David Byrne

 

Since his days fronting Talking Heads, people have been trying—and failing—to label David Byrne. Much as Byrne's early art-rock tics gave way to an intercontinental, "Afropean" amalgam of grooves, the man himself has become impossible to pin down. Currently he leads an unlikely antipodean existence: He's a champion of aboriginal rhythms—not only in his own songs, but as the founder of "world music" (a term he hates) label Luaka Bop and Internet station Radio David Byrne. He's also an endlessly forward-thinking multimedia icon whose status was cemented earlier this year with a Webby Lifetime Achievement Award recognizing his many efforts in "merging culture with technology." It's fitting, because few other artists embody "multimedia" quite like Byrne: His projects span every medium from photography to PowerPoint presentations to playing an abandoned building like a pipe organ. In between, Byrne has also found time to make more traditional music, most recently reuniting with producer and fellow iconoclast Brian Eno for their first collaboration since 1981's seminal My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Compared to that album's vaguely sinister trip through the dark side of religion, the new Everything That Happens Will Happen Today sounds surprisingly at peace with itself—indicative of Byrne's evolution from the poster boy for Cold War paranoia to bemused postmodern sage. In the middle of his Songs Of David Byrne And Brian Eno Tour (during which he revisited all their work together, including Talking Heads), The A.V. Club spoke with Byrne about outgrowing anxiety, letting the message dictate the medium, and why there will probably never be a proper Heads reunion.

The A.V. Club: Everything That Happens, for lack of a better term, sounds much more "pop" than anything you and Brian Eno have done previously. Were you surprised at the songs he gave you to work with?

David Byrne: Yeah, at first I was surprised by all the strumming acoustic guitars. I thought, "This is a folk record! Are we gonna make a folk record here?" [Laughs.] It's not really, but it had hints of that, and I thought, "Wow, that's not where I expected this was going to go at all." But it's fine. I had no idea if it was poppy or not, because if you listen to tracks without vocals, you kind of don't know what it's going to be.

AVC: What were you expecting?

DB: Well, Brian played me a couple tracks in his studio and said, "These are a couple things I wasn't able to finish." So I had an inkling that they weren't ambient tracks or something like that. I thought, "Yeah, I think there's something there I could sink my teeth into, or turn into a song of some sort." But I had to let it sit for almost a year, that first batch of things he gave me. I don't know, maybe I had trepidations about getting off on the right foot, and what approach to take. But once I had that, it rolled pretty quickly.

AVC: How did stretching the collaboration out over years—and also miles, because you guys weren't really in the studio together—affect the way the music evolved?

DB: That doesn't seem unusual at all anymore. For us at this stage of our lives, we've got our hands in a few different pots, so it's nice to be able to keep something simmering. I'll stick with that cooking metaphor. [Laughs.] Just check it every once in a while, and not feel like you have to rush into making a decision. Not that we fussed with it endlessly, but it meant I could write a melody and live with it for a while, and tweak it a little bit, and work on the words at a more relaxed pace than I might have if there were, say, a whole band. Or even just Brian sitting next to me in a studio, wondering where something was going.

AVC: You did an interview with designer Bruce Mao where you talked about the nature of collaborations, and in it you said, "Someone always has to be the boss, and veto power has to reside somewhere." When you're working with Brian, who gets to be the boss?

DB: Oh, that's a good one! Well, to start with, we avoided that issue partly by delineating our responsibilities. I would write a tune and some words to sing on top, but I wouldn't tell him what to do with the tracks—although I might edit them a little bit, to make a chorus repeat or something. And vice versa: He wouldn't, unless he felt very strongly about it, suggest words or melodies. So I think that helped, that we each felt secure in our zones. But near the end, when we were choosing tracks and doing mixing and editing, there were a couple moments where we had small disagreements about whether one track was too long, or what songs should be put on the record, that kind of thing.

AVC: So who had veto power?

DB: The mixing to some extent fell under my supervision, because Brian got busy with U2 again. Pat Dillett, whom I work with a lot, was doing a lot of the mixing. We were constantly sending stuff to Brian, and he would comment back, and we would take his suggestions and implement them. But I don't remember any of us saying, "This is the mix. Take it or leave it." [Laughs.] Or, "This is what I want. It's gotta be this way."

AVC: So in this collaboration at least, one person actually wasn't the boss.

DB: To some extent, yeah. So maybe I was wrong in saying that! Or maybe it's just that because the areas we were working in were so separate, it allowed that to happen more easily.

AVC: You've also said that when collaborating like this, you tend to write lyrics based on what you think the other person will like. Judging by the lyrics here, you must have assumed Brian was in a pretty happy place.

DB: [Laughs.] Yeah. I mean, there's always a dark quality to his tracks, but most of the time, his stuff is in major keys. There's a contradictory thing going on, where the sounds are dark and squiggly and sometimes kind of creepy, but the key is usually major—which implies a kind of uplift. It's a nice little balancing act. I felt I had to make the verbal equivalent of that.

AVC: Do you see this as an optimistic record?

DB: Yeah, I do. And I was really surprised that I would write things that were optimistic, considering all the things I read in the newspapers. But there are quite a few songs where there's a litany of disasters and apocalyptic imagery, and then there's a kind of hopeful chorus. Which, to me, is indicative of… something.

AVC: How do you maintain your optimism in the midst of one of the most pessimistic periods in our existence?

DB: Yeah, it's pretty hard not to be completely cynical these days. Well… Take this tour. We recently went through Nashville and made contact with musicians that I know there. Went through Memphis the next day and visited the son of Bill Eggleston, the photographer. Went to the Stax Museum. Teeny Hodges, the guy who co-wrote "Take Me To the River," came by and sat in with us, and he brought all his brothers who played on those records. And now we're here in Austin. So being on tour, I get to see that there's a lot that's great about this country. Sometimes sitting at home in New York reading the newspaper, it's hard to say that. But if you have a couple days like that—hearing what people are doing, talking to them, listening to them talk about the past—you have to go, "It's not all bad." There really is some wonderful stuff out there. People who are going on and doing what they do, and making great stuff despite all this other shit that's going on.

AVC: Your persona used to be defined by anxiety, but it seems as though you've attained an inner peace in recent years. What do you attribute that to?

DB: Part of it is just age. I think I had a mild case of Asperger's as a younger guy, but that typically just wears off after a while. For some people, anyway. I also give music and performing a lot of credit, because one of the things that made me feel like I had to get up onstage and I had to write was because I was so socially inept. That was the only way I could communicate. And I can follow this arc and see that there was a point where the music became more hopeful and more transcendent and more groove-oriented. You could see it in performances, too—this thing going on between the "anxious" guy and the guy who's squirming out of that. I found music to be the therapy of choice. I guess it is for a lot of people. [Laughs.] But I was lucky enough that I could also write it and perform it. The writing and the performing became cathartic.

AVC: You once said that you believe an artist's creativity comes from torment. Do you still feel that way?

DB: I think I do. I guess I do. As much as I think I'm less tormented now than I was before, I don't think my work has suffered—although it is really different. Deep down, I know I have this intuition or instinct that a lot of creative people have, that their demons are also what make them create. And that if they were going to go into therapy or take Prozac or whatever and fix their demons, then their creativity would immediately cease. I don't think it's exactly true, but it's a myth that I think a lot of us harbor.

AVC: Would you say you've become a more confident singer over the years?

DB: I guess? [Pauses.] I'm not sure what you mean by that.

AVC: There's that great faux-interview you did in Stop Making Sense where you say, "The better the singer, the harder it is to believe what he's saying."

DB: [Laughs.] Oh, yes! Well yeah, I do still feel that way. When you see or hear a singer or a performer who has this incredible charismatic gift or this incredible voice—who could sing the phonebook and make you cry—they often fall into performing or recording substandard material, because it's so easy for them to pull it off. Whereas somebody who has to try harder, and you can sense that in their performance, you kind of believe it a little bit more. [Laughs.] I see what you did there.

AVC: Concurrent with writing Everything That Happens, you were also working on Here Lies Love with Fatboy Slim—which is a concept piece on Imelda Marcos. Why Imelda Marcos?

DB: It was the disco connection. I've been fascinated for a long time with the lives of powerful people—dictators, whatever—and at some point, I read that she was a habitué of Studio 54, and that she had a disco in her New York townhouse, and that she'd turned the roof of the Manila palace into a disco. I thought, "Wow, here's a powerful person—a quasi-dictator—who kind of comes with her own ecstatic soundtrack, with grooves and everything." [Laughs.] My original thought was, "What if it was like an evening in a dance club, but instead of it just being the DJ building waves and crests of beats, it actually told the story of someone's rise and fall in kind of a continuous DJ mix?"

I don't think it's gonna end up quite like that, but that was the idea—that that kind of heady feeling in a dance club could be related to the ecstatic feeling of someone who wields a lot of power. Someone who maybe has good intentions, and sometimes those good intentions get betrayed. I'm still working on it. I'm doing a record of it where different singers sing every song. It's mostly women, and I'm working on getting the last few now. I'm hoping that Shirley Manson will record one while I'm passing through L.A. She's up for it, but right now she's acting in a TV drama.

AVC: Ah, The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Yes, she's busy morphing into toilets.

DB: [Laughs.] Yes, that's the one.

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AVC: Speaking of TV dramas, you've also been doing the score for Big Love—and considering the things you've written about religion and even Mormonism specifically, it seems like an odd pairing. Like, "We have a show about devout Mormons. Let's get David Byrne!"

DB: [Laughs.] Here's the connection: The executive producer of the show is the same guy that produced Stop Making Sense. Hollywood, you know, it's all about those connections. So he called up and just said, "Hey Dave, give it a try, and if you have fun, then keep doing it. And if you don't, then just walk away." So my thought was, "Let me see if I can do things that sound like hymns, and imply what the characters feel, which is a kind of spiritual or religious justification behind whatever it is they're doing." Although what you're seeing is this kind of convoluted drama, you're constantly reminded by the music that there's this religion and faith informing a lot of their decisions. At least, that was my idea. It didn't always pan out.

AVC: Is there a difference between that faith and the sort of faith expressed in your music?

DB: Oh, yeah. A world of difference. I mean, they overlap. There's a kind of "ecstatic surrender" aspect that's in the shared part of that Venn diagram. But in organized religion, there's also kind of the safety of retreating to a proscribed behavior that a whole social group does. You feel safe in the arms of this world, and all your questions get answered. Whereas the other circle is more independent. An "indie religion." [Laughs.] But there's an overlap.

AVC: Speaking of faith, you self-released Everything Will Happen with almost no marketing push. The last time we spoke to you—and to be fair, it was seven years ago—you expressed your doubts about the Internet's ability to market music. Would you say your attitude has changed?

DB: I'm still not convinced that what we're doing is going to work totally. Maybe eventually. I talked to my sister, and she said, "Where's your record?" And I said, "It's online! I can e-mail it to you." [Laughs.] A record existing online, but not having a physical copy? No, we're not quite there yet. The idea of just allowing word of mouth to dribble out there via the Internet or whatever… Eh. It works to some extent. We paid back the costs of making the record and the costs of the e-commerce aspects of the website. Which is great, but we haven't made enough for any sort of musician or composer to make a living doing that. Until we get to the point where somebody can make a record and make enough to pay the rent for the time it took to make it… Yeah. It's still not quite doable, I don't think. But it's getting there.

AVC: According to that infamous article you did for Wired ["David Byrne's Survival Strategies For Emerging Artists"], you obviously followed the self-distribution model here. But is that a viable model for anyone that hasn't already achieved a certain level of success—that hasn't been through the larger models like you have, and become something of, to use a term you hate, a brand?

DB: Yeah, probably not. Unless they have some fluke, viral kind of song or video or whatever that everybody wants to pass around, it's pretty unlikely that anything like that is going to work for somebody who's completely unknown. But the good thing now is that you can kind of mix and match things. An artist can do part of that, and then they can also trade off maybe some of their royalties, or some of their money for some marketing. It doesn't have to be a traditional record business model, where it's all or nothing.

AVC: You've become known for, as you call it, "working in parallel"—moving from one medium to another, often concurrently. When you're formulating an idea, what factors enter into choosing which medium you use to express it?

DB: [Long pause.] Wow. [Laughs.] I'm trying to think of some good examples, but they all seem… All right, I'll choose the bike racks that I've done recently for New York City. Because of the involvement I have with bicycles, the Department of Transportation got in touch with me and said, "Do you want to judge a competition for new bike racks for the city?" And I said, "Of course." And in my reply, I also did all these drawings of my ideas of bike racks for different neighborhoods. You know, a dollar-sign-shaped bike rack for Wall Street, a high-heeled-shoe-shaped bike rack up by Bergdorf Goodman, that kind of stuff. It was just kind of sketched off as a riff. It wasn't meant to be a serious proposal—and besides, I was going to be one of the judges. But they said, "Hey, if you can get these made, we'll put them up."

I guess the only way to answer your question is that when they turn from a drawing to a physical thing, does that make a difference? In other words, would a bunch of drawings that look like New Yorker cartoons or something, would that be enough? Is that the best medium for something like that? Or the painstaking fabrication of making something like that in steel, is that the end result? I don't know. In some ways, people looking at the drawings could say, "That's it. The idea's right there. You could imagine what it would look like. You don't need to realize it." But that's like writing a song and just having a demo on your laptop and not really finishing it up, just because you can imagine where it's going to go. I think in that case, the painstaking and sometimes expensive part of making it and realizing it is necessary, because sometimes people can't make the leap from the little sketch to what it wants to be.

AVC: What about an idea like "Playing The Building"? Does the medium come first on that? Did you wake up and say, "I'd like to turn a warehouse into an instrument today"?

DB: [Laughs.] No. It was in a way very similar. I got asked to do something in a factory space in Stockholm. It's an art center, one of those converted warehouse-type buildings. We knocked around different ideas of exhibiting artwork I've done and this or that. But I also made two or three proposals that involved installing stuff in there instead of just hanging stuff on walls, and that was one of them. Because it's an old building, it had pipes and exposed girders and all those kinds of elements. I knew that if you rapped on them, they'd make noises like gongs or whatever, and I thought, "Oh, if you had a central controller for this stuff, you could activate it all and turn the whole building into an instrument." So it was like being thrown a question or problem to solve, of somebody going, "Can you think of something to do with this?" Rather than me going, "I want to turn a building into an instrument, so where can I do it?"

AVC: That sounds much harder.

DB: [Laughs.] Yeah. Stockholm! That's where.

AVC: You've become known almost as much for projects like that as for your music. Do you see a future where you'll leave music behind entirely?

DB: No, it doesn't seem like it. It seems like I'm still pretty busy with it. The tour's been a lot of fun, and it seems to be working. I can't see leaving that behind.

AVC: The last few years have seen a lot of reunions from bands many never thought would get back together. What's the most you've been offered for a Talking Heads reunion?

DB: Well, at some point I stopped looking at them. Many, many years ago there was one for like $10 million. But that was for a record and a tour and merchandising. It was one of those LiveNation, all-in deals. And when you actually did the math on the expenses, you didn't end up with that much. [Laughs.] And I thought, "You know, that's actually not that good of an offer once you actually do the math." It sounds incredible, but that's how much money they're making. That's not how much money you get. Besides… I mean, I went to see Os Mutantes when they did their reunion a couple years ago, but other than that, I don't think I've had any great urge to catch any of those shows. It doesn't seem like a creative rebirth on the part of any of them. It's just nostalgia.

AVC: Meanwhile, the influence of your early music has become really pronounced in a lot of younger bands. Have you picked up on that?

DB: Sometimes I can hear it. Other times, people point it out to me. Sometimes, I'll be like, "Hey, have you heard this band? I think they're really good." And they'll go, "Yeah, they sound like you." [Laughs.] Well, I guess it's not that surprising that I would like something that sounds like me. [Laughs.] Especially if it's something that sounds like me from a different time, because I'm not doing that now.

AVC: Does being an "elder statesman" interest you?

DB: I mean, I did write that thing for Wired, but I don't feel like I'm really competent enough to tell somebody else what they should be doing. I remember talking with Arcade Fire after their first record, when they were getting all kinds of offers from major labels, and I don't think I gave them any advice. They survived that whole onslaught pretty well anyway without me.

AVC: Do you think accepting a mantle like that sort of presumes you've reached a creative plateau?

DB: I don't think so. [Pauses.] I think this record that I did with Brian is, in some ways, different than anything either of us have done before.

AVC: I'm not suggesting that you have reached your creative plateau.

DB: Oh, I see. [Laughs.] Oh, good. Well yeah, some people, they do that. Some people, you go, "Hand me that crown! I'm going to put it on, and that's what I'm going to be from now on." It works for some people, but… Yeah.

AVC: If money and time—and maybe even logic—weren't a factor, what would your dream project be?

DB: Oh my gosh. Well, I'd still love to do another movie sometime. But it kind of goes with the territory that, except for a few, people who want to make movies usually kind of scramble for five years or more before they can get one thing made. It's a constant struggle. And of course I think, "I could make a couple of records and do all kinds of other stuff in that time, instead of just going around hustling, and begging, and trying to make deals." It would have to be under the conditions you said: unlimited time and resources. [Laughs.] Which is, you know… It's also hard to imagine. I have trouble imagining what I could do that's beyond the practicality of what I can do. It's not like I go, "Well, I'd really like to be doing this, but I'm doing this, because that's what I can afford, or it's what I have time to do." I don't think I have grand visions that I will never achieve.

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