If you didn’t know better, you might suspect that some film directors and recording artists hire T Bone Burnett to produce their music not so much because he’s got a great ear but because he’s got a smart mouth. He might be rock ‘n’ roll’s most engaging raconteur and master of bon mots, as we again discovered when we sat him down in the office of his home studio over a period of hours and days in advance of his receiving the Maestro Award at this year’s Billboard/Hollywood Reporter Film & TV Music Conference.
Much of that conversation appears in the current print edition of The Hollywood Reporter, but here is more of what Burnett had to tell us about Inside Llewyn Davis, his latest collaboration with the Coen brothers; The Diving Board, his just-released Elton John production; his not entirely amicable exit from Nashville; and his favorite (or maybe least favorite) subject, the digital revolution.
What did you and Elton John relate about most?
We’re the same age, just about. And we both maintained our love of doing it, really above everything else. Why in the world does Elton get up and fly around the world to play hundreds of shows? He could have rested on his laurels long ago. But the reason he does it is because he actually loves to do it. It’s like breathing for him. It’s part of life. And I’ve got the same kind of affliction. When I first went into a recording studio, I heard music a whole new way, and I’ve been trying to figure out what that was ever since. I fell in love with sound. … How you can twist it and shape it. And also the idea that nothing was there and then something was there. Now, Elton, he spends more time live, and that’s a beautiful thing, too, because you do it and then it’s gone. Even though people are making YouTube clips while you play. [Laughs.]
You use some digital technology, but you’re not the biggest fan. What do you say if people call you a Luddite?
I’ve been A/B-ing equipment for 50 years now, and I’ve gone with the best sounding technology at every juncture. We still use analog tape as our storage medium, because it’s the most durable, reliable and highest quality storage medium we have. Digital is terrible. It’s not archival, because it’s turning over every 10 years at the longest. People who were working in ProTools6 five years ago can’t even access their masters anymore. None of the plug-ins work, nothing is supported. So you’re working in a very impermanent medium. Which is cool if you don’t care. When I started out, I didn’t think we were working in any kind of permanent medium. If I had, I would have worked a little harder, I can tell you that! When I started this just about 50 years ago, I didn’t think anything that we were doing would be around by now. Now I’m concerned that everything will be around that I’m doing! [Laughs.] So there’s different stakes.
Also I think that with every new technological development that comes along, we have to ask ourselves, does it make us more human, or does it dehumanize us? Certainly digital sound has dehumanized us and it’s taken away so much of what we hear, without telling us. We have better stuff in the iPhone now to make records with than when they were converting all these beautiful analog records that were made over a century. The switch was made way too soon.
Just pure electronic music, the sine wave is not interesting to me, the simple, primary tone. Every note you hit on a piano has every other note in it at some volume, so it’s a very complex sound. With a computer, you hit a note, and it’s just that note. And it’s sad. [Laughs.] Computers are pathetic. I feel sorry for them. They have no feelings. They have no soul. That’s why they have emoticons.
Audio aside, why do you find the digital revolution disturbing?
The entire infrastructure that supported the world of music for a century has been dismantled, and in its place we’ve got these little things, these little handheld devices. The worldwide web was supposed to give everybody access and democratize everything. It was supposed to create a level field and increase the middle class and everybody had more access and more information. But now anybody can say anything and nobody cares. This is the problem of ubiquitous data.
And what’s happened in reality is that the power’s been consolidated in very, very few companies, and the middle class of musicians really has just been wiped out. I mean, the Internet has been an honest-to-God con.
It’s as if the Grateful Dead and Metallica got into a fight. This whole thing went down in northern California! The Silicon Valley cats were acid freaks and loved the Dead — not all of ’em, but the vast majority. The whole Internet grows out of Grateful Dead culture. The Grateful Dead was not a recording band; they were too high to record. They didn’t mind that their fans would tape their shows and pass them along. It was just spreading the word. They didn’t value the tapes; they were live performances. That’s where their art was, all that live improvisation. That’s the way the Internet went, because those are the people controlling it. The Internet went into: “Everything wants to be free, give your stuff away, pass it around, we don’t care about the definitive version — the hive mind will take care of it. Leave it to the wisdom of the crowd, that’ll work it all out, and everything will be fine in the end.” And by the way, the Grateful Dead’s business is a complete travesty — now. The other camp was Metallica, who said, “No, we like to play live, but we also want to create the definitive version. So we want to maintain copyright; we don’t want to do this free thing.” But naturally, the people who were offering things for free won in the short term. In reality, we all lost.
The car industry gets decimated and people go into apoplexy. The recording industry gets destroyed and people seem to be sanguine or happy about it, almost, because they’re getting everything for free. If somebody had come down from Silicon Valley 30 years ago and said “I’ve got this new technology, and you’re gonna be able to see all around the world, transfer your stuff all over the world, you’re gonna be able to send things, you’ll be able to see your friends, you’ll be able to hear music — all you have to do is give up your privacy and your royalties,” everybody would have said, “Get the f— out of town! Right now! Get out of here!” Instead, these guys came down with their shtick, and everybody went “Well, how can we make money from this great new technology?” “Oh, you’re not gonna make money from it. Everything’s gonna be free. Just give us the intellectual property we can send around in our pipes, everybody will subscribe, and then we’ll be rich. Not you, though.” [Laughs.] “Don’t ask us what we’re doing with the money. Just make the stuff and send it to us for free.” That’s how much of a straight-up con it’s been. People in Hollywood, we should go up there with pitchforks and torches to Silicon Valley now. Unfortunately, that’s [how sophisticated] our response would be — pitchforks and torches.
You say the system has been dismantled. What about artists taking things into their own hands and soliciting a fanbase?
Promoting yourself and crowdfunding and all that kind of stuff, that’s no way for an artist to live. When I go to one of these conferences and people ask me “How do I market myself on the Internet?” and all that kind of stuff: Look, your fans will market you on the Internet. But if you want to be an artist, get in a community. And if you want to be a musician, practice eight hours a day. I don’t believe in crowdsourcing because you’ll end up doing the same thing over and over again. People tend to want artists to do the same thing, and it is incumbent upon artists to do something that the audience doesn’t want — yet. I’ll tell you this. I won’t follow an artist who will be led by his audience. Because I don’t want to have to follow an artist that I have to lead.
Different producers have different approaches, all the way down to how much time they physically spend with the act. Rick Rubin will disappear for long stretches. But I get the impression you’re somebody who sticks around in the room.
What I won’t do is sit around the studio for hours and hours while somebody practices. Or while somebody tries to punch in a part or something like that. Because that’s just not a good use of my time. And that was a lot of recording for a long time — overdubbing. I hardly overdub at all anymore. Everything’s done pretty much live, because everybody’s so good now.
You had a cameo in Heaven’s Gate — for which your fellow Alpha Band member David Mansfield did the score — in the late ’70s, but it was two decades after that before you really jumped into the film business, with The Big Lebowski. How’d you get hooked up with the Coen brothers?
I didn’t really mean to get into the film business. Really and truthfully, when I heard the Beatles on CD, I said, “Okay, I gotta get into another business.” I realized two things. One, they had let the cat out of the bag, because anybody could have made one of those CDs. It wasn’t like a vinyl album where you had to go out and press it. Anybody could go buy a CD and press it at a workstation. So it was obvious they had released a master of a CD master, and that they were out of their minds. In the short term, record companies raked in a lot of money because of the CD replacement cycle. But it was obvious that they had let the cat out of the bag. So I knew I had to diversify. [Laughs.] I had to look for another line of work, that is to say. It was clear even back that the digital thing was gonna come down like hail on the musicians.
So that’s when I thought, who are the best filmmakers in the world? I’m gonna call the Coen brothers. They had made two movies at that time, Blood Simple, which was completely intriguing, and Raising Arizona, which I watched probably 25 times because it was so meticulously made. It was the first and only time in my life I ever cold-called somebody, because it just seemed like I’ve got to either talk to these people or get them out of my head. I called them out of the blue. I felt strongly that something that I should talk to these guys.
It was another 10 years after that call in 1987 that you finally worked together on a film. Was it an easy transition?
I had been working in the theater with Sam Shepard and Steppenwolf. So I had a sense of telling the musical story to go along with the dramatic story. I learned a lot about directing actors from working with Sam and the way he would give actors adjustments. You talk to actors differently than you do musicians and singers. Fran McDormand said an extraordinary thing when we were doing this movie, Inside Llewyn Davis. She said, “The reason so few great actors make great musicians, and so few great musicians make great actors, is they’re completely opposite disciplines. The actor submerges his own personality and projects another personality, and the musician projects his personality. So while the musician is projecting his personality, the actor is suppressing his.” It’s difficult to do both things at once. It’s like rubbing your stomach and patting someone else’s head — in a different country. I’m not comfortable getting out in front of people and making the great gesture or anything. So maybe I’m more of an actor! [Laughs.]
What has been your best film experience that wasn’t with the Coens?
On Cold Mountain, working with Anthony Minghella was extraordinary. He was a beautiful artist and amazing man. And Crazy Heart was an unbelievable experience, because it was really just like five or six of us said, “Let’s make a movie.” It was just a few people sitting right here in this room.
Are you able to see clearly now the impact of O Brother Where Art Thou?
O Brother Where Art Thou? came out 11 or 12 years ago, so people who are in their 20s now were in their early teenage years when it came out, and it would have made a deep impression on them. All those kids refer back to that film as their portal into this whole world of 20th century American music. There’s also a big trend of 21st century musicians going back through the 20th century and reinterpreting it, redefining it — post-modernism, really — bringing new life into songs that had seemed to be worn through. People come up to me and tell me that was an important record to that generation. We all owe the Coens a lot for creating that portal in the first place.
What happened with you leaving Nashville?
Listen, I only agreed to do 13 shows in the first place. I had no desire to get into episodic television at all. But Callie [Khouri, Burnett’s wife] kind of just happened into this thing. So I did 13 shows, and then she talked me into doing the remaining part of the season, so I did. Network television really is about selling advertising. I don’t hold that against them, it’s just the reality. So everything is driven by what’s gonna sell more advertising. Now, that’s a game I’m happy for them to play. But if that gets in the way of telling the truth, then I’m sorry, I’ve got to go with telling the truth. In the old days in the movie business when I was coming up, all the movie executives used to talk about the actors as if they were petulant babies. And these days, I’m seeing more and more it’s the executives who are the petulant babies.
What was the core difficulty?
I have no idea. I left that months ago. I hardly remember it, to tell you the truth. I’d say it’s the easiest job I ever had. That’s what I say about that, generally. [Laughs.] You know, I hope it does well. I hope it goes for years, because I love Callie.
What was your initial brief on Inside Llewyn Davis?
The Coens’ original idea — the first thing they said to me — was: “Real songs, made-up people.” When you don’t have a character like Johnny Cash whom everybody knows so much about, you have a lot of freedom to turn him into anybody. Jeff Bridges was like that in Crazy Heart. There was no prototype. So we spent six months — Oscar [Isaac] and I, too — creating a history for the guy, creating a life for him, a backstory and his library and all the stuff he listened to and what he dug. Oscar came over here and I sat him right there and made him listen to Tom Waits‘ latest record, Bad as Me. The reason I did that was because I think Waits has created the strongest, most complete identity for an artist, I think, of anyone. With the possible exception of Dylan, but Dylan’s a lot of things. So that’s what Oscar was going to have to do. We had to do in a couple or three months what Tom did in 30 years!
Can you talk about your new label, Electromagnetic Recordings?
There’s a tremendous amount of young talent around and there’s no place for them, because everything’s become research-oriented. So I’ve got a deal with Steve Barnett at Capitol Records group where I can team up with any one of the different labels. I’m not exclusive with Capitol, but I’ll be doing a lot of stuff with them. I want to do a series of shows out of the Capitol studio. Capitol is a great brand that deserves to be kept alive. I don’t want to see it just disappear into an undifferentiated YouTube universe. We want to do it around that iconic building. Because Les Paul built those studios and Johnny Mercer built that building. It’s an important part of America.
What kinds of acts will you be working with?
This group Mini Mansions is a killer young band. They’ve been opening for the Arctic Monkeys, and they write great songs, and they harken back to that great time in pop music in Los Angeles — Harry Nilsson and the Beach Boys and the Beatles and all that. That’s the first one. We’re also doing a Jerry Lee Lewis record. We’re going to go to Memphis, to the ballroom of the Peabody Hotel, where they recorded “Memphis Minnie.” I’m going to record him with a small band — drums, bass and steel guitar maybe. Mostly just him, though. If you get Jerry Lee Lewis in the room, you don’t want to stop him or cover him up. So we have Mini Mansions, who are all in their mid-20s, and then we’re gonna do Jerry Lee Lewis, who’s Methuselah.
And right now you’re working on scoring the miniseries True Detective for HBO. Given the Southern setting, you might have seemed a natural to do a rootsy instrumental score. What made you go almost all-electronic?
The director very specifically doesn’t want any Louisiana-sounding music, like a “here we are on the bayou” kind of thing. So you want it to have a dark, swampy, foggy feeling, but without being literal. I’m amazed at how much I love electronic music scoring. It’s like climbing a very tall mountain. I’ve never even attempted anything like this before on this scale—an eight-hour movie. I was lucky enough to get to go to school with Danny Elfman a couple years ago, and he taught me a lot about scoring a film, and I’m applying that to scoring an eight-hour show. He put me through a master’s class.
I understand you might be setting up residence in Nashville, even after giving up Nashville the series?
We haven’t closed on it yet, but we found a beautiful place there. And of course it’s about a third of what it would be here. Nashville is the Alamo for the music business. All of the young writers, young musicians are all going there. I just signed t Mini Mansions, and I’m talking to them about moving to Nashville. They’re a pop rock & roll band, but they can work out of there like crazy. It’s not country anymore. I mean, Jack White‘s there, the Kings of Leon are there. It’s a power center for music, and it’s about all that’s left, really, it’s the only music center, really. And within a few hours’ drive there are hundreds of gigs. Out of L.A., if you’re a young band, you’ve just about got to drive to Portland for the nearest gig. And everything you need is all there, still. Everywhere else the infrastructure has been almost totally dismantled.
One last trivial question: Where do you keep your Oscar and your Grammys?
I keep one of them down at the Grammy Museum, because they asked for my album of the year [trophy] for O Brother Where Art Thou? to go in the Grammy Museum next to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and I said, “You can have it for as long as you want!” It’s a thrilling idea to be anywhere close to that. But most of ’em, I just keep ’em in the closet. I don’t want to put them out. It makes you think about all the wrong things, you know.