Q&A with David Byrne: Filmmaker, Performance Artist, Disco Theatre Writer—and Musician

The busy multi-hyphenate who changed the idea of what a musician could be chalks up his prolific resume to sheer impatience.

Photograph courtesy of Cataling Kulczar.


Photograph courtesy of Cataling Kulczar.

He's directed a film, starred in others, crusaded against the free music-streaming industry, and, oh yeah, written a hit song or two (you can keep tabs via his online journal). Now music legend David Byrne is burning down the house at the Public Theatre with the immersive theatrical experience "Here Lies Love" (pictured below), an interactive disco written with Fatboy Slim that tracks the life of Philippine ex-first lady Imelda Marcos. You can join the party in New York, or catch the genre-bending hit maker (along with some special, unannounced guests) this evening on The Tonight Show.

Mr. Byrne, do you write songs differently now than you did 30 years ago?

I couldn't write the same kind of songs now that I wrote then. I am not the same person and you don't have the same anxieties and passions as you do when you're in your twenties. But I find other ways of writing. I found that I can write from another person's point of view or I can even use someone else's words and make a song out of that. And that's liberating for me because it allows me to express emotions through another person that I would never ever express on my own.

I imagine the Talking Heads' song "Psycho Killer" falls into that category...

It was not autobiographical. (Laughs) That was the first song that I wrote, so it was the way of discovering if I could write a song. And after that one I knew that I understood the form and then I knew I can write something more personal. Everything after that became more personal.

I love your performance of that song at the opening of Stop Making Sense.

Thank you. That was the show that we were doing on tour back then. The film just makes it a little bit shorter so you get the narrative a little bit faster.

And now it's one of the best concert films ever made.

I thought it was a really simple idea and I was really surprised that no one had done it. I thought, "No one has done a film where you start with nothing and you make the show, you create the show as you go?" No, so . . .

You also directed your own film, True Stories, years ago. Why haven't you made more movies?

Somehow it was my fault. After that movie I was seduced by it and tried to get other movies going in Los Angeles and it was a disaster. You hear the story over and over again of people who spend years trying to get something done and if it takes too long, so I thought, "No, I don't have the patience. I'll write some songs and make a record."

Was it more difficult because of your musical success?

It's more difficult because you don't have the patience. If you focus on making a movie everything else is gone.

Do you like it when your music is used in films?

When it works it is great. When it works you really get something special, but when it doesn't work then it's a disaster.

Can you keep that from happening?

I do not hold all the rights on my songs, but I can control where they go. But generally, if the financial thing is as it should be, I don't say no to any films. I don't make any editorial judgments.


Photograph courtesy of Cataling Kulczar.

Read more of The Talks with David Byrne.

Also on The Talks:

Adam Yauch: "Whatever Feels Right"

Albert Hammond Jr.: "I Loved Pushing That Boundary"

A$AP Rocky: "I Can't Be Mad"

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