A Sinner Speaks

It's hard to imagine an artist more versatile than David Byrne. Best known as one of the Talking Heads, the postmodern renaissance man embarked on a dizzying cross-genre career following the band's break-up in the late 1980s. He started the global-minded alterna-pop label Luaka Bop; he directed, wrote, acted in, and scored the 1986 film True Stories; and he's created several visual-art exhibits.

Byrne, 49, is again wooing his art-school fans across the globe with his latest project, an intellectually knotty new book called The New Sins (McSweeney's). Byrne's first long-form text is built to look like a Bible, and takes a liturgical tone while twisting what you might think of as virtues -- Sense of Humor, Charity, Intelligence, etc. -- and refashioning them as shameful sins. On Intelligence/Knowledge: "The more you know, the more you know you don't know and the more you know that you don't know. Oh, it sounds funny, but it is serious. Self-knowledge, in particular, is a dangerous thing -- the more one knows oneself the smaller one's opinion of oneself, in most cases -- and to this there is no advantage."

Byrne's book bears the signature short-attention-span visual sensibility of the work of writer Dave Eggers, who designed it. Depending on which side you open, it reads in English or Spanish, and the second half -- upside down from the back -- reads in the opposite language. Flashy words are highlighted in red. And among the thick layers of textual irony, Byrne includes 80 of his own stark and contemplative color photographs and illustrations.

Reached by phone between a sound check and a performance, the self-proclaimed sinner set aside some time to offer alternately coy, playful, and intellectually rigorous remarks on his latest project. And then he told us what he was carrying in his ever-present bulging backpack.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this unique text?

A: About over a year ago, I was asked to do a project for an art biennial in Spain, in the city of Valencia. The theme of the event was "Virtues and Vices." I took the theme fairly seriously, and so I made a few different proposals, and one of them was to do a book, kind of like a Bible. Instead of showing photographs or some other kind of work being shown in an exhibition, it would just be these books and they would be placed in hotel drawers around the city so that visitors to their event would just kind of discover the books and then take it with them if they wished. I also suggested that they have people in conservative outfits at tables around the city. In their plazas, often there are religious groups out there. And maybe they could have them next to one of the religious groups, handing out this book.

Q: Do you think of it as an art project, or as a piece of literature?

A: I haven't thought about that question. Well, I guess it's a piece of literature as art project. Something like that. I'm trying to have it both ways.

Q: What did you read or use as resources to prepare to write this?

A: I was down in the Florida panhandle and also in Alabama, and I picked up a bunch of tracts, little folders that come from churches down there. Some of them were really great ... beautifully convoluted writing and rants on this and that.

Q: What is your personal religion?

A: I'm not sure at the moment.

Q: What has it been in the past?

A: I went to Sunday school when I was young. My parents went to a Methodist church and I think they went to something else before that; I'm not sure what it was. I haven't subscribed to any particular religion since then, although I feel that I have a long-time interest and fascination for [religions].

Q: Your name isn't prominently placed on the book's cover. Why?

A: Well, the author's name isn't on the other book that you find in hotel drawers. So I thought [I would stay] in keeping with the authorless form of that kind of book. Many of the other books like that that you get in religious-book stores, the author's name is not on the cover. You don't buy the book because of who wrote it. You buy it because of the peace and solace and guidance it's going to give you. So the same applies to this book.... But in this one, you get more pictures.

Q: In reading the book, I felt like, "I'm guilty of this sin, guilty of that one." How about you? Are you a sinner?

A: Yeah, I probably am. That's why I could ramble on so much about it. I've committed quite a few of them. I'm speaking as one who knows.

Q: What's the response to the book been?

A: It's a little hard for me to tell. Usually, the people who get the book [at signings] haven't looked at it yet. So they come in on the fact that they like the way it looks, or they like the way it feels. That's part of reading -- the touch or the sense is part of the reading experience.

Q: Have you heard anything from religious fanatics?

A: Oh no! Well, not yet, anyway.

Q: Is that something that you expect?

A: I think this will be under their radar, or outside of their radar. Mayor Giuliani is not going to get up in arms about this, like he did about the Virgin Mary picture.

Q: In your explanation on the McSweeney's Web site, you wrote that people crossed themselves when they met you. Was that a joke?

A: No, someone did. That was in Spain.

Q: If you could pass this book to anyone, who would it be?

A: The whole idea was that I wouldn't pass it to them, that they would find it kind of by accident and not know exactly what it was and experience, at some point, a moment of extreme confusion and bafflement.

Actually, I did give it to some friends of mine. And because my name wasn't on the cover -- sometimes when you get it, it has a little gold strip around it with my name on it -- so of course I remove that when I give it to friends. I gave it to some friends to look at and at some point I realized, they don't know that I wrote this. They think I'm just a complete lunatic and that I'm trying to convert them into some kind of a cult. And they're kind of looking at me like, "Gee, David, this is an interesting book ... where did you get this? Where did you find this? Why did you give it to us?"

Q: Part of the performance in Spain was to discreetly leave the book in hotel rooms in place of the Bible. Has that continued in the US?

A: Yeah, well, I've left a few, and I believe Dave Eggers has left a few as well.

Q: What's the link between this and your work in other genres?

A: There's an obsession or certainly an interest in God and religion in certainly my songwriting. But I think it's the whole modus operandi that has a lot in common -- the fact that I've often liked to do my art in places in public, but not announce it as art. Uh, and that includes music. That if it's a pop song, it's just not as pretentious. In some ways, it's a lot more moving because you don't have your artsy-fartsy radar up. And the same thing's true with finding a book in a hotel drawer.

Q: In a piece explaining the work on McSweeneys.net, you wrote about how you were reading Faulkner when you were writing this. What were you listening to?

A: Um, I don't think I was listening to much of anything at that point. It would have been too distracting.

Q: What are you listening to now?

A: Kind of work-related stuff. Today, I was listening to some new recordings from Susana Baca, a singer on our label.

Q: In a New York Times Magazine profile of you earlier this year, the author wrote about you and your huge red knapsack.

A: That got stolen when I was in Barcelona. I did get a new backpack. I couldn't find a red one.

Q: What's in your backpack today?

A: I'm still into carrying my life on my back. I think it also frees me from having to think about what am I supposed to bring today, what am I supposed to carry today? Because I have everything. Let's see ... I have my passport, I don't think there's anything else too strange in here. It all seems pretty normal.

Q: What do you want people to ultimately take away from reading The New Sins?

A: I expect it to be amusing, but I also expect that that humor is a way of disarming people, because I think that there is something serious being said occasionally in there. A lot of our values are kind of topsy-turvy.

Nina Willdorf can be reached at nwilldorf@phx.com

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