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Halfway through Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, the questing yuppie played by Charlie Sheen is shown around a prospective home by a realtor. “All right,” he says, savouring riches that were beyond his forebears, “offer nine-fifty.” As his last syllable drops, we hear the opening thud-thud of “This Must Be the Place” by Talking Heads. A montage of interior decoration unfolds as David Byrne sings of home and companionship over spare, lilting instrumentation.
I know this because I have seen Wall Street approximately a 100 times, a fact I withhold from Byrne when we meet, though he can hardly object to idiosyncrasies — being so full of them himself — or to the film, which brought his avant-garde pop music to a wider audience in 1987. To look at him, the royalties were spent on personal grooming. At 63, he is a tasteful hybrid of Morrissey and David Bowie, sleek, straight-backed and silver-quiffed in rakish brown finery.
We are in a side room of London’s Southbank Centre, the modernist compound of theatres and galleries that leer at great offices of state across the river. In August, these venues will host the 22nd Meltdown festival, which Byrne — following the likes of Yoko Ono and Nick Cave — has curated.
There will be a horn troupe and experimental jazz, flamenco and live theatre. Acts have been scouted from Chicago and Guatemala, Nigeria and France. There are natives too. “I thought, do I know enough UK acts?”, he admits, recalling his initial misgivings about the project. “It turns out I do!” Ideas came from friends (“They said I had to check out this guy Ben Clementine”) and Byrne’s own cultural excursions around New York, which led him to the Spanish singer Estrella Morente. (Both those artists and other acts performing at the festival are featured in the Spotfiy playlist at ft.com/davidbyrne).
Bringing it all together was a “financial and logistical Tetris game”, he says, wearing the startled expression of a man seeing daylight after months of immersion in budget spreadsheets and flight schedules. “Bands are used to setting up and leaving in a day — theatrical acts need to camp out for a week.” The mission of his festival — “theme” does not quite cut it — is to blur the lines between music and performance art. “I want the borders to be porous. I want people to get up.”
But then, he has wanted that for most of his career. Talking Heads, which he formed in 1975 with old friends Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz from the Rhode Island School of Design, became increasingly exhibitionist after their sparse punk phase. Byrne would sing songs to a floor lamp on stage, caressing it like a lover. He wore a comically giant suit to make his head look smaller. (The body comprehends music before the mind, was his point.) When the band ended in 1991, his determination to make use of the full dimensions of a stage did not. He wrote music for a ballet and collaborated with Fatboy Slim on a disco opera about Imelda Marcos.
Amateur psychology tells us the craving to perform does not flow from confidence but from its opposite. Sure enough, Byrne is restless and diffident in person, here leaning forward, there twisting 90 degrees on his chair to mull a question. Celebrities convey their egos through magisterial insouciance; Byrne, apparently bereft of ego, is as alert as a caffeinated meerkat. When he struggles to hold eye contact, it is bashfulness not aloofness at work. When he remembers that he wanted Talking Heads to “do unusual stuff on stage because otherwise who is going to come?”, you have to remind yourself he is not speaking of some hapless teenage pub band.
He has alluded to a “peculiar” and “withdrawn” boyhood, which took in Scotland (where he was born), Canada and finally America, where Maryland became home. That journey might have been his making. There is something of the art school about American rock. It is hospitable to quirky misfits, occasionally chivvying a wallflower like REM’s Michael Stipe into superstardom. British rock, which borders on to football culture, can have a laddish edge. Bands often spring from industrial cities sporting a lairy frontman and quotable braggadocio. We can rear a Thom Yorke or an Ed Sheeran but the tone is set by those elders — Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller, Pete Townshend — who stand for roguish masculinity. Even our most famous art student, John Lennon, was a rascal.
Byrne’s old bandmates know more than most about the transatlantic difference in rock culture. In 1992, Weymouth and Frantz were hired to produce an album by Manchester’s feral, occasionally thrilling Happy Mondays. The Englishmen ended up piling into crack cocaine and dodging their studio duties. Frantz once described the Mondays’ commitment to “this working-class idea that the record company was their boss, so they should spend as much money as they could while the boss wasn’t looking”. The allusion to class seems to capture the point: is American rock basically bourgeois and British rock essentially blue-collar?
Stirred by the question, Byrne looks wide-eyed into the horizon, then shuffles in his seat, then leans forward. “There is a fear of pretension in the UK,” he says at last. “But that’s wise. You should push the edges as far as you can creatively but you have to be accessible. Don’t pander to yourself,” he adds, with the pointedness of a man who has been accused of doing exactly that. America has the same earthy instincts as Britain, he thinks, but they are found in hip hop, with its “emphasis on authenticity”.
Byrne has earned the right to innovate. He proved his way with a tune before voyaging to the outer limits of his craft. That is not true of everyone at the modish end of pop music, for whom novelty is too often a self-justifying end or a way of distracting from a lack of facility with the basics. When acts are touted as “experimental ambient pioneers” or an “arts collective” — descriptions bestowed on Meltdown performers by the Southbank website — it is hard not to summon the scoffing spirit of Gallagher, with his disdain for musos attempting “some Vietnamese opera about chickens” and his conviction that the hardest thing in the world is to write a decent chorus.
For Byrne, it is self-knowledge that separates Britain from America. “There is a denial of class in the US,” he suggests, where citizens who are plainly stratified in insurmountable ways cloak themselves in egalitarian myths. What is the east coast, Byrne’s adopted home, if not a class-bound society?
This knack for looking at people as a dispassionate anthropologist is usually the mark of an outsider. But in cultural New York, Byrne is the insider’s insider — a node who links artists and (inadvertently) arbitrates on matters of taste. His desk must sag under the weight of invitations to this party and that opening. His private life has taken place in this realm. In 1987, he married the costume designer Adelle Lutz. They divorced in 2004 but not before having a daughter who keeps his fingertips pressed to culture’s bleeding edge: “She uses her phone as a recording studio!” he exclaims, recalling his own childhood wonder at the miracle of a transistor radio.
For Byrne, the nexus between technology and music is not always benign. In 2013, he wrote of the “minuscule” returns that artists make from Spotify and other streaming services. He feared a “culture of blockbusters” in which only the shallowest output can generate a living. His line has softened since then (“I’m guardedly optimistic, which I wasn’t before”) but he still worries for less-established friends, including the Meltdown acts. He has even joined the board of SoundExchange, a non-profit that tries to ensure musicians get paid the royalties due to them. “I’m fine, but younger musicians have to make that choice [whether to stay in the industry] very carefully.”
He wonders why the internet, after a quarter of a century, has not changed anything about pop music other than the way it is distributed. “Why are music videos still the length of a song?” he demands. “Why not much longer? Or shorter?” He was taken by the The Wilderness Downtown, an interactive film that Google made in collaboration with Arcade Fire in 2010 (“I thought, OK, that’s the beginning of something”) but such adventures are notable for their rarity. He is also curious about the potential of virtual reality goggles to shake up music videos. “And you can only imagine the porn!”
Byrne should be excused his soaring expectations of technology. He knows what an age of innovation really looks like. Mention the 1980s and he grows loquacious, like a tycoon reminiscing about his youthful hustles: “We saw music videos as a creative opportunity — MTV was new and desperate for material so we would make these scrappy videos and they would just throw them on air!” As for cassettes, they became a “medium of exchange” among friends and a kind of exalted notepad. “I used to store ideas for songs on an early Walkman,” he recalls, “which was a giant thing. The sound quality wasn’t great but it never mattered.” He leaves me wondering whether the great vinyl revival is about to give way to a comeback for the tape.
This wistfulness points to the oddest thing about Byrne: nostalgia and neophilia come to him with equal ease. He roves the world for new talent — collaborating with the British singer-songwriter Anna Calvi last year — and once rebuffed an invitation to reform his old band for fear of doing “one of those ‘sound how you used to sound’ tours”. But in his gripes with the internet, in his reverence for the edgier New York of the 1980s, in his resistance to the modern obsession with sound quality, there is a conservative streak too — a quiet dread that late-stage capitalism is sapping popular culture of its vim. Because of his long association with Brian Eno, the producer who has spent decades attempting the musical equivalent of inventing a new colour, it is easy to forget Byrne’s taste for classical rhythm and blues. Talking Heads had Janus faces, looking back to James Brown even as they gazed ahead to an unwritten future of boundless experimentation.
Tellingly, when Byrne rhapsodises about the Southbank Centre, it is the founding ideals that captivate him. “It was a really beautiful response to the war. The country said, ‘We’re going to take the high road. We’re going to build something more important than the war we’ve been through.’” For a pioneer, he cherishes the best of the past, even a futurist structure of concrete and right angles.
As a curator’s perk, he will be billeted in A Room for London, a hotel suite in the form of a small boat that is perched atop the Queen Elizabeth Hall. “It’s kind of gorgeous,” he marvels, “and I’ve got it for a couple of days.” From the prow, he will see Westminster to his left, the financial quarter to his right and the Thames bending before him. It might be the most centrally located bedroom in London.
Byrne loves big cities with the fervour of someone who had to wait until his twenties to live in one. He rates and compares them, weighing Barcelona’s bars against Sydney’s waterside pulchritude. He once said that London had a tempo of 122.86 beats per minute, the kind of insight he gleans by meandering through a city on his bike.
In 2009, he published Bicycle Diaries, an account of his saddled peregrinations around New York, London, Manila, Berlin and elsewhere. His taste is for messy street layouts, which must leave him frustrated with Manhattan’s rational blueprint. “Below 14th Street is different. Smaller blocks, more confusion.” When I wonder which city grabs him now, he names Melbourne, where he discovered the neglected maze of alleyways that was resuscitated by artists and entrepreneurs in the 1990s. “They created complexity in a city that was basically a big grid.” Elaboration on a simple form — he is familiar with the idea.
Byrne has plans beyond Meltdown, and they veer outside recorded music and even outside culture. He nurses a “very long range” interest in neuroscience, informed by books such as The Tell-Tale Brain and The Invisible Gorilla. He has written a musical (“We’ve already done a sing-through”) and wants to tinker with video. There are collaborations to plot, genres to blend, cities to tour on two wheels. No pop grandee of his vintage remains quite so ravenous for change and upheaval.
Still, he is at his best as a strict invigilator of the new, curious about the latest acts but well placed to discriminate the good from the meretricious. The past helps. In art, where performance is not measurable, the only test of quality is longevity. There is a reason why people still listen to “This Must Be the Place”, and why Byrne himself melts at the memory of those songs that blared fuzzily out of his bedroom radio 50 years ago. “I don’t look back at all,” claims the great future-chaser, as I make my way out of the building he will commandeer in August. Mercifully, that is not true.
Janan Ganesh is an FT political columnist. Meltdown runs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1 8XX August 17-30; southbankcentre.co.uk
There Will Be Blood
Live Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood performs, with the London Contemporary Orchestra conducted by Hugh Brunt, his score to Paul Thomas Anderson’s blistering film There Will Be Blood, with Greenwood on one of the first electronic instruments, the ondes Martenot (August 19).
Atomic Bomb! The Music of William Onyeabor
A super-band of David Byrne, Sinkane, Money Mark, Pat Mahoney (LCD Soundsystem), Alexis Taylor (Hot Chip) and Mahotella Queens pay homage to the music of the African funk king (August 20).
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
The horn troupe from Chicago bring their sounds of jazz, funk, soul and hip-hop to the Queen Elizabeth Hall (August 20).
Electronic musician Matthew Herbert is joined by singers and a horn section to form Herbert as they performsongs from his new album The Shakes (August 23).
Photographs: Redferns/Getty; Waring Abbott/Getty; Wireimage/Getty
Portrait by Jack Davison
This article has been amended since its original publication to correct the name of the conductor of The London Contemporary Orchestra.