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The Guardian AUGUST 13, 2009 - by Rosie Swash
DAVID BYRNE: MORE THAN JUST A TALKING HEAD
David Byrne refuses to reunite his old band, but his music career is still going strong. Then there's his travel book and his bicycle racks.
"I'm checking it out - I got it figured out," sang David Byrne on the Talking Heads song Cities. "There're good points and bad points - but it all works out." A gentle description of a city if ever there was one, but back in 1979 Byrne would deliver it with the bug-eyed zeal of a man who is never more freaked out than when confronted with the normal. Thirty years on, the manic streak has gone, replaced by a gentle laugh and shock of white hair, but those lyrics serve well as a template for his latest endeavour, Bicycle Diaries: a series of accounts of Byrne's experiences travelling to cities around the world.
The Bicycle Diaries title isn't there to fool you; while the fifty-seven-year-old has spent much of the last few decades touring the globe, first with Talking Heads and then as a solo artist, there have been two constants by his side: a diary, which he has kept, if not religiously then frequently, and a fold-up bicycle. The first chapter begins with Byrne cycling aimlessly around Niagra Falls, Buffalo, relaying his casual thoughts on substandard town planning and the life of local hero and Kodak founder George Eastman. Later on he examines Detroit, citing it as an example of what an unhealthy reliance on oil does to the average American city.
"My travels mainly take me to cities. The book is not about biking across the Lake District or Utah," says Byrne on a spectacularly sunny afternoon in a quiet cafe in the city of Ghent, Belgium. He has his bike with him, of course, and plans to cycle to the other side of town to visit an exhibition in a converted mental institution later that afternoon. "To some extent," he says of the book, "it's about the surface that presents itself to us in cities, and I dig a little bit deeper than the surface."
Bicycle Diaries has much in common with the novelist Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It has a meditative quality, reflecting the way Byrne lets "the unconscious and subconscious thoughts bubble up" as he cycles around Berlin or New York or San Francisco, and it presents itself as a sort of love affair with cycling in much the same way Murakami extolls the virtues of long-distance running. But Byrne has a lot more to say about the world at large than he has to say about riding a bike. There are occasional lines in which he explains that New Orleans (pre- Hurricane Katrina) was great for cycling because "the city is pretty flat, which makes it easy on the knees", or describes Berlin as a "civilised, pleasant and enlightened" place to ride. But his two-wheeled escapades are there simply to provide a thread for Byrne, who writes in a faintly avuncular way. Few writers could get away with something so audacious as flitting from a discussion about the definition of beauty to the life of sexually violent 1970s artist Otto Muehl in one chapter, but then audacious is where Byrne is most comfortable.
His career bears all the hallmarks of an artist determined to keep heading into the unknown. Since forming the pioneering new-wave band Talking Heads in 1974, Byrne has choreographed ballet, directed films, founded world music label Luaka Bop, set the benchmark for concept performance with the 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, collaborated with numerous bands, most recently writing the brilliant charity single Knotty Pine with avant-garde rock group Dirty Projectors, and, last but not least, designed a number of bike racks dotted around his native New York.
Byrne's latest project is a variation on a theme. He is in London for Playing The Building, a sound installation that has turned Camden's Roundhouse venue into an instrument that visitors are encouraged to play. He first had the idea when he was invited by the Färgfabriken gallery in Stockholm in 2005 to put on any exhibition he fancied. "I'd visited the space and it was all exposed girders and pipes on the inside. Not really that great for hanging pictures on, and I thought, well, let's use what's there rather than trying to draw your eyes away from what's there. How about attaching mechanical devices to bits of the building controlled by a pump organ where the keys have been modified, and the public is invited to come in and play the thing?" The Roundhouse caught his eye because it has a huge skylight, a source of natural light during its time as a Victorian steam engine repair room, which will be revealed to many for the first time as part of Byrne's do-it-yourself concert. "It's not really a performance or show that people come to watch; they have to participate. If they don't do anything, they don't hear anything."
Byrne's drive to keep moving forward is one reason why he persistently rules out a Talking Heads reunion. In a recent interview he said, "I don't need the money badly enough." But any brusqueness in his attitude (rumours persist that there is acrimony between him and Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth) is absent when asked again whether he would ever, maybe, please, consider reforming one of the greatest bands that ever was. He smiles into the sun, and pauses to consider what he is going to say while gazing over the flowers of the cafe's terrace.
"I tend to think it's about the listener of a certain age trying to recapture a moment in their youth, and hoping that we can help them rekindle whatever they felt at a particular moment. And I think, that's not my job. That's not what I do." Asked whether he considers those formative years in Talking Heads a happy time, he appears surprised by the question. "Actually no. I wasn't miserable, but I wasn't particularly happy. I was driven and obsessive and socially isolated, which in the end worked fine for getting me to stay home and write things and work on records. But it didn't make me particularly cheery."
Cheer may have been lacking during his early-twenties, but Byrne feels no such ambivalence towards Talking Heads's music, most of which he wrote and still performs on occasion. He recently rekindled his working relationship with Brian Eno, who produced the band on what are usually seen as their three finest albums, More Songs About Buildings And Food, Fear Of Music and Remain In Light, and whom Byrne describes as his "buddy", for the evocatively titled, gospel-influenced album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, their second collaboration, released last year.
"He calls himself a non-musician even though he can play really well," says Byrne of Eno. "But he plays as a non-musician, which allows him to step back and not get wrapped up in the technique of fingering or chords. He can see the big picture, the structure, the texture of it. I'm able to think of music as texture as opposed to chord progressions, which is not a typical approach for a musician but I think it's often the way people hear things. So that works out pretty well."
That this most recent album kicks off with a song called Home is striking, because the idea of home, what it means, where it is and whether it is a place of comfort or alienation, is a subject that has haunted Byrne's music since the beginning. It is at the centre of the most famous Talking Heads song, Once In A Lifetime - "And you may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house!" - and it is the first word sung - "Home, it's where I want to be" - in arguably their best song, This Must Be The Place. When asked about this ongoing theme, Byrne laughs. "I know, I keep doing that! I guess it's a way of asking who you are. Who I am? Is this where I belong? Am I comfortable here? Because a home isn't just the house you live in but the psychological space you make for yourself. I think it's all that. I guess it's a way of asking myself over and over again, 'Are you all right now?'"
Geographically speaking, home for Byrne is still New York, where he moved in the '70s. But perhaps the question of home keeps coming up because Byrne describes his childhood upbringing in Maryland as breeding in him a "disdain for the suburbs". In contrast to the way cities stimulate his mind, Byrne displays boredom and unease when he finds himself in suburbia.
Later in the book, he's at it again. In his chapter on American cities, Byrne compares the surreal, sunny emptiness of residential Valencia, on the outskirts of Los Angeles, with the set of a middling HBO drama. He decides there is no difference between the fake homes of the studio and the real homes of Valencia, but he somehow finds the former "thrilling". He writes: "I love these artificial places. You're on the set and it's completely believable as a suburban home. In some ways they make our own homes, offices and bars seem just as hollow and superficial as sets. What we call home is just a set too."