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David Byrne: Renaissance Man

David Byrne, best known as the voice and mastermind of Talking Heads, the seminal New York band, doesn't want to talk about big suits or old bands regrouping for a nostalgia tour. He is rock's Renaissance man.Byrne is an accomplished solo musician, an artist, a photographer, film director and businessman. The record company he founded more than a decade ago - Luaka Bop - is thriving, releasing his own work as well as music from around the globe, especially Latin America.
At 49, Byrne is trim, with more than a touch of gray in his hair. Yet, in the lush gardens behind the Greenwich Village offices of Luaka Bop, he looked almost boyish as he talked and listened to the song of finches building nests in a nearby tree.
Byrne says he's a typical New Yorker, but he speaks slowly, choosing his words carefully and often laughing at what he's said. In conversation, he's as smart as you'd expect, but he's surprisingly easy to talk with.
On Tuesday, Byrne releases his first solo album in four years, an accessible disc that combines many of his musical interests, resulting in what some will consider the classic Talking Heads sound. To support the new disc, "Look Into the Eyeball," Byrne plays a rare hometown club concert May 13 at Irving Plaza.
Byrne says he's excited about the show, but the man who made one of the greatest rock performance movies ever - "Stop Making Sense" - revealed that he didn't always like playing live.
"I look at the old video tapes of shows, and it seems apparent that I was somebody who got up on stage because he had to. It was medicine I had to take. Now I actually enjoy it. What concerns me is that something may have been lost with the comfort I gained."
Being relaxed may make Byrne uneasy, but during an interview, when he speaks about the new album, being a New Yorker and the kind of art that inspires him, he seems a man who has arrived at his place in the world and is pleased with it.
Post: What's "Look Into the Eyeball" about?
Byrne: The album is . . . almost romantic. There's not much anger or screaming. It is challenging, but in a less aggressive way. That makes it interesting for me, and I'm hoping that makes it interesting for others.
Post: So on "Eyeball," you're romantic and accepting of the human condition.
Byrne: I am a romantic, but I keep it in check. There is always a tension between the romantic part of me and the rational, orderly part. It is a nice tension. The challenge is not to be one or the other.
Post: What do you think your fans expect from you?
Byrne: I don't know what people expect. For myself, I expect this record is something that represents what was true to me at the moment I did it. That isn't always possible; sometimes I get sidetracked. Because of those divergent tangents I've taken over the last decade, some people have just given up on me. Others think I went south of the border and I never came back.
Post: What will they say when they hear that on the new album you wrote a song in Spanish?
Byrne: Probably, "What else is new?"
Post: Can you speak about "Desconocido Soy"?
Byrne: It's just a lot of short phrases, really. It is a list song, where I list apparent opposites and contradictory things. At the end of the song, I keep repeating, "That's me and I don't know who I am." This song was hardly writing a novel in Spanish. It is a pretty simple idea.
Post: It's strange that a song sung in Spanish has no Latin musical elements.
Byrne: It is hardly a cha-cha-cha. Musically, it is like Led Zeppelin played on strings with a heavily percussive dance groove. That isn't what I was thinking when I wrote it, but after listening to it, that's what I hear.
Post: You once said you don't know what any of your songs are about until a year after they are finished.
Byrne: When I write, some things work for me because they come from a voice from the unconscious that I don't censor or edit. They may feel right emotionally or lyrically, so I don't question a song, even if I don't know what it means. Then six months or a year later, it becomes pathetically clear to me what that song was actually about. I need the distance and time.
Post: Interpreting music is often subjective. Any examples of when your fans or writers were totally wrong?
Byrne: I remember Talking Heads touring, playing "Life During War Time," where the chorus was, "This ain't no disco." It became an anthem to the anti-disco backlash that was around at the time. We thought, "This is so bizarre," because we actually liked disco music. It was one of our influences.
Post: Describe yourself.
Byrne: At heart, I'm still a New York workaholic. Obsessive. I stop and take a break, turn it off and relax sometimes, which is more than I could before. Over time, I'm slowly coming to accept being human, and it is never going to be the idealized thing that was imprinted on me when I was a kid. We are imperfect, chaotic, impulsive, violent, beautiful and creative - we are the sum of all that stuff. In the old days, I used to put up with that. Now I've started to like it.
Post: You're almost 50. How old do you feel?
Byrne: My sense of humor and curiosity isn't that of a typical 49-year-old. On the other hand, I get reminders of how old I actually am, like after the Rollerblades accident I had a year ago. You know, that says it all right there: What the hell was a 49-year-old doing on Rollerblades in the first place?
Post: You are an artist who is also a patron of the arts. What do you like?
Byrne: I buy the art I buy because it inspires me in some way. Most of it is done by people who are complete lunatics; some are hospitalized. Most are not trained as artists, but are driven to create art, to express something. They often create extraordinary, disturbing, sometimes very disturbing art, and there is a certain power in that.
By DAN AQUILANTE (nypost.com)
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