By Stephen Dalton
The sun has just melted into the distant purple mountains on a sweltering Italian night when David Byrne starts speaking in tongues, throwing his arms skywards and doing his signature knock-kneed chicken dance. The crowd go mental. This is what they came here for. In the vast landscaped gardens of the Venaria Reale, a monumental Versailles-style palace just north of Turin, Byrne is swaying and swooning through the deluxe gospel-pop of his latest album, Everything that Happens will Happen Today. But only with the shimmering art-funk opening of Once in a Lifetime do the assembled masses rise to their feet and begin to mirror the 57-year-old singer’s rubbery dance moves.
Right now the former renaissance man of post-punk Manhattan is enjoying something of a, well, renaissance. Featuring an inspired mix of new and old collaborations with Brian Eno, this tour has blossomed into Byrne’s most extensive and lavishly praised since his Talking Heads heyday. A year on the road in total, climaxing with a final lap of honour in Britain this week.
To coincide with these shows, Byrne is also launching his new book, Bicycle Diaries, and his mammoth art installation project at the Roundhouse in North London, Playing the Building. A few hours before the Turin show, we meet in the shady garden of a nearby restaurant to discuss all of these and more. Byrne arrives by bike, of course, looking preposterously youthful in his pristine white tour uniform, as if he has just beamed here from a gleaming, spotless future.
His eyes may dart nervously around as he speaks, but Byrne is relaxed, funny and articulate company. Of course, there was always an art-school pose element to the twitchy, neurotic caricature he played in Talking Heads. But he now believes he was mildly autistic in his youth, barely able to grasp the basics of human interaction.
In Bicycle Diaries, Byrne credits music and art with effectively saving his sanity. “Like a lot of people, I felt obsessively driven to work on something,” he says. “If I can’t relate to people in the normal way, I’ll make something so that I can be heard. The other thing will be my voice.”
Without his artistic steam valve, would Byrne have eventually boiled over into Travis Bickle — a genuine psycho killer? “I don’t think so, not exactly,” he frowns. “I would have found some means of expression, just trying one thing after another in the hope somebody would like it. I remember auditioning at CBGBs and playing to an audience of maybe 20 people. But 20 people who were listening and paying attention, or some of them anyway, that was enough for validation.”
Byrne also credits therapy with helping him to iron out a few mental creases in recent years. So is he completely normal now? “Heh heh!” he gurgles. “I think, um, not 100 per cent, but quite a bit. I mean, I think I’m normal but occasionally people remind me: David, you do this, and that’s not what most people do. Heh heh!”
Although he has published a handful of art books before, Bicycle Diaries is his most substantial and conventional book to date. It is partly a disconnected travelogue recording his cycle journeys around various cities, from Berlin to Buenos Aires, Sydney to Istanbul. We eavesdrop as he dodges underage prostitutes in Manila, talks conceptual art with Grayson Perry in London, and breaks down in tears in the Australian desert. Perpetually curious, boyishly keen and open to new experiences, he comes across like a post-punk Michael Palin.
In between these global vignettes, Byrne also includes philosophical digressions on subjects including music, architecture, British snobbery, American arrogance, the meaning of life and the homoerotic fascist chic of upmarket clothes stores. His brain whizzes in all directions like a human iPod on permanent shuffle.
Eventually, the book evolves into a kind of manifesto in which Byrne makes his case for bicycles over cars, regenerating inner cities, the evils of modern architecture and other worthy concerns. He even cites the Prince of Wales at one point. Has pop’s original forward-thinking modernist become a fogeyish conservative in middle age?
“I’m not advocating everybody return to cute little villages and cottages,” he protests. “But yeah, there’s definitely a little strain of ... I guess you could call it conservatism, but I think of it more as humanism.”
The subtext to Byrne’s brand of Utopian urbanism is a wistful nostalgia for inner-city bohemia, those shabby-chic low-rent neighbourhoods that force diverse groups together and generate great cultural energy. In other words, hothouse zones such as the Lower Manhattan of the late 1970s, which produced Talking Heads, Blondie, Television and the whole CBGBs generation.
“Maybe I have nostalgia for a bohemia that is kind of in opposition to popular culture,” he concedes. “It’s probably a waste of time to have nostalgia for that. And whatever little bit of romanticism I have about late 1970s New York is probably just a waste of time as well. There were good things about it, but there were an awful lot of bad things as well. I’m kind of optimistic, with the economic collapse, that some kind of communities will reform again.”
Bicycle Diaries is also surprisingly angry in places. Before the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war, Byrne mostly confined his political statements to small-scale collective artworks. But this time his reflections on US abuses of power are harsh and outspoken.
“A lot of it was written during the Bush era, so I couldn’t help but say something,” he says. “I felt there was this vast tide of people just going along with it, and we really had a duty to speak out against that. It’s not something you can put in a song, but writing seems like a most appropriate way to make an argument like that.”
For now, Byrne is still firmly behind President Obama, citing his continuing work on healthcare reform and dismantling Washington’s lobby system as proof of pragmatic progress. “If he can stick to this he might undo decades of bungling and arrogant behaviour from the United States.”
Also present at dinner are Byrne’s band and his girlfriend, Cindy Sherman, coyly referred to as “my friend C” throughout Bicycle Diaries. A famous conceptual artist best known for her cleverly staged photographic self-portraits, Sherman has been present for much of the tour, hopping back and forth to New York.
Sherman seems sweet, shy and oddly unassuming for one of America’s best- known artists. When I joke about her and Byrne being the Bill and Hillary of Manhattan’s arty party scene, she replies with a frown. “Both of us kind of prefer staying outside the spotlight, so we don’t go to a lot of events,” she says. “We don’t use our names the way we could, to open doors.”
Byrne divorced the costume designer Adelle Lutz, in 2004. He and Sherman have been together for about two years, but there still seems to be some of that giddy, giggly energy of young love between them. Out of Byrne’s earshot, I ask Sherman if he has written any songs about her yet. She is not entirely sure. “He doesn’t reveal himself that much,” she says, “not even to me.”
As successful artists in different fields, I wonder if they ever feel in competition. “If I’d ended up having more of my emphasis in visual arts, that might have been the case,” Byrne nods. “If she made an album, then there would be some problems. Especially if it was hugely successful. Heh heh!”
At home, there are musical differences. He plays “pretty” melodic sounds, she favours “grating, irritating and noisy”. Byrne claims he is the level-headed one of the pair. “She has more anxieties than I do,” he says. “She has anxieties because she imagines the life of a rock star on the road, the girls and whatnot.”
I ask Sherman if Byrne has a secret, sinister side behind his perennially cheery boy-scout image. In private, is he more Sarah Palin than Michael Palin? “Not at all,” she says. “I’m kind of in awe of how easygoing he is. Things that would annoy me, or any normal person, he just laughs it off. It’s almost scary sometimes.”
Byrne reminds her that he had a “meltdown” last week in Naples, halting the show midway through to deal with over-zealous security staff. Even so, he still kept a cool head. “But when I left the stage, I was yelling at the top of my lungs,” he laughs, “cursing the Italians.”
Stuffed with Talking Heads tunes, these shows have proven the durability of egghead art-pop classics such as Life During Wartime, Heaven and Once in a Lifetime. Byrne’s first band may have split bitterly in 1991, but festivals and concert halls are bursting with reformed cult bands who have buried their old grievances for cash-in comeback tours.
But no, Talking Heads will not be joining them. For a decade now, Byrne has turned down huge offers for a reunion, and sees no reason to change his mind. “If I was completely broke and destitute, then I might consider it,“ he smiles. “I’m being very cynical, but that’s probably the truth.”
In 2002 Byrne and his former bandmates patched up their differences long enough to play a brief two-song set to mark their induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. The singer remains friendly with the guitarist and keyboard player Jerry Harrison, but his prickly relations with the bass guitarist Tina Weymouth and the drummer Chris Frantz have not improved.
“Jerry and I are on pretty good terms,” he says. “My daughter and his daughter get along really well. The other two, I don’t really get along with. We communicate politely and there’s obviously things we have to agree on, licensing things and stuff. But as far as getting along and seeing one another, no, that doesn’t happen.”
Next Saturday, Byrne’s Playing the Building installation opens at the Roundhouse. Running for three weeks, this throbbing, clanging piece of collective art uses the pipes, metal beams and fabric of the building to generate sounds. Byrne assembled a similar experiment in the Marine Battery Building in New York last year.
“I’ve really stayed away from playing it, because that would suggest it takes a musician to play it,” he says. “It’s all audience participation. It’s really about the public activating the machines that cause the building to make noises that are vaguely musical. It’s not about any one musician.”
On the same night that Playing the Building opens, Byrne’s Edinburgh show will mark a homecoming of sorts. Many of his extended family will be present, as they were when he played Glasgow in March. Born in Dumbarton in 1952, Byrne is pop’s most famous stealth Scotsman. Despite relocating across the Atlantic with his family at the age of 2, he has retained his British passport, largely for practical reasons. But his enduring attachment to Scotland is clearly more sentimental.
Until he was 8, Byrne spoke with thick Clydeside vowels that left his friends in Baltimore baffled. His parents still have their accents, only slightly diluted by 50 years in America. “It’s still pretty thick,” Sherman confirms. “Sometimes I really have to listen carefully to understand them.”
Byrne blames his dry sense of humour, reserved nature and financial prudence on his Dumbarton roots. “Some of that stuff I struggle with,” he says. “The famous Scottish frugality is not a complete myth. I’m careful with money, sometimes more than careful. The band always chuckle about the fact that I carry little Tupperware containers to pack away food, for after the show.”
It has been a long, strange trip for David Byrne. Not just this globe-trotting year but the whole journey, from Dumbarton to Manhattan, from semi-autistic misfit to internationally renowned multi-media artist and knock-kneed, chicken-dancing art-rock superstar. Does he ever step back, like the narrator of Once in a Lifetime, and ask himself: how did I get here?
“Oh yeah,” he nods. “But not in the sense that I’ve created a horrible trap for myself, which is a bit of the implication of that song. I feel very lucky. Not that there isn’t hard work, but I do feel lucky, too.