David Byrne: ‘I couldn't write songs during the depth of the pandemic’

The Talking Heads frontman is opening an exhibition with sketches spanning 20 years

David Byrne is all about connectedness these days. "Everybody's coming to my house / And I'm never gonna be alone," he sings on Broadway in American Utopia, half joyful, half fretful, still open. His online magazine, Reasons to Be Cheerful – which bills itself as "a tonic for tumultuous times" – catalogues all the ways in which people are pulling together to make sure the world does not in fact go to hell in a handbasket. And on Wednesday, he reprises this theme of connectedness at Pace Gallery in Chelsea, New York, with a show of 48 whimsical line drawings that span 20 years of art making, from his "tree" series of the early 2000s to the "dingbats" he made in lockdown in 2020-21.

Byrne's drawings are modest affairs, not much bigger than a standard sheet of paper. They compare perhaps with George Cruikshank's illustrations for Oliver Twist, or John Tenniel's for Alice in Wonderland. But when I dropped by the gallery two weeks ago to see them being hung, I found him about 15 feet in the air, standing on a hydraulic lift as he labelled branches of an enormous tree he had drawn on a wall that is a good 20 feet high.

Tree drawings are like org charts: They define relationships. This one, titled Human Content and splayed in super-scale across the stark, white wall, is different in ways that are unique to Byrne. It shows not only branches but roots, and although the branches are labelled with familiar human categories – “nephews,” “boys,” “cousins,” “aunts,” “friends” – the roots bear the names of things that in one way or another affect our lives: “sugar,” “sand,” “boxes,” “words,” “wheels,” “holes,” “sauces”.

Staring intently and wielding an extra-large paint stick, Byrne added the word “singers” to a branch high in the treetop.

With his tree drawings, he explained afterward as we sat at a huge conference table in a back-office section of the gallery, “I’m trying to imagine connections between things that we don’t normally think of as being connected. I just thought, let’s see if I can let my imagination run free with that. If I can imagine connections where connections aren’t usually presumed to exist”.

This whole connectedness thing may seem out of character for someone who gained prominence in the 1970s new wave scene as lead singer of Talking Heads, the avatar of alienation. “As a younger person, I was uncomfortable socially,” he confessed. “But as often happens with those things, many people just kind of grow out of it.”

Byrne’s dingbat drawings, 115 of which have been gathered in a book called A History of the World (in Dingbats) that Phaidon is publishing on February 16th, are about the toll of disconnectedness – specifically, the kind that has been imposed on us by the pandemic.

Byrne started making them in the spring of 2020 after an editor on the Reasons to Be Cheerful website asked if he could make some simple, decorative drawings they could use to break up columns of type – the kind of thing printers used to call “dingbats”. No problem: It wasn’t as if he had much else to do, sitting there in lockdown in his West Chelsea loft. But soon, he found himself doing drawings such as Infinite Sofa, which depicts a sofa that seems to go on forever but has people sitting on it too far apart to connect, and T.M.I., which shows a person flattened by an enormous smartphone.

“I didn’t set out to do drawings that responded to the whole pandemic and the lockdown and everything else,” Byrne said. “But eventually I realised, oh, this is what you’re doing.” (The drawings in the show are for sale, priced at $8,000 (€7,200) apiece.)

What Byrne was not doing at the time was writing songs. "Now I'm starting to be able to write again," he said. "But during the depth of the pandemic, nothing. Nothing at all. I mean, I could do collaborations with other people" – such as Who Has Seen the Wind?, his recently released cover recorded with Yo La Tengo for a Yoko Ono tribute album put together by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. (Ono recorded the haunting song in 1970.)

“Those were kind of easy,” he said. “But I thought, I have not been able to process this thing – how I feel about it, what it means. I can’t write about health policy in a song. But somehow with drawing, I would just start doing something and it would just kind of flow out.”

Byrne makes little distinction between art and music – an attitude he shares with art-school alums such as Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson. Like them, he occupies a liminal space where music shades into performance art and art has a conceptualist bent, meaning among other things that it's more likely to take the form of an installation than of traditional painting or sculpture. This helps explain why his show at Pace, though focusing on the conventional medium of drawing, is titled How I Learned About Non-Rational Logic, a seeming contradiction that in fact has to do with the interconnection of art and music.

'The sciences used to be called a form of art, but now they're very much separate, and we thought, oh, can we bring that together again?'

As Byrne explains in a brief essay mounted on the gallery wall, “Both art and music seem to bypass the rational and logical parts of the mind – rather, they are understood by myriad parts of the brain that are connected to one another. It is a different kind of understanding. The effect of this interconnection is pleasurable, ecstatic even.”

Byrne's art education ended in the early 1970s, when he dropped out of, first, the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, and then the Maryland Institute College of Art in his hometown, Baltimore. His student work consisted of things such as questionnaires about different states of the union. "It didn't get much traction," he admitted. "I had questions like, which state in your opinion has the best shape?" He gave a short laugh. "Not getting very far with that."

He wasn't expecting to get very far with music either, but when Chris Frantz, a fellow RISD student who had become the drummer of the little group they had formed in New York, told him about this happening club on the Bowery called CBGB, they decided to audition anyway. It was early 1975; by June, Talking Heads was opening for the Ramones. Two years later, they connected with Eno in London. John Cale, once of the Velvet Underground, had seen them several times at CBGB, and he brought Eno to the tiny cellar club in Covent Garden where they were playing.

It was a good match. A few months later, Eno referred to them in a song called King’s Lead Hat, an anagram of Talking Heads. And in the years that followed, he helped them explore the wonderfully syncopated African polyrhythms that became increasingly prevalent on the group’s next three LPs, which he produced. He has been a key collaborator of Byrne’s ever since, from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, released in 1981, to American Utopia, the album that gave rise to the Broadway show, eight of whose 10 songs they wrote together.

In 2014, when Byrne was in London for the National Theatre production of Here Lies Love, his hit musical – Ben Brantley of The New York Times called it a "poperetta"– about Imelda Marcos, Eno introduced him to Mala Gaonkar, a hedge fund manager who co-founded the Surgo Foundation, a self-described "action tank" that tackles public health problems such as AIDS and lack of access to toilets. Byrne had done art installations before – most notably Playing the Building, a "sound sculpture" that New York magazine called "a marriage of the industrial and the sublime". But this meeting generated Byrne's most ambitious art project to date: an immersive art-and-science experience that is scheduled to debut this summer in Denver.

As Byrne describes it, he and Gaonkar “both had this interest in presenting scientific inquiry in a way that was more accessible to the public. The sciences used to be called a form of art, but now they’re very much separate, and we thought, oh, can we bring that together again?”

The initial result was a 2016 installation at Pace Art + Technology, the gallery's Silicon Valley offshoot, called The Institute Presents: Neurosociety. Itself an experiment of sorts, it presented recent work in psychology and neuroscience in a game-show-like format. (Wired described it as "a little weird" but "very cool.") There were moral dilemmas – suppose you were a drone operator and a girl was selling bread in front of a terrorist safe house? – and perceptual distortions.

"There were things that didn't work out," Byrne acknowledged – including a quiz based on research led by Princeton psychologist Alexander Todorov that showed that people could predict which candidate would win an election simply by glancing at their faces. "They got it right about 70 per cent of the time, which of course is terrifying," Byrne said. The problem was: "No 1, people did not like receiving such bad news. And also, it's not based on what you as an individual voted for, it's an aggregate of what everybody voted for – so people would go, 'Wait a minute, I didn't pick that one!' And they were right."

This August, if all goes according to plan, a radically revamped and expanded version of the Silicon Valley show will open in Denver in a former Army medical supply depot. Titled Theater of the Mind and presented by the Off-Center program of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, it dispenses with the election questions and other elements in favour of a narrative approach that somehow, I'm told, relates to Byrne's life. It also "shows how easily manipulated our senses are," said Charlie Miller, Off-Center's curator.

And the title? "It's a phrase that Oliver Sacks used," Byrne recalls. "He said the brain seems to be a kind of theatre that presents things to us – it's not real. You're watching a show."

Demonstrating, I suppose, that even if we can connect with one another, reality is a tougher nut. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times

David Byrne: How I Learned About Non-Rational Logic, Wednesday through March 19th, Pace Gallery, New York; pacegallery.com. On February 7th at 7pm, Pace Live will present David Byrne in conversation with John Wilson, host of the HBO series How To With John Wilson

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