Performing 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Ryman Auditorium
For tickets, contact Ticketmaster at 255-9600 or www.ticketmaster.com
David Byrne can still surprise you. The creative force behind nearly 25 years of experimental pop musicfirst with the seminal art-punk band Talking Heads, and then as a world beat entrepreneur and restlessly inventive solo artistsometimes metamorphoses himself without even trying, thanks to the forces of biology. He can catch you off guard with his speaking voice, which is deep and New Yorkish, not high and spaced-out, and only occasionally as halting as his vocal affectation which has bored into the consciousness of American popular culture. And he can shock you with his hair, which is now a distinguished gray, and which he sports proudly on the cover of his latest album, Look Into the Eyeball.
“I was going gray on the last album,” Byrne interjects gruffly, “which is kinda why I put a doll on the cover, so I could hide the transition. You know, before I signed the contract [with Virgin Records] I went to them and said, ‘You guys look at me and tell me if you want to sign an artist who looks like this.’ ”
And their answer?
“They said, ‘David, that’s OK.’ ”
Byrne’s hair befits his status as an elder statesman of modern rock, and his position as the founder and public face of the Luaka Bop label, an eclectic world music imprint which helps keep Byrne in touch with what’s going on in cutting-edge styles across the globe. “There are some really surprising things out there,” he says. “A lot of times we’ll listen to stuff and I’ll go, ‘Listen to this! I don’t think that we should put it out, but it’s amazing!’ ”
Byrne and his staff have to evaluate the tapes that come through his office in terms of what his label is good at promoting. This past year alone, Luaka Bop has had hits with records by Shuggie Otis and Jim White, both of which have gotten as much or more ink than Byrne’s own projects. The businessman also has to compete with the veteran artist whose hits like “Once in a Lifetime” or “Burning Down the House” still appear on classic rock radio alongside Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. Byrne describes the feeling of frequently hearing those songs as “having one of your limbs cut off, and then [someone saying], ‘We’re going to put this part in preservatives, and the rest of you can keep going. Live your life.’ ”
He claims that he doesn’t hear too many demo tapes from Heads clones at Luaka Bopor if he does, he says, “I wouldn’t know it. Somebody else will point it out to me, but I wouldn’t recognize it unless it’s real blatant and obvious.” According to Byrne, the legacy of the Talking Heads pops up in places that are less overt. “They don’t sound like Talking Heads, that’s the thing,” he says of artists influenced by his former band. “They’re inspired in a different way, and to my mind a better way. It’s the true meaning of inspirationthey got inspired and they wrote their own kind of music. The ones I can name have said it themselves: Radiohead, Public Enemy, and probably Moby. None of those acts sounds anything like Talking Heads. But I think they’ve all said at one point or another that they were inspired by Talking Heads. Or maybe not Talking Heads, but stuff I’ve done. They took the ball and ran with it in their own direction.”
The disparate influences Byrne provides stem from his extra-musical projects. He’s worked in performance art, photography, and filmmaking, and lately has been writing books. Last year he was pushing a parody/deconstruction of the self-help genre entitled Your Action World: Winners Are Losers With a New Attitude; this year, McSweeney’s is handling Byrne’s The New Sins, which the author calls “theological essays.”
Despite his wide-ranging pursuits, Byrne is less interested in using the multimedia technologies available today to augment his records. When asked if he’d ever consider recording a CD commentary track like those that appear on DVDs of movies, Byrne laughs off the idea. “Sometimes during this tour I’ll tell little stories about the songs,” he says. “But they’re real short. I don’t think it’s long enough to fill a CD. A few years ago, people would ask me the same question about CD-ROMS‘When are you going to do a CD-ROM?’ I could just never figure out anything to do with it.”
It’s not that Byrne has a problem examining the meanings behind his work; it’s that he’s not always sure what those meanings are. Look Into the Eyeball seems to feature several songs that have to do with people coming together, in triumph and tragedy, but Byrne says if that theme is there, it’s unconscious. “[The songs] come as they come,” he explains. “I try not to censor them from being whatever they want to be. And then afterward, I realize that they have a common concern and I think, ‘That must have been what was on my mind at the time.’ I’d love to be able to outline the whole thing [as a concept album], and try and do it. I’ve done that sort of [thing] before. The songs I wrote for True Stories, each one was written for a specific character. It had to be in that character’s point of view and fit their style of music. But that was working through another character’s voice. Doing it all through my own voice is a lot harder. When you do a character you can always make excuses and go, ‘Well, that’s what they think.’ ”
As is appropriate to his experimental personality, Byrne doesn’t even have much desire to record albums all in one musical style anymore, the way he did early in his solo career. “I’m thinking about doing one that has all sorts of sounds, but none of which are melodic,” he says. “A record of completely non-pitched sounds. Figure that out! I don’t knowit’s just an idea, kind of in the formative stages. That would be a pretty unified thing, but other than that, the elements of all the stuff I’m listening to, it filters into the songs. It doesn’t kind of take over a whole album the way it would sometimes.”
With a world full of styles to choose from, Byrne still tends to write and record music when the impulse hits, and then scour his notebooks and his imagination for words that might complement the tune. “I’m kind of tailoring the words to fit the melody, which I find easier to do. ‘The Accident’ [on Look Into the Eyeball] I had to write three times. The second time I thought I had it. I wrote the words with the metaphor of an orchestra, describing what the different instruments were doing. I played it for some friends and they looked at me like, ‘Not yet!’ You can tell by their look, or by the way they say, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ But the trick is to make it not sound like you wrote the words and stuck them on some music. The trick is to make it sound like they came into being at the same time.”
Spontaneity is also key to Byrne’s live performancesvisual marvels in which a tight format allows for exciting improvisation. The road show that Byrne is bringing to the Ryman Auditorium on Monday, Aug. 20, features 10 people on stage, and the bandleader says, “a lot of it sounds kinda like the new record. There are a lot of drums and bass and percussion and a lot of strings. I’m traveling with a string section from Austin, Texas. They sound great. The arrangements make them very integral to the band. In fact, they become the musical part of the band. They’re not just icing the top. They’re playing all the licks. They rock out.”
Byrne describes the show, and the show describes Byrne. He promises “some new songs, some old songs, and some surprises.”
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Wonderful! We're hoping Knoxville puts something like this together, too. It's a fantastic concept!!