By Graham Reid
The past two years have been hectic for David Byrne, former frontman for Talking Heads and a multimedia artist with almost a dozen solo albums to his credit. He lived in Scotland while working on the soundtrack to Young Adam, quit as head of the world music label Luaka Bop he founded in 1990, split with his wife, and has been involved in many art projects, including one using the PowerPoint computer program.
He also recorded and toured the album Grown Backwards with a 10-piece band - an album that has him singing two arias - and that is the show he's bringing here.
You resigned from Luaka Bop?
Yes, the label was based in my house and there was a year when it had no distribution after being dropped by Virgin. That was not a fun time. It was already something I was financially supporting and it wasn't bringing in any income. There was this room in my house that wasn't doing anything so I said, "Get out, I'm done with you." We're still on good terms and knock ideas around but I'm not as involved as I was.
Was being a businessman an impediment to your artistic life?
I'm not bad at it but it's not my strength and it was taking up time. I'd rather spend my life doing things I enjoy.
You seem busy in many areas. Your project using PowerPoint graphics was interesting. It's considered a cold, businessperson's thing.
I didn't know anything about the program so I didn't come to it with preconceived ideas, but I gather a lot of people cringe when they have to use it or are subjected to a PowerPoint presentation. I just thought, "Oh, here's this thing where you can put words and pictures up and make the arrows scoot in and out, and you could put your own music in it." So for me it became this wonderful toy. People were shocked that I was playing around with this thing and taking it semi-seriously. Some people who use it were surprised by what I did, and a lot of the art community don't know what it is. It was a lot of fun.
Music, now. You found African rhythmic elements in Talking Heads and beyond, then Latin and world music. But what keeps music interesting for you? Is it arias?
Well, that was a new area for me. There's lots of great music made in the past which, when I stumble across it, is equally new to me as something made this year. I am simultaneously caring about things someone did a month ago and something made 50 years ago.
On this tour you play Talking Heads and solo material but also Jimi Hendrix' One Rainy Wish and Cole Porter's Don't Fence Me In. Is there a common thread?
There is, but I don't know what it is. Those have a string section but they play things in a different way. The Cole Porter sounds like a country'n'western song but with Brazilian rhythms. For the Hendrix I had all the overdubbed guitar lines transferred to string players. It ends up sounding really Asian, which you don't really notice in his version.
Are you enjoying touring?
It's more enjoyable than it ever was. I'm more relaxed and enjoy the act of singing. In the beginning it was something I psychologically had to do as a desperate outlet. Some people will miss the desperation. But I don't think my poor body and soul could have stood much more of that.
Do people still come to see that jerky, desperate, agonised young man, even though you're now 52?
Some. But the reaction we have been getting is that they go away happy. I can't be that same person I was and, from my point of view, thank goodness.
Bands such as Interpol are part of a whole interest in the New York new-wave of the late 70s. Are you aware of that?
Some of it. So why should I do it when there are younger bands doing it well in a contemporary way?
How do you hear about that music - from friends who know your tastes or what you are curious about, or do you still read the music press?
I buy the records if someone recommends them. I'm a voracious reader of newspapers and periodicals. I don't read all the music magazines because they seem to be fairly gossipy. But if people are talking about a particular record I'll go out and get it.
You spent a few months in Scotland. Are you a person who could live anywhere?
I suppose that, more and more, anyone can live anywhere. But a lot does pass through New York and the city has an international, manic flavour.
You experienced some alienation post-September 11 and what was happening politically in your country. You must feel that even more after the President's re-election.
I went to an event last night in Greenwich Village and there were a lot of poets, artists and writers ranting and raving. "Let's secede. They don't want us and never did, and we shouldn't make any attempt to be part of the mainstream because we're not. Let's form our own country." Some of them were serious. It's telling that it's got to that point. I was probably one of those people saying I'd leave if Bush was re-elected, but I'm still here.
How does your True Stories movie of '86 stack up these days?
I last looked at it a couple of years ago. I thought it came across very sweet, as opposed to caustic. There is a lot of humour.It's not as mean-spirited as people might have expected from a New Yorker.
And when you come here you will be happy on stage, which may not be what some people expect from you?
Oh no, not at all.
© Copyright 2005 New Zealand Herald. All Rights Reserved