Q&A with David Byrne: Seizing opportunity and asking "Why not?"

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Before David Byrne’s talk was posted to today, the TED Blog had the opportunity to chat with him about his eclectic life and times. Almost unnervingly humble, he gave all credit for his achievements to good timing and an open mind — and we think there might be a lesson there. He’s also got some fascinating insights on world music and the revival of the bike.

What does it feel like to look back on the days of CBGB and know that you were part of establishing an era, a movement?

I think I was in the right place at the right time. I was lucky. I worked very hard to write stuff and I was very determined that I was going to write something that was me — that was not a version of something else. But, I have to give credit to the club owner, Hilly, who decided, maybe in an act of desperation, to allow bands in there to play their own material — bands that were unsigned, that were unheard of. This was a really new thing at the time. There was no circuit of little clubs around the country or anything like that. There were very few places where a band that didn’t have records out, that was relatively unknown, could perform original material. It was one of those things where you hope that if you open it up, they will come. And, they did come. It opened up an opportunity for all of us. It seemed to me that by making the venue available, people started writing more. They started making more music in order to fill the spot.

I came to New York to be a fine artist — that was my ambition. I went to art school. As with a lot of folks that age, music was a hobby or something I did for fun with friends, and at this club there was an opportunity to put it out in front of people. So, it seemed like, “Well, why not?” That might have been part of the reason it worked as well, the fact that it wasn’t a calculated move, it was just sort of a “Why not?”

You’ve done so many different things, I’d guess that “Why not?” might be a bit of a theme in your life.

Yeah. If there’s a venue or a platform where doing something seems to make itself possibly available, then it’s like “Oh! Yes! Why not?”

One of the things you went on to do was to produce a lot of music for dance, and you even worked with Twyla Tharp. What was that experience like?

She pushed me pretty hard … in a good way. But she kept wanting more, more music. The piece kept getting longer. But, that was good. She kept saying, “We don’t have an ending yet. We need a bang-up ending.” She pushed me to write something that was more energetic and exciting at the end, and the end became the part that went into repertoire and continues to get played around.

She was really ambitious. Even at that point, she believed that you could have a dance theater piece that would play on Broadway. She wanted to bridge the gap and bring theater to a more ordinary audience, which didn’t happen with that piece. Later on, of course, she did it with Billy Joel.

And then you went on to write and direct True Stories and to direct a few documentaries. How did the fascination with film begin?

Well, I did come out of an art background, not just for school, but living in the Lower East Side and Soho and that world. I guess it was in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. And I guess that it was the early ‘80s with MTV when music videos — the very earliest versions — started to appear. And, they didn’t have any content. The situation was: If you made it, they’d play it — as long as it was something that was not objectionable. If you made a short film with your song on it, it would get on within a week. That certainly doesn’t happen now. But, there was this window where you could do that. And I thought, “Yeah, I’ll just do it myself!” My friend, the choreographer Toni Basil, she showed me how to put together a video and edit and I learned by doing. So, I cut my teeth doing some music videos and eventually felt like I could start to work with longer things and eventually got to a feature film.

You talk about all of this as though it’s so effortless for you. Is it really that way? Is the creative process that effortless for you?

Oh no! It’s the Thomas Edison thing — there’s an awful lot of perspiration that goes in and a lot of man-hours and time spent learning how to do something. But there’s also the hubris or nerve that I have to think, “Well, I can do this, and I don’t have to do it the same way everybody else does. I can find a way to work within my limited abilities,” which is how I started with music as well. It didn’t seem that odd of an idea, to be able to make a statement even though you weren’t a virtuoso in the medium.

You started the world music label Luaka Bop. How did that start? Was it through travel and touring that you started discovering new types of music?

It didn’t start from traveling. It started from me going to a record store. I think I was finishing up the sound track or sound recording or sound mixing on this historic film in San Francisco. I didn’t have to be at work until about noon, so I would go to the record store. I bought a couple of Brazilian records and brought them back — this was when we still used vinyl — and I loved them. I’d heard of all these artists before, and didn’t quite get it. This time I kind of got it, at least some of the songs. The next day I went and got a couple more, and by the end of the week, I had a whole stack of stuff. I wanted to know who these people were and what their story was. So then, I took the incentive to go these countries and find out what kind of country produces this kind of incredible music. I was able to catch the flavor of where the music was coming from and to ask people more about these artists, like who they are and what their background is. It seemed like: Whoa! There’s a wealth of material here. We can license some of it and bring it to my generation and other people who don’t know this music … maybe they might like it too. And, some of it worked. Not all of it. Some things caught people’s attention or their imagination and other things didn’t at all. It’s just funny — some of the Asian stuff we did, nobody liked, but maybe it was just the time.

READ MORE: David Byrne talks about the challenges particular to a world music label, his theory on why we should all bike and always learning more.What has your experience been like working with musicians from around the world? Is it very different from working primarily in the Euro-American market?

Oh yeah, there are differences. The issue that always preoccupied me was how much these musicians expect they’re going to get out of this. You can tell that some of them thought, “Oh, we’re going to have a record out in the United States and in Europe, and this is it, our career is going to explode from here on out.” And for some artists, it did kind of make a bridge into new audiences, but for others it was very difficult. It wasn’t an instant anointing of, “Now, you’re a star that can play all over North America and Europe.” It was interesting to watch that process work.

I’m sure it was somewhat emotional as well, both when things worked and when they didn’t.

Absolutely. There were expectations, sometimes reasonable, sometimes not reasonable. At times those expectations would be dashed or disappointed, and sometimes incrementally they conceded, “Ok, I am reaching an audience. It’s just not the way I imagined it would happen.”

From the other side as well, it’s interesting to see how some acts were perceived by North American audiences — they would judge them according to how they fit into a genre or a pre-conceived image that North Americans might have about Latin musicians or musicians from Asia, or whatever. There was a whole process of getting people to loosen up and not always think that musicians from here or there fit prescribed patterns.

Have you ever been told by people native to a country that you weren’t selecting the artists that represented the best of their music?

Oh boy, did I hear that! I heard it from Brazilians when I put out the record by this guy, Tom Zé, who’s way out in left field there, as far as any kind of music goes. People said, “Why did you pick him to represent us? We have all these beautiful singers and you picked this guy — this eccentric with a not-great singing voice.” And yet, people in Europe and North America felt like, although he wasn’t like a huge seller, hearing this guy was a huge revelation. There was this experimentation and avant-garde impulse that was happening all over the world.

Also, I just saw this documentary, not too long ago, that was about the making of Youssou N’Dour’s record Egypt that, at first, was not a success back home. It was vilified as not being a good idea, but it was very well received overseas and he got a Grammy for it, and then he was accepted. Some of the musicians have to go out, be accepted outside of their home and then they can be accepted.

Now, you have apparently become one of the biggest champions of cycling …

First, I’m not a sports cyclist. I’m no Lance Armstrong, but I do use a bike to get from place to place in Manhattan, a little bit of Brooklyn. I use it to get to work, that kind of thing. And I’ve done so for two, almost three decades now. I never proselytized it or told my friends, “Hey, you should do this.” But, lately, in the last few years, it seems it’s become more acceptable. It’s not quite as uncool as it used to be, especially in New York and some other cities. They’re adding bike lanes, making it easier and safer for us to get to work on bicycles, and it feels like a moment where we can say. “Hey, I’ve done this and it works for me. You might want to try it.”

Although, the book I wrote is really about different cities from the point of view of a bicycle. It’s not primarily a proselytizing book about bicycles or transportation, but that does come into it eventually. I just find riding really pleasurable. This morning I went to see the telescope that’s in Battery Park, which was a wonderful thing to do in the morning. It didn’t take long, I think the whole trip there and back on the bike path took maybe 20 or 25 minutes. It was beautiful.

It seems like it really is catching on. It has a momentum of its own, which is a good thing for lots of reasons — for our health, or to be green and all that kind of stuff. But, I don’t think people make changes in their life because it’s good for them, they do it because it feels good. So, that’s my argument for the bicycle: It feels good. It has other benefits as well, but I’m not going to tell you to do it because it’s good for your carbon footprint or anything like that.

What was your experience at TED like?

Well, I’d never been before. I’d only watched the podcasts religiously and I was so happy when those talks started coming online and I thought it was such a great thing when you started sharing all that stuff. They’re so well put together and edited, and it’s so great that you can just carry them around with you and watch when you have 18 minutes to spare. So, it was very exciting for me to finally get to go. I had a great time. I didn’t do any of the side stuff, but I did watch every talk that was on the main stage. I wanted to get the feel for the whole thing. On occasion you get one that’s maybe not so inspiring, but you can figure the next one is going to blow you away.

Despite the fact that you’ve achieved so much, you still seem so interested in learning more and doing more. How do you keep that attitude?

Oh, I don’t know. I have had close friends complain that I’m a little bit of a workaholic that way. But, I don’t see it always as work. Like going to TED, it’s inspiring, some of the things I heard will definitely affect my work in the future, but it’s inspiring and pleasurable — that’s the first experience that you have. It doesn’t really feel like work, in the traditional sense anyway.