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From his SoHo loft, David Byrne has an unobstructed view of a Foot Locker across the street. The elevator rumbles violently as it climbs three flights up before opening directly into the airy space with blond hardwood floors and oversize windows. Byrne, 63 in blue shoes, peers through the panes as Broadway traffic hums below. There’s an American Apparel down the street; a Duane Reade drug store at the end of the block; Bank of America to the south; Opening Ceremony around the corner. CB2’s just a few doors down, and Volcom is across the street from that, just north of the mass-market shoe store that currently occupies Byrne’s field of vision. “I see them occasionally taking their breaks in that kind of narrow space there,” he says of the store’s employees, for no reason in particular. The statement hangs for an extra beat. Was that a metaphor? Is David Byrne hinting at something? Did David Byrne, New York icon, decades-old scenester, House-Burner-Downer, Psycho Killer…er, just summarize his beloved city’s dire gentrification problem in but a passing phrase?
Or have we simply come to expect that everything David Byrne says, does, and touches means something?
We’re waiting for Devonte Hynes, the British ex-pat R&B artist who has performed under multiple monikers (you might know him as Blood Orange). Byrne sits back in his chair. His eyes dart around the room as he waxes poetic in his patient baritone. Parked over in the other room is his bike, the silver one with the handsome Brooks saddle, a navy blue sport coat slung over the left handlebar. It rests next to a wall of yellow erector set bookshelves snug with LPs and CDs and books and strange dolls. A white porcelain dog with a bright red nose is perched on what may or may not have once been a tiki bar. There’s a pair of vintage red velvet theater seats by the entrance. He has a sculpture of a brain, and another sculpture that looks a lot like an ear canal, though his assistant maintains it’s a worm. Marc Maron was here yesterday to interview Byrne for an episode of his WTF podcast. Despite the lived-in nature of the space, Byrne has only had the keys for a few months. “It was a sweatshop,” Byrne says of his previous office. “There were sewing machines and stuff. So we said, ‘Okay, we’ll fix it up and put in a kitchen and all that.’ So the landlord benefitted from having a fixed-up place. We got priced out. The rent went sky high as soon as the lease ran out.” David Byrne: pop music icon. David Byrne: priced out.
The cost of making art, specifically in a place like New York City, has been a sore subject for many over the past decade, including Byrne. In October 2013, he wrote a controversial op-ed in The Guardian under the splashy headline “If the 1% stifles New York’s creative talent, I’m out of here.” Some reacted with genuine panic. Others believed Byrne to be making an empty threat and wished him good riddance. Who needs the old fogies anyway? People were still finding ways to do new, weird things in the city, though such things were happening miles away from the downtown Manhattan scene that Byrne and his band, Talking Heads, helped shape through the ’70s and ’80s at places like CBGB, the piss-pot punk venue that closed in 2006 and is now a John Varvatos outpost. There’s a Patagonia next door.
But yes: Art. Namely, weird art. The sort of stuff you don’t understand upon first listen or cursory glance. The type of night that doesn’t necessarily need to be explained so much as experienced first-hand to really get it, know it, feel it. Art. Like in 2008, when Byrne turned an entire New York building into an instrument. That same year, he designed a fleet of bike racks that doubled as modern art sculptures and peppered them throughout the city. How will David Byrne save this particular form of art in a place (many places) choked by Chipotle? How does anyone find that weird space between the high and the low; the complex yet accessible? What does that even look like anymore?
For David Byrne, it looks like an arena full of musicians and high schoolers waving flags and performing synchronized routines as a form of competition. Color guard: the “sport of the arts.” Color guard: that thing you went to once on a Saturday because your niece or nephew was involved. That hard-to-explain activity with rifles and sabers and flailing arms and flowy dresses and bedazzled jumpsuits. Color guard: The perpetual high school punch line. Color guard: Almost by very definition, uncool. Here comes David Byrne.
Byrne has been a regular face at the Color Guard World Championships for the past few years. “You walk in there, you realize you’re in another world,” Byrne says. “They live and breathe that at least half the year.” (They, being the high school kids who flock to Ohio each April to compete.) “They’ve basically taken over every Holiday Inn Express in the entire Dayton area.” In 2008, Byrne let a team use one of his instrumentals during competition, and he became fascinated after watching the videotape. Once he experienced color guard live, he was sold. He immediately started thinking about how he could incorporate it into his own work, and the work of others. The result is Contemporary Color: a multi-faceted arena spectacular that will take place over four nights (two in Toronto this weekend, two in Brooklyn next weekend). Byrne has paired 10 color guard teams with 10 artists—St. Vincent, Devonte Hynes, Zola Jesus, Lucius, Tune-Yards, Nelly Furtado, and Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys, among others. Oh, and Ira Glass.
“With color guards, the pre-recorded stuff that they use tends to be moody, atmospheric, soundtrack-y stuff,” Byrne says. “Or they go for an inspirational ballad. But I thought, ‘Okay, because we’re doing it live, we have to bring the energy level up from what they’re used to.’ Actually, just having live music, the energy level’s going to come up, so I think that’s going to be a little bit of a shock to them.” Each artist has written a new song specifically for these four shows. “A lot of it is going to be worked out really quickly just for money and expediency. We’re not U2. We can’t just buy the arena for months on end just to have a rehearsal place.” (If you’re keeping score: U2 did exactly that this past spring.)
Hynes, having just skated over the bridge from Brooklyn, sits at the head of the table. “My team is very aesthetically pleasing,” he says. “It’s stunning. This might be a bad comparison, but it reminded me of the [NBA slam] dunk contest. Because in the last five or so years, there’s been a divide. You have people who have a ‘classic,’ people who just want to go up and maybe do a 360. And then there’s the other side, the people who bring a car and a phone booth, and they’re Superman, they jump over the car.”
Byrne and Hynes agree that they are both “visual” songwriters. Byrne’s live shows have always been spectacles, going all the way back to the canonical Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, in which the stage was literally assembled as the show progressed. (Yes, the same video where Byrne wore the big suit.) For his part, Hynes wrote the acclaimed indie-electro score to Gia Coppola’s 2013 James Franco-driven indie film Palo Alto. “There are songs that exist in my head,” Hynes says. “There’s a weird game where I say to myself, like, ‘Okay, what if I had to write a song for this film?’ I have a song called ‘Champagne Coast,’ and I wrote it, oh my God, I wrote it imagining if it was a song for Romancing the Stone.”
Byrne, funny enough, is the same way. “I have done things where I’ve been watching a film at home on a tablet or something, just sitting in the kitchen, and I’ve got a notebook in front of me,” he says. “Somebody says something in the film and I start writing it down. The ideas start flowing. At the end of it, I’ve got a page full of stuff and I go, ‘Oh, I can get some lyrics out of this.'” At Contemporary Color, the arena audiences will see stories unfold through multiple avenues. “It’s in individual pieces, but a lot of those have narrative in them,” Byrne says. “There’s one with a Hitchcock theme, there’s one that’s set in an insane asylum.”
The project is enough to keep Byrne busy, for now. In August, he’ll head to London, where he’s curating the city’s Meltdown Festival, featuring such names as his past collaborator Brian Eno and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, who will perform his There Will Be Blood soundtrack with a live orchestra.
But first, he’s got high school kids busing in from all over the region. He has art to make, even if this time around, it’s not so easy to explain. (Or sounds a little dorky.) Byrne has something utterly weird and strange to share with the world, because, even as double-decker tour buses roll past his office window, oblivious to who works inside, he’s still David Byrne, and he still has thoughts to get out. He still wants to challenge us, even if that means collaborating with a cabal of teenagers on back-to-back sweaty summer weekends. He knows there are still stories to tell, and, unlike many of his contemporaries, he’s not going to water himself down. Or his work…. Even if that means discomfort for the audience and some of its participants. “There’s another one,” Byrne says of the planned color guard compositions, “The whole thing is about disappeared children.”