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Celebrating the release of Grown Backwards (Nonesuch Records) 2004:

David Byrne Looks Forward . . . and Back

© Carol Cooper, 2004

Unexpergated text of complete interview, partially published in October 2004 by The L magazine in New York City. Also available on Byrne's website.

Q: As a solo artist you have worked with horn sections and now with string sections to color and embellish your songs. Aside from a more cerebral and cinematic atmosphere, what narrative abilities does a string section give your compositions that a horn section does not?

DB: Strings have an unfortunate reputation. They're seen as the last refuge for a pop star who craves respect and to be finally taken seriously. They also signify upwelling of passion, sentimentality and romantic emotion -- these I may be occasionally guilty of, in measured doses . . . but if anything I've been taken too seriously for years, so hardly need more of that. Horns traditionally are more in your face, muscular, macho and, well, louder.

All of the above are of course clichés, but one's we sort of have to acknowledge . . . and there is always some truth to clichés. When enter strings playing the right counter melody or harmony to a vocal I get all choked up inside -- even on my own songs. But that's not all they do.

Q: What motivated your inclusion of two opera pieces on the current album? Is it their anachronistic purity that attracts you? Or some deeper quality?

DB: I suppose they are, in a way, the key to much of the rest of the record, for better or worse. The Verdi one was recorded before many of the other songs were written, and I suspect I used it as a tool, as an emotional and vocal lever, to allow the other ones to come into existence. I see them as pop songs, OK, pop songs that have a context -- but if anything I see myself as involved in the work of rescuing these marvelous songs from the over stylized and rarified context they've been put in. They've been held prisoner and they deserve to be given a little more freedom. But mainly it's personal -- not knowing if I myself could write something appropriately emotional for the ending of Dirty Pretty Things, I felt the Verdi piece did the job way better than I ever could. The film people didn't agree, but trying it gave me the excuse to dip my toe in the waters.

Q: All arias seem intrinsically fragile to me because the melody so completely relies upon the ephemeral strength of a human voice to deliver it. For that reason, every opera becomes a sort of elegy to the tragic brevity of mortal existence.

DB: Well, OK, most of them end in a death -- and maybe romance, which most of them also feature, is also a kind of death. . . . But it never occurred to me that the human voice carrying the tune implied the fragility of life. Hey, speaking of "fragile" voices, have you heard the operatic version of Ramstein lyrics? Yes, it exists.

Q: I think Malcolm McLaren expoited that aspect of opera in Fans, as did Janet Jackson with Kathleen Battle on janet. On Grown Backwards the presence of somewhat straightforward classical pieces by Verdi and Bizet changes the relationship of the listener to strings and vocals throughout the entire CD. Is that intentional?

In the '70s, disco used strings, and salsa used horns to give emotional emphasis and nuance to the libidinal drive of the rhythm section. (The most self-conscious apotheosis of which would have been Chic's white violins.)

What I notice on Grown Backwards is a more egalitarian (if not more complex) deployment of instrumentation than that. While rhythms are certainly central to most of the material here, you often have percussion instruments carrying melody, and strings provoking shifts in tempo or anchoring beats during odd transitions between celtic, gypsy, Hawaiian or country riffs. Do you break the more common musical habits just to extend your own compositional versatility, or to broaden the aural conditioning of your audience, or both?

DB: Whew. Well, I did work with Thom Bell on my last record, but I think I maybe have been inspired this time by Caetano's Livro CD, Cirano, by Piccolo Orchestra Avion Travel and a few others. But yes, I wanted to consciously avoid the strings as sweetener approach which we are all too familiar with. I realized that they could be part of the band, given enough sonic space and the right arrangements. And it works!

All this can devolve into so much muso musing if it goes too far -- the unanswered question is why? If I'm not hankering for respect that why do this?

Q: These days songs don't get too much more overtly political than "Empire." Beyond preaching to the converted, who would be your ideal audience for this song?

DB: You know, that song's been around for a while -- but now seems like a time when the American Empire as an idea has gained currency. What I find frightening about it, the song, is that despite being hugely ironic, it has the power of a stirring melody -- melodically it touches, possibly even inspires, the very emotions and feelings it is criticizing. To me it's about the conflicts inherent in music. Born in the USA WAS a patriotic anthem despite all intentions to the contrary.

Q: "She Only Sleeps" and "Civilization" are both delightfully intimate glimpses into the state of modern romance, where the female is given all the power and agency in the relationship. This somewhat pagan, Tantric attitude can be traced in your work at least as far back as "The Great Curve." Is the bemused, ego-demon beset male protagonist in your songs always waiting for some feminine power or initiative to save him from himself?

DB: Jeez, just when I thought these songs from the feminine side were simply a side effect of my age, you point out that, yes, I've been doing it all my life.

Yes, techno paganism is the future. I don't know if that's a pseudo McLuhanism but I have sensed for some time that the information age is female and the enlightenment, with modernism as it's dead end, is male. Woops, sounds like another McLuhanist sound bite. Even rock and roll, of course is pagan . . . and possibly despite all the pelvic thrusting it was an aspect the big moma coming back to roost.

I do think our official culture is way too rational and logical -- it's a religion that is in desperate need of a counter measure, and that's not to say chaos and irrationality, but maybe some more empathy and soul.

Q: Much of the wry humor on Grown Backwards comes from melodic quotes seemingly out of vintage vaudeville or British music hall sources. Has scoring for film and theater pieces given you a taste for the satiric potential in musical comedy? Is there a Dennis Potter musical in you screaming to get out?

DB: Those kinds of melodies were, except for a few acts, pretty universally un PC in the rock and RnB worlds, but occasionally if one comes to visit I don't kick it out. They have to be handled with care though -- "Glad" could easily have turned into the Teddy Bears Picnic. I don't think I would ever do a musical musical, but a longer single themed project has been on my mind.

Q: "Dialog Box" sounds like something August Darnell would have written around the time of Wise Guys. Its zoot suit cynicism and gangsterish charm is a tiny tugboat of funk amidst little islands of Los Vegas-inflected tangos, violin concerti, and bossa nova. Multiculturalism seen as a sonic theme park. The collision between a wash of Gamelan percussion and Sgt. Pepperish production number inside "The Other Side of This Life" is wonderfully bizarre . . . it is as if you created a tone parallel for 21st Century "globalization" politics. Do you mean for these songs to function as autocritiques or just as closely observed slices of life?

DB: Dialog Box started as another little ballad, like some of the others, but as an experiment I tried a bigger beat and there was no going back. I was actually listening to Missy Elliot's last few records when I was writing that one -- no musical effect, but for instance, this verse

"Gonna test ya
With a gesture
Do I feel ya?
Are ya scared?"

Probably came from "Work It." Am I in trouble now? I don't think so.

"The Other Side Of This Life," yes, sometimes I tell audiences it's from an upcoming musical about an Indonesian man who, with some corporate support, realizes his dream of becoming a Vegas lounge singer -- an institution that barely exists anymore. But that's just a stage story. One night I said it was a musical about a brain damaged man who finds that by singing he can "sing" his way through getting dressed, getting to work, etc. -- probably something I read in an Oliver Sacks book. I noticed a woman behind a man in wheelchair off to the side, waving frantically. Later I met them and was told the man in the wheelchair has exactly that neurological quirk. He typed out a message on a little teletype machine he had.

I realize the song also my goofy take on loving and accepting Globalization and life as the dark shadow of show business. (I like this last bit, that we all live in the penumbra of show business) The world throws all this disparate stuff together, so maybe I'm merely reflecting some of it. Sometimes a mere description serves as a comment.

Q: Through the years I've noticed that music critics go out of their way to avoid discussing the spiritual aspects of your work. Despite song and album titles like "Remain in Light" "Speaking in Toungues," "Tiny Apocalypse," "Walk on Water," "Angels," "Lily of the Valley," etc: they always go out of their way to ignore the shaman in you, the desert prophet in you. (Not even the speculative truisms of "In the Future" convinced them.) As far as Jon Pareles, Lester Bangs, John Rockwell, Robert Palmer, Ira Mayer, Barbara Graustark and the rest of the usual subjects, all religious allusions you make are mere poetry . . . mere allegory for some sort of pomo-perennial existential nervous breakdown. I hate this kind of elitist elision. It pretends to some sort of Freudian rationalism, but in reality it just rejects out of hand the existance of anything left un-demystified by Western science. So just what is your position on the esoteric underpinnings of gospel? Of New Orleans funeral music? Of all Afro-Latin and African percussion, and most folk music from around the world?

DB: See McLuhanisms above. In a way I'm sort of relieved that that part of my work gets ignored -- setting oneself up as a religious prophet has dire career (and personal) consequences.

Back to paganism. I have a long term fascination and love of the various Afro Atlantic religions -- Voudoun, Candomblé, Santeria and the Gospel Church. The latter doesn't have the panoply of Gods and Goddesses, but the celebration is somewhat similar.

Well, all of the above and pop music, especially pop music with roots in Black culture, draw from the same well. That became obvious pretty quickly. It's a powerful combination -- no wonder it's "conquered" the world -- it's not just the power of the multinationals that makes Malaysians and Brazilians groove to mainly American pop -- it has synthesized the cultures in much the same way that these religions have synchretized African with European religions.

I could go on and on -- when you worship at the altar of the groove, of pop music, you are also leaving European and Middle Eastern religion behind. You are not longer one of the people of the book, so to speak. The sub atomic rhythms have become internalized in the body and some kind of techno pagan trance thing is being born.

Q: Even though on "Why" you claim to have no overt philosophy, would you say that humanity today is suffering from too much spirituality or too much atheism?

DB: Yes, both. Well put. Though I would qualify the spirituality as religion -- which is always fixed, dogmatic, whereas spirituality is floating, unmoored, uncertain. The atheism, likewise, is equally dogmatic. In here I include the whole enlightenment and modernist faith in science, human knowledge and reason -- all of which have proved no more able to bring about human happiness than the religions it supplanted. Two competing dogmas. Both equally stubborn and intransigent.

Q: When you selected "Cálice" sung by Chico Buarque and Milton Nascimento to be the bonus cassette track on your first Brazilian music composition, were you *not* astonished and profoundly moved by its utterly appropriate and revelatory fusion of Catholic and political symbolism? When researching Brazilian pop did you not notice how its impact is always heightened by deeply ingrained metaphysical subtexts?

DB: From a distance it appears a pop utopia -- a place where all sorts of music, ideas and approaches can be encompassed -- but I suspect that's a bit of a Myth. But as Caetano points out, myths have their uses -- the Brazilian myth of no racism doesn't exist, far from it -- but the existence of the myth establishes a popular ideal, a goal. It places a concept within one's living vocabulary, to borrow from Wiggenstein -- by allowing us to imagine it, it comes that much closer to allowing it to exist.

Q: You played the Apollo Theater shortly after 9/11. What thoughts and emotions did that happenstance provoke in you? Bringing your quintessentially "downtown" audience uptown to to the comparative haven of Harlem for that show suddenly became symbolic on levels that could never have entered the public's mind had the World Trade Center still been intact. This was clearly a rare opportunity for an artist whose work has always leaned towards the prophetic, broadly transformative and cataclysmic. Suddenly all your prior lyrical hints and warnings became more than arty, science-fictional speculation. Did you then feel your role as artist more keenly? Did you feel more motivated to comfort them in their newly awakened distress, or to subtly infer "I told you so?"

DB: Oh my God. Doing "Life During Wartime," which we'd recently added to the set, with strings, a couple of weeks after 9/11 was unnerving. Thank goodness I didn't have "Listening Wind" in the set -- the TH song from a bomb planters POV!! Everything, every song, took on a new meaning, added weight. Sometimes inappropriately, some songs, some work, doesn't deserve or support the weight, but some others can. Even a song about a relationship can seem more touching, dealing with that it is to be alive. Some of that weight floats off, fades and it's just a song again -- but tonight I perform in Madrid, need I say more?

Watching the audience bopping to "Life During Wartime" was sort of disconcerting -- once again, as with "Empire," a reminder that music has this innate power that is often at total odds with the lyrics. Sometimes, as in these songs, that disjunction is intentional, but it's still weird to experience it.

Q: Prince spent most of the 90s cremating his American rock star profile and essentially reincarnating himself as an obscure underground jazz-fusion artist.

Similarly, you set aside the crown of art-rock royalty thrust upon you during your leadership of Talking Heads to become something . . . else. Despite the rock elements in much of your solo work, you have essentially spent the last ten years reinventing yourself as a third world pop musician. What are the advantages and disadvantages from your point of view in rejecting the obvious perks of the stylistic, cultural and commercial category of "Anglo/American rock star"?

DB: Woah, OK, I did find the prospect of becoming an arena act disheartening and alienating. But I'd already made records like Bush Of Ghosts, Catherine Wheel and The Knee Plays in the 80s that said I was already trying to straddle two puddles, or two canoes, or something. So it wasn't like I suddenly branched out all of a sudden.

Like some other artists, upon parting with Talking Heads, my bread and butter, I also perversely set out to sabotage my own career, releasing first a Latin record and then an orchestral score immediately, one right after the other, but then after a while I managed to reintegrate a lot of more pop song material and attitude, at least to some extent. But those other things became integrated into the pop songs too.

I do miss having more available funds and creative platforms -- MTV used to air Talking Heads (and others) videos almost the week they came off the editing machine. That doesn't happen to anyone I know now, and that's not a result of my screwy career decisions.

I didn't realize I'd become a 3rd world pop musician, I thought I was a little more global than that -- my recording budgets are pretty decent too. But OK, I get your point. The disadvantages of said career move was initially less press outlets, more limited radio play, etc. . . . but only for a while. I think (I always think this) that the tide is turning. The record business is in trouble, (snore), but there's some great new music out there.

Q: Peter Gabriel has used the WOMAD global festival series and you have used the Luaka Bop label in part to offer a certain commercial parity for non-white and/or "non-western" pop acts, and increased mainstream exposure for interesting performers who may or may not sing in English, or have easy, natural access to the hit-making machinery of the so-called developed world. How do you judge the success of that effort?

DB: Musical and cultural success, dismal financial failure. I never liked the idea, which was sometimes thrust upon me as a result of all this world music stuff, that I'm a do-gooder out to bring nice music to the headbanging masses brainwashed by the multinationals. Being a do-gooder sits about as easy with me as the shaman prophet role. Imagine the stage costume! Neither seems very sexy or much like fun. And that is what I think a lot of the Luaka music is and was -- sexy and fun. It is hugely deep, it swings and it often has political and cultural import -- but first things first.

Q: As a result of promoting a multicultural artist roster like Luaka Bop's have you simultaneously codified a broader context for your own musical experiments?

DB: Well, I do wonder as much how a record or tour is going to be received in Latin America as much as in Chicago. "Lazy," the X-Press 2 version, was a huge club hit around the world -- except for guess where. So I do know there is a world out there. Duh. Did I miss something? Is that what you were asking?

Q: And do you think Luaka Bop's exposure of key source material from countries like Brazil, Cabo Verde, Peru and other outposts of the African diaspora helped curb the practice of calling "world beat" any American or European studio project which derives its "crossover" hooks from sampling an ethnographic recording wherein ethnic singers and musicians are playing anonymously for free and thereby get no writing credits or royalties?

DB: Hmmm. I do think things have changed a lot. Sometimes it came from unexpected places. Sometimes it was the dance music community that introduced Brazilian or Latin grooves to the Anglo dance floor, and thereby made those grooves fun, cool and palatable. At Luaka we tried to emphasize the artist as relevant contemporary music, from wherever. We tried to reduce the perception of the exotic, but it's a long hard slog. Now, with the governments new policies, getting these artists in to record, mix, promote and tour is becoming close to impossible. The US has closed it's cultural gates and thereby written it's own cultural death sentence. Nothing comes from nothing, and the US has an incredible wealth of talent, but throughout history it was always the nations that were the most open that came up with the incredible business deals and the latest directions and inspirations.

Published in: The L, October, 2004