Mojo APRIL 2018 - by David Fricke


Half pop visionary, half renaissance polymath, David Byrne can't help innovating, through Talking Heads' art-rock-funk ascendency into a fecund post-fame fantasia of books, operas and oddball documentaries. But with a first proper solo album in fourteen years and a big hits tour in the offing, is he getting back to basics? "I still like music a lot," he assures David Fricke.

On a frigid January afternoon in New York City, David Byrne takes the stage of an auditorium at the New School looking like a fine-arts professor ready for poolside cocktails: black shirt and pants offset by a salmon-pink sports coat and a full head of snow-white hair. He is hosting a cultural talk, part of a series he calls Reasons To Be Cheerful after Ian Dury's hit, challenging the pervading national gloom in politics and cable-TV news.

The singer, songwriter, theatrical composer and former leader of Talking Heads also takes this opportunity to announce his first solo album in fourteen years. Its title: American Utopia. "It's an odd thing to be saying these days," he tells the rapt lunchtime crowd. "But when we need to help ourselves, we look for reasons to be cheerful."

Byrne is loose and funny as he speaks about urban traffic innovations in Bogotá, humane drug treatment in Vancouver and his own civic engagement, showing a photo of himself canvassing black voters in South Carolina before the 2016 election - dressed, he cracks, "as a Southern white gentleman". And Byrne points with delight to a detail in a photo of LP sleeves stapled to the ceiling of a Harlem club - the cover of Talking Heads' 1980 avant-funk classic, Remain In Light.

It is a fond, unexpected reference to his old band. Between 1975 and 1988, Talking Heads - drummer Chris Frantz, bassist Tina Weymouth, guitarist-keyboard player Jerry Harrison and Byrne, their singer, primary writer and undisputed leader - made eight studio albums fusing punk, R&B, electronics, Nigerian highlife and the Latin tinge for pop radio and the dancefloor. But the pioneering ended in rancour. The group officially split in 1991 and has reunited once, at its 2002 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction.

Since then, Talking Heads are a subject that Byrne usually discusses obliquely, at best, in most interviews. Yet it is hard to miss the strong echoes of that band in the buoyant futurism and topical urgency of American Utopia. The Indo-Brazilian flair of Gasoline And Dirty Sheets, the catchy electro-melancholy in Every Day Is A Miracle, and the Afro-Memphis surge of Everybody's Coming To My House are the closest Byrne has come, in a very long time, to the sonic world travel and heady juxtapositions of 1983's Speaking In Tongues and 1985's Little Creatures.

"There's a little less of having to rediscover the wheel - I've been doing this long enough," Byrne, sixty-five, affirms, laughing heartily during an unusually wide-ranging two-hour conversation at his SoHo office. "Yeah, there's something familiar in there to what I've done before. But musically and in other ways, I've taken it somewhere else - I hope."

A few years ago, on one of his tours, Byrne took some light reading along: Democracy In America, Alexis de Tocqueville's 1835 critique of the United States' young experiment in religious, political and economic freedom. It was "good for bus rides, consuming a little here and there," Byrne notes with a grin. "You realised the American experiment was something extraordinary, utopian. And it hasn't all gone away. It's imperfect. But as an idea, it holds a lot of promise. And you wonder, 'Is there a way to reactivate all that?'"

Byrne has been here before. The clash of runaway capitalism and daily shoe-string struggle at street level was crisply present in the wiry tensions and title of Talking Heads' second album, 1978's More Songs About Buildings And Food. And Byrne is still asking - in the treacherous aspiration of American Utopia's Doing The Right Thing and It's Not Dark Up Here - a question that goes back to the rhythmic turmoil and see-saw fortunes in Once In A Lifetime on Remain In Light: "How did I get here?"

American Utopia features Byrne with a younger cast of producers and guests including Rodaidh McDonald (the xx, Adele), Sampha and Thomas Bartlett AKA Doveman. But here is more déjà vu: Byrne started composing the songs over drummachine tracks recorded by his friend and collaborator of four decades, Brian Eno. The loops "were interesting, a lot of skittery stuff going on," Byrne explains, sipping espresso. "I said, Can I try writing over these? We both liked where the results were going. He said, 'This is yours now. Run with it.'"

There is an interesting credit on the album. Under "studios", the first one listed is "DB Spare Bedroom". What's in it?

It's a little smaller than this (gestures around the back lounge of his office). There is a desk with a computer screen, some gear, a pole with a microphone that I can swing in front of my face and file folders - manila folders, very organised - with all of the songs in progress. There's a bunch of guitars, a keyboard and a whole shelf of songbooks - bossa nova, Bob Dylan, country & western, Latin standards. Not having gone to music school, there was no one to point out, "This is what they did here..." When I'm writing, if I have an idea, it's a likely place to look: "Bob Dylan might have done this."

Was there a songwriter that was important to you as a teenager or as you started Talking Heads?

Dylan, Leonard Cohen, The Beatles - that opened a world of possibilities. I also realised that's not me. I can't be in that. Bob Dylan has his persona. The lyrics are all written as if that guy, whoever he is (laughs), is singing those songs. Still, it became a process: How am I going to do this for me, so it's not adopting the style of someone else?

Of course, I loved The Velvet Underground, David Bowie and Iggy Pop. At the same time, I was a big fan of Al Green and a lot of R&B. I thought, "What if I can meld those two worlds?" I wanted to have something that related to the body, the way R&B does, without copying it - and invoke something of the ideas and innovations I heard in rock.

In your linernotes on the new album, you write that music is "a model" that "points us toward how we can be." When did music first tell you that?

Probably as a kid - in junior high, high school, when you start listening to pop music and you realise it's telling you more than what the lyrics say. It's describing another world that you haven't experienced, but it's letting you know it's out there. I remember, in high school, trying to write a song, and it was completely derivative (laughs).

As first songs always are.

Then I had another stab at it years later. I came up with Psycho Killer [on Talking Heads' first album, Talking Heads: 77]. Chris and Tina helped me with some of the French stuff. I realised, "That holds up. That's a song." I may have been inspired by other things when I was writing it, but I hadn't heard anything quite like it before. I was also writing completely from the character's point of view. We played it. People liked it. I thought, "Oh, I can do more."

What was the next leap forward?

Warning Sign was one [on More Songs About Buildings And Food]. That was less conventional musically. It felt more completely me, like, "We're beginning to discover something new here."

How often do you actively think about writing songs now amid your other projects? Do you apportion your direction on a given day?

There is a lot of compartmentalisation. I find that easy, practical and efficient.I can go, "Today, I am going to stay home and write in that bedroom." Then I'll work on another project, which is a great way to clear the head. You come back to the music and go, "This part is brilliant, this part is crap," rather than try to keep pushing when there's no ideas there.

There were intensive periods where I'd be in a recording studio, working on this album for two weeks straight every day. But there are periods where it's incremental. It's not going any faster than it wants to go. You may as well keep moving, fill your time with other projects. Otherwise, you're just sitting around waiting.

Was that a problem in the band? You were the singer, dominant writer and conceptual force in Talking Heads. If you weren't doing it, nothing happened?

It becomes a thing if you want to explore other interests. How much am I obliged to follow my muse, to see where that goes? Record companies expect you to deliver a record once in a while. You're on a schedule, especially when things are going well.

Did you resent it?

I didn't resent it so much, because it's nice and it facilitates a lot of stuff. It allows you to do the music videos you want, all kinds of stuff you wouldn't be able to do otherwise. But it's also restrictive, and eventually I resisted. I could see where things were going, towards being more of an arena act. It didn't seem like a lot of fun. You have even greater pressures and more obligations.

How do you look at a band like Radiohead? They found a place to be creative, even contrary, in their music. But they can still fill arenas and play at huge festivals.

Good for them - I can't explain it. You can say the music's good, which is true, but lots of people make good music, and they can't do that. I remember touring in the mid '90s and seeing Radiohead. OK Computer had just come out. They were way more of an arena rock band. Then they swerved away from it. But they had developed this following that helped them wander off the path. It wasn't like they started doing what they do now from scratch. Neither did I.

For someone long characterised as remote and cerebral, elusive on matters of the past and his private life, Byrne is in fact wide open - relaxed, charming, eager to make a point - about his creative process and the joyful purpose he still finds in music. He is also direct and fluid in his explanations, reflecting the analytical streak in the former art-school student. At one point, while talking about the lyrics for American Utopia, Byrne hands over examples of his handwritten drafts for Bullet Doing The Right Thing with alternative titles, crossed-out lines and literal cut-and-paste: stanzas removed with scissors and glued to another page.

Byrne was born in Dumbarton, Scotland in 1952. His family emigrated to Ontario, Canada when he was two, then to a suburb of Baltimore a few years later. His father was an electronics engineer, and Byrne first investigated the mysteries of recording in high school with a reel-to-reel tape machine his dad brought home from work. He attended Rhode Island School of Design but dropped out of art studies, forming The Artistics in 1974 with Chris Frantz, another RISD student. They started Talking Heads after moving to New York, encouraging Tina Weymouth - Frantz's girlfriend and future wife - to play bass. The trio played its first gig in June 1975, became unlikely favourites at CBGB - performing bony, angular art-pop alongside Television and The Ramones - and had a record deal by the fall of '76. Jerry Harrison joined the following year.

Did you ever have a Scottish accent?

I did until about second grade. Then like a lot of kids, I rapidly got rid of it. I felt like an outsider. I could tell there was a difference between my family and others: "When I go home, we do things this way. We eat different foods." You can feel alienated and ostracised. Or you can look at it as, "There is more in the world than some Americans know about." (Laughs) Keep that in your pocket.

I saw you live with Talking Heads in 1977, on your first major American tour. You had this reputation as a nerd on-stage.But you looked entirely in control at the mike - maybe not comfortable, but certain that this was the right place for you.

At that time, it was someplace I had to be. Off-stage, I was very shy. I didn't quite know how to fit in socially and was uncomfortable around groups of people. I discovered that being on-stage can be an outlet. You can let your inner voice be heard, and some people kind of like it.

It was definitely a refuge. There's a certain desperation in being there: "I have to do this - for my own health."

What was going through your head on that first tour? This wasn't another Friday at CBGB - you were introducing yourself to new people every night.

It must have seemed pretty odd to people. Now I can let go and allow more of the emotional content of the songs, the feeling, to flow through. Then, I was purely focused on the technical stuff: "Are we playing well? Do I switch to a different guitar? Is this vocal line working or should I sing it a different way?" It was putting the emotions and fear aside, focusing on the technical to let the other stuff flow through, which it did.

In Talking Heads' 1984 concert film, Stop Making Sense, you wore The Big Suit, which I took to be your metaphor for stardom: "Yes, I'm getting bigger." You also danced in it. You took something deliberately ungainly and made it swing.

I saw it as a man trapped in social conventions. The suit represented this big thing encasing the character, who is trying to wriggle out of it.

Like a cloth cage.

Yeah. But I also thought it was a way of admitting the theatricality of the show. I'm not pretending that these are my ordinary clothes. And that's OK. Things that are real can be communicated through that. What is the saying? Art is the lie that tells the truth. I remember after one of our tours, I stayed on in Japan and went to see a lot of traditional Japanese theatre. This was pre-Big Suit. And I went to Bali and saw local temple performances, shadow-puppet plays of the Mahabharata [an ancient Indian epic poem]. It was extreme artificiality. There was no attempt to be naturalistic whatsoever.

This exaggeration and artificial aspect - it isn't just in Las Vegas. It's pervasive around the world. And there is something deeply human about it, where the performer and audience come together in something that is outside ordinary life. I wasn't buying into the theatricality of a lot of rock and pop. It seemed too phoney. But seeing all those theatrical forms, I had an epiphany: There's another way to do this. And there's a basic human impulse at work here.

Byrne was characteristically busy and eclectic during 2017. Last spring, his rock oratorio, Joan Of Arc: Into The Fire, debuted at New York's Public Theater - the same venue that first presented Here Lies Love, his 2010 musical with DJ Fatboy Slim about the autocratic Filipino diva Imelda Marcos. Contemporary Color, a 2017 documentary about US college/high school 'color guards' (synchronised dance/display teams: the non-playing, flag-and-rifle-spinning contingent of a marching band) was based on a performance event conceived by Byrne, roped in St. Vincent, Nelly Furtado and Ad-Rock and featured his original score. And Neurosociety, an interactive exhibit created with Mala Gaonkar, opened in October at a gallery in California.

Then in December, Byrne fired off the first word on his 2018 plans in a Twitter post promising a tour with new songs, old hits and his "most ambitious" production "since the shows that were filmed for Stop Making Sense." In fact, at the end of this interview - just two months before the first dates - Byrne confesses that he is still in the meeting stage "because the construction is so complicated: 'You're going to do this here. You're going to be in a harness there.' There's a choreographer and," he adds with a comic sigh, "a lot of prep work."

The concept is similar to the riveting minimalism and gymnastic charge that he and director Jonathan Demme devised for Stop Making Sense - as Byrne puts it, "Let's start from nothing, add things one by one to show what it takes to put on a show, then activate it. This is slightly different, but it also starts with a completely empty stage. And the band gets to move around freely" - including, he notes, five drummers.

"I've been very lucky," Byrne declares. "The currency you get from early success allows a lot of other things to happen. I don't think I can ask for anything better - I'm allowed these possibilities and people don't say, 'What are you doing? The nerve...'

"You get that occasionally," he says with a shrug and a grin, "though surprisingly not that often. People will grant you, 'OK, go ahead. If you fail, we'll say we told you so.'"

You announced that you are performing Talking Heads songs on this tour. Do you miss playing them?

They're fun to play - not all of them. There are a few in the Remain In Light era that can segue into the current stuff. People enjoy them because they're so rhythmic. Those are easy to update. I don't know if there is anything [in this show] from the first or second albums. Some songs seem like they are what they are - a little "song hit". There's not much you can do with them.

Will the songs on American Utopia actually make people more cheerful? One song, This Is That, opens with an argument about whether music matters any more.

There's an earlier draft of the lyrics where I got specific. I dropped the names of all these artists - Jay-Z, Limp Bizkit, Kool Moe Dee - talking about when I hear these artists, they have this effect on me. But others pointed out, "David, that's gonna get really dated - it's not gonna age well." (Laughs)

I still think a live performance is important. It's something happening in the here and now. Records - I don't know. Obviously, in my generation, a song would somehow strike a chord, unlock something about life or tell you that other people are sensing the same thing you are. I wonder if that is still happening.

When was the last time someone offered you a huge amount of money to reunite Talking Heads?

It's been a long time now, ten years or so, since those kinds of offers came in. I remember some of them - they were complicated offers. It wasn't like "We're going to give you this obscene amount of money to do a show." It included a whole tour, a record album, a whole 360-degree package. "We're going to own everything you do."

I thought, "This is a pretty risk-free investment. Yet I'm the one that's beholden to produce all the stuff. I have tos pend years making it work." I added up the money. When you break it down, as far as individual concerts and records, it's not that much. (Laughs). "You have to do a lot better than that."

But music is still your most reliable utopia.

It's pretty good for me. I have this streaming radio thing I do [at]. This month, it's gospel. I listened to my own gospel playlist last night with a friend. There was a part where we were singing along, then I got up and started dancing in the living room. (Laughs) I just thought, "Yep, I still like music a lot."


Forty years ago, Talking Heads' cover of Al Green and Teenie Hodges' Take Me To The River set the eclectic tone for their Brian Eno-produced second album, More Songs About Buildings And Food, then broke themas a chart act. "It solved the puzzle for people," the band tell Ray Padgett.

The Inspiration

Chris Frantz: I was a big fat fan of Al Green from the first time I heard Tired Of Being Alone. When Tina would come to visit me in my little apartment in Providence when David and I were in college, I would put on Al Green records to try to woo her.

David Byrne: Chris and I were in a band in Rhode Island. We used to do another Al Green song, Love And Happiness. Then, when Talking Heads got going we thought, "Let's do a different one. We already did that one."

Frantz: We chose Take Me To The River because it had a great bass line, first of all, and second of all we could really appreciate the weirdness of the lyrics.

Byrne: There's a mixture of the sacred and the profane, sex and God and Jesus. The imagery, tome, was fascinating.

Jerry Harrison: I believe it was already in their repertoire when I joined. David taught me the song, but I never went and listened to the original. When I finally listened to Al Green's version years later, I was like, "Wow, this is different!"

Byrne: The normal influences for bands in that place and time would have been pre-punk bands, The Stooges or The Velvet Underground. We had those influences as much as any of the others did, but we wanted to also point to, "We actually listen to a lot of R&B music." Which would have been anathema to some of that crowd.

Frantz: A lot of the people down at CBGB were, when it came to music, pretty racist. If it was any black musician other than Jimi Hendrix, they weren't very cool about it. The whole idea of performing a song written and recorded by a black artist is something none of the other bands were doing. So we tried playing it. I'm not sure anybody knew it was even an Al Green song, but it got a really good reaction.

The Recording

Byrne: It was a bit of a decision whether to record it or not. There's sometimes a little bit of resistance to recording something like that because it's a crowd-pleaser. I'd seen it happen before, where radio programmers will play a band doing a cover song because it's less risky. It's like people doing movie sequels - something's already known and successful. So then a band gets known for covering somebody else's song as opposed to writing their own material.

Harrison: We recorded it in the Bahamas. We were the first white band to record at Compass Point, a brand-new studio that Chris Blackwell had built. We felt like pioneers. There were times where a storm would knock out the power and the generator would come on. Eventually the salt air caused corrosion in the equipment so you started having breakdowns. You had to have a tolerant attitude.

Frantz: We recorded that album very quickly because we'd been playing those songs for a long time already and we didn't really have to work up any new arrangements.

Byrne: Brian Eno was attuned to that. He saw that wew ere a good live band and felt like, "My main job at this point is just to capture what's there." Harrison: We had met Brian in London on our first tour and got along with him great. We went over to his house and it was one of those things where you go look at somebody's library and think, "Oh I have these same books." It was love at first sight.

Frantz: He made a condition in his role as producer that we couldn't do any overdubs unless they were just like one little note per two bars. He didn't want us to clutter up the songs with additional parts. Brian [also] suggested we slow it down. The Al Green version is actually a pretty uptempo song and we had been playing it at a fairly fast tempo. Brian suggested, "Why don't you play it as slow as you can?" We tried it and it really worked.

The Impact

Harrison: After the first album, everyone was like, what is this music? What is it even influenced by? And then we put out Take Me To The River and people were like, "Oh, it's R&B." It solved the puzzle for people.

Frantz: I was not surprised it became a hit because it was so good, and so sexy. Most of our other songs you wouldn't call sexy.

Harrison: If you think of a lot of the other songs on More Songs About Buildings And Food, the abstract nature of them or the lyrics makes them not quite so easy to grab on to sing along with. With Take Me To The River being more traditional, it had that chorus that could grab people. And those are key to one of our songs becoming a hit.

Frantz: Later, Davids aid he didn't want to do anymore covers. The Al Green song was our first hit on Top 40 radio and I think maybe he felt, "I'd rather have one of my own songs be a hit."

Byrne: With my own tours and things like that later, I was happy to do lots of cover songs. Do a Whitney Houston song and a Missy Elliott song, all kinds of stuff. I didn't include any of them on the albums.

Frantz: As much as we hoped Take Me To The River would sound like Al Green, it never did. I'm sure I felt like, "Oh wow this is really funky", but it still sounded like a bunch of white kids from the suburbs.

Harrison: If you're too good at copying [a song], it doesn't seem original. But if you're only OK at copying, then whatever you do will seem quite original.

Byrne: Our versions, they do seem very much that they're ours. That's what makes a successful cover, I guess. You make it yours.

The Afterlife

Frantz: After the Remain In Light album [1980], David said, "Oh we can't possibly play this music live." He basically didn't want to tour any more. I believe it was Jerry who came up with the idea of, what if we toured with extra musicians playing the other parts to fill out the sound?

Byrne: [The Stop Making Sense arrangement of Take Me To The River] came from a little bit of [Parliament/Funkadelic keyboard player and Talking Heads collaborator] Bernie Worrell and probably a lot of Nona Hendryx, who helped us come up with that version. Which was a lot more of a gospel vibe. It was still our groove as opposed to Al Green's groove, but it brought a lot of the gospel stuff back into it.

Harrison: When you added backing singers, then the chorus became that much more dramatic and huge. It has a drama and it reaches an impassioned peak, so it's a great song for the end of the show.Which is really why we recorded it in the first place, because of its reaction when we were touring supporting the first album.

Byrne: I met [co-writer] Teenie Hodges a few times in Memphis. I invited him on-stage to play along on the song once. Of course, it was our version, not his version, but still, it was pretty cool. He was incredibly happy that we covered the song and, I think, probably also happy that we realised that he had a part in it. That it wasn't just Al Green. That acknowledgement, I think that meant something.