Like Lou Reed or David Bowie, David Byrne is a rock legend who’s long since diversified himself, cultivating a polymath’s persona as world-music advocate, sometime filmmaker, indie-rock godfather, and blogger extraordinaire. And starting February 1, Carnegie Hall will present four days of shows he’s curated, including two typically Byrnesian originals: “Here Lies Love,” his song cycle about Imelda Marcos, and a concert consisting of only one note. Byrne spoke with Rebecca Milzoff about why he’s a whole lot like Beyoncé.
Peculiar seems to be one of your favorite words on your blog—you’ve also used it to describe your younger self. Are you any less peculiar now?
Really? I need to find a new word. Well, I think I know how to navigate the social sphere a little bit better now—although putting it that way doesn’t sound like I do. I did realize at some point that other people were more adept at socializing than I was.
What do you think of pop music right now? Do you consider yourself a pop musician?
I still do! And I’m totally fine, actually, with pop music right now. I like Justin Timberlake’s song, and—what is it, Christina Aguilera, “Ain’t No Other Man”? A pop song for me has to be like a watch, perfectly constructed, and some are, and then some, like that Beyoncé one, “Irreplaceable,” there’s one point where she rhymes a word with itself, which to me is just jarring. It’s like, Wait a minute, you can’t do that! You have to find a word that sounds like it to rhyme! You can’t rhyme “you” with “you.” Anyway. A few years ago, I had a big pop hit all around the world except in the U.S.A., called “Lazy.” It went to, like, No. 2. That’s pretty much a pop song. I don’t aim at it, but it happens every once in a while.
Well, there’s a big difference between you and Beyoncé.
Really? I don’t know. I think sometimes—not always—I write songs that are accessible. To me, that’s what pop music means: popular. So what’s the difference between that and Beyoncé?
Is it hard for you to relate to the musician you were in the Talking Heads?
Well, it’s difficult in that I have these little piles of lyrics I wrote that never got used, and I look at them occasionally and go, “Wow, where did this person come from? What is this about?” I could never write something exactly like that right now.
Does it bother you that many people’s first association with you is that time?
Obviously, I’d like it if people had a wider view of what I’ve been doing throughout my life, but I’m also pragmatic; I know that, to some extent, that was when the stuff I was doing had its widest impact.
How has the music scene in New York changed since then?
The only difference I can see is that, as a musician, if you start putting yourself out there, you’re kind of under scrutiny a lot faster. Rent was cheaper, thrift stores were cheaper. But the bands were all concerned with their image. They took great care in how messed up their hair looked.
Why did you decide to first do “Here Lies Love” in Australia?
Oh, because they put up the money for us to try it out! And whatever problems there would be, I kinda figured the New York critics are not gonna go out there to see it. No one’s gonna fly to Adelaide. Nice town, though.
And what made now the right time to write a song cycle about Imelda Marcos?
Probably the end of the CD and the end of the record business. Seriously. This is going to sound very calculated, but I just thought, If I think of a collection of songs I write as being of a piece, how do you keep that connection and continuity? And I thought, Well, this is made to be heard and seen; it doesn’t rely on a piece of plastic. Although I think the piece of plastic will be a nice-sounding thing, too.
Okay, but why Imelda?
I was originally interested in other powerful people, but she happened to be a formerly powerful person who connected herself with a particular type of contemporary music—she used to go to discos a lot. So I thought, Wow, that’s kind of fortuitous.
And why the “one note” concert?
That was a conceptual thing—there’s a wide variety of music that uses the structural device of having a common tone. To me, all the music that uses this device has an almost spiritual feeling—I can’t quite put my finger on it.
Do you expect the audience to understand this?
Maybe I’ll have to do a little show-and-tell.