In 2018, the writer, performer and former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne blew up the traditional pop concert before our eyes. Closer to experimental theatre than live music, his American Utopia tour brought with it a redrawing of the rules of musical performance, introducing audiences to a brave new world without drum risers, cables, visible amps or microphones. Instead, the 12-piece band strapped instruments to their bodies and, dressed in matching grey suits, danced barefoot in rigorously choreographed formation along with Byrne, all the while working through a setlist that interspersed songs from his solo career with old Talking Heads hits. Endlessly inventive and visually spectacular, it was a joy to behold.
The show, which began life as an album and later moved to Broadway in 2019, has now become a concert film, courtesy of the director Spike Lee. This means that Byrne, once dubbed rock’s renaissance man by Time magazine, is again on the promotional trail, discussing what has, over the course of two years, become his multiplatform masterpiece. But if he’s bored of talking about it, he does a great job of hiding it. In fact, I’ve never seen him so perky. Byrne is a famously nervy interviewee – the first time I met him, in 2003, he picked anxiously at his clothes and didn’t seem to know what to do with his limbs. Today, talking over Zoom from his New York home, Byrne, 68, appears entirely relaxed, reflecting warmly on the show that has breathed new life into his career at a time when he might feasibly have slowed down and taken up gardening.
The film was Byrne’s idea, as was the choice of director. He and Lee had crossed paths in the past – “I guess that’s the advantage of being a well-known person,” Byrne says. “I had his phone number so I could just text him.” He notes that filming a concert brings with it a particular set of challenges, “Like, how do you capture the energy of a live show like this, and also make it in a way that’s true to what a film can be?” he reflects.
He has some experience in this department. In 1984, Talking Heads worked with the film director Jonathan Demme for Stop Making Sense, now seen as the high watermark in concert films, and which famously featured Byrne in a comically oversized suit. The suit was meant as a parody of a vainglorious rock star, but the image somehow stuck. Talking to an interviewer in 2001, he dryly pictured his tombstone: “Here lies David Byrne. Why the big suit?”
For the filming of American Utopia, Byrne largely left Lee to his own devices, safe in the knowledge that this time the suits were fitted, and that this unusually theatrical show, which takes place within a square curtain of chains through which the band move in and out, would translate well to the screen. “There’s a lot going on visually,” Byrne notes, with understatement. “Other than a few little interventions, he didn’t really change the show at all.”
While the singer has spent over 45 years making and performing music, even he was been taken aback by the critical plaudits showered upon American Utopia as it made its way around the world. “I would like to say it was all planned and worked out carefully, but a lot of it was luck,” he says with a chuckle. “A lot of ideas, like the whole band being mobile, and the whole stage being empty, all those things [were made possible by technology]. But I had also come to a point in my career, and also the times we were living in, where I felt I had to, as a person and a citizen, acknowledge certain things about how I’ve grown and changed as a person, and how that happens to all of us. So all those things came together, and I think they couldn’t come together at any other time.”
The show undoubtedly carries a message of unity and belonging, never more so than during “Everybody’s Coming to My House”, a song that cleverly balances the personal and political in its reflections on the concept of home. In the show, Byrne points out that the entire band are immigrants (as he is himself, having been born in Scotland and raised in America from the age of eight). “I try to talk about those things in a non-partisan way,” he tells me. “I try to make it personal. I’m saying, ‘This is us! We come from all over. You’re seeing how this works and how fruitful this can be.’”
I wonder if he’d ever imagined seeing the world, but most of all America, brought so low in the past five years. “To be honest, no,” Byrne replies. “We’ve all had our dystopian fantasies of what could go wrong, and there’s plenty of books and TV shows that represent that. But then to see this happen… Trump was not a surprise. He is what he is. What is surprising is how many people still support him [even after the election]. When you see the coronavirus exploding across the United States, and how many dead there are, and how many people just don’t care about that or think it’s a conspiracy, you just go, ‘Wow, the country I’m living in isn’t the country I thought it was.’”
In 2018, Byrne launched Reasons to Be Cheerful, an online magazine concentrating solely on stories that reflect positive change in the world, from the Brazilian city that has defined access to food as a human right to the Norwegian scientific team that helped to ship seed banks out of Syria before the bombs hit. Byrne’s plan was to spread some good cheer, he says, “but also this is therapy for me. When I wake up in the morning and read the papers, I need a bit of an antidote. But then you discover there are positive, encouraging things happening in one region, one county or one little town and you go, ‘Well look, they’re solving that problem.’”
In our last conversation, Byrne told me how he suffered from shyness and initially got into music “as a way to deal with relating [to] other human beings”. I remind him of this and he exclaims: “I highly recommend it! I mean, at that time I was painfully shy and felt very socially awkward and uncomfortable talking to strangers. As for a whole group of people, that was very challenging. But I could get up and perform, no problem.” Byrne acknowledges the paradox of a shy person finding comfort in front of crowded auditoriums but, he says, “sometimes that’s the only option open. And it does feel more impersonal. You’re not faced with the tricky logistics of a one-on-one conversation or, God forbid, trying to make eye contact. It’s more abstracted, in a way.”
He says the forced isolation this past year has been tough, in creative terms. “I can’t perform, and can’t do lots of things, of course. But there are other things I haven’t been able to do. I haven’t been able to write songs, even though recently the lyrics have started to come. But for a long time, in my usual pattern of going into a room and writing songs, I’ve just thought, ‘What do I write about? What has meaning at this point? What do I have to say?’ So I’ve put my energies into Reasons to Be Cheerful, and my drawings and other kinds of things.”
In fact, Reasons to Be Cheerful is one of many extracurricular activities for Byrne in a career that, along with albums, has taken in film soundtracks, photography, drawing, DVDs and books. In 2012, he wrote How Music Works, which looked at the nature of music and live performance, and how it is shaped by time, place, technology, architecture and human relationships. Byrne concedes that he’s a bit of a workaholic and is rarely happy without a project on the go. “It’s very pleasurable for me to be at work on something,” he says, smiling. “Although in case people have the impression that everything I do [goes well], I should say that not everything succeeds. There’s a lot that ends up being put on the shelf.”
I ask if lockdown at least brought some respite from the daily grind of performing the show. Byrne smiles and says: “No, I would have been happy to keep going, actually. I’d gotten used to the routine and I really, really liked it. And it looks more exhausting than it is, at least for me.”
David Byrne’s American Utopia is available on digital download on 14 December and DVD on 11 January
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