From his Talking Heads days to his reunion with super-producer Brian Eno, David Byrne continues to create some of the most cutting edge sounds in music.
I spent my late teenage years obsessed with the brittle, nervy early records David Byrne made with his group, Talking Heads. I'd play them every day, looking out my window at suburban Wanganui, and dream of escaping to New York.
Life in my home town was monumentally dull, but these songs were so jumpy, so electric, so agitated, I could barely sit still. I'd listen to Byrne, chopping away at his guitar, singing strangely obsessional tales about animals, air, buildings and food in a strangled yelp, and I'd wonder what it might be like to have a conversation with him. He'd be a very socially awkward guy, I imagined, but brainy as hell. Tall, dorky and anxious, he'd make little eye contact and crack cerebral in-jokes I didn't quite understand.
"Well, in those early days, you might have been right," says a calm, quiet, slightly nerdy Byrne when I finally get to speak to him 30 years later. Now 56, he's at home in New York, with a superb new album fresh on the shelves and a New Zealand tour on the horizon.
"As a young man I think I was mildly autistic, really. I probably had an undiagnosed case of Asperger's Syndrome, but I grew out of it. My music back then reflected my personality. A lot of people really love all those angular early songs, and I'll be performing a lot of them when I come to New Zealand, but I don't really write songs like that anymore. I've changed a lot as I've gotten older."
To some of us, Byrne's imminent tour is as significant as a tour by, say, Bob Dylan or Neil Young. Here's a man who's had an enormous effect on contemporary culture, quite literally changing the way popular music sounds.
In particular, the albums Byrne made with producer Brian Eno are some of the most sonically and thematically rewarding ever made. Byrne and Eno co- produced the three best Talking Heads records, More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), Fear of Music (1979), and Remain in Light (1980), followed in 1981 by their first true "duo" album, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a revolutionary mix of heavy grooves, electronic atmospheres and sampled "found sounds".
These four albums have been deeply inspirational to thousands of other bands, from the '80s right up to the present day. In fact, recent "it" bands such as Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, The Killers and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah owe such a heavy debt to Byrne's early records, they really should send him a cheque.
"Oh, but I'm thrilled so many bands were inspired by our early stuff. Oh, yeah!," Byrne says. "Unsurprisingly, I guess, I really like a lot of those bands. Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend and LCD Soundsystem are particularly great, I think, but it gets embarrassing when I say to people, 'hey, I really like this band', and they say, 'well, you should, they sound like you'! Maybe this proves that my tastes haven't really changed all that much."
After 25 years apart, Byrne and Eno recently made another album together. It's called Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, and Byrne describes it as their "electronic folk gospel" album.
Like many truly great records, it's a subtle, sneaky album that flows right over you on first listen and then colonises your consciousness over a period of several weeks. Eno's instrumentals are crammed with cunning surprises and lovely details, while Byrne's singing sounds warmer than ever. There's an open- hearted romanticism to the sound that seems at odds with the troubled times we're living in.
"Well, I'm glad people are hearing it like that," he says. "We were making it when the Iraq war was happening, Bush was in power, the economy was turning to shit, which were all things that might make you want to write angry punk rock songs, so to write something that sounds vaguely hopeful seemed like what was needed. I wanted the record to say 'look, we're better than this, and we're gonna go on and look after each other and get through this'.
"One of the main things I love about working with Brian is that he's not afraid to do something that's really simple. He'll use simple combinations of chords that a more virtuoso musician would probably avoid, then he'll layer other unexpected tones over that to make it very unusual. But his instrumentals can sometimes come off as cold and academic. He needs other people's input to warm that up, whether that's U2, or David Bowie, or me. We bring more humanity to his sound."
The show Byrne is bringing to New Zealand features songs drawn exclusively from his various Eno co-productions. The US leg of the tour drew some of the strongest live reviews of Byrne's 30-year career, with critics praising the energy and giddy creativity of it all.
"Well, it's certainly quite a stage show. I haven't done anything like it in a very long time. There's a great band, and three backing singers, and three dancers who do some very unusual moves. I've been teaching them some of my own dance moves, actually. I guess those moves are the most unusual ones."
10 CLASSIC DAVID BYRNE TRACKS
"Psycho Killer" (from 1977's 77)
On Talking Head's debut album, Byrne seemed to acknowledge his alarming resemblance to Psycho's Anthony Perkins with a song from inside the shattered mind of a paranoid killer: "Psycho killer, qu'est qui c'est?, fa fa fa fa fa, fa fa fa fa fa"
"Thank You For Sending Me An Angel" (from 1978's More Songs About Buildings and Food)
With its galloping beat and panicky staccato guitars, this was the sound of four young art school punks trying their hand at country and western, a sound they would further refine on 1985 hit, "Road to Nowhere".
"The Girls Just Want to Be With the Girls" (More Songs About Buildings and Food)
A minimalist punk-funk gem on the subject of sexual politics, in which dear old Dave disapprovingly observes that "boys just want to be mean", so women are probably better off avoiding them and hanging out with each other.
"The Big Country" (More Songs About Buildings and Food)
Here Byrne flies over the suburbs and shopping malls of middle America, a big-city boy sourly confiding "I wouldn't live there if you paid me" over gloriously swooping slide guitar.
"I Zimbra" (from 1979's Fear of Music)
The first sign of Byrne's growing obsession with global dance rhythms as the band mixes manic punk guitars, African percussion, a heavy disco bassline and an invented faux-ethnic chant to devastating effect.
"Life During Wartime" (Fear of Music)
The hectic centrepiece of Talking Heads' densely psychedelic third album, this dystopian disco anthem gave us one of Byrne's most memorable choruses: "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no fooling around".
"Born Under Punches" (from 1980's Remain in Light)
Perhaps Talking Heads' greatest song, from their greatest album, mixing African rhythms, sparkling electronic textures, a walloping bassline and Byrne's impressionistic musings on urban alienation: "You may ask yourself - how did I get here?"
"This Must be the Place (Naive Melody)" (from 1983's Speaking in Tongues)
The most open-hearted ballad of Byrne's early career, about finding home in the arms of your one true love. This was the point where Byrne started to put irony aside and reveal his true emotions.
"Mountain of Needles" (from 1981's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts)
This groundbreaking album explored the human appetite for religion, building unprecedented soundscapes from heavy funk rhythms, ambient electronics and looped samples of Lebanese mountain singers, American pentecostal preachers, African bush chants, Muslims reciting the Koran, Tibetan temple bells.
"Home" (from 2008's Everything That Happens Will Happen Today)
Unexpectedly tender and moving, this song sees Byrne pondering the complexities of family and well-worn places ("the neighbours fighting, familiar smells and flavours, no-one ever speaking, were my parents telling the truth?") over an Eno instrumental consisting of swirling acoustic guitars and what sounds like some heavy breathing from Darth Vader.