As Turkuaz approaches an historic performance at Peach Festival, we have an exclusive interview with Jerry Harrison, Adrian Belew and David Brandwein by Ryan O’Malley
It’s a forty year friendship that has helped create some of the most innovative music of our time. They were pivotal parts of worldwide tours in the early 1980’s where the sound of the Talking Heads – the highly adventurous quartet from New York City at the forefront of the new wave scene – developed into an elaborate mix of experimental polyrhythms, world music, and psychedelic funk.
Prior to the legendary tours of 1980 and 1981, then-session guitarist Adrian Belew and the Talking Heads Jerry Harrison (keyboards, guitar) were instrumental in the recording of 1980’s ‘Remain In Light,’ the fourth release by the band, and a groundbreaking album considered by many to be the pinnacle of what they were capable of in the studio. It was an album that not only came to define the genius of the Talking Heads, but also marked a new formula to the way the band would approach songwriting and the process of recording an album.
It’s no surprise that 41 years later, ‘Remain In Light’ consistently finds itself near the top of any list of most influential albums, and is still considered ahead of its time. What is surprising, however, is that 2021 finds Belew and Harrison revisiting ‘Remain In Light’ in a live setting where the two legends will join forces with current funk and jam favorites Turkuaz for a series of festival appearances, beginning Saturday, July 3 at the Peach Music Festival in Scranton, Pa.
During a conference call to discuss the project and their appearance at Peach Fest, Harrison was a few minutes late having overslept, and the always quick-witted Belew couldn’t help but reference a Talking Heads live staple from 1979’s ‘Fear of Music’ when welcoming his friend to the call.
“I had a bit of insomnia last night, then I sort of overslept so sorry I’m a few minutes late,” Harrison said.
“Jerry, were you unable to sleep because you can’t remember the words to ‘I Zimbra’,” Belew shot back, eliciting laughter from Harrison and Turkuaz’s Dave Brandwein who was also part of the call.
“That’s exactly the reason why,” Harrison said, still laughing.
While the exchange shows the long-standing friendship of the two, it also made it clear that Belew and Harrison have been getting back into the music from that time period and are eager to get out on the road after the covid-19 pandemic sidelined last years’ plans. Prior to the upcoming dates, Turkuaz with Harrison and Belew had gotten together in February for a virtual streaming performance hosted by Bonnaroo where the outfit performed three Talking Heads songs and a new Turkuaz number, “Ophidiophobia.” Brandwein said getting 12 musicians together for a virtual session had some hurdles, but praised the way everyone handled them.
“Well, it was a virtual set that we did so we were able to do some prepping for it,” he said. “We’re all in different locations which was certainly an interesting way to make music. Over the course of the pandemic, we had to innovate constantly on ways to collaborate, and even recording projects and things like that. Yes, it was definitely a challenge, and it’s a challenge that we rose to. It was fun to do. Now, for any future pandemics, we are extremely prepared.”
The stream also marked the first time many people got to hear “Ophidiophobia,” a Turkuaz song which features both Harrison and Belew on the recording. It was the first time everyone collaborated on a studio number, and it felt like a logical choice to ask Harrison and Belew to add some parts to the song in order to bring it out on the road for the upcoming tour.
“We wanted a song that was harder to pronounce than our band name, and I think we achieved it,” Brandwein joked. “Before the pandemic, Turkuaz had gotten together in the studio to put down some basic grooves to write over for our next record. That was one of the favorites, and we felt like the vibe of that groove kind of fit in to the show that we were preparing for with the material from the ‘Remain In Light’ tour, which is really what we’re replicating here. So, it felt appropriate to release it, and Jerry and Adrian were nice enough to put down some tracks on it, and it came together really nicely. Again, we had to do it remotely, which was very interesting, but we did get used to that process. I’m not hoping to keep doing it that way in the future. I very much prefer all of us being in the same place. It was a unique experience, but now it’s going to be good actually standing next to each other and playing some music. That’s very exciting.”
“I don’t know; you might not like me in person,” Belew sarcastically added.
The recording of “Ophidiophobia” was similar to ‘Remain In Light’ in more ways than just the sound. Turkuaz cut the track by laying down grooves to write over; and in 1980, instead of following the normal pattern of writing music to David Byrne’s lyrics, the Talking Heads did an entire album the same way. It was a needed change to their recording process, as ‘Remain In Light’ marked a trying time for the outfit with bassist Tina Weymouth and her husband, drummer Chris Frantz contemplating their future with the group amid concerns over Byrne’s alleged control over the band. Things settled down and by the time they hit the studio, they had a new process – jam out on grooves to find what works best, and then write the lyrics with input from all four members.
“I think the process was absolutely required in order to have the album sound the way it did,” Harrison said. “We very deliberately – actually, for each of the first four records – sort of chose to do those records in slightly different ways, because we knew we would then get a different sound. For instance, for ‘Fear of Music’ we recorded where we rehearsed with the Record Plant Mobile truck which we had to do on Sundays. We got the truck for two Sundays because the traffic in Long Island was quieter at that time. We very much felt that we were affected by the place. Sometimes you just do this by what the studio did, but ‘Remain In Light’ was the most dramatic of those. We sort of deliberately did not write our songs ahead of time because we knew that there was something that happened when we either first played it in the studio, or first approached the song, and sometimes it sounded more innocent than any other time. Sometimes the songs became hardened, or of course sometimes improved, when you played it in shows and played it over and over again. But we wanted to catch that first sense of exploration.
‘Remain In Light’ was very much done sometimes one track at a time, or a couple people at a time, and not all four of us in the studio together. We also then, because of that, used the mixing board as a tool in song composition. Boards at that time had the ability to group tracks – really, there was like an A/B switch for different groups. So a great deal of ‘Remain In Light’ sort of has an ‘A part’ and a ‘B part;’ generally the verse and the chorus…one of the things that also happened because we were not listening to lyrics, is that we tried to make every part interesting on its own and the music interesting all the way through. Because you weren’t thinking that you were backing something up so much, but you were trying to make it really interesting on its own. That also put a great challenge to writing the lyrics and writing the top line melody. It made it harder for David because there were competing melodies all over the place.”
A prime example would be the most well-known song from ‘Remain In Light,’ the bass-heavy “Once In a Lifetime.” Famed producer Brian Eno, having previously worked with the band on ‘Fear of Music’ and 1978’s ‘More Songs About Buildings and Food,’ listened to the foundation of the songs rhythm and counted it in a different measure than the band did, thus changing the songs beat. He then encouraged the band to look at the beat in different ways which lead to the song having layers of different instrumentation that managed to still complement each other.
“Well I think one of the things that Brian might be considering was that there were groups of instruments that if you pushed one up, you moved the beat a half a beat on the song itself,” Harrison said. “Like the pulse was a half a beat different, or on the upbeat. So there is this sort of balance from the two different places for the meter to be heard. And that gives the song an uneasy balance. The other thing about the bass line in ‘Once In a Lifetime’ is – particularly on ‘Remain In Light’ – is the bass comes in on the upbeat. Usually, the bass hits on the first beat of the song, but on this one it’s half a beat late. So that exactly shows how it gives this kinship that goes through the whole song.”
Fresh off of a 1978 tour with Frank Zappa, Belew first worked with Eno during the recording of David Bowie’s experimental 1979 release, “Lodger.” The experience was memorable for Belew as he was never given music to read over, or even told what key to play in. It was a perfect display of Eno’s unorthodox collaborative and production skills, and made Belew realize that when he arrived for the ‘Remain In Light’ sessions, anything was possible.
“Well, I came into it not knowing what to expect at all, but knowing that since Brian was involved, anything could happen,” he said. “When we made the David Bowie record, it was unlike anything that I had witnessed before, because they put me in a room and wouldn’t let me hear the song beforehand and all I could hear was the drummer counting ‘1, 2, 3, 4.’ Then they said ‘you just play.’ And I said ‘well, play what? And in what key?’ They said ‘no, no, no. That’s not what we want. We want your accidental response.’ So I didn’t know what would happen. When I went in the morning that we started recording (‘Remain In Light’), a very similar thing happened like what happened with Bowie. I started going through my sounds, and I could see in the control room that the guys are kind of getting really excited and are kind of like ‘wow. Ok.’ So I thought this must be going very well. I remember someone – it had to be Jerry, David or Eno because they were the only three there during the recording session – said, ‘ok, this is what we want you to do. This is a track that has no vocals. We want you to go out there, put on your headphones, and stand around for a while, and when you think a guitar solo should appear, play one.’ And David would write the song around that, and ‘The Great Curve’ turned out to be that song. I remember that I liked the first solo so well, and they seemed to be jumping around, excited about it so I said ‘let me stand around here a couple of minutes, and I’ll put a second one in.’ Not the normal way of making a record. I don’t know how much of it is from whom. When you get those three guys together, anything can happen.”
“I think that, again, this was the spirit of the album – to capture the moment of sort of encountering the music,” Harrison added. “As Adrian said, we took the first take of his solo on ‘The Great Curve.’ It’s not like let’s work at this, or let’s do this. It’s like let’s capture that first reaction he had to what he was hearing.”
“Yes. Very much like the Eno thing with the David Bowie record where he said ‘we want to catch your accidental responses,’” Belew said. “At least with the Talking Heads I got to know what key it was in.”
“Yes, we cheated that way I guess,” Harrison joked, before Belew concluded “they untied one of my hands from behind my back.”
In the ensuing tours of 1980 and 1981, Belew – who would eventually go on to have a nearly 30 year career with progressive rock outfit King Crimson – was featured prominently as an eccentric lead guitarist and strong singer. The double-disc release of ‘The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads’ in 1982 featured a second disc of live recordings pulled from the 1980 and 1981 tours. The live release finds Belew deviating from his contributions to the album, and adding more of his personal style to songs like “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” “Houses In Motion,” and “Crosseyed and Painless.”
“I was set free by then, which was really wonderful that they would do that,” he explained. “I kind of felt that my job was not only to play solos where they were needed, but to be kind of a colorist to bring in things that we couldn’t replicate from the record. Now you have to understand, when we first got together, we only had two shows to do. We only had four days to even get that together; it was unbelievable that we pulled together that much music in four days. Then we flew up to Mosport, Canada and they put us in helicopters to bring us to the backstage area, and we looked down and there were 70,000 people, and we were all thinking ‘oh, wow.’ As far as I’m concerned, that’s really the only rehearsal that we did. So everything kind of stayed in that same realm where I felt like I was free to add things in places where something might have been there in the recording, but it wasn’t there now.”
Belew will have that same freedom when Turkuaz takes the stage at Peach Fest, because Brandwein is looking at the 1980 tour as the focal point for the upcoming shows. The tour was a major high-point for the band in terms of energy and musicianship. The ten-piece lineup brought with it new afro-pop rhythms and heavy percussion which created some of the most energetic shows of the Talking Heads’ career. Special emphasis will be placed on their legendary concert from Rome, Italy in 1980, simply titled ‘Concert In Rome.’
“Well, Jerry, Adrian and I all agreed early on that the tour that followed this record and the live versions really matched the energy that we (Turkuaz) try to put out at shows,” Brandwein said. “I think that what we were hoping to do with this tour – and one of the examples is the 1980 Rome show which Taylor (Shell, Turkuaz bassist) and I have been watching since before the inception of our band – is a pretty big blueprint for us. So we’re really excited to be able to approach this material in that way. I think we’re trying to look across all the different versions out there and put together a ‘best of’ or at least what makes the most sense for us in keeping with the vibe of seeing what happens in the way the album was recorded…so in terms of what to expect, and I think we’ve mentioned this before, check out the Rome show. Jerry and Adrian, you guys mentioned the show from the Capital Theater in New Jersey. So there’s a few from that tour that you can find online that are really high energy and really exciting. We’re definitely approaching it more that way than trying to replicate the album.”
When it comes to live performances, Harrison and Belew both agree with Brandwein’s view on ‘Concert In Rome’ and it showcasing the band at arguably its most energetic and upbeat period of their career.
“I’d like to say that actually the Rome show – it was not until after we started working on this that I found the YouTube links to these other shows – but, the Rome show was something that I was aware of, as was Adrian,” Harrison said. “Every time I go to Nashville, Adrian and I go out to dinner, and when he came out here and played locally we got together. We always remark about how we thought that that show in Rome really captured the sort of excitement and wonder of that band. And that it was distinctly different than ‘Stop Making Sense.’ We used to try sometimes to capture that energy and that feel. Really that Rome show was the blueprint for us to begin this project and begin to think who else could join us to kind of do that.”
“I always talk to Jerry about how in my touring around all the time, I noticed that people really need something uplifting and joyful,” Belew added. “That’s what they’re really wanting in these times that are a bit trying and overall hard times for some people. We talked about it several times and it was all based around what we need to do is kind of what we did in Rome in 1980. Because that typifies exactly how it was – the excitement and everyone goes away just so full of energy and happiness. I didn’t think there was anything that matched that, really, that I knew of.”
In keeping with the desire to keep the energy going, Turkuaz and Harrison and Belew are choosing more of the upbeat, danceable songs from the Talking Heads catalogue. While they admit ‘Remain In Light’ will be the centerpiece of the night, they will not be performing the entire album. Instead, they will incorporate Talking Heads material from all eras mixed in with songs from their respective separate careers.
“We’re interjecting some of the previous material and material after that period from the Talking Heads,” Belew said. “We’re trying to cover as much of the actual ‘Remain In Light’ material as we feel works together. Because all of it doesn’t have that, you know, happy and upbeat thing that we’re trying to do; but we are playing a lot of it. And the third thing we’re doing is, each of us are allowing one song from each of us – one from Turkuaz, one from Jerry, and one from King Crimson, the band I was in. We really are trying to pace it to be as close to the feel of the ‘Remain In Light’ shows as we can get it.”
“We really toyed with the idea of doing the album from start to finish,” Harrison admitted. “We thought that it would work pretty well with theater shows, but the bulk of where we’re playing is festivals. The last three songs on ‘Remain In Light’ I think are fantastic songs – I mean, I love the version of ‘Listening Wind’ that Peter Gabriel does – but it is not upbeat, exciting music. In Scranton, we’re playing in the evening, but at some of these other festivals we’re playing in the afternoon. A song like that, I think, would need the focus of lights and production and the idea of you sort of sitting down and listening to it as a concert. Whereas, if you’re in a festival, we wanted to keep the high energy going that the first side has. Again, basically Rome is the blueprint, so we’re doing most of the Talking Heads songs with the exception of two. We’ve taken out two of them, but we’re taking the ones that we think are the most exciting and will thrill the audience the most. We’re taking songs from our own careers that we think will fit this blueprint of upbeat and excitement and music that you can dance to.”
With ‘Remain In Light’ being in the limelight again, it’s hard to not ask Harrison and Belew about their thoughts on the album that many fans and critics refer to as the Talking Heads’ “magnum opus” some 41 years later.
“Well, I agree with that,” Harrison said. “I think that it’s totally changed the way people thought about music, in some fundamental way. So I think with the experimental process, we finally got it right. In the end it was a hard album to finish. There were so many different parts to it and layered there, and fortunately I think that we prevailed. I think that when we built the band, many other bands started copying us and having background singers. The Police followed us to do that, and many other rock bands. Up until that time, rock bands – and particularly new wave or punk bands – were usually a quartet and that was it. This was like, we’re not a revue, we’re just a big, massive band. It was very interesting when we would play with other people, it was like the onslaught of music that this band created was a daunting challenge for another band to follow.”
“I think that it’s truly one of a kind,” Belew surmised. “Whether it’s Talking Heads records or anyone’s records, it was so revolutionary that it truly stands the test of time as a great record on its own. Whether you think it’s the best one by Talking Heads or whatever. I mean, it just sounded like nothing else that had ever happened before, and still sounds fresh today which is what makes something timeless. I think the other thing that supported that is we went around the world and played that music live, and like Jerry said, when you saw a 10 or 11 piece band do that, it’s not something you’re going to forget because it really is a different experience. You can’t get that out of a four-piece band or anything really. I love the fact that the band was integrated, and we had all kinds of different people doing different things. I think the record grew on top of that as well; the legacy of the record.”
For Brandwein, the album and tour will always be important to him because it showed that a nine-piece outfit like Turkuaz can have a large band and still maintain musical freedom. He can see clear similarities between how ‘Remain In Light’ was recorded 41 years ago and how today’s music is recorded – a testament to how far ahead of its time the album really was.
“It’s a huge blueprint for us, especially in the days of starting our band,” he said. “It started with ‘Stop Making Sense’ for me and kind of worked backwards, which was interesting to go from the biggest thing back to the original of just four people playing the songs. It’s definitely been the blueprint for us; from the beginning we’ve always wanted to expand into these huge arrangements. We never even had a stripped down era, we always wanted to go for lots of people on stage, lots of freedom in terms of how many parts we could cover and what our arrangements could be like. This absolutely shaped what we do and how we want to do it. As far as albums go from that era, yes, this was completely unique. You can hear it because the guys were layering things one at a time rather than just putting down takes, and the songs being already written and played live. This was like constructing a track, in the way most songs are done now. You start off with someone laying down a drum groove and then you put a bass over that, and layer things then write over the beats that you already have made. This was definitely very far ahead of its time. We hear that looking back, and it’s an enormous inspiration to us.”
Towards the end of the conversation, Harrison was thinking more about the two shows the Talking Heads initially had to do in support of the record. He and Byrne knew the music couldn’t be delivered properly by just the four of them, so he went out in New York City and thanks to his friend Busta Jones – who played second bass on the tour – met Bernie Worrell and Dolette McDonald who would become integral parts of the touring band. It was a process that created an energy that guided the band through those first two shows and caused the crowd to reciprocate that energy back to the stage. That same approach is what Harrison is utilizing for the upcoming festival dates, and he expects it to be something that everyone will enjoy.
“Earlier, when Adrian was talking about rehearsals and getting ready for this,” he said. “So we (Talking Heads) got this offer to play the Heat Wave Festival that was in Mosport, Ontario and to play Central Park. We said ‘well, we’re making enough money from these two shows, because they’re big shows, so let’s do an experiment and see if we can actually play this music live.’ David and I quickly go ‘ok, we need another guitar player. We need another keyboard player and we need another bass player because of those interacting bass lines. We need a percussionist and we need singers.’ I had been in New York and I had went out in the middle of an afternoon – and I have to credit Busta Jones, the other bass player on the ‘Remain In Light’ tour –he and I had been sort of hanging around together, so I met Bernie Worrell and Dolette McDonald. I came back like two hours later and said ‘I have everybody except for the percussionist,’ which then we found through Bernie. Pink Floyd had this rehearsal space called Britannia Row in Long Island city and we went to do the rehearsals there.
We were under such a time crunch that David had gone to Los Angeles to mix some of the record with Dave Jerden and I stayed with Eno in New York and we mixed other songs, just because of time pressure. We needed to deliver the record, and we needed to get ready for this tour. I think I was even in the studio and I would go to the studio after rehearsals. When we began the rehearsals David was still in California, so I taught everybody the songs and what the parts were. A lot of people thought I was the leader of the band and then David showed up and was sort of like ‘where are we at? Ok, let’s finish this.’ It just showed how spontaneous but also how there was a feeling of ‘we got to go for it. Let’s do it; that sounds good. Let’s go on; let’s keep moving.’
It just had that energy and then it developed on stage…because there were two bass players setup in a line on stage, it was sometimes kind of hard to hear the other side of the stage. Sometimes in jamming, the two sides of the stage would only be loosely connected and almost going off and playing their own grooves. I wish we had a recording of every show and every rehearsal because it was really amazing. Charles Ives used to have two different bands playing the same piece of music but in different meters marching into the center of town so he could hear them interacting as they got closer and closer. I think for David, he was right in the middle. I was on the side with Bernie and Busta, and Adrian was on the other side with Tina and, I think, Steve (Scales, percussion). It was just an amazing experience playing it, and we’re just so excited to be approaching this music with that same attitude and I think the fans will love it.”
Turkuaz with Jerry Harrison and Adrian Belew ‘Remain In Light’
Saturday, July 3
Midnight until 2am
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