INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
GQ APRIL 17, 2018 - by Alex Pappademas
THIS MUST BE DAVID BYRNE
For over four decades, the rock 'n' roll icon has carved out a career by zagging when everyone else was zigging - whether with his band Talking Heads or with collaborators ranging from Brian Eno to St. Vincent. Now, with his first solo record in fourteen years, Byrne is attempting his trickiest act of subversion yet: finding stuff to feel good about in 2018.
• • •
The elevator that leads up to Todomundo - David Byrne's Manhattan studio, which is hidden in a drab building on lower Broadway, just up from Canal Street - can be tetchy. If the door slides open and the staff of a boiler-roomish telephone-sales operation turn away from a corkboard hung with printouts about cruise-ship-vacation packages to stare balefully at you like body snatchers about to unhinge their jaws and shriek, go back down - you're on the wrong floor.
The first thing you see when you get off on the correct floor is a painting by Howard Finster, the outsider artist and Baptist preacher whose illustration of Byrne as an Atlas in tighty-whities adorned the cover of the Talking Heads album Little Creatures. The Finster in Byrne's foyer depicts a Day of Judgment-type situation in which earth loses its gravity. The little people in the painting are floating up to heaven. Their houses are in motion.
David Byrne will be in the back, wrapping up a call. But please, make yourself at home. Enjoy a cup of coffee fetched by a Todomundo staffer with a Jean-Seberg-as-Joan-of-Arc haircut, a woman so hip she's never heard a podcast. Note how everyone who works for David Byrne is the hippest person you've ever met.
When Byrne appears, everything he's wearing is black except his saddle shoes. Gently lined face, bone-white hair. The enormous yellow metal shelving unit behind him holds physical media - vinyl, CDs, and thousands of books, with sections labeled MUSIC, COMICS, ETHNOGRAPHY, ART/RITUAL, and so on. Ponder whether any other Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer's library includes both Money Into Light (John Boorman's diary from the making of The Emerald Forest in the Brazilian jungle) and What Wood Is That? ("an invaluable resource for builders, homeowners, and hobbyists"). Bowie, maybe?
Some of the shelves are little voodoo-style altars commemorating a lifetime (i.e., Byrne's lifetime) of world travel, ephemera-accretion, and award-getting. Ask and David Byrne will show you around the shelves. Here's a bottle of wine from the Universal Life Church, whose ministry Byrne joined in order to officiate at the wedding of his longtime percussionist, Mauro Refosco. ("For a couple extra dollars," Byrne says, "they'll send you the holy sacrament. I thought, That's going on the shelf.") Here is a trophy Byrne received from a samba school in Rio for all he's done to promote Brazilian music abroad. (Luaka Bop, the joyously impurist global-pop label Byrne founded in 1988, brought notable Brazilian weirdos like Tom Zé and Os Mutantes back into circulation via Byrne-curated compilations.)
"And this is - uh, wait a minute," Byrne says, squinting to read the fine print on another statuette. "The Hollywood Foreign Press Association..."
It's a Golden Globe. Byrne got it in 1988 for his contribution to the score of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor.
"There's an Oscar around here somewhere," Byrne says with a grin. He won that one for The Last Emperor, too. Patrick Swayze presented it to him. Byrne thanked two people - Bertolucci and the movie's producer, Jeremy Thomas - then said, "This is a lot of fun, but it's more fun doin' it." End speech. If you need to see his Oscar, it's on a shelf near the floor, near a bowling trophy.
Here is a dollar bill, on which someone has written the Talking Heads lyric NEVER FOR MONEY, ALWAYS FOR LOVE in what looks like red pen. "I didn't do it," David Byrne says, as if to discourage anyone from drawing conclusions.
Draw a conclusion anyway. The final Talking Heads album, Naked , came out thirty years ago. Byrne has spent those thirty years carving a second-act arc that feels impressively NEVER FOR MONEY-ish, zigzagging in pursuit of interests that only very occasionally line up with where the rest of pop music is headed at any given moment. Recall the anecdote in Byrne's book How Music Works, in which an immediately post-Heads Byrne, embarking on his first solo tour, puts together a large, skilled Latin band to play songs from his first non-soundtrack solo album, Rei Momo, then finds himself slotted on a festival bill between Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, having missed the memo regarding grunge's authenticity-fetishism renaissance. As a solo artist, he's the King of Semi-Pop.
Meanwhile here we are, in a Talking Heads moment again, in which even vital, funny, checked-into-its-context new Byrne, like March's American Utopia, the most sonically and texturally fresh Byrne record in a minute, has to compete in the marketplace with old Byrne in an almost unfair way. It's not just Selena Gomez building Bad Liar on Tina Weymouth's Psycho Killer bass line or the Talking Heads T-shirt Timothée Chalamet wears in Call Me By Your Name, or the fact that on any given night, you can hear Warning Sign or This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) cutting through the dinner-rush din at whatever the hippest dining establishment in your town is, the one where all the men look like The Guy from High Maintenance and all the women look like Legolas.
"Every bar I drank at in New York whilst working on this album," says American Utopia co-producer Rodaidh McDonald, "still plays a Talking Heads song every twenty minutes."
And then there is the profound way our road-to-nowhere-ish historical present feels like it's caught up with the records Byrne's old band made at their paranoid peak. A line like Our president's crazy, did you hear what he said? jumps out of Making Flippy Floppy like never before. Life During Wartime, a dispatch from a country militarized against itself, feels less and less like metaphor. The Texas preacher shouting conspiracy theories like gospel in True Stories would be a moderate centrist voice on present-day Fox News. "The sound of a panic attack massaged into a way of life," music critic Will Hermes once wrote about the band's debut album, Talking Heads: 77, nailing the way the old Heads nailed the way we live now.
"I thought, 'No - I'm still kind of drawn to the mess, where people are doing all kinds of crazy things.' I wanted to be part of that."
Sit across the table from Byrne for the agreed-upon two hours. Back in the day, rock critics could not resist comparing him to Norman Bates, which now seems like rock critics just needing to undermine a very handsome man who'd written one famous song from the perspective of a murderer. Lester Bangs once used the phrase "all neurasthenic needles pointing inward" to describe Byrne's onstage manner at an early CBGB show; he also said Byrne resembled "some nut just holidayed from the ward with a fresh pocket of Thorazine." At sixty-five, Byrne looks like an advertisement for getting around by bicycle whenever possible. Sometimes he places one hand on the side of his face, in a pose so profoundly David Byrne-ish you expect to see Annie Leibovitz standing behind you with a Hasselblad.
Unlike many clever people, David Byrne will laugh when things are funny. He laughs at the idea of Elon Musk shooting a $100,000 car into space, as if re-enacting the end of Repo Man. He laughs at the memory of seeing a man in a bathrobe getting a key replaced at the front desk of a hotel in Berlin. ("It's Harvey Weinstein," Byrne said to a companion. "We found out where he's hiding.") And he laughs at the existence of The Emoji Movie, starring classically trained actor and cultural icon Sir Patrick Stewart as the voice of an anthropomorphized coil of feces. The first sound on your tape of David Byrne talking will be David Byrne delightedly speaking the words "turd emoji."
He also laughs in midsentence sometimes, without explaining why, as if he and an invisible friend are enjoying an inside joke. This conversational tic may be the most eccentric thing about David Byrne in 2018. This can be a difficult thing to accept for anyone whose admiration for Byrne dates back to the neurasthenically nettled '80s Yelping Stage of his life in the arts.
In his book How Music Works, he diagnoses his younger self with Asperger's syndrome, but when he's asked if he ever did anything with that diagnosis besides think about it, he says no: "I assume it's too late for that now. As a lot of people do, you sort of emerge from social awkwardness and become a little better at it than you were before." Mellowing into genteel bohemian middle age is a best-case scenario for people in Byrne's line of work. But in Byrne's case the mere fact of his having a Post-Yelping period - however creatively fruitful it's been - is somehow disillusioning, because it raises questions about the extent to which Yelping Guy was a performance rather than the thrilling, helpless absence of one. Try to keep this out of your head as you engage Post-Yelp David on his own even-keeled terms. Realize that you, too, would be weird about the past if this is how everyone who came by your office looked at you.
• • •
Before flying east to interview David Byrne, open YouTube and screen his recent talk at the New School in New York, entitled Reasons To Be Cheerful. The title is both a nod to a great Ian Dury & The Blockheads song and a literal explanation of the lecture's content. Byrne has spent the past year or so compiling news stories he found personally heartening - which tend to be about people coming up with scalable, demonstrable solutions to some societal ill or other, not, like, miracle-puppy human-interest stuff.
His look is nutty-professorial - salmon pink blazer, black slacks. He announces that he's about to put out a new record, called American Utopia. It's his first proper solo album since 2004's Grown Backwards, but he doesn't point this out. Over the course of the next hour, he barely mentions the record again. Instead he clicks through slides and presents a selection of good news from all corners of our fallen world - stories about bike lanes in Curitiba, needle-exchange programs in Vancouver, drug-decriminalization initiatives in Portugal, libraries and community centers sprouting from municipal wreckage in Medellín and Bogotá, and TRUMP LIKES NICKELBACK signs at the Women's March in Washington, D.C., this last being as close as Byrne's presentation comes to being "political" in the hashtag-RESIST sense.
The talk is idiosyncratic and often quite funny. At one point, Byrne suggests that economists talk so much about "buckets and silos" because "they have a secret desire to be farmers." But there's no irony to what Byrne is doing up there, not even the winking deep-cover irony you used to hear on old Heads songs like Don't Worry About the Government.
Reflect on how David Byrne has chosen this of all moments to rebrand as Professor Positive and the perfectly counter-intuitive David Byrne-ian sense this makes. Byrne hears about the president of the United States slandering "shithole countries" and responds with a Spotify playlist called The Beautiful Shitholes, countering ignorance with doom blues from Mali, club bangers from Haiti, mutant Afro-Cuban jazz from Havana. Byrne surveys a political landscape rended by partisanship and decides to spread the good word about party-dogma-bucking politicians like the Republican Texas mayor Dale Ross - "He did the math, looked at what was cheaper for his town, and went with wind power instead of fossil fuels."
Ask Byrne how the Reasons To Be Cheerful project fed into American Utopia. He says he didn't know it would, not at first. Around the time he realized these news items he'd been bookmarking might constitute the beginning of an idea, he visited Brian Eno at his studio in London. Byrne says the reason Eno's become his longest-term creative collaborator is that they don't see each other often, and when they do, they usually don't talk about music. But this time Eno played Byrne some stuff he'd been fooling around with. Drum tracks - electronic beats, but run through some humanizing algorithm. Byrne asked Eno if he had any plans for these beats; Eno didn't.
"I said, 'Send me some and I'll see what I can do,'" Byrne says.
This is how they prefer to work. No record deal, no contracts. E-mailing stuff back and forth, seeing if it's something.
"No commitment," Byrne says. "If it ends up being something neither of us like, then we just kill it and nobody is the wiser."
Back in the '70s, producing Heads records like Fear Of Music, Eno fed Byrne's interest in automatic writing and other off-the-dome, outside-the-brainpan approaches to lyricism. The "words" to I Zimbra are nonsense syllables appropriated from a poem by Hugo Ball, making him probably the only Dadaist ever to have his stuff played by a rock band on Late Night With David Letterman. Byrne still likes to work extemporaneously this way sometimes, but for Utopia he wrote words out ahead of time, reaching for a theme.
"The way Trump says 'Let's make America great again,' imagining some more perfect ideal version of America in the past - I think many of us imagine there's an ideal version of what a country could be, or what life could be, that exists maybe not in a concrete future but in a conceptual future of some sort," Byrne says.
"We're striving toward something, we aspire to something, and it will probably never happen, but it gives us a trajectory. It may not be specific. It may not be about a cashless society or everyone having sex with everybody. It may not be about Bitcoin. But it might be about a larger sense of longing that a lot of people share. I think that's where it's coming from."
Nod knowingly when Byrne brings up William Blake, as if you're a bit of an amateur Blake scholar and not an idiot. Byrne starts to talk about the English hymn Jerusalem, which began as a bleak, spiritually questioning William Blake poem and was later set to triumphant music; it's been heard as fanfare at events like the royal wedding of Kate and William and Ronald Reagan's funeral. "This is a poem that's talking about the 'dark Satanic Mills,'" Byrne says. "It's very much looking to the dark side of industrialized England, but at the same time saying, 'What if? Don't we long for something better?' And then somebody set it to music that's more grand and anthemic and attempts to provide a kind of emotional answer to [Blake's] more hard-nosed question."
Byrne hopes - "without puffing myself up" - that American Utopia maybe bridges that space between despair and triumph in a similar way. Note also that this is a David Byrne record on which David Byrne sings, tenderly and daffily, the lines Doggie dancers doing duty, doggie dreaming all day long and The brain of a chicken and the dick of a donkey. Our surreally bleak and heartless times have inspired some of the silliest Byrne music in recent memory.
• • •
Quiz Byrne about the concept of utopia. He has not, for starters, been to Burning Man. Doesn't seem too interested. Views its annexation by glamping tech-sector doofs as a value-neutral, shrugoffable development.
Byrne did grow up in the '60s and smoke a little pot, though, and for a while he lived as the guest of friends who'd joined a commune in Kentucky. Picture David Byrne milking a cow. (He did.) Picture David Byrne cooking dinner for the commune. (He did, sometimes, badly.) Inhabitants were expected to find outside work to keep the community solvent; Byrne found a job separating tops from trash on a tobacco farm.
"At some point during the day, handling dried tobacco leaves, you'd start to get really high," he remembers. "You'd absorb the nicotine through your fingers and get a serious buzz going. It's like having the patch on, but it's coming through your hands."
He remembers no "big utopian discussions" but liked the counterculture experience enough to make his way out to California, where he helped a few friends build geodesic domes long enough to recognize that the life of a geodesic-dome builder was not for him.
So Byrne moves to New York, lives in the mess, gets a job as a movie-theater usher, and starts a band with his old RISD classmate Chris Frantz and Frantz's girlfriend, Tina Weymouth, who learns to play bass from Byrne. The movie-theater-usher job allows Byrne to watch the same movies over and over, a process that reveals hidden layers and details in Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein and Robert Altman's California Split. The band - the name of which is Talking Heads - makes Byrne into, y'know, David Byrne.
They play New York clubs like CBGB and the Kitchen. Their architecturally spare music sets them apart from the rest of the punk scene in an attention-grabbing way. By 1977, Talking Heads are on tour in Europe, opening for the Ramones. Brian Eno watches them play in Covent Garden, invites them around to his place, serves them tea, and plays them Fela Kuti records. Byrne and Eno - who's already quit the glam ensemble Roxy Music to focus on producing increasingly austere art-pop records - turn out to have been looking for each other all their lives. Eno signs on to produce the second Talking Heads record, adding a slippery shimmer to what becomes More Songs About Buildings And Food. His involvement transforms the band; when Byrne and Eno start working on side projects together, it drives an early wedge between Byrne and the other Heads.
Eno produces one more album for Talking Heads, the avant-Afro-funk masterpiece Remain In Light; to re-create the densely layered tracks live, the Heads become a nine-piece band, with additional members from Parliament-Funkadelic and the Brothers Johnson, among others. Byrne will later write that the shift to funk was "not just a musical transformation, but also a psychic one... It was joyous and at times powerfully spiritual, without being corny or religious in any kind of traditional or dogmatic way."
Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense, shot over three nights at the Hollywood Pantages, captures the full glory of the transfigured Heads. It's one of the most democratic concert movies ever - you get a real sense of every band member as a character. But the focus always comes back to Byrne, who's honed his spastic stage presence into something more theatrical and strange. It's like he's the vehicle for an energy he's not quite in control of, like he's sharing his body with a demon that wants to tear the floor up. Byrne jogs around the stage. Byrne drags a bum leg across the stage. Byrne dances with a tall lamp like Fred Astaire romancing a coat rack. Byrne puts on Ira Glass glasses and spazzes through Once In A Lifetime like a preacher with a head injury.
The thing you really notice in Stop Making Sense or any contemporaneous live Heads footage is how stoked Byrne looks. How could you not get addicted to that feeling, of contriving a batch of deeply impractical songs in studio seclusion and then recruiting the hottest band you can find to play them live? That's how Byrne's whole solo career will unfold - as an advertisement for musical non-monogamy. He'll become a Neil Young without a Crazy Horse to go home to, perpetually CTRL-ALT-deleting his sound, arriving at a shuffle-mode aesthetic whose only through-line is his increasingly mellifluous voice. His enthusiasms aren't all over the map; they are the map.
After Stop Making Sense, which features tracks from Speaking In Tongues - whose gift to hipster-wedding receptions is This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody), in which Byrne attempts to describe the sensation known as human love as if it's a strange opalescent beetle that has alighted on his arm - there will be three more albums. But Stop Making Sense is pretty much the apotheosis of Talking Heads as an art project, if not a rock 'n' roll combo. Whatever else the Big Suit is supposed to signify, it puts across a fairly unambiguous point concerning Byrne's feelings about bigness.
"I wanted my head to appear smaller, and the easiest way to do that was to make my body bigger," Byrne told an interviewer when the film came out. "Because music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head." You can see this on the Stop Making Sense DVD. Byrne, being interviewed on a cheap-looking talk-show set, wearing the Big Suit. The interviewer is also David Byrne, in various costumes - drag, old-man beard, Springsteenian headband and biker jacket. It's probably the best interview Byrne's ever given to someone other than maybe Space Ghost.
• • •
Before flying out to meet David Byrne, prepare. Over-prepare. Actually, if possible, begin preparation unknowingly, in 1989-90, around age twelve, by listening to Rei Momo over and over again, in the apartment your dad rents when he and your mom first split up. Leave the CD on repeat, sit at your dad's computer building one SimCity after another, depriving them of vital infrastructural resources and watching them burn down. Form the kind of uncritical attachment to a former frontman's solo stuff that you can only really form as a late-to-the-party twelve-year-old.
Realize eventually that not everyone feels this way about solo Dave. That many O.G. Talking Heads fans find the solo stuff remote. That they almost mourn the demise of the David Byrne who always seemed to be looking at the world through They Live glasses and getting the stink eye from ghouls only he could see.
Later, much later, begin intentional prep. Read Byrne's books, How Music Works and Bicycle Diaries, which are not autobiographies exactly, but which when read together add up to a kind of pointedly present-focused semi-memoir by a guy who'd never give the game away by writing a real one, the kind with baby pictures in the photo insert. Watch the live-footage compilation Talking Heads: Chronology. Watch Byrne evolve from a profoundly uncomfortable live performer into a guy performing an elegantly theatricalized version of profound uncomfortability, exaggerating tics into dance moves that deserve names of their own: the Pigeonhead, the David Byrne Action Figure, the Guy Dodging Cosmic Rays While Naked.
Re-read David Bowman's comprehensive and snide This Must Be The Place: The Adventures Of Talking Heads In The Twentieth Century. Byrne cooperated with Bowman for the book but reportedly criticized the finished product as "a book about me and Tina fighting." Also, read David Byrne's self-written press bio for American Utopia - six hundred and fifty-nine words, forty words about David Byrne having played in a band at one point, twenty words about Byrne's 2008 side job as a designer of cool-looking bike racks, no mention of Talking Heads by name - and the e-mail you receive from Byrne's representative ahead of the meeting that reiterates what you already suspected, that Byrne is not one for nostalgia and does not like to talk about the past in interviews.
Decide that instead of flouting this directive, you'll treat it as a creative constraint. Try to see how long you can talk to David Byrne without bringing up Talking Heads. Wait until your time is almost up. Take the coward's way out and ask Byrne if he's frustrated that people continue to ask him about the possibility of a Talking Heads reunion despite his having said five thousand times, unequivocally, that he will never do it. Byrne, recognizing this as the sideways approach that it is, will discard the question about the question as the Trojan horse that it is and answer the question itself: "If I knew of more examples of people who had done reunions or regroupings and not just picked up where they left off but really blossomed again and done more deeply innovative work, then it might be more tempting. But I think those kind of examples are extremely rare." Of the iconic early-alt bands of the '80s, only The Smiths have held out longer and seem less likely to cave; Coachella would presumably send Byrne a Brinks truck full of Brinks trucks if he showed the slightest interest. But he won't. NEVER FOR MONEY.
Byrne understands the principle behind, for example, the Pixies getting back together: "For a band like them, who maybe didn't have the kind of audience back in the day that they deserved? God bless them." Talking Heads, on the other hand, were actually improbably successful given the deliberate oddness of nearly everything they did. (It helped that their ascent coincided with the dawn of the music-video age, when MTV would play anything visually interesting as long as it was by white people.)
Change the subject. Look, a whole section of books about the Marcos-era Philippines, research material for Here Lies Love, Byrne and Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook's disco concept album about the life of Imelda Marcos that became an immersive theatrical adaptation in 2013. Ask about his weirdest Marcos book and Byrne will pull out a paperback of Marcos' Lovey Dovie, an unauthorized biography of Nashville-born Dovie Beams, star of dune-buggy exploitation films and mistress of Ferdinand Marcos. There are sex-tape transcripts in it. Pages and pages of a dictator in full freak mode.
"She put a cassette recorder or something under the bed," Byrne says. "She knew what was coming, and she got insurance. Then eventually they were released, and people transcribed them. It is jaw-dropping."
Byrne circa 2018 is a far-out impresario who makes intriguing solo albums on the side but makes his most profound statements in the medium of spectacle. The Imelda musical. The tour with St. Vincent for their collaborative album, Love This Giant. The oddly and profoundly moving Contemporary Color, the live event Byrne staged in Brooklyn at the Barclays Center in 2015, which featured high school color-guard teams from around the country doing synchronized flag-and-saber dance routines to live music by Dev Hynes, Nelly Furtado, and tUnE-yArDs.
Later, watch Bill and Turner Ross's documentary about this event, Contemporary Color, an earnest but uncorny celebration of athleticism as art as a model for humane democracy. Byrne appears only briefly as a performer and mostly as a ringmaster, striding determinedly around backstage in a V-neck sweater, looking like Mister Rogers had he done acid in the '60s. Think about the ad hoc utopia created inside the Barclays Center for the length of this concert, and how maybe this is the most useful thing a rock person with a platform can do right now.
Fly home. Read the full text of William Blake's "Jerusalem." Note that while Blake may be surrounded by the industrial age's "dark Satanic Mills," he ends the poem vowing not to lay down his sword or "cease from Mental Fight" until "we have built Jerusalem, / In England's green and pleasant Land."
Consider this in light of Byrne's current projects. If there's a unifying message in all of it, maybe it's that optimism isn't a force field or a mood elevator. It's a practice, a kind of daily workout, a mental fight. You can choose to crawl in a hole and glumly refresh Twitter. Or you can start bookmarking stories in which some small piece of society isn't burning down and actually seems to be working. Maybe you go out into the world with that, tell everyone you can. Sing a few songs about donkey dicks while you're at it.
It is, among other things, a living. It is literally a living: One of the many things Byrne's How Music Works explains is how he makes money off his records. There are some convincing charts. It boils down to making albums cheaply and involving a record label as late in the process as possible, if at all. It helps that Byrne has writing credit, often sole writing credit, on all those Talking Heads songs that have never gone anywhere; his old stuff gets up and goes to work on his behalf on jukeboxes and restaurant playlists every day.
Whether American Utopia will even dent the Zeitgeist is hard for Byrne to predict, or maybe just hard for him to care about. These are the kinds of songs he's making now. If the David Byrne speaking through them is more difficult for some people to project themselves onto than the skinny, rattled guy with the pocket full of Thorazine, he can do no more about that than he can about tomorrow's weather.
"I think I write better melodies now than I used to. But in some ways I also realize" - he laughs - "that that doesn't matter."
Request clarification on this last point.
"Better for who?" Byrne says. "I might enjoy singing more. I might find it more emotional to sing a melody I've written recently. But then I think about Psycho Killer, which is a very simple melody. And I realize, 'Okay, just because you think you've improved doesn't mean you're necessarily going to connect with more people.' Not always. Sometimes, yes, but not always."
Like everybody else, he lives in a world where Talking Heads never went away. There are worse albatrosses. It doesn't stop him from eating at the kind of restaurant where there's always a Talking Heads song or two on the playlist - maybe even Psycho Killer, a song he wrote in his college apartment, before he had a famous band or a New York address. Usually when it happens his mind is elsewhere. He's thinking about bike racks or how he's never been to Uzbekistan. Somebody else at the table has to direct his attention to the music, pointing up at the speaker.
Psst - David!
David, that's you.