Tuesday, September 22, 2009

David Byrne interview

When I worked at Pitchfork (well...define "work" where there's no pay), I was odd man out when it came to hyping The Arcade Fire and placing the Talking Heads at the top of OMG! greatest bands evah lists. For most of my life, the Talking Heads and their brand of quirky, twitchy, intellectual pop left me cold. It's only been fairly recently (and primarily through TH side project Tom Tom Club and their embracement of early 80s NYC disco culture and vice versa) that I've come to appreciate a few of the band's dancefloor cuts (that said, the Staples done stole "Slippery People" and ain't never giving it back to Byrne).

That said, after reading his new book, Bicycle Diaries, I've become a fan of David Byrne and his outlook on life, art, and culture. When I wound up seated next to him at the Björk/ Dirty Projectors brouhaha a few months back, we got to exchange a few words about spacy disco dubs and the like, which was kinda fun. Anyhow, Nylon asked me to conduct a Q&A with the man via email a few months ago, so I'm posting the entirety of the exchange here. Now to go out looking for a new bike...

I’m told that you are traveling at the moment and so my first question is if your bike is with you and how the urban terrain is there (wherever that may be)?

There are 7 bikes with us. 2 are mine, one of which I loan to whomever wants it and there are also a bunch of folding bikes I bought in Greece for the band to use. Where did I ride recently? Ferrara, here in Italy, which is small and flat and everyone rides bikes- gorgeous women, grandmas and Tony Soprano.


Ferrara is in the north of Italy, where quite a few of the (smaller) towns are filled with bikes and few cars (notice there's only on car in that photo). The towns are, for us, strangely, peaceful, quiet, comfortable (one isn't likely to be mowed over) and the air even feels different. Granted, some of these towns even must have outlawed motos and scooters from their old centers, otherwise the streets would be abuzz with those lawnmower engines on wheels.

A few of us rode around Rome as well the other day- which is quite another story. Generally as you move south in Italy the chaos increases exponentially- though there are always surprises, like Locorotondo which a local described as "Zurich, compared to Napoli". Even Roma, believe it or not, was bikable- I rode around the old part of town, over to the Vatican to get someone a "Popener" as a gift, and around Borghese Park to see the modern art museum- which mainly had 20th century Italian art- Futurism and such.

What was the genesis of Bicycle Diaries? Have you kept such notes over the years and finally collated them after all these years or was the book idea the impetus to start putting such musings down?

I've kept tour diaries ever since I started touring in places where I wanted to record my observations and whatever happened to the tour- places like the Balkans, South America, Asia seemed worthy of remembering more than, umm, Sacramento or even Atlanta. I began writing them around 15 years ago with no thought of publishing any of it....though I'd show bits of them to friends and more recently I began posting some of the diary entries on my blog....which became an incentive to post the entries semi regularly. I've used a bike to get around NYC for 30 years, simply for pleasure and for practicality. So, it isn't something I only do when traveling. In other cities (mostly when on tour) I bring a full size folding bike and spent the afternoons exploring.

In the last few years it has seemed to me that biking as a way of getting around- even in the USA- is becoming more acceptable. I noticed I wasn't the only one out there besides some messengers anymore- so I became a tiny bit more of an advocate, but not, I hope, in a dogmatic or hectoring way. It does seem that other people might be willing to consider getting around their towns on bikes now too, and that local government might be willing to make a space for them as well. It's one of those tipping points we've heard about. 

The tone of the book throughout is one of peregrination, of musing and alighting upon ideas and thoughts (without nec. unpacking them fully) and I was wondering how closely it mimics your train of thought as you ride.

It's pretty much exactly a mirror of the experiences I have- I pass something or some place and wonder how it got to be the way it is....I visit places that to me raise a lot of questions (Stasi Headquarters, for example). It's incremental- and as these increments accumulate sometimes conclusions are reached. I'm generally fascinated by towns and our physical man made environment- how they mimic what we consider to be important in our lives, or how we get seduced by convenience and what that has done to our cities and to ourselves. 

What cities do you long to bike in? Have you ever been able to bike about in China?

I've biked in Guangzhou, which used to be called Canton. It was scary - like driving in rush hour freeway traffic.  If you're in the left turn lane, you'd better not be thinking of going straight. I've heard that things are changing in China, as more folks can afford cars, which might not be a good thing from a global perspective. But can you blame them? we've all got cars (well, I don't) so they must feel why shouldn't they have them too? 

In the book, you are often apologetic and/or cautiously optimistic about the political mindset/ climate of the US amid your travels. As you travel about now in the post-Obama age, have you discerned a change in how others now perceive us?

I think the jury's still out, as Bush and his predecessors did an unbelievably good job of destroying the US reputation around the world, but I sense folks around the world are willing to have some faith in Obama, and so far much of what he says (his Egypt speech was SO smart- it raises the possibility of undoing decades of meddling and bungling!) is about repairing that damage. It's pretty amazing how much of a turn around there has been- how he has given people all over the world an opportunity to believe again in what the US stands for....which is NOT torture, squandering resources, Blackhawks, Blackwater and Black Sites.

But, the jury's still out, there are a lot of Cheney's men and right wing fundamentalists still keeping the faith around the world and at home, and the damage they've done, and are doing, will not be undone overnight- but, amazingly, folks are willing to give us the benefit of the doubt.

That says something about peoples' innate willingness to forgive and believe that people can change for the better given the chance. 

In the epilogue, you hint that some of the cities visited herein might disappear within our lifetimes. What cities seem most susceptible to such a fate?

Detroit is returning to farmland as we speak. Let's see, which cities are simply and clearly completely unsustainable? Phoenix, Las Vegas, LA for starters- they've been stealing water for decades and soon it will become too scarce and they'll have to close up shop. This, to me, is not some apocalyptic paranoid vision, it simply the facts on the ground. those cities are unsustainable and are too entrenched, structurally and in their lifestyles, to change in time.


Knowing how hands-on you’ve been with the city of New York and their transportation problems (not to mention designing bike racks for DOT), what single change here would have the greatest effect? More bike lanes? Turning a major street into a pedestrian thoroughfare? Increased fares for cars (rather than for riding public transportation)?

I'm not an expert in how these transitions work. Jan Gehl, who has advised quite a number of cities around the world, is more experienced at recommending how these transitions take place. He believes in incremental change- he's against quickly importing the Velib bike system from Paris to NY, for example, as he believes that structurally and otherwise NY is not quite ready. Close maybe, but not there yet.

A street closed here, a dead auto zone turned into a pedestrian zone, a safe secure bike lane added here- they gradually add up and people get used to them. We incrementally change our habits based on these infrastructure changes- I ride down 9th ave to work more often than I used to, now that it is safe....and I have friends and family that ride where they wouldn't have dared in the past.

It's not really about bicycles, it's about are we going to take control of how we live? of the quality of our lives, or will we let what used to be called Detroit, Big Oil and Big Food etc tell us what is possible in our lives. I am disappointed that GM is hanging on- their demise would be something to celebrate. 

How do you think the whole mortgage meltdown might be beneficial in the short- or long-run in terms of preserving urban neighborhoods?

Well, from what I've heard the meltdown has allowed people to question the values espoused over the last couple of decades- the myth of the market policing itself has been revealed to be the lie it always was. People, for the moment, are willing to rethink their priorities- mostly because they have to. It's a moment when that cliched word, change, is indeed possible. 

Will Big Pharm and the medical and doctor lobby win and defeat a sensible health plan for the US once again? They might, but as more people drop through the safety net in the event of any medical emergency- losing their homes and savings as a result, they're more likely to stand up to the doctors and the drug companies.