The deadpan irony and collage-artist approach to mixing musical
influences David Byrne brought to the Talking Heads makes him
something of a spiritual godfather to artists from Pavement to
Beck, but he’s never been content to rest on his laurels. More
ambitious than any of his punk or New Wave peers, Byrne has
experimented with electronic music, Latin rhythms and orchestral
scores — but it wasn’t until 1994 that rock’s most detached
lyricist began releasing songs that had more to do with his inner
life than buildings and food. And though Byrne is portrayed as a
plastic doll on the cover of his new album, “Feelings,” songs like
“They Are in Love” and “Finite=Alright” pack an affecting, if
abstract, emotional punch.
Of course, the performer Time magazine once dubbed “Rock’s
Renaissance man” is hardly content to confine himself to one
medium, and Byrne has kept busy in the three years since his last
album with a book of his photographs, “Strange Ritual;” a
multimedia museum exhibit called “Desire” that’s now traveling the
country and his world music-oriented record label, Luaka Bop. But
for someone so busy and famously hyperkinetic, Byrne seems fairly calm as he sinks into a
couch and talks about his “Feelings,” his new collaborators and his
legal tug-of-war with his former bandmates over the name Talking
Rolling Stone.com: Like [1994’s] “David Byrne,”
“Feelings” seems a little more personal than most of your previous
work. Does that represent a conscious shift on your
David Byrne: Yeah, well … yeah. I tried to
write stuff that’s not always ironic or tongue in cheek — [songs
that are about] what I feel, what I believe, that come from the
heart. Not that the more ironic, tongue in cheek stuff doesn’t also
come from the heart in some way, but you can fall into a trap — I
know I can do that. I wanted to get to something that feels more
real to me.
It was conscious. It wasn’t a commercial decision, but it was
a conscious decision, partly because a lot of the music I listen to
is very heartfelt. I might put on a country record, not from one of
the hat guys, but something real or somebody whose stuff really
moves me, and it’s great and I can sing along to it. So I started
asking myself: Why can’t I write a song like that? So I try. I
don’t always succeed.
You also pulled in some collaborators like Morcheeba and DJ Hahn Rowe who gave the album
an electronic edge. How did you decide to do that?
A lot of the electronica people and mixers and DJs all cite
the [“My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” album] I did with Brian Eno
years ago as being a major influence or inspiration or whatever.
It’s something I listen to, it’s [a genre] where there’s a lot of
musical excitement and innovation, people trying things out —
trying them out and failing, trying them out and succeeding.
There’s an openness and curiosity. It’s not like, ‘No, that’s not
how you do it, you do it like this.’ [There’s more an attitude of]
‘Go ahead: Anything you want to try, go ahead and try.’ Which is
great, because not everything works, but there’s a great feeling of
Punk had that same sense of possibility when you were
first starting out in the Talking Heads. Do you think that’s
Ninety percent of all music is always crap, and when too many
people decide they’re going to have guitar bands, then ninety
percent of them are going to be crap. It’s just a given law.
There’s going to be 10 percent within that style who are doing
great stuff, and it’s going to have great songs and memorable
sounds and it’s incredible, it grabs you by the throat or whatever.
The rest of it, you know, they’re playing by the rules. And it just
so happens that this particular kind of music has been marketed up
the wazoo in the last decade … It’s been so overmarketed and
we’re so oversaturated with it that people start to feel
like there’s nothing else. But there’s a lot else going on. There’s
an awful lot going on.
One of the interesting lyrics on the album is “Rock
bands died when amateurs won”…
Yeah, anybody can go in with two turntables and a microphone
or a home studio sampler and a little cassette deck or whatever and
make records in their bedrooms. It’s that kind of do-it-yourself
thing, where [people] don’t feel like they have to go into a real
recording studio … That’s where the whole CBGBs punk thing came
from. Even if some people could play their instruments, the
overriding feeling was that it didn’t matter whether you could or
You’ve been a solo artist for about decade. Was it odd
to work with so many collaborators on this album?
No. It was really comfortable. It was exactly the way I wanted
to work. It wasn’t a band in the sense that you’re in a room
playing something at a deafening volume and screaming ‘No, at the
middle eight you’re supposed to go like this!’ It was the kind of
thing where everything is kind of crafted and people were just
hanging out and throwing out ideas and sounds. It was a creative
studio [collaboration] rather than a performance, which is more
what a band is.
When Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison
wanted to release an album as the Talking Heads last year, you took
legal action to stop them. What made you go after the rights to the
name Talking Heads?
I felt that maybe not now, but that at some point, there
[would be] all these records out under the name [Talking] Heads
[and] people at some point would get confused and wonder which is
the real thing and what’s what. Although [the other members of the
band] may claim otherwise, it’s a pretty obvious attempt to cash in
on the Talking Heads name, and yet I would define it as something
new they’re doing. I would say it’s not the Talking Heads, they
would say it is — just without the singer … It’s different and
it should have a different name.