David Byrne: The talented Mr Byrne

The former Talking Heads front man can't stop being creative. Music, film and now book projects are all on the go. Fiona Sturges talks to him in New York

I'm waiting for David Byrne in the lobby of a smart New York hotel. He's 45 minutes late. Just as I'm wondering whether I've been stood up, someone walks in wearing a helmet and bicycle clips and struggling under the weight of a large rucksack. The man once dubbed rock's renaissance man by Time magazine is hard to make out beneath the cycling camouflage. It's only when he takes off the helmet and reveals the gleaming platinum-coloured hair that I can be sure it's him.

A few minutes later Byrne is sitting over a mineral water on a plump sofa and reflecting on his long and wide-ranging career. His work as a pop musician is just one of the products of his feverishly creative mind. So far this year Byrne has put on a series of art shows in his native New York, produced a DVD and book about the creative possibilities of the computer programme PowerPoint and composed the soundtrack to the latest Ewan McGregor movie Young Adam. As if that's not enough, he's also started work on his next album, the follow-up to last year's acclaimed Look into the Eyeball, due out early next year. Is he easily bored, I wonder?

"Not at all," he laughs. "But I rarely switch off. I think I might be a workaholic. A lot of it is a way of dealing with other parts of living that I don't feel as comfortable with, such as relating with human beings." This social discomfort has always been manifest in Byrne's work, from his early Talking Heads songs and the Texan misfits portrayed in his film True Stories to more recent compositions on his solo albums. Yet Byrne claims to be more at ease with himself than he's ever been.

"I used to be painfully shy," he recalls. "I got into music partly as a way to deal with relating with other human beings. I'm actually not that bad at it now. But it's been a real slow ongoing process. I realise now, looking back at the music I was making in Talking Heads, that when the music got funkier I was loosening up personally as well."

He's amiable and certainly less angst-ridden now, though there are traces of the old awkwardness. As he talks he shifts around in his seat nervously and picks at his clothes. He stops and re-starts sentences; sometimes he gives up and doesn't finish them at all.

Before starting Talking Heads with fellow art students Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, Byrne would busk on the streets of New York with his ukulele. The band got their first break in 1974, opening for the Ramones at New York's celebrated CBGB club. In 1977, they signed to Sire records and released the first of many hit albums Talking Heads:77. Over the course of 12 years they recorded 10 LPs and had a string of hit singles including "Psycho Killer", "Burning Down The House" and "Road to Nowhere".

Byrne looks despondent at the suggestion that he'll always be remembered as the guy in the big suit. In 1984, he donned a ludicrously outsized suit for Talking Heads' concert movie Stop Making Sense. It was meant as a parody of vainglorious rock stars but the image somehow stuck. "I guess it's going to haunt me for ever," he sighs. "Appearance is a powerful thing. I don't think I quite realised it at the time."

These days Byrne is reluctant to dwell on past glories; he'd much rather discuss current endeavours such as Lead Us Not Into Temptation, his plaintive score for Young Adam which is released this week. The picture, directed by David McKenzie, is based on the book by the Scottish beat author Alexander Trocchi about a would-be writer operating the canal boats in 1950s Glasgow.

Byrne maintains that McKenzie alighted on him as much for his Scottish roots as his musical expertise. Byrne was born in Dumbarton in Scotland 1952. Though his parents relocated to Baltimore when he was two, the family would holiday in Scotland most summers.

"Appropriately enough, they were the years when the Trocchi book was taking place. I was in Glasgow around that time and I have pretty vivid memories of how squalid and dirty it was."

He describes the process of movie-scoring as "problem solving. I don't do crosswords but I imagine it's very similar. It's about getting all these things to fit together. It can be frustrating at times. You get sent rough edits of scenes as you're working. Then a week later they'll say, 'We've got a new edit. Everything you've written is now obsolete.' On the other hand, being restricted by someone else's vision is kind of an impetus to creativity. To some extent, the problem solving aspect makes it a challenge. By comparison, pop songs are wide open, in a way too wide open."

Byrne notes how contemporary pop has moved towards creating moods and textures that could easily be appropriated for film. "Look at Radiohead. So many of their songs are about the sounds and effects and all that funny stuff that goes around the song. They treat songs more like a mini-score, I think. They couldn't have got away with that 10, even 20 years ago."

This isn't the first time Byrne has been involved in scoring films - he co-wrote the score to Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, for which he won an Academy Award, and composed the music for Jonathan Demme's Married To The Mob - though he wouldn't do it on a full-time basis.

"It's a heartless, thankless job," he says, smiling grimly. "I've been lucky but it's often the case that people write really interesting film music and it gets played really quietly to a car chase or some dramatic dialogue. You just know no one's going to listen to it. I find myself looking at films with the classical composers like Mancini or Morricone where the music is really up there. I think 'Wow! How did they get their music played so loud?'"

His other major project this year has been his book. The idea came to him when he was performing readings of his last book, a pseudo-religious tract called The New Sins. He decided to do it in the form of a sales pitch and used the PowerPoint software for his presentation.

"It was kind of clunky and limited, but in a way I liked that. I started playing with it on its own as a medium and I realised I could make these things that were neither films nor slide shows but would run by themselves."

After showing the computerised images in galleries, Byrne decided to record them as a DVD and produce a book of text and artwork called Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information. The introduction contains a scathing critique of PowerPoint and the way it subtly manipulates users into behaving in a certain way. The images subvert the programme's functions - there are flow charts with arrows going nowhere and graphs that chart employees' emotional fluctuations.

"I found it interesting but I don't know if anyone will buy it," he chuckles, as if the possibility has only just occurred to him. "It's kind of big and cumbersome, and probably not cheap either."

There have, of course, been plenty of other extra-curricular activities over the years. By the time Talking Heads split in 1991 Byrne had swapped the big suit for more traditional executive clothing as founder of the Luaka Bop label. Far from being a pop star's vanity project, the label became a full-time endeavour during the Nineties with a roster that included the Southern surrealist Jim White, the Brazilian singer and poet Tom Ze and, their most successful signing, Cornershop. Now the label is "in limbo" after their distributor, Virgin, underwent some corporate downsizing last year.

"They clearly couldn't look after us any more," says Byrne with regret. "I think they're still recovering from the Mariah Carey debacle. It's not the end for Luaka Bop though. We're working on a solution."

Amid his huge workload, Byrne insists he still manages to find time for his family. He is married to the fashion designer Bonnie Lutz with whom he has a 14-year-old daughter named Malu.

"I'm lucky because my daughter can come on tour with me and sell T-shirts. She loves it, so far. She's in her teens now, so soon she'll be asking, 'Can I bring my boyfriend?' which will be a whole different thing. So far, it's a little bit of circus life for her, which is great. I don't regard my family life as separate from my working life. It's all mixed together somehow and I like to think it works well."

Malu was particularly impressed when dad got re-mixed by the dance outfit X-Press 2 and had a hit last year. Byrne glows with pride at the mention of his renewed chart-topping status. "I thought it was just going to be another track on a DJ record, which basically it was. It just happened to get noticed and do well. It was a real thrill. The only sad thing was that nobody knew the song here in the States. They were singing along to it at my concerts in London, Prague and Istanbul but never here." Then he stops, puts his hands behind his head and shrugs. "Perhaps I'm asking too much. It was disappointing - but in my job I guess you can't have it all."

'Lead Us Not Into Temptation - Music from the film Young Adam' is out now on Thrill Jockey. The book 'Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information' is published by Steidl, £50

Comments