An Interview with David Byrne

No lengthy introduction is necessary here; this is David Byrne, who has released a terrific new album, Grown Backwards. It is probably his most diverse album in terms of style and quite possibly his most exquisite.

— Dave Eggers

The works of this author have been highly acclaimed and are widely respected. His writing is noted for its distinctive style and thought-provoking nature. Eggers has created a unique body of work that has been praised for its creativity and depth.

The Grown Backwards tour is currently in progress – where did you perform tonight? My guess is it was in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay.

This evening, we were performing in a small opera house in Newcastle, England. A woman, who appeared to be intoxicated, began singing from her seat which caught me off guard.

The crowd was amused by her act and I didn’t want to make a spectacle out of the situation, so we continued with the show. Later, she was swaying and grooving in front of the stage wearing her jean jacket buttoned up to the top, which indicated that someone must have helped her with that.

BLVR: Folks are taken aback when they witness your performances as they tend to be filled with a lot of dancing. People seem to be having a great time, and when you join in on the fun, they go absolutely crazy. Your dancing clearly energizes the crowd.

At first, DB found getting onstage to be a necessary means of expression due to their shyness, and it was a relief but not enjoyable.

As Talking Heads grew in size and popularity, they began to recognize the potential for greater pleasure in the performance. Moving and singing together allowed them to connect to the ecstatic faith practices of Candomble and Santeria, and the act of singing itself became a transporting experience. The emotions of the songs were recreated, as if adding water to freeze-dried food, and they still dance in their own way.

BLVR: As you often take pictures and constantly seek new sounds when on the road, do you still gain a great deal, artistically speaking, from visiting these places or has it become somewhat of a repetitive task?

Exploring the towns of Newcastle and Bristol today was quite the experience! I took my folding mountain bike and made my way to the BALTIC, the new contemporary art center. What I encountered there was a landscape of desolation, with glass buildings and hotels interspersed among puddles of vomit and broken bottles. It was evident to me that the same ideas Karl Marx wrote about were playing out in front of me. It was a familiar vision, though not an original one. I could also make out the courts, conference centers, and public spectacles nearby, existing to deceive the public and to facilitate the extraction of money and resources. I heard that there was a secret spiral staircase inside a nearby courthouse that led to the docks below, allowing those who were found guilty to be sent off to Australia. This was both stimulating and somewhat lonely.

What individual is responsible for settling on the length of the journey and the sequence of events?

DB: I’m the one who decides the length of the tours. My daughter will accompany me on part of this journey to sell shirts and other items, so in that way, we can maintain a strong relationship. Otherwise, extended tours can take a toll on one’s life.

Have you been biking around for a while, according to what I’ve heard?

DB: This has been at least my third go-around touring since the mid-nineties. I have been on the road in some of the most unique cities– Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Reykjavik… Not all locations are easy to bike around in, but it is a great way to break away from the usual hotel-venue-bus cycle. It gives me the sense of having an actual life and a certain level of freedom. To me, it is mainly a form of transportation, unlike Kraftwerk who use it for sport.

Does the public view you and your art differently in various countries? It appears to be a common occurrence, where in the United States an artist might be perceived one way, and yet in Germany, as with Kraftwerk, they are seen as something else entirely. Is there any specific place where you feel your work is most comprehended?

For the past decade, my music has not been highly regarded in Germany. I suspect this could be due to the Rei Momo tour which followed the Talking Heads tour. This could have been looked down upon. Additionally, the center of the techno world may have not related to my style. Germans have been wildly enthusiastic at shows, but the venues are smaller, so I make less money. Dave Matthews Band is an example of a band that is hugely successful but has never played in Prague. My style has been more accepted in the Mediterranean countries as I incorporate Latin beats and melodies into my music and label. I’m happy to tour in these places, noting that the other acts touring there are different than those in the States. There may be less globalization of music than people think.

What was the reception from Latin America to those records?

More than ten years ago, I had the unique experience of taking a Latin-influenced band on tour in South America; it was almost like bringing coal to Newcastle. Despite the fact that the young audience had heard of Afro-Cuban and samba music from their parents’ records, they were more interested in the punk movement coming from the North at that time. The DIY attitude of punk resonated with them, and they felt a sense of possibility in it. So, when I showed up in Mexico or Buenos Aires with this “hick stuff”, it was a strange experience for them. It was like having Mr. Psycho Killer come to Mexico and play salsa – how bizarre! In hindsight, I think it had the effect of making them realize that their own music is valid and OK, and that they can appreciate it, borrow from it and mix it up with punk-rock. My record and tour had a mixed reception in the US, but was warmly welcomed south of the border, where it led two very separate lives.

BLVR: The success of your most recent single, “Lazy,” was far-reaching.

DB: X-Press 2, a duo of English DJs, collaborated with me to create a song called “Lazy.” It was a major hit in Damascus and all over the world, except for the United States. Just the other night, I was performing in Leicester and saw a young boy, with his mother, singing along to the song. This made me realize that things are unpredictable. During the last tour, I experienced some of the best receptions ever in the United States. For instance, I got to perform at the Ryman in Nashville (the original Grand Ole Opry), which was an incredible honor. When Talking Heads first visited Nashville, we played at the Exit/In and the emcee welcomed us as “punk comes to Nashville, for the first time, and probably for the last time.” But things have changed since then.

BLVR: Could you tell me how much of your income and the income of other musicians comes from performing live?

A large chunk of my income comes from publishing, but touring also plays a role. It’s great not needing a new record to tour, but it can be disheartening when people ask when I’m releasing a new album after one already has been out for a few months. To me, recording and performing are different abilities, and one may not be able to do both. At times, my performances don’t live up to the recordings, and vice versa. Record companies often suggest that touring supports record sales, but I’ve done shows with more people than records sold. The relationship between the two is complex and can be discouraging. But there are some musicians who defy the logic; Bjork, Lambchop, and the Polyphonic Spree are examples. Arts grants and funding from foundations also allow for performances that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. This is more common in Europe.

Do you personally oversee the touring process or does the record label? This may be too intricate for some people, but many of us are curious as to how it all comes together.

I have created a support system for myself over the years that is subject to change.

My record company’s participation is fairly limited, though they do get excited when I’m on tour when a new product of theirs is released. I’ve noticed that even if they lose interest in my situation while I’m off in a new place, I’m able to stay afloat if I’m self-sufficient. My booking agent brings up the notion of a tour, while I and my management office discuss the venues, times and budget. This time, I’m doing more sit-down theaters to accommodate the slower songs, but I’ve realized that a portion of my audience doesn’t want to attend the likes of Bowery Ballroom or Irving Plaza. For example, I sold out two nights at London’s Royal Festival Hall, selling more tickets than the three dates of my previous tour combined. My management office then takes care of the buses, salaries, freight, hotels and PA systems.

The number of musicians I’m taking with me on tour is the same as last time, with one extra, and that the budget should be able to support. We don’t have enough money for any Stonehenge objects or art projections, but the income from the American leg looks to be good enough that I will likely have a lighting person, which I haven’t had in years.

BLVR: How often do you go into an album with a concept in mind–like Latin-inspired sounds or Remain in Light— as opposed to collecting songs from a songwriting period? It seems you’ve done both kinds of albums, notably on Naked which was divided in terms of its sound.

Nowadays, with everyone cherry-picking their favorite songs and discarding the rest, albums seem like a thing of the past.

I still think, though, that there are certain elements that bring a set of songs together. Even if they weren’t written simultaneously (“Empire” on my new CD has been around for a while, but I guess now it’s found its home), certain composition and recording methods, such as the ones used for Remain in Light, can be unifying. For example, I knew I wanted to include the Toscas on several songs, and I also made use of my recent fondness for melody.

I took a look at a bunch of micro-cassettes I had, on which I had recorded myself humming melodies over the previous two years, so I was working from the top down, following the traditional European way of giving primacy to the melody.

Additionally, I was tasked with creating a CD – that became a challenge to write a collection of songs in a specific amount of time. But the reasons for my choice of melody, words, and rhythms only become evident to me later, sometimes years later, since they typically reflect my state of being and my concerns at the time. It’s as if the formal constrictions and boundaries I was working with allowed me to communicate things I wouldn’t have said otherwise.

BLVR: You perform an aria, “Au Fond du Temple Saint”, by Bizet, on Grown Backwards. This is something that wouldn’t have been heard in your earlier works. How has your singing evolved? Do you have a voice instructor? It seems that your vocal style has become progressively more daring over time, from the fast-paced singing on Talking Heads ’77, to your current renditions of Bizet and Verdi.

When I ran into Beth Orton here in London, she asked me what had happened to my vocal technique. (Believe it or not, she was asking me.) I don’t really have any technique; I believe it’s just a reflection of my inner state. It used to be more “strangled” and now it “sings.” I know it sounds a bit cheesy, but that’s all I can think of. I have, however, listened to more singing in the past ten years, such as Caetano Veloso, Celia Cruz, some opera, and some Italian singers plus other rock and pop stuff. I find Anthony Kiedis’s singing particularly heartfelt. Hearing all of this music sort of sets the bar higher for me.

On the latest record, what is the song “Empire” all about? It appears to be like a proclamation in a way, singing to performers and songwriters, and reflecting on their part in a society governed by the people.

Years before 9-11, I set out to write a fake national anthem from the capitalist/Republican point of view, inspired by the anthemic nature of many rock songs. The line “What’s good for business is good for us all” was taken from a General Motors slogan. It was intended to be ironic, as corporations are known to be transnational and not care about their country of origin. The song not only questions the seductive nature of arena rock, but also hints at the similarity to dangerous songs.

I performed the song a few times and recorded it, but was unsure of what to do with it until two versions were eventually released; one produced by Devo being closer to the original vision, and the other, arranged by Carla Bley, being sweeter sounding yet still creepy. The title of the song can now be seen as a reference to the American Empire, which is an accepted fact nowadays. Power corrupts, and the United States is no exception to this.

BLVR: Although one might assume that due to the level of accuracy and detail in your work, you are an individual who prefers to work independently and take a meticulous approach, you are in fact quite open to collaboration, and have a relaxed attitude towards it. This is evident from your work with the likes of Brian Eno, Devo, Carla Bley and X-Press 2, as well as many other partners you have collaborated with in the past.

I have come to recognize that nothing is permanent, and that multiple versions of music and other materials are likely to come into existence. Writing lyrics has become the most laborious part of my process, as I usually do this last. It often entails hours of solitary work and can be disheartening. Despite this, the words I come up with tend to appear effortless and not indicative of the work that went into writing them.

Working with other musicians or other professionals is generally an enjoyable experience for me. I find that I am able to better express my wishes and ideas, and the people I collaborate with tend to have compatible thoughts.

I typically take on singular collaborations and am typically fine with relinquishing control of the outcome to my partner. I find that when it comes to projects I am less attached to, the end result tends to be more successful.

I have found that there are some projects that are made for collaboration, and that it is those that are most successful. I think it is these projects that have control mechanisms built in, to ensure that the project is successful.

BLVR: Your film True Stories was the result of a highly collaborative effort.

When I made True Stories I was extremely fortunate. I had had direct involvement with the band’s music videos, but 35 mm was a completely different matter. The year prior, Jonathan Demme and company had been very helpful in making Stop Making Sense, allowing me and other band members to become part of the process. This experience helped to diminish my apprehension of 35 mm film. It is a complex and outdated form that only experts know how to maneuver.

To prepare, I covered the walls of the rented apartment in Los Angeles with pictures, storyboards, scenes, and character ideas.

Around that same time, Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch were putting together their first feature films, which were humorous, authentic and achievable. The movies and avant-garde theater I had seen in the previous five years motivated me, as they showed that rules could be flexible and the traditional three-act structure was not necessary. Since Talking Heads had hit songs (“Burning Down the House”), investors may have thought this was a profitable venture.

With an experienced executive producer, Ed Pressman, on board, they knew it would not spiral out of control. Directing is the best for me, as it is pure egomania. You can write the dialogue, tell people when to die, and determine what they wear and how they walk. You create a world that is similar to ours but is more concentrated and symbolic. How incredible is that? I was fortunate to not have studio interference.

BLVR: Since your work on True Stories, have you come up with any other film concepts?

Throughout my career, I have come up with plenty of ideas, but have usually abandoned them for a variety of reasons.

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the project, or simply grew too tired of the hard work it would take to make it a success. Instead, I opted to focus on writing songs, creating art, and living a full life. One exception was a documentary I did in Brazil about Candomble. This documentary highlighted my curiosity in AfroAtlantic religions and their relationship between sacred and secular music.

I had the opportunity to spend many nights at the compound, witnessing people go into a trance-like state and listening to the drumming and singing.

BLVR: Have you ever thought about unifying your enthusiasm for film and your exhibition of fine art pieces in galleries and museums?

It is intriguing to me the way that videos have increasingly become a part of the art world and museums in recent times. Generally shown as “installations”, they are often without comfortable seating, and while there are some which use multiple screens, they are still essentially short films. The “experimental” filmmakers of an earlier generation were displayed in alternative cinemas, but with the creation of the gallery and the opportunity for income, there is now a large number of people producing works in this form. Pierre Huyghe, Sam Taylor-Wood, and Tacita Dean are a few of the names.

Even though a lot of the work is excellent, why must it be seen standing up? Michel Gondry videos, for example, are just as innovative but are viewed differently as a result of the venue they are shown in. It is wonderful that these videos are now being made, but it is interesting how the venue affects how they are perceived.

This is also true for other art forms, such as arena rock which is written especially for arenas and books which are written to be held in the hand. Audio books have yet to become their own medium, but there are some people who compose specifically for readings. These readings are becoming a popular performance medium, but could they be a way to meet other writers?

BLVR: It appears you are often requested to be involved in art festivals and biennials, but at times, the process of setting it up can be challenging due to a variety of factors such as cultural and linguistic differences. Have you ever suggested an idea that didn’t end up being successful?

When I was in Tokyo, I was offered the chance to do public art on a subway train. My suggestion was to replace all the ads with images and captions. This was because there were many adverts on Tokyo subways.

To make the art more engaging for commuters, I added text to some of the pictures I had taken of unknown objects. Each image had three options that tried to identify the item, one of which was correct. Working with a railway company and all the city bureaucracy was a challenge. Some of the captions were thought to be offensive to Canadians, for example one image of some flimsy duct-taped boxes was labelled “Canadian luggage”. This had to be changed, with some translations also altered.

One caption, which I had written as “Victorian Crack Pipe”, became “Victorian Cracked Pipe” in Japanese. Whenever I could, I suggested less offensive choices. However, I was then told that some of the images that were on the ads that were high up or on the ceilings of the subways cars were deemed to be too heavy and people might be afraid they could fall.

I reasoned that looking at a picture of a heavy object over one’s head was not the same as the object actually being there, but I did not argue the point and simply rearranged the placement of the images. I have another proposal that uses the facial identification security system at an alternative art museum to refuse entry to some people. It remains to be seen how this will be received.

BLVR: Having managed Luaka Bop and collaborated with big record companies, movie studios, and independent labels and publishers, how have you gone about dealing with different entities while preserving autonomy, control, and making a living?

The old adage, “The musician who doesn’t pay attention to his business pretty soon doesn’t have any business” was often applied to jazz musicians. This was meant as a response to the idea that those in the “alt-bohemian” scene didn’t have to bother with business-related matters.

The Talking Heads had heard the stories about how this attitude could lead to problems, so rather than taking the laissez-faire approach, they chose to incorporate financial realities into their art. They wanted to make music that could be accepted by the masses and didn’t want to seem too obscure, difficult, elitist, or off-putting. Therefore, they performed in regular bars and dives, as well as alternative arts venues.

BLVR: Generally, your work has been with bigger labels.

We held the perspective that it was possible to operate within the system, even on its outskirts. We weren’t looking for the aid of grants, scholarly or institutional support. Instead, we were going to dive into the unpredictable and delightful realm of pop music and see if we could make it.

This may have been a leftover attitude from the sixties, that popular culture could be entertaining and serious at the same time.

There was a belief that a small portion of the mainstream could sustain creative freedom, inventiveness, and exploration – even if it was a minor segment of the market, the size of the pop music crowd was considerable enough that a tiny fragment would be more than adequate. Plus, pop music was becoming a business.

There were large companies, arena shows, radio playlists and other such elements that seemed to be taken over and repackaged and sold back to us (sound familiar?). We didn’t want this to govern our lives and culture – so how could one achieve as much creative autonomy as possible and still participate?

There were examples out there of offbeat records that were profitable – such as Funkadelic, Kraftwerk, and Bowie – and present counterparts like Kid A or O Brother Where Art Thou that sold millions and didn’t fit in any known category. It was attainable, and still is. I was of the mind that it was feasible to make enough money to cover expenses and still have a decent amount of creative freedom. You may have to play the game a little, but if you’re careful you can make it out with your integrity unharmed.

BLVR: Getting off the mainstream carousel can be difficult, isn’t it? Subsequently, it can be tough to return to the ride.

I made a risky decision to release a record with mostly Latin tracks and an orchestral score with few words soon after Talking Heads. Despite the fact that this was not a wise career move, it was well-received in Europe and South America, which meant a lot to me. Unfortunately, in the United States it did not seem to have the same effect.

BLVR questioned when Luaka Bop was created, to which they received an answer.

Thirteen years ago, I launched a record label that was considered by major labels as a vanity project. Luaka Bop was based out of my home and only consisted of Yale Evelev, Sarah Caplan, and myself. Our only expenses were the cost of licensing tracks, creating artwork, and remastering. We released a compilation album of Brazilian music from the past decades that was not available anywhere else. Surprisingly, the album sold half a million copies and the major label distributor, viewing it as a vanity project, made very little profit off of each copy sold. It is unlikely that the artists of the album were compensated, but the collection had a huge impact of introducing people to this innovative music and many have since created their own collections and compilations.

BLVR: With an independent label, you have more control, yet it can be difficult to actually receive any payments since there is a lack of the necessary resources. It seems like the money goes into a million different directions. Generally speaking, a major label offers more financial security, allowing an artist to focus on their music. Is there an ideal combination between the two approaches, balancing security and having control?

I posed a question to my colleagues about how the music industry has changed in recent years. My experience has been that a major label artist has to sell a lot of records to earn royalties from sales. I haven’t seen any for around 10 years, although I am able to get money to pay for recordings.

But even with that, it can be hard to make back the advances and other investments. It’s a tough position to be in when you have to sell 500,000 records to get any royalties. This can only be achieved with a major label, which puts a limit on the artist’s creative freedom. Writers are guaranteed a percentage by law, so I have more flexibility than a non-writer. I have been lucky to have had some successful records, as this has provided me with a steady stream of income through licensing and publishing.

Even with Luaka Bop, I was not able to make enough money for us to feel comfortable and secure. We were often struggling, but that comes with the territory of the kind of music we produce. Despite this, it can become wearying after a while.

At this stage, does enthusiasm still remain for the project?

Recently, I have been quoting Ren Weschler’s essay in which he states that Vermeer, present in Amsterdam, invented “peace”. His paintings, composed of serenity and sublimity, were crafted during a period of immense chaos, terror, and turmoil. This concept of peace was not a reality outside his door, but his artistic work proposed a new way of being, of looking, and behaving. His work put forth an idea, a possibility that may not have been thought of before; a seed of potential that was not particularly political or directive, but a seed of imagination and invention. During a conversation I had with a friend in Zagreb, Croatia, during the end of the war, he explained the role of an artist in such a situation; to be honest and devoted to themselves, not necessarily engaging with the political or war-related issues.

This creates a positive energy, a counter force to the darker forces that can arise, offering people hope and a place to return to, a reminder of life and its eternity.

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