INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Herald MARCH 21, 2004 - by Peter Ross
INSIDE THE MIND OF DAVID BYRNE: MISUNDERSTOOD GENIUS OR COLD-HEARTED EGOMANIAC OR BOTH?
Peter Ross goes head to head with a truly enigmatic star.
Not far from David Byrne's London hotel, a fashion store is selling T-shirts bearing the logos of The Ramones and of CBGB, the legendary New York venue that was the crucible of American punk; the first time Talking Heads, Byrne's old group, ever played live it was supporting the Ramones at CBGB in 1975. Across the street from the hotel, a sign in the window of a health food restaurant advertises that this is the place to hear world music, a term Byrne hates but a genre with which he has been associated ever since going solo in 1991.
It's a strange thing, the twin poles of a man's career symbolised within two minutes of the room where, even now, he is sitting, staring out of the window at a flat expanse of grass, munching a cookie, avoiding eye contact. In brown trousers and grey T-shirt, his hair a scudding white wave, Byrne - now fifty-one - resembles a retired FBI agent who has been told that the best way to look anonymous is to shop at Gap. But he is too tall and gaunt and intense to truly blend in. His eyes are the colour of Mexican drinking chocolate, his forearms are as hairy as Lou Reed always claimed ("You should never go on stage in short-sleeve shirts," Reed advised), his fingers are so slender he could use them to pick locks.
Byrne is in the UK to talk about his new album Grown Backwards, or that's the theory. I think his actual plan has been to fly three-thousand four-hundred-and-seventy-one miles across the Atlantic just to make me feel ill at ease. I ask questions. He is silent. He starts to answer. He stops. He chews his cookie. He begins a different answer. He stops that one too. He laughs at odd moments. He stonewalls. He doesn't look at me. He looks instead at Kensington Gardens. Perhaps he is communicating telepathically with an interested groundskeeper. These things cross your mind when you are waiting for him to return from the chasm of his ellipses.
When he does speak, his voice is surprisingly deep, very different from the singing that was once memorably likened to "a seagull talking to its shrink". American journalists always claim to be able to make out traces of Scottish speech patterns but I can't hear them at all. We get talking about political crises and whether the greatest art comes out of the hardest times. He doesn't like to think so but in his own case believes it might well be true. "I've felt that it was pretty dark the last few years," he says. "With all the flag-waving and ra-ra stuff that was going on in the States, the media pretty much just shut down and reported what they were told to report. People were afraid to talk or they'd get fired from their jobs. I think I was trying to make a record that implies an alternative to that. It's not that I've described some Utopia in the lyrics, but maybe musically it describes another possibility. That's what artists do: in an indirect way, they propose an alternative world."
Byrne has always imagined other worlds in his music. One of his most interesting songs, Listening Wind, from the 1980 album Remain In Light, tells the story of a foreign terrorist, Mojique, who plans to bomb American colonialists. "Woof!" Byrne exclaims, when I mention the song. "I don't know if I could get away with performing that live anymore! Wooaaaooh! Nothing's changed. God, nothing's changed at all. We should send that off as a little bonus CD for the troops."
I ask whether he has empathy or understanding for people who are perpetrating acts of terror against the United States.
"Yeah, I think I do a little bit. But you never know, I'm not there. I certainly understand a part of it. I understand why America is not universally loved. That's been obvious to me for years and years, but it's not obvious to a lot of Americans. Their immediate reaction is, 'They love us, they're just jealous. They just want McDonald's.'"
Byrne's new album does contain political material but most of the songs seem to be about relationships. The record company is pushing it as his most personal work to date, and when I talk to his friend Yale Evelev, head of Luaka Bop records, he says that, listening to it, he can follow the course of Byrne's life over the past few years, including the end of his marriage. But for those of us without insider knowledge, Grown Backwards remains somewhat oblique. The overall tone is a kind of beautiful sadness; the lasting impression is that this is a record about rootlessness. "Glass and concrete and stone," Byrne sings, "It is just a house, not a home."
Since the World Trade Centre fell and America rose up against perceived threats, Byrne has felt he does not belong in the United States. This is not a new feeling. He was born in Scotland, Dumbarton to be precise, and emigrated to Canada with his parents when he was two. Five years later, his sister Celia was born and the family moved to the USA, near Baltimore, where his father worked as an engineer.
According to Celia Byrne, now an epidemiologist specialising in breast cancer, the whole family felt like outsiders. Tommy and Emma Byrne never quite assimilated, and this rubbed off on the kids. It was clear to David and Celia that their parents held very different views to those of the other moms and dads who lived in the same blue-collar area. The Byrnes would sit around and discuss politics and social issues while listening to Scottish and Irish folk music; their home was a biosphere, a little bubble of post-war Scotland in the melting pot of '60s America. The family regularly returned to Scotland to see grandparents; this again made them square pegs - most of the neighbourhood kids had never even been out of Maryland. "I remember when I was young my dad taking me to the Gorbals before most of it was torn down," says Byrne, "just kind of dragging me over and going 'Look, look, look at this.' I guess that was meant to be a political and economic lesson: Look at this, this is modern Europe. It's a shame that people are living like this."
Last year Byrne returned to Glasgow and Dumbarton to work on the soundtrack to the film Young Adam. He spent two weeks in Scotland working with Scottish musicians, hanging out in the pub at night, getting a taste for Walkers Sensations crisps, taking time to visit cousins. It was an attempt to rediscover his roots, to try to find a place he felt at home.
Post 9/11, he says, amid the burning effigies of Osama and Saddam, he felt alienated even in his beloved New York. "I felt 'Woah, maybe I don't belong here. Is this our country's true colours we are seeing now? Or is it an aberration?' I would like to think it's an abberation, but it goes to show not only how easily people can be manipulated but how easily they can be swept up in a fever of nationalism, patriotism, xenophobia. At some point they wake up from that and they are back to the wonderful people they were before. But watch out for them when they're sleepwalking."
The feelings of alienation were exacerbated by his personal situation. He has been separated from his wife Adelle Lutz, with whom he has a teenage daughter, Malu, for "about a year or so", although they are not yet divorced. His girlfriend, Louise Neri, is a well-known art curator. "There were so many changes in where I was living, where my office was and all that sort of thing. It made me question, 'Who am I? What's my identity? Where do I fit in? Is this where I should live?'" This is not my beautiful house, you might imagine him thinking. This is not my beautiful wife.
At around the same time, he came to the end of his contract with Virgin Records and quit as head of the highly regarded world music label, Luaka Bop. "That was a rough week," he laughs. "Wow!"
I spoke to Chris Frantz, the former drummer with Talking Heads, about the end of Byrne's marriage. "David is a person who immerses himself in his work no matter what," he told me. "I think his work is more important to him than anything else. He really cares about his artistic legacy, and unfortunately for everybody involved, his notion that this is the most important thing in his life gets in the way of his human relationships." Frantz said this without harshness, as if he were stating a plain fact.
It is a sentiment echoed to varying degrees by other people I interviewed for this piece. Everyone agrees that Byrne is massively focused on his work, both his music and visual art. The word that keeps coming up is "control". When he is working, he feels in control, therefore it would make sense that he orient his life in the direction of his work, prolonging the feeling of being in control for as long as possible.
Brian Eno, who produced three Talking Heads albums, co-wrote the seminal album My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts with Byrne, and is now writing with him again, agrees that work is more important to him than personal relationships. "I get the feeling that he's much more at home in the world of art than he is anywhere else," he says. "He's not only very at home, he's very sure of himself, very engaged, happy and thrilled by it. He's more comfortable there, perhaps, than he is elsewhere."
The downside of this retreat into art, of course, is that it can be rough on the people in your life. Tina Weymouth, bass player in Talking Heads, claims that Byrne is "incapable of returning friendship" and emailed me to say that, "Cutting off attachments when a thing/person is perceived to have served its purpose or there is a perceived threat to ego is the lifelong pattern of his relations." Is he as cold as all that? He does seem to be slightly distant from his own emotions. According to Eno, "One of the aspects of David's character is that he likes taking pleasure in things that other people either haven't noticed or are slightly suspicious about."
That's quite revealing, I think. Byrne doesn't just take pleasure, he enjoys taking pleasure; he is always one step away from the sensation itself. When I ask if he now feels more rooted than he did at the height of 9/11 fever and during his breakup with Lutz, he replies "Hmmm, maybe. Maybe. I suspect I do." He speculates about his own feelings as though they belonged to someone else.
There's a school of thought that has always noted and disdained this kind of detachment in his work. Is there any truth in the criticism, I ask Byrne, that your music is clinical; more to do with the head than the heart? "Um. To some extent, yes. It's not as true now. And you could only say it was true about the older stuff if you assume that it was more intellectual because I didn't deal with cliched pop song subjects. There's plenty of pain and anger and sadness and yelping and shouting and whatnot in the older songs. It's plenty emotional."
What this all boils down to, Byrne says, is a basic misapprehension about why he makes music. "I think people assume that you sing a song because you are feeling a certain emotion, but I think in many cases it's the other way around. The act of singing the song, or sometimes just listening to it, brings out that emotion in you. The emotion has to be latent, it has to be available, but it's not something that you really were dying to say or express. Then the song reaches in and pulls it out of you."
Byrne was a neurotically shy child and teenager. Even after he joined Talking Heads, he didn't find it much easier to relate to people. Yale Evelev remembers working in a record store in Soho, New York, in the late '70s. Byrne lived in the neighbourhood and used to shop there. "He'd put his head down and run out of the store if I talked to him," Evelev recalls. But playing with the band was different. "I was performing out of a desperate need to find a means of expression," says Byrne. "I was socially uncomfortable, I couldn't even chat to people, but on stage in that kind of formalised, artificial setting I could let out whatever it was I wanted to say." And now? "Performing is still an outlet but I think it's now less desperate."
I mention to Byrne that the actor Spalding Gray, who appeared in his film True Stories, once said of him that he had found his life raft in art. Is that true? "Yeah," he says. "Yeah. If only he had. We think he's gone. He's been missing a while, and he attempted suicide before. It looks like he finally did it." (Gray's body was discovered in New York's East River a few weeks after this interview.) "There's also that film on Robert Crumb, the cartoonist, where he says of himself that if he wasn't able to draw these misogynistic drawings of big-bottomed women and all kinds of perverted stuff he would be a totally screwed-up, non-functioning person, but that saved his life. I don't know how true that is for me, but I think it's partly true. Thank God for being able to write songs and do the stuff I do."
Byrne has spent some time in therapy but is wary of its impact on his work. "There's a fear because I feel like my subconscious is where a lot of my lyrics and a lot of my creative stuff comes from. The worry is that if you get it sorted out and fixed up, the well will dry up, you'll turn off the tap. It is your problems that are giving you your creative stuff. So you can either be a less fucked up person and creatively sterile, or " He trails off, laughing.
Where do you fit into that, I ask. "Um. I think I'm slightly more relaxed, and less jittery and paranoid than I used to be. But I still seem able to churn stuff out. It's not always top quality, but it never was. It always went up and down."
Talking Heads were formed as a trio in 1975. Ex-Modern Lover Jerry Harrison joined the year after. From the start, they stood out on the New York New Wave scene simply by not looking in any way rock'n'roll. The preppy image suited the artful and clever songs, but there was also an unsettling side to the music, something to do with the contrast between the juggernaut certainty of Weymouth's bass and the strangled uncertainty of Byrne's vocals.
Somehow they went on to become one of the biggest American bands of the '80s, a feat they achieved while simultaneously altering what it means to be in a rock group. Working with Eno, Talking Heads experimented with African rhythms and drafted in numerous other musicians to expand their sound. Two of their albums - Fear Of Music and Remain In Light - are among the best and most influential records of the era. As Eno now says, "We consciously wanted to change popular music."
Key to Talking Heads' success in the dawning age of MTV was the strong image of their frontman. The media and public were quick to pick up on Byrne's engaging eccentricities, and it's arguable that he exaggerated them, and continues to do so, for effect. Gill Mills, the Radio One DJ who coordinated Byrne's Glasgow recording sessions for Young Adam, recalls that it wasn't atypical for him to sign off his emails with the message "Here is the inside of a human brain" and a picture file of said organ.
One could certainly construe that as deliberate I'm-mad-me wackiness, but there are those who insist that public Byrne is the same as private Byrne. "He's a genuine eccentric," says Eno. "He's always been exactly like that, and I've seen him remain like that in quite extreme situations. For instance, we were mugged together once in New York. It was quite frightening; we were mugged by 14 people. My enduring memory is of David being dragged off into the bushes, saying 'Uh-oh!' That's absolutely true; it was like a cartoon scene."
Whatever the truth, the public focus on Byrne was not good for Talking Heads; the band felt that he was getting all the credit for truly collaborative work. The deepest faultline lay between Byrne and Weymouth; in David Bowman's biography of Talking Heads, Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa, he quotes the former music journalist Leigh Blake, who lived with Frantz and Weymouth in New York between 1977-78, as saying that the problem was that Weymouth was in love with Byrne. I mention this to Byrne, expecting him to dismiss it, and I'm surprised when he doesn't. "Ooh," he says. "Um, you'd have to draw your own conclusions. I haven't read the Bowman book but I've had people quote bits, as you just did. I wouldn't want to say that [she was in love with me] but there certainly seems to be some obsessive behaviour exhibited in there somewhere."
When I ask Weymouth about this, she says that Blake had once claimed Byrne was in love with her, not the other way around. "I could never accept that Byrne could be in love with me or anyone else. The facts are that I was deeply in love with, and privately engaged to Chris Frantz long before I met Byrne, an art school dropout who always struck me as an oddball whose mental capacities I did my best to defend against the derision of our peers." You might gather from this that Talking Heads ended unhappily. Frantz, Weymouth and Harrison discovered the band was over when Byrne announced it during an interview with the LA Times. This began a cold war that has lasted ever since.
But is there a thaw in the air? In 2002, Talking Heads briefly reunited to play four songs to mark their inauguration into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame. Late last year a box set was released. A few weeks ago, Frantz, representing Weymouth and Harrison, had "a very cordial dinner" with Byrne, and put it to him that with so much having changed in his life, it might be a good time to get the band back together. Byrne declined. "He felt it would be too painful," says Frantz. "I'm not sure what he means by that, but he asked me to please never bring the matter up again."
The truth is that he does not have a hole that needs to be filled by Talking Heads. Everyone, including Byrne himself, says that he feels liberated by the end of his marriage, and I'd say that the feeling of rootlessness which has characterised his whole life makes him happy more than it makes him sad. He is a tumbleweed; he thrives on change and motion.
"He very much enjoys living in the world, and part of that for him is being a drifter," says Eno, "not having to settle down securely and find your patch of territory but floating around, living electronically. That's the kind of life he wants to lead. I think it's a choice."
Back in the hotel room with Byrne, the cookies are gone and tea is cooling in his cup. His beloved laptop sits on the table between us, and his spectacles lie to the side. He's saying that he decided to name his new album after a line in a Flannery O'Connor novel: I was here before this here was here. That would have been a title much like Byrne himself, a mix of wit and inarticulacy which demands to be deciphered. But then he struck on another phrase in the book, one which achieved what so few people seem to have managed: it found his heart. "Maybe I feel in some ways younger," he murmurs with typical uncertainty, "or maybe I feel that in the last few years I've gone through a lot and survived it." Suddenly he looks at me. "I've grown somehow. I've grown backwards."