The Word MARCH 2011 - by Dorian Lynskey


There was a worse concern: offstage fright.

If David Byrne were at all given to smugness he would be pretty much unbearable. It's not just that, since retreating from pop music's frontline by dissolving Talking Heads twenty years ago, he has done a lot of different things - it's that he's done most of them well. He produces art installations and they're in demand around the world. He conceives a musical about Imelda Marcos and it involves Tori Amos, Florence Welch and Steve Earle. He publishes a book of his cycling columns for the New York Times and it sells handsomely. And so on. It could get annoying.

But if, at a lean, silvery fifty-eight, Byrne does feel like he has anything to prove, then he certainly doesn't act like it. His eyebrows naturally shoot up, as does his hair, giving him a default expression of benign surprise. His voice has a similar quizzical quality, punctuated with little chuckles. I wonder if he enjoys cycling so much because it echoes the way he thinks, winding pleasantly from subject to subject with occasional meandering digressions. Read just the last few entries in his journal at and you'll find him pondering Balkan music, Japanese Butoh dancing, Korean weddings, the history of Detroit, Wagner versus heavy metal, and the interior design preferences of Ronnie James Dio.

Lest we forget, he still makes pop music from time to time, and his new concert movie Ride, Rise, Roar documents the tour he undertook to promote his 2008 album with Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Whether watching the movie or talking to him, you get the impression that whatever he's doing at a given moment, Byrne is happy to be doing it.

What do you think about in the moment just before you step on stage?

Um... Often I'm thinking that once you step out there it's like a rollercoaster and you have to ride it all the way to the end and you can't go, "Oh wait, I got that bit wrong, let's start again." You know that it goes by incredibly quickly.

Have you ever suffered from stage fright? Your persona in Talking Heads was twitchy and nervous anyway, so it was hard to tell.

I wasn't timid about getting on stage. I was thinking everything had to be perfect. Now I feel like if you loosen up and let people in then you get some kind of perfection that way, rather than trying to control and manage every single bit of it. Back then I was much more nervous offstage than on. Onstage was a performance, but offstage I was completely uncomfortable.

So more like offstage fright?

That's right, yeah. Once you're on stage you've stepped into an artificial world and you can do things but offstage it's real life.

The tour documented in Ride, Rise, Roar is unusually theatrical. Do you get bored by straightforward rock shows?

I don't think I have any rules. I've seen shows in the last month where it's just been a band and I didn't feel like, "Oh well, if only they'd had dancers like I did." (Laughs) But for myself, yes. I thought, "This wants some other visual element." And adding dancers seemed about the least likely thing that I should do. (Laughs)

When you say, "What I want to do is have dancers", you immediately see the hip-hop video dancers and you think, "Ooh, I don't see how that's going to work."

It was a previous concert movie, Stop Making Sense, that transformed your career and made you an iconic figure - the weird guy in the big suit. Was it calculated to do that?

Well, I knew that the show worked and that I couldn't take it in that direction any further. It's one idea. You can't push it further because that's where it goes. It did have a beginning and a middle and an end, so I thought it might stand up to being filmed. I thought it could be a document so that then I could move on to other things.

On your blog you're gently critical of the scale of U2's current tour: "It could be professional envy speaking here, but it sure looks like, well, overkill, and just a wee bit out of balance given all the starving people in Africa and all." Is there anything you miss about playing big stages?

No. Nothing. When you have a little bit more sales and popularity, as Talking Heads did then, you could say, "Oh, can we have this kind of lighting or can we do a video on our day off?" And people would appear and make it happen. So I miss a little bit of that ease of getting things done but I don't miss arenas. That terrified me. When it got to a certain scale the audience became this abstract mass and you started to lose that connection. Other people can deal with that but I can't.

How has the day-to-day business of touring changed for you since then?

Years ago I realised that if I took a bicycle on the bus I could explore a town for quite a few hours and visit friends or see museums or just aimlessly ride about, and kind of have a life before going back into soundcheck. And this time there were seven bikes on the bus. That's really different from what touring used to be. It used to be: get sloshed in the evening and then spend the rest of the day recovering.

On your blog there are some remarkable photographs you took while cycling around almost the ruins of Detroit - this derelict, post-apocalyptic landscape dotted with abandoned buildings. Were you playing a show there?

No, that was for a film that an Italian director is doing. He wanted us to perform a song in a club for a scene. It's called This Must Be The Place, and that's the song he wanted us to play. Detroit is really cheap to shoot in because half the city is gone and the rest is boarded up. Transformers 3 was shooting there. It had taken over half of downtown, which you can do in Detroit because there's no one there anyway.

It reminds me of the Talking Heads song (Nothing But) Flowers: "This was a Pizza Hut / Now it's all covered with daisies".

Oh yeah, exactly. Shopping malls grown over with trees. Office buildings completely abandoned and grown over with moss.

There's a scene in the movie where you're all celebrating Obama's election. Are you depressed by what's happened to US politics in the two years since then, particularly the bitterness of public discourse?

Yeah, I find it kind of depressing. I feel like you could have seen the current mood coming. You knew that as Bush left the economy was in tatters and people were going to be out of jobs and out of homes. I thought, "People are going to be pissed off real soon and whatever's closest at hand they'll blame it." And, God forbid, they're not going to blame themselves for voting for George Bush and the guys whose policies got them into this mess. Poor Barack Obama is going to have take the stick for everything that went before. You could see it coming and here it is, and it's pretty ugly. And it's not going to get better. It's going to get worse all over the world as climate change and oil running out and all the other stuff starts to kick in. I think things are going to get really ugly. (Laughs) I'm not painting an apocalyptic picture but, yeah, there's some nastiness up ahead.

You're suing Charlie Crist, Florida's Republican governor, over using Road To Nowhere in a campaign advert last May, and you've never licensed a song to a commercial. Why are you so fiercely protective of your songs?

Um, yeah, I'm kind of old school. I feel like if you license a song to a television show or a film, people understand that the song is a quotation. With me they often pick some classic song that's representative of an era or a mood and it's an easy way for them to instantly push some buttons with an audience. But with an advert it's a little bit different because then people assume that you are endorsing whatever it is. And also it gets played over and over and over again and it really tends to cement the link. And you think, "Oh, that's the song from the Toyota commercial", as opposed to, "This is the song he wrote when his girlfriend died." I'm not ready for that!

You seem to move between different projects very quickly. Do you have to train your brain to switch gears smoothly?

Up to a point. I do immerse myself in things for chunks but, yeah, I can compartmentalise pretty well. I've realised that some things will only move along as fast as they're going to go along and pushing harder isn't going to help, so it's better to keep a few pots on the stove than stand there and watch just the one.

So what's the next pot to attend to?

I'm working on a book about music. Not a Keith Richards autobiography, although a lot of it's from my own experience. It's more about music. I did a talk about architecture and music, about how the sound of a room affects the music that gets written. So there's different chapters like that.

Do you have a mental checklist of unrealised projects? Do you feel that time is finite?

I don't have a checklist: "Albums to write before you die!" (Laughs) I'm aware it's finite but I don't have list like that. I did hear Phil Glass say once, "When I got to a certain age I realised there's only so many more operas I can write." He could almost count them. I would never have thought that way. I just get enthusiastic about the next one instead of thinking this is one of nineteen that I have left to do.