Byrne's eye view

Local weirdo and former Talking Head David Byrne stares down his future---and past---with Look into the Eyeball

Even when his head was the most talked-about object in popular music, David Byrne never resembled a rock star. Now that his short hair is gray, and he has nimbly mamboed around the limelight, he looks the part even less. In fact, if you hang out in lower Manhattan, you have probably passed Byrne on the street and thought to yourself, I know that guy—didn't he substitute-teach my yoga class? Or maybe, Wasn't he the gawky villain in that James Bond movie?

When one first encounters Byrne at the West Village brownstone where he runs Luaka Bop, the world-music label he founded in 1988, it's the Bondian rogue that springs to mind. For one thing, various lackeys are milling about his headquarters, often chatting on the telephone with people in South America. And Byrne himself seems to have the stuff of which a good supervillain is made. An eminently clean man with remarkable skin and nervous eyes, he appears capable of efficiently executing a point-blank shooting or heartlessly observing a shackled superhero being dipped in molten lava; his frequent laughter—a hearty, masculine chuckle that stretches his mouth to unforeseen widths—recalls a laugh no less nefarious than that of The Simpsons' Sideshow Bob.

Yet David Byrne is nobody's miscreant. He's an arty guy who putters around town on a bicycle, voted for Nader and supplies visitors with a constant stream of iced tea. Years ago, when he led Talking Heads, Byrne also served time as a generation's spokesman, but like most generational spokesmen, he disliked the role. "I didn't want to play stadiums, and that was the next step," he says. "So I figured I had to throw a wrench in things to prevent that from happening—change creatively so I could keep people off balance."

Since disbanding the group in the late 1980s, Byrne has done just that. Through Luaka Bop, he's released CDs by everyone from Afro-Peruvian songbird Susana Baca to Indian-British collagists Cornershop. He's worked on fashion and visual arts projects, most recently curating an Apex Art exhibit in which he arranged newspaper photographs "as if they were stills from an elaborately choreographed event that takes place all over the world."

Although the past two decades have seen Byrne making a slew of artistic changes, his new album, Look into the Eyeball, pays homage to the same type of soul sounds that Talking Heads were seeking when they inadvertently helped concoct new wave. This process of stumbling onto something fresh while aiming for a well-established form is generally what moves music forward, and Byrne is well aware that his years of experience may hamper such revelation. "I'm concerned that my technical skills have advanced to the point where I can get closer to what I'm aiming for, which is not such a good thing," the singer explains. "You cannot unlearn what you know and go back to square one, so I try to put myself in situations where I'm off balance. Then I have to struggle and scrape a bit rather than fall back on what I already know."

For Look into the Eyeball, this meant singing one song, "Desconocido Soy," in Spanish and giving parts that he typically would play on guitar to a string section. Byrne also called upon Thom Bell—a key architect of the classic '70s Philly- soul sound—to provide his trademark string arrangements for two songs, "Like Humans Do" and "Neighborhood." "Byrne lets you hear what you thought you were hearing without hearing it and see what you thought you were seeing without seeing it," says Bell. "Very few people can do that. Smokey Robinson does that. Paul Simon does that. But Byrne is one very different individual. He thinks with his eyes. When you play with him, you watch his eyes."

Indeed, there are two things that regularly surface in Byrne's music and art: His suspicious eyes and that fabulously detached, insouciant voice. While looking into those eyeballs reveals a man full of intelligence and unease, his throat's phlegmatic inflections have come to represent the pinnacle of android irony. The prominence of these two body parts should not be underestimated. "People use irony as a defense mechanism," says Byrne, who, along with fellow Davids, Letterman and Lynch, is often held responsible for molding today's irony-saturated landscape. "When things get so absurd and so stupid and so ridiculous that you just can't bear it, you cannot help but turn everything into a joke. People are acting this way because it is the only way to survive in a culture as absurd as ours." Which is to say, the person who seems most callous and detached could very well have the most sensitive soul in town.

David Byrne plays Irving Plaza Sunday 13, 2001. "Gesture, Posture and Bad Attitude in Contemporary News Photography" is at Apex Art through May 19, 2001. Look into the Eyeball is out now on Luaka Bop/Virgin.