An Interview with David Byrne

An interview with David Byrne (b. 1952) by Susan Thornton Hobby, originally published in the Little Patuxent Review in 2014.

There’s a curious brain in David Byrne’s head, curious in both senses – eccentric, yes, but also insatiably interested in the world. For nearly five decades, Byrne has parlayed that curiosity into art.

Over his 62 years, Byrne has drawn; photographed; produced a Broadway disco musical; written, directed and acted in a movie; fronted the Talking Heads; penned nine books; recorded seventeen albums and traveled the world.

Rejected from his Arbutus middle-school choir for being “too off-key and too withdrawn,” Byrne writes that he was “a peculiar young man – borderline Asperger’s, I would say.”

He retreated into music from the boredom of suburban Baltimore; Byrne learned to play harmonica, guitar and accordion before high school. He dropped out of the Rhode Island School of Design and then the Maryland Institute College of Art. He moved to New York City and worked day jobs as a movie usher and a graphic designer, then in 1975 he and his art school friends formed a band and called it the Talking Heads. That band went on to release eight albums and the iconic concert movie Stop Making Sense. The New York Times’ critic John Rockwell called Talking Heads “America’s most venturesome rock band.”

We who (mostly) matured in the 1980s remember him this way -- a rangy boy/man with slicked-back black hair in a huge suit on stage, talking to himself with his hand: “You may ask yourself,” he asks, his hand flapping open and closed, “How do I work this?”

His hair is white now, rather fluffy, sometimes spiked for concerts. But he still wears dapper suits, just not Kibuki-sized, and pulls off frenetic choreography while he sings. He still laughs, heartily and often. He puts on rimless reading glasses to see his computer. He still lives in New York, the same city where he and his band first played at CBGB, the notorious mosh pit generously called a club, in 1975. But his apartment is much nicer nowadays.

His artistic curiosity seems boundless. His drawings and models of bizarre chairs – some shaped like file cabinets, some like chairs with mohawks or squishy undulations like Silly Putty – made up a solo show in galleries in D.C. and off Madison Avenue in Manhattan. He toured Europe and North America in 2013 with St. Vincent, the singer and multi-instrumentalist born as Annie Clark, to promote their collaborative album, Love This Giant. He designed bike racks that were installed all over New York City, such as the high-heeled shoe for the curbs of Bergdorf-Goodman and the dollar sign for Wall Street.

Last spring, Here Lies Love, the immersive Broadway musical he and Fatboy Slim wrote and produced based on the life of Philipine first lady and disco fan Imelda Marcos, ran for four months. He and Fatboy Slim won the Village Voice’s Obie Award for the lyrics and music. Vogue wrote that the show was “a life-giving, roof-raising, booty-shaking blast of pure joy!”

His latest book, a massive, fascinating, illustrated treatise called How Music Works, attempts to explain the neurological, compositional, collaborative and economic ways of music. He wrote chapters on how musical compositions were influenced by the venues in which they were to be performed (loud and rhythmic for outdoors; layered and complex for smaller rooms, harmonic for large cathedrals). And he wrote about his origins with the Talking Heads, the evolution of musical instruments, plus essays on the economics of music contracts, the idea (with studies to back it up) that feeling for music is deep in our neurons and even a bit about the evolving style of rockers’ clothes. He dissects music like a splayed-out frog, but he doesn’t want to kill it.

“Does one asking oneself these questions in an attempt to see how the machine works spoil the enjoyment? It hasn’t for me,” he writes. “Music isn’t fragile. Knowing how the body works doesn’t take away from the pleasures of living. Music has been around as long as people have formed communities. It’s not going to go away, but its uses and meaning evolve. I am more moved by music now than I have ever been. Trying to see it from a wider and deeper perspective only makes it clear that the lake itself is wider and deeper than we thought.”

Byrne has grown into his curious artistic sensibilities. Or perhaps the world has grown into him. He’s won Golden Globe and Academy awards and Talking Heads were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. And yet he’s remained solidly on his own path.

“The last thing I want to do is to turn into someone like everyone else,” Byrne told Stephen Colbert on “The Colbert Report.”

His creative adventures haven’t slowed down. In 2008, he and a team wired up a vacant Brooklyn ferry terminal so that people could play the building: Anyone could walk in, touch a few keys on a secondhand pump organ, and cause the pipes or floorboards or ductwork to vibrate and ping and rattle to make music. Byrne’s solo albums have featured music from Africa, Cuba, Brazil, big brass bands, opera, and the Tosca Strings. He was one of the pioneers in using sampling in studio albums. He’s collaborated with Brian Eno, the late Tejano singer Selena, and choreographer Twyla Tharp. He won an Academy Award for his music for the movie The Last Emperor. He wrote the screenplay and music, then acted and directed the movie True Stories, which he narrates as if he were a stoned Mr. Rogers in a cowboy hat.

Nearly every day, Byrne rolls through New York on his bike, and he has become a huge advocate for biking and community parks. When he travels, he packs a folding bike to take with him. He wrote Bicycle Diaries, about biking through Manila and Sydney and Buenos Aires.

Biking is like “floating through the landscape … you can stop at any moment if something catches your eye,” he says, zooming through Manhattan on his bike in a New York Times-sponsored video about biking the city.

And he truly believes that biking can change the world, and it’s not just to save the climate or to help everyone find the best taco trucks in Manhattan.

“This simple form of transportation is about to make our city more livable, more human and better connected,” he says.
His art, his music, his writing, his biking, even his blog and radio station (the oh-so-eclectic Radio David Byrne based on his web site: all seem to urge us to come together for a shared experience, to be curious about the world with him.

And he’s a huge proponent of amateurs in art. He was an amateur, he explains in a dialogue with musician and record producer Ahmir Questlove Thompson at New York University last year.

“I didn’t have a plan,” he says, of his start in music. “It was purely out of love and joy and curiosity that you get into it. There’s a danger -- that it gets taken away from kids and adults. They get told, ‘No, you’re not good enough to do this, there are people who have been doing this all their lives, who are professionals, they will make the music, your job is just to enjoy it.'

“My feeling was, OK, I can enjoy music with the best of them, but there’s something about being involved in it,” Byrne says. “Whether it’s playing an instrument, singing, editing a sample, whatever it is. There’s something about the participation of it. It means you enjoy it in a whole different way. You become part of a community. You use it as a means of communication.”
Through music, drawing, writing, Byrne reaches out to make his own way in the arts.

"David is one of those people who has forced us to redefine what we mean by popular culture and serious culture, commercial art and noncommercial art," said composer Philip Glass, who has known and worked with Byrne since 1975. He was quoted in a 1986 Time Magazine cover story on Byrne. "He so resolutely does his own work regardless of whether it is commercial or noncommercial, and with so little regard for the canons of either of those fields, that he creates something uniquely his own."

In Byrne’s book Arboretum, which features “faux science,” as he calls it, through plant-like drawings and musings on connections between disparate things (architecture styles and doughnut types, organic vegetables and horror movies), he describes his free-writing and drawing this way: “To proceed, carefully and deliberately, from nonsense, with a straight face, often arriving at a new kind of sense.”

Byrne’s process statement seems to describe what we’re all seeking as artists – to be adventurers into a new landscape, to start making a new kind of sense.


Susan Thornton Hobby: There was a moment when you were younger, listening to a song on the radio sung by the Byrds called “Mr. Tamborine Man” that you have said you realized something about music and yourself. Could you describe that moment and your realization?

David Byrne: The song sounded different than anything I’d ever heard. Very jangly guitars and then thick, almost inhuman sounding vocals and harmonies. Immediately one knew that there was a different world out there—a world where all of that made sense, a world vastly different from the one I was living in. It might not be a better world, but the mere existence of an alternate universe meant one had to go see what was out there.

STH: How did growing up in suburbia shape your ideas of community? And how did you react to suburbia then, and do you now?

DB: Suburbia was a nice cosseted place, but it wasn’t where things were happening. Things were being created and new ideas were coming into being and we in the suburbs became aware of them, but they never seemed to originate with us.

Now, I have to say, I’m not so obsessed with whatever the new thing is: I realize that one can have a wonderful life without being sucked into that whirlwind, a life in a small community can be just fine, but as a young guy I was drawn to it.

STH: You’ve said that music saved your life – how? And how does music matter to humans?

DB: That’s kind of a big question—music does so many different things. It tells you you’re not alone. It connects you with your internal body rhythms. It allows you to get outside yourself, to escape the bonds of your own personality. It serves as a model for a more perfect world, a more equitable society. And it’s enjoyable.

STH: Can you talk about amateur artists and their importance?

DB: Obviously there have always been professional musicians—the lyre player and the bard who sings epic poems—but parallel to that there have always been small groups and communities who make music and performances for themselves. It might be a form of family entertainment, singing in church or synagogue or playing in a marching band. Your participation in music making helps cement the bonds that hold a community together.

My concern is that with the globalization of everything, we increasingly look to professionals to provide for our cultural needs—our gadgets provide “entertainment,” which is different than community. We start to devalue our own and others’ amateur efforts, believing that only the anointed professionals can make our culture.
The crazy amateurs on YouTube not withstanding, one senses us turning into a society that watches things instead of making them.

STH: You once said you write songs about little things, like paper and houses, because big things like love are too vast. Could you talk about that idea?

DB: I’m generalizing, but unless I’m writing in character I tend to go for the micro rather than the macro. I’ll go for the world in a grain of sand rather than sweeping statements about the big subjects. The big subjects, and how one feels about them, is revealed in the details, in the small day-to-day decisions—well, at least that’s how it works sometimes … a bit like Joyce’s Ulysses. He purposely modeled the book on an epic quest involving gods and demons, but it’s told through an ordinary guy just getting through his day (and night).

STH: In your book, How Music Works, you explain how architecture and recording equipment influenced the development of different types of music, with the venue acting as a vessel that inspires the music to fill it. What is today’s method of consuming music doing to music?

DB: There’s a lot going on simultaneously now, often in different directions. Many of us listen to music through headphones—in private, with every detail audible. Both of those aspects would affect the kinds of music that work best in that context, I would think. Acoustically you can have a lot of detail, but you can’t have dynamic (volume) changes, as they’d blow out folks’ ears. You also have the social side of music eliminated, which is a huge part of what music is about.

At the same time—in certain contexts—music is ubiquitous. It’s in elevators, stores, the streets, cars and offices. That’s different too. It’s being used like some kind of aural filler; in some ways it stops one from thinking and blocks awareness of what else is going on.

STH: You’ve collaborated with musicians like Brian Eno, St. Vincent and Fatboy Slim, as well as choreographers like Twyla Tharp. How do you set your mind to work together, and what does collaboration do to the artistic process?

DB: Collaborations don’t always work, but they always force one to adapt and not fall back on the tried-and-true techniques that one might have used previously. That in itself is good — they keep the creative muscles working. They also offer an insight, sometimes, into how someone else works, which may turn out to be useful information to have, or not, but you won’t find it any other way.

STH: The element of constraint in collaboration is something you’ve said inspires you. How?

DB: We restrict ourselves all the time—thank goodness. Unlimited freedom and too many options would be paralyzing. Much better to have to adapt to someone else or to set parameters and work within those, in my opinion. The creative freedom then comes into play when you have to figure out how to best express oneself within those boundaries.

STH: How was the experience of writing and producing “Here Lies Love?”

DB: Long—about eight years of work, very on and off. Hugely satisfying at the end though. But as many have pointed out, that’s very unusual—there’s no guarantee. When a song can lock with a story, with a character, and yet still have an autonomous life—be something you can relate to outside of that story—it enriches the music immensely, which is a wonderful feeling as a writer.

STH: What can arts education do for young people?

DB: This is not my idea, but it seems that some education in the arts and humanities—especially having to make music, write or create anything oneself—engages and develops a problem-solving part of the brain, which, as has been proven, can then be applied to any manner of disciplines. The ability to think outside the box can indeed be taught, at least to some extent, and it seems it’s the arts and humanities that do that, not the sciences or other disciplines.

© Susan Thornton Hobby, 2014. All rights reserved.