High Times Greats: David Byrne

An interview with a Talking Head.
High Times Greats: David Byrne
David Byrne by Marcia Resnick

Happy birthday to David Byrne, who turns 68 years old on May 14. Byrne chats about being famous, having sex, and sniffing ecstasy in this May, 1981 interview with Scott Cohen.

High Times: What’s the Talking Heads’ secret for success?

Byrne: My point of view might sound naive, but if you’re honest and sincere in what you’re doing, then there’s a good chance that there are people out there who will feel the same way. Even with a minimum of skill and technique, these people who feel the same way will find out about it through some mysterious process. We were very lucky. I expected it to take about five years for people to find out about us, and it took around two.

High Times: How long should someone wait?

Byrne: I’ve spoken to other people who took much longer, like twenty years or so, before their audience increased beyond fifty people. There’s a good way and a bad way of looking at that. Obviously you shouldn’t persist at something if no one’s interested at all. But part of the object of doing something is to get your idea across to other people, so you’ve got to make some effort.

High Times: How long did it take before you knew you could make a living being a Talking Head?

Byrne: Two years. I think it took us just over a year to get our first recording contract. We were lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

High Times: When you got your first big paycheck, what was the first expensive thing you bought?

Byrne: I bought a phone-answering machine, a TV set and a bed, one of those unpainted furniture beds that I painted white.

High Times: Usually one person starts a band. Was that you?

Byrne: I had some songs I had written, but I didn’t know what to do with them. Chris [Frantz] was saying let’s have a band, and that seemed to make sense.

High Times: Did Tina [Weymouth] come along with Chris?

Byrne: After we had been living in New York for a while, Tina offered to play bass and I offered to teach her how to play.

High Times: Was Tina once your girlfriend?

Byrne: No, she was always Chris’s. I think we started like a lot of bands around that time. They started as friends with the same musical tastes, rather than people who could play real good, and they all felt they wanted to hear a new kind of music. So it was like kids starting out from scratch.

High Times: Who was the first rock star you wanted to fuck?

Byrne: Mia Farrow. Though she wasn’t a rock star, she did marry Frank Sinatra.

High Times: What was the first instrument you learned to play and where is it now?

Byrne: The violin. I once lent it to someone and they never | gave it back.

High Times: Were you trained to be a Talking Head?

Byrne: My father worked for Westinghouse as an electronics engineer so I leaned toward that sort of thing, but art seemed to be more fun, so I went with the art, though I had a nonart way of looking at things. I didn’t know how I would end up. Being in a band was the most fun, and when we started to attract attention I automatically made a decision.

High Times: What kind of art influences your music?

Byrne: Sometimes painting done by what’s described as ”outsiders.” Primitive people who might be schizophrenic, and have no contact with the art world at all. A lot of what’s called folk art is by people who are trying to make something that’s conventionally pretty but they lack technique; whereas these people aren’t trying to make something pretty. They’ve evolved their own style that has nothing to do with the real world. They’re definitely not for public consumption.

High Times: Is that the kind of art you were doing in art school?

Byrne: I would switch all the time. By the time I was leaving art school, I was doing a lot of writing: lists of things and questionnaires which I guess developed into songs. The difference between music and art is that there’s a chance a song can change people’s perceptions. When you go in and look at art you’re already in a particular frame of mind and it’s not likely that something on a gallery wall is going to change you.

High Times: Which part of yourself would you most like to change?

Byrne: At the moment I’d like to be more decisive. I’d like to say “no,” or more often, “that’s good.”

High Times: What kind of neighborhood did you grow up in?

Byrne: It was a cross between two neighborhoods, lower suburban and run-down rural. It was in suburban Baltimore. My parents moved around a bit, sometimes not by choice. One house we lived in was a nice house, which they got real cheap, but it got bought up and was made into a parking lot. Another place we had to move from because they put I-95 through. Another one we had to move from was one of these barrackslike apartments, because I made too much noise and was disturbing the neighbors.

High Times: Were you one of those unfortunate kids with a real high voice who figured out a way to cash in on it?

Byrne: No, it’s not my natural voice. It seems to jump up there when I sing because I get excited. I think, with more practice, I’ll be able to sing in my natural voice and then I might be able to convey more emotions, rather than everything being a squeal. Too often I sound like I’m being strangled, which gives the song the wrong impression. I might want to sing words that are very heartfelt and it will come out like I’m being strangled.

High Times: Do you believe in love?

Byrne: I believe it’s something real and happens to people. I fall in love now about the same as before. It’s a job, sort of. It’s work.

High Times: Is sex everything you thought it would be?

Byrne: No. Sometimes you think it’s what you want but it’s not at all what you needed at the time. I really don’t think about it that much because I’m personally happy without it and I don’t mind waiting until I find someone who I really get along with. I don’t go out on the prowl too much.

High Times: As the Talking Heads got better, did your sex life get better?

Byrne: About twenty-five percent better.

High Times: Did the beds get better?

Byrne: The beds in the Holiday Inn always seemed comfortable to me. They’re all made up before you get into them, which is more than I can say about my bed at home.

High Times: Do you talk a lot in bed?

Byrne: Not during sex.

High Times: As the band got better, did the drugs get better?

Byrne: Not in my experience. Maybe the others have run into a substance that I don’t know about. I think there are just more offers. Drugs became more available, not necessarily better.

High Times: As a Talking Head do you pay more or less for drugs?

Byrne: Probably the same as anybody else. Many fans offer to give them in return for a chat or conversation.

High Times: What was the last new drug you’ve taken?

Byrne: A year ago I tried [ecstasy]. It didn’t do much for me. It stung my nose. Sniffing is an odd way of doing things. What’s next? Putting eyedroppers into your eyes? Painting something onto your skin?

High Times: Where would you go on a dream date?

Byrne: Sometimes when I meet a girl I think, Could I ride on a Greyhound bus with this person? So I suppose I have romantic notions about that, but maybe it has more to do with two people going someplace. I guess dream dates turn out to be where you go to all these different places in the same night, maybe spending an hour at one place and an hour someplace else. It ends when I come home, listen to a record and go to sleep.

High Times: Did you ever get caught fucking?

Byrne: Yes, and I felt real silly. A friend of mine caught me fucking his girlfriend. It was in their house. I felt pretty bad and the guy felt pretty bad but the girl thought it was real funny. But it didn’t change our friendship very much.

High Times: Did you get a song out of it?

Byrne: I think I wrote “Psycho Killer” shortly after.

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