Talking Heads guitarist Jerry Harrison on Stop Making Sense, Remain In Light and touring

Boasting one of the most enduring musical legacies of any band from the past 50 years, Talking Heads were, and will forever remain, quite unlike anybody else. Their catalogue contains some of the most revered records of the ‘70s and ‘80s, while their Jonathan Demme-directed film Stop Making Sense has become arguably the best loved concert movies of all time. Headliner caught up with guitarist and keyboardist Jerry Harrison for an in-depth chat discussion about all things Talking Heads, and what he believes is truly the band’s definitive live show…

You can listen to this interview here or read on below. 

When Headliner connects over the phone with Jerry Harrison, he’s currently in the midst of a Talking Heads revival of sorts. In tandem with guitarist Adrian Belew, who was part of the band’s touring setup in 1980, he has been performing a run of gigs that has sought to bring one of their most ambitious and beloved concerts back to life for contemporary audiences. And it’s not Stop Making Sense.

Over a decade ago, footage of a 1980 show in Rome in support of their masterful Remain In Light album surfaced on YouTube. It features a similarly sized ensemble of musicians shoehorned onto a stage together, jamming their way through a set of material that seamlessly weaves the most disparate aspects of their sound together. The twitchy post-punk of early anthems Psycho Killer and Stay Hungry sit comfortably alongside the looser, more experimental music they were making at the time, with the likes of Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) and Houses In Motion ebbing and flowing seemingly without beginning or end. It may not possess the tightly choreographed precision and visual spectacle that defined Jonathan Demme’s 1984 film, but it is no less thrilling.

Prior the Stop Making Sense remastered re-release, which saw Harrison, David Byrne, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz reunite for a Q&A with Spike Lee at its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival – the first time the four had been in the same room in 21 years – Harrison had been working with Belew and several other musicians to recreate that Rome show across a number of North American tour dates.

Joining us from his San Francisco home studio earlier this year, Harrison speaks at length about what inspired him to revisit those shows, as well as what life was like inside the worl of Talking Heads during the making of Remain In Light.

“Every now and again when Adrian and I got together we would talk about how fantastic that concert in Rome was, and how cool would it be to recreate it,” he explains. He speaks slowly and thoughtfully with a weathered, gravelly low register. “It was all supposed to happen for the 40th anniversary of Remain In Light in 2020 but obviously that didn’t happen because of the pandemic. So it got pushed to 2021 and we’ve been doing that for the past two years. And hopefully we’ll bring it to Europe at some point.”

Inevitably, comparisons between the Rome show and Stop Making Sense were made when the 1980 footage first appeared on YouTube over a decade ago. It’s impossible not to draw certain parallels on account of the profoundly distinctive entity that Talking Heads were as a live act during that era, but they are very different shows. Belew’s presence, Harrison believes, is one of the of primary distinctions.

“Adrian is a unique guitar player and his presence distinguishes it from Stop Making Sense,” he says. “And it was much looser than Stop Making Sense, where the show became more choreographed from the lighting to the background scenery. It was a far more constructed visual experience, whereas 1980 was just a whole line of musicians onstage. And one of the things that happens when you have a whole line of musicians onstage is that you sometimes find one side of the stage goes off on a jam that’s a different to what’s going on at the other side of the stage [laughs]. That was sometimes abstract and wonderful and other times it was a bit chaotic! This was the first attempt for us at what a big band could be, and it was all about the joy in the music and not precise visual presentation.”

He is also quick to address the absence of his former primary bandmates.

“I thought, if I’m not doing a show with Chris, Tina, or David, I still want to do something that felt authentic,” he says. “Adrian was part of that touring band, and then I wanted to find a group of musicians who weren’t session players but people who regularly play together so it had an organic feel to it, which is what the original band had. Also, it’s not just about nostalgia - there are a lot of young fans who never got to see Talking Heads who now get to see not just representatives of that band but an exciting, joyful group of musicians performing those songs.”

As the fourth of the main four members to join, Harrison’s role within Talking Heads was a unique one. Founded by Frantz and Weymouth, who quickly recruited Byrne as their frontman, the band had already written their first two albums’ worth of material by the time Harrison entered the fold. As guitarist and keyboardist with new wave icons Modern Lovers, he arrived with a considerable reputation within the NYC music scene, but his first task, he tells us, was not to change the band’s sound, but expand upon it.

I didn’t want to change their sound, I wanted to reinforce their sound. Jerry Harrison

“I didn’t want to change their sound, I wanted to reinforce their sound,” he asserts. “I think this is one of the reasons that they felt I was the right person. So, I wrote parts that very directly sometimes doubled or referenced Tina’s bass parts and David’s guitar parts and make them a little fuller or make some transitions a little smoother. And make it so that if David broke a string we didn’t have to stop [laughs].

“Then later I got more involved in the arrangements and the writing of the music,” he continues, elaborating on the band’s rapidly evolving creative process. “After we recorded I Zimbra on Fear Of Music that that was something we wanted to explore a lot more and that was the impetus for where we wanted to go on Remain In light. On each of our albums we tried to create a different process and location for recording because we thought those things deeply influence the way a record sounded and came out. The first record we did with Tony Bongiovi and he was a disco producer, and they wanted something in contrast to, say, The Ramones. And it was a beautiful sounding record, but we didn’t feel Tony understood the zeitgeist of the band. But when we met Brian Eno, we really felt he did. The conversations were easier, we had read the same books. Working with Eno, his approach was to think of the studio as an extension of your instrument. So, we learned a lot from him and by the time we got to Remain In Light we could make suggestions and he was more involved in the songwriting process. Then we produced ourselves for the next few records because we felt confident enough to do that.”

Location was also a major factor in shaping the sound of each of the band’s records, especially the first four.

“With those four records, the first (Talking Heads ’77) was made with Tony in New York, and the second (More Songs About Buildings and Food) was made in the Bahamas,” he says. “The third (Fear Of Music), we hired a mobile trucks to record us at Chris and Tina’s loft, and with Remain In light we decided there was something special and innocent about the first time we ever played a song, so we decided to do an album that was all about discovery and being in the moment, so we didn’t write anything before going in the studio.

“After that we realized that because Remain In Light was basically modal - it was all in the same key - it made it much more difficult to write a melody and lyrics because it was never migrating to a different set of chord changes. So, when we did Speaking In Tongues we had a similar process but we built in chord changes so we could delineate the verse, the chorus, and the bridge. A lot of music is so based on the lyrics and the vocals and there is very little to the music, but these albums were about making interwoven pieces of music where vocals were just one part of that.”

It was following the completion of Remain In Light that Harrison first started to conceive the next iteration of Talking Heads as a live outfit.

“We had said yes to two shows [during the Remain In Light sessions] and I had a conversation with David where I said, ‘if we want to play to play this live we can’t do it as a four-piece’. So we came up with a list of guitar players, backing vocalists, percussionists… we even had another bass player! And I went out in an afternoon, and I hired everyone apart from Steve Scales, the percussionist. That was because I’d been hanging around New York and knew all these different musicians, and of course one of them was Adrian.

“I remember walking back to the studio one day and saying to Eno, ‘we are going to have the most amazing band’. So, we started rehearsing while David was in California and for at least two of the days I was showing everybody the parts, and then David showed up and everybody goes, ‘who’s this’? I go, ‘oh, he’s the lead singer’! So, then we had these two fantastic concerts and the audience really reacted well. Then it was like, OK, we need to do this for the entire tour.”

While the whole band and the very concept of live performance evolved rapidly for Talking Heads during the ensuing tour, Byrne’s transformation from reluctant singer into one of the most electrifying frontmen of his generation was something few could have predicted. Where early shows were noted for Byrne’s obvious discomfort at leading the band, often visibly awkward and timid behind the mic, their late-‘70s/early-‘80s shows were defined by his new, uninhibited persona. What was previously a tightly wound bundle of nervous energy had exploded into a whirlwind of wild dance moves and unbridled expression.

It was much looser than Stop Making Sense, where the show became more choreographed. Jerry Harrison

“It was a beautiful transition,” says Harrison. “David was talking about it one time, and someone had said, ‘you’re smiling and you weren’t in the beginning’, and he said, ‘well it was just so funky onstage that I had to smile and I had dance’. think that’s how we all felt”.

It’s not just the live side of Talking Heads that Harrison has been revisiting of late. Recently, he took a leading role in remixing the entire Talking Heads catalogue for immersive playback. Last year, he led an immersive playback of one song from each of the band’s remixed albums at a special event with pro audio giant L-Acoustics in Los Angeles.

“I had done 5.1 mixes in 2005 through 2007 so I understood the concepts and what you could accomplish and what you should stay away from in surround sound,” he says of how he approached the immersive mixes. “It was really high pressure because we mixed eight albums in two months and that was an insanely intense process, because there are so many options and ways you can go.

“We made a choice in our mixes to put things mainly in front of you as though you were at a concert but with reflections and representation of what it feels like in a theatre, with things bouncing off the walls and the ceiling. A good example of this is the song The Great Curve where you have three contrapuntal vocal parts, so we placed those in different places in the room. And L-Acoustics provided a really lovely place for the playback. We also took the time when we were at L-Acoustics to adjust volumes of speakers and do various things to make the mixes read as we thought they should read in that particular room.”

With every anniversary or re-release, the question of a bona fide comeback never fails to rear its head. And while history has shown time and again that even the most unlikely of reunions can be achieved, in the case of Talking Heads it seems certain that the coming together of Harrison, Byrne, Weymouth, and Frantz is likely to be confined to the realm of commemorative releases or one-off events like the Rock n Roll Hall Of Fame induction of 2002. Whether or not we get to see the four of them together in the same room again is impossible to know, but whatever the future hold, their incomparable contribution to music is to last a lifetime.

Headliner also joined Tina Weymouth for an in-depth discussion of all things Talking Heads, which you can read here and listen to below.