Metropolis Magazine
Issue #805 - Friday, Aug 28th, 2009
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Music
By Dan Grunebaum

David Byrne
Back in Japan with a new album, the iconic art punk does a delicate dance with his Talking Heads past

Photo by Cedric Leherle

After eight years, David Byrne is in Japan with a new album that reunites him with producer Brian Eno, the man in the control room for the Talking Heads’ greatest moments. But where is Brian?

“I invited him, but the commitment was to be on tour,” says an affable but nervous Byrne just before taking the stage at Shibuya-AX. “You can do the math and see how much money he’s going to make producing U2 and Coldplay compared to being on the road with me. It’s not much of a choice.”

Not that Byrne really seems bitter. In fact, later that evening he’s effusive as the audience gives an ecstatic greeting to his “Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno” tour, demanding three encores.

The songs off Everything That Happens Will Happen Today aren’t welcomed with quite the same glee as Talking Heads tracks like “Burning Down the House,” but they are intriguing—and on the day of the gig in late January, the album is in the top ten on HMV’s international charts. Not bad for two men of, ahem, advancing years.

Byrne sounds happy with the album, which walks a line between the ambient textures of the pair’s seminal My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and their catchier work on ’80s classics like the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music. But it wasn’t without a sense of ambivalence that Byrne and Eno reunited.

“It ended up being easy, but we both had trepidations,” says Byrne. “We didn’t announce that we were making a record. We just decided to work on a few things, and if we liked the direction, then continue. We liked the way things were going, so we kept going until it became a record. But it was nice not to feel that a lot of people were watching.”

“Musically, it was very different in that there was a complete separation of labor,” he continues. “Brian wrote the music and I wrote the melodies and sang. I think it worked partly because we get along as people and have similar musical tastes, but also because we agreed that I would limit musical contributions. In the same way, Brian made very few comments on my words and melodies.”

Does the title suggest a will not to live in the past? “Sort of. I’m conscious of not wanting to sound too much like something I’ve done before. That invites comparisons that are bound to be a problem. I don’t think about the past very much, but when I’m putting together a tour like this, then I bring in older songs again.”

But art-school graduate Byrne has long had more than his music going for him, with an extensive resume of movies, visual arts, installations and books. What is the relationship between art and entertainment in his work? “Sometimes, there is a big difference, but the kind of art I gravitate to is very accessible in the same way the music I make is maybe unusual but never pushes people away.”

Byrne has also been celebrated for his ability to find art in the mundane. How does he avoid the risk that some might find it simply mundane? “I don’t worry about it,” he says with a laugh. “The effect of taking something ordinary and putting it in a different context, or taking a photo of it and putting a frame around it gives you a new way to look at it. It either works or it doesn’t. There is always a possibility that people will go, ‘I know what that is—just because you’ve taken a picture of it doesn’t make it special.’”

The upcoming release of Bicycle Diaries, a book of reflections on his two-wheeled explorations of cities worldwide, may also push that boundary. In the meantime, it provides him with an activity for his downtime in Japan. “I did bring bikes along,” he admits. “We were going down Omotesando, and someone was saying it wasn’t too long ago that this was funky old buildings, and now it’s been replaced by this glass thing—but Tokyo is pretty good for bicycling.”

Does it work as a city? “I just got out and about this morning,” Byrne begs off. So if you thought that silver-haired gentleman tooling around town on a bike looked familiar—yes, you were right.

Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is available on Beat Records.

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