David Byrne In The Round

Musician, artist, film director, writer and patron of great graphic design, David Byrne is the creative king of crossover, writes Rick Poynor

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David Byrne is wearing white. White tracksuit top, white jeans, white socks, white trainers. He is sitting on a sofa in a hotel room and the sofa (can this be a coincidence?) is also white. His shirt bucks the trend by being black; rimless glasses hang from the top buttonhole. His silvery hair isn’t white yet, but it’s getting there.

It must be a calculated effect because Byrne’s outfit instantly recalls the all-white stage clothes that he and his band of musicians and dancers wore on tour in 2009, presenting old and new songs he wrote with Brian Eno. It’s January when we meet, still winter, and Ride, Rise, Roar, the feature-length film of the tour, is just about to open. Byrne is in London doing interviews in support of the DVD’s release later in May.

The former Talking Head (or anyway his publicist) is keen that we talk about the film, but the intriguing thing about Byrne, particularly for CR readers, is the remarkable range of his activities. I was a Talking Heads fan and saw the band several times, as well as buying the albums, but these days I tend to think of Byrne as a multi-platform artist who also works in music. Ten years ago, it was his book The New Sins, cleverly written and wittily styled as a religious tract, which rekindled my earlier interest.

Not content merely to be a singer/songwriter/guitarist/band leader, Byrne directed several of the group’s music videos and, by 1986, when he appeared on the cover of Time, he had directed and starred in his first feature film, True Stories. Since then, he has become the king of crossover, exhibiting photographs, producing artist’s books, devising installations, composing film soundtracks and proving to be a natural-born blogger, while continuing, post-Heads, to release his own albums. In 2009, he took his writing to the next level by publishing Bicycle Diaries, using his meandering rides in Berlin, Istanbul, Buenos Aires and other cities – he’s an evangelical cyclist – as pretexts to discuss every manner of topic.

Another notable side of Byrne, who studied art and design for two years at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Maryland Institute College of Art, is his feeling for graphic design, seen many times over in his music and publishing projects. He enjoyed a close working with relationship with Tibor Kalman and M&Co, and now claims near telepathic communion, according to a text on his website, with Stefan Sagmeister. (It was Sagmeister who first suggested that Byrne work with Hillman Curtis, maker of short films about Milton Glaser, Paula Scher, Sagmeister and others, and now director of Ride, Rise, Roar.) Byrne has written appreciations for David Carson’s monograph, as well as Kalman’s, and in 2004 took part in a lengthy dialogue with Bruce Mau for an art magazine. His work, says Mau, “demonstrates the energy of a lively, mobile, searching intelligence exploring the world in its many facets – by any means necessary.”

Weird but it works
When it comes to Ride, Rise, Roar, this paragon of versatility is quick to admit that, this time, he’s up against himself. Stop Making Sense (1984), directed by Jonathan Demme, is a classic concert film, and it features four songs reprised in the new documentary. “It’s pretty hard to compete with your own reputation,” agrees Byrne. While RRR might not attain the era-defining heights of the earlier film, it has two things going for it, apart from some excellent music. The first is the enjoyably loose-limbed and ‘vernacular’ dancing on stage, which at one point involves the use of office chairs as dance partners: weird but it works.

“I insisted the choreographers stray into that zone,” says Byrne, “and that the designers be one of us [i.e. the band] and that occasionally they reveal they can do something really special. But they shouldn’t look like a bunch of hired ballet dancers or music video dancers who are suddenly plopped into a place they don’t really fit.”

The film’s other virtue is its structure, which alternates songs performed on stage with scenes of rehearsal and interviews with Byrne, the band and the choreographers. This was Curtis’s idea, but you don’t have to dig hard to sense that Byrne kept a watchful eye on the project at every stage. RRR is a co-production with his own record label, Todo Mundo, which released Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, his 2008 collaboration with Eno. Byrne was concerned that the filmed performances deliver on the promise made by the discussion of creative process, and he pushed Curtis to get the best possible shots and edit them for maximum excitement. Everything finally came together, he says, at the Royal Festival Hall in London, seven months into the worldwide tour.

After True Stories it looked like Byrne could be on course for a future directing feature films. In 1988, he made Ilé Aiyé (The House of Life), a documentary about a Brazilian spirit cult – available on DVD through Gary (Helvetica) Hustwit’s Plexifilm – but Hollywood never worked out. “I tried for years,” he says. “I had at least two projects that got to the script stage, and that never happened. I think it was partly my fault.” It was either a case of seed-funding projects himself, or getting a production deal with development funding, which meant he didn’t own the idea if the backer had a change of heart. He’s inspired now by the possibilities of low-cost filmmaking with hi-def video and has taken lessons in Final Cut.

In the meantime, Byrne became a book artist. Strange Ritual (1995), designed by Gary Koepke, gathers his photographs of religious icons, vending machines, visionary messages and sofas on the sidewalk. In design terms, Your Action World: Winners are Losers with a New Attitude (1998) is much more ambitious. Sagmeister clothes the large, round-cornered pages in a floppy plastic cover that comes in a transparent carrier; when you remove the book, half of the title – printed on the bag but not on the cover – disappears. If that project still feels a little too much like a shiny, gimmicky, postmodern joke, The New Sins’ equally ironic commentary is made even sharper by the sobriety of the book’s design by Dave Eggers, novelist, publisher and quirky typographer. Here, again, Byrne’s deadpan photographs of everyday signs and wonders to illustrate modern ‘sins’ such as charity, beauty, cleanliness and thrift prove fully equal to their task.

Recurrent themes run through Byrne’s work in different media, though he says he doesn’t give this much thought. Like many artists, he follows unconscious impulses and instinctive prompts, only later seeing what a song or image might have meant or predicted. Ever since Byrne performed a stunning dance routine based on a preacher’s gestures for Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime, he has kept returning to religion: its imagery, rituals and concern with how we should live. In Moral Dilemmas, a poster installation in the streets of Reykjavik in 2010, he paired his own shots of surveillance cameras with multiple-choice questions about love, money, honesty and etiquette for passers-by to ponder. Working as a kind of pop anthropologist, he manages to treat serious matters, potentially of interest to anyone, with a playful and humorous touch.

“Yes,” he laughs. “I try to turn it into stuff, a work of some sort, a song or a fake religious tract. Rather than dealing with it head on, I’ll see if it wants to make itself into something. Those kinds of things are also a way of me gently asking myself: well, how do I feel about this? Because I don’t have the answers.”

Byrne covers some contentious ground in these projects without ever sounding pompous, judgmental or dogmatic. In 2003, around the time that chart-junk critic Edward Tufte was ripping into PowerPoint for its pernicious, straitjacketing effect on contemporary thinking, Byrne came out with Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information, a book and DVD set devoted to subverting PowerPoint’s iconography. “Although I began by making fun of the medium,” he writes, ”I soon realised I could actually create things that were beautiful. I could bend the programme to my own whim and use it as an artistic agent.”

This is a musician with an unusually magnetic eye for whatever is most current in North American graphic design. It was a relief to some observers when he gave Sagmeister the task of designing the cover for Everything That Happens – Eno’s solo album covers, once so good, have been missing the mark for years. “It was partly I thought that Stefan is going to come up with something so amazing that it will eliminate us haggling over the design aspect of it,” says Byrne. Stephan Walter’s stylised but architecturally exact images of a suburban house by a pond do everything a good cover should do, extrapolating the music’s sometimes sentimental electro-gospel atmosphere into a new visual dimension.

Is graphic design something Byrne actively follows? It’s probably not a question he gets asked much and he gives it some thought. “Oh, yeah, occasionally,” he says. “There are a lot of people whose work I follow a little bit. There was a woman – Maria Bantjes?” I supply the missing “n”. “She’s a friend of Stefan, of course. I’d seen some of her stuff. Then I saw her give a talk where she had lots of slides. I thought it was amazing, a little bit scary – the obsessive compulsive thing going on there – but really beautiful, too.” He goes on to speculate, with undisguised amusement, about how some fine artists don’t like designers and illustrators because they realise that their own work, if moved into a non-art context, would look no different from applied work.

Clearly these high/low hang-ups have never been a problem for a man who takes such an inclusive view of what art practice can be. Don’t be surprised if we see a scary-but-beautiful Bantjes adorning a Byrne project somewhere down the line.

Rick Poynor has written about David Byrne’s True Stories for the V&A’s book Postmodernism: Style & Subversion 1970-1990 to be published in September.