1994 - Byrned In Print
Written by Jeffrey Goldsmith   

From: Wired, 1994

 He is the intellectual rocker, a pop music star

with a brain: David Byrne. Educated at the Rhode
Island School of Design as an artist, Byrne has
spent several decades fusing creative impulses in
multiple mediums.

Although most famous as the leader of the Talking
Heads, a trend-setting band in the '70s and '80s
known for its "smarts"; he also helped bring African
and Latin sensibilities into the mainstream on his
label Luaka Bop. Byrne has also made waves in video,
photography, and filmmaking. His new solo album
captures the multifaceted man. Its title is simply
David Byrne. Its release this summer is accompanied
by personally created music videos and a European
and North American road show making the rounds at
venues small and large, in-doors and out.

Byrne's songs and images are all generated by a man
who trusts intuitive thinking - no matter how complex,
contradictory, or elusive. His words and works embrace
technology and terrorism, heaven and highways, and -
more tentatively - digital life.

In an exclusive interview with Wired, Jeffrey
Goldsmith joins Byrne in his downtown New York
office, lined with photographs taken by the man
himself. A Scottish-born New Yorker, Byrne is
reserved but not shy. He pauses frequently,
thinking in silence before he answers, carefully,
a few chos en words at a time.

Wired: How do you think the role of artists will
change in a digital world?

Byrne: Digital images and photos have done for
graphic design kind of what samplers and sequencers
and the same kind of technology have done for music.
In a way, it's taken it out of the hands of the
professionals so that anybody can play with it, at
least in graphic design, which is great. In these
images, of course, we are seeing a lot of stuff,
like in news images, that get manipulated in ways
that are harder to detect than they used to be in
montages and collages. That used to go on all the
time, but now with higher technology it's even harder
to detect when something has been subtly altered. So
once again we have to be reminded not to trust photos,
that they're their own thing. They're not a mirror of
reality.

Are you suspicious of this manipulatable quality
of photography? In a political way?

All images that appear in the press are manipulated
in one way, shape, or form, whether they're by
choice - by that image being chosen over another -
or by cropping, or by digital manipulation. You're
being manipulated a thousand different ways, and as
long as you are somewhat aware of the fact, then
there's not so much to be afraid of. But if you
think that what you're seeing is the truth, then
you're in for big trouble.

What sort of truth can artifice help your art
reach that a lack of artifice can't?

Sometimes when things are heightened so that
they become somewhat artificial, they become
psychological archetypes in a way. They become
metaphors. They become more than just what you
see in front of you. They stand for something
else, and so you are actually dealing with other
issues, either issues within yourself or how you
relate to the world: traumas or things you're
going through, how you feel about people, how
you feel about things you love or things you hate
or whatever. I think it helps you to deal with that.

Is there an example of that which you are working
on now, in the videos? In the music?

Videos - none of them are real. They're all a
little fantasy. None of them are a portrayal
of what you're hearing on the record. I guess
[Jean-Luc] Godard tried to do that in that
Rolling Stones movie Sympathy for the Devil
where they keep doing the song over and over
and over again until it evolved into what the
finished thing is. But now it'd be even harder
to do because often you record one part and
then later on somebody comes into the studio
and changes another part. The other musicians
aren't there. 

The artifice being that the song you hear
isn't what's recorded, because it's recorded
in bits and pieces?

And what you see in a video is not a reflection
of what's in the music either. It's always somebody
pretending to sing, and what you are hearing is a
prerecorded voice. But what's surprising - not all
the time, but in many, many cases - is that you'd
rather be fooled, you'd rather see and hear the
phony version than hear the real thing. The phony
one is more moving and strikes a deeper resonance
than the real thing.

Why do you think that is?

Because that's what art is.

Because reading a novel isn't reading life?

It's not a diary, and it's not a tape recording
of everything that happened. Andy Warhol did a
book where he gave a guy a tape recorder, and
the guy just carried it around all of the time
and recorded a week's worth of anything within
earshot. It's a pretty damn tough book to read.

If you made a video game, what do you think it
would be like?

I would attempt to make it more human - it
would cheat and it would lie and it would
make mistakes. 

I'd love to play a computer that cheated!

It doesn't even have to cheat a lot. It could
make mistakes and behave erratically. Imaginary
adversaries that you play in a computer game
shouldn't always make the right choice. They
should sometimes fail; that would really confuse
you.

If you had a black box, a piece of progress that
could do anything at all, what would you want
your black box to do?

Something that could clear your mind out instantly
when you get kind of backed up or overwhelmed,
kind of reset the counter to zero again.

Is there an outdated technology that you could
see making a comeback? 

I wonder a lot about Marshall McLuhan's statement
that, as various media become outdated, they all
of a sudden become an art form. As things used
for mass communication become obsolete, people
attach added importance to them, although they
get used less. And you see that happening. You
see people buying books partly because they like
them as objects; you see people buying old
records, LPs.

Do you think LPs will become incredibly valuable
one day?

I think some are already, because some of the
music on them is very unlikely to be reissued
on CD. Film is the same, in a way. Movie making,
for the most part, is a totally outdated
technology. It's all gears and sprockets and
chemical baths and odd mechanical reproduction.
There are various people who have grafted high
technology onto it, digital dinosaurs or whatever,
but the basic thing is real ancient tech. People
go on and on and on about movies now as if they're
an art - because people go to the movies less. 

You've been quoted as saying that stories and
singing are tricks to get people to pay attention.
What are we tricking people into paying attention
to?

I think often you don't know yourself, that what
you're actually communicating is fairly intuitive,
and the narrative is just a way of holding a
person's interest while you slip in what it is
you're really saying. Sometimes you don't even
know yourself what that is.

Do you know what you're saying?

Not always. I don't always know what the
song's about. Sometimes I know what it's
about on the surface, but sometimes it's
not until years later that I realize it's
actually about something else, that the
reason I wrote it was something else, and
that what it's actually saying to other people
as well is not what it's saying on the surface.
That's true with a lot of stuff.

MTV didn't exist when you started out. Has
it affected your approach to music?

I've seen MTV go through a number of changes.
It has gone from being very embracing to very
ghettoized to being very embracing again. They
fluctuate back and forth depending on what
they think is going to do well for them. MTV
has changed the way people see things, receive
images. People want a glut of images, but not
all the time. I think, given the right footage,
people can also get absorbed in something that's
not edited to death. 

What's interesting about making videos?

Rather than making a little movie, I think of
it as being like an extension of the experimental
film in the '50s and '60s and the early '70s,
but thrown in front of a lot of people. I think
it has almost nothing to do with filmmaking,
you know, making narrative pictures. The
aesthetic comes out of the world of advertising
and experimental film.

Do you think you'll ever make a linear, three-
part narrative film that sticks to conventions?

I'd love to do a movie that tells a story, but
I don't think I could do a kind of Hollywood-
style thing. I'm too much of a control freak.
I don't like to call myself that, but the truth
of it is that I'm used to having a certain
amount of control over what I do. 

You've heard the phrase "Information wants to
be free."; What do you make of that?

I talked a little bit with some friends last
night about books on disk. Press the button
and you've got a copy for yourself. The same
is true with music in that sense. A fellow I was
talking with recently went to Ethiopia and
brought back music they have for sale there, most
of it on cassette. The record store is like a stall.
They have their own copy machine, a double deck, a
triple deck, or whatever. And they're given a copy
of the master, a bunch of blanks, and covers. And
basically, what they pay for is the cover, the
packaging, because people won't buy it if it doesn't
have the real cover. Color printing, with technology
the way it is, is a little more difficult to do
there than to just dub the cassettes. The cover
is the thing that ensures that the person who
originates the tape actually sees some money from
it, not the music, not the information itself.
In a sense, that process is very similar to getting
music or films over fiber-optic lines, directly
in a record store. The royalties would be part of
your cost, but that gets back to the information
being free.

"Information wants to be free"; might also mean
information wants to be liberated.

It wants it both ways, really. Some things
demand to be disseminated. With other things,
the most important aspect, almost attached to
the information itself, is the notion that it
remain privileged and secret. Once you take
that off of it, the information itself is much
less valued. It's the notion of it being special
and secret and not for everyone that makes it
exciting or interesting. Once it's freely
disseminated, it loses that.

I downloaded all of your lyrics from the
Internet to prepare for this interview.

I heard they're out there.

It doesn't bother you that your lyrics have
been sort of pirated?

It doesn't bother me. Free or not free,
sometimes I think that as information becomes
more available to anyone who wants it, it's
the intangible things that become more valuable.
For instance, in music, a live performance would
become a treasured thing because the other stuff
you could have for nothing whenever you want it.
So, when you really don't know what you're going
to get, that becomes more valuable. 

Do you fear the possibility of genetically
engineered human beings?

Not any more than I fear a lot of things. I
feel like those kinds of things are inevitable.
We can't turn back the clock, we can't erase our
knowledge of how to build an atomic bomb. We
can't get rid of it. The thing is, what happens
with that [knowledge]? Obviously, money will
control it. Just as money and other factors
control what happens to the bomb, with nuclear
waste; the same kind of things will happen with
genetic engineering - and not always to the benefit
of humanity.

So technology is not in itself for better or
for worse?

The choice of where to invest the knowledge
that's here, that's what can be for better or
for worse. The myth of progress - the
technological, industrial myth that our society
was founded on - says that every new invention
and every new thing that is brought forth is
better than what was here before and should be
put to use immediately. So it's neither good
nor bad, but for a long time there has been
the recurrent myth that it is always good,
that it is never bad. What I'm calling progress
is what I was taught in grade school, that
progress means a bigger refrigerator. 

And robots to clean our houses.

All that stuff. That's progress. It's all
going to make things easier.

But that stuff doesn't make life easier,
does it?

It's just more stuff.

Well, would you buy a musical instrument
that you could play directly from your head?

Absolutely.

What kind of music would your head play?

It would put together little bits of everything I
know so that a piece of music would, from one second
to the next, contain sounds from just about anything
I've ever heard, and then disappear again on the
next note. It would be the ultimate sampler.

Isn't that how you create songs anyway?

In a way, in a way, but you intentionally limit
your palette.

Why?

Probably out of practicality, because if every
other note was to be a different sound, a different
thing, just the way you wanted it to sound, you'd
spend years just writing one little short piece of
music.

If I offered to digitally record your voice in
every possible mode of expression and use it as
a synthetic singer of songs, thereby immortalizing
your voice, would you accept?

It sounds like fun. I would say that it wouldn't
be me singing anymore. I'd be an instrument being
played by someone else. Myself singing is only
partly about the timbre of my voice and what it
sounds like, but it's also about the choices I make.

One of your songs mentions "a terrible signal, too
weak to even recognize."; And in another there's,
"I'm living in the future, I feel wonderful."; Is
the future wonderful or are you getting terrible
signals?

[Laughs.] It's a mix, it's a mix. We're allowed
to live with both of those impulses and try to
somehow get a balance between the naiive notion
that everything is going to be great in the future
and pessimism. We try to walk between the two.