On The Record: A Conversation with…David Byrne

Via Magnet

By A.D. Amorosi

When David Byrne isn’t busy making eclectic records like his recent Look Into The Eyeball or running an eclectic label like Luaka Bop, the ex-Talking Head creates eclectic art, photography and texts. His daft 1986 film True Stories and his mock-motivational 1999 book Your Action World: Winners Are Losers With A New Attitude position Byrne as an ironic inspirationalist, a preacher with a loose collar whose irreverence lies directly beneath the surface. (Sex, religion and babies—or the intertwining of such—have always played a big part in his lyrics.) Byrne was immediately drawn to the Valencia Biennial—a Spanish city’s art center and curatorial program—and its offer for artists to dedicate themselves to the topic “The Passions: Vices And Virtues.” Byrne responded by creating (in tandem with the design staff of literary journal McSweeney’s) a small, leather-bound, Bible-like tome called The New Sins/Los Nuevos Pecados. Containing misguided words of wisdom deriding all that is “good,” The New Sins—complete with fold-out medical charts and disjointed photos—is easily the most fever-pitched bit of tongue-babbling Byrne has pulled off in some time.

MAGNET caught up with Byrne via e-mail during his tour supporting Eyeball.

Magnet: How did your years of writing and photography gel in the desire to create The New Sins? What was the boiling point?

DB: I’ve had a long fascination with religions. I did a TV documentary in Brazil on Candomblé, which is related to voodoo. My first series of staged photos was called Strange Ritual. I guess I have a one-track mind that I’ve managed to disguise till now. The idea of proposing this book to the Valencia Biennial curators wasn’t really a sneaky way to get my photos out there. It was more a direct response to their initial theme, “Vices And Virtues.” I suggested the idea of doing a book that appeared like a Bible or a prayer book, of the type common in religious bookstores. I proposed that rather than exhibiting any of my pictures, they might fund the printing and distribution of a book. I suggested they place the books in hotel rooms and not tell anyone (except the hotel owners) and that they might also have conservatively dressed young people give out the book on street corners. I told them the book would not have my name on the cover, and it would not say on the cover that it was associated with the art event. The element of surprise and confusion was what I was after. Besides, the other book one finds in hotel drawers doesn’t have the author’s name on it, either.

Magnet: What was your first religious affiliation? Were your parents devout?

DB: My religious upbringing was far from strict. I was sent to Sunday school at some Protestant or Presbyterian churches and, for a while, at a Methodist one. But it was not a big thing at home; there were no pictures of the Virgin or Jesus hanging in the house, but being Christian, as in moral and ethical, was considered a virtue. The above religions are famously slim on the bells and smells that are associated with Catholicism (and with Candomblé, for that matter), so that might account for the fascination.

Magnet: Were there any ecumenical models for the book?

DB: Oh yes, there were many books, pamphlets and Web sites this book was meant to emulate. There are quite a number of religious books whose subjects seem to be much more important than the author’s name. While I was writing this, I went with my Luaka Bop partner Yale (Evelev) down to Pensacola, Fla., to visit Jim White. Needless to say, there are a lot of churches down there. Lots of bars, too. And many of the churches print tracts, which they pass out around town. It seemed the convoluted reasoning had a historical basis. In fact, the beautifully baroque and sometimes outright bizarre language usage seems to have informed a lot of Southern writing. At the time, I was also reading Faulkner (there’s a quote from As I Lay Dying in the book), who can occasionally go off on a trail of surprising logic.

Magnet: As you were working, what ties did you find between The New Sins and Look Into The Eyeball?

DB: At one point in the writing of my album, there were a few songs that seemed to overlap this territory: “U.B. Jesus,” “Walk On Water.” I thought I might be doing some kind of tribal/orchestral/gospel record, but it seems I channeled those thoughts into the book as fast as I could.

Magnet: The idea of new sins emerging under cover of old ones is very funny. How and why did you decide to humorously attack things we think of as virtues?

DB: I think we see a lot of things masquerading as their reverse: shopping marketed as freedom, meaningless mountains of data offered to us as knowledge. And we see identical movies and products being offered to us as a choice. Most of all, we see conformity being marketed as individuality. My attacks are humorous in that they swipe at sacred cows such as Charity and Hope. My attacks are also serious, but over the top and twisted as well. So even I don’t know when to take them seriously. But I do believe there is something there, that under the humor there is serious criticism.

Magnet: You’ve done some readings as Internet PowerPoint presentations. Anything interesting occur?

DB: Without acting out a preacher character, I can add visual aids to these words by employing technology developed by the Microsoft Corporation, which seems (surprise!) to be somewhat ubiquitous with salesmen and corporate reps. To turn a theological text into a sales presentation or strategy is perfect. I had never used PowerPoint before, but I was aware of its use in every sales and board meeting. It’s incredibly easy; a monkey could do it, and many do. In fact, there is even a button that organizes your talk for you, almost telling you what to say. I’m surprised they don’t use something like this to write movies. I’m hoping to use it as a new creative medium.

Magnet: Do you feel the book succeeds in the way you—and its original sponsors—wanted it to succeed?

DB: Well, I am very happy with the way it came out. As far as did we get into hotel rooms? Yes, that was achieved. But as I don’t have spy cameras in those rooms, I can’t testify to anyone’s reactions on finding the book after coming home late and sad one night.

Magnet: With the realization that, in the most distant sense, religion or zealotry is partially responsible for the World Trade Center attacks, how do you view religion and sin in the wake of such tragedy?

DB: You know, in a funny way, Jerry Falwell was right. Not that lesbians and gays are to blame for the Trade Center attacks, but that we are a morally confused nation/people. But many of us are indeed without spiritual roots, and we are notoriously a nation of desperate seekers looking for a quick fix. And many of the nations around the world are tired of being bossed around and talked down to by what they see as a nation of hypocrites. We support dictators all over the globe but go on and on about human rights, freedom and democracy. Granted, the attacks were the work of very desperate, demented people, but there are a lot more who have a lot of ambivalence about us but are not (yet) so insane.

Magnet: Outside of this interview, what’s your vision of hell?

DB: It’s purely mental. People build it, and people can tear it down, too.

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