By Ian Gittins
He's accepted now, at last, that he'll always be known for one thing: the Big Suit. In 1984, David Byrne, the voice of New York art-rockers Talking Heads, donned a grotesquely outsize suit for the band's live concert movie, Stop Making Sense. It was an affectionate parody of every uptight white rocker who has ever attempted to get down and get funky. Nearly two decades on, for many people the gesture still defines him.
"Yeah, that's the one for my tombstone," he says with a resigned grin. "Here lies David Byrne. Why the big suit?"
The David Byrne of 2001 looks far more at home in his own skin than did the nervy, exaggeratedly nerdy figure of post-punk legend. Tanned, dapper and suave, the lean gent who leaps across the boardroom to greet me today looks 10 years younger than 48, even with his shock of Einstein-white hair. In his neatly creased brown slacks and buttoned-up shirt ("my work uniform") Byrne now resembles an urbane senior partner in a hip marketing consultancy.
So chic replaces geek? It's not quite that simple. Talk to Byrne and it's clear that much of his famously over-developed self-awareness and goofball charm survives. As we discuss the excellent Look into the Eyeball, his first album for four years, his halting speech rhythms quickly lapse into that familiar querulous, irregular cadence. David Byrne, a man who runs on nervous energy, is still what American critics like to call herky jerky.
He's affable and infinitely less angst-ridden now, yet Byrne still found himself highly vexed by the recent US presidential election debacle. In fact, the campaign led him to perpetrate his first art-school situationist prank in years.
"Just before the election, I printed up thousands of posters of white face masks of Bush and Gore," he explains. "They just had the word 'Huh?' on them. I put them up in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Nobody knew it was me. I just figured they were both the wrong guys for the job. Ha!"
He bends double on the chintzy interview sofa and laughs like a man who enjoys a good guffaw. He despises George W Bush, but also had little time for Clinton ("Oh, Slick Willie - the Gulf War was his baby"). The chat soon wanders away from politics and on to his new album, which is undoubtedly the warmest and most humane record he's made.
Look into the Eyeball finds Byrne continuing the love affair with world music that he began way back in 1981 with My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, his acclaimed collaboration with Brian Eno. When he first embraced Brazilian and salsa rhythms, Byrne's own twitchy, definitively Caucasian vocals often seemed out of place among the exotic beats, rather like Prince Charles trying to break dance on an inner-city royal visit. Now the more relaxed Byrne bends his voice to fit its vibrant surroundings.
Look into the Eyeball features Byrne singing in Spanish for the first time (on Desconcido Soy), but specialises in compelling, cleverly detailed tableaux of everyday life. He delights in drawing word pictures of such characters as a sultry, ageing cabaret singer ("somewhere between Patsy Cline and Lucinda Williams") or a shy, intense loner hung up on music ("No prizes there! Ha!") and setting them to voluptuous Latin beats and gorgeously expressive strings.
"I do seem to like to combine the dramatic emotional warmth of strings with the grooves and body business of drums and bass," Byrne says. He pauses. Re-thinks. Changes tack. Giggles. "There's less irony than there used to be. I'm sure that will disappoint some people but, well, there you go."
Look into the Eyeball also contains the religious right-baiting anthem U B Jesus ("Jesus is big, Jesus is strong/Jesus can kill you if you don't get along"), about which Byrne expresses complete mystification. "It's my anti-gospel song, but I've no idea what it's about," he says, dissolving into an mass of tics and twitches.
Born in Dumbarton, Scotland, in 1958, Byrne emigrated to Baltimore with his parents at the age of two, and in school was ridiculed for his impenetrable Scots accent. "I soon lost it," he says. "But whenever my friends met my parents, I had to literally translate for them."
Mannered and uptight, his self-consciousness reached its nadir in his teens when he moved to New York to study at the Rhode Island School of Design. Byrne quickly dropped out, feeling alienated from the largely upper-class student population. After a short spell busking on the ukelele, he formed an art-rock band with fellow students Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth.
Talking Heads launched in the late 1970s, under the auspices of New York's celebrated CBGB club - a punk scene that also spawned Blondie, Suicide and the Ramones. But the Heads were a very different proposition. Compared to the straight-ahead angry exuberance of their peers, this was an existential conjuring trick of a band, a knowing and archly raised eyebrow. "We were also the only band on that scene that had a groove," says Byrne.
The 1980s saw Talking Heads enjoy worldwide success, becoming arguably the ultimate student band via cerebral quirk-out singles like Road to Nowhere and seminal albums like 1980's Remain in Light. Byrne's staccato delivery and jittery dancing became their onstage fulcrum, yet with hindsight this cripplingly shy man believes that his debilitating personal insecurity was both his curse and blessing.
"I had demons and felt socially inept," he says. "In retrospect, I can see I couldn't talk to people face to face, so I got on stage and started screaming and squealing and twitching about. Ha! Like, that sure made sense!"
As the 1980s progressed, Byrne fell in love with music containing a surplus of the spontaneity and passion that he so envied. His solo projects were increasingly in thrall to fluent Brazilian and Latin rhythms, and by the time of Talking Heads' acrimonious split in 1991 he'd swapped the big suit for more conventional executive attire and founded world music record label Luaka Bop.
Byrne is evangelical about Luaka Bop, who release Cornershop and a roster of South American artists. He abhors the phrase "world music", explaining in a recent erudite essay in the New York Times that he regards the catch-all term as lazy and patronising. Luaka Bop is no rich man's plaything: Byrne is a hands-on, full-time boss who works a full week in the label's New York office.
But isn't this vivacious music at polar opposites to his own awkward nature? Cue another belly laugh. "Ah well, there's the reason, you see? It's the same as me, as a very reserved person, jumping on stage and making a fool of myself with Talking Heads. It didn't even occur to me that I'm the last person in the world who should play salsa or Brazilian music. It just feels good to me."
Byrne has enjoyed 12 years of marriage to fashion designer Bonnie Lutz and has an 11-year-old daughter. But domestic bliss has not helped smooth out his rough edges. "It's not always been a happy marriage," he says. Indeed, the man who wears his neurosis like a badge of honour recently went into therapy for the first time. He didn't like it.
"I guess I wanted a quick fix," he says. "I thought it'd be like taking my car into the garage - here's your problem, here's the solution! And it didn't work that way. Did it relax me a little? Maybe. Did it solve my problems? No. And I'm not sure I wanted it to. I subscribe to the myth that an artist's creativity comes from torment. Once that's fixed, what do you draw on? Analysis is like a lobotomy. Who wants to have all their edges shaved off?"
Who indeed? In fact, Byrne seems as near to happiness now as he's likely to get. You wouldn't call him mellow, but he's getting there. Nevertheless, he's bored by most contemporary mainstream music, and he betrays his art-punk roots when he considers the merits of Eminem: "He doesn't interest me as a vaudeville performer, and I find rebellion packaged by a major corporation a little hard to take seriously."
Byrne is loath to dwell on Talking Heads, although he has co-operated with an upcoming authorised band biography, This Must be the Place by David Bowman. Bowman promised to deliver a heavyweight critique of the band, but Byrne says he has written "a book about me and Tina fighting". And he looks aghast at the idea of reforming the Heads for an arena-filling nostalgia tour.
"I'm always being told to do it," he says. "And it's like being told, 'You should get back with your first wife - you guys were good together.' Well, I think most people would pass on an offer like that!"
It's no surprise. Byrne has always faced forwards: by rock's lowly standards, he's a Renaissance man. Having directed movies, exhibited photographs, scored ballets and won an Academy Award for his movie soundtrack work, he's now got an idea to top the lot. He wants to film a movie of the Second Coming, in which Christ is cloned in a laboratory from a blood sample taken from a nail on the Cross. "I think it's a perfect pitch," he says. "But every time I meet studio executives, their jaws drop. They say, 'David, we can't touch that with a 10-foot pole!'"
And David Byrne gives the subversive chuckle of a man who, nearing 50, will forever be a gawky, mischievous adolescent. "I'd like to be known for that even more than for being the guy in the big suit," he says.