Backwards and sideways with David Byrne

Via Denver Post

By Ricardo Baca

Talking Heads Icon Never Stops Making Sense:

David Byrne, though born in Scotland, is New York through and through. He lives fewer than three blocks from Madison Square Garden. He is ecstatic that his My Backwards Life Tour, which includes four Colorado dates in the next four days, kept him away from the 2004 Republican National Convention.

"It's the forbidden zone of Manhattan," said Byrne, co-founder of the seminal group Talking Heads, speaking by phone from San Francisco recently. "I don't need to be there right now."

After Sept. 11, 2001, Byrne saw a togetherness in his adopted hometown that was almost foreign. "Anybody would help anybody else with anything," he said. He reveled in the giving spirit and the communal vibe.

Then things got weird. "It was as if all that positive energy had been redirected into hate and anger," Byrne said, "and it was like, 'Now we gotta get somebody. We don't know who, but we're gonna get them and were gonna make somebody hurt like we hurt.' ...I started to lose faith in the people in my own town. I started to feel that, of course everybody had their dark side, but those had all been encouraged to come out right here."

Byrne organized Musicians United to Win Without War, a group including Emmylou Harris, Jay-Z and Dave Matthews that took out a full-page ad in The New York Times and Rolling Stone stating their opposition to the war in Iraq.

"We spoke out," said Byrne, "but the mood was for invasion at that time, and it was inevitable. But we disagreed with the invasion, and we knew that the search for weapons of mass destruction wouldn't succeed. ... It did seem like 9/11 was such a trauma for some people that their reactions to things didn't involve the same critical instincts they would use normally."

It bothered Byrne because he makes a living out of thinking critically. Whether he's speaking out politically or writing material for the follow-up to his excellent new release "Grown Backwards," Byrne was born to bring a new perspective to the world.

Think back to 1975, a year after the Talking Heads formed out of the Rhode Island School of Design, and the band was opening for the Ramones at CBGB. Fans adored Byrne as the detached yet electric frontman spouting his arty, sometimes nonsensical lyrics. A year later, Jerry Harrison joined the fold, fresh from his stint with Jonathan Richman's Modern Lovers. And a year after that, Sire Records released their debut full-length album.

It definitely says something about Byrne when the Talking Heads, who were together for a dozen years, are still looked upon as an important steppingstone in the development of art-pop and post-punk music. But it is not something he thinks about often.

"I never listen to my own stuff. I've already heard it a bunch of times," Byrne said. "That doesn't mean I don't like it, but it's just that there is so much other stuff for me to listen to for pleasure.

"But when things are being remastered, I'll usually check it out. Jerry Harrison lives out here (in California), so I'll probably see him tomorrow or the next day. He's been doing 5.1 mixes of most of the Talking Heads stuff, so I'll listen to it with him, but he's a record producer, so I trust him on that stuff."

He's doing about six or seven Talking Heads songs in his current sets, including "I Zimbra," "a pseudo-African song we wrote, but a lot of the guitar lines have been moved over to the strings. It's a groove number, but the strings are taking all the overlapping lines and parts and everything."

Byrne's touring with an ensemble "heavy on the percussion and heavy on the lovely, sensuous stringy sounds."

"I'm pushing it as far as I can go," he said. "A lot of people don't know what to expect. They ask, 'Does this mean that David Byrne is doing Muzak versions of his own songs?' It's not really that. It's pretty out there, but it also sounds really beautiful."

One of the recent challenges is a cover he and his band are working out. He was sure they would have it down by Colorado, so fans in Denver, Boulder and Aspen should keep their ears open to hear the former Head tackling Hendrix.

"We're working on a pretty obscure Hendrix song that I think is going to be beautiful, but it's really tough. It's 'One Rainy Wish,' and it's on 'Axis: Bold as Love,' but it's not a song that gets played a lot."

Trying his hand at Hendrix, especially with two cellos, a viola and three violins, has proved a difficult task.

"I think it's a beautiful song, but when you try to take apart what he did, it's complicated. We're reinterpreting it with this group so it would still groove, but actually you would hear more how beautiful the song is and how innovative his writing was."

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