”I like what’s weird. A little confusion is always good,” says american musician David Byrne to brazilian artist Vik Muniz, in this exclusive interview for revista Trip
A stranger with a familiar face, vaguely connected to the past via the Talking Heads? Yet another gringo in love with Brazilian music? Or just a simple person with a complex outlook on the world? Not to worry - David Byrne is in the habit of leaving things a little out of whack
"Stop thinking making sense makes sense," David Byrne used to sing back in 1984, when he embodied, as a member of the Talking Heads, a tense psycho-killer dancing in a suit five sizes too big. Seventeen years later, at 48, and about to release, in early May, his 13th solo album - Look into the Eyeball - David Byrne remains the same restless being. Musician, producer, script-writer, photographer, movie-maker, designer and visual artist, this Scotsman who's been married with stylist Adelle Lutz for 14 years, is the father of a teenage girl and a fan of Mutantes, Tom Zé and the Simpsons, is a symbol of a time when artists increasingly blur the boundaries of their creativity across several means of expression.
This is why, instead of a journalist, we invited another creator to interview him: São Paulo-born Vik Muniz, a New York-based photographer and artist who was featured in this very same Black Pages section in our February issue [TRIP #86]. Vik and Byrne talked with authority about rock'n'roll, Candomble, fame, anonymity, biases, manias, Brazilian music, the Internet, sex, life after death, drugs, and projects for the future. The outcome is a conversation in which each question leads not necessarily to an answer, but rather to another question, another creative possibility, another inquiry. The composite Vik drew reveals an artist at the apex of his ability to create, who never accepted labels - someone who refuses to limit his view of art to a single dimension. What else might one expect from David Byrne, a man who states that if he could change anything in his body would make his face a little more cartoon-like?
VIK: ARE ROCK STARS AN ENDANGERED SPECIES?
BYRNE: Yes, rockers are certainly on the verge of extinction. They've been replaced with something else. They are a little too grown up, now. Where I rehearse there's sometimes a hip-hop group in one room and a rock'n'roll band in another. And you say "all these are rock bands." But they laugh, as if this was a thing of the past.
VIK: HOW WOULD YOU FEEL IF THE SAME HAPPENED TO MUSIC AS DID TO FASHION, AND PEOPLE STARTED TO LISTEN TO SONGS FROM THE 80'S, FOR EXAMPLE, INCLUDING YOURS?
BYRNE: They're already doing this, I see. There are some remixes of Once in a Lifetime, in England, that have become hits and are played at clubs.
VIK: AND WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE TO LISTEN TO THE OLD DAVID BYRNE RECONFIGURED INTO A NEW BEAT?
BYRNE: I like being reconfigured. I also like it when people listen to a story and rewrite it, when they return to something old and feel something new.
VIK: I'VE HEARD THAT THE LAUGHS IN SITCOMS WERE RECORDED IN THE 1930'S AND NEVER REPLACED. SO THEY'RE IN FACT BY DEAD PEOPLE [LAUGHING]. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT POSTERITY? WILL PEOPLE HEAR YOUR VOICE AFTER YOU'RE DEAD?
BYRNE: It's not like writing a book, shooting a photograph, or making and art-piece. When you sing in a video or an album, the product is better linked to you as an individual, as a body. But, for me, this is an illusion. I don't think that, physically speaking, I have much to do with my music.
VIK: WHAT DOES SUCCESS MEAN TO YOU?
BYRNE: Well... some people might say that success is happiness, but I disagree. One has nothing to do with the other. I could make a huge list of ways to define success. For me, it's not about money. But one needs a certain amount of it to do as one pleases, to be free to work on what one wants. Some might say that success is not to care what other people think. But neither is this true. What others think does matter. Not that I'd change because of that But I'm trying to communicate something that I don't always know what it is. I'm trying to send out a message. If communication fails, there must be something wrong. The issue is reaching an audience. But how many people? Are one's friends enough?
VIK: DID SUCCESS HAVE A NEGATIVE EFFECT ON YOUR LIFE?
BYRNE: The only thing that comes to mind is that I no longer have as many opportunities to fail. People are paying more attention to what I do. Aside from that, there's nothing bad about it.
VIK: DO YOU LIKE TO BE IN THE SPOTLIGHT?
BYRNE: Yes. But I'd like to be able to choose when to be in the spotlight. If I'm at a public bathroom and someone decides to have a long conversation with me, that's not nice. But I can't control everything.
VIK: CAN SOMEONE WHO'S BEEN IN THE SPOTLIGHT LEAD A LIFE AWAY FROM IT?
BYRNE: Of course. I think it's easy. When I go to places patronized by younger generations, I'm totally anonymous.
VIK: WHY DOES THE LIBRETTO IN YOUR 1994 SOLO ALBUM, DAVID BYRNE, INCLUDE HYPER-CLOSE SHOTS OF PARTS OF YOUR BODY AND EVEN A DENTAL X-RAY PLATE?
BYRNE: Well, I felt it was more of an emotional album, so I thought that I should reveal not only shots of my emotions, but also of my body. This gives the strange and false impression that one reveals something by showing their teeth.
VIK: WHAT IS THE IMAGE YOU THINK PEOPLE HAVE OF YOU NOWADAYS?
BYRNE: The man in the big suit, the bloke singing "Psycho Killer"... Depends on how old they are.
VIK: AND HOW DO YOU RELATE TO THESE "CHARACTERS?"
BYRNE: Those are things I did back then. It was the performance of the times. Since then, it's over. But people retain them and I can't take them back. For some, those are things that belong to me, not things I did. They segregate the performance from me.
VIK WHO PICKED THE BIG SUIT?
BYRNE [laughing] I did, from a design I drew on a napkin.
VIK: DESPITE HAVING MOVED ON, DO YOU MISS THE TALKING HEADS?
BYRNE: The one thing I miss is the fact that I sold more records then. Maybe I'll sell as much again, but that was easier, I could think on a bigger scale. For performances and such.
VIK: WHAT ABOUT LIFESTYLES? YOU LIVED IN A LOFT BACK THEN, DIDN'T YOU?
BYRNE: I lived in a loft... And slept in a sleeping-bag, on the floor of a painter's studio. He let me stay as long as I helped him around the house.
VIK DO YOU MISS IT?
BYRNE: Oh, I miss... I had lots of time to write and experiment, and no one was paying any attention to me. That was great. There was no one looking, except one or two friends. I had no responsibilities, I could fail many times, again and again, and no one would notice. And when something went right, only then would I show it. No one knew about the 99% that went wrong.
VIK AND NOW YOU HAVE TO GET IT RIGHT ALL THE TIME...
BYRNE: Yes. You fell like everything you do has to be good.
VIK: DID THE FACT THAT YOU WERE BORN IN SCOTLAND INFLUENCE WHO YOU ARE TODAY?
BYRNE: Yes. It make me feel a little like an outsider in the US. That was good.
VIK: WHAT DID YOU WANT TO GROW UP TO BE AS A KID?
BYRNE: An astronaut. Or a secret agent.
VIK: IF YOU COULD GO BACK IN TIME AND BECOME AN ASTRONAUT OR A SECRET AGENT, WOULD YOU?
BYRNE: Why not both at once? A secret agent in space... But I wouldn't like that. Being an astronaut seems to be boring. And being a secret agent would feel sort of wrong, now.
VIK WHAT KIND OF CHILD WERE YOU?
BYRNE: Very good, most of the time.
VIK: THE STEREOTYPE OF ONE WHO'LL GROW UP TO BE A ROCK'N'ROLL STAR IS THAT OF A REBEL...
BYRNE: But not me. My family was very supportive. I didn't have the same problems as my friends. Their families hated them. Just the other day I was talking to one of them about it... Back then, there was such a huge chasm between generations, between parents and children, that it was normal for children to run away from home. Not because of money or anything of the sort, but because they wanted to wear their hair long, for example. Few would do it today.
VIK: WHAT'S YOUR EARLIEST CHILDHOOD MEMORY?
BYRNE: I remember once, at age 4, taking all of my clothes off and running outside of the house. When the door closed behind me, I realized that I was bare naked out on the street. I was very embarrassed.
VIK: EVERYONE EXPECTS YOU TO LEAD A WILD LIFE. BUT YOU'VE BEEN MARRIED FOR 14 YEARS. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THIS INSTITUTION?
BYRNE: I'm very satisfied with marriage. We have fun. I know that doesn't match the image of a wild rocker. For may people I have this wild musician image. It's even a problem, because I sometimes think that's how it's supposed to be, like in the biography people read in magazines.
VIK DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR FIST KISS?
BYRNE: Yes. It was awful [laughing]. I remember I was dancing at a party with a girl. I watched what my friends we doing and followed suit.
VIK: HOW DID YOU LOSE YOUR VIRGINITY?
BYRNE: It was confusing and not very sophisticated. One of the first times I was naked with a woman, when I was young, we had nowhere to go. So we went to her basement and lay down on top of a pile of trash.
VIK: SEX ON TRASH? WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER FROM THIS EXPERIENCE?
BYRNE: Nothing good! [Laughing] We put a blanket or sleeping bag on top of the trash and got down to it.