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David Byrne

Whoever labeled David Byrne as "Rock's Renaissance Man" for Time's 1986 cover story couldn't have known how appropriate the title would become. The article coincided with the release of Byrne's first (and, to date, only) film and Talking Heads' seventh, penultimate album, both titled True Stories. Since the band's dissolution, Byrne has remained extremely active, dividing his time between solo work and his Luaka Bop label. Initially a showcase for the Brazilian music that provided a strong influence for his 1989 solo album Rei Momo, Luaka Bop has expanded to document interesting music from around the world. (Just don't call it world music, a label Byrne hates for reasons made clear in his New York Times piece, "I Hate World Music.") From Indian film music to the domestic weirdness of Jim White, Luaka Bop has served up a smorgasbord of the great, the weird, and most recently the lost: Luaka Bop's recent reissue of the beautiful Shuggie Otis record Inspiration Information brought to light the best album 1974 never heard. Byrne has even been forced to concoct his own names for the styles he showcases, such as Afropea, the sound of African music colliding with European styles--or, in Byrne's words, the sound of European nations "colonized by their former colonies." His latest solo album, Look Into The Eyeball, is a typically intriguing effort that finds him collaborating with, among others, Philly-soul mastermind Thom Bell, which suggests that time has done nothing to curb Byrne's impulse toward eclecticism. From his New York office, Byrne recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club.

The Onion: Do you think of yourself primarily as a musician, or a label head?

David Byrne: Half and half. I kind of split my days right down the middle. Before lunch, I'm a label head, and after lunch, I'm a musician. Sometimes things encroach, but I'm pretty good at saying, "That's it," and I go off to my studio or whatever, and say, "Don't call me unless it's an emergency about the label stuff. I'll be around tomorrow morning." Most of the time, it works okay, unless there's some kind of disaster with the label, and that kind of emotionally encroaches. I go to my studios to write, and I go, "Why am I worried about Tom Zé tour dates?"

O: You started listening to diverse forms of music at an early age. When did you first come across Brazilian music?

DB: Pretty late. I think I'd heard stuff in the early '80s, and I didn't like it at that time. I heard some stuff. I heard the same people that I put on a compilation six or seven or eight years later. Jorge Ben, Milton Nascimento, and those folks—the classic Brazilian singer-songwriter guys. I got part of it, but it didn't do much for me, so I put those records away. Years later, I picked up some other records quite by accident, when I was working in San Francisco on the sound mix for True Stories. I had the mornings off, so I would go, sometimes, to Tower Records in North Beach, pick up a few records, and listen to them before I went to work. Then, one day, I picked up some Brazilian stuff that totally surprised me. Kind of psychedelic, but with swinging beats that I liked. And I said, "This is really nice. I'm going to see if there's any more like this." Because you never know if you just got the one record somebody made that was their oddball record, and you're searching the rest of your life for the rest of the records in that genre. There is no genre.

O: It could just be a single thing.

DB: Yes, there are a few of those around.

O: Has there been a form of music that you've been unable to record for Luaka Bop that you've wanted to?

DB: You mean like Broadway show tunes? No. Yeah. There's plenty of stuff that I personally think would go well on the label that we haven't been able to do, if that's what you mean.

O: For instance?

DB: I compiled a bunch of recent flamenco things, really oddball flamenco things. There's one, a recent flamenco record where the guy plays flamenco and sings over a band that sounds kind of like Sonic Youth, with these chainsaw guitars and drones and stuff. [Simulates guitar drone.] And then, over the top, this flamenco voice going... [Makes flamenco noises.] Like he's totally in pain. There's some other stuff like that, and, well, you would think that'd be perfect for us. And the other folks here didn't agree. A number of years ago, I heard another thing, when, during the opening of things in Russia... There were still remnants of stuff from the Glasnost/Perestroika period, where the artists and musicians are just going nuts, doing all kinds of innovative stuff. I heard this symphony this guy made, like this weird tribal industrial thing. It was as if Trent Reznor had written for an orchestra, and had this huge tribal choir sing along. I thought, "This is just amazing. What the hell is going on over there?" And, of course, I thought, "I've got to track down this composer." And it was this middle-aged classical guy, pretty straight, but who saw himself as a complete classical composer. So, when we said, "We're a little label, we do kind of oddball things, and we think that our audience would like what you do," he and his wife just looked at us like, "We are classical musicians. We are not interested in selling our music to these crazy kids." We just thought, "Mister, you are wrong. We are your audience, whether you know it or not, and you ain't gonna get nobody at Sony Classics to put out your shit." We were right. Nobody ever did put out his stuff, which is a shame, because there's this... Anyway, some of the things that we've wanted to put out, we couldn't put out. It's not our own fault. We can blame somebody else.

O: How does your own music fit in on the Luaka Bop label? Do you see it as being of a piece with your other artists?

DB: To some extent. Certainly, in recent years, some of them have sold more than I have, so it's not like... I may have years on them, but as far as the marketplace goes, some of them have got me beat. But, thank goodness, some of them still will listen to me occasionally. [Laughs.]

O: Where do you see your new album fitting into your past work?

DB: It's still got beats, some of the songs. That hasn't changed in a long time. I'm being serious now—they're still songs, and not every record I do is songs, but that has something in common with a lot of the records that I do. I still value the song form as something that is pretty malleable. You can stretch it pretty far before it breaks. I still like that form. That's about it. Other than that, every time I make a record, other than those kinds of things, I hope I'm starting from square one. I know I'm not, but I'd like to pretend I am.

O: My own impression is that with the new one, there's a little more emotional directness than on your last couple of solo albums.

DB: I think I got some of it on the last couple, but certainly there's a lot more than... This one, it's kind of the whole record, instead of just a couple songs. So that's, for me, a big change. That's what I mean by square one. The attempt is, to some extent, to reinvent myself. But maybe use some of the same genetic material.

O: Four years passed between your last album and this one. Do you spend that entire time recording?

DB: A lot. Not going into paid studios, but in my home studio. Then I did a full-length thing of music for a dance company in that time. The record ended up being an Internet-only record. Shows you how good the Internet is at selling stuff, if nobody knows about it. So much for the Internet as a sales medium.

O: You're not big on the Internet?

DB: I think it's fine. I love the e-mail, I love it as a research tool, et cetera et cetera, but as a way of making a community, as a way of introducing something to people, nuh-uh. It worked for Blair Witch, but for the rest of the world, it ain't working that way. People hear about stuff from their friends or a magazine or a newspaper. Get with it, guys. I mean, they had such nerve, those Internet people. Here in New York, and I'm sure where you are, too, they were walking around with their noses in the air, like, "We are it, old farts, we are it." We were all thinking, "They'll fall off that pedestal pretty soon."

O: Do people ask you about your lyrics a lot?

DB: Yeah...

O: Do you feel comfortable talking about them?

DB: When I can. I have no problem with it, but sometimes I just don't know what I'm saying. Sometimes I know what I'm saying, but it's pretty easy, and it's probably like, "He's going to explain that song to me? That one's so obvious. Why doesn't he explain the other ones?" But, yeah, with a lot of them I'm working from kind of an intuitive level, so it's a while later when I realize, "Ah, this is about my feelings about such and such." Of course, I didn't realize it at the time, but that's okay. If I'd known that's what I was writing about, I would become too, whatever, rational and conscious about it. I would start editing it in a way that's too calculating and less gut-emotional. So I try not to self-analyze with the stuff until it's already done.

O: I'm kind of surprised you never did another film after True Stories. Is that still a possibility?

DB: Yes. Not a True Stories 2, but yeah. I've tried a few times. Sometimes I've gotten a... There was one time where I had a good script and locations scouted, but it was kind of a small movie, and the budget came in way too high for a small movie. I don't want to spend, whatever, three years scraping together this money, and having all these people looking over my shoulder, or telling me I have to cast a star so that I can justify this budget. So, some of the projects wouldn't happen for various reasons, but I pitched the last one to some people in L.A. As soon as I pitched it, their eyeballs just rolled, like, "Are you out of your mind?" I just thought, "Oh, okay, maybe they're right." I don't think they're right, but I just think, "What am I doing here?" So I thought, "Okay, next time I'll do what I did with True Stories, and I won't pitch it to anybody. I'll just get it together."

O: It seems like other countries have a better track record in terms of getting music from around the world on the radio. Do you see that trend reversing at all in the United States?

DB: Yeah, I do, little by little. I think that, well, U.S. radio has a hole. There are, like, two people who do all the programming, right? And their record collections are really small. But, aside from that, I don't see any reason why... I could see, easily, people having a radio station that played, whatever, D'Angelo, Radiohead, Björk, some of our records, Shuggie Otis, Jim White. And all those [being played] on the same radio station, and people being fine about it. Some of it being in English, some of it being in other languages, and nobody blinking an eye. I could see that happening. I hear silence on the other end. "Hmm, yeah, dream on." [Laughs.]

O: No, I'd listen to that station. Have you ever tried to do something like that to reverse the trend yourself?

DB: Yeah, I went to some investors here. "Come on, what about let's... the radio here... this is New York, and the radio sucks. Let's start a radio station, come on, guys." [Laughs.] It was kind of like, "No, not here, don't try it here." Someplace else, you might have a chance, but here it's just such a cutthroat... There's a reason why radio is so bad in New York. I did try. The FCC, a couple years ago, was going to make a ruling that allowed for low-power stations. I went to a few different places and said, "Let's do this. Let's do some little station." I went to art institutions or art colleges or whatever, and just said, "Let's do something. You guys put it under your auspices, and I'll help put it together, and then you just keep running it." Well, the FCC kind of bowed to the huge pressure of public radio and a few other lobbyists, and essentially they went back on their word and decided not to do it. So I can't do that, either. Luckily, I'm busy enough. Actually, I don't have any more time in my day to do that.

O: You mentioned that some of your labelmates outsell you now. Are you comfortable with your level of fame at the moment?

DB: Me? I guess I am. I've been at a time when I sold a lot more records than I do now, but who knows? Maybe this record will change that trend. I've noticed that when I am selling a lot of records, certain things become easier. I'm not talking about getting a table in a restaurant. I'm talking about if I say, "Wow, what if we use fluorescent lights on top of the stage," that becomes a doable thing. The good part about it is that sometimes your creative thinking can stretch a little bit further, because the budget will stretch a little further. But, other than that, I'm comfortable. I'm happy that I can walk on the streets, ride my bike, or whatever.