David Byrne: head collaborator

A soundtrack with Will Oldham for a film about a Nazi-hunting rock star. An opera about Imelda Marcos with Fatboy Slim. David Byrne's collaborations continue to amaze

It is always pleasing to discover that a person's natural habitat is exactly how you had always envisioned it for them, and in that regard and many others, David Byrne's New York office is especially pleasing. Based in SoHo – that 1980s heartland for avant-garde artists, of whom all but the most successful have since been priced out to Brooklyn – the entrance is so convoluted that instructions are emailed three different times from a slew of assistants and finally require one of them to come down in a freight lift to rescue me off the street. Upstairs, after you wend your way through snaking corridors, you are suddenly in a large and beautiful room with dark wooden floorboards, artwork on the wall, colourful furniture and, most entrancingly, tall shelves stuffed with intriguing knick-knacks that I am only able to resist inspecting because Byrne himself suddenly appears.

Floating above the grubby and rain-soaked SoHo streets, it feels like being in Willy Wonka's factory for artists and looks like an exceedingly fun place to work. It is the very vision of where one of the linchpins of the new wave music scene in late-70s and early-80s New York and now one of the most productive and endlessly curious polymaths around, who has won Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe awards, should spend his days.

Byrne himself, though, is not entirely as anticipated. Physically, he is very much as expected, with his black trousers, black T-shirt, hipster grey hooded top, that squishy boyish face topped with, of course, that shock of white hair. But the jitteriness that sometimes seemed his defining feature as the face of the Talking Heads has softened into a gentle and friendly sweetness. He's not a relaxed chap – the voice still has some staccato and he fidgets almost constantly, pushing his hands back and forth on the table. But he has an easy laugh and an endearing habit of using American anachronisms not generally heard since 1954: "Jeez Louise!" "Gosh!" "Boy, oh boy!"

"Here you go, I thought you, um, might want this," he says as awkwardly as a teenage boy giving his mum a birthday present, and he slides a CD of his live set at Carnegie Hall in 2004 with Brazilian guitarist Caetano Veloso across the table to me.

"I was very nervous playing with him, of course," he says. But did he enjoy doing it? "Oh yeah. Oh yeah!"

It is testament to Byrne's generosity and inquisitiveness how much he loves collaborations. Aside from his well-known work with Brian Eno, he has collaborated with artists as diverse as Twyla Tharp and Arcade Fire. He is currently working on two collaborations with artists about as different as can be: Annie Clark, the American baroque pop singer-songwriter known as St Vincent, and, um, Fatboy Slim. This latter project sounds amazing. Entitled Here Lies Love, it is Byrne's long-nurtured pet project, an opera about Imelda Marcos, and it will have its first full presentation this summer in upstate New York. What made him decide to spend almost the last 10 years writing a musical about a shoe-happy widow of a deposed dictator with Fatboy Slim?

"She loved going to discos," is the not wholly expected answer. "She loved to sing but she also loved going to clubs a lot and had a mirrorball in her New York townhouse. So I thought, Great! Here is someone with a story and she comes with her own soundtrack!"

And how did Norman Cook respond when asked to collaborate? Byrne laughs for a good minute. "Uh, yeah. We met a couple of times and then he said, sure, let's give it a go. So he's been doing a lot of the musical stuff and the beats, as Norman does, or giving me beats and me writing a song over it, so it's clearly marked who's doing what."

Byrne, who was born in Scotland and grew up in Canada and America, talks happily and fluently about his work, but when asked a slightly personal question – what he looks for in a collaborator – the vocal staccato becomes more pronounced and his hands push back and forth on the table with renewed vigour.

"Um, someone – um, someone, uh, who I admire but whose work is sufficiently different from mine so that I think maybe I'll learn something from them and see how this person ticks, how they work. In a collaboration, you benefit by the other person doing what they do and you doing what you do and you get in the same stream but each doing your own thing."

It sounds almost like a romantic relationship, I say. He perks up at that idea: "Yeah! Yeah, yeah."

The reason Byrne and I are meeting is to talk about yet another collaboration with an artist who, again, is as different from Fatboy Slim as windchimes are from a sound system: American punk/folk singer Will Oldham. So how does the "Appalachian post-punk solipsist", to quote one critical assessment of Oldham, compare as a collaborator with the composer of Right Here, Right Now? Again, Byrne laughs long and hard: "Yeah, it's, uhhh, it's pretty different!"

Byrne roped in Oldham to work on songs for the upcoming film This Must Be the Place, starring Sean Penn and directed by Paolo Sorrentino and named, of course, as a tribute to the Talking Heads song. Byrne agreed to work on the project because he was such a fan of Sorrentino's previous film, Il Divo, and he has worked on an enormous variety of movies, including The Last Emperor, for which he won an Oscar, and Oliver Stone pretty much built Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps around his songs:.

"They're all pretty different movies, yes. I guess I look for films where I'm going to get some leeway. My feeling is, if a director or studio has a very specific way they want the music, they should get someone who does that kind of music. With me, you're going to get something, well, me," he says.

The music on This Must Be the Place is lovely, you'd expect from a Byrne/Oldham collaboration, but the movie is frankly ridiculous.

"Yeah, Robert Smith from the Cure as a Nazi hunter," Byrne laughs, longer than ever. "I wasn't too sure if people would buy that either, but we'll see." And then he laughs some more.

The movie opens with Penn playing a Robert Smith-lookalike reclusive rock star who quit the music business at the height of his success in the 80s, retired to Ireland with his wife, played by Frances McDormand, and now spends his days wandering around shopping centres and playing sports with his wife in a drained swimming pool. This, in itself, could have been quite an interesting movie but it unfortunately turns into a daft saga involving Penn driving across America looking for the Nazi who tortured his recently deceased father.

There is also a particularly embarrassing scene featuring Penn shouting at Byrne: "David Byrne, you're an artist!" How on earth did Byrne keep a straight face when filming that? "Yeah, that was kinda hard," he laughs. "But not surprisingly, with Sean Penn, when he's acting he's pretty much that character. So I thought, just react as if someone was talking to you that way." As if someone was shouting: David Byrne, you're an artist? Byrne cracks up in response. So it didn't give him a taste for acting? "No, no, no."

Yet what that scene lacks in non-cringeworthy dialogue, it makes up for as a reminder of how indefatigably, and even courageously productive Byrne has been since his 80s heyday by contrasting him with Penn's character, Cheyenne. Plenty of musicians opt out after achieving their success, as Cheyenne does, whereas Byrne, 59, not only continues to make music across a wide variety of genres, but writes books – 2009's successful Bicycle Diaries and the upcoming How Music Works – writes columns in the New York Times, maintains a prolific blog and has art exhibitions.

"But I can completely empathise with [Penn's character], too, that sense of I've done what I want to do and now I'm going to go live my life," he says.

For Byrne, work clearly is his life. I had been firmly informed before the interview that I would only be allowed to ask about the film, but he is more than happy to discuss all other projects, often bringing them up himself, his energy picking up the more he discusses them in all of their varieties.

You know, I say, as we're finishing, it's funny what you say about Imelda Marcos loving disco and having her own soundtrack because Osama bin Laden was obsessed with Whitney Houston so I think of that as his soundtrack. Byrne rocks back in his chair and his mouth falls open in delight.

"I didn't know that! Jeez Louise! Wow! Wow! Well, you can see it with The Greatest Love of All – I did not know this!"

And off he goes, quite possibly to write a power ballad opera about Osama bin Laden.

• This Must Be The Place is released in cinemas 6 April


Hadley Freeman

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
David Byrne – (almost) all of his albums ranked!
As the experimental iconoclast embarks on a UK tour for new album American Utopia, we rate his studio LPs, from Remain in Light to The Last Emperor

Alexis Petridis

14, Jun, 2018 @12:04 PM

Article image
David Byrne, more than just a Talking Head

The Talking Heads singer has branched out, from art installations to a travel book

Rosie Swash

12, Aug, 2009 @11:05 PM

Article image
David Byrne review – disarming performance that makes perfect sense
Barefoot and besuited, the Talking Heads frontman delivers an entrancing show of often extraordinary music

Alexis Petridis

15, Jun, 2018 @10:52 AM

Article image
David Byrne: 'Spike Lee and I have a lot in common'
The former Talking Heads frontman on the importance of performance, covering Janelle Monáe, and his hope for the American experiment

Sean O’Hagan

13, Dec, 2020 @9:30 AM

Article image
American Utopia review – David Byrne and Spike Lee burn down the house
This ambitious concert film mixes politics, Talking Heads hits and Lee’s inimitable style to winning effect

Simran Hans

19, Dec, 2020 @3:00 PM

Article image
Alexis Taylor and David Byrne: in conversation
The Hot Chip frontman and Talking Heads legend fire up Skype for a candid chat about collaboration, cybernetics and how best to cover Prince

Rhodri Marsden

16, May, 2015 @8:00 AM

Article image
How Music Works by David Byrne - review
David Byrne's arty, commonsense reflections intrigue Michel Faber

Michel Faber

09, Nov, 2012 @10:55 PM

Article image
David Byrne review – still making sense
The cerebral ex-Talking Heads frontman rolls into town with an immaculately drilled and dressed ensemble – and joyous music

Kitty Empire

23, Jun, 2018 @3:00 PM

Article image
David Byrne pays tribute to Jonathan Demme: 'He was open, warm and energetic'
The Talking Heads frontman, who collaborated with Demme for the 1984 classic Stop Making Sense, recalls a director whose films were ‘different and special’

Guardian music

27, Apr, 2017 @8:48 AM

David Byrne and Fatboy Slim: Here Lies Love | CD review
It's a great history lesson but an album full of lyrical platitudes, writes Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

03, Apr, 2010 @11:05 PM