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The January afternoon I met David Byrne in his office in a SoHo loft was otherwise bleak and cold. Upstairs, in a dark turtleneck sweater and dark mask, and with a white shock of hair, the musician, drawer, performer, filmmaker, diarist, photographer, bicycle rider and Talking Heads co-founder was laughing.
During the pandemic, at a standing desk at home, Byrne has made a series of funny and endearing drawings that he calls dingbats. They’re on view this month at Pace Gallery, in a show called “How I Learned About Non-Rational Logic,” and appear in a new book from Phaidon, “A History of the World (in Dingbats),” made in collaboration with the designer and editor Alex Kalman, who founded the New York museum Mmuseumm. The subjects of Byrne’s illustrations include an infinite sofa, a couch that stretches toward the work’s top-left corner until it disappears and, in the case of a bending guitar that floats next to a horn wrapped around itself, unplayable music. His depictions of eyes, pimples, bread, nostrils, hats, fingers and minds have more in common with the wit and gameness of the cartoonist Saul Steinberg (a self-proclaimed “writer who draws”) than with the pre-emoji symbols of ’90s computer fonts that the word “dingbats” calls to mind. (In 1994, when a designer at the music magazine Ray Gun was bored with the results of an interview with Byrne’s near-contemporary Bryan Ferry, the magazine decided to print it in the indecipherable font Zapf Dingbats.)
The standing desk isn’t the only place Byrne has been getting work done. His home also includes a spare bedroom where he continues to make rich and vivid music. His most recent studio album is 2018’s “American Utopia,” written with his longtime collaborator Brian Eno, and which Byrne adapted into a stage show of the same name in 2019; after numerous delays on account of the pandemic, he is currently performing it with an 11-piece band at the St. James Theatre on Broadway. (In 2020, Spike Lee made a concert film of the show.)
Then there’s this SoHo office, where Byrne answered T’s Artist’s Questionnaire. The buzzer here lists TodoMundo, one of his two record labels. The other, Luaka Bop, which has offices elsewhere, has put out essential music from Alice Coltrane, Os Mutantes and William Onyeabor, in addition to last year’s astonishing “Promises,” by the electronic producer Floating Points and the jazz legend Pharoah Sanders. The space is decorated with what looks like a dandelion attached to a battery under glass, a brimming Rolodex, a true mirror that shows a reflection’s reflection, hand sanitizer, a medical model of a brain and a Henry Darger drawing of girls that includes a caption in script: “They are broken hearted, and all attempts to cheer them fail.” A laddered yellow bookcase runs across one wall with books near the bottom, records at the top, CDs near eye level and a bottle of Heinz Sandwich Spread within reach. The next room is filled with rows of neatly labeled boxes: “Proposed Projects,” “Sheet Music,” copies of Robert Rauschenberg’s art for the 1983 Talking Heads record “Speaking in Tongues” and at least three boxes marked “Turkey Molds.” At the back of the loft is a small room with a record player and a bookshelf displaying a giant sponge and copies in multiple languages of 2012’s “How Music Works,” one of Byrne’s books, and, nearby, a white kitchen area with an Eames leg splint, a saw and supplies arranged in labeled bins for stamps, pins, staple removers, rubber bands and colored dots.
He sat at a white table with a small coffee cup decorated with two Norwegian trolls cooking at a campfire. We talked for more than an hour, undisturbed in the long studio. At 69, he has a soft voice that twangs, swings and sometimes honks. Hearing him speak — about dingbats, “Star Trek,” cocaine, Talking Heads, pain, happiness, friends, pencils, routine, sleep and procrastination — is comforting in a way that would be unbelievable if all you knew of Byrne’s work was the claustrophobic and anxious songs he made in the early years of his music career. He has mellowed into an expansive and enthusiastic figure. Not for nothing does he run a website called Reasons to Be Cheerful.
How do you start a drawing?
Often with an idea. I’ll sketch it out in pencil, sometimes just on a scrap of paper, to get the idea down: a mountain with a giant eyeball in it. How does it go? How big is it? Then I’ll do it in pencil on proper Bristol paper, because pencil I can erase. And then I’ll go do it in ink.
What does your day look like?
If I’m working on drawing or music or something like that, I might work for a few hours. Then I move on to something more kind of administrative. This morning, I was going through folders where I collect lyric ideas. It’s important to do that administrative stuff. It lays the foundation, so that when I come in to actually do some creative work, the stuff is right there.
What’s the oddest object here?
I’m kind of used to them all, so they might not seem that odd to me.
Over your shoulder is a rubber-duck piñata on the stump of a tree, next to a cement block with a handle.
Some of them I don’t know what they’re about. I don’t know what the cement block is about. Or the duck. But the stump: I wanted to make a chair in the shape of a stump, so I got a stump from a friend upstate, and I cast it. That’s the real stump.
What’s the last thing that made you cry?
There’s a Neko Case song, “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”: She captures this moment of getting on a tour bus and overhearing this woman yelling at her daughter. It’s so tragic: break your heart.
I think of you as relatively happy.
I was a little more isolated socially, not totally 100 percent comfortable, when I was a younger person. I feel like, to some extent, happiness has almost nothing to do with your circumstances. It obviously does — you need a roof over your head and security. Once you’ve got that, though, I don’t think you get happier if you get more. You reach a plateau. People think they always have to get more. I don’t know if they do, really.
That’s reassuring, it would be a problem if great wealth and fame brought happiness.
Oh, it’s only a handful who are going to get happy? But I don’t think that’s true. It’s possible to be happy — but it’s not guaranteed. It’s a weird thing. My work makes me happy. I’m not a person who would be happy spending a holiday just lying on a beach. That’s not to say that I’m any better than the people who are happy sitting on a beach. In some ways I might be worse. But that’s the way it is.
Are there drugs that particularly help or hurt your work?
I have coffee in the morning, and that’s about it. And then I stop drinking the coffee.
But you’re drinking what looks like an espresso right now.
I haven’t tasted it yet. But I’ve looked at it. I’ll have some glasses of wine in the evening, it calms me down at the end of the day. But that’s about it. As far as work, no, I have to be pretty clearheaded.
Have you always worked that way?
I might have tried some drugs, trying to write 30 or more years ago, and then discovered they might have been useful for a very short period. If it’s cocaine, it gives you this boost and you feel like, “Oh, I have these brilliant things to say.” And you regurgitate those, and sometimes they’re OK and sometimes they’re in need of a vast amount of reassessment.
Do you speak with other artists?
The band and I are all very close. I toured with St. Vincent and did a record with her, so when she’s in town, we usually get together. There’s an artist and musician I’ve known for a long time, Terry Allen. He used to live in Fresno and now he’s in Santa Fe. He could juggle being a songwriter, performer and visual artist. He felt like that’s what he was, and he managed to do it.
You have managed to do it, too.
He was kind of an inspiration that way. Musically very different from me. But we still stay in touch and get along really well. Who else? Brian Eno. I stay in touch with Brian Eno.Where do you draw at home?
In the open dining room that goes over to a living area, at the far end, near a window — I just put a standing desk with a light on it. I can stand and draw there. I have a spare bedroom and turned that into the music room.
That’s the life!
Yep! [Laughs.] I put down a carpet. I put this stuff on the walls, it’s called Homasote, it’s kind of spongy, so you can put pushpins into it and it absorbs some sound.
How early do you go to sleep?
Oh, 11:30, maybe. Midnight, sometimes. Sometimes I’ll watch some TV. I go between watching documentaries to watching things like “Star Trek: Discovery.” Late at night, those kinds of shows I find are perfect because there’s enough action and plot to keep me interested. I can’t watch psychological horror, or even kind of domestic movies where somebody’s going through this torturous thing.
Do you exercise?
I started doing it when I did the Broadway show. And I kind of kept with it. I go see a trainer once a week, see where I’m not doing well and where I’m doing OK. A show like mine, it’s not incredibly physical, but it is, at my age, physical enough that I have to stay in shape.
Are you in pain?
The first Broadway run, I had incredible sciatica pain, which is a nerve that runs down your leg. I think this has happened to other people, too: I had the scans and all the stuff, and nobody could find anything. I just thought, “It might not be entirely psychosomatic, but this has got to be me taking all the worries I have about the show and putting them into my body.” On the surface, I’m this happy person who’s getting on with it, doing stuff, putting a show like that together. And then you get home: “Ah! I can’t move my leg.” But that eventually eased up.
What do you buy in bulk?
When the pandemic started, I started getting groceries delivered. And then I looked at the bill. I thought, “I’ll just put on my mask and go to the grocery store, it will be fine.” And it was. But one time, a woman in one aisle started yelling at another woman, and the next thing I knew she was throwing potatoes. Literal, real potatoes. Which can hurt.
I can imagine you defusing the tension by introducing yourself.
I try to avoid it. Sometimes a restaurant will send me a free dish. That’s kind of nice, but I also feel like, “If I had known you were going to do this, I would have underordered.”
What’s your favorite artwork?
Henry Darger and Howard Finster, that kind of stuff I find very moving, maybe under the assumption that, in many cases, they’re driven to do the work not for a presumed art market, because it’s something they need to get out.
I love Darger’s book that collects the weather reports in Chicago.
I started but haven’t finished a book called “Storm” (1941) by George R. Stewart. It’s an old book, and it’s told from the point of view of a storm. The book review said, “The only other book like this is Darger’s.”
Do you see yourself in Darger and Finster?
A little bit. But I’m quite a bit more functional in certain ways — I function within, say, an art gallery.
Is there art you’ve made that moves you?
There are things that have been pivotal for me. When Talking Heads went from a four-piece to a nine- or ten-piece, that was a change in how it felt. There was a documentary that I did years later called “Îlé Aiyé (The House of Life)” (1989), about Candomblé Brazilian spirituality; I spent time in Bahia, and that was very moving. The Broadway show I’m doing now, I do a lot of talking. That has been transformative.
How do you procrastinate?
I try not to procrastinate very much. If emails are coming in, I try to answer them as quickly as possible, otherwise they’ll sink to the bottom, below anywhere you’re ever going to find them. I wonder if we’re actually getting more done with email and digital communication or getting less done. I can’t tell. You send a response, and a response to the response, and then you’ve got to respond to that. And then it comes back. If you were sitting like we are, you’d go back and forth for a few minutes. And you’d be done.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
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