Remain In Light: Interview with Jerry Harrison (part 1)

The following interview was conducted via telephone on 21st February 2019 as part of an ongoing series I’ve been doing with recording artists whose work has had a considerable impact on the ways people make popular music today. The transcript shown here is the first half only and concerns the seminal album Remain In Light by Talking Heads. As well as playing a core role as co-performer, co-writer, and co-arranger of the album, Jerry was responsible for putting together the 9-piece live band (in a mere 3 hours!) which included Parliament Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell, Dolette McDonald, Busta Jones, Adrian Belew, and Steve Scales. In the second half of the interview [not featured here] we discussed the heyday of CBGBs, the various bands involved there, and the influence of visionary figures such as Hilly Crystal, Seymour Stein, and Danny Fields who made the 1970s New York punk rock scene possible.

There are many hilights in Jerry Harrison’s long and illustrious music career. Not only is he famous for his work with Talking Heads, but he was present at the birth of punk as a member of The Modern Lovers with Jonathan Richman, David Robinson (later of The Cars), and Ernie Brooks. The Modern Lover’s debut album was recorded in 1972, produced by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, and features what is possibly my very favourite all-time record, the visceral-yet-reflective ‘Roadrunner’ (later covered by The Sex Pistols). The album wasn’t released until 1976, years after that classic incarnation of the band had broken up, but also features the track ‘Pablo Picasso [was never called an asshole],’ later re-recorded by David Bowie. As well as scoring a solo top ten hit in the US, Australia and New Zealand with his own backing band Casual Gods [‘Rev it Up’], and releasing three acclaimed solo records, Jerry has made quite a name for himself as a record producer [Foo Fighters, No Doubt, Live, Crash Test Dummies, Fine Young Cannibals and many more]. More recently, he has turned his hand to film production [10 Days Out: Blues from the Backroads and Take Me to the River]. Over the years, Jerry has also been involved in a quite a number of groundbreaking music technology and philantropic ventures. He holds a B.A. from Harvard College, has studied at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and has an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from Rhode Island School of Design.

Remain In Light saw Talking heads rely upon instinct and spontaneity in order to playfully recapture the innocence of first making music together. No songs were written prior to the album’s recording. Instead, the material emerged from a combination of group improvisation captured on tape, with short sections selected, looped, and followed by layers of overdubs recorded at later sessions. The songs were then arranged by cueing and muting the overdubs in a style similar to that used in modern DJing. While the initial backing track sessions were effortless and convivial, attempts to finish the album proved problematic. It is nonetheless an album that has gone on to influence the influencers – artists such as Peter Gabriel and Radiohead.

Marshall Heiser: Hello Jerry.

Jerry Harrison: Yes, Hi.

MH: Thank you very much for agreeing to talk today.

Harrison: No problem.

MH: With Remain In Light, Talking Heads started with a blank canvas in two ways: You started out without any material written prior to the sessions and you were using a new creative process also. What motivated such a risky approach at that time in your career?

Harrison: Well, on Fear of Music we had decided to record the album where we rehearsed, because we felt that we were comfortable there and it would have a different sound than going into a normal recording studio. So we often thought that by changing the surroundings or changing the process it would force us to do new things. So Remain In Light was a continuation of that, but I would say that more specifically that by Remain In Light we had also noticed there was something that happened sometimes the first time you ever played a song. It had a delicacy or a tentativeness that we liked, and the more familiar with it you were that it took on maybe more self-confidence. Of course, for some songs it just got better and better and better. But there was also a delicacy to capturing something in the moment it was created. So, that was the concept of Remain In Light. And, I think that we all had been listening to ‘I Zimbra’ which we had recorded on Fear of Music and almost didn’t make the album, because we didn’t have any lyrics for it. We were all on our way to Australia and New Zealand for a tour. We were going to go from there, from Perth to Europe, have a couple of weeks off and play at, I think, Pinkpop [Festival] or something like that. I remember, we were in the recording studio, basically listening to the whole album and I said, ‘Could we just listen to that track that we never quite finished?’ and we put it on. It was like, ‘This has got to go on the record!’ So, David and I rearranged our travel and came back from Perth on a 30-hour flight to New York and, in the meantime, Brian came up with that Dadaist poem by Hugo Ball, which became the lyrics. We recognised that pushing ourselves, we’ll say, in a more African direction was something that we were all really excited about. So that was also an underlying sort of template for where we wanted to go.

MH: Can risk taking be beneficial to [popular music] creative practice do you think? And, if so, when? And, when isn’t it useful?

Harrison: Well, I definitely think it can be very useful. And I would say that the most common time that it’s useful is [when] people fall into ruts all the time and their music begins to sound similar, or the same, or uninspired. And I think that the process of people trying to recreate whatever their last hit record was is deleterious to the process of experimentation. I think when bands made one album every year or more, I mean, if we think about Talking Heads, we made an album and toured the world every year from 1977 until really after Remain In Light when we all made a solo record [laughs] and then we did Speaking In Tongues. You know, we were pretty busy. But I think that people trying to eek out every last sale out of their albums. It’s taking two or three years because they go around the world and have to build that much momentum for the album. The record companies want you to try and duplicate those sales of ten or so million records, and, of course, when you have record sales like that, or course, it’s very exciting and you do want to do it. But I think, the time between records then, you are chasing your tail a little bit. If you look back to something like The Rolling Stones, or The Beatles, or The Who, not to mention, the Talking Heads, you wouldn’t want have wanted The Beatles to remake Rubber Soul like four times in a row. That was a great experiment, but you were looking forward to where they went. And I think that the fan base wanted something new and you could go someplace. The Who went to The Who Sell Out and then they went to Live at Leeds and then they went to Tommy [sic]. Look at these great changes in direction and that’s what people expected. And they were disappointed if there was not change. And that didn’t mean that one record didn’t come back and you’d say ‘Well, that one’s really my favourite.’ And then, people’d revisit old territory as they got to be a more mature band. But there was a desire and a need and an expectation of experimentation. And I think that when people started to try and duplicate albums of ten or eleven million sales they became conservative. And that conservative impulse actually made their creative output really less interesting. We were fortunate at a time when people were making records on a regular basis and people wanted us to change. And then, for Remain In Light we used this sort of method, by using the [mixing] board as the way that we switched between parts, of theses layered parts, we kind of used the board as a compositional tool. And…we would add this part to this part of the song or this part to the other part of the song. It did create a very challenging thing for David in particular, because, of course, none of the lyrics had been written. Since it was such a modal record, there was often not that many chord changes and that lack of chard changes created a challenge in creating interesting vocal melodies. When we did a similar process on Speaking In Tongues we made sure to build in chord changes so that there would be the variety of places to go with your voice to create much more interesting melodies.

MH: There were two blocks of sessions for Remain In Light, the first being at Compass Point Studios in Nassau and then Sigma Sound in New York. You’ve said previously that the first sessions flowed really easily, whereas the second sessions were ‘nightmarishly hard.’ Was that because of the things you’ve just mentioned, or were there other factors that made it very difficult?

Harrison: Well, we were doing the lyrics at that part of the recording, so, yes, there was that. But, I also think that there was a momentum in the Bahamas, and had we just kept going, we may have had a much easier time. And, by taking three weeks off and coming back to New York, there was a very hot summer, and it was such a different atmosphere that when we started to get into it maybe we were just in a different mood. So I personally think that it was quite a mistake for us to stop. I mean, I’m very proud of the record. Maybe it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good. I could be totally wrong. It could be just the opposite. But, it felt to me like we got kind of stuck. And what happened then was that one of the ways that David became more involved with the songs was we started to layer new guitar parts and sometimes bass parts and various other musical parts as an easier way of having it be fresh in our mind. And this created some issues because Chris and Tina were not sitting around the studio as much as, say, David and I were. And so they were not as understanding of the difficulty of the process of writing the lyrics. So then, they started to feel frustrated, ‘cos suddenly parts that they really loved would seem to be no longer very active in the song, or gone altogether. And there was also such an ‘All for one and one for all’ feeling in the Bahamas. When you’re at Compass Point, you might go swimming, but there’s basically, you sort of go to the studio and that’s it. Whereas, in New York we all had our own places where we lived and you have the distractions of everyday life, your girlfriend or whatever else is in your life that you need to deal with. That being said, the album came out amazing. So we kind of got the momentum going, and also, by being in New York, I saw that Adrian Belew was playing at the Mudd Club and went down and talked to him and got him to come up and play those amazing solos he plays on the record, and I brought in Nona Hendryx. Had we stayed in the Bahamas, those two things wouldn’t have happened. And so, I think that that was essential. It had gotten into being such a hurry, it was really funny, and I remember Eno going, ‘Oh I don’t want anyone else to sing on it, I’ll just sing the background parts. Everybody else sings out of tune.’ And I went, ‘You’ll be so happy to have Nona. I know you’ll really love it.’ And he was very excited by it. Her would sing with her at times. You know, they hit it off. And she, of course, had a great deal of experience having been in Labelle. She knew how to come up with really good background parts, and fit in, and is just such a polished and wonderful singer.

MH: It’s interesting because, as a listener, those two textures – Nona Hendryx’s voice and Adrian Belew’s guitar – are such quintessential aspects of the album.

Harrison: Absolutely.

MH: You said it was ‘nightmarishly hard’ in New York. Is that perhaps a bit of an overstatement or was it really ‘pressure cooker’ stressful?

Harrison: Well, there was a deadline to get it done, ‘cos we had decided to do these shows. And that was actually quite amazing because David and I sat down and said, ‘Well, how many people do we need to perform these songs?’ And we kind of came up with this list which included a second bass player, another keyboard player, another guitar player, background singers, percussion. And I went out and I was able to hire Adrian and Bernie Worrell, and I had been doing a record with Buster Jones and Dollete McDonald. So, I came back in the afternoon, I said, ‘We have the most amazing band!’ and it was all done in like three hours, except for the percussionist. Then Bernie recommended Steve Scales. But then David went off to California and mixed a few songs with Dave Jerden and I stayed with Eno, and John Potoker at Sigma Sound was the engineer, and I started rehearsals in Long Island City with this big band because we did these two shows, one in Central Park, but the first one up at the Heatwave festival in Toronto where we unveiled the idea of the big band. So we basically had these two sort of much higher paying shows than we normally had. So we did it as an experiment. And then, it was just so much fun and so wonderful that we knew that we had to continue with that and then we found a way to…I think only time we ever borrowed any money from Warner Brothers was to pay for that touring band in the very beginning.

MH: Looking at video footage of the live shows, particularly there’s one in Rome that’s on the Internet, songs like ‘The Great Curve,’ there seems to be jubilation, almost ecstasy, coming from both the band and the audience. Was that how it felt at the time?

Harrison: It was. It was just amazing. No-one had ever seen…it became quite common, The Police and many, many other bands, even The Rolling Stones, people started copying us and having background singers and always having percussion. People just started to realise how it could enhance even a kind of traditional rock band. But we were the first ones to totally integrate it into our sound. One of the other things about that tour was that we lined up on stage in a line in the same way that King Sunny Adé did, which meant that there were times when the left side of the stage and the right side of the stage almost were going off in their own directions. Especially, because we had interlocking bass players, you know, so if you were on one side you’d hear Tina and if you were on the other side you’d hear Buster more. And so, there were some very sort of abstract things that started happening as well. But it was so much fun! And that was a just great band. And I think that that Rome show is really terrific.

MH: So, you went from a situation where there was a lot of pressure and then to a situation where you must have felt a real sense of success. Was it almost like going through a dark tunnel and [laughs] coming out at the light at the end?

Harrison: I don’t know if I’d put it quite that way. One of the things that I say was so difficult in New York is, don’t forget, it seemed so difficult because it was in contrast to what just seemed to just flow naturally in the Bahamas. So it’s as if you were swimming with the river behind you and suddenly you came around a turn and the river was facing you. And it was just that contrast as much as anything that I wanted to reflect. I think, one of the things for myself as a member, there was a little bit of a mixed feeling when I put the whole band together because I knew that, to a degree, it would change the focus of the audience’s attention. When we were a four piece, we always toured with all the lights on onstage, all white lights. So people could always see what all four members of the band were doing at all times. And, as is often the case, people have a favourite member of the band. And, of course, people focus on the singing. But when the band got larger, you might say that I knew my role would seem less clear, but I took a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction in that I had actually put this whole band together. And we also, at times, would give the musicians who had joined us some of the more interesting parts to play – even though we had played them on the record – because we wanted them excited and involved.

MH: You booked Sigma Sound because you’d previously produced some sessions for Nona Hendryx there. Did you choose that studio because of the famous Philly sound? Where you hoping that the studio itself might influence the sound of the recordings or maybe even the musician’s performances, because of the studios’ heritage?

Harrison: No, it was mainly that I was doing the negotiations between a few studios and I was able to convince Sigma Sound that they never got any rock acts, and that we could be a loss-leader for them so that they could expand their clientele [both laugh]. So, I negotiated just an unbelievably great rate.

MH: I’m glad you’ve cleared that up, that’s great! [both laugh]. Before Remain In Light, Talking Heads was already a band that questioned so many of the ‘givens’ of what a song or what a band could be. Regarding that process, I suppose it’s a reductive process, you rule out all the things that you don’t want to be at the start…

Harrison: Yes.

MH: …So, how does it feel when you’re filling in the blanks?

Harrison: Well, I think that one of the biggest things was that we knew we didn’t want to be blues-based. So certain things were sort of off-limits. That was the main thing. I think that one of the things was that coming from painting we all realised that interesting paintings definitely come from restricting the mediums with which you’re allowed to work. So, I think that we applied that to music. And, I think that another thing that was very clear from the similarity with music is that in painting at that time period there were a lot of painters who would do things with super-high and very jarring changes between parts of the canvas. I think that we did that with music. If you look at something like ‘Artists Only’ the connections between the sections of the song are dramatically different. So that influenced us. Actually, when I joined the band I feel that I helped make those connections a little bit more graceful. But it was a debate that I had with myself to say, ‘Is this an improvement for me to make that happen or am I spoiling something that’s so jagged and weird that maybe it should be like that?’

MH: Prior to joining Talking Heads, did your experience as a musician in various other bands, in particular Jonathan Richman [and The Modern Lovers], hold you in good stead to act as a kind of mentor of sorts in some ways.

Harrison: Yes. I would say in particular, The Modern Lovers took forever to find a manager and, in the end, it really hurt our chances of success by how slow we were and the process we used. So I would say that one of the important things I did with the Talking Heads was that I basically just said, ‘We can’t just leave this. Even though we’re really organised people, so therefore we could probably keep doing this ourselves for a long time, it’s a mistake. We have to make a decision.’ And, I think that that was really essential, because everyone in Talking Heads, we functioned as a very good business. It’s a kind of a funny thing, but my friend Ernie Brooks who was in The Modern Lovers, he just has a tendency to be late and I had learned over a long period of time to just expect him to be late and often then would judge when I would get to something. You know, he’ll probably be an hour late, so I’ll make sure I’m there 45 minutes ahead of time, right? When I joined Talking Heads, I learnt very quickly that we operated on time and they expected everyone to be on time, if not early. I think the first that I did was go out and buy a watch [laughs]! And I made them rehearse. We really got a lot done in our rehearsals. So we could also handle our business that way but I knew that at a certain point, once we stopped being in New York, being out on the road and being places where it wasn’t so easy to try and do all these functions ourselves, that we would get in trouble. I also knew that there were things that a professional manager could do with a record company that we needed to do. I think that, as much as anything. I mean, I certainly did come and make suggestions about the music that were very helpful, because it was fresh thinking. I think one of the reasons that it worked out so well when I joined the band was that I definitely made sure that what I was doing was enhancing what everybody else was doing. I was never really trying to show off. And I also was making sure that all the other parts still really were clear and came through. I think that a few of the other people who tried to join the band wanted to show what amazing keyboard players they were and that ended up being harmful to them, because, you know, ‘That’s not what I want!’

MH: So it seems that you had a good grasp of what made the band what it was and you wanted to preserve that.

Harrison: Exactly. For instance, I probably had the most influence on the song writing on Fear of Music because all of the songs on the first record had already been written by the time I joined the band and many of the songs that were on More Songs About Buildings and Food had been written. And so, I think ‘Found A Job’ was probably one that I helped on but when we got to Fear of Music it was actually the only time that David and I worked outside of being altogether on some writing. And then, when we got to Remain In Light, because we’d created this group process, well, the music was the group creation. Which was sort of disappointing because I also enjoyed what I had done on Fear of Music with David. I thought that we lost that opportunity to do that together.

MH: That’s not reflected in the credits on the album [Fear of Music]. There’s not a suggestion that you were collaborating so you must have been very frustrated, I’d imagine.

Harrison: No. I think I’m listed on…a number of songs

MH: Oh? Fantastic!

MH: Remain In Light necessitated a metamorphosis of the band. It was almost like the band became another band, but it also represented a metamorphosis of popular music in general, in the wake of that album. Is that too big a claim to make?

Harrison: No, I think that’s exactly right. I think it was a really groundbreaking record and, as I said, you can look at a lot of bands who then ended up expanding their sound to include background singers or percussion or various other things. Often they seemed more like an addition, rather than actually inherent to the sound. As well as, you know, this introduction of the influences of African music, we were certainly amongst the first to do that. I think it was also very important that on Remain In Light, though we were influenced, it’s still us playing [those influences].  It wasn’t like we hired a bunch of people from another country and they played the parts the way they always did. It went though the filter of our ability to try and play with that feel. It may have been less precise, but it also made it ‘us.’

MH: Do you feel that perhaps Remain In Light has had an influence on the way people make records today, with Digital Audio Workstations, samplers, looping and whatnot.

Harrison: I think, yes, I think that maybe people started to understand that they could write starting with a groove and a feeling and then building from there. But I think that anytime that people did things by themselves they automatically were a little – although sometimes it was all planned out, I think that when Steve Winwood made a solo record, he’d already planned out what all the parts were, so to speak, and they were more traditional parts – but there’s just no way that if you’re sitting there and you’re hearing just this line or that line that you’re not going to be influenced by ‘Well, I’d like to try doing this.’ The other thing about that method of recording is that you’re trying to make every part seem really interesting. When you hear them all at once, all together, as long as they’re doing the job they need to do, that’s all it needs to do. This also can be dangerous, because you’ll end up making everything a little too complicated. So I think that it does affect the thought process of how you’re doing it. And, you have to be disciplined about it. You must throw some thing’s that you really love out, and you have to make decisions between ‘Is this going to be more dominant?’ or ‘Is this going to be more dominant?’

MH: So, there’s so many more decisions to make, since you’re not only a performer, but a writer, arranger, recordist…

Harrison: Right.

MH: …producer as well. Is that too much to expect from modern musicians?

Harrison: Oh, I don’t think that I’d go that far. I do think that there’s an awful lot of people [who do] one hour of recording and five hours of editing, and I think that that’s not the best way to go. I think there’s became a loss of forcing yourself to play the thing the way you wanted it, rather than know that you can fix it or somebody else can fix it and make it fine. I think that that’s taken away from the musicianship of people, but also [you lose] the things that happen just when you’re forcing yourself to play the music.


(c) 2019 Marshall Heiser. All rights reserved.