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Classic Tracks: Talking Heads 'Road To Nowhere'

Engineer: Eric Thorngren By Richard Buskin
Published November 2010

As the first issue of SOS hit the shops in October 1985, Talking Heads were already climbing towards their highest UK chart position. The song was 'Road To Nowhere'. Engineer Eric Thorngren tells the story of its recording.

Talking Heads. From left to right: Jerry Harrison, David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth.Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The track commences with an a cappella vocal ensemble backed by an angelic chorus before segueing into a jaunty, accordion‑embellished melody that belies the bleak lyrics about our aimless, meaningless lives:

"Well, we know where we're goin'

But we don't know where we've been

And we know what we're knowin'

But we can't say what we've seen.”

There aren't many artists who can convincingly dress up a depressing topic with a catchy, upbeat, eminently danceable musical arrangement. Yet Talking Heads managed it with 'Road To Nowhere', a UK Top 10 hit that gleefully condemned the prevailing yuppiedom and rampant consumerism of the mid‑1980s.

The closing track on the Little Creatures album that also spawned the hit single 'And She Was', 'Road to Nowhere' actually peaked at number six on the British chart, and although it didn't crack the Top 50 on the Billboard Hot 100, it represented the mainstream apotheosis of an erstwhile art school band whose often‑experimental output comprised an eclectic mixture of punk, pop, funk, world music and the avant‑garde. The group's previous album, Speaking In Tongues (1983), had consisted of joint compositions arising largely out of jam sessions by the quartet of singer/guitarist David Byrne, drummer Chris Frantz, bassist Tina Weymouth and keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison, recorded in tandem with no less than 10 backing singers and musicians. But Little Creatures saw Byrne resume his position as band leader and chief composer, on an even more radio‑friendly pop record that utilised other musicians only to embellish the core foursome.

After starting life with the working title of Wild Infancy when rehearsals commenced in February 1985, the album's name had transformed into In Defence Of Television by the time Talking Heads were ready to start recording at New York City's Sigma Sound Studios later that same month. Sitting behind the MCI console in Studio 4 was engineer Eric 'ET' Thorngren, who had just mixed a Talking Heads live album and who, on Little Creatures, also assisted the group members in their combined efforts as producers.

"They rehearsed a lot,” Thorngren says. "Chris and Tina had a loft in Long Island City, Queens, and all of them routined the material there so that, once they got to Sigma, they pretty much knew the arrangements. Still, Talking Heads liked to experiment in the studio, and some songs would therefore change quite a bit from the demo.”

Eric Thorngren

A native New Yorker who began singing and playing guitar in his mid-teens, Thorngren founded a band named Bulldog with two former members of blue‑eyed soul group the Rascals — guitar player Gene Cornish and David Byrne, New York, 1985.drummer Dino Danelli — in 1972, and it was the recording of a couple of albums with this outfit that sparked his interest in engineering.

"When I was in the studio, I noticed that the sanest guy was usually the engineer,” he remarks. "At that point, I thought I'd like to get in with the same crew and use my fingers to dabble in not only my own career, but other people's, too.”

Accordingly, by the middle of the decade Thorngren was employing a TEAC four‑track machine, as well as a small mixer, to record the demos of fellow musicians, and thereafter he secured a job at All Platinum Records in Englewood, New Jersey. Subsequently renamed Sugar Hill Records, this involved him in early‑'80s projects with rap artists such as Grandmaster Flash, Grandmaster Melle Mel, the Sugarhill Gang, Crash Crew and Funky Four Plus One. A 1984 assignment in England to mix the only studio album by the ex‑Squeeze pair of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook resulted in their manager, Shep Gordon, introducing Thorngren to Island Records' Chris Blackwell, who then handed him the job of selecting and mixing the tracks for the Legend greatest hits compilation of Bob Marley & the Wailers. It is still the best‑selling reggae album of all time.

It was all a case of networking. While Thorngren was working on Legend at Compass Point in the Bahamas, he encountered the husband and wife team of Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, who had founded the new wave dance/rap outfit Tom Tom Club as a side project from Talking Heads. Both were familiar with Thorngren's work at Sugar Hill Records, and since they weren't happy with the mix of Talking Heads' recently completed Stop Making Sense live album — the soundtrack to director Jonathan Demme's highly acclaimed concert movie of the same name, part‑financed by Chris Blackwell's Palm Pictures — they asked Thorngren if he'd like to take a shot at it. Permitted by Blackwell to take a break from Legend, Thorngren flew to New York, where he mixed the song 'Once in a Lifetime' on an SSL at Sigma Sound, and was then asked to do the same for the entire album.

This took place not only at Sigma, but also at Soundworks and Right Track. At that time, Sigma was Talking Heads' favourite studio, and ET found himself back there after he'd been asked to record the band's next album, Little Creatures.

Sigma Sound Setup

The live room at Sigma Sound, New York.

Founded in 1968 by Joe Tarsia, the original Sigma facility in Philadelphia housed Studios 1, 2 and 3, whereas the New York branch, opened in the late 1970s and featuring a couple of SSL rooms, started with the MCI‑equipped Studio 4.

"I was familiar with the MCI console because I'd worked on both a 500 [Series] and 600 at Sugar Hill,” Thorngren explains. "The one at Sigma was a 28‑channel 500 with Allison Research automation, and that's what we used with a 24‑track Studer A800.”

Whereas Tina Weymouth played her DI'd bass in the control room, listening to the Yamaha NS10s on which Eric Thorngren did most of his monitoring, Chris Frantz's drum kit was on the right side of the live area, Jerry Harrison was in a nearby booth with his Hammond, Emulator and DX7, and David Byrne was in a booth to the left. There, playing a Fender Strat — recorded direct, as well as through a Laney GH120 amp that was miked with a Shure SM57 centred on the speaker in a smaller, adjacent booth — Byrne sang into a Neumann U87. This went through the console's mic pre and a Universal Audio LA2A going to tape.

"For the drums, I used [Neumann U] 87s as overheads, a KM84 on the hi‑hat, [Sennheiser] 421s on the toms and 57s on the top and bottom of the snare,” Thorngren recalls. "I've always used 57s on the snare, and in those days I was even into using a 57 on the bass drum. During my time at Sugar Hill, I'd learned that the 57 would give a really serious edge to the hit, so I'd use it on the bass drum and I would do a unique thing with it — I would split the mic pre and send one side through an 1176, with a slow attack and as fast a release as I could get. Then I would go through an Orban equaliser and boost, like, 80Hz, and from the Orban, which was adding so much noise, I would go through the audio chain of a Kepex II noise gate. At the same time, taking the multed output of the mic pre, I'd send that into the key input of the Kepex.”


Eric Thorngren (left) in the studio with David Byrne and Jerry Harrison.

Thorngren spent a day setting everything up before the tracking sessions commenced the following morning at Sigma Sound. Then, once the band members ran through a particular number that was being considered for recording, he would make any necessary adjustments to the miking, as well as to the setup of the drums and various amps.

"We could switch around really quickly for different ideas,” he says. "I had a Hammond and Leslie set up for Jerry while his Emulator and DX7 were DI'd, and so after we'd tracked a specific song we were ready to overdub certain parts.”

These, as it happens, didn't include David Byrne's lead vocals, which were retained from his guide performances.

"He was so great,” Thorngren asserts. "He wasn't going for it, he was just doing the song, but he had such personality in the performances while we were tracking that it was like 'Jeez, how are you going to beat this?' It created a sort of conundrum, because the pick sound of his guitar was on his [vocal] microphone, and that added to the sound of his guitar. However, if we wanted to fix a line, he had to go in and strum the guitar while he was singing or else there would have been a hole.”

Thorngren's appreciation for Byrne's talents only increased in 2004 after ET and Jerry Harrison remixed all the Talking Heads albums in 5.1 for the Brick box set.

"When I went back and listened to all that stuff, I realised David is probably one of the best rhythm guitar players who ever lived,” he says. "It freaked me out. I always knew his timing was great, but hearing his playing was mind boggling. He's an amazing talent.”

Underscoring this point is the fact that, while working on Little Creatures, Byrne was simultaneously doing the same for Talking Heads' next album, True Stories, which would serve as a sort of soundtrack to the film of the same name that he wrote, directed and starred in. (Some of the songs were actually performed by actors in the movie.) Consequently, when Eric Thorngren switched to Sigma Sound's much larger, SSL‑equipped Studio 5 for the mix of Little Creatures, the band members would often be in the control room, rehearsing some of the songs for True Stories.

"I would get through a mix or two,” Thorngren recalls, "and then I'd switch the board over and record some tracks for True Stories on the other side of the glass, before returning to the Little Creatures mix while they rehearsed some other tracks. As it turned out, when we did a track from True Stories after they had rehearsed it and figured out how to put the song together, David's vocals were the ones we used. They were great. He would put the track together as one solid thing and it worked beautifully.

"We would spend four or five hours on a song and we'd never compile from multiple takes,” Thorngren says. "We'd use one complete take without cutting between different versions. You know, it's all down to the drummer, and Chris has unbelievable timing. In fact, the whole band was really tight and at the top of its game back then, so I had no problems with tuning or any of that stuff. The only challenge I faced was with the tape recorders and the tape.

"After tracking something with the A800, I'd make a slave on another 24‑track machine and then do the overdubs without dragging the drums across the heads all that time. Well, the studio brought in an Otari 24‑track, but when I bounced things across and listened to the Otari to make sure everything was going good, the bass guitar sounded like it had hair on it. I was going crazy. Back then, I believe we were using 456 [Ampex tape], so I switched tapes and the fuzz was still there, but then I got them to bring in another A800 and the fuzz went away. Everybody was scratching their heads as to why this was happening, but we never got to the bottom of it. Perhaps it was the tape configuration.”

More Washboard!

Just over a week was spent recording the album's basic tracks, before most of the overdubs were then done on the SSL in Sigma's Studio 5. Among the most notable additions to 'Road To Nowhere' was the accordion suggested by Jerry Harrison, who played a guide part on the DX7 before Jimmy Macdonnell of Cajun outfit Loup Garou replaced it with the real instrument. Harrison also added a Hammond part, Saturday Night Live bandleader Lenny Pickett provided some sax, and this was augmented by the contributions of backing singers Erin Dickens, Diva Gray, Lani Groves, Gordon Grody and Kurt Yahijian; percussionist Steve Scale; and washboard player Andrew Cader.

"For the accordion, I used a FET 47 on Jimmy Macdonnell's left hand, the low end, and an 87 on his right hand, the high end,” Thorngren recalls. "Even if he wasn't playing a lot of chords with his left hand, just the leakage from the right hand and the time difference would open it up a bit.

"Andrew Cader played the washboard with spoons, he was unbelievable, and I tried a few mics on that before ending up with an [Electrovoice] RE20. With a condenser mic, it sounded really glassy and grating on the top, and there were no ribbons around in those days — they'd thrown them out. So I went with the dynamic mic and it worked really well.

"We recorded most of the album in just over a week, and then, for the backing vocals, I contacted Lani Groves, a very popular singer who I'd known for several years, and when I told her the configuration we were looking for, she put together that whole thing. They did real gospel, and the blend of that with Talking Heads really took the song to another place. I was just floored.”

Thorngren, meanwhile, generally recorded everything as naturally as possible, so that the mix could then be taken in any direction he wanted.

"In those days, having just come from R&B and doing all that rap stuff at Sugar Hill, I was into really clean recordings and I'd save a lot for the mix,” he says. "After all, we might have an idea at the beginning of a song and this could evolve by the time we'd got to the end, so why force it? Also, in order to be mixing as I went along, I'd have to be running automation while I was recording, and in those days I just found that to be too scary. Now, with Pro Tools, it's so much easier, but on the board things would slow down and if you punched in it suddenly might not like you punching in. Sometimes, with the SMPTE tracks, the automation would go flying out, the faders would go to wide open — it was just crazy.

"In the end, I'd have a plan for the type of ambience and effects that I wanted for the whole record, and I'd have it all set up so I could have everything up and running really quick. Then, if we wanted some unique things, like a slap delay or an abnormal drum sound, we would do some alternate patches. At the time, they had Delta Labs delay lines, and when I was at Sugar Hill I had worked in a Westlake room where a lot of stuff was direct. Well, I wanted to add a little reflection off the wall, so I would set up a couple of 30‑millisecond or 45‑millisecond delays, panned out, and I would slightly send the vocal and parts that needed a bit of space, as opposed to just being one little point.

"Along with the LA2A that I would use on vocals for a little compression, I'd also use a Lexicon 224L or EMT 250 for reverb, a Marshall Time Modulator for choruses, a [Roland] Dimension D for the bass, and that would usually be the extent of it.”

According to Thorngren, he and the members of Talking Heads were usually on the same page by the time he started to mix, and so they would leave him pretty much to his own devices until he was ready to call them in to listen.

"When it comes to the mix, I'm not as quick as a lot of people,” he concedes. "I'll usually spend a day‑and‑a‑half to two days on each track, and in the case of Little Creatures this worked out perfectly for them to rehearse the material for True Stories.”

End Of The Road

Jack Skinner mastered Little Creatures at Sterling Sound, courtesy of Eric Thorngren bringing him in on the project, as he did for all of his work back then.

"I had a rapport with Jack, and he would let me fool around with the stuff, too,” Thorngren remarks. "Don't forget, there were a lot of unique issues in those days because you had to get the whole album jammed onto a 12‑inch record, and of course everybody wanted to close with their biggest song on the worst‑sounding groove on the record.” In this case, that song was 'Road To Nowhere'...

"You had to do all kinds of things to massage it so that the last song could have some power,” Thorngren continues, "but you didn't want the record to be too soft. It was always like a game, and so I'd sit in on the mastering to make sure I got the most out of it.”

This he certainly achieved on Little Creatures, which peaked at number 20 on the Billboard 200 and at number 10 on the UK chart, while the Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics poll voted it the best album of 1985. Placing the spotlight squarely on the four main musicians, it successfully tempered their self‑aware embrace of the pop music mainstream with David Byrne's characteristically sardonic lyrics. And although it certainly would have sold in far greater quantities had the band supported the record with a tour at a time when Byrne was focusing most of his energy on the True Stories project, it did at least benefit from the quirky, surrealistic promo videos that he initiated, such as that for 'Road To Nowhere' which he directed with Stephen Johnson and which earned a 'Best Video Of The Year' nomination at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards.

"Little Creatures is the sound of David Byrne falling in love with normalcy,” opined Rob Tannenbaum in his Rolling Stone review. "Though this is a modest, enchanting album, those who equate creativity with complexity will undoubtedly dismiss it as old wave. But with the rest of the pop world still catching up to the brilliant Remain In Light, what could be more subversive than a clean and happy record? This seems to be the message of 'Road To Nowhere', the sly, bubbly single that closes the album. Byrne admits that he's lost, but wanders happily toward nowhere because he's got company. You can hear him smiling, and he doesn't seem to care too much whether we follow or not.”

"David Byrne was such a great lyricist, he'd say things that would just knock me over,” says Eric Thorngren, whose list of production, engineering and mixing credits include Eurythmics, Grace Jones, Robert Palmer, Public Image Ltd, Debbie Harry, Cyndi Lauper, Violent Femmes and, most recently, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and 2AM Club, in addition to the movie soundtracks of Stranger Than Fiction, 30 Days Of Night and Arctic Tale, as well as work on a game for the Xbox 360. "At the same time, the band was so tight, I had no way of touching up anything, except for punching in. Still, one thing that characterises the whole record is its gigantic bass drum sound. Listening to it now, I can hear my influence coming from the dance records that I recorded, where the bass drum had to really be there. And you know what? It worked then and it works now!”

Thanks to Ritch Esra of the Music Business Registry for his help in arranging this interview.  

Choral Interlude

Since 'Road To Nowhere', with its marching snare rhythm and omnipresent accordion, was unlike any other song on the Little Creatures album, Eric Thorngren actually felt that it might be better suited to the Texas setting of True Stories. Yet, while the song's demo was constructed upon the same cadence as that on the finished record, it featured neither the accordion or the a cappella intro, and as such it was one of the tracks that changed a fair bit from the demo stage.

According to the sleeve notes of the Talking Heads compilation Once In A Lifetime, it was Byrne who suggested adding the choral intro, because he felt 'Road To Nowhere' was way too simple and boring. According to Thorngren, it was he who made the suggestion. Either way, it was the latter who created said intro by doubling the harmonies of Frantz, Harrison and Weymouth and blending these with the contributions of some New York jingle singers he knew.