Eye to Eye
David Byrne's Sincere Strings and Scary Things
A self-described workaholic, David Byrne is hungry. Not for greenbacks: writer of several popular songs and founder of a successful indie record label, Byrne no longer washes dishes for New York restaurant-goers, like he did before making newsprint in the late Seventies.
No, David Byrne is hungry, because he's obsessed with culture, making sense of it through artistic expression. The lead singer of the Talking Heads, who were originally called the Artistics, left his former band in the early Nineties for producing, solo albums, choreographed dance music, and soundtracks. Ten years later, his Luaka Bop imprint recently passed the decade mark, even as Byrne was busy with books, photography, directing films, drawing, et al. His inclusive approach to aesthetics: "Anything could be art, and art could be anything."
Given his schedule, Byrne only releases an album every few years. His eighth since the Talking Heads' demise, Look Into the Eyeball is full of rich sounds and piquant images, an album about human relations cast in a Byrnesian mold: cyclical grooving beats with angular and witty songcrafting. As frontman for the Talking Heads, Byrne was known for eye-darting glances, but as the name implies, Look Into the Eyeball is more about eye-to-eye communication. Does this move from irony to sincerity mean the singer of "Crosseyed and Painless" and "Psycho Killer" has gone soft?
Look Into the Eyeball
"I agree that the 'I' word is pretty much not present, and probably a certain part of that is age," admits the fiftyish Byrne speaking from a two-night tour stop in San Francisco. "But it's not just about getting old and soft or sentimental. When you're younger, the world is so sick and strange that you have to set up protection mechanisms for yourself to deal with it. Humor is just a survival mechanism. If you can't laugh at it, you ain't gonna live through it."
For Byrne, who has an 11-year-old daughter with his fashion designer wife Adelle Lutz, letting go and eye-to-eye sincerity are ways of functioning in a disturbed world. "If I can learn to deal with it, then I can drop my shield," confesses Byrne. On Eyeball, "Smile" displays this Zen: "So smile, when nothing seems to go your way ... I'm not afraid anymore, scary things set me free."
Musically, Eyeball is what you'd expect from Byrne -- quirky melodies and rhythmic energy couched in pop structures. There's also a tastefully incorporated string section. Is this a symbol of Byrne's sincerity?
"It was a way of adding a rich, warm, sensuous element into the music," Byrne responds, "and therefore a certain lack of distance, but still keeping the rhythm and the grooves going with the bass and percussion."
The result is lush but not syrupy, strings melted with earthy beats. Head and hips. Yin and yang.
"The Great Intoxication" begins with samba drums then goes into industrial percussion that joins airy strings. The gospel-influenced "Walk on Water" runs a deep conga rhythm with a string quartet, building arrangements and emotive vocals.
Respecting Your Audience
"The Accident" is Eyeball's most symphonic track, with honeyed, melancholic strings and what sound like kettledrums. This combo reinforces lyrics that reveal an interpersonal relationship by vividly painting an apparent car accident. "Broken Things" has remarkable harmonies, a knockout rhythm, and just enough weirdness to frighten you as you crave more. The maraschino cherry on top of this bittersweet beat sundae is tongue-in-cheek closer "Everyone's in Love With You."
Brevity is another of Eyeball's salient traits. Byrne's never been long-winded, but all 12 tracks are fully distilled -- shining like small gem stones. The album's main fault is you want more.
"I didn't want there to be any fat on there," counters Byrne. "I wanted to say what I had to say and get out. There were other songs that were recorded, and they sound all right, but I thought this makes a stronger album."
"Less is more" sounds cliché, but there's a lot to be said for not filling up media just because you can. "I've been getting so tired of CDs that are 70 minutes long -- plus!" opines Byrne. "I just think: 'Don't presume that I want to listen to everything you have to say. Just give me the best you have to say.' I think it's about respecting your audience."
Byrne respects his fans, and they respond in kind. When Byrne launched into "Like Humans Do" at La Zona Rosa during South by Southwest this March, the audience bounced around like jumping beans.
"That was our first show!" Byrne says, emphatically. "Ever!"
For such a conspicuous concert, Byrne hired the string section from Tosca, Austin's award-winning tango ensemble.
"They were great players, and fun to work with," enthuses Byrne. "At first, when I toured the U.S., I picked up string musicians in each town. It sounded good, but we never really got past the learning stage. It never really got to sound great. So when I could afford to have somebody travel with us, I remembered the strings in Tosca. They're great."
Tosca members Lara Hicks and Leigh Mahoney on violin, cellist Sarah Nelson and violist S. Ames Asbell are joined by fellow Austinites Jamie Desautels on violin and cellist Ben Westney. In a band of 10, six are from Austin.
Byrne describes as having been a "control freak" and "little dictator" in the past, perhaps contributing to the Talking Heads' breakup, but according to Tosca's Sarah Nelson -- also talking from San Francisco -- Byrne is anything but domineering these days.
"He's so approachable," says Nelson. "Everyone seems to love him. He's really a sincere person. He travels on the bus with everyone else. He hangs out with all of us, he drinks with of all us, laughs with all us, and it's so wonderful."
The Tosca String Quartet must be fated to play with Byrne. They originally were to play in France this summer -- until violinist Leigh Mahoney severely broke her arm. After much medical attention, she's now able to lend her talents on tour. Then, minutes before the first show in Calgary, Nelson's cello broke. Throughout, Byrne has been encouraging.
"The vibe really comes from the top down," says Nelson. "If the person you're working for is an egomaniac, then everybody's tense all the time. But he's made it really easy -- everyone's laughing all the time."
For a man who's answered thousands of interview questions during a quarter century in music, how did Byrne feel hosting the public TV music show Sessions at West 54th Street?
"I really enjoyed doing it," says Byrne emphatically, lamenting the show's future in the same breath. "But I can't believe it. Other than Austin City Limits, there's no other TV show like that. Look at the size of this country. Look at the kind of money that people throw around at crap," his voice rises with emotion. "They can't do a TV show about music that's not about spring break or whatever. The biggest, richest country in the world and we can't have some music shows on TV."
Interesting Byrne should mention Austin City Limits. Texas, and particularly Austin, have been good to David Byrne. In addition to having a mostly Austin band, Byrne co-wrote and directed the 1986 comedic film True Stories (shot outside of Fort Worth) about the fictional town of Virgil, Texas. Along with Texas artists Terry Allen and Joe Ely, Byrne developed a 3,600-square-foot sound sculpture at the Houston airport. Thanks to visiting an Austin photography exhibit, Byrne was able to eventually contact Susana Baca, the Afro-Peruvian songstress who's now on Luaka Bop. Plus, he's a charter member of the Texas Accordion Association.
So, would David Byrne play Austin City Limits?
Without hesitation, the sonic artist replies calmly, "Oh sure."
David Byrne plays the Backyard Tuesday, Aug. 14. Si*Sé opens. Byrne will also be at BookPeople Monday, Aug. 13, at 8:30pm to present his book The New Sins (Los Nuevos Pecados).