ALTA Q&A

Not Just Another Talking Head

Musician, music producer and investor Jerry Harrison at his home in Marin County.
CHRIS HARDY
Musician, music producer and investor Jerry Harrison at his home in Marin County.
In a conversation with Alta Publisher and Editor Will Hearst – his former Harvard roommate – Talking Heads mainstay Jerry Harrison expounds on music, business and life

Few American rock bands have been as original, influential and beloved as the Talking Heads. With their dark lyrics, angular beats and dazzling live shows, they wove together elements of punk, new wave and art rock to create a body of work that has become a cornerstone of classic rock. Critical to their sound was keyboard and guitar player Jerry Harrison, who started out with Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers before joining David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth in the Talking Heads. Harrison later had a successful career as a solo artist and record producer, and more recently has become an investor in technology companies. He sat down with Alta Publisher and Editor Will Hearst — Harrison’s roommate at Harvard — to talk about his career and current passions.

WILL HEARST: I heard that after the Talking Heads you were advising and producing a lot of young musicians.

JERRY HARRISON: After the Talking Heads, I did three solo records. When I met Carol, my wife, I was finishing my second solo record and we were on tour when our oldest son, Griffin, came along. We went to Europe and Japan. Then I did a follow-up record to that. And then I thought: “This is going to be hard to make money and have a family.” I had already started producing records. Carol kind of pushed me, saying, “You know, you’ll be able to be home more.” That was maybe the best year of my life. I ended up producing the Crash Test Dummies and the second album of this band Live. And between those two albums we sold 15 million records. So I suddenly got known as a kind of harder rock, art-rock producer.

HEARST: This was your Quincy Jones period, where you were helping other people, telling performers, “Let’s change this a little bit.”

HARRISON: Because of coming from the Modern Lovers and the Talking Heads, [the record company executives] go, “Obviously, he can take these really artistic singers and songwriters that nobody in this company knows what to do with. And he knows how to relate to them.”

HEARST: You always had a good head for business, so it was hard for the music industry sharks to B.S. you. You’d been through it yourself.

HARRISON: I think I was a good representative for both the record company, who said, “We need something that’s going to get on the radio,” and for the band, who needed help to stand up to the record companies and to say to them: “You can’t come listen yet. We’re still uncertain.” I think I did a good job of bridging that gap and finding a way for those bands to make a song they felt represented them but still had a shot to be on the radio.

I did a single with the Foo Fighters, and I worked with No Doubt as a producer. I did five records with a fantastic blues guitarist named Kenny Wayne Shepherd. And I did a movie with him. It was my idea, where we went out with Stevie Ray Vaughn’s backup band. We were on a bus, and we just played with local people. We played with B.B. King in the town where he was from. Indianola, Mississippi, in a juke joint out in the middle of the woods. We recorded it and filmed it. It’s a film called: “Ten Days Out: Blues from the Backroads.” It’s just wonderful.

HEARST: When a young musician comes to you, what do you say?

HARRISON: Well, first of all, I was looking for great songs and great personality — something I wanted to listen to. I also wanted to make sure they could perform and go out and deliver to an audience, having stage presence and a kind of charisma. What I enjoyed about being a producer was I could work on music that I couldn’t write myself — a genre I like but wasn’t comfortable enough with.

I worked with what you might say was the beginning of the jam bands. Not the Grateful Dead, but there was a band called Poi Dog Pondering out of Austin. And then I worked with Big Head Todd, which was part of that group. I’d recently worked with the String Cheese Incident, did two records with them. They’re from Boulder. I got certain kind of bands, but I wasn’t getting, you might say, the next Peter Gabriel. Or the next Talking Heads anymore so much.

HEARST: Live performances became much more important after Steve Jobs and iTunes and Napster and the collapse of the recording industry.

HARRISON: Well, live jobs were always important. I do think people used to make a lot of money from records. You can’t make anywhere near as much. I produce music because I still love it. But we have had enormous offers for Talking Heads to go back on tour.

HEARST: Have you thought about it?

HARRISON: Well, I think it’s hard; it’s impossible. David Byrne has, I think, the philosophy that when you make a turn in your life, you don’t look back and you don’t do anything for nostalgia. But he does go out and play tours where he’s playing an awful lot of songs where I’m a cowriter. Anyway, I don’t see it happening.

HEARST: Would the other people in the band be willing to do it?

HARRISON: I think everybody else would love to do it.

HEARST: But David’s still the lead. You have to have him to make it work.

HARRISON: It would have to be all four of us. If there was something bigger than him that maybe could’ve inspired him, like when Al Gore was doing the Live Earth concert. That would’ve been the kind of thing that I could imagine.

HEARST: I don’t think it would be perceived as a nostalgia tour, unless you started selling CDs on late-night television or something. It would be an event.

HARRISON: The last time we played was when we were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame [2002]. There was a lot of talk that week because we did a great show. We rehearsed for three days.

HEARST: Have you stayed in touch?

HARRISON: I stay in touch with everybody.

MAKING MUSIC

HEARST: Do you compose? Do you write songs? Or melodies?

HARRISON: At this point, I have not done any on my own, but I did an album with the band Live.

HEARST: You prefer to collaborate?

HARRISON: Yeah. They had a new singer, and he was trying to write lyrics, but his style didn’t fit. As it worked out, I actually asked Aishlin, my daughter, to help, and we wrote a good deal of the lyrics for the album. He had some melody ideas, and so we worked with him. I wrote the bridges of songs. I’d say, “This needs a new part. So let’s hear it.” And I would help them write that part. Sometimes when I was writing lyrics for my solo records — having been in bands with Jonathan [Richman] and David [Byrne] — I was super self-conscious about whether we were really high quality.

HEARST: People who aim high hit high.

HARRISON: I agree undoubtedly. I had been a musician. First, I felt the creative need to write; second, the music business favors you if you write your own songs and you own the publishing. So I needed to make solo records, and suddenly I put myself in the position that I had to be the lead singer, which I had never been. Getting over my sense of self-criticism was just enormous because I had spent 20 years becoming very critical. And now I’m taking on something new. That took saying, “You have to allow yourself to be stupid. And you’ve got to work through your fear.”

HEARST: That’s surprising — and understandable.

HARRISON: One of the things I do with these young writers or young singers I work with is to say: “OK, here’s a way to try and get yourself to sing a little bit differently. And I know you might sound foolish, but you gotta try it. Just do this and we can do it over and over again, but it’s going to help you get to someplace where you’re not sounding too careful.” People sound very, very careful, especially if they’re self-conscious.

HEARST: “What will other people think if I do this?” We all want that affirmation.

HARRISON: [Sits at his piano and starts to play.] One of the great things about music is when I just sit down and play the piano. You can just do it. I like that. But the minute you’re recording, you start going back over it. And, of course, writing or painting, you’re always then looking at it, always going back and forth between the act of making it and judging it.

Jerry Harrison plays piano at his home in Marin County. CHRIS HARDY

Jerry Harrison plays piano at his home in Marin County.

LOOKING PAST MUSIC

HEARST: How are you spending your time nowadays?

HARRISON: A variety of things. I’m really as busy as I’ve ever been. I am involved with music. I’ve played a number of concerts lately. It seems that I’ve mainly played memorials and benefits. I played in a memorial concert for my friend, John Perry Barlow, who fought a valiant fight over the last three years. It was at the Fillmore and then at the Sweetwater here in Mill Valley. John and I had become really good friends. He had gone to prep school with Bob Weir, and that’s how their connection evolved. He was also good friends with my wife, Carol, because they’re both from Wyoming. My daughter performed, and Sean Lennon flew out for it — he was good friends with John — and so did Harper Simon, Paul Simon’s son, and a lot of the wonderful musicians who’ve been playing with Bob Weir around here.

HEARST: How did you know John Perry Barlow? What was your connection?

HARRISON: It was when I started Garageband with Tom Zito and Amanda Welch. [After the music company went out of business in 2002, the Garageband name was licensed by Apple for its music-creation software.]

HEARST: What did Garageband do when you started it?

HARRISON: In my mind, we were among a couple of companies that invented crowdsourcing. Because we were the first to say: “Let’s test our audience before we make a product.” We would send music out to listeners that were part of our network and get their feedback. We would know things about their taste. Let’s say you love country music. You probably would give any kind of country song between a five and a 10 rating. But if you liked only heavy metal, and you heard a country song and you gave it a five, that might be quite high. The algorithm corrected for that.

HEARST: I see. That’s often done with AI, but you were doing it with real people.

HARRISON: It was sort of like the Zagat guide, but online, interactive. I have a new company called Red Crow, which looks to fund medical startups, doing equity crowdfunding. There’s a whole change in the laws. You can now advertise. And, in fact, they’ve also made it so that people who are not accredited investors can invest in riskier startups.

HEARST: Non-publicly traded?

HARRISON: You can’t raise over a million dollars. We’ve chosen only medicine. What’s interesting is there’s this vertical audience: The very same people who might be informed investors are the “doctor-preneurs.” They’re the same people who give you crowdsourced information: “Is this a good idea? Would I use it?” So we’ve taken some of the Garageband ideas and re-used them.

HEARST: What else are you working on?

HARRISON: I started a company that is finding a field antidote for snake bites. I just came back from a big meeting with Eli Lilly. They developed this chemical that is off-patent. So it’s already gone through stage-one safety trials and things like that. It’s a kind of agonist. It seems to have an effect on almost every poisonous snake. So we think it could be eventually like an EpiPen that you could carry with you.

HEARST: Very cool.

HARRISON: And it would save your life. The branding of antivenom is so perfect that everyone thinks the problem is solved. And yet antivenoms have plenty of problems. And if you don’t take the perfect antivenom, it’s not very effective. [Snake venom] changes species to species. There’s speciation every, like, 30 miles. Even the diet the snakes were eating could change what their venoms are like. We’ve made huge progress in this. We’ve gotten funding.

HEARST: How’d you get interested in that?

HARRISON: I had a party and met a bunch of neuroscientists. There were a bunch of smart people in the kitchen, and I said, “Does anyone here have a great idea they haven’t done anything with?” And a guy says, “Well, I have this idea.” And then he told me the depth of the problem. It’s gigantic. More people die of snake bites than all neglected tropical diseases combined, once you take malaria away. And with the funding from the Gates Foundation for malaria, you could hardly call that neglected. There’s even a film been made, partially because of us, called “Minutes to Die.” I’m trying to launch the snake-bite company, which is called Ophirex, trying to get it to be a drug on the market.

HEARST: I would think the military would be into it, big time.

HARRISON: They really are, so we’ve gotten grants from them.

A BRUSH WITH FACEBOOK

HEARST: So are you spending more of your time on technology and investment and less on music?

HARRISON: Yes, I would say I’m spending more on that. But I did produce a wonderful Mexican punk band called Le Butcherettes.

HEARST: You always have been interested in Art, capital A.

HARRISON: Yeah.

HEARST: You could have been an architect.

HARRISON: It’s still a great interest. Carol and I were very involved in the redesign of our house. I had gone to the Harvard Architecture School for one semester. And a guy who was in school with me came out, and he helped. But I was the one who went and filed the plans with the county. Which was an interesting thing. Actually, there was an advantage to it because if there was a mistake, they tried to help you rather than getting mad at you. You were a town homeowner.

HEARST: What were your family’s interests?

HARRISON: My father was in advertising and my mother was a painter. My grandmother was a painter. My aunt was a photographer and a painter. My mother and my aunt had gone to Cranbrook and studied with Charles Eames, and I think my aunt and Ray Eames were really, really close friends. They were both students who ended up marrying teachers there.

HEARST: I remember when we were college students, you were not a music major, you were in visual studies.

HARRISON: I thought I would become an architect. As it worked out, I concentrated more on painting and sculpture. I took filmmaking and animation.

HEARST: It sounds like you spend a lot of time on technology and that people in your creative circle are technology people as well as traditional artists.

HARRISON: That’s exactly right. I mean, I thought I was going to be a scientist when I went to Harvard. I think I have a pretty good knack at being a generalist.

HEARST: You were always interested in business as well.

HARRISON: Yes, serving on boards, too. At one point, Garageband was the fastest-growing music app on Facebook, and everyone thought I was going to make a lot of money. And then, in fact, Apple did want to buy it. And, foolishly, the CEO turned Steve Jobs down.

HEARST: He could be a tough bargainer.

HARRISON: What I learned is that Steve’s bargaining technique with people was, “I’m going to give you a fair price, maybe better than a fair price. But I don’t want to negotiate. I don’t want to get into horse trading.”

HEARST: I think Warren Buffet does things the same way: “I’ll give you a price, if I’m interested at all, I’ll name a price, and that’s what I’m willing to pay. So we’re done bargaining now.”

HARRISON: I had a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker the summer they came out from Harvard. I knew Sean Fanning, too. My friend Tommy Lipnick said, “You can get free stock in Facebook; we’ll give them advice.” So we had a conversation. I was talking to Zuckerberg a little about Harvard, but he didn’t want to talk about it. And, eventually, I just started eating, had some sushi, and Sean Parker and my friend talked. They never asked me to invest. I said to Sean later, “You didn’t ask me to invest then.” And he goes, “No, but if you said, ‘I’d like to invest’ we would’ve taken it.” I might’ve been, like, within the first three people after Eduardo [Saverin, Facebook’s co-founder].

HEARST: You don’t often find people that are competent creatively and have a good business mind at the same time. That’s rare.

HARRISON: The snake-bite company is my idea of giving back to the world. One of the wonderful things about making albums or even making a film is that you work on it and even if it takes three or four years, it’s finished; it comes out. You’re done with it, and you move on.

HEARST: As you get older, you have less time available. If I make a bad investment, OK. All right. Stop. In investing, it’s much easier to be a good buyer than a good seller. The ability to say stop, or shut it down, or forget it, is tough.

HARRISON: I agree with that and about less time. I have that feeling, too. My father died when I was pretty young.

HEARST: How did that affect you?

HARRISON: I was 34, I think, when he died. 33, 34. I sort of felt I had all the time in the world. And when he died, it was like, no, you don’t. There’s that statement, you know, a man never becomes a man until his father passes away

HEARST: Are you active in politics? Or the environment? Of course, the medical devices would save lives.

HARRISON: Well, the environment. I’m still on the board of one of these biochar companies. It’s in England and was started by VenEarth [an investment company in which Harrison is a partner].

HEARST: What do they do?

HARRISON: They were making kilns in order to make biochar. It’s a way to sequester carbon. It’s based upon these man-made soils in Brazil, developed by the pre-Columbian Indians. Basically, it’s made by burning garbage without oxygen. And that changes the carbon so that the bacteria do not want to eat it.

HEARST: So, what happens? It doesn’t get into the CO2 system?

HARRISON: No, it doesn’t.

The Talking Heads reunited for the 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in New York. From left, Tina Weymouth, David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison. WIREIMAGE

The Talking Heads reunited for the 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in New York. From left, Tina Weymouth, David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison.

TRUE STORIES

HEARST: What’s next for you?

HARRISON: I want to play more music. I think maybe I should start painting again. I also want to write a book.

HEARST: You should.

HARRISON: I want to call it “My Favorite Stories.” And it’s going to be things like this today. We’re sitting around talking, and I want to tell these sorts of iconic stories that happened, many of them when we were at Harvard —

HEARST: (Laughs) Let me think about that.

HARRISON: There was a degree of openness and risk-taking then, and also society was more forgiving.

HEARST: I definitely think we did some risk-taking.

HARRISON: We did things then … we were also experimenting with leftist politics and stuff like that.

HEARST: I do think kids today — and I see it in my own kids — they’ve lived through AIDS, they’ve lived through 9/11 and its reverberations and aftermath, so they’re a little more cautious. They’re experimenting, but I think they’re aware of risk. It’s on their minds more than it was on ours: We were going to live forever.

HARRISON: When I grew up [in Wisconsin], I would leave the house at like eight in the morning on my 20-inch bike and drive down to a beach, be there all day long. And all I did was be home for dinner. My mother had no way to get in touch with me.

HEARST: And she wasn’t worried. No cellphone.

HARRISON: She knew which beach I was supposedly going to, but I didn’t always stay there. There were plenty of things that could’ve happened. We did dangerous things like climb trees, and they were all above cement, and I could’ve fallen and broken my neck.

HEARST: Madeline Levine, the psychologist, asked a group of us parents, “At what age do you let your kids ride public transportation?” She asked for a show of hands. We turned out to be so conservative.

HARRISON: I understand that.

‘I’VE GOT A PLAN B’

HEARST: So how did you get all the way to the West?

HARRISON: The question became: “Where could I be a record producer?” I didn’t want to raise our kids in L.A. We thought about Austin, Texas. We thought about Vancouver. We even thought about places like Sydney and Hong Kong. That was a little far away from Carol’s parents. San Francisco has a certain structure; because of the Summer of Love, there are recording studios. And there are also people who know how to fix equipment. And there’s old classic equipment because people started collecting it back then. I also knew all the synthesizer manufacturers were here. I also thought, “If being a record producer doesn’t work, I know there’s the collision of technology and music.”

HEARST: Plan B.

HARRISON: I’ve got a Plan B. And I have friends here. And it’s beautiful. I’ve always enjoyed it when I’m here.

HEARST: The fact that you can be in an urban setting and 20 minutes later, you can be in the country, and an hour from now, you can be in the mountains.

HARRISON: It’s amazing.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Keep reading: Anne Gust Brown talks about governing and life with Jerry