“The challenge is organizational,” says David Byrne, about his work providing music for soundtracks and dance scores. Of course, Byrne is most recognized for his work in Talking Heads, the seminal art-punk band that grew out of NYC’s late ’70s CBGB heyday. In the band’s latter days, it added to its legacy with a few unique movie achievements: Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads’ live concert film in ’85, and the quirky feature True Stories, in ’86.
Discussing his latest project, the soundtrack for the David Mackenzie film, Young Adam, starring Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton, Byrne laughs. “The director wants two hours of music, way more than he can possibly get or use. He wants it for no money, and he wants it tomorrow.”
Byrne won an Academy award for co-writing the score for The Last Emperor, the epic Bertolucci film, and has collaborated with choreographer Twyla Tharp, Brian Eno and Robert Wilson. Then, of course, there’s been a string of post-Heads solo outings, culminating in 2001’s unrecognized and vastly underrated Look Into the Eyeball.
Of the soundtrack process, Byrne says, “It becomes an issue of how much can I get done in a week, how many musicians can we afford, how much studio time will the budget buy us. You figure out what you have in hand and you make the most of it.”
Because not all of the music makes it into the movie, Byrne has released his own soundtrack album for Young Adam, Lead Us Not Into Temptation, on Thrill Jockey Records. The disc is a smorgasbord of subtle instrumental tracks, lush and stirring. He says, “I wanted to set a mysterious mood, but without a lot of electronic sounds. So most of the stuff on there are recordings of gates or trains.
“I don’t know if they make for the best listening,” Byrne goes on, “but I enjoyed the ones that were improvised, where there’s this real droning sound and not much happens. I thought that made a really cool mood and could be submerged really low in the mix. You couldn’t hear melody or anything like that, but it still had a presence that affected what you were seeing.
“In a way, the music is almost a contrast to the story. The story comes from a novel by a beat writer from Glasgow, and I didn’t even know there was such a thing. [Alexander Trocchi] was more in the vein of [Charles] Bukowski. It’s pretty grimy, low-down sex, that kind of stuff. I thought that if I could keep that mood, but maybe add a little bit of sensuality to it, so that you could see that there is some feeling going on here, that it’s not just all dirt and bodily fluids.
“I listened to a lot of the records of the bands from Glasgow and eventually decided that I should do it there. I was thinking that it would be nice if the whole movie was made in one city, and it would be fun for me to be there and work with the local musicians.”
Byrne also says he’s been writing music and will go into rehearsals soon for his next pop-rock album, set for release on Nonesuch Records.