David Byrne is best known for his stint with one of the weirdest and greatest rock bands of all time, but he's kept busy since Talking Heads broke up in 1991. As a musician, he's maintained a steady and eclectic solo career, funneling his worldly interests into soundtracks and pop albums that strain his strange sensibility through increasingly stately songs. On his new solo album, Grown Backwards, Byrne croons through opera arias, string-swept ballads, and wily torch songs—like the sly pro-America ode "Empire"—that undermine their own status as anthems.
Byrne has carved out a big presence in the art world, too. His book The New Sins, a quasi-Bible published in 2001 by Dave Eggers' McSweeney's imprint, was first conceived for an art show in Valencia, Spain, where Byrne distributed the books in hotel nightstands. Readings for the book led to a series of art projects made with Microsoft PowerPoint, the ubiquitous software used for all manner of corporate presentations. A number of Byrne's PowerPoint works were recently collected for Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information, a handsome book packaged with an accompanying DVD. Byrne's merchandise pile also grew last year with Once In A Lifetime, a four-disc retrospective of Talking Heads' career.
The Onion: You work in many different kinds of media at this point in your career. Where do you place your music among the other things you do?
David Byrne: It's different where it sits for me and where it sits in the public perception, I think. And it depends on what segment of the public you talk to. There are still plenty of people that I run into on the street who go, "Talking Heads, love Talking Heads. What have you been doing for the last 14 years?" And I say, "You know, I've been making records, keeping busy. Don't worry, I'm busy." For me, some years it's very much a balance, and for a long time, I tried to keep everything really separate. There have been years, recent years… For my record Look Into The Eyeball, I got a nice advance, enough to pay for the recording and all—mixing and recording strings, arrangers, and all the other costs. But as far as making money goes, I don't think I ever saw any. So for that year, I made more money on [The New Sins] than I did on my records. Time-wise, it's about equal. This year, it's going to be a lot of time spent on music, but I usually end up working on some sort of art stuff on my own, just to clear my head of the music stuff some of the time.
O: Are there certain ideas that drive you to music versus visual art?
DB: In a funny way, music—certainly now—just seems more emotional to me. That's what people say about music, that it has a more direct link to the conscience, the emotional centers, or the brain or heart or whatever. Certainly more than the word, which is something you have to read and then translate, and then it has to affect you somehow. With music, you often don't have to translate it. It just affects you, and you don't know why. It seems almost backwards to me that my music seems the more emotional outlet, and the art stuff seems more about ideas. Whereas maybe years ago, it may have been more of the opposite: My music was more idea-based.
O: How long ago?
DB: Twenty-five years ago, Talking Heads stuff. Sometimes I would write songs based on an instruction I had given myself, like a point of view. There's a song on the second Talking Heads record [1978's More Songs About Buildings And Food] called "The Good Thing." It was an attempt by me… This was my instruction to myself: Write a song that sounds like a bad English translation of a Red Chinese anthem. That's what the song was meant to be. Sometimes I'd get those pamphlets, like Mao in art and literature, and they had this weird filtered language that I loved because it has this approach to English that wasn't quite Japanese mangling of product names or catchphrases, but something close to that. I found that very poetic and appropriate. You could write something in that style, in the style of bad translation. They don't do that so much anymore.
O: Did you have a set of ideas for your new album from the start?
DB: I had played with the same kind of setup—a drummer, percussionist, bass player, myself, and string players—the last time I toured, so some of the songs were worked out then. It's a pretty flexible palette for a band, so I can do really romantic stuff, or I can do beat-driven stuff. It just doesn't restrict me. What else? I wanted, to some extent, to have songs that I thought were beautiful to listen to. I wanted to create something that was tacky, but yet, to be immodest, kind of beautiful. We live in ugly times. The Bush years have been emotional. They've been driving me crazy. Not so much a guy or an administration, but the fact that large portions of the population seem to go along with it and be swept up in some kind of weird, feverish hallucination. I thought that was kind of alienating and frightening. I thought, "There needs to be an antidote to this, or a counter-measure that isn't a direct criticism, but maybe provides an alternative."
O: The song "Empire" sounds pretty direct.
DB: That's a direct criticism. Oddly enough, that song was written more than four years ago, but I couldn't put it on a record. It seemed too cynical and too ironic, just too mean and harsh, despite the fact that it sounds very nice. But it seems really appropriate now. Four years ago, people would say, "We're not an empire, we would never do that, we're much more benign than that." Now, it's basically accepted.
O: Lyrically, it's very deadpan. Where does the irony come in for you personally?
DB: That's the problem I think I have with the song. Taken out of context, somebody else could do it, and then it wouldn't be ironic. It's totally ironic because I'm doing it, and the listener has to know that I don't mean this—and they might not. I mean, some of the lines are totally ridiculous, and nobody could really sing them and expect people to go along with it. But I've thought that about a lot of stuff and been completely wrong. Somebody could pick it up, and I'd get a call from the Monsanto Corporation, and they'd say, "We want to use this song for our new commercial. We like this song." I am really suspicious and frightened by the power of music to do that. It has the power to sway people and be completely misinterpreted, too. One example would be the political campaign that wanted to use "Born In The U.S.A."—I think it was Reagan, actually. That's because they were hearing the sound of the song, and the sound says one thing and the words say something else. That's kind of what this song does: The sound says one thing, and the words and the fact that I'm singing it say something else, which makes it really dicey.
O: What led you to try opera on the new record?
DB: I knew some of the tunes just from casual listening, but I'm hardly an aficionado or an expert. During my last tour, I heard a performance and picked out a couple of the arias, the tunes, that were just great. Take away all the yammering and drama and stuff in between, and you have a great pop song that's got a great tune and is incredibly moving. That was it. It gave me an excuse to see if I could do it. I knew it was in my range, and I thought, "I can do this without all the vibrato and typical opera singing." It took a lot to sing, and I thought I could bring it a little closer to being a song without turning it into Queen or those other pop-opera kind of things.
O: How difficult was it to invoke what you felt in opera with your voice, which is not especially operatic?
DB: I knew I had to at least follow the music and get the pronunciation as good as I could, and that's what I was more worried about. The notes are in my range, but I do want to hit them hard and show off, or pull back as much as I can, so it might actually have more emotional involvement, at least in the way that we're used to. We're used to being met halfway with a song, where the singer doesn't smack you in the face with it, where they ask you to come in and fill in the rest of it. I haven't had any feedback from any opera fans or singers or anything yet, so I don't know. There are a couple places where I kind of took liberties, so I can see people complaining about that. Otherwise, I've stuck my neck on the chopping block and been injured, so I'm kind of used to it.
O: While working on the box set, did you come to re-evaluate the legacy of Talking Heads? How do you think back on the band now?
DB: Doing the box set is one of those things where you get to rewrite your own history to some extent. We could take out some of the songs that we felt weren't as strong as some of the others, so you look better. It makes it look like a more natural progression, like you just went from one more-or-less interesting thing to another. There are not a whole lot of trips and stumbles once you edit out the not-so-good songs. That felt pretty good, to weed out stuff and not to have those moments when you cringe and go, "Did we really do that?"
I was listening last night to this Arthur Russell compilation, The World Of Arthur Russell [a new retrospective of an unsung hero from '80s New York], and he went a whole lot further than Talking Heads ever did in combining club music with the downtown avant-garde stuff. But there still were some similarities. We really accepted that dance music—disco, as it was called then—and the advent of remixes were turning into some interesting things. That whole process was starting to happen then, and we could see some radical innovations happening, not just from Arthur Russell and people like him, but in the general dance community. That was being ignored by pop music. It was unnoticed, a completely separate world. It still is—less so now, but it still kind of is. A lot of the divide is racial, a split between black music and white music. We loved elements of both, and we were mixing things together that were influencing us, and that were in our record collections. I'm proud of that part of our legacy, because that kind of took hold and had a small effect, anyway.
O: That phenomenon in the '80s holds a lot of mystique now. Do you think it was easier to do things like that then as opposed to now? There seemed to be a lot more cultural swirl then.
DB: There was, but not at first. At first, it seemed more like a mixture of the bohemian downtown art scene mixing with the rock 'n' roll scene, with remnants of glam-rock and all that getting mixed together, which was interesting on its own. But then it just turned into this big vortex—hip-hop people mixing with graffiti artists, with fine artists, and with people like ourselves. Artists would pick up instruments and decide that they were going to be a band, and musicians would put down their instruments and decide that they were going to make art. There were kids coming out from the Bronx and Brooklyn, and there was this swirl where it didn't matter what genre you were in. It's hard to imagine that now, at least in those same genres. Most of that stuff, though, was pretty much below the radar. It was not in the commercial charts, so there was none of that pressure.
O: What do you think caused that to fade away?
DB: I might be wrong, but I assumed a part of it faded away because people got careers, whether it was Jean-Michel Basquiat actually starting to make paintings instead of just drawing on the side of buildings, or The Sugar Hill Gang actually having a hit record instead of just playing at parties. It started to be like, "Oh, I've got a career here, this is something serious, I've got to work at it and maintain it." That's not entirely bad, either, the fact that some of those people found ways to make a living at what they were doing, which is better than playing a few parties and doing stuff that was incredibly innovative with nobody ever hearing it.
O: What do you think of all the new bands revisiting that era now?
DB: I'm not aware of everything, but I've heard some things. I heard the new British band Franz Ferdinand, and for once I can actually see the connection to Talking Heads.
O: How did you start working with PowerPoint in an artistic context?
DB: I wanted to do some readings from the New Sins book, and since it's a kind of proselytizing book, I thought I should do it like a sales talk or a motivational meeting. I realized from looking at airline magazines that all of the salespeople and marketers were hunched over these little projectors: They've got their laptops and this program that has their text and their slides and everything that goes into a projector. I thought, "That's what I should use, so then the whole book would have the look of one of those presentations, with slides and text and bullet points and stuff to point to."
One of the good things about the program is that it's super-easy to learn. I learned to put something together in a rudimentary way in about an hour. And it's sort of intuitive, so you can poke around and find out other things it can do. There's a button that makes the show run by itself, so you can turn these into films: slide shows and arrows and animations that never stop, that can be fast or at a more stately pace or whatever. In a kind of primitive, limited way—it is full of glitches, so you can really do some fun stuff with it.
O: Have you done any presentations under unlikely circumstances—say, in an actual corporate environment?
DB: The closest I got to that was when Wired magazine arranged that I got video monitors in the lobby of the Condé Nast building. There was a little label that told you what it was, basically, but other than that, it was just these big monitors with stuff going on. It's basically a corporate building—half of it's Condé Nast, and the other half is some huge legal firm. And one guy, probably from the IT department for one of the magazines, came up to me while I was tweaking the monitors and said, "I don't get it. Why did you use PowerPoint? It would have been so much easier to do it in Flash or some other program. Why would you use something that is full of problems and really limited in what it does?" And the cage I realized I'd walked into was that the people viewing it weren't seeing it in an art-gallery context.
I realized later, as everyone does, that what I should have said was that, of course, I like the limitations and the faults and the clunkiness of the program. I love the fact that it eliminates choices of what you can do, because there's so much you can't do. And having stuff that can do everything is not always a good idea. Having unlimited choices can paralyze you creatively. So I like the fact that you can only do certain things, and some of the things it can do, it can't do that well, but it does them in its own kind of way. If you accept that, it's okay. Sometimes I can tell it to do things, and it really has a freak-out. It starts shaking, and it's great! I mean, try and do that in Flash. I showed him stuff that it was doing where the dissolves would be so imperfect that it would do this very complicated destruction of the image before the next one cleared. To do that in another program would be really, really time-consuming—to make something look this bad, but in a particular way.