By Sean Hewitt
Former frontman of the Talking Heads, songwriter, and, er, designer of "conceptual bicycle racks" for the New York City Department of Transportation, David Byrne is heading for Nottingham for the first time in nearly 17 years. He spoke to Sean Hewitt about his renewed partnership with Brian Eno, the challenge of staging a show based on their 30 years of work, the future of music – and biking...
If you're in the city centre on Saturday April 11, keep an eye out – you may see a legend of art rock flash by on his bike.
Wherever he goes, David Byrne likes to ride his bicycle.
He says: "For the last few tours, I've travelled with a folding bicycle, a full-sized bike that folds up into a large suitcase and now half the band have bikes along with us, so we all get out and explore the town unless it's pouring down rain. I'll go to a local museum or there isn't something of interest like that I'll just bike around.
"Often in some towns, there'll be a bike path along a river or something like that and you can take that for miles and it's just great – kind of clears your head in the middle of the day. You don't feel like you've been stuck in a hotel all day."
Last year, nine bike racks designed by Byrne were installed in various locations in New York City.
Byrne stands in the spotlight, dressed in brilliant white. He hasn't played a note yet but he's spent a couple of minutes telling Birmingham's Symphony Hall that tonight's set will be based on music he's written with egghead British producer Brian Eno.
The tunes span 31 years.
"You've got this over here – that's the past," he says, making a brick-like shape with his hands to the left, before turning to the right "And then this over here, that's the present. In between, that's a gap. And then, over here, there's the future... er, that's also a gap...."
Business as usual for one of rock's premier eccentrics, we think. But then the band plays, and he starts to sing.
A few days earlier, on the line from Oslo, Byrne is in an upbeat, talkative mood. He laughs a lot.
"I'm good. We just arrived about half an hour ago from Stockholm. We were advised that the audiences in Stockholm might be a bit stoic (laughs). They were at first but they were up and dancing by the end."
Born in Dumbarton, Scotland, in 1952, Byrne moved to Canada with his family at the age of two and then into the US and a home near Baltimore six or seven years later.
He met drummer Chris Frantz at Rhode Island School of Design and by the mid-70s the pair were living in New York and calling themselves Talking Heads with Frantz's then-girlfriend-later-wife Tina Weymouth on bass and Jerry Harrison on guitar and keyboards.
The Heads had already released their acclaimed debut album when ex-Roxy Music experimentalist Eno saw them live. Immediately taken with the group – not only does King's Lead Hat, a track on his 1977 album Before And After Science impersonate their sound, the title is an anagram of their name – he produced their second album More Songs About Buildings And Food (1978) before Fear Of Music (1979) and Remain In Light (1980).
Each record was more sophisticated and ambitious than the last, on each one Eno and Byrne's collaborations more extensive.
The pair also produced My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, a collection of instrumental backing tracks featuring "found" vocals – manic American preachers or soaring devotional singers from other cultures – the inspiration for generations of samplers, Public Enemy among them.
Since then, Byrne has followed his own road, both inside and outside his varied music and art career either side of his band's 1988 break-up – he directed a film, True Stories, in 1986 and won an Oscar for his work on the score of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor in 1988 – and it wasn't until last year that they got together again for the tuneful Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, a very different record from their previous album.
Why the long gap?
"It was ages. There's a few reasons. Obviously at one point I think the rest of Talking Heads didn't really want Brian involved at some point. I think they thought that he and I were getting a little too tight so kind of in the interests of keeping that going along he didn't work on some of our later records.
"Then after that I did some records with a large Latin band and that sort of thing which was probably not really his forte (explosively laughs). It would have been interesting but... (laughs)...."
The two had talked on and off about making an album for ages. When recording started, they mainly worked in isolation.
"We'd see one another when he was in New York or when I was passing through London or something like that but we didn't, like, get in a studio and work together in the kind of traditional way, which we don't have to do.
"I mean, when it's just two people who make a lot of the music in their home studios like us, then you can do that. It wouldn't really work with a band."
Most of the work involved Byrne writing vocal melodies and lyrics for backing tracks that Eno had already recorded.
"I think some of these were tracks that he'd kind of tried to finish before and wasn't happy with the way they went. So he probably felt, anything's going to be better than having them sitting on the shelf, but he wasn't in a frame of mind to get super-fussy with what direction I took them in (laughs)...
"Not that he wasn't happy with it – we were both thrilled with the way it worked out... We ourselves didn't have a lot of expectations, we took it very lightly and just felt, well if it works it works and if it doesn't then, it doesn't. If we don't like it, then we'll just keep quiet about it."
Pleased with the results, David started to think of playing the songs live. He asked Eno if he wanted to come along but wasn't surprised by his polite refusal.
"I invited him right off the bat and said, you know, OK, it looks like I'm going to tour and I'm going to play (laughs) a fair number of these songs and if you like to do it you're certainly more than welcome.
"But he's kind of notoriously reticent about that. I think he's done a few kind of quiet dates where he sits in with Rachid Taha or someone but sort of unannounced and that's the extent of his live performance stuff.
"You can't really blame him – I mean, he's working on Coldplay and U2 and all that stuff. He knows what side of the bread has the butter on it..."
Well, U2 asked him and he turned them down as well, so...
"(Laughs) OK – that doesn't feel so bad then..."
So how did you put the show together?
"The last couple of tours I did were mainly kind of focused on the music – but I thought this one needed some sort of visual element. I thought of doing video elements but other people do that and they've sort of got it down – who did I see? Super Furry Animals or someone... somebody who did, the video synch with the songs was just so incredible I thought I'll just never approach that, that level of co-ordination between the video and the music.
"So I thought, what can I do that I haven't done before and I thought: Dancers! (laughs) I've never brought dancers along and so I got in touch with three different choreographers that I knew in downtown New York and said 'Do you want to choreograph a couple of songs?'"
Live, the songs are transformed. Byrne's apparent nervousness vanishes whenever he sings.
On songs like Everything That Happens or a beautiful version of the Heads' Air, the mood is delicate but the band's funkier edge – especially on fierce renditions of Cross Eyed And Painless, The Great Curve and an amazing reinvention of Help Me Somebody from My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts – is awesome, the songs sounding as fresh as ever.
With the dancers interacting with the singers and musicians – at one point, dashing between Byrne and the microphone as he sings, at another leaping over him as he bends to play the guitar – the show is exciting and funny.
At a time when many are forecasting the death of pop music in the face of the threat of the internet, Byrne is uniquely optimistic.
"I think it's doomed for the old way of marketing and distributing music, the old kind of record companies.
"It's certainly not the death of music. There's more music being made than ever before. I find that there's tons of things that are surprising and inspiring to me. It's just mind-bending how much good stuff there is out there. I feel that things are pretty healthy for music but not very good for the traditional music business.
"The last big music record shop in Manhattan, the Virgin Megastore – I think the last one's going to close any day now, which will mean there will be no regular record shop in Manhattan. There's record shops for DJs, there's one for vinyl, there used to be one just for like Broadway music – you know, all that sort of thing, the specialised ones – but there's no big regular record shop as far as I know in Manhattan, which is... if there ain't one in Manhattan (laughs) the writing's on the wall for where record shops are going!"
But he's not too worried by this.
"How are we going to make a living in the future? (laughs) The era of recorded music as a product, it's entirely possible that that was just a blip. It only came into being in the early part of the last century and we may be seeing the end of it.
"But music has existed for an awful lot longer than that and musicians have survived for an awful lot longer than that. Just because the marketing of music as a thing goes away or isn't profitable doesn't necessarily mean that music will go away."
Great performers, he says, will always survive. In the meantime, he's been working with Fatboy Slim on Here Lies Love, a "disco opera" about Imelda Marcos with 22 guest vocalists...
Halfway through the encores, the stage goes dark and suddenly Byrne and the entire band re-appear – hilariously all dressed in tutus – for a barnstorming Burning Down The House. Barmy but triumphant, it sums up the entire night.
If he's right about great performers, perhaps he's also right not to worry too much about the future.