Interviewed by Sean O'Neal
October 15th, 2008
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.
Sean: 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.
Sean: 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.
Sean: 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.
Sean: 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.
Sean: 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.
Sean: 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.
Sean: 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.
Sean: 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.
Sean: 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.
Sean: 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.
Sean: 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.
Sean: 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.
Sean: Ah, The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Yes, she's busy morphing into toilets.
DB: [Laughs.] Yes, that's the one.