What It Is He Does: An Interview with David Byrne

I happened, last summer, upon David Byrne's "Desire" exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, an old and barely-renovated industrial compound in the Berkshires. The show was comprised of huge back-lit pieces that coupled glossy travel-brochure-worthy scenic vistas with symbols of drug culture–paraphernalia, weapons, money. An unguided audio tour funneled a barrage of self-help platitudes and rap lyrics (as recited by little old ladies) into the museum-goers' ears. And at the very center of the show, amidst towering screens, glowing aphorisms and slick images, sat an odd piece: a large graying industrial model–constructed by the man who sweeps out the local church–that Byrne had stumbled upon while exploring the grounds.

Byrne stole away from the opening to give a small group an impromptu tour of the museum. As he worked his way from the exhibit into the cavernous underground, an authoritative voice boomed from the distance, "Who's down there?"

"It's just David, from the show," Byrne responded.

I remember thinking how absurd "just David" sounded. Like the placement of someone else's industrial model at the center of the gallery, I felt this little phrase distance the artist from total ownership of his work.

It was not surprising, then, to hear Byrne's new album "Feelings." It's a melange of different styles and influences, each track composed of a unique set of musicians whose ideas both subtly nudge and aggressively push the songs in different directions.

Speaking with Byrne recently about "Feelings," "Desire," and his music label ??, has illustrated that it's not distance so much as openness that allows him to slide seamlessly between his roles as musician, artist, curator and commentator.

He's just doing, he thinks, what it is he does.

What was compelling to me about the images in "Desire" was that, if you didn't look very carefully at them, you could mistake them for real, even generic ads. There is, I think, a fine-tuned irony in the imagery that commands the viewer to suspend reality long enough to get sucked in conceptually, to understand the ubiquity of advertising and its power to deliver a message. Did you consider taking that concept even further, by using real ad space like billboards or bus malls?

I did put a couple of them on billboards in Toronto; some of the weapons and money ones I did as bus shelter light boxes at public toilets in San Francisco. It's kind of a struggle, though, because of the nature of the stuff: it has to do with drugs or street weapons, and they're just like, "Get out of here! We don't want that in our subway system."

Probably because they've already reserved the spot for Lethal Weapon V. That sounds like typical American sanctimony; everyone's always worried about the graphic depiction of violence, and here you're using these idyllic scenes to comment on the very same thing, and suddenly everyone's worried that people might misread it as, what, pro-drug? anti-advertising?

America has a kind of really enthusiastic craziness, but it also has the flip side of being really desperate. I think a lot of that imagery–the beautiful images, inspirational texts and speeches, the new age platitudes, and then the drugs, aggressiveness and gritty reality, the feeling-like-I-have-nothing-to-live-for attitude in some of the gangster rap lyrics–as different as they seem, are actually really similar. The artificial bliss of one creates the horror of the other, and one is as fake or as real as the other. You can't judge one as being good or bad, because they're two sides of the same thing.

You are unusual in being acclaimed for your work in many media: You've released albums, scored for theater and dance, published a book, made a film, and shown your photography. Do you favor one medium over another as your primary art form, or do you see each as a piece of your total expression, and "your art" as the overall combination?

I guess I never saw a rule book that said you couldn't do that, so why not? I do think some parts occasionally make more money than the others, but you never know, those waves go up and down and that could all change, the balance could shift from time to time, but that's not really what concerns me or what motivates someone to write something or to put something together.

You have a perceived position as a world music curator. I can tell you, for example, that nearly the entire syllabus for a college Brazilian Music class was extracted from your Beleza Tropical compilation. Do you feel any responsibility or obligation to show an accurate cross-section of a region or country's music when you put these albums out, or do you tune it to your aesthetics and just put out what you like?

It's tuned to my aesthetics, so they're a little bit biased, they're a little off-center and my choices might be, and sometimes are, a little peculiar. When the albums started coming out, there weren't that many like them around, so people were wondering if they were supposed to be a representative cross-section. But it's not. It's a certain slice of the stuff. I leave people out because they don't connect to me. I don't feel any responsibility other than wanting the music to be treated with respect.

How did you come to shift from exclusively compiling to releasing original music? By putting out original music by artists like Cornershop, Jim White and Geggy Tah, as well as your own stuff, you've really changed the nature of the Luaka Bop label in these past few years.

A couple of years ago we started thinking, "All right, we've kind of learned the ropes by doing these compilations, let's take the big plunge and start working with living breathing people instead of just licensing existing stuff and packaging it." Also, a lot of the labels are much less willing these days to let somebody else compile their music. They don't want one of the other "big five" distributing any of their stuff, which you can understand, but in the long run, it keeps [the music] from getting out.

It seems like on your current album "Feelings," you've neatly combined your musical ideals of exploring and supporting both existing and potential music forms by collaborating with well- and lesser-known artists to create something of a concept album. How did you decide who would be on your album, and in what capacity?

Well, I had written songs, and originally was going the more conventional route of calling up various producers and seeing who would work with me, but people were not available or couldn't do it. So I wondered, what if I were to just call up somebody who already sounds like I imagine a particular song could sound, and I just say, "Let's do this together."? So I started that with Hahn Rowe, who's a programmer, musician, and DJ guy here in New York. And it worked out great. And I'd heard a tape of Morcheeba's record; they're coming out of the dance world of hip hop and sequencers, but they were mixing in guitars and stuff, and I heard how some of my songs could go that way. I did the same thing on other songs with other groups of musicians, and just kept going. It took a while, but it was a lot of fun.

On a conceptual level, do you think involving so many musicians, producers and styles changes the nature of whose song, or even whose album, it is?

I think that every song was co-produced by whatever musician I was working with, that they were bringing so much of their own sensibilities to it and in fact acted as half of the production team, whatever that means anymore. I was never proprietary or said, "No, no, no, we can't do that." It was always like, "Whatever seems right for the song." It just amazes me how much they still sound like my songs.

You must have had unbelievable travel and studio bills.

A lot of it was facilitated by the fact that there's all this fairly new recording technology (ADAT and DA-88) that people use in their home studios. All that paranoia in the big recording studios now seems kind of needless, and so, I felt a whole lot more relaxed. There just wasn't the same kind of money pressure, or the feeling that the clock was ticking and the dollar signs were going by.

There's so much talk nowadays of indie and/or lo-fi production, although it's always been around in some form or another. It seems like home recording devices not only allow new bands to set their own terms, but also allow a big name act to step aside and enjoy the luxury of time and experimentation.

It feels like another way in which the means of production have come back to the writers and artists, like in the punk days, when there was just a sense that if you could get a couple of friends together, you could bash out something and express yourself and you didn't need more than that. Or like the hip hop kids putting together a beat on a couple of turntables with another guy rapping with a microphone. It's the same kind of thing: hardly any technology, hardly any expense. You can make a record for relatively low cost and, more importantly, you can make it the way you imagined it.

How was it working with Devo? I have this–admittedly dated, and embarrassingly music-video-influenced–vision of you all sitting around, them in their lab suits and you wearing your Big Suit.

As you can imagine, they were fun to just hang out and talk with. They were hilarious and they would have tons of ideas and a scathing wit. Come to think of it, Jerry, the other main guy from Devo, DID wear a suit most of the time, but it was kind of a tailored, designer suit.

A suit suit.

Yeah, he was wearing a suit suit, looking very chic, which is no big deal, but it's probably the first time, I think, that I've ever been in a studio with anybody wearing a suit.

Do you think that because you have such a penchant for commentary and irony, people are always trying to figure out the "real you"? Do you feel that there's a lot of interpretation and commentary centered on things that you kind of "just did," that aren't as symbolic or allegorical as they're made out to be?

There is often the question of, what did you mean by that? Occasionally, I can say very specifically, "This is what this was about, this is how I wanted to go about saying it, and I had a very specific goal in mind." Other things are really much more intuitive and I don't ask myself what it means; I feel like that's somebody else's job. I can sense in my gut when something feels right or sounds like it's saying something; it can move you and you don't even know what it's really saying in a literal, logical, rational way. But that's what you're trying to get at, something that bypasses that kind of logic or reason and digs in a little deeper, gets at something inside of people and inside of yourself. However, I have read things where someone dissected a song lyric, and I realize, boy, they really kind of hit the nail on the head. They're right.

I've read a lot about your staged UFO photos that were so poorly received when you were in art school. Has anyone since gone back to those photos and wanted to show them, now that you've gotten notoriety for your visual work?

They got stolen. They don't exist.

Hypothetically, then, if someone approached you now with the idea of creating a gallery show for those photos, would you feel somehow vindicated, or would you assume that they were using fame as the arbiter of talent, and just wanted to show David Byrne's Photos?

I would feel that they were (showing) David Byrne's UFO photos, which is part of the reason that I sometimes like to show, if I can, on a bus shelter or a billboard. It's anonymous, nobody knows where it's coming from. It's not about seeing inside David Byrne's head, or about what a nutty guy he is.

More: www.davidbyrne.com

About This Story

  • Artist: David Byrne
  • Interviewer/Author: Beth Urdang
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012