You may ask yourself, why does David Byrne keep putting out salsa albums? Since the breakup of Talking Heads in 1988, Byrne has become a one-man WOMAD festival, delighting some fans and puzzling others. People! Who do you want him to be, Michael Bolton? As Emerson said, with consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. And Byrne, a director (True Stories), Academy Award winner (for the score of The Last Emperor), photographer (an exhibit made its way through New York, Belgium and Japan) and dad (he has a 5-year-old daughter), has done plenty. Most notably, his new album, which showcases the best of Byrne: eccentric, humorous and fresh, with pared-down arrangements and his most intimate lyrics yet. He phones from the road, somewhere deep in the western United States.
My family and I just got back from breakfast at a great place.
What did you have?
Sounds a bit… Dickensian. So tell me, what events led up to your writing such a personal album?
Probably the catalyst, I guess, was the death of my wife’s sister [Tina Chow] of AIDS-related illnesses. When that happened, we were all kind of together, and I wrote the song “Buck Naked” within a few days. I started singing it to our daughter, and I realized that it was a song that I didn’t sit down to write, it just kinda came out.
Yeah, I can’t remember them now, I’m sorry. But I did try some titles, and in a way they seemed like a contrived attempt to put a title on it. None of them really said what the record was about. They all sounded like … titles. [Laughs.]
You said recently that since the days of Talking Heads, you care less about what people think. Were you easily wounded or influenced by what people said?
Oh, sure. Still am somewhat but less so. At the time I was more aware of market things: How the record did, and how it was being received. I mean, I’m aware of what’s going on, I’m aware of how my records are perceived somewhat, but I’ve had enough ups and downs that I kind of disregard it, because, you know, there are times when you’re fashionable and times when you’re not, and it doesn’t always reflect on the music.
You seem to keep up with new music. What’s the last show you’ve seen?
This is going to be a surprise. Maybe not. Me and some of the other band members went to the Pink Floyd show in Minneapolis.
Jesus! That is a surprise. What did you think?
None of us had ever seen a stadium spectacle like that before. I think I’d been to a stadium show once, and it was definitely not a spectacle. [Laughs] All that was really kind of amazing. It was kind of the same as the music, it tends to just be the soundtrack for the light show. It was strange because it’s so different from what we’re doing at the moment, which is more of an intimate, bare-bones arrangement.
Speaking of that, didn’t you close out a New York show with “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless),” by Crystal Waters?
Yeah. Yeah. I heard the song and kinda liked it, but I could rework it in a way that had some of the same groove but didn’t sound anything at all like her version. And I thought, “This is a pretty neat song.” And it’s a lot of fun to do.
Did you ever get any grief from anyone for passing out condoms on your 1992 tour?
No. It was a lot of fun. People had a lot of fun with it. Sometimes audience members would blow them up like balloons and toss them back onstage. We had a little problem when we came into Israel because we had a road case filled with about a thousand condoms. [Laughs] They wondered what we were doing.
When’s the last time you were really surprised by something?
Not that long ago, I went to the Mall of America, which is outside Minneapolis. It’s the largest mall in the country, I believe. It’s kind of this bizarre shopping-consumer experience. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, and you have to make a pilgrimage to it.
Is there any artistic medium you’re not particularly skilled at? Pen-and-ink drawings, maybe?
Oh, absolutely. Uh. Something comes to mind. [Laughs] Writing fiction, that kind of thing. I never get further than a few pages.
You moved around a lot as a kid. What’s the least glamorous place you lived?
I think a lot of places I lived – Glasgow; Hamilton, Ontario; and Baltimore – at the time were all industrial towns. They’ve since spruced up their images, but they were pretty unglamorous industrial heaps.
Did you ever invent a new persona for yourself?
It was tempting. It was nice that we moved around and you could make new friends and in a way didn’t have a history. Your new friends didn’t know how stupid or geeky you might have been with your previous friends.
Does your daughter like your music?
She likes some of the songs. [Laughs] She likes “Back in the Box.” She likes the ones with sing-along bits.
Were you able to avoid a Barney phase with her?
She liked Barney for a while. It kinda comes and goes.
My friend completely shut off her child from Barney, and still, he infiltrated that child’s mind.
Oh, yeah, it’s out there. Through the other kids. It’s in all the store windows.
Parentwise, are you the good cop or the bad cop?
A little bit of both. We include her in a lot of our activities. Like if we’re going out at night to see something, to a dance performance or see some music or whatever, we’ll take her along. We don’t want to feel like we’ve got our world and she’s got her world.
Final question: What’s your favorite Madonna song?
“Like a Virgin.” And I really like “Material Girl.”