Jerry Harrison, Adrian Belew and Turkuaz reimagine the Talking Heads’ ‘Remain In Light’

Turkuaz, Jerry Harrison, Adrian Belew, Talking Heads, Dave Brandwein

Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads (second from left) and Adrian Belew (second from right) perform with Turkuaz. Courtesy Michael Weintrob.

Guitarist Jerry Harrison has wanted to play Talking Heads songs again for a very long time. He didn’t want them to break up in 1991. After the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, he got reunion offers that could have paid for an education for his future grandchildren.

Turkuaz w/ Jerry Harrison and Adrian Belew at BottleRock Napa Valley
7:15 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 5
Napa Valley Expo
Tickets: Sold out.

But it was not to be with the original lineup of David Byrne, bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz.

More recently, Harrison, who calls Marin home, had a vision to recreate the magic of the Talking Heads’ famous 1980 concert in Rome with other collaborators. While he hadn’t toured in any capacity since 1996, Harrison has had a steady solo music career and as a producer, working with No Doubt, Violent Femmes, Live and Crash Test Dummies, among others. He first recruited prolific guitarist-producer Adrian Belew, who was around for the Talking Heads’ heyday and has had an iconic career of his own—with the likes of David Bowie, King Crimson, Frank Zappa, Nine Inch Nails and Paul Simon, among many others. He’s a Grammy nominee and won an Academy Award for his work on Disney Pixar short “Piper” in 2016.

Harrison invited Belew to come out to a show at Nashville’s famed Exit/In in 2019 to catch Brooklyn funk nonet Turkuaz. He had an idea to re-create the music of the Talking Heads using the band, whom he’d produced a few years earlier, whose members had come together with a shared love of the Talking Heads in the first place. Belew lives just north of Nashville, but Harrison felt so strong about this idea that he flew to the show from San Francisco. Specifically, Harrison and Belew had a plan to create a tribute to the Talking Heads’ acclaimed fourth album, 1980’s Remain In Light.

“I played a number of times with [Turkuaz], often doing ‘Take Me to the River’ or another Talking Heads song,” Harrison said in a video call from his home, alongside Belew in Tennessee and Turkuaz’s Dave Brandwein in Playa del Rey, near Los Angeles. “I knew that they were pretty familiar with the material, and they had, you might say, all the pieces in place so… it wouldn’t be putting together a band one person at a time.”

Belew said his fans would always comment on social media about the Talking Heads’ 1980 Rome concert, so he was game for a reunion. The two would talk about it on numerous occasions when Harrison and he would get together in Nashville.

“I felt like the world needed this joyful, danceable kind of upbeat thing that’s still real cool; it’s not just dumb-danceable,” Belew said.

The Exit/In just happened to be the club where Belew first saw the Talking Heads perform, in 1977.

“After Turkuaz had played three songs, I turned to him and said, ‘That’s it; they’re perfect. We’re done. We’re out of here. Bye. When do rehearsals start?’” Belew said.

The “Remain In Light” shows were supposed to happen in 2020, the 40th anniversary of the album. The pandemic changed that, but didn’t diminish the enthusiasm of Harrison, Belew or Turkuaz.

The group will perform at BottleRock, playing songs not only from the classic album but also other Talking Heads hits, songs from each of the participant’s catalogs and one or two newer collaborative tracks.

RIFF: The fact that Jerry flew in just for that 2019 Turkuaz show tells me that you already knew exactly what you wanted to do at that point. Is that an accurate assessment?

Jerry Harrison: I think it is. Adrian and I kicked around a few different ideas, and one of them was to use various studio musicians and other people who love Talking Heads. By working with a band, they already have their own audience. As do Adrian and I, so it would be a summation of audiences. It’s made it much, much easier for Adrian and me. We just step into a well-oiled machine, and it just goes forward. The first three shows have just been incredibly joyful, and everybody has found it’s totally rewarding. The audience, but every member of the band, too—the response has been spectacular. The audience has varied in age from teenagers to people in their 60s.

Adrian Belew: There’s people in their 70s now.

Jerry Harrison: Yeah, people in their 70s—a wide demographic, let’s put it that way. We’re looking forward to BottleRock. Bonnaroo and BottleRock will be the first time we’ve done the show during the day. So far, we’ve been basically closing the festivals, so we had lights. It’s always nice to have lights and things like that. [But] music that makes you want to dance and makes you feel good; it’s not completely dependent upon the visuals.

When was the last time before this collaboration that Jerry and Adrian played together on stage?

Adrian Belew: Nineteen-eighty. After that, Jerry and I worked on his records together, and that was great fun. I did three of his solo records, but in terms of playing out live, we didn’t do anything more. We’ve never had a chance to do that, until now. Of course, we wanted to all that time, but it’s just one of those things. [Harrison] sat in with different people over the years, but I basically didn’t play Talking Heads music again, ever, for no particular reason other than I set out to play my own music when I go do my shows.

I did a lot of David Bowie [tribute] shows, and it’s similar to this. Only with the David Bowie shows …we’ve had to put together completely different bands. I much prefer this, where we have a band, because [in] three shows, this band has been solid as a rock. Everyone really gets each other, loves each other; it’s really a team. There’s no ego involved, and so it just makes this thing go right to the heart of it, which is the music.

Your tightness together as a band is perhaps something that you expected because of the practice time you’ve had and how well you know each other at this point. Has anything surprising come out of these early shows?

Dave Brandwein: That it gels so well. Perhaps we all thought it would take a little bit more work. Really, after a couple days of rehearsal, I just feel like we were really running the set down, and the parts fell into place. It helps that we’ve played this music so much. This has been kind of the blueprint for [Turkuaz]. Granted, we have horns and some bigger arrangements, but as Talking Heads went on, the band started to expand.

Turkuaz, Jerry Harrison, Adrian Belew, Talking Heads, Dave Brandwein

Adrian Belew (center) performs with Turkuaz.

Originally, “Stop Making Sense” is what Taylor [Shell, bass] and I were watching, pretty much on repeat when we started this band. For us almost to go back to that and rediscover this music in a new way has just been incredibly rewarding. To deal with Jerry and Adrian is pretty mind-blowing. Given how mind-blowing of an experience it was for us to do that, it’s just felt really natural, and that’s really the only surprise I can think of.

Jerry Harrison: One thing that’s been fun is … we never had horns, and so [it’s] to think through the arrangements and make suggestions. The horn players come up with their own parts really great, but every once in a while it’s like, “Why don’t you switch at this point and pick up on this line that a keyboard part is playing, and we’ll make a bigger deal of that.”

It’s a big powerful unit, and there’s times where there’s at least two people playing each part, but it’s really solid. It was wonderful that we walked in with Turkuaz being so rehearsed. They’re all really terrific musicians, which of course I knew from producing them. They’re not only talented but also very schooled. I learned from them as well. … What’s important is to not let it get overly complicated. We have such firepower that we could be overly ornate or overly—if you think about painting—mannerist about it. So it’s like, “No, let’s keep it to the point.”

Turkuaz, Jerry Harrison, Adrian Belew, Talking Heads, Dave Brandwein

Adrian Belew (second from right) performs with Turkuaz.

One of the great things that’s really been fun is we’ve been doing the song “Drugs,” which we used to play on that 1980 tour, which Talking Heads never played at another tour again. … It not only brings back memories but, how great is it to do this again?

Adrian Belew: It was one of my favorite songs from that tour, and I kept hammering, “Why don’t we do this one?”

To add to what Jerry said, most of the time I’m in a small band—a trio or quartet or something like that—and everything is on you 100 percent, all the time. With this band, there’s so much there, and everyone’s covering so much, I find myself, a lot of times, just backing off and saying, “Well I’m not really needed much here, but what I can do is dance around and be a cheerleader.”

My responsibilities are a little less, except that I still want to exude my excitement and joy to the audience, because that’s important that they do the same back to us. It’s nice not not having to be carrying the full load. I don’t think anyone makes hardly [any mistakes]—I don’t ever hear anything that’s even close to a train wreck.

Dave Brandwein: That’s our motto. No train wrecks. No other promises. [Laughs].

It’s not just playing. It’s also an opportunity to burn some calories along the way.

Dave Brandwein: We’re learning from what Jerry is saying: “Let’s not let it get too complicated. Let’s enhance each other’s parts, pick up on each other’s parts and things like that.” That’s a valuable lesson for us to learn as such a big band. When everyone has so many ideas coming up with arrangements, I think we can get pretty ornate sometimes. It’s been going back to what was the blueprint for us. We’re relearning how strong simplicity can be at times, so it’s been a great learning experience for us, too.

Adrian Belew: That’s why you have Jerry Harrison producing you. Somebody has to sort through all those ideas and say “yes” or “no.”

Adrian, I think you might have the widest reaching resume out of everybody, because of the many different types of artists you’ve worked with in your career. What place do the Talking Heads have in your heart or on your mantle? And what do you personally get out of this experience?

Adrian Belew: Talking Heads was the one band that I fell into—if you want to call it that—that I felt I fit the easiest in. I just felt like this is music for me. I can do this. I knew what to do; I knew what to add. I always felt very comfortable with what I was supposed to be contributing. There was really literally no time when I ever felt like, [in a quivering voice] “Oh I don’t know about this.” It all appealed to me, and I really loved being in the band. And I loved touring with them because there was so much excitement around the tour itself and the band. I liked my role.

Redoing this again with Turkuaz and Jerry is the same for me. I’m getting all that same injection of fun and that feeling of freedom and, like, “I can play what I want and do what I want, and no one’s going to tell me to get off the stage or anything.” [laughs]

I’ve been in a lot of bands, a lot of situations, and most of the time you have to mold yourself to the desires of others and to the needs of the situation. With Talking Heads music, I always just felt perfectly home with it.

Dave, how about you? What are you and Turkuaz getting out of this? Is it a diversion; are you doing your own shows at the same time?

Dave Brandwein: We are doing our own shows at the same time. … We all felt, with repetition, really locked in. It was like, “Oh shit, we’re not going to do this again until Bonnaroo. That’s crazy.” I kind of wish this whole tour was this. It was weird for us, too, because coming out of the pandemic—or taking a little break from it, we’ll see what happens—we hadn’t played for so long, our own music. So we’re doing both at the same time.

For us, it’s rediscovering a lot of what we originally loved about music and why we started this band, reexamining our own arrangements. If they were two really unrelated things, maybe it would feel like a diversion. But really it’s more of an enhancement. It’s like we get to do [Remain In Light] and it informs the way that we play our music and the way we’ve been thinking about our sets. … It’s really nice to mix it up a little bit and try to incorporate things into our own shows. That’s probably the biggest upside to doing both at the same time. I think it’s an enhancement more than a diversion.

Jerry, was there any interest from any of the other members of the Talking Heads in participating? And did you try to get them involved?

Jerry Harrison: I had talked to Chris and Tina about potentially doing something like this earlier. Tina … has some health issues and with the grueling nature of the tour, she wasn’t really up for that. Once you have a full band that you brought in to be part of the project, the idea of duplicating drummers and duplicating bass players and things like that—it’s like, who’s going to play what?

I got a very nice note from Chris about, “Congratulations on the great reviews you’ve been getting.” I wrote back to him saying, “It’s really a shame that we’re not playing closer to you in the East Coast, but if you’d like to come and join us and sit in, we’d love to love to see you.” David is obviously busy with “American Utopia” [on Broadway] and the other projects he’s doing. I certainly didn’t ask him to do that.

I’ve been disappointed the Talking Heads didn’t [reunite]. Many times I thought it was, in my mind, idiotic that we didn’t keep touring, ‘cause I knew what a wonderful effect we had on audiences. After we were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, there was a lot of interest and excitement about it. The offers had been the kind that were like, “Well, that’ll pay for all my grandkids to go to college.” I think we would have all appreciated that. You work your whole life to maybe get an offer like that, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Having gone through the Modern Lovers breaking up, I knew that bands have a lifetime, or a lifespan. I don’t sit around and just bemoan it. I disagree with it. I think that people would have loved to see us all together, and we can all still function and play. That being said, there’s something great about coming at this from the point of view. We want to bring out the fun and the joy that you can see in this Rome show. This is like the hook. We’re not trying to be intellectual about it. … This is really all about the groove and all about the music and all about the fun.

What’s it like singing the songs that David Byrne sang?

Jerry Harrison: We divided them up. There’s actually four of us singing songs. Dave, Adrian and myself, and then Josh [Schwartz], the baritone player in the band, sings “Born Under Punches.” I’m probably the one who is going to feel the most self-conscious about trying to be like David, so to speak. I’ve been performing “Life During Wartime” for quite some time, even going back to some of my solo tours, so I’m quite comfortable with that. I’ve kind of come up with my own way of doing it. I’m doing “Houses in Motion,” and then we’re each doing a song from our own repertoire. We’ve added that to the set. … With the amount of talent we have our own band, we can do like a five-hour show from all of the multiple repertoires here.

Dave Brandwein: We could work our way up to that.

Jerry Harrison: We could be the entire festival. … What we need them to do is, like, pay us as if we’re like three or four acts. [laughs]

Adrian Belew: Amen.

What is it about “Once in a Lifetime” that holds up so well over time?

Jerry Harrison: One of the things about “Once in a Lifetime” is that there is a tension between what’s the down-beat and what’s the up-beat. The way we recorded this music was very often one instrument at a time. So, depending on how you mix the instruments, you’ve felt the groove go one way or go another. There’s this sort of ambiguity in that.

“Once in a Lifetime”—one of the things that has made it so enduring is that it has been featured in really, really good films like “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.” “You might live in a shotgun shack, and you might go…,” you think of Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler. It brought it very vividly back into people’s minds. People, of course, love to quote, “How did I get here?” I think that people think that about their lives a lot of times. Like, “I’m here, and all these accidents that took place in my life, and who could have predicted that this is where I would have ended up?” Hopefully, it’s a good place. I think people do that when they ended up in a place that they like. I don’t think that people end up some place that they really dislike and [say]—

Dave Brandwein: “How the fuck did I get here?” There’s a “fuck” in there when it’s bad.

What about the album as a whole?

Jerry Harrison: In the end, it became a turning point in music, and that’s why it is so beloved and so remembered. Not only the expansion of parts and all of these different interwoven parts, but just the fact of how we recorded it and created this very different way of thinking about music. We had done it over time. One of the things we wanted to capture on this album [was how] there’s always something special about the first time you play a song. Deliberately, when we went in the studio, we didn’t really have a lot. We didn’t rehearse, and we didn’t have it all written. We did it as we went in the studio, which made it really difficult at times. We would run into roadblocks and, like, “Where do we go from here?” It was not without tension.

Turkuaz, Jerry Harrison, Adrian Belew, Talking Heads, Dave Brandwein

Adrian Belew (third from right) performs with Turkuaz.

Even, in fact, when we put together the band, which is basically in one afternoon. I just sat down with David. We had had an offer to play Heatwave up in Mosport, outside of Toronto, and Central Park. We said, “Let’s try and put together a band that can actually play this,” and we said, “OK, we play this many parts. We need another guitar player, we need another keyboard player. Oh my God, we’re gonna need two bassists at times. We’re going to need a percussion player, we’re getting the background singers, blah, blah, blah.” I had been hanging around in New York with a guy named Busta Jones, and I had been in a little band with him and Dolette McDonald, so they were the first people I called.

Then I called Bernie [Worrell], talked to his wife Judie, and I called Adrian. So I came back in about four hours and go, “Oh, my God, do we have an incredible band!” Steve Scales filled it out about two days later. I started rehearsals with the band while David had gone off to L.A. to finish mixing a few songs there with Dave Jerden. I stayed with [Brian] Eno in New York, mixing songs there. It was just high pressure to get the record finished, simultaneously as getting ready for this tour … before David showed up. Adrian said, “How many days do we have to do all of this music?” We said “three” or something like that.

Adrian Belew: I think it was four, actually. David wasn’t there for two of them.

You were influenced by a lot of a Caribbean artists and African artists. Did the term Afro-pop exist back then?

Jerry Harrison: I think sort of. Manu Dibango was probably one of the more successful versions of that. We were all really into Fela [Kuti]. We got into King Sunny Adé and other island music, but at least for myself, Fela was the biggest influence.

Turkuaz, Jerry Harrison, Adrian Belew, Talking Heads, Dave Brandwein

L to R: Dave Brandwein of Turkuaz, Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads and guitarist Adrian Belew.

Having had recorded down in the Bahamas, Chris and Tina were very, very excited by reggae and ended up buying a loft apartment that was built above Compass Point, after we recorded there. We used to spend quite a bit of time down there. Our manager [Gary Kurfirst] and [Island Records founder] Chris Blackwell had been very good friends, and their wives had driven across the country together when both Chris and Gary were busy. So we had a real connection to island music … and experimentation.

On the first four albums, there was a theme of “how to do things differently for each one of those records.” The theme for Remain In Light was basically, “let’s build on what we did with ‘I Zimbra’ on Fear of Music.” That was basically the starting point of where we’re going to go. “I Zimbra” was, of course, influenced by African guitar and, of course, it is a very exciting number that we also have in the show today.

You have some shows spread out over the next month and a half. How long do you want to keep this project going? Do you want to do a wider tour; record some music together?

Dave Brandwein: We’re just taking it as it comes. The first goal is just to get together and get prepared for these shows, and we’re having a great time. As far as more shows, we all seem pretty open-minded to adding them when they make sense. Originally, it was going to be the 40th anniversary. Obviously the pandemic got in the way of that very specific relevance, but I think it’s still there. … We really just got started, but we’re all having a good time. Certainly, we’re game for anything at this point.

Jerry Harrison: Some of it depends on what kind of offers there are. We know that it’s a great festival band, and we knew that festivals were the ideal place for us to go to begin with. … The reviews that have come out of FloydFest and Peach Fest have been pretty stellar. So much energy and the fun of it is … coming somewhat like a release from the pandemic. Of course it’s just really sad that we now have this Delta variant creating a potential shadow over that.

Adrian Belew: I think because of the reviews and the response of this, there is a hopeful reason to believe that we can probably do more than we have booked now, which only goes ‘til Halloween. But it may be early next year, something like that. If we stayed with just doing festivals, it’s unlike touring in the true sense because the festivals are so spread out. There was talk, when we first put this together, that I might be able to do dates in between our dates. … For those couple of reasons right there, I think that this has more of a future than just the eight shows that have been planned so far. I hope it does, and that’s the hopeful note I’ll leave it on.

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