Less Jittery Now, But Still Jumping About

Via The New York Times

By Guy Garcia

David Byrne, the protean pop star and multimedia artist, is staring at drawings of naked little girls floating across Civil War battlefields, and the nicely dressed ladies standing around him don't even seem to notice as he leans back and tilts his angular head.

''Wow!'' says Mr. Byrne, giggling incredulously, like an adolescent. He has traveled uptown to the Museum of American Folk Art from his office in the Flatiron district to view an exhibition of works by Henry Darger, the Chicago-born janitor who produced scores of surrealistic, sexually charged murals and collages and a 15,000-page novel before dying largely unknown in 1973.

''I saw his work a few years ago, and it blew me away,'' Mr. Byrne says. ''There's this whole debate about whether this stuff belongs in museums or if it's just hype. It seems to me there isn't a hard-and-fast line between a Henry Darger and a lot of the, quote, 'fine artists' we see in art museums.''

That ambiguity suits Mr. Byrne, who has spent his whole career blurring the distinction between pop culture and highbrow art. In a music scene dominated by hip-hop rappers and buzz-cut slackers, Mr. Byrne, whose fifth solo album, ''Feelings,'' will be released on June 17, still stands out as a restless innovator and oddball auteur, staging concerts as if they were conceptual performance pieces, and vice versa.

On a recent afternoon, sitting in the ground-level studio of the brownstone that serves as headquarters for his production company, Todo Mundo, the 45-year-old Mr. Byrne is uncharacteristically open and relaxed. Wearing a two-tone knit shirt, his black hair cropped short, Mr. Byrne is a worldlier, mellower and only slightly grayer version of the jittery rocker who once projected an aura of otherworldly detachment on stage and off.

''I'm less that kind of shy, neurotic guy full of tics than I was when I was first performing at CBGB's,'' he says, ''although my creative impulses don't seem to have changed. I mean I have different tools I can work with, I know a few more chords on the guitar, but basically I don't feel that different.''

During the late 70's and early 80's, as the lead singer of the Talking Heads, Mr. Byrne fused the aggressive energy of punk rock with African rhythms, ambient electronics and trenchant lyrics to produce music that tickled the feet as well as the mind. His subsequent forays into music video and film directing, motion picture soundtracks and acting netted a slew of awards, including an Oscar for the original score of Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 film ''The Last Emperor.''

And his multimedia collaborations with avant-garde luminaries like the theater artist Robert Wilson, the composer Philip Glass, the film director Jonathan Demme and the choreographer Twyla Tharp made him an underground icon who danced across genres as if they were all part of one vast amplified stage.

''David is a first-class collaborator,'' says Mr. Glass, who has known Mr. Byrne since the early 80's, when Mr. Byrne contributed lyrics to Mr. Glass's album ''Songs From Liquid Days.'' ''He has a tremendous respect for the people that he works with, whoever they might be, which allows him to work in any medium.''

Eleven years after a Time magazine cover article named him ''Rock's Renaissance Man,'' and six years after the breakup of Talking Heads, Mr. Byrne remains as eccentrically eclectic as ever. Luaka Bop, the record label he founded in 1988, is thriving, and ''Strange Ritual,'' an exhibition of work based on his 1996 book of photographs and travel-inspired essays, just completed a three-week run at the Laforet Museum in Tokyo.

''Generally, no matter what I'm doing, whether it's photos, music for dance, music for songs, I want to make it accessible,'' Mr. Byrne says. ''I never set out to make it difficult or hard to get into.''

He took an equally democratic approach to ''Feelings,'' a stylistic tour de force that he recorded with a variety of musicians and co-producers, including the electronic new-wave group Devo and the British trip-hop trio Morcheeba. ''He was very cool and very balanced,'' recalls Paul Godfrey, who is Morcheeba's DJ and technical wizard. ''We were a bit nervous at first, but he never put any pressure on us. He was very patient. He'd read a magazine until we were ready, and then, when there was a gap, he'd say, 'Can I play now?' ''

At once familiar and refreshingly up to date, ''Feelings'' embraces and extends nearly every stage of Mr. Byrne's musical evolution, from Talking Heads-like dance tracks and soothing string quartets to the ecstatic sweep of ''Daddy Go Down,'' a song that weaves Cajun fiddles and sitars into a tapestry of droning sounds. There are also trademark flashes of mordant satire. In ''Miss America'' Mr. Byrne portrays the United States as an ice goddess who ruthlessly spurns her lovers. ''I love America,'' he sings over a pumped-up salsa beat, ''But, boy, can she be cruel/ I know how tall she is/ Without her platform shoes.''

The album's title is meant to be descriptive as well as ironic. ''It's a genuine comment on the record that's also tongue in cheek,'' Mr. Byrne says. ''On the cover of the record I have a picture of myself as a doll, so I look like an object that doesn't have feelings. And to me, it's kind of laughing at myself, because I have a reputation for being kind of cold and abstract.''

There are other revealing touches. In ''Alright = Finite,'' he sings, ''Well, we've known each other 8 years and 20 days/ It's terrifying, it's beautiful too/ Things have an end but feeling is infinite / We're changing, but it's alright/ 'Cause only things are finite.''

Mr. Byrne says the words were partly inspired by his wife of 12 years, the designer and actress Adelle Lutz, who is the mother of their 7-year-old daughter, Malu. ''I have really mixed feelings about home life,'' says Mr. Byrne, who lives with his family in an apartment not far from his office. ''I like it, but in another part of me it doesn't jibe with my self-image as a creative free spirit.''

He is similarly ambivalent about fatherhood. ''I have to admit that my image of the musician and artist doesn't necessarily include the image of bouncing a little girl on your knee,'' he says. ''And yet, of course, I love her very much. She's a part of my life, and obviously she brings a lot to me. But also in the back of my mind I'm going, 'Oh gosh, I don't want to write cutesy stuff about domestic bliss.' ''

Mr. Byrne's parents reared him in an environment in which creativity was encouraged. Born in Dumbarton, Scotland, he emigrated with his parents to Hamilton, Ontario, before eventually settling in Baltimore at the age of 7. Inspired by the example of his father, an electrical engineer who painted on weekends, Mr. Byrne showed an early affinity with painting and music. He eventually studied art at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he met the bassist Tina Weymouth and the drummer Chris Frantz, with whom, after moving to New York, he formed Talking Heads in 1975.

A year later, the group signed with Sire Records and added the keyboardist Jerry Harrison to fill out its post-punk sound. Songs like ''Psycho Killer'' and ''Life During Wartime'' established the band as a groundbreaking ensemble with a knack for hitching off-kilter lyrics to post-modern beats. Thanks to the band's flair for riveting visual images, its music videos became staples on MTV, and Mr. Byrne became a bona fide pop star. By the time Mr. Demme filmed Talking Heads for his 1984 concert film, ''Stop Making Sense,'' Mr. Byrne had grown larger than life, both figuratively and literally, by wearing an oversize white suit that gave the show a comically surreal edge. But as he started branching out into other projects, including directing the 1986 film ''True Stories,'' his bandmates started grumbling that he had grown too big for his oversize britches.

''When people start arguing over credit, whether it's justified or not,'' Mr. Byrne says, ''and when it comes down to people talking about doing something because it might be popular, then it's time to stop.''

Tempers flared again last year when Mr. Frantz, Ms. Weymouth and Mr. Harrison regrouped for an album, calling themselves the Heads; Mr. Byrne threatened to take legal action.

''I didn't think that they should have gone out and made a record and gone out on tour calling themselves the Heads,'' Mr. Byrne says. ''I felt that that was, in my own opinion, trading in on the reputation of the group, and that although the majority of the group was there, it's not quite the same thing.''

The disagreement was settled before it got to court, and Ms. Weymouth and Mr. Frantz now dismiss it, saying Mr. Byrne's concerns were without merit.

''I guess he just felt threatened,'' Ms. Weymouth says. ''I feel sorry for David, but in the end, it was really great for the rest of us. For one thing, it gave us a sense of closure after years of not hearing from him. We can breathe again.''

Mr. Byrne's solo career continues to evolve. Besides shooting music videos for ''Feelings'' and gearing up for a European and American tour that begins on June 27, he has an idea for a new photo series. He is also interested in directing another film. ''It's a Mafia version of 'Snow White,' '' he explains, ''set in the present day, with a sense of humor, but done for real.''

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