LIAM FAY gets a hot line to DAVID BYRNE on the eve of his Dublin concerts and found a pretty talkative head, discussing everything from Brazilian merengue music to Tommy Cooper.
“I love watching kung fu movies,” declares David Byrne gleefully. “I’d watch them all day if I could. I especially like the Jackie Chan movies. He’s got a real sense of humour and his stunts are really amazing. I love John Woo movies too. There’s a real exuberance about those films that you don’t see that often in other genres. They make me feel like I can jump off buildings and drive cars through department stores. Actually, they make me want to jump off buildings and drive cars through department stores.”
There is virtually nobody else of whom the same could be said but the best way to interview David Byrne is definitely over the phone. Ever since the earliest Talking Heads days, Byrne has had a reputation as a difficult interviewee. It’s not that he’s abrasive or uncooperative, he is, if anything, politeness personified. The problem is his legendary shyness. By his own admission, he has an almost congenital difficulty with meeting strangers’ eyes, and often strives to deflect attention from himself by remaining as monosyllabic as possible.
He claims to feel extremely uneasy in almost all social situations and, apparently, prefers to only attend those gatherings in and out of which he can sneak without having to go through the agonising formalities of group hellos and goodbyes. Colleagues of mine who have met him on journalistic assignments describe the experience with the help of words such as blood, from and stone.
Today, on a transatlantic line from New York, however, I hear a very different David Byrne. He’s relaxed, jovial even and, surprise surprise, talkative (almost). The relative anonymity of a telephone encounter obviously goes some way towards explaining this. But, as he readily admits, there have also been more profound forces at work on his public persona in recent times.
“Yeah, over the last four or five years, I’ve definitely become more comfortable with myself,” he says. “I’m a little less shy, I guess. Not totally sociable, not gregarious or anything that extreme (laughs) but more comfortable. Once you’ve been through enough living or working, you really don’t give a shit what people think about you. That, all of a sudden, allows you this freedom, the freedom to relax a bit.”
It’s Monday morning, just before noon, New York time, and David Byrne’s already been in the Luaka Bop office in Rockefeller Plaza for almost an hour. Luaka Bop is Byrne’s grand passion, the record label he set up in 1988 to release albums featuring samples of the various types of World Music, primarily Latin American and African, with which he has been obsessed since the early-Eighties.
He has little involvement in the day-to-day running of the label but he does drop by as often as possible to look after what he describes as “some light administration.” Judging by the volume of the music (Brazilian merengue, he explains later) that I can hear when I’m first patched through to his personal office, however, I get the impression that Mr. Byrne isn’t exactly straining his eyesight over ledgers and balance sheets.
“No, you’re right, I just come in here to listen to records really,” he admits. “And, when I’m not doing that, I’m talking about music but I just lie to people and say that it’s work. Going to an office to listen to music seems a little more, eh, productive ”
Indeed, whether David Byrne is recording, touring, working on any of the myriad other projects he keeps perpetually boiling away on his backburner or just pottering about the large brownstone in Greenwich Village he shares with his wife Adelle Lutz aka Bonny (as in ‘My . . . Lies Over The Ocean’) and his five-year-old daughter Malu (as in ‘Skip To . . .’), he is almost always submerged in music of some sort.
“I’m not saying I play music every minute of the day but I certainly listen to it more than, let’s say, my wife likes,” he insists. “When I’m taking a shower, I’ll blast it so I can hear it over the shower. I’ll walk in a room and immediately just turn on some music. I like a pretty wide range of stuff. Brazilian stuff, Cuban stuff, African stuff, country and western. And I’m curious about a lot of things but I don’t always have time to listen to them. It seems I’m wasting time if I’m not listening to something.”
This desire for a permanent soundtrack can, of course, pose practical problems. Byrne has recently developed a fondness for cycling but is reluctant to cocoon his senses with a Walkman while in the saddle, especially when trying to negotiate his way through the hazards of the New York traffic labyrinth. He has solved the dilemma (sort of) by combining bike time with writing time.
“I carry a little hand tape recorder and sing into it,” he explains with an audible smile. “It’s good to write while you’re doing something else. It distracts the censor in your mind. Of course, one-handed cycling is very dangerous too but it’s possible. I don’t do it too much. When I get a chance to get out of town, it’s a lot easier.”
Lately, Byrne has been musing on just why it is that he, and so many other people, feel this palpable and constant physical need for music. He’s been filling in time while on tour writing prose pieces about this very subject, one of which was published recently in the Sunday Times. It’s a topic on which he becomes instantly animated and expansive.
“Plato or one of those people said that it’s the perfect art because it’s so abstract and yet it still somehow has a lot of meaning,” he states. “I’ve spent years and years trying to put this into words but the basic understanding comes in an instant when you listen to a piece of music. The relationship between the lyrics and the music is indefinable and indescribable, why a lyric set to a particular melody has a strong effect whereas if you just take the words on their own, they’re kinda bland or whatever. I think that says something about why it has a strong effect, why it means so much to people. It’s not like anything else.”
At the age of forty-two and after over seventeen years of making records, it was only this year that David Byrne felt confident enough to release an album of music that he is wholeheartedly prepared to identify as “a personal statement.” Just as Talking Heads: 77 announced to the world the arrival of a new band so too does David Byrne herald, for the first time, the public emergence of its progenitor. No party, no disco, no fooling around, this is first degree Byrne.
“I’m writing from the heart, about my own experiences and feelings,” he explains. “What the songs are saying is mostly from my point of view and not from a character’s point of view like so many of my earlier songs. What I want as a listener is something that’s real, that’s going to move me, that’s going to affect my life, that’s going to say something to me about how I live. So, that is what I think I should be doing with my own life.”
Byrne insists that it was this growing passion for a music that came from the bellies and hearts of its creators, rather than from their intellects alone, that led him first away from Talking Heads and then towards the sounds of Latin America. The music of surface, style and irony began to interest him less and less, especially when he found his writing was increasingly preoccupied with subjects such as death and illness, preoccupations that were foisted upon him by tragic events in his personal life.
“Death has become a preoccupation somewhat, not every waking moment but thoughts about this kind of stuff do seem to be around a lot,” he says. “They certainly seem to be around more now than they used to be but that could be more to do with my age. The big catalyst was, I guess, the death of my wife’s sister, Tina, of AIDS related illnesses. When that happened, we were all kind of together and I wrote the song ‘Buck Naked’ within a few days. I started singing it to our daughter, and I realised that it was a song that I didn’t sit down to write, it just kinda came out.”
References to nudity crop up throughout David Byrne, sometimes as metaphors but occasionally too in what seems to be a more literal sense. Given that the last Talking Heads album was also called Naked, are we to deduce that David Byrne is a secret nudist keen to spearhead rock’s first back-to-naturism campaign?
“No, not at all,” he insists. “I just like the silliness of it. They’re silly sounding words, nude, naked, buck naked. They sound ridiculous but they’re also kinda sublime. I like those combinations.”
In another track on the new album, ‘Angels’, Byrne sings about a choir of vaguely celestial beings who scour the earth in search of such elusive Holy Grails as “a messiah who never comes, a virgin birth,” and, ultimately, “a perfect drunk.” Is this a state of inebriation or a particular individual who is especially skilled at getting inebriated?
“It’s both, a person who can achieve the perfect state of drunkenness,” Byrne avers. “It’s what everybody is looking for, I guess. When you’ve just had enough to release inhibitions and feel happy but not enough to be falling down.”
Is David Byrne himself a perfect drunk?
“Absolutely,” he chortles. “Well, I try to be. It’s perfect for me when I drink enough to get just a little bit looser, a little bit more talkative, a little more eager to laugh. If I have too many, I get sleepy and sometimes actually fall asleep which is kind of embarrassing if you’re in a bar with friends, especially when it’s your turn to pay the tab.”
And, what about the perfect narcotic high? What’s Dr. Byrne’s recommended chemical dosage?
“You could spend you whole life trying to find that and you never would,” he asserts. “You might die in the attempt. I could never handle marijuana. It just made me paranoid. I tried cocaine for a while because everybody seemed to be doing it at one stage. It made me simultaneously very talkative and very secretive. But after too many late nights and spaced out days, I decided to stop. Heroin was too strong. You don’t exactly get a lot of writing done when you do heroin. Stuff like that just takes up too much time.”
Virtually all of David Byrne’s work has been seamed with a very strong line in wry humour. His quizzical, quirky worldview coupled with his italicising delivery conspire to imbue his best lyrics with the cut and snap of punchlines. On David Byrne though, the lunge for the funny bone is more conspicuous than ever before. Several reviews of his recent British shows have even noted that audiences have been responding to some of the new material’s wittier couplets by laughing out loud, not altogether a reaction regularly associated with the rock gig format (apart, of course, from those performers who are adept at eliciting unintentional laughter).
So, is David Byrne a frustrated stand-up comedian merely posing as a singer/songwriter?
“No, but I do think of myself as some kind of humorist,” he replies. “I don’t think I could ever be a stand-up comedian. I’ve tried occasionally talking to an audience but I can barely get out a few words and then I’m terrified. I’ve gotten it up to a few sentences now but I still get terrified. If I was a comedian, I’d have a very short act (laughs). As far as what stand up comedians do, I think it’s very brave. I need to have a song to hide behind, and a guitar.”
Who are the comedians that most make him laugh?
“Oh, Tommy Cooper,” Byrne says with a hoarse chuckle that could almost be a nervous stab at Cooper’s “just-like-’at-not-like-’at-like-’at” catchphrase.
“It’s the very stupid ones who really make me laugh, especially Tommy Cooper. He makes me roll on the floor. There’s American equivalents, in a way, people like Kenny Youngman. Those guys perform really dumb stuff but they know it’s dumb. They’re kinda winking at the same time. There was another American guy, Andy Kaufman, incredibly innovative. He made you really wonder what humour is. What makes something funny and what makes it merely uncomfortable.”
Speaking of which, how did Byrne react when he heard that Michael Jackson had tied the conjugal knot with Lisa Marie Presley?
“Well, I did laugh,” he says. “I immediately thought, alright, he’s bought the Beatles’ songs, now he’s going after Elvis. What is next?
“There’s other publishing out there that’s always pulling in money and that I’m sure he’d like to get but it’s going to be more difficult for him. How many heiresses can he marry?”
And, now for the big question. Why the hell did David Byrne decide to grow his hair to shoulder length at this particular time of his life?
“Good question, I’ve been wondering about that myself,” he retorts. “It started on the last tour. I was on the road for a long while and I didn’t have a chance to get a haircut. Then, as time went on, I began to think, maybe that looks alright, let’s let it keep going. If there are deeper reasons, I’m not sure what they are yet.”
Does he worry about going bald in later years?
“Boy, yes, it has occurred to me,” he concedes. “If it happens, so be it. Maybe, I should try and make all my hair grow straight up. If you see me shave my head for my next album, you’ll know there’s trouble brewing.”
Spring of next year will mark the twentieth anniversary of those fateful weeks in 1975 when David Byrne, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz first got together in Chris’ and Tina’s loft on 195 Chrystie Street, New York to begin work as the unit that would eventually become Talking Heads. Despite the impending milestone, however, Byrne is even more adamant than before that the band will not be reformed, not now or ever. Without prompting, he goes out of his way to emphasise his particular abhorrence of one-off reunion concert tours. “Those things are totally disgusting,” he affirms.
Asked if his path ever crosses with any of the other severed Heads, his response is notable for its imperiousness.
“I ran into Jerry, the keyboard player and other guitarist, a while back,” Byrne recalls. “He’s mainly producing and he was very successful with this group, Crash Test Dummies. That did really well. He’s done some other things that have maybe done not as well but pretty good. He’s been producing some Irish guys recently, Fatima Mansions. I wrote to him and said that I’d love to hear how that turns out but I haven’t heard anything yet. Jerry calls when he’s in town. He doesn’t live in New York anymore. He lives in San Francisco, a much prettier and more restful place.”
And Tina and Chris?
“No, our paths haven’t crossed,” he replies.
David Byrne’s mood becomes infinitely more ebullient when the conversation turns to his current band which comprises Todd Turkisher (drums), Paul Socolow (bass) and Mauro Refosco (mallet instruments). “They’re a very versatile bunch and I think there’s a lot that we can do together,” he enthuses. “We played several club dates in New York before we recorded the album so that we would gel as a band and the touring we’ve been doing recently has been fun. We may mix it up a bit more on the next album but I guess we’ll be working together for some time to come.”
In the meantime, Byrne being Byrne, there are other plans in the pipeline. Earlier this year, a New York gallery showed an exhibition of his photographs of sacred objects and rituals from South America along with his giant grid studies of (and I quote) “a dozen or so hallways, bathrooms and chairs juxtaposed,” and some water-colour Polaroids of street and stall signs. Many of these will be published in book form next year as will, he hopes, some of those prose pieces to which I referred earlier. Finance permitting, he also intends to begin work on a “feature film project” some time within the next eighteen months.
“New York is a very stimulating place,” he says by way of explaining his ardour for operating in so many different mediums.
“It would be a great place to have a holiday because there’s so much going on. It’s frustrating living here because there’s no way to keep up with half of it. But it inspires different ideas for different things every day. Sometimes, I think that maybe I’d actually get more done if I lived in a quieter place but I’m still addicted to all of this at the moment. I’ll have to get on the quiet place twelve-step-programme.”
Perhaps, he can commence his therapy when he visits Ireland for a couple of concert dates later this month.
“Every time, I’ve performed there before, I’ve stayed on for about a week or so,” David Byrne concludes. “I rented a car and travelled around a bit which was fun. But this time should be even better. This time, I’m bringing my bike.”
• David Byrne and his band play Dublin’s National Stadium on September 16th and 17th.