By Jenn Shreve
David Byrne is best known as the charismatic leader of Talking Heads, but his career path since the band's 1991 breakup has been anything but a road to nowhere. Byrne has since distinguished himself as a filmmaker, graphic designer, photographer, author, and music impresario. His current projects include hosting PBS's acclaimed music hour, "Sessions at West 54th ," and running his win record label, Luaka Bop. In November, the 47-year-old artist will publish Your Action World , a biting parody of the iconography of advertising and the language of corporate America. The book is evocative of the late Tibor Kalman's work as well as the "subvertising' campaigns of Adbusters magazine. Byrne spoke with us by phone from the Luaka Bop offices in New York City.
New York is the advertising capital of the world. Do you ever find yourself frustrated by being immersed in all that?
Of course. Especially with the sense that every aspect of our lives has logos and labels attached. Or it's brought to you by someone.
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Every part of the culture is owned by something. It no longer emerges organically — or if it does, it's appropriated as it rears its head.
Even your PBS show, "Sessions at West 54th, is sponsored by IBM. How do you as an artist respond to this glut of advertising?
By making a book like Your Action World. If you're being spoken to all the time and you can't speak the language, then you're helpless. But if you can at least speak the language [of advertising] and understand it...that's a self-defense mechanism.
In mimicking advertising, did you have any epiphanies about how we're being communicated to?
I came to the conclusion that any ad that appears to be saying one thing is also saying its opposite. So I put together [paradoxical] things, like drug paraphernalia and inspirational phrases.
I was struck by your send-ups of the kind of corporate inspirational posters sold in in-flight magazines.
I found myself returning to those — and to rap lyrics, which are the extreme opposite. Instead of everything being up, up, up, everything in gangsta rap is bad, bad, worse, and worse. But I think the positive [corporate] stuff is actually scarier: It promotes as mythic fantasy world that's just as extreme as the world of gangsta rap lyrics, and just as unreal.
Your use of images that undermine text, and vice versa, reminded me of the late Tibor Kalman's work. You were both a friend and collaborator. How would you describe his influence on your work?
Obviously we worked together quite a lot. I could go to him with an idea, and he would understand immediately what I was getting at and take it a step further.
Kalman was very much a proponent of corporate sponsorship of art —
Tibor and I used to have — not out-and-out arguments — but discussions when he was doing Colors magazine. He'd say, "Look, These companies are becoming very enlightened. They let me do this magazine and now I can pretty much do whatever I want — no strings attached." When it's presented that way [it doesn't sound so wrong].
Levi's was recently looking for hot young artists to sponsor in San Francisco. They got money, but the catch was they also had to wear Levi's hats.
I'm sure Levi's doesn't tell an artist what to write. But I always get the feeling that — because the brand's attached — the whole work becomes an ad in some way.
For years, people have been predicting that world music will break out commercially in the United States. Do you believe that?
Not as a genre, but I think individual artists are going to escape that ghetto. It's already happening. There was a band this year — Les Nubiens — French-African women who started getting played on urban radio. In the past, they definitely would have been marginalized in a world music thing, even though their music is hip-hop oriented.
You're one of only a few established musicians offering free, downloadable music online. This at a time when record companies view the new technology as a threat to copyrights and profits.
To be honest, I think it's bullshit. I have yet to be able to download an MP3 file, and I've tried many times. It's really for kids who have the time to wait that long to hear one song and decide whether they like it. I don't think there's any danger. I used to tape records for friends. It's a way of building community. When you have people passing along tapes with your song on it — eventually they buy something and they come to your concerts. That's how an audience gets built.