In the course of recording his new solo CD, Look Into The Eyeball, David Byrne realized that he had written some of the most melodic and accessible music of his career. It was a thought that unnerved the multi-talented songwriter/performer/filmmaker/artist.
"I have a little bit of that prejudice that I think a lot of us have, that if something sounds too easy on the ears, if it sounds kind of pretty or beautiful, your first assumption is that it doesn't have much depth to it or it doesn't have anything radical or important to say," Byrne says. "I think it's an erroneous assumption, but it's one that's there. And I tie that over into when I hear my own stuff. If something sounds real pretty, I think, 'Oh, that's not very good.' But I think it's a false assumption."
The need to challenge himself musically has been an ongoing thread throughout Byrne's career, be it in the Talking Heads, the innovative, multi-faceted group he co-founded in 1975, or since he left that band in the late-1980s to concentrate on his solo career. Byrne plays the Fox Theater on Friday night.
Though first appearing as part of the same mid-1970s lower Manhattan scene that introduced the world to Blondie, the Ramones and the Patti Smith Group, the Talking Heads were markedly different from their CBGB stage mates. Sure, they exhibited a similarly expressive disposition and shared do-it-yourself ethic but very early on, it was obvious that these former art students were translating voices from another place entirely and that they had something completely unique up their collective sleeves.
Led by the twitchy and irrepressibly creative Byrne, the band was overtly avant garde -- committed to taking pop music where it had never gone before. They debuted (on Talking Heads: '77) with a minimalist sound that crackled with tense, nervous energy and songs that reflected Byrne's neurotic yet naive world view. Byrne really burned himself into the nation's pop cultural consciousness with his performance in the "Once in a Lifetime" video, in which he plays a confused suburbanite. His status as pop music's top performance artist was cemented in his measured but eccentric turn in the concert film, Stop Making Sense, which was directed by Jonathan Demme and introduced the really, really big suit to America. Meanwhile, the Heads remained intriguing (and prolific) for a decade, eventually incorporating R & amp;B, soul, funk, African and electronica into their highly distinctive sonic brew.
As Bryne became the visual focal point and dominant creative force in the band, his relationship with the other members of the band (bassist Tina Weymouth, drummer Chris Franz and keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison) became strained. Byrne further explored world music and became involved in film and performance art projects.
Byrne's decision to leave the Talking Heads was partly the result of realizing he couldn't pursue some of his musical ambitions within the context of that group. At the time, the Talking Heads had released their final studio CD, Naked, and Byrne had turned his attention toward his ever-growing interest in world beat music. He wanted to release an album of Latin-flavored music, which was an idea that didn't fly with the three other members of the Talking Heads.
"I wanted to do a Latin record, and, well, I took some of the songs to Talking Heads, but they didn't want to do them," Byrne says. "That didn't leave me too many choices."
Of course there were other issues, one of which was tension that resulted from the way Byrne became more of a focal point within the Talking Heads during the latter stages of that band's tenure.
By the mid-1980s, Byrne had branched out into a variety of outside projects. Working with producer Brian Eno, he had explored African music on the 1981 album My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. He had directed the 1986 movie True Stories. He had also collaborated with Robert Wilson on the theatrical production, The Knee Plays, and with noted choreographer Twyla Tharpe on the Broadway production of The Catherine Wheel.
Amid such projects, The New York Times Magazine did a cover story on Byrne, proclaiming him the "thinking man's rock star." He was also featured on the cover of Time magazine, which called Byrne "rock's renaissance man." It was clear that the other members of the Talking Heads resented the growing assumption that Byrne was the creative engine behind the group. In some circles, it was suggested that Byrne had essentially taken over the Talking Heads.
"They're right about part of that," Byrne says, when asked about that situation. "I don't know about taking over. I don't think that part happened. But the press was definitely focusing on me, which I think was not a good thing. Yeah, it was very divisive, and of course a lot of the press liked that, too."
Though the Talking Heads never officially announced a breakup, by 1989 the group had essentially split.
"It wasn't fun when I left, and it hadn't been fun for awhile," Byrne says. "I think we were still making good music, so I think that part worked out okay. But I thought 'This is not what this is about. I'm not into being a martyr here.' "
So Byrne stepped into the next phase of his career with both feet. He founded a record label, Luaka Bop, that would focus largely on showcasing music of South America and Africa. As a solo artist, he would continue to delve further into various combinations of world beat and pop. First out was the 1989 album of Latin music, Rei Momo, which drew mixed reviews. Byrne received a healthy amount criticism from musicians and writers who felt his music lacked authenticity.
Byrne's restless spirit, though, was not deterred, and he has continued to draw from an eclectic range of musical influences on the solo albums that followed. Uh-Oh highlighted more of Byrne's pop tendencies and is the solo album that is most similar to Look Into The Eyeball. David Byrne, released in 1994, found Byrne shifting his music into a leaner, more intimate setting, while the 1997 CD Feelings went more eclectic as Byrne collaborated with artists ranging from the Colombian music producer Joe Galdo to the new wave art-rock band Devo.
For Look Into The Eyeball, Byrne entered into the project with a general concept he wanted to pursue. "The self-titled album pretty much had a simple concept that I would put together a band, a real band, take it on the road and then record after we played a bunch of live dates, which we did," Byrne says. "The Feelings record, though, was a bit all over the place. So the only concept I can think of there was the fact that it was a collaboration with a lot of people. This one was, yeah, more musically defined -- bass and drums, some percussion and strings. And pretty much that was the musical palette on most of the songs."
Working within that format pushed Byrne's music into more of a melodic direction. In the song "The Great Intoxication," Byrne is especially successful at merging percolating rhythms with soaring string and vocal melodies. "Desconocido Soy," a song sung entirely in Spanish, shifts the focus more to a grooving beat without losing the song's sharp melodic edge. "The Revolution" pushes in the opposite direction, downplaying rhythm in favor of a swooning melody.
In concert, Byrne travels with a stripped down group: He plays guitar, and he has a drummer, a bass player and a percussionist. He usually hires local talent to put together a six-piece string section. And at recent shows in New York City, reports say he worked a handful of Talking Heads songs into the mix.
And that's not surprising, since on this latest recording he found himself tapping into some sounds and styles that recall some of the poppier moments within the Talking Heads. The songs "Like Humans Do" and "Broken Things" are prime examples. In various interviews, Byrne has admitted that early in his solo career he tried to avoid anything that would evoke his former band. These days, he's more willing to embrace some musical trademarks of the Talking Heads, although he approaches such familiar styles with considerable care.
"There was one that I did that didn't make it to this record that sounded very much to me like an old Talking Heads song," Byrne says. "It was a good song, but it didn't fit on this record. So that's still part of my makeup. But also I'm aware that it's a danger -- that I could slip into a well-worn path there. It's something that comes a little bit too easily."