Being Byrne

by Jason MacNeil

SITTING IN HIS NEW YORK OFFICE and starting on a bowl of soup, David Byrne is about to start a tour of Europe in support of his new album Grown Backwards. The album title comes from an Irish novel but could also explain the rather inside-out nature Byrne took to making the record.

“I didn’t get through all the tapes that I used,” Byrne says of his “top down” method to creating the tracks. “If I had a lot of ideas I would just hum them in the thing (micro-recorder) and immediately take it out and dump it in the pile. And then it ends up being this big pile of little tiny cassettes. There’s still a pile on my desk and I was like, ‘Gee, I wonder what’s on the rest of it.’ I don’t know what to expect on any of them.”

What listeners can expect from the album, Byrne’s first since Look Into The Eyeball, is more of the unexpected. Whether it’s the string-laced lead off track “Glass, Concrete & Stone” or an interesting cover of Lambchop’s “The Man Who Loved Beer,” Byrne always seems to challenge not only himself but the listener also.

One of the arias, Bizet’s “Au Fond Du Temple Saint” from “The Pearl Fishers,” had Byrne musing about using someone other than Canadian newcomer Rufus Wainwright.

“Well, at one point I thought about somebody like D’Angelo, like an R&B crooner style,” he says. “That would be really interesting to have one of those guys to sing an opera song like this. It would be the last thing in the world people would expect him to do.

“But then I thought why make this difficult for yourself? Why not just call Rufus, he probably already knows the tune and it’s perfectly in his range and it’s in French. Why make it hard?”

Another solid effort comes during “Empire,” a lush string and horn-accented number Byrne says is more of a Republican anthem. Drenched in irony, the song also includes the lines: “Young artists and writers/Please heed the call/What’s good for business/Is good for us all.”

“I was paraphrasing what used to be the slogan for General Motors,” Byrne says. “They used to have this slogan ‘What’s good for General Motors is good for America.’ But I don’t think many people believe that anymore—that the big corporations have our best interests at heart.

“I wrote it quite a while ago, but I thought it was too frightening and too ironic. With the title, “Empire,” I was striving for something that didn’t seem plausible. But then in the last couple of years, I thought it was really timely. And now the title seems completely plausible.”

Byrne was also one of the artists who spoke out against American foreign policy and the war in Iraq, taking out ads in The New York Times and Rolling Stone along with other artists voicing their concerns.

“That was a year ago, the climate was such that they could’ve been risking radio play,” he says. “But they did it and that’s what they felt strongly about, so they put their name on there. At the same time there was the impression that people weren’t speaking out. People were speaking out but nobody was reporting it. The media was being very timid as well about giving the other side of the story.”

As for the songs he’s most proud of, Byrne says it’s the “super short ballads” such as “Cry and Glad.”

I think it might be under two minutes and yet harmonically it’s got all kinds of stuff going on,” he says. “It starts off like this cute little “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” type song and then it gets pretty dark. It doesn’t go where you expect it to, so I kind of like those ones. I also realized that they’re so short that they’re over by the time you realize what they’re about.”

Despite the outcome, Byrne says the album had its share of difficulties.

“There was some stuff that we recorded earlier on that I just thought this is not going in the right direction,” he says. “So I junked a whole bunch of stuff that we did which was kind of hard to do and traumatic. I didn’t know if it was the right thing to do or not. But other than that I think it went pretty well.”

Unlike some of Byrne’s contemporaries, who’ve had more than their share of creative ruts, Byrne tends to keep busy and thus avoid such blocks. He says his high school years during the psychedelic era were a great learning experience.

“Experimentation and often excess was kind of admired and encouraged,” he says. “I saw the same thing in painters and other artists working in different mediums who were trying different things, sometimes more successfully than at other times.

“There’s nothing you can do about it; you just have to keep going instead of worrying about it. It’s better to keep those muscles active rather than just stopping and waiting for a better song to come along. So that’s the attitude I take. When you’re not active and a song comes along, you’re not able to do it.”

The former Talking Head will tour most of the year behind the album, beginning in Europe before hitting North America later this year. The band will feature much of the same lineup for his ‘Look Into The Eyeball’ tour, including the chamber ensemble Tosca Strings. Byrne says he’s also starting work on a book project that could be released later this fall, but for now, the road will be where he hangs his hat.

“I hope it’s a nice bus,” he quips with a laugh. •

from the May-June 2004 issue

“Experimentation and
often excess was kind of
admired and encouraged.
“I saw the same thing in
painters and other artists
working in different mediums
who were trying different things, sometimes more successfully
than at other times."