The Democratic Circus: Art pop dreamteam David Byrne and St Vincent discuss their ongoing collaboration

We catch up with the art pop dreamteam of David Byrne and St. Vincent to discuss collaborations, Creationism and the art of cycling while on tour, prior to their imminent visit to these shores later this month

Feature by Colm McAuliffe | 07 Aug 2013

By the time Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, was born in September 1982, David Byrne’s Talking Heads were at work on their fifth album Speaking In Tongues. The band were about to enter their MTV-embracing commercial breakthrough, an era arguably defined by Byrne’s staggering physical performance replete with over-sized suit and webbed shoulder pads in the concert film Stop Making Sense.

Thirty years on and the pair are in the midst of a three year collaboration which has produced one storming album, Love This Giant, innumerable tours and a new EP, Brass Tactics, comprising unreleased tracks, remixes and live cuts. As with any collaboration, particularly one between a veteran male icon and a younger female artist, there’s a certain mystery and intrigue at play: who wrote what? Do they really get on? And what the hell is the story with those ridiculous Photoshopped images of each other on the album cover? Of course, everything with David Byrne seems unfeasibly meta, as if it’s part of some wider cultural context that only he is fully tuned into. And as a songwriter and singer, Byrne is a master in employing non-verbal languages: his Talking Heads back catalogue is infested with yelps and yowls and all manner of urgent cries.

Conversely, or perhaps perversely, Byrne is articulate to the point of loquacious while Clark is comparatively reserved and content to amuse herself at her collaborator’s verbal parambulations. Clark has had a long apprenticeship within the music world; as a teen she performed with her uncle’s jazz duo and regularly toured with Polyphonic Spree, Glenn Branca and Sufjan Stevens before creating St. Vincent in 2006, an increasingly elaborate vehicle for her florid and ornate stories of twisted, personal catharsis. Align these two disparate talents and what do you get? A brass jungle of horns and percussion and mildly absurd lyrics which may or may not be about love and beasts and self-improvement through watching TV.

“You could see it in their eyes, they were thinking 'this is going to be really esoteric and I probably won’t like it!’" – Annie Clark

Of course, such conceptual tomfoolery can result in artifice rather than art but there’s a warmth and wonder to Love This Giant, which is also evident when speaking to Byrne and Clark; their discursive rapport is filled with good humour and joy, and it all seems to make sense when you least expect it to. “David and I both had the experience of telling people ‘we’re working together!,’ reflects Clark, “and you could see it in their eyes, they were thinking 'this is going to be some experiment, this is going to be really esoteric and I probably won’t like it!’ [laughs]. And the album did start out a little bit more abstract but, as we kept going along and working on the songs, it got really open to a more art pop direction.”

While both Clark and Byrne are shameless, rampant collaborators, the process of creating Love This Giant was a more fruitful occasion for both musicians. “It was very collaborative,” Clark continues, “we’ve both worked in situations where the roles were more stratified, like: ‘okay you write lyrics and I write music’ but with this, we were both writing music and sending ideas back and forth.”

“There were electronic files sent back and forth initially,” Byrne confirms, “but the recording was very old-fashioned, a lot of jazz players, percussionists, all in the same room or group of rooms, reading musical charts. And I felt the same as Annie and I’ve done a lot of collaborations! The borders were more fuzzy than some of the others I’ve done. In others, I’d just write the words, or top-line melody, or sing it. This one, there could be parts where Annie wrote one section and I wrote another. Although once we were in the studio, with all the musicians, it was too late to collaborate! They had the music in front of them at that point."

The genesis for the two to collaborate originated from a series of hazy encounters which were initially the genesis of Housing Works – a New York non-profit organisation which was promoting a series of dual performances (Björk and Dirty Projectors are similar offspring) – Byrne attending St. Vincent’s New York shows and, bizarrely, a visit to the White House. “We got invited by NPR,” says Byrne, “the non-profit radio chain in the US, to attend the White House Correspondents' Dinner. NPR are really supportive of artists like ourselves and it was a way for us to show support for them too, they’re under siege from certain parts of the political spectrum.” 

The duo’s live performances have been honed and sharpened from the past year spent on the road. While the Brass Tactics EP features a faithful version of Talking Heads’ Road To Nowhere, the standout track is Marrow, which originally featured on St. Vincent’s 2009 album Actor. While the original slid and slinked along with heavily compressed beats, this new version shimmers and soars, adorned with all-new arrangements, the righteous brass allowing Clark to breathe, freed from the suffocating production on record. “Well, that was one of the more obvious songs of mine to do live…” Clark begins before Byrne interrupts. “No, I agree. I think that song comes across really well live.”

The current tour has an even distribution of St. Vincent, Talking Heads, and collaborative songs. So, Burning Down The House rubs shoulders with Cheerleader from St. Vincent’s 2011 album Strange Mercy while Byrne’s other collaborative work – Strange Overtones from his 2008 album with Eno and Open the Kingdom from Philip Glass’s 1986 album Songs From Liquid Days for which Byrne contributed lyrics. This melange of the more obvious and the more obscure create an invigorating and vibrant live show. “Oh my God, it’s so fun playing David’s songs live,” laughs Annie. “I have to pinch myself – I’m actually playing these songs with David.” “It’s like a music fan’s dream,” laughs Byrne. “You get to singalong like you do in an audience but people can actually hear you sing.”

The last time The Skinny saw David Byrne live, he was tentatively giving a lecture in New York on the lineage of acoustics in music venues through the ages. This eventually fed into How Music Works, his remarkable book on the myriad places in which music exists. Has this level of scholarship influenced the venues in which he now plays? “A little bit, yes,” he confirms. “We get the venues we are being offered to us before we say ‘yes’ so we know what we are getting into. If there is a venue that has a reputation for really bad sound or is excessively formal, then we might have a question about that. But we also streamline our set when we play festivals – too many ballads in an outdoor festival is probably not a good idea. But if you’re playing to a seated audience in an orchestral hall you can put some in and save the rave-up stuff 'til the end!”

Furthering his reputation as a renowned polymath, Byrne, through the advent of his blog and Bicycle Diaries, has become a committed activist in the world of urban cycling, advocating the two-wheeler as a fully-fledged means of daily transportation. So, in the midst of this mammoth tour, presumably Byrne has managed to maintain his cycling exploits… “[Byrne interrupts]. Wait a minute. Are you saying I try and influence where we play is dependent on where there’s good cycling routes?” Absolutely. “Ha! No, it’s all been pretty random. I’ve been really enjoying Middle America! I might not be expected to say that but I’m really enjoying it out there. The reception at the concerts has been really good. I think there was a little bit of shock when we begin and then, by the end stage, the audience has decided that they are accepting and eventually they like it. But we’re finding incredible places to explore and things to see wherever we go. The other day we went to Cincinnati and visited the Creation Museum [Annie: “Woah…”] which is a museum made by a religious group to counter the Darwin Theory of Evolution and counter the idea that life on earth is millions of years old, all that sort of thing. It’s fascinating and much bigger and slicker than we expected. It wasn’t like dioramas in someone’s barn, it was a big deal.”

"Wait a minute. Are you saying I try and influence where we play is dependent on where there’s good cycling routes?" – David Byrne

“Yeah, the idea begins with dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden. It’s a $27 million endeavour. Very evangelical,” says Clark. So, on tour they’ve been enjoying Middle America and visiting pious history re-creations? Hmmm… “I wasn’t totally convinced,” retorts Byrne. “But you know, I was towing along, I was following the arguments…until there was a skip in logic which was like ‘Woah! Wait a minute! We just went from Adam and Eve and the Fall straight onto Mein Kampf!

One of St. Vincent’s standout tracks from her Strange Mercy is Year of the Tiger, which detailed a particularly troubled year in her life. Is she finding 2013 – the Year of the Snake – a more pleasant experience? “Oh wow!” she gasps. “We’ve been watching a lot of David Attenborough documentaries about reptiles! But yeah, it’s been perfect. And this tour feels like a vacation. It’s really fun, there’s field trips, nobody’s arguing – well, in that sense it’s not like a vacation! But it’s summertime, we’ve been all around the US and Europe will be fun too.”

Speaking of Europe, it’s often not remarked upon that Byrne, the pansophic doyen of the New York art and music world, was actually born in Dumbarton, Scotland. “That is correct,” he affirms. “You should see the guest list for our Glasgow gig! We left when I was very young but we’d go back to visit the aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents every couple of years for a while. I did have a Scottish accent until I was six, or seven, or even eight but by then it was just the peer pressure of other kids [that made me lose it]. But that’s what happens with kids, kids at that age lose their accents immediately. My parents didn’t, but I did.”

Can he possibly imagine how different his life would have been if he hadn’t left for North America at such an early age? “It would have been a very interesting experiment if I had stayed and grown up in Dumbarton! Although you know what? It would have been even funnier if I had stayed there… and turned out exactly the same."

Playing Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow on 29 Aug and End of the Road Festival, Wiltshire on 30 Aug.