David Byrne Has Got His Ears Wide Open

For the last 10 years, David Byrne has run Luaka Bop, the Manhattan-based record label that specializes in international pop, with Yale Evelev, formerly of the Icon world music imprint, which is now defunct. The label, a Warner Brothers affiliate, has felt some buzz and heat, as with the 1989 release of Brazil Classics 1: Beleza Tropical , which rode the heaviest wave of U.S. interest in that nation’s pop since Frank Sinatra recorded with Antonio Carlos Jobim in the 60′s. But other times, despite brilliant releases like 1996′s Amai by the Portuguese singer Paulo Bragança, or heavily press-endorsed albums by the Anglo-Indian group Cornershop, Luaka Bop has seemed like a public version of Mr. Byrne’s own private record collection, no less. But also no more.

Right now, though, with the release of The Best of Os Mutantes: Everything Is Possible! , the label looks impossibly clued in. With this compilation of the Brazilian trio–along with singer-songwriters like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Luaka Bop’s own Tom Zé, major players in the currently chic movement from 60′s Brazil known as Tropicália–Mr. Byrne’s label seems to be in the right thing at the right time.

Just before leaving his Manhattan apartment for another trip to Brazil, Mr. Byrne picked up the phone and spoke about Beck, bubble gum and the perils of being a purist.

New York Observer: North Americans have put different emphases on Brazilian pop over recent years, haven’t they? Brazil’s music is, after all, enormous and diverse.

David Byrne: It’s like one of those diagrams with circles, where part of it overlaps with what is hugely popular in Brazil, and part of it is outside of that, too. So the Brazilians sometimes look at us and scratch their heads and go, “Well, I understand why he loves Caetano–but why does he love Tom Zé?” In a way, it’s like all the British bands from the 60′s playing Chuck Berry and Little Richard songs. The reaction was the same. “Why do they like that stuff?” Because at the time American radio wasn’t playing that stuff. Nobody in America was hearing it. And all of a sudden, all these British bands were coming over and playing American songs back to us. They had hand-picked what they thought was special about American music. More recently, the British and Europeans heard house–disco music, electronic stuff, basically played by Chicago and Detroit and New York deejays and mixers and guys who were creating tracks for clubs–and took it a little further. The originals died out, were no longer played in clubs. And in five years– boom –every club in Europe was playing this stuff, but their own version. They then started reselling it to Americans as house and electronica and everything else. It’s the same thing; they hand-picked one little niche of creativity they heard in America and said, “There’s something special going on here.” Then they took it and ran with it. Although I’m not taking it and running with it, the process is that we’re picking Brazilian artists we think have may be something in common, but the choice often ranges over a particular part of Brazilian music; Caetano and Tom Zé and Os Mutantes and some of these other acts all rose to national prominence in Brazil at around the same time.

Observer : During the 60′s Tropicália moment.

David Byrne: Yeah. They certainly have that in common. But they’ve diverged, self-immolated, whatever, each in his own particular fashion.

Observer: Do you hear the 60′s counterculture stuff as being the precursor to the current collage esthetic–to, say, Beck?

David Byrne: Oh, absolutely. Not that one is the direct lineage of the other. But it’s the same impulse. I’ve talked to Beck; he’s a big fan of Os Mutantes. Not that I would say, “Oh, you’re just ripping off these artists.” But when you find something that somebody has been doing that has a similar approach to you, you gravitate to it, you listen to it, you go, “They’re dealing with the same attitudes and way of working that I do and I want to see how they approach this thing.” Plus it’s great music.

Observer: Do you think your own attitude toward this music–since you did Brazil Classics 1 in ’89–has changed?

David Byrne: Yeah. I’ve become less of a purist. In the beginning I wanted [he laughs] all the Brazilian music I heard to be played on Brazilian instruments with Brazilian rhythms. And then, gradually, I accepted that, no, you can’t be telling people that they can’t grab the same tools you’re using. You can’t impose some kind of exotic criteria on these people. You can’t say, “Oh, you have to keep as exotic as I want you to be.” You can’t do that to people. I find that that’s where I’ve sort of changed.

Observer: One gets the feeling that Caetano Veloso, for example, political considerations aside, is fond of people like Antonio Carlos Jobim and Djavan.

David Byrne: That sounds right. I think what’s difficult for us in the North to accept is that somebody can be radical politically, culturally and musically, and yet can still be romantic and love a beautiful, sensuous melody. Caetano can pull that off.

Observer: Velososeems within the Latin American literary tradition of luxury as metaphor–sonic, in this case–for freedom.

David Byrne: Yeah, and I think it comes from the African and indigenous part of Latin American culture, too. You’re in this lush environment, where the spirituality is very much about nature and natural forces. You see that as being both terrible and beautiful, and that’s part of your upbringing, esthetic and spiritual.

Observer: Is the notion of “the pure” in many Brazilians’ frames of reference?

David Byrne: They think of it in slightly different terms. They might say, “Oh, well, if you want to hear Brazilian music, you gotta hear very intelligent and beautiful sambas, but with traditional instrumentation.” They’re kind of not aspiring to be pop songs, whereas the other stuff, their slick pop productions, even Brazilians might say, “Oh, I don’t know if we want to hold that up as being our authentic culture.” But it is. It’s like slick pop productions are part of the authentic culture of North America, too.

Observer: Veloso sustains an excellent balance of writing for the academy and writing … a hit.

David Byrne: Yeah. He pulls it off. Whereas we see an inherent contradiction in those two worlds, lots of Brazilians don’t. They’re like, no, you can have your cake and eat it, too; you’re not fighting two different worlds, two contradictions. They’re all in the same world.

Observer: Sounds good to me.

David Byrne: I went to a club last night and saw a bunch of avant-garde videos and things. I had a great time, but in the end I thought, “You know, this is so accessible. In another context, it would be considered vaudeville.” Everything was 10 or 15 minutes long and had some element of humor and was definitely entertaining. But it was nutty, out-there stuff. It’s all about the context and the way it’s perceived. You know: put Andy Kaufman in an art gallery and it’s art. Put him on The Tonight Show and it’s comedy.

Observer: Where does that leave us in terms of how world music is presented in this country on record labels?

David Byrne: Ah, man, that’s a whole thing. We’re going through this time where people are starting to know the artist now. Ten years ago, hardly anybody knew who a Caetano was. Or nobody had heard of Mutantes or Tom Zé or any of these Brazilian artists. Now they start to know them by name. If I mention them at a dinner party or to somebody I’m hanging out with, they don’t look at me like, oh, he’s showing off, naming somebody we’ve never heard of. They know who I’m talking about. That’s a huge difference, because it means that those people are no longer other–no longer exotic primitives, masks of exotic Brazilians. In world music, these artists are no longer being marketed as makers of this exotic restaurant music, but as artists in their own rights.

Observer: Didn’t record companies once believe only exotic collections sold?

David Byrne: Yeah. People found it a little bit intimidating to get to know an artist whose name they could barely pronounce. But if they knew that there was this cool record of Cuban music, that was a start. [He laughs.]

Observer: When you were in Talking Heads, you talked about liking bubble-gum pop. Is there any connection between that kind of purely sonic experience and how you heard Brazilian music? Isn’t Brazilian pop, for non-Brazilians, virtually pure sonicism? You’re probably not going to know the Portuguese; you may not pore over the translations. It’s just going to hit you–like an American pop hit might hit you, like “1-2-3 Red Light” in your case, or Backstreet Boys now. True?

David Byrne: It’s true. The first things I heard, I was picking up the melodies, the arrangements, the rhythms, all those elements, before the text. Then I realized that not only were they doing incredible things musically, but the texts were really intelligent as well. They could balance an intelligence, a sentimentality, a romanticism in the text, an intellectual rigor in the text–again, they didn’t see a conflict there.

Observer: But then there’s some Brazilian stuff that’s actually quite horrible.

David Byrne: Oh, yeah. They have all the horrible stuff we have here.