David Byrne talks movies with Time Out
New York-based pop polymath on collaborating with Sorrentino, directing 'True Stories' in 1986 and his new concert film, 'Ride, Rise, Roar'.
Scottish-born, New York-based pop polymath David Byrne is best known as the gangly frontman of hip new wavers Talking Heads. The band teamed with Jonathan Demme in 1984 to produce one of the seminal concert movies, ‘Stop Making Sense’, while in 1986 Byrne directed and starred in his own brilliant satire, ‘True Stories’. Now, ‘Ride, Rise, Roar’, which opens next week, is a concert film which captures his last tour, showcasing tracks produced with longtime collaborator Brian Eno.
What makes a good concert film?
‘Concert movies are a strange beast. A lot of them are just for fans, like a souvenir. But once in a while, one comes along that has another reason to exist. Neil Young’s “Rust Never Sleeps” had giant ants, and that was interesting. And there’s “Gimme Shelter” where somebody gets killed, so that’s a good USP. There’s also that Metallica one, “Some Kind of Monster”, which I haven’t seen yet, but understand it’s where the band put themselves through therapy then they’re making an album. You don’t have to like the music as there’s another reason for it to be there. I thought we did a little bit of that with this movie. What Hillman Curtis, the director of "Ride, Rise, Roar", ended up doing is getting a lot of the creative stuff that went in to making a tour like this happen.’
So it’s important for you to make these films more than just a souvenir?
‘If this looked like it was just going to be a straightforward documentation of a show, I’d have done it as a late-night TV thing or streamed it on the internet. What the director ended up doing is capturing a lot of the creative stuff that goes into making a tour happen. Besides the live footage, you see what goes into putting a show together.’
Do you still enjoy performing?
‘It’s usually enjoyable. I like doing it in bursts, maybe a year on then a year off to write. I don’t like just going out there and playing songs. I’ve tried to make touring a more humane experience. We take bicycles, I can blog on the road and visit friends.’
Was there ever a point where you found performing a slog?
'Yeah, yeah. There was a period with Talking Heads. It wasn’t about the personalities, but we just hadn’t figured it out. It was just one gig after another, then back stage, then the hotel room, then drinking and then repeat. Your world is just narrowed. With this, I’d give little speeches to the band, all of whom had been on long tours before, and just say, “after the show, don’t sit in your hotel room: get out!”.'
You collaborate a lot. Is it easy being creative with other people?
‘That’s the magic of the internet. You can collaborate over a distance, so you don’t have to deal with people’s daily quirks or dietary restrictions or whatever else they have going on. There have been times where things have gone wrong, or it wasn’t as exciting as it could’ve been: it’s always a bit of a crap shoot. I get more excited by seeing what other people can bring to the table. I have more of them in the works.’
Can you say what other collaborations you’ve got in the pipeline?
'I’ve done some songs with St Vincent, AKA Annie Clarke who was in that band The Polyphonic Spree. The instrumentation and the structure of the songs is kind of unconventional, and we’re using a brass ensemble. We’re not sure what it’s all for yet.'
Does it need to be for something?
'Well, it used to be. You’d have an idea for something and you’d have to go to the record company. Now, you don’t have to do that: there’s the option of just doing something and working out what slot it goes in later.'
What about film work?
‘I’m working with Will Oldham on songs for a film by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (“Il Divo”) called “This Must Be the Place”, which of course is a Talking Heads song.’
On your blog you mentioned that you were impressed by how Sorrentino works.
‘Yes, he works amazingly well with his cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi. I don’t know if they had it figured out ahead of time, but they had a really specific way of covering each scene. It looked very beautiful and precise. Sometimes I look at a Hollywood film and a scene is just a cavalcade of wide shots then a close-up on the actor.’
You’re also in the film.
‘I’m playing one of my own songs. Sorrentino came to me and wanted me to be in it. I originally said I had no ambitions in that area. I did it years ago, just the tiniest little bit, and I realised there are people who are really good at this who love it.’
Yes, but, your performance in ‘True Stories’ is amazing.
‘A lot of that was me being nervous, very self-conscious in front of the camera. I had a better time dealing with the visuals and technical side.’
‘True Stories’ must be one of the first movies in that now ubiquitous deadpan, heavily mannered US indie style. Do you ever watch, say, a Wes Anderson movie and think he’s copied you?
‘No! I loved “Fantastic Mr Fox”! My memories of “True Stories” are of coming to terms with the fact that you can make a professional-looking film without a big budget. You need more than the change in my pocket, but you don’t need $20 million to film people talking in rooms.’
Read our review of 'Ride, Rise, Roar'
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