David Byrne has often staked the very reputation of his influential music career on following his own creative muse.
Byrne, who’s performing tonight in Honolulu, founded the arty-rock band Talking Heads in 1974 with drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth while the three pursued art careers at the Rhode Island School of Design. Adding multi-instrumentalist Jerry Harrison to the lineup in 1977, the band took its inspired blend of funk, soul, rock and punk to New York’s potent “underground” music scene, drawing critical raves and a small cult of fans tired of the era’s empty disco and SoCal rock leanings.
Over 13 years and 11 albums together, Talking Heads offered up its own famously quirky redefinition of what rock and pop music could sound like.
Then Byrne — seeking to explore other musical styles, and weary of the band’s constant bickering — left in 1991.
Byrne’s first official solo release, the Latin-influenced “Rei Momo,” was as complete a departure from Talking Heads’ now mainstream funk-inspired rock as he could get. And though hardly a best seller, the album essentially set the tone for all five of Byrne’s solo discs. That includes last year’s “Look Into The Eyeball,” as well as each release from Luaka Bop, his now 13-year-old record label and haven for little-heard international musicians. This music reflects Byrne’s expansive interest in sound and rhythm more than whatever might more easily scale the pop charts or please Talking Heads junkies.
We caught up with a freshly risen Byrne in Osaka, Japan, on the morning of a concert there. Contemplating what to do with a free afternoon, Byrne was considering exploring the city on a folding mountain bike he carries on tour.
During a 40-minute interview that found the musician/record label head/film director/photographer humorously relaxed (for the most part), Byrne talked about his solo career, turning 50 this year, Talking Heads’ March 18 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and why he will never seek permanent asylum with his still-estranged bandmates.
“Good morning. It’s morning here.”
Is this David?
“Yes, how are you doing?” (Laughs.)
I’m good. I’m good. How about you?
“OK. OK. I’m just getting started. I’m doing fine now.”
How many days have you been in Japan now?
“Oh, I just got in last night. We came in from Hong Kong.”
Are you going to have any time to do stuff in Japan or is this just a quick stop on the tour?
“It’s pretty quick, but I will have some time. I travel with a folding mountain bike, so I … There’s actually a lot of bike riders in Japanese cities. Delivery guys and everything like that. So it’s not impossible to just kind of explore for a few hours that way.”
So are you going to be doing some of that today?
“Yeah. (Sounding like he’s still mulling over his itinerary for the day.) Yeah.”
Are you a frequent visitor to Japan even when you’re not touring?
“I guess I am. I guess I’m here every couple years or so for one reason or another.”
Did you know that The Strokes are playing the Honolulu venue you’re playing the evening before you?
(Genuinely surprised.) “Oh, no! I would’ve thought they would be playing somewhere much bigger. They’re hyped to the ceiling at the moment.”
They’re actually expected not to sell out here.
“Really? How can you explain that? I mean, not that they have to or anything like that. It’s just that I would suspect that they are selling out everywhere else.”
They are. I think Honolulu is the only place they aren’t. I thought you might find the fact that they’re playing the same venue as you the night before kind of interesting seeing as the Talking Heads are one of about 200 New York bands The Strokes are said to sound like. Have you heard that comparison before?
“Yeah. A little bit. Although usually they mention other (musicians) further at the beginning of the list.”
Do you hear Talking Heads in The Strokes music?
“No, you know I don’t hear it. I mean, maybe if you picked, like, one or two Talking Heads songs you could maybe make a case for it. But to me, it’s a real stretch.”
What do you think of the group’s music?
“Yeah, I think they’re good. (Pauses.) I’m not getting all the comparisons, but then, I don’t know. Maybe I need to listen to it in a different way.”
But the comparison to Talking Heads … you don’t see that one.
“No, I don’t see that. But … OK … maybe … who knows? Well, it makes me in a way feel good that they’re not selling out (World Cafe) because I know I’m probably not either. I mean, it was really hard to get the date.”
“Yeah. So in a way that’s … at least it’s just not me (that’s not selling out).”
I actually think you’re going to do a lot better here than you do.
“Well that’s good. Great!”
You’ve stated in the past that you dislike the label “world music?” Mind talking about that a little?
“Oh sure. Well, I think it’s always better when you get to know different artists—wherever they’re from—as a band or as an artist or whatever; and you appreciate what makes each band or artist unique. And when you lump them all or anybody into a huge category like that, then it’s saying that it’s all kind of the same and you’re just not listening to what the different artists have to offer.”
Is that kind of labeling an American thing?
“No, they do it in Europe a lot too. But that case really makes it sound like there’s ‘us’ and then there’s ‘the rest of the world.’ Our stuff is sub-divided into various categories and then here’s this 95 percent of the rest of the planet that we’re going to put into this little section over here. That seems just a little bit out of whack … but OK. If you go to India and you look in the ‘International’ bin, there’s Madonna records and things like that. So it gets rebalanced occasionally.”
Does it aggravate you that a lot of your solo work has been simply labeled “world music”?
“Well, I can understand it if they’re talking about one record I did called ‘Rei Momo.’ It was all Latin dance, Latin musicians, cha-chas and sambas and all that. That one, I can understand. It does sort of fit in. The rest of my records … hmmm, the mix is kind of whatever’s in the pot getting stirred a little bit more, so you can’t recognize the ingredients quite as easily. The rest of them, I would go, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ But on (”Rei Momo”) I would say, ‘Yeah, OK.'”
So how would you describe what you’ve tried to do accomplish with your solo work from “Rei Momo” onward?
“Well, they’re all a little bit different. ‘Feelings,’ the album before ‘Look Into The Eyeball’ was about all these collaborations with other bands, basically. I went to other bands and asked them to be my producers, and play on two or three songs. Morcheeba did a whole bunch. Devo did a couple. Each record has a little concept, I guess. (Laughs.) And it’s kind of usually musicial. On this last one, I wanted to have lots of groove stuff and rhythm stuff going on … as much as possible, string arrangements and orchestral stuff.”
Would you say each solo recording is simply a reflection of you—what’s happening with you, what interests you, what you’re listening to—at that particular moment in time?
“It probably is. It’s probably a reflection of what I was listening to the year before it came out. And it’s usually not the only things that I’m listening to.”
How do you decide, ‘OK, it’s time to do another album?’
“Sometimes it’s listening to other stuff. A lot of times I kind of putter around musically. I’ll do, um, projects in between records for a dance company, a film soundtrack or a song for a benefit record or whatever. Those things kind of end up being like a testing out of different directions. For testing out different musical directions and ideas. I’m in an, I guess, enviable position where I can do that … where I can actually decide, ‘OK, this is the kind of record I want to make,’ and then, pretty much, go ahead and make it. I don’t have a lot of executives telling me that I have to make one just like my last one or like this one that sold a lot. They probably would like to tell me that, but …”
Do you build up songs over several years or do you generally write most of your songs just before going into the studio?
“I usually have a few that kind of get written along the way. But usually it is kind of like me sitting down and going, ‘OK, it’s time to make a record.’ I find that what happens, even though sitting down is kind of like having it turn into a nine-to-five job — working on it every day for half a day at least trying to come up with something — everything you’ve been thinking about, hearing, and has happened to you since your last record or even before that starts to come out. It’s not just about what happens that day, of course. And hopefully, your experience goes beyond touring and hanging out in hotel rooms like I’m doing right now. (Laughs.)
So you’re definitely a person who sits down, decides it’s time to do another album, looks back on the last couple of years and does the writing all at once.
“Yeah, for the most part. It’s an ‘all at once’ that’s usually kind of spread out a little bit.”
What kinds of influences went into “Look Into The Eyeball”?
“I actually made a CD to give to arrangers, producers and record company people of things that I was listening to and that I thought had some relevance to what my record might sound like. Everything had groove stuff and strings. Some of it was kind of arty, or a world music kind of thing. Others were more pop. It went from, like, the theme from ‘Shaft’ or Bjork or a Smashing Pumpkins song to Caetano Veloso and obscure tango artists. It was like a mix tape. There was Serge Gainsbourg, (and) an electronic guy, Craig Armstrong.It was a real mixture of stuff that was all over the place, but it was held together by that kind of sound. It wasn’t the only stuff I was listening to, but it was the stuff that was in the back of my head when I was thinking about what I wanted my record to sound like. That didn’t tell them what I wanted to say … which is a whole other thing.”
Did the record company tell you to go with it?
“They were actually very relieved, I think. Because when I said, ‘Oh, I want to do stuff with a string section,’ as soon as I said strings, they turned around and went, ‘Oh yeah, Elvis Costello did that with ‘Juliet Letters.’ And I’m like (Hummming.), ‘Think more O’Jays or think about other stuff.’ Anyway.”
You’re talking about the track ‘Neighborhood.’ It’s a great song. I think you should do a whole CD with (arranger/producer) Thom Bell.
(Laughs.) “He was great. It was a lot of fun working with him. He really knows what he’s doing. He takes his work very seriously. And my work too. I mean, he really paid attention to what I was doing musically. There was never a, ‘Well, this is the way we do it , kid,’ kind of thing. And I think the stuff that he’s known for —all the Philly International stuff from the ’70s—was just incredible. The quality of the music and the lyrics, the playing and the singing and all that kind of stuff. It was just an extraordinary period. It was like a factory. They were just churning out song after song. And a lot of it was really good. And a lot of it had something to say. It was pretty amazing that they could maintain that level of quality and sincerity.”
Got any favorites on the CD or tracks you’re most proud of?
“Myself, I tend to like the little ballads. To me, they’re more finely crafted and shorter. Some of them were even shorter than they are now. Some of them were under two minute songs. And the producer was, like, ‘You can’t have so many songs that are so short!’ (Laughs.) I just kind of say what I want to say and get out. But he was right. So I tend to like (the ballads). They’re not going to be the radio songs or what the crowd hollers for, but they’re the ones that have … songwriting skills there.”
Do you look back on your recorded work and single out favorites that you’re most proud of?
“Whole CDs or just songs? There’s songs from older CDs or records that I remain proud of. Generally, I don’t latch (on) to a whole CD. There are some songs that I feel don’t hold up as well. Of course, I always feel like the last one I made is the best one. And that doesn’t wear off for quite a while. So I’m totally biased, prejudiced and fixated on the last one I made.”
Did you have any kind of a musical mission for yourself when you officially went solo with “Rei Momo”?
“Musically, yes. Career-wise, it was like shooting myself in the foot. I’d come off a very popular band and the first thing I come out with is a Latin record and then an orchestral record (‘The Forest’) that was just like a soundtrack. I think those were the first two things I came out with. (Laughs.) Those two records … that’s enough to alienate a lot of fans, right there. I happen to think they hold up all right. But careerwise, it was hard right there.”
All things considered, it didn’t turn out too bad for you though.
“Not quite. Not quite. (Laughs.) But if somebody was trying to think, ‘I want to be hugely successful,’ that’s probably not what they would do.”
Was the label less than thrilled?
“Things at (Byrne’s former label Warner Elektra Atlantic) at that time were not as split between the corporate music machine and the rest of the world. There was a little bit more overlap. There were actually people at the label who said, ‘OK, this is not going to sell millions of copies, but I think this is really good.’ They were OK. They wouldn’t, like, say, ‘Oh, get out of here! Go back into the studio and do it over.'”
After Talking Heads, though, there must have been a strong desire to do a complete right turn from the music you and the band had been known for.
“Oh yeah, yeah. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, though. At the time, of course, that was the music I was listening to. I was going out to Latin clubs and listening to the records. It was like, ‘Wow, there’s this whole world of music and it’s right here in New York. The best bands, players, the best singers, it’s all right here.’
It was just amazing. And it was under my nose the whole time. So I was just totally excited and thrilled by the whole thing. But on another level, yeah, it was an unconscious way of saying, ‘I’m going to do something … totally out of the blue, that you don’t expect, and that I could have never done with Talking Heads.’ ”
Congratulations on being inducted with the rest of Talking Heads into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Two questions, though. Are you going to the induction ceremony on March 18? And are you going to perform with the the band?
“I think so, yes. We’ve talked about the logistics of performing. Our schedules. We’re communicating by e-mail, which is less than perfect but it actually works pretty good.”
Tina Weymouth supposedly left a note at a Web fan site bulletin board (www.talking-heads.net) saying the four of you would do a couple of songs that night.
Can you confirm that?
Are you looking forward to the evening at all?
“It’ll be fun, but, you know, I don’t take it that seriously. I haven’t paid much attention, to be honest, to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because … usually in the music business there’s so much politics involved about who gets credit or these awards. Sometimes I can see that they’re actually giving it to people who — and I’m not talking about Talking Heads — but other artists who maybe didn’t sell the most records in the world but had a huge influence. That makes it great and worthwhile.
Being recognized for inclusion in the Hall has got to be a good thing, but anything the four of you do together that night is bound to be put under an incredible media microscope.
“Well, I’ve been touring all year, so I’ve got no problem. My voice is in shape. (Laughs.) I haven’t been playing all of those songs. I play some of them on the road. If I had opened a hardware store somewhere and hadn’t played in front of an audience for years and years then I’d be terrified.”
So you’re approaching it as just another gig?
“It’s just another gig. Another gig with some musicians that I haven’t worked with in a long time. They’re good songs, so on that level, it should be fun. I don’t attach a whole lot of meaning to it. I know it’s going to be on TV and stuff like that but, you know, a lot of things are on TV. (Laughs.) And it doesn’t really matter that much. What really matters is if it’s fun.”
And you’ll put what you can into making it enjoyable.
“Yeah … yeah.”
Have the four of you chosen the songs?
“Nah, we’re still kind of batting around some ideas.”
What is your relationship with everyone in the band like these days?
“It’s a lot better than Israel and Palestine, I’ll tell you that. But it’s strained. It’s tense. But at least we’re talking by e-mail.”
Was being in Talking Heads really that difficult toward the end?
“It was strained for years before that. Years and years and years before that, things were really tense and strained. The press reported on that, but it didn’t seem to affect the shows very much. And for the most part, it didn’t affect the records that much. So that was OK.”
How far did the tension go back?
“It went back pretty far. And sometimes people say that’s great when that happens in a band—when there’s tension between the two principal songwriters or between different people in the band. ‘There’s always tension between ’em. They work really well together but they don’t get along that well, or whatever.’ Sometimes that makes for really good music. Which is often true. Doesn’t make for much of a life though. (Laughs.) Which is something else you’ve got to do occasionally.”
In the end, why did you feel you had to leave Talking Heads? Was it that tension and strain? Was it the feeling that musically you had other things you wanted to do?
“Both. It was not a happy place to be, and there was lots of musical things that I wanted to do.”
Would you ever tour or record with the group again?
(Snappish.) “I don’t have to give you a reason, you’ve got enough.”
Does the fact that the media still ask the questions, and fans still can’t seem to accept the fact that Talking Heads are over — and over for good — bother you?
(Byrne’s voice tenses, becoming both loud and weary.) “I say, ‘Get over it! Get over it!’ I’m not going to go back with my first girlfriend. Give up! Move on! There’s lots of great stuff in life. You can’t go back to being 15 again. I don’t know what age you were whenever you first heard Talking Heads …”
“All right. You can’t go back there. It’s not the same. In fact, when people try and make it the same, it sucks. All that reunion —- just sucks, and I don’t want any part of it.”
Did Talking Heads ever do a show in Hawai’i?
“Yeah, we did. It was in a club and it was like1980 or 1979. Around there. Yeah. It was a long time ago.
Tell me about the current show you’ve been touring for “Look Into The Eyeball.”
“It’s been going over really well. I think the magazine Time Out voted it as one of the best shows of the year. I think they were talking about a show we did at the Apollo (Theatre). And I think they were kind of thrilled that we did the Apollo. I think they thought, ‘This is the weirdest thing in the world — David Byrne at the Apollo.’ (Laughs.) I was thinking I was getting some credit for that too. But (the tour) has been going over really well. It’s a core band. I’ve worked with some of the musicians for a long time. There’s a (six-piece) string section, basically out of Austin, Texas, called Tosca (Tango Orchestra), who did the soundtrack for the movie ‘Waking Life.’ They’re a very cool bunch. We do maybe a third Talking Heads stuff, a third off the new record, a third of just all kinds of odds and ends and cover songs.”
Is (Whitney Houston’s) I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” still one of the covers that you do?
“Yes it is.”
I’ve gotta ask. What’s the facination with it?
“I’ve always done covers. With Talking Heads, we did these bubblegum songs, then we did ‘Take Me To The River.’ We did other ones. On my last tour for ‘Feelings,’ we did a Missy Elliott song. On the tour before that, I did a disco song by Crystal Waters. But I think this one really stands out because everybody knows it.”
Yeah, but what did you find in the song that you particularly liked? I was a bit surprised when I read that you were covering it.
I think it’s a good pop song. It’s fun to do. And if I can do it without irony, that’s what’s more surprising than doing it completely tongue and cheek.”
Are you reworking the Talking Heads songs you perform?
“Some of them have string arrangements and things like that, but I’m not doing a Bob Dylan on ’em. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of his live shows but you can’t recognize (some stuff). You go, ‘Wait a minute!’ The song is over and you’re just figuring out what song it was. (Laughs.) But this is not like that. People will recognize the songs.”
So what are some of the Talking Heads songs you’re doing?
“We’re doing some of the popular ones. I’m not going to tell you ’em all.”
The tour ends for a while two dates after Honolulu.
“Yeah, it does end for a while. We’ve been out since March. We’ve kind of been everywhere we can be for the time being although we might come back again … to cool places to go where we’re going to have a good time. Other than that, we’ve pretty much been everywhere we can be.”
What can we expect from you this year as far as projects you’re working on?
“There might be one of those in between things like a soundtrack or something like that, which I’ve already started working on. There probably won’t be another record. My record company (Virgin) is kind of in a state of extreme turmoil. All the heads of the company over the last few months have gotten their heads cut off.”
Well … so did Mariah Carey.
“Yeah, (there’s) that, of course. And I think they probably got rid of a lot of lesser bands as well. Some of which were probably a lot more worthwhile than Mariah Carey.”
How’s your label Luaka Bop doing?
“I’m worried about it, but we’re hanging in there.”
The label is really a day-to-day job for you when you’re home in New York, isn’t it?
“Yeah, and it’s kind of day-to-day here via e-mail, getting graphics files … listening to records from other projects.”
I hear you once played a mean ukulele. Do you still play?
“No. Mine got destroyed. It got rained on … I was playing out on the street. And I think I put it on the back ledge of a car and it dried out into a warped, wierd twisted shape.” (Laughs.)
Let’s talk about turning 50 this year. Is it a big deal for you?
“Nah, it’s not. I haven’t been thinking about it. (Pauses.) Well, I think about it occasionally. I was just in Australia and I went hiking out in the Outback. And it’s pretty hot. And there’s no people out there, none at all. If you got stuck or hurt yourself, you’d just bake in the sun. So I’m thinking, ‘Hey, you’re getting kind of old to be doing this kind of —-.’ I wasn’t doing anything that crazy. I just went for hikes. But there’s various points where you realize you’re out there (on your own). You might have a cell phone with you, but it doesn’t work. So I started thinking, ‘Yeah, you’re getting kind of old for some of this kind of stuff.’ I don’t think I’m going to climb Everest, but …”
… there’s still a lot of things you can do!
“There’s still a lot of things I can do. There’s probably a few things that I have to take off the list. (Laughs.) But there’s an awful lot left on it.”
Published: The Honolulu Advertiser, February 8, 2002