"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut MARCH 2009 - by Stephen Troussé
"MAYBE I'M JUST BEING HOPELESSLY OPTIMISTIC HERE..."
David Byrne has a dream that the recession will bring artists flooding back to Manhattan. He is filling New York with bespoke bicycle racks, turning abandoned warehouses into giant musical instruments and writing an opera with Norman Cook about Imelda Marcos. Oh, and the irrepressible Thinking Head is back on the road, too - though even he isn't hopeful Eno will turn up...
"What's behind this sudden burst of activity?" wonders David Byrne in his midtown Manhattan apartment, like it's the first time it's crossed his mind. "Well, you know, I've always been pretty busy. Maybe more of it is being seen now than it was before. And it's really enjoyable! But I'm sure it's also some kind of neurotic thing - you know, filling up the time..."
We should all be so troubled. Once upon a time Byrne seemed to be the paradigmatic New York neurotic. "I was a peculiar young man," he wrote recently. "Borderline Asperger's, I guess." Onstage with talking Heads he would twitch and shake like Anthony Perkins after ECT. He would chant of government buildings and beautiful cars like some suburban shaman. And his music journeyed from scratchy, punk bubblefunk to the soul of Al Green, the groove of Parliament and eventually the afrobeat of Fela Kuti, as though desperately pursuing some relief from the western hell of uptight self-consciousness.
Today he is supposedly resting. As if. Byrne's just returned from the first leg of his American tour, promoting his new record, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today - an album of folktronic gospel songs, fruits of his first collaboration with Brian Eno since 1981. "It's been going great! It's kind of... spectacular, the reception it's been getting," he says. "I don't know if it's the material or the whole dance element that's been added into the show or what, but it's been going over really well." He's back in Manhattan for his girlfriend's gallery opening. And he's still basking in the afterglow of Barack Obama's stunning victory. "Despite the economic stuff, which continues daily, I think people feel that at least we have somebody who has some sense guiding things and isn't making every decision based on religion or ideology..."
But you sense that Byrne might have a different definition of resting from you or me. "Yeah," he admits. "I suppose I'm one of those people who only justifies a holiday if I'm going to take along something to do..." In recent days and weeks he has also been recording singers for his forthcoming "disco opera" collaboration with Norman Cook, Here Lies Love, based on the life of former Philippine first lady and footwear enthusiast, Imelda Marcos. He's recorded a couple of tracks with Brooklyn bohos Dirty Projectors for the new Red Hot AIDS benefit, Dark Was The Night. He's been hatching plans to bring his Playing The Building installation - where the plumbing of a vacant Battery warehouse has been hooked up to a wheezing old harmonium - to London's Roundhouse. On his blog he's pondering the demise of the record industry, the financial future of the AMerican rustbelt, and the prospects of reviving the DNA of cro-magnon man. And he's scooting around Manhattan on his bike, no doubt using one of the sculptural, Keith haring-style bike racks he was commissioned to design by the city. "While I was gone they just added ten blocks of protected bike lane, just near me," he laughs, delightedly. "So now I can go from 34th Street all the way to 14th in an area where a taxi can't go in! They put a kerb in there so the cars can't get at you. They've done it on Broadway for ten blocks, they're adding it in little increments around town. It's pretty exciting! Who knew that New York would do this?"
And who knew that old punks could grow into middle-age with such enthusiasm and vigour? Byrne is deep into his fifties now, his hair a thoughtful cloud of white, but his energy puts artists half his age to shame. Perhaps you could point to Byrne's renewed partnership with Brian Eno as one explanation for this zest. The pair first met on talking Heads' first tour of the UK over thirty years ago and soon founded a kind of conceptual double act: Eno the obliquely pragmatic, strategic straight man, Byrne the pokerfaced, metaphysical funny guy, midway between Buster Keaton and Marcel Duchamp. Byrne seemed to offer Eno a way into the mysteries of American music - the gospel, doo wop and funk that besotted him since he was a dreamy Suffolk schoolboy. Eno, on the other hand, offered Byrne the example of an artist who had mastered the Jedi mind trick that allowed you to navigate effortlessly past the border police separating art and pop. Together they transformed Talking Heads from preppy punks into a fourth-world funk troupe, and, with Remain In Light, recorded an LP that twenty-eight years on still sounds like the future. On their first collaboration outside Talking Heads, they drafted a blueprint for twenty-first century ethno-collage with My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.
"Did he seem like an elder statesman when we met?" wonders Byrne about Eno today. "A little bit, a little bit. Although he wasn't that much older! Just a little bit like he'd been around, and made more records than we had in Talking Heads. There was a little bit of that, and also that we were a little bit in awe of him. So some of that wears off. We're more equals now I would think. Equals with different sets of skills, but equal in other ways."
The new record sees Byrne taking instrumental tracks that Eno had been working on for years, but which had stalled somewhere short of becoming actual songs, and transforming them into charmingly wonky, upbeat electronic folk songs. The collaboration took place almost entirely separately, emailed back and forth across trans-Atlantic cables and wires. Was Eno always happy with how the tracks were transformed? "There was a couple where he said, 'Oh I wish this section could have gone on longer', but for the most part it seems like he's pretty happy with what was happening," says Byrne. "I play some of the original tracks as walk-in music at the shows; you can hear them before they had any singing on them. You can't imagine how they might end up. They're not ambient tracks, they're really nice instrumental tracks. But an awful lot has changed when they have words and vocals on! So it must be a very pleasant surprise for him to get them back in the mail and say, 'Oh, it's turned into a song!'"
Nevertheless, the partnership remains semi-detached, and Brian hasn't chosen to accompany him on the current tour of the Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno: "Very early on I said I was going to tour the new record and I said, 'You're certainly welcome - people would love it. But I understand it's something you don't really like to do.' You can understand! Why should he? He can work on that never-ending U2 record and make a lot more money and it's easier than going on tour! I've invited him to the London shows. I presume he'll come and see something at some point. Or he can just go to YouTube. People hold up their phones in the crowd and film, and we get to watch the previous day's show on laptop everyday."
Has revisiting the old Talking Heads' songs that pepper the sets changed your sense of that material much?
"There's a continuity now, with some of the newer songs. Not all of them. But with some of them you can hear a connection with the old stuff and the new stuff, you can see the thread that connects them."
He's been playing to some of the youngest audiences of his career, teenagers and students come to check out the guy name-checked by Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend, LCD Soundsystem and Animal Collective. After a period where he seemed terminally out of fashion, the nutty professor of pop postmodernism, his music seems contemporary once more, offering ways out of the rock'n'roll conservatism that still haven't been fully followed through.
In turn, he seems to have a boundless enthusiasm for new music, and he is forever sharing his discoveries via his blog. "People whine a lot about new music, but there's an awful lot out there that I like. I guess I never got over that, you know, being a music fan and finding stuff."
Does it make it worthwhile, seeing your work prove so influential so many years down the line?
"Yeah! Though the sad thing is, if I hear one of those bands and I haven't been tipped off ahead of time. Someone says: 'Wow, I love this band,' and they say - well you should, they sound just like you! So it's sad that you kind of gravitate to acts that sound a bit like yourself! Ha ha! But maybe that's not surprising."
These days he finds himself becoming something of an elder statesman himself, advising younger bands on the perils of the business, and casting a lucid eye over the demise of the recording industry, which these days can't even exploit his own back catalogue effectively. Amazingly, at a time when reissues and repackages seem to dominate release schedules, unheard Talking Heads material still languishes in record company vaults.
"And why? The labels don't have the personnel any more!" he hoots. "They've fired so many people they can't put out what they have. Or they'll make the priorities towards something that they believe is going to sell a shit-load quickly and show good returns on their quarterly statements. All the big labels are in that situation. I'm not just pointing at Warner Bros or EMI. They're all in the same boat. And they would dearly love to put this stuff out, but they've fired so many people that they can't." But they won't allow you to release it either? "Well... the clock is ticking! We've given them an ultimatum and said hand it over. Don't let it just sit there."
One consequence of this commercial torpor is that Everything That Happens Will Happen Today was released independently, over the internet, by Byrne and Eno themselves. "It's been working pretty well for us. It's an experiment and you see that what works and what doesn't. For the most part it's kind of working. I would definitely do it again, although I think we would probably revise it. There's not one way to do it that works for every project, which makes it a little bit tricky. You can't just plug a record into it and say - there it is! Each thing works a little bit differently. The fact that it was Brian and I doing something we hadn't done in thirty years, we knew there would be a certain amount of interest across the internet. So we knew we could get a little bit of a start that way without having to pay for ads in newspapers and magazines."
It's almost as though his own indefatigable industry is an embarrassment to the suits. Not content with touring the new record, he's also taking the opportunity to investigate the changing face of the US city, taking his bike out on the road with him, documenting on his blog what effect eight years of Republican government has had on the country. One vivid entry depicted the abandoned, forsaken state of Cleveland city centre. "Oh man, it's unfair to pick on Cleveland," he sighs, "but y'know when you walk down what used to be the big main street? It's not like the high street in a village, this is the big main street in a big town. And it's all boarded up. How did they let it get this bad? You can understand the downward trend in many of these rust-belt toens but that started fifteen years ago at least... But I recall visiting Pere Ubu on our first trip to Cleveland back in the '70s. They had a hilarious story story about how the mayor of Cleveland, in an attempt to instil civic pride, arranged for a parade of the new garbage trucks! It was kind of surreal!"
Where once he documented his fascination with the folk myths of the Midwest, on LPs like Talking Heads' Little Creatures (1985) and his 1986 film, True Stories, now he's looking for a way out. "Haha! It's true! I'm trying to find a life that's outside of the mall culture and the boarded up buildings. I think, fine - that's there, and I've done that. But there's got to be a way to find an enjoyable life in these towns. If I can find a little bit of it, and I'm a stranger, then maybe so can they...."
Increasingly, Byrne's canvas seems to be the very streets of the city. Both his warehouse installation and his bike racks are attempts to artistically re-imagine the fabric of everyday life. Like one of those conceptual artists in the short stories of Donald Barthelme, he seems to want to release art from the galleries and the studios, to redeem the corporate gentrified New York, to revive some of that dirty, dynamic cultural funk that ruled the city when he first arrived as a penniless art student back in the '70s.
Does it still feel like home, now that the cold-water lofts have been replace with luxury condos for stockbrokers?
"I think that's all going to change very soon," he says hopefully. "Those luxury high rises will start going for a pittance because the stockbrokers can't afford it anymore. Can you imagine? They're still building! I can see a couple of blocks going up from my window right here. They're going to be empty and you think - 'They're building a forty-storey building, hundreds of apartments in it, who's going to move in?' Nobody has any money to move in there. Maybe the Saudis? But they've already bought their luxury apartments in New York. There's no more of them to buy apartments, so who's going to do it? They're going to have to drop all their prices. Then the artists can come back!"
For a second you find yourself buying into this vision of reborn Manhattan bohemia. But even Byrne's unstoppable idealism sometimes finds its limits, and his naïve melody falters. "I dunno. Maybe I'm just being kind of hopelessly optimistic here?"