Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green

"As a father of twins and a diplomat, I usually avoid the word favourite," says Matthew Barzun. "But you're about to hear my favourite band." The 43-year-old United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom is standing on a makeshift stage in the entrance hall of Winfield House, the neo-Georgian mansion set in 12.5 acres in London's Regent's Park, which since 1955 has been the official residence of whoever holds that title.

Upstairs is the bedroom where President Barack Obama stayed during his last state visit to Britain in 2011; on Friday night its occupant was Matt Berninger, the lead singer of American band The National. "I expect there'll probably be a pack of cigarettes, some dirty magazines and the launch codes under the mattress," he says, before leading his band on stage for a nine-song set.

Welcome to the Winfield House Sessions: a series of intimate concerts featuring American and British acts that Mr Barzun has been organising since he became ambassador in August last year. The two previous gigs were by Damien Jurado and Ed Sheeran; clapping along to The National were actor Mark Ruffalo and artist Sir Antony Gormley.

On the surface, the evening appears to be the antithesis of the traditional black-tie reception: the dress code is jeans; buckets of beer stand on elegant antique tables and the ambient music is a thumping, nightclub beat. But every detail has been carefully thought out, from the canapés (fish'n'chips, corn dogs and beef tacos) to the cocktails (Old Fashioneds or gin and tonic).

Guests at the event included Mark Ruffalo (centre) Guests at the event included Mark Ruffalo (centre) It is a masterclass in what Mr Barzun calls "cultural diplomacy". "The contrast of the beautiful, formal setting with more informal music and wearing jeans is part of the appeal," he says before the concert, sitting in his office at the US Embassy on Grosvenor Square.

"That term 'cultural diplomacy' is a really powerful one, because there's not agreement on what it means. There's a group of people I'm sure who would be like: 'Oh come on, that's an oxymoron – real diplomacy happens behind closed doors, with government officials.' But another school of thought would be: 'Can you imagine being effective as a diplomat without culture as a part of it? That's how anything and everything happens'. "

Mr Barzun is not a career diplomat: he used his tech background from his time at CNET Networks to great advantage by organising small-scale, grassroots fundraisers with an online presence during Mr Obama's presidential campaign. He was rewarded with an ambassadorship to Sweden in 2009, his only previous posting.

There is a giant poster of Johnny Cash on his office wall, next to portraits of President Obama and Winston Churchill.

Guests at the event included Antony Gormley (centre) Guests at the event included Antony Gormley (centre) Mr Barzun says he loves Cash because his sound is "uniquely American", a fusion of rock'n'roll, blues and country. "I have him, and Winston Churchill and President Obama keeping an eye on me. That's a good line-up, a good set of moral compasses," he says.

To get things done, he "colour codes" his days, using stickers for certain subjects. Blue for "government-to-government stuff", green for trade, yellow for the media, grey for internal meetings and purple for "engaging in new ways", under which the Winfield House Sessions fall.

He says he was inspired to open up his official residence by the Obamas. "They continued the wonderful traditions of state dinners, that sort of thing that the White House has always done, and they introduced new ways of bringing people together, and opening up, and welcoming through music."

An unusual take on Ferrero Rocher An unusual take on Ferrero Rocher David Cameron and his wife Samantha were seen nodding along to Sheeran when he played Winfield House in April, but Mr Barzun reveals that he and the Prime Minister have only recently come to know the singer's music. "We had been together at Chequers playing rounders – badly on the Barzun side," he says. "And we were talking about music … we learned about Ed Sheeran through our children and now we've become big fans ourselves. It was nice for them, I hope, to have a night away and just enjoy great music."

Mr Barzun went to Glastonbury with his son, tweeting pictures of his muddy wellies. He says he "only recently" cut off his wristbands and that his son is still wearing his. "At some point my wife's just going to have to snip them off while he's sleeping," he jokes.

Some might say that he's on dangerous ground, given British politicians' troubled history with pop music. Gordon Brown's professed love of Arctic Monkeys was the subject of much ridicule, while Mr Cameron was famously "forbidden" from liking The Smiths by the band's guitarist, Johnny Marr. But the ambassador is hurt by the suggestion that bands wouldn't want to play at Winfield House; none of them are paid to perform.

The National performing The National performing "There's no arm twisting," he says. "I think if it were perceived to be something manipulative, people would start saying no."

Matt Berninger admits that the appropriation of music by politicians is "obviously something that happens", but adds: "That's not what's going on with Matthew. I think Matthew is kind of a big music nerd."

For the ambassador, compliments don't come much better than that.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines