three vinyl spinoffs from the film of the same name, conceived, written and directed by singing Head, David Byrne.
One year later, Harrison faces me across another bizarre hotel room. This time, though, he's spoilt for choice of what to talk about. For along with a new Talking Heads record due in March, there's his own solo LP, Casual Gods, plus the production work he's done for two up-and-coming American bands, Semi-Twang and The Slash.
"Four projects, four albums", he announces with evident satisfaction.
Casual Gods, which should be in the record shops as you read this, is Harrison's second solo venture, following The Red and The Black released back in 1981. The new album is a collection of ten songs, written with a little help from friends Alex Weir (guitarist from the Speaking In Tongues and Stop Making Sense tour) and Ernie Brooks (bass-player with the Modern Lovers). It's taken almost four years to record, not as a result of some deliberate policy, but due to the constant interruptions of his other commitments.
"The trouble with being interrupted", Harrison comments, "is that if you can't finish something in a given time, you run out of energy. Then you have to regroup and get the excitement back before you can get going again.
"Also", he adds, "this studio in Milwaukee started doing all this new age music - sewer age I call it - and suddenly I couldn't get in there: it was constantly booked."
It's been well worth the wait. You may already have bent your ear to radio play of the debut single, the excellent 'Rev It Up', a driving rhythm and blues track, with big, big drums and the distinctive trademark of the Heads' clipped funk guitar. This says Harrison, is a taster for what he calls the "lighter" side of the album, the side which reflects his love for American roots music.
But that implies there's a darker, more serious side too, of which you'll catch a glimpse if you flip the vinyl and put the needle to the B-side. Meet 'Bobby', a nervous, staccato Harrison vocal weaving in and among a haunting, pulsing rhythm, which features sequenced marimba synth patches and the low rasp of a didgeridoo. This one needs a little more explaining. Harrison takes up the story:
"I must say, 'Bobby' is quite amazing. It gives me the creeps. It was inspired by the studio where I worked on the album. It's built in a house owned by a very good friend of mine, and the studio itself is built in the room that was once the bedroom of his younger brother who committed suicide. So there was always this quality of him looking over our shoulder. I wrote the song to expunge that feeling.
"It also addresses that issue of helplessness that you often feel when you're talking over the telephone and you just can't get through to someone or get them to understand what you're saying. I don't just mean dealing with people who are going through an emotional crisis, it can just be a girlfriend... If you've ever been in another country and you start to have a fight with your girlfriend it's like you want to exude something through the telephone which you can't. It's such an agent for misunderstanding when it comes to emotional things."
The disturbing atmosphere of 'Bobby' is attributable to the almost subliminal sounds of the didgeridoo. It's easy to see why John Tokes Potoker, the man responsible for the version which appears on both the 7" and 12" singles has christened it the "Aboriginal Mix".
"There are actually quite a lot of Australian sounds in that mix", says Harrison. "When I was in Australia I found this store which sold aboriginal art and didgeridoos. I was going to buy a didgeridoo until someone told me it takes years just to learn how to make the noise, so it was easier to buy the cassette and sample it instead."
As well as "borrowing" from the Antipodes, the album also sees Harrison taking inspiration from South and Central America, though he finds himself more interested in the sound of this indigenous music, rather than its rhythms or overall structures.
"Most of the South American music I know doesn't have the drive of African music - or even rock. Brazilian music has drive, but it's somehow too sophisticated. I tend to go for the melodic side or for instruments themselves which sound unique because they have these weird harmonics.
"But I've taken a lot of lyrical ideas from Central America, though the music itself is still based in rock. So the record company have been talking about the 'political content' of the record when really I'm using political lyrics to create the mood of Central America rather than trying to say this is a Sandinista solidarity song or this is a Contra this or that.
"I think that what's great about ethnic music is that its indigenous nature always makes it fresh. Because of those cultures' separateness from the rest of the world, they've gone off in certain directions which you would never think of because you're never as isolated as they are. The frightening thing about communication in the world today is that, as everything becomes more and more accessible, there becomes only one culture and, increasingly, diversity gets lost."
IT'S INTERESTING TO compare the direction that Harrison's solo album has taken with that pursued by the last two Talking Heads albums - both of which occupy the same period in his musical life. Clearly, Naked belongs more to the tradition of rhythmic and textural exploration drawing particularly on African influences, which began with 'I Zimbra' from Fear of Music (1979) and developed through Remain In Light (1980) and Speaking in Tongues (1983). Little Creatures and True Stories abandoned those ethnic influences and concentrated on melody and formal song structure. Does this mean that Naked represents the direction that Harrison would have preferred the Heads to take over the last four years?
"I'm happy that we made Little Creatures and True Stories then, but I wouldn't be happy to do another album like that. I still like them: there's something very heartfelt about them, but I've always wanted to get back to the more experimental approach.
"There was a song on True Stories called 'Papa Legba', which was a bit like 'Drugs' on Fear of Music. It's the kind of music we do just every once in a while, but to me it's unique. No-one else does it. I actually suggested doing a whole record that sounded like that, though we didn't do it.
"Once you've chosen a sampler and got to know it, unless you really want to be a keyboard technician rather than a musician, then stay with it."
"The new Talking Heads album is a little more free flowing, a little looser and broader in the sense of structure, than the last two. It's much, much closer to Remain In Light and, frankly, much closer to my album."
Naked has been on the production line since April '87, when the band came together for initial "improvisatory" rehearsals. Most of the recording has been done in Paris, with producer Steve Lillywhite at the helm, the first time that Talking Heads have used a producer since Brian Eno's involvement in Remain In Light. And, as any historian of the band will know, while that collaboration produced one of the most startling and innovative albums of the decade, it almost split the band. It's not surprising then, that eight years after its release, Harrison still talks passionately about just how difficult that album was to make.
"There have been a lot of conversations about Remain In Light, but let's say everyone felt very extended by the time it was finished. We had three weeks in the Bahamas, but then everything stopped and we had trouble getting going again. We just kept running into problems, like how we were going to turn these ideas into songs. It was the first time David had tried to write the lyrics after the music and he ended up literally tearing his hair out. It was the summer, very hot, and there was a lot of pressure to get it finished because we were about to go on tour.
"In fact while we were doing it I went out one afternoon and hired a band for the tour. I came back and said 'I've got a great band' and the others said 'Who's in it?', I said 'Adrian Belew', they said 'Wow!' 'And Bernie Worrell' and they said, 'No kidding? How did you do that?'. Then David went to LA with Dave Jerden and mixed three songs and I stayed with Eno and mixed four, just to get it done.
"At the end there was this great exhaustion and a great difficulty in assessing who exactly had done what."
The experience with Steve Lillywhite, however, has proved more relaxing.
"This is a different situation", comments Harrison, "more of a co-production. Because we've produced several of our own albums as well as other people's, everyone in the room is completely aware of how to make records, and could be the producer. Steve was there to take the pressure off, so instead of David and me listening to Tina going through the bass parts, we let Steve do it, and then we can come back and say, 'That's great, everything works... except for that one little bit.'"
The new album again saw the lyrics being written after the music. Had this proved as difficult as the first time?
"No, because we've all learnt the problems which can come from not having enough chord changes. You tend to find that the melodies end up sounding sort of flat, because although being in a key they can just go anywhere, they don't have that drama of chord changes. So we purposefully built lots of chords in so they didn't end up as strict jams with words layered on top. It just gives the possibility of more melodic interest."
As is usual, whenever Talking Heads go into the studio, everybody ends up by playing a little bit of everything. Hence, while Harrison gets credited for guitar as well as keyboards, Byrne and Weymouth end up with credits for keyboard playing too.
"That's the trouble. I always lose out in Talking Heads because everyone wants to play keyboards", moans Harrison, with a wry smile.
"On the other hand", he continues, "it's good, because I think inexperienced people often play the best parts. A keyboard player always thinks with keyboard technique, but someone else will come along with their one finger approach and play something which is terrific because it's concise and direct.
"Tina was playing piano on this track and doing something quite amazing - constantly changing the metre so it was twisting through the song - the only thing was that after we'd recorded it on one take, she couldn't quite get it anymore, so we had to search through all these tapes and find the one where this had happened, then find the place where it had really worked, then resolve how she actually did it. And when we'd done all that, I ended up playing the part for the final version."
ANOTHER NAME ON the list of credits is that of Wally Badarou, Synclavier programmer extraordinaire, and well known for his work with Level 42. It's not the first time the Heads have worked with Badarou: his name also appears on three of the tracks on Speaking in Tongues.
"One thing that's always worked well for us is bringing in other musicians who then add their own style and influences. Through Wally Badarou we met all kinds of people who came in and played for us, although the core of the music is us playing as a four-piece."
While Harrison may jokingly suggest that he sometimes can't get a look in, there's no doubt that over the years his keyboard playing and programming have become an inseparable part of the Talking Heads style, instantly recognisable whatever type of music. He attributes the evolution of his sparse, rhythmic playing to an early interest in guitar. In fact, even now, he remains happy to exchange the ivories for six strings and a plank of wood, if he feels that's how the song would benefit most.
"When I joined the band, it had already existed as a three-piece for some time, so much of the early material had already been written. It was really a case of fitting in by deciding what the song needed to continue the mood that was already there. A keyboard part wasn't always the best way to do it, so sometimes I played guitar. In any case, I hate this thing in bands where they feel that everybody has to play on every track.
"The frightening thing about communication is that, as everything becomes more accessible, there becomes only one culture."
"The keyboard has always been a funny instrument in rock 'n' roll anyway. For instance, just as many classically-trained musicians had a hard time playing jazz, so in the earlier days of rock 'n' roll keyboard playing I always thought that people with fabulous technique played too much and ruined the songs.
"As a player with a much simpler technique, I could go to the heart of the song and play it more like a guitar would play it. I was always into guitarists much more than keyboard players, except for people like Booker T and Mike Ratledge from Soft Machine, who was the first organ player who really excited me. Trouble is, I could never afford a Hammond, which I guess is why I re-invented the Farfisa sound.
"Now, though, I wish I had more training, because of all these new keyboards which allow you to exploit your technique. Now you can have different instruments assigned to different parts of the keyboard with touch sensitivity available for all of them, which means that people with fabulous technique really can do a hell of a lot."
The next few questions all concern equipment, but he's the one doing the asking. Had I seen the Prophet 3000? What did I think? What drum box was I using? Was the Alesis machine as good as he'd heard? Did I think the Yamaha DMP7 mixer coloured sound?
This role reversal aptly illustrates that, while Harrison is obviously aware of what new equipment is appearing on the market, he tends to stick to what he likes, knows and - above all - trusts.
"I'm not at all exhaustive about new technology. It seems to me that once you've chosen a sampler and got to know it, unless you really want to be a keyboard technician rather than a musician, then stay with it."
The sampler Harrison has chosen to stay with is the Emulator II with the Optical Media CD-ROM and CRM3 remote. (He also finds the Emulator's on-board sequencer incredibly easy to use, even though he does use Performer software on the Macintosh.) But he's not so struck on it that he isn't considering upgrading to the Mark III.
On the synthesiser side, he still remains very much committed to the old analogue models. So while the first takes of his solo album were laid down four years ago with a DX7, for the recent Talking Heads recording, he dug out his old Prophet t8, Sequential's touch-sensitive, MIDI-equipped successor to the Prophet 5.
"I like the fact that the pressure sensitivity is individual for each key. So if you want to have modulation on just one key, while holding a chord down, you can do it. I find that there's something extremely visceral about that.
"In general, it seems to me that analogue synthesisers are beginning to feel like organs used to feel. Whereas they were once at the height of the artificial, they now seem 'natural'. There's an organic quality to them which the new digital synths don't have.
"And because I've never developed an absolute method of getting from A to B on synthesisers, most of the sounds I like, I get by fooling around. So the DX7 is a difficult instrument to use in that respect. You change one parameter and the whole thing changes in an absolutely unbelievable way. Where I do use the DX7, it's more with the sampler. There, you've got something which sounds 'real', but by bringing in the artificial harmonics of the DX7, you can create something which stands on its own. And the nature of the sample means you don't end up sounding like all these new age records with their so-obviously synthesised sounds. Sometimes they're fantastic when they have lots of echo on them, a little dreamy perhaps, but otherwise they lack a little resonance.
"The main problem, though, is that I'm not so methodical about keeping track of what I do. When you're in a studio, all you're thinking about is 'I need a voice which sounds like such and such'. You get it, you play it, then it's gone."
Harrison is now looking forward to exchanging the pressures of the studio for those of the road. For, while Talking Heads have no plans to tour in the near future, British audiences will have the chance to see Harrison front his own band playing music from the album. The group also takes the name Casual Gods ... Time for an explanation.
"It was made up by this conceptual artist I met in Paris. When I heard it, I just thought it was very funny. It reminds me of those ancient Greek gods who could never quite be bothered about what was going on on Earth. Humans would look to them for help: 'Hey, we're having an earthquake down here'... 'Go away, don't bother me now'. I think it's a very adequate description of what's going on in the world today."
But while Harrison's striking out with his own band, it doesn't signal the end of Talking Heads, especially as during their last album they were more close-knit than they had been. Instead, expect a flow of group projects and individual albums for a good few years to come.
"I think everyone is getting to the stage where they like the variety. When Talking Heads started it was Talking Heads all the time. Everybody was living and breathing the same dream. Then you become set in your roles. The most interesting thing about doing your own music is that you put yourself in the position of doing the things you wouldn't normally do, like singing lead vocals. It's a real challenge and makes you think about things a little differently.
"There's just one thing. I hope my next album doesn't take as long as the last."
I, for one, couldn't agree more.
Interview by Nicholas Rowland
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