Musician, artist and fervent two-wheeler Byrne on his musical reunion with Brian Eno and his multitasking life after Talking Heads
By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music
In New York this summer, David Byrne is everywhere. His installation titled "Playing the Building" transformed the Battery Maritime Building into a giant musical instrument.
A passionate advocate for bicycling as urban transportation, he designed a series of neighborhood-specific bike racks (a dollar sign for Wall Street, a woman's silhouette mimicking a familiar diesel semi's mud flap imagery for Times Square) that recently appeared on the city's streets.
Musically, the 56-year-old recently described by The New York Times as a "cultural omnivore" has been no less ubiquitous. At a tribute to Paul Simon in April, the former Talking Heads front man stole the show with his manic performance of "You Can Call Me Al."
And this month sees the release of two very different Byrne albums -- "Big Love: Hymnal," which collects the instrumental works he has composed for the HBO series, and "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today," a collaboration with erstwhile Heads producer Brian Eno (David Bowie, U2, Coldplay) that comes a full 27 years after their last project together, the groundbreaking "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts."
"Everything That Happens ..." began as nothing more than dinner conversation, when Eno mentioned that he had some unfinished tracks that he didn't know what to do with. As the two musicians e-mailed files back and forth between London and New York, Byrne gradually added melodies and lyrics, resulting in 11 songs that are both innovative and irresistible, reminiscent of the three magnificent Talking Heads albums -- "More Songs About Buildings and Food," "Fear of Music" and "Remain in Light" -- produced by Eno between 1978 and 1980. (For now, the new album is only available digitally from Byrne's Web site, though a physical release is in the works.)
Byrne will follow "Everything That Happens ..." with a lengthy tour focusing on the material he and Eno have created together over the years. "I think there might be more continuity than I imagined, which I hope is going to work in my favor," he recently said in his Soho office, which looks exactly how you think Byrne's office would look, lined with CDs and art books, outsider art paintings and medical charts on the walls, oddball knickknacks on the shelves.
Dressed all in white -- including watch and watchband -- that matched his hair, Byrne took a few minutes away from his multimedia marathon to discuss his work process, the connections between his ventures and his vision of music's future.
MSN Music: You have so many projects all happening at the same time. Was this one big burst of inspiration, or is it just a fluke of timing?
David Byrne: A lot of things just culminated all at the same moment. It was a coincidence -- I won't say it's unfortunate, but it is kind of a train wreck of everything happening at the same time.
Do you find that your creativity accelerates and slows down, or do you always keep a bunch of things on simmer?
Things definitely trigger other things. I've been doing, say, all these little drawings over the last few years, of chairs and things like that, and I did some similar drawings of these fanciful bike racks. I sent them in kind of as a gag when the city asked me about judging a competition for new bike racks. And they said, "If you can get these made, we'll put 'em up." So each thing was like an incremental step, adding on to what had gone before. It wasn't totally like jumping into the deep end. Everything builds on a little bit of what I know, what I'm familiar with from the previous stuff.
Do you see any kind of through lines that connect the music to the art to the other media? Is there some central core?
There's a thread of making work that's kind of populist, accessible to anyone who might be interested. As opposed to making really difficult, academic music or making art that's really obscure and hard to understand, that only a few people are going to get and you can only see in a gallery. In this case, it's putting it out there in public, it's free. I find that very attractive. Although sometimes the other extreme can be a little more lucrative!
As you work on bigger, more ambitious projects, what challenge do you still find in something as focused as writing a song?
There's always some kind of challenge that I set for myself. With this record with Brian, and other things I've done recently, they're collaborations, where we pass the music back and forth. The challenge comes from working with what the other person provides, which is often something very, very different than what I would come up with. So it immediately means that I've got to rethink what I'm going to do. I can't quite fall into old patterns. I can use what I know, but I have to react to what they've done.
When Eno first played you these tracks, what did you hear that made you think you could bring something to them?
It took a while. I was very slow and had a lot of trepidation about starting it, because I thought it's either going to work or it's not. But eventually I thought, a lot of these tracks have a kind of folky-gospel sound. Not what you would expect coming from him. And so I thought, OK, I have to lyrically respond in kind -- not in a really obvious way, not like a parody or anything, but try and approach that kind of feeling from a new direction, a slightly different angle.
Gospel is something of a recurrent theme in your music -- the preachers on "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts" and the lyrics to "Once in a Lifetime" from "Remain in Light." Is it something of a special interest to you, or is it just so fundamental to American music that you can't get away from it?
It certainly is so basic to the undercurrent for a lot of American pop music. And lyrically, in that music there's a lot of hope in the face of complete despair or tragedy. And that seemed attractive -- I thought this feels right at this time, when I might be completely pessimistic and cynical about politics and the state of the world, maybe this kind of approach is an antidote to that.
Unlike some other producers, Eno doesn't really have a signature sound or style. What does he bring into a session that gets such results?
I'm going to guess that it's the fact that his musical vocabulary is limited -- not sonically, he has a pretty wide-ranging and sophisticated ear, but as far as his musical training. I don't think he knows any jazz chords or things like that. So that means that he's listening to what's going on, as opposed to using chops and music theory or other stuff. He's working based on what he hears.
You said that you want your work to be accessible, usable. As the ways in which music is consumed change so drastically, how does that change the music you make?
I actually try not to let it change the creative process that much. I have been in situations in the past where you start making the stuff based on the demographic or how it's going to be marketed. And it ends up sounding like you made it based on how you're going to sell it, and you can hear that and it's not a good thing to hear.
But I do think that things are going to fragment. There will be artists who make singles that become viral and everybody hears them all the time -- like that "Umbrella" song. There will be different versions and it might get used here and there for commercials, spin-off versions. And then there will be other artists who are about live performances, and others who do more concept records.
I think that's all fine, all great. But all of that is slightly different from the regular record as a collection of 10, 11, 12 songs that just happen to be bundled together. I think that's going to be a tough sell, if there isn't some other reason for it.
No matter how many different projects, different media you tackle, there will always be people who identify you as David Byrne of Talking Heads. At this point, do you consider that more of a burden or more of an opportunity that still helps open doors?
For quite a while, it was a bit of a weight to carry around. It was like this appendix to my name -- "David Byrne of Talking Heads," that was my full name. And I think that's kind of gone away. I guess I worry that if, like a lot of other people, we did the reunion thing, then it comes back in, and you've got to go through the whole process again.
Talking Heads is a great legacy to have, and I still earn money from it, but it's not the only appendage to my name now. When I biked over here this morning, some guy stopped me on the street and said he liked the bike racks. So that's what he knows. And I thought that's pretty great. I'm happy with that.
Alan Light is the former editor-in-chief of Spin, Vibe and Tracks magazines and a former senior writer at Rolling Stone. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, GQ and Entertainment Weekly. His book "The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys" was published in 2006. Alan is a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.