David Byrne Looks To Future With 'Eyeball'

David Byrne admits that there are times when being "David Byrne, rock icon" can be a "total drag."

David Byrne admits that there are times when being "David Byrne, rock icon" can be a "total drag."

Exhaling as he glances out the window of his New York office, the artist says, "It's initially a little disheartening and unnerving to put a record out, knowing that there's a faction of people who will immediately measure it against the music I made with Talking Heads. I mean, is it fair to have every song you write compared to 'Psycho Killer'?"

Yet Byrne remains committed to making music that challenges his fans to look beyond their comfortable points of reference. An eclectic catalog of solo recordings is further enhanced by the sterling new "Look Into the Eyeball," due May 8 on Virgin.

"Fortunately, I can't stop myself from bringing forth the thoughts and sounds that stir inside me," Byrne says with a smile. "That's the good news: I still derive pleasure from making music after so many years. It's still a joyous experience."

Actually, joy at its most primal is the emotional basis on which "Eyeball" was formed. Although the set is rife with the literate, often insightful lyrics that are his signature, Byrne opted this time to communicate first and foremost via rhythm.

"This album was built from the beat up," Byrne says, adding that he wanted listeners to have a "visceral reaction to the songs."

"When you feel joy -- or any kind of extreme or intense emotion, for that matter -- words don't often come to mind first," he explains. "Rather, you tend to have a physical reaction. With these songs, I wanted to trigger that kind of reaction. More times than not, the words became integral to the equation after the tracks had already taken a specific musical shape."

Byrne started this project two summers ago in Andalusia, a small region in the south of Spain, capturing grooves, loops, and bits of melody on a primitive tape recorder. On his return home to New York, he started sharing his ideas with friends and colleagues, along with an "inspirational" compilation of songs by Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes, Tricky, Serge Gainsbourg, and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, among others. "It was meant to hint at where the songs could go," Byrne notes.

From there, he took off to a friend's home in New York's Catskill Mountains to begin constructing tracks with producer Mike Mangini. "I loved his work with Imani Coppola and on the first Digable Planets CD. He's pretty groove-oriented, and he seemed to be fairly open-minded and flexible about dabbling in different sounds."

Versatility was key for Byrne, who envisioned "Eyeball" as a varied affair. After enlisting musicians Shawn Pelton, Paul Frazier, and Mauro Refosco to provide a consistent rhythm base in the studio, Byrne wound up with a richly diverse yet notably cohesive collection that darts from African-tribal percussion ("U.B. Jesus," "Broken Things") to Philly soul ("Neighborhood") and classic go-go ("Like Humans Do"). He even delves effectively into Latin territory with "Desconocido Soy," his first song written and performed entirely in Spanish.

"It was a frightening undertaking," Byrne says, noting that he initially tried writing the words in English. "But the phrasing and the meter of the melody was making it difficult. So I sang some of it in Spanish, and it fit the melody more naturally."

Byrne had previously dabbled in Latin music via his contribution ("Yolanda Niguias") to the 1996 Red Hot+Latin compilation "Silencio=Muerte" -- as well as a collaboration with Mexican act Cafe Tacuba on its EP "Avalancha de Exitos" that same year. But that wasn't enough to give Byrne the courage to record the track. It wasn't until after he played "Desconocido Soy" for the latter act that he decided to include the song on "Eyeball" -- and only then if group member NRU agreed to appear on it.

"It was important that the song, like the rest of the album, sound true and authentic," Byrne says. "I didn't want to venture out into the world looking foolish."

Byrne notes, though, that he did not originally plan on "Eyeball" being the accessible recording that it is. "I thought it would be something quite different. I envisioned a series of longer, more instrumental pieces that would evolve into songs." But as he continued writing, the songs were becoming shorter, and "that became OK. These songs reached their natural conclusion."

Byrne is now happily immersed in that phase of venturing beyond the safety of the studio and sharing the fruits of his labors. In March, he tested the new material in a handful of showcases in the U.S. and several European territories. "I must say that it was a truly exhilarating experience. I'm quite excited to get back on the road and play these songs."

To that end, Byrne will embark on a 17-date tour of the States that runs from May 8 through June 17. An additional string of dates in both the U.S. and Europe is being considered for late summer/early fall. The artist is slated to appear on "The Late Show with David Letterman" on May 16, with several additional television spots nearing confirmation.

Such attention suits Byrne. Still, he confesses that he gets "pretty nervous" about having to discuss his songs in deep detail. "Sometimes I don't understand what I've written for a long time after I'm done. In fact, there are songs I've written that I still don't completely understand -- and I've become OK with that."

"Eyeball" is Byrne's first effort for Virgin, after having ended an alliance of more than 20 years with Warner Bros. In addition to signing on as an artist, he brought his acclaimed Luaka Bop label with him to Virgin.

"It feels like a good fit. The energy of everyone involved at Virgin is refreshing and encouraging," Byrne says. He adds that 2001 will also see the release of new recordings by Luaka Bop acts Geggy Tah, Zap Mama, and Sise. The deal was christened in February with the release of "No Such Place" by Jim White.