DAVID BYRNE: UNCOMFORTABLE GENIUS
By Paul Freeman
Throughout his long career in art and music, David Byrne has seen the “genius” label follow him around. Not surprisingly, it makes him uncomfortable.
“I know it’s meant as flattery,” Byrne says. “But even when somebody else says it, I’m afraid that it’s perceived that I’m bragging. People hear someone else using the term and think, ‘Who does he think he is!?’”
Another word that’s often applied to Byrne is “quirky.”
“I don’t even know what that means. Sometimes it’s meant that you do things that kind of jump the rails every once in a while. You fake left and move right. I like that. Another meaning might be that it’s kind of cute, which I don’t like.”
Critics are once again throwing around flattering words to describe Byrne’s latest adventurous musical project, “Feelings” (Warner Bros.), which meshes innumerable pop styles and world influences.
“I did wonder whether it would become a patchwork,” says Byrne. “But almost all of the songs were mixed by the same guy, which may have given them a sonic similarity. Maybe the writing I was doing had a similar attitude throughout. Musically, it’s all over the map.”
The album was recorded in home-style studios in many locations. Byrne sees the home studio phenomenon as more of a continuation than an innovation.
“When I was first playing CBGB’s [the legendary New York punk rock club], anybody who could play three chords could form a band and express themselves. And some of them couldn’t even play three chords. Later came the hip-hop guys, where one friend had a turntable, another became the emcee. You could perform without even having to play a musical instrument.
“Now, the samples and the home recording thing take it further. In your bedroom, you can create a record with orchestration and arrangements that sound as good as a studio thing. You can follow your vision and make the record you want to make. You don’t have to kowtow to a record label’s idea of what sells. You don’t have to compromise right from the start.”
As for the title of his new album, Byrne says “Feelings” is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that some listeners connect with his music more on an intellectual level than on an emotional one.
On the cover, you’ll find a Byrne doll, looking like a deviant boyfriend for Barbie. The doll’s image plays on the album’s theme, as well as illustrates Byrne’s take on the music industry as being somewhat dehumanizing.
“What’s being bought and sold is not exactly the same as a human being. I can deal with that. People are buying the doll. They’re not buying me. I’m still here.”
Byrne is perhaps best known as frontman for Talking Heads, an innovative band he dissolved in December, 1991. When the rest of the band toured as the Heads recently, Byrne threatened to take legal action. The situation was settled out of court.
Tina Weymouth of the Heads said she felt that the group had been in limbo for a decade, waiting for Byrne to return from solo work. Byrne says he never doubted that Talking Heads had been permanently silenced.
“It was pretty unpleasant towards the end. It hadn’t damaged the music too much, but I thought it was going to. So it was time to stop it.”
Since his Talking Heads days, Byrne’s musical palette has expanded. “Sometimes I feel that I’m a lot more inclusive, more open to various kinds of musical influences. I’m not working with blinders on.”
Byrne pursues other artistic interests, including photography and film directing. He doesn’t mind that his pop music doesn’t usually receive the sort of respect accorded fine arts.
“I find that refreshing. At least you don’t have to be dead for 300 years to be appreciated. What’s amazing is that, within the crassness and business of music, there does exist great art that touches a lot of people. I’m used to the fact that you’ve got to listen to a lot of garbage to find something that really moves you.”
Byrne’s wife, Adelle Lutz, is involved in other art forms. She’s a designer and actress. They have an eight-year-old daughter, Melu.
Despite taking on the role of husband and father, Byrne remains something of a free spirit. “There’s a perennial conflict. I can’t reconcile the image of the ever-questing artist with somebody with a family life. I don’t want to write records about how happy family life is.
“The bunch of us in the band were talking about this the other night and we were saying that, for musicians and creative people, their first love was their art. Like it or not, that comes before anything else. Relationships sometimes suffer a lot.”
Leap forward 15 years and see how Byrne’s artistry continues to blossom, including “Love This Giant,” his wonderful new collaboration with St. Vincent, by visiting davidbyrne.com.