Twice in a Lifetime
Twice in a Lifetime:
A Q&A with Jon Braun of Start Making Sense
By Geoff Gehman
The Talking Heads have pretty much been dead for 21 years, but their spirit has been very much alive for a fifth of that time. Launched nearly four years ago in a Bethlehem bar, Start Making Sense reincarnates and reinterprets the Heads’ many personas: New Wave lounge lizards, Art School punks, Afro-American rockers. The eight members absolutely slay the trippy beat of “(Nothing But) Flowers,” the barnburner funk of “Burning Down the House,” the tidal-wave grooves of “Once in a Lifetime.”
Start Making Sense is fronted by singer-guitarist Jon Braun, who uncannily, even eerily, channels lead Headman David Byrne’s voodoo vocals, spastic-scarecrow movements and hip nerdiness. On Nov. 17 Braun and his band mates will return to play the Mauch Chunk Opera House, where they’ll share a bill with the Great White Caps, a kick-ass surf group featuring Braun on drums. During a recent phone interview from his home in Center Valley, he discussed everything from modeling his inner Byrne after a longtime friend to maintaining his outer Byrne thanks to a girlfriend hairdresser.
Q: What training did you undergo to imitate, simulate and transubstantiate that human pogo stick known as David Byrne?
A: The best thing was seeing him live, solo, four times before we started the band. Obviously, watching “Stop Making Sense” [the Heads’ 1984 concert film]: I don’t even want to know how many times I’ve seen that. Due to innovation on the Internet I was able to see a lot of video; thank God for YouTube. There’s a live show from Rome in the early 1980s that’s also been made into a bootleg DVD. It’s from the early ’80s, before the “Stop Making Sense” band came into being, right before their peak. [Byrne’s] dance moves [laughs]—well, some of them are just crazy. I remember standing in front of the mirror trying to figure out how to do them the proper ways.
Q: What was the toughest Byrne dance move to master?
A: There’s one from a London show where he does an imitation jump rope at the end of the song “Mind”. Looking at it was a bit intimidating. I didn’t know if I could make it look that good. But I got it, thank God.
Q: You really work overtime during “Once in a Lifetime”: jogging in place; slapping your forehead and flexing back like an inflatable punching doll; shaking like a spastic scarecrow. Take a stab at describing the other-world you enter, the being you become.
A: That’s kind of humorous. I have a very close friend I grew up with; Aaron Kinsman is his name. From day one he’s always reminded me of David Byrne–the mannerisms and the mindset. We used to drive around in high school and he would be looking at me the way that David Byrne does in [the movie] “True Stories.” So I decided to base the character of David Byrne on Aaron, thinking all along: “What would Aaron do?” It’s easier to get into Aaron’s head space, being that I don’t know David Byrne.
Q: What does Aaron think of you channeling him through David Byrne?
A: When I mentioned it to him, he laughed. That was basically his only response [laughs].
Q: What’s the toughest part of channeling Mr. Byrne?
A: I realized after doing it so long not to overdo it. I was watching one of the two other Talking Heads tribute bands and it seemed [the Byrne-esque frontman] was trying to go too far. No disrespect in any way, shape or form, but I made a note to myself not to do that. It’s easy to make it comedic, a caricature. So I’m trying to balance it out, to find a good midway point.
Q: What are the best benefits of being in a band that plays Talking Heads tunes? One thing that comes to mind is the pleasure of singing such fun, anthemic lines as “I changed my hairstyle so many times now, don’t know what I look like!”
A: That one line makes me laugh because I’ve had to keep the same haircut for three years now, a short shave cut in the vein of David Byrne. Luckily, my girlfriend is a hairdresser, so she’s got that cut down pat.
Probably the best benefit is to be at a point where we’re playing music regularly– even though it’s not our music–and playing it to very large crowds that are wholeheartedly enjoying themselves. That’s the most fun, to see so many people dancing, singing along and remembering when they heard those songs and what they did for them. To help them have that emotion again—that’s just beyond a benefit.
Q: Are there any dangers in being a tribute band—i.e., being much better known as cover musicians than original musicians?
A: It definitely can be a danger. And I think we try very hard not to make that happen. We all have original projects [Braun has the Great White Caps; guitarist Jon Fadem has Post Junction] that we attend to just as much as we do to the tribute band. That creates a balance that allows us not to fall into the trap, even if the recognition may not be there as much for our original projects.
Q: After three-plus years of playing Talking Heads songs, what do you admire about the band that you didn’t admire when you were a mere fan?
A: There are two things that always pop out to me more and more. One is the depth of composition in the arrangements, especially that Fela Kuti-esque Afro beat. I guess I always knew it was there but I didn’t really appreciate it until we actually tore those grooves apart.
The other thing I admire is their ability to write such artistic songs that somehow ended up making themselves pop staples. I can’t really recall a band that was able to hold their artistic integrity so high for so long and still remain so popular.
Q: How has Start Making Sense changed you as a musician and a person? Do people invite you to be the life of the party because they know you do a great David Byrne?
A: It’s definitely made me a better musician and probably a better composer because of the intense study and the level of musicianship the music requires consistently. I get asked to play songs here and there at parties, but I usually decline. I guess it has something to do with modesty. I don’t think I’m the one making this happen; it’s the band completely making this happen. You could put anyone up there with these ridiculous musicians and it would be successful.
Q: Byrne made the Big Suit famous in “Stop Making Sense.” So is there a Big Suit in your near future?
A: [laughs] It’s been in my near future since we’ve started. We’re still trying to figure out the nuts and bolts. There’s a large wooden frame inside it, so it’s a bit more costume than people realize. It may be a bit more costume than people who run venues realize; some places may not have a large enough place to store it. I have talked to some costume designers and once we work out the specifics, I hope it will be appearing soon.
Jon Braun: The Scoop
First song he couldn’t forget: The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” which he first heard at age 4.
First Talking Heads tune he couldn’t forget: “Burning Down the House,” which he first heard, and saw, as an MTV video. “It was the music and the visual that stopped me. David Byrne’s face on the side of the house: that’s what it took.”
Braun co-founded Start Making Sense after a successful Talking Heads show at a Bethlehem bar—a show suggested by the bar owner after Braun & Co. performed successful Led Zeppelin and Who tributes.
SMS members have performed several times with Bernie Worrell, the Heads’ former keyboardist.
The SMS Web site carries this Worrell blurb: “This band makes plenty of sense to me.”
SMS’ post-Christmas schedule includes a Dec. 28 date at the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan and a second straight New Year’s Eve gig at the Musikfest Café in Bethlehem.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. Favorite Talking Heads numbers include “Take Me to the River,” “Crosseyed and Painless” and “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody).” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.