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August 18th, 2004 Richard Shirk | Music Stories
 

TALKING HEAD

David Byrne's new album is the best of his solo career. But he's still nervous.

     
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David Byrne
David Byrne is in a constant state of polite nervousness. Between tics and quirks, the former Talking Heads front-man talks with the measured voice of a museum tour guide. In conversation and as an artist, Byrne has the kind of inquisitive nature usually reserved for anthropologists and psychoanalysts rather than sophisticated pop musicians. But what else would you expect from the man who popularized the "big white suit"?

Byrne's career as a musician started when he dropped out of art school in the '70s and moved to New York City. With a revamped lineup of his party band from Rhode Island School of Design called Talking Heads, Byrne brought skittery outsider funk to CBGB's, the Bowery epicenter of New York City's burgeoning late-'70s punk scene. Before splitting up in 1988, Talking Heads had a couple of crossover hits, made a handful of the smartest, most experimental and most interesting pop albums of the '70s and '80s, and were later inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.

Like the music of his former outfit, the songs found on Byrne's latest solo effort, Grown Backwards, are World Music-inflected pop for the armchair intellectual. Searching for clues to just how apartment buildings, dreams and sex fits into a larger picture of work, life and death, Byrne's eye is on the bizarre wonder and beauty of the everyday. Cups of coffee are of the same scope as world politics in "Why." Dreams are just as emotionally valid as frustrations with technology in "Dialog Box."

Willamette Week caught up with Byrne last week to learn the truth about Grown Backwards, shyness and the meaning of dreams from the Talking Head himself.

WW: Do you have a hard time communicating with people?

David Byrne: Not like I used to.

I've read about how you used to describe yourself as being impossibly shy.

I used to be.

How did you get over that?

Um, let's see. Well, I think maybe, at the time, my first recourse was to become a performer. That was a way to both express myself and meet people. And it kinda worked. Gradually, I guess, it just kind of wears off.

One thing I hear a lot in your music is how everything seems very dreamlike. Nonsensical things in life are treated as everyday and vice versa. How important are dreams to you?

I think I have kind of waking dreams. I very rarely remember my sleeping dreams, which is kind of disappointing 'cause I assume there is something going on. I rarely remember. But I think I can kind of draw on something similar to that in the daytime. That becomes part of the creative process, I guess.

The music on the album is filled with dreams. You walk around and realize your shoes are made of bread. Your cat knows your every thought. What do you think these dreams mean?

Some of them to me are really obvious metaphors--but not ones that I would have consciously come up with, which is really puzzling. It's really puzzling that the mind would go to all the trouble to kind of disguise the subject by dealing with it using symbols and metaphors or something like that. I still can't figure that out! (Laughs) But that seems to be the case. It seems to be that maybe things that are concerning you, if they are kind of distanced and represented to you through symbols and metaphors, you can see them afresh, see them from another point of view. And maybe not find them quite as frightening and scary. Maybe it kind of helps you deal with various problems in your life that way.

Do you ever show up in a town and expect a more laid-back crowd and then find the complete opposite or vice versa?

Well, yes. Certainly sometimes I'm kind of reticent or I think, "This looks like it's going to be tough." I remember we were in a place called Jena, which is in the former East Germany. We were playing an outdoor show and it started to drizzle. I looked out at the audience. They were pretty much all dressed in black. Carrying umbrellas. And, uh, it didn't look like they were up for a real good time (laugh). I just thought, "Oh, boy." I also thought, "Maybe East Germany, they aren't going to be familiar with much of the stuff I'm going to play." That maybe I'm just some sort of curiosity that's passing through. But I was wrong. They warmed up after a while. And the rain stopped.


David Byrne plays with the Tosca Strings and Lisa Germano on Friday, Aug. 20, at the Oregon Zoo, 4001 SW Canyon Road, 226-1561. 7 pm. $18. All ages.
 
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