From: Chicago Tribune, May 18, 2001Austin, Texas---The psycho killer looks almost suave. David Byrne's hair has turned gray, his skin is tanned, his eyes no longer telegraph anxiety. Hard to believe, but Byrne is 48. It has been 15 years since Time magazine dubbed him "Rock's Renaissance Man" and more than 25 since he wrote his first song for the Talking Heads, the one that began, "I can't seem to face up to the facts, I'm tense and nervous, and I can't relax ..."
Once he was at the center of pop culture, an art-world iconoclast who had infiltrated the mainstream with unconventional songs ("Psycho Killer," "Burning Down the House") and quirky films ("Stop Making Sense," "True Stories").
Now he is a family man (with a wife and daughter), record-label president and cult artist who puts out pop albums such as "Look Into the Eyeball" (on Virgin Records) in between art projects (in recent years he developed a 3,600-square-foot sound sculpture at the Houston airport with Texas artists Terry Allen and Joe Ely and scored a theater production for the Ultima Vez Dance Company). He still tours every few years.
Phase 2 of his career may find Byrne less in the public eye than he once was, but still operating much as he always has. He continues to slide dexterously among offbeat projects in a variety of disciplines, and he looks more comfortable than ever doing it. When he performed at the South By Southwest Music and Media Conference here a few weeks ago with a backing trio and string section, he sang with hymnlike warmth on new songs such as "The Great Intoxication." When I interviewed him before an audience at the Austin Convention Hall, he smiled frequently, laughed easily and actually made eye contact-which was rarely the case in my past encounters with this famously fidgety artist.
When he ponders whether his fame gives the exotic cult acts on his Luaka Bop record label a leg up on other world-music artists trying to break through in North America, Byrne laughs. "I think that was true when I first started the label (in 1989)," he says. "A few people might have listened to the first compilations of Brazilian and Cuban music we were putting out because I was behind them. But my stock fell and the stock rose of the records we put out. I'm getting much more credibility from being associated with the artists on the label than they get from being associated with me."
Byrne exaggerates, but there is little doubt that Luaka Bop has become one of the most influential purveyors of world music in the United States. In the last decade, Byrne's skills as a talent scout have helped establish or expand careers for numerous international artists: Afro-Peruvian singer Susana Baca, British-Asian band Cornershop, Colombian psychotropical rockers Bloque, Belgian-African vocal group Zap Mama, and Brazilian Tropicalia pioneers Caetano Veloso and Tom Ze.
"Without David Byrne, no one would care about my music," says Ze, a classically trained avant-garde songwriter who helped revolutionize Brazilian music in the 1960s. The impish singer has released three albums on Luaka Bop and toured North America two years ago for the first time, backed by the members of Chicago post-rock band Tortoise - an astute pairing brokered by Byrne.
Veloso, Brazil's answer to Bob Dylan as a social commentator and songwriter, appeared on Luaka Bop's first release, "Brazil Classics 1: Beleza Tropical," a collection of tracks hand-picked by Byrne. "David Byrne has been a great friend to Brazilian music," Veloso says. "We owe him a great debt."
When looking for artists to sign to Luaka Bop, Byrne applies the aesthetic principles he championed with the Talking Heads: "You never want the audience to get bored, but you can also challenge them, throw them a few curve balls. Entertainment doesn't mean you have to give them conventional things."
From his earliest days, Byrne's desire to disrupt convention was fueled by an almost desperate desire to be heard. Born in Scotland in 1952 and reared in Baltimore, he had to overcome debilitating shyness to become a performer. "One on one, I couldn't look anyone in the eye, I couldn't speak," he recalls. But put him on a stage, and Byrne was the life of any party.
"Somehow I had to let people know I'm alive, here's what I think, here's what I feel, I'm an interesting person," he says. "So I would jump on stage and do these outrageous things." In one performance-art piece, Byrne shaved with beer foam while an accordionist played "Pennies from Heaven" and another performer flashed hand signs in Russian.
"I can see now that what I was doing onstage was some kind of healing process," Byrne says. "Expressing what I couldn't express socially and personally one person to another, I would jump up on stage and express myself to an entire room of strangers. And because they were strangers, I didn't care what they thought of me. I would probably never see them again, and if I did, I would be too shy to talk to them anyway. So who cares? That was the best part of it. Who cares?! A few years ago I saw a documen tary on (comic book artist) Robert Crumb and he said it pretty well: 'If I didn't draw this screwed-up stuff, I'd be something really nasty.' This is not just about expressing goofy things that are in you; this is about your survival as a human being."
The attitude carried over to the Talking Heads, the band he formed with fellow Rhode Island art-school students Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth. They were later joined in New York by keyboardist Jerry Harrison, and became a fixture on the then-nascent punk scene. In early performances at the Lower East Side dive CBGB's, Byrne's bug-eyed stare and spastic stage moves were welcomed. Implicit in songs like "Psycho Killer" was Byrne's disgust with rock as usual. "Say something once, why say it again?" he sang. Byrne freed rock guitar from its traditional solo role by adopting the clipped, abstract phrasing he heard on R&B records. Similarly, Frantz and Weymouth pounded out grooves more akin to disco than to rock 'n' roll. Shockingly, the template for some of the songs on the band's extraordinary debut album, "Talking Heads '77," was KC and the Sunshine Band.
"I was definitely going for that groove, and I missed it by a mile," Byrne says with a laugh. "To this day I find certain parts of that record very disappointing because of that. But we came up with some kind of weird virtual version of what we were aiming at, which was probably good, because who needs a copy of a KC and the Sunshine Band record?"
The band's skewed vision appealed to British art-rocker Brian Eno, who was enlisted to produce the next few albums and soon would became Byrne's closest collaborator. Their 1981 side project, "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts," was one of the first records to incorporate sampling in the pre-digital era, and the Heads' 1980 album, "Remain in Light," reinvented the Heads as an art-funk juggernaut. By the time Jonathan Demme's landmark concert film, "Stop Making Sense," was released in 1984, the quartet had become one of America's greatest rock bands and Byrne was a star, albeit a highly nontraditional one.
Now the Heads are long gone (they disbanded in the late '80s), and the sales of Byrne's solo records have diminished. But "Looking into the Eyeball" retains many of the characteristics that made the Heads such a pivotal rock group: sensual melodies (augmented by string arrangements), exotic but danceable rhythms, and emotionally direct songs. The disc is less than 40 minutes long, containing 13 fat-free tunes that live up to Byrne's original premise: Entertain, but throw a few curves.
"I keep making records for the same reason I jump on stage and do something foolish: I have to," he says. "Even though I am not in the center of the commercial tornado, I do feel like some kind of survivor. I've been able to make the kind of music I want to make. I've been able to do side projects and quirky things, and to make pop music the way I want to make and not cater to whatever the flavor of the month is. I've been lucky, because there aren't too many people in a position like this."