“With Stop Making Sense, we brought everything onstage so people could see what it takes to put on a show, and with this, I’m taking everything away,” David Byrne says of American Utopia, his quasi-theatrical Broadway residency, which is scheduled to run into next year. “I wondered, ‘Can we do a show where it’s just us, the musicians, and none of the other stuff?’ If you do something simple, it’s sometimes really hard. But I think audiences appreciate it when nobody’s trying to fool them.”
During the show, Byrne leads 11 musicians — all barefoot and dressed the same in matching gray suits — through nearly two dozen songs from the Talking Heads and Byrne’s solo years, leaning heavily on last year’s American Utopia album. Byrne talks to the audience between the songs about voting, James Baldwin, and how the brain works. In fact, the only prop in the show is the model of a human brain (used during the song “Here”), which helps set up the show’s loose plot. “Here’s a guy who’s basically inside his head at the beginning,” Byrne says of his “character.” “And then by the end of the show, he’s a different person in a very different place.” But mostly, American Utopia is a spectacle, an exercise in minimalism in which each musician carries his or her own instrument and dances around an austere stage.
“I don’t get too tired doing it because you get an adrenaline blast,” Byrne says. “There’s always the temptation to go out afterwards, but that’s a mistake.”
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Today, Byrne is dressed in a regular-size polo shirt and kneeling on a pillow at the back of his SoHo office in New York — a few hours before he is to go onstage — so as not to aggravate a knee problem. The walls are covered with bookcases holding art monographs, DVDs, film canisters, and his books in multiple languages. There are Henry Darger paintings on the wall, as well as the monkey painting from the cover of Talking Heads’ final album, Naked. There are Buddha statues here and there. It’s sunny and bright, and his bicycle is propped off to the side. He’s content, looking off to the right as he answers questions, and he shows no sign of fatigue despite kneeling for nearly an hour.
It’s safe to assume that some of his serenity comes from the world outlook he seems to have adopted in recent years. He oversees a web magazine, Reasons to Be Cheerful, and many of the themes in American Utopia are about inclusivity and community. What’s surprising, perhaps, as he speaks calmly and clearly about the show and the way he sees the world, is that he says it is not a state that comes naturally to him.
You have a song in the show from your American Utopia album, “Every Day Is a Miracle,” which has a sort of “the day is what you make of it” theme. Is it easy for you to start the day with a positive mindset?
Oh, no. I start off probably like most people. I have a little coffee and a grapefruit, and reading a few newspapers. Sometimes the emails can be cheery, but the newspaper is generally not. So then it’s kind of recovering. But I can kind of turn it around. It’s an effort, though. It’s work. The temptation is to fall into cynicism and anger and all that.
Do you have routines that help you break out of that? Mantras?
No, I work on the Reasons to Be Cheerful thing. We’re only focused on things that have been successful, so it helps to see incrementally that “Oh, somebody has created an initiative and has done this” — so that’s moved the marker a little bit.
There’s a little bit of theatricality with the brain at the beginning of the show. When you’re onstage, do you consider what you’re doing to be a character?
It’s kind of a character. It’s me, but it’s also not meant to be totally autobiographical, but there’s elements of biography in there. But it’s not like, “Oh, here’s my life story.”
That’s kind of what Springsteen did. Did his success make you want to bring American Utopia to Broadway?
No, but I think the success inspired Broadway people [producers], who realized that this kind of music can work on Broadway. There’s an audience there, and they’ll come to the theaters.
What has been the hardest aspect of the show to adapt from the tour to the Broadway stage?
Well, a lot of work went into the arc of the thing, and how my little talking bits and the songs take you on a journey. The stuff that was more difficult was the sound and staging. We kept it pretty much what it was, but this is a vastly different, much more intimate space.
Being in the same place every night has to make some things easier, though.
Yeah, being in the same place means that if you focus a light on a spot, you know it will look the same tomorrow. It doesn’t ruin the spontaneity, but you know that if you do it, it’s going to work.
How did the story arc — this idea of an insular person opening up — come together?
It sort of emerged by itself. Other people noticed that it seemed to be inherent even in the concert version. That seemed to be apparent to them. So I thought, if it’s already there, let’s just make it a little more explicit and take out stuff that doesn’t tell that story and if that’s what it wants to be, let’s let it be that.
I didn’t go into the concert saying, “This is the narrative that I want to tell.” But as we started choosing songs and working out the staging, it emerged that that’s what was happening. We didn’t go into it with the story in advance, which some people might think is a little odd, but that’s how it works sometimes.
What is the significance of everyone dressing the same?
It makes us into a little tribe, much more of a team or a unit. And we really are very much a community that works together. When you look at six drummers making the sound of, say, one drummer and a percussionist, but now it’s six people doing it, it has a very different feeling when it’s a whole group doing it than if it’s one guy on a kit. It’s a different emotional feel. So I want that to be apparent. I wasn’t sure what everybody would be wearing at first, then I thought, “Well, if we had some nice suits, we’d all look kind of attractive.” It’s maybe slightly formal, but we’re not doing anything imaginative with the outfits. It’s almost a blank slate. Then I thought, “We can’t be wearing business shoes even though we’ve got suits on.” I thought, “Let’s see if we can be barefoot. It’s a nice contrast to the suit.”
Is it weird being barefoot all the time?
There are people who mop the stage every day. When we were touring, yes, sometimes it was kind of wild. In festivals, you can’t always lay down the material that is our flooring. So at Jazz Fest, it was like plywood with big chunks ripped out. We were just like, “Oh, we’re really going to have to watch where I step.” It was fine.
Did the idea of having everyone carry their instruments come from the St. Vincent tour?
It came little by little. Obviously, guitar players have been doing that for a while, me included. And with the St. Vincent tour, I realized we could do this with all the brass players, but the drums and keyboard were still anchored. And then I realized, “If I can afford it, I can liberate the drums.” It’ll mean there will be a lot more players. And even keyboards, which is the last step, which is some new technology; the radio transmitter for the keyboard might have been developed in Hungary or some place. Then I realized we could have everybody do that. Of course, I’m a fan of drum line and samba schools and second line, and all that. So I love that feeling of the whole group of musicians being able to move and make formations and do all that. It has this great feeling. So I thought, “If I can do that but bring it into this kind of musical context, that would be really exciting.”
It has to be fun to feel the drums pushing the air all around you.
Oh yeah. The players will surround us sometimes and sometimes move to a different side of the stage. Sometimes it’s right in your face, and sometimes it’s different. The mix just changes depending on where they’re standing.
Why did you decide not to have a horn section in the show?
If I could afford another five musicians, I would have had them. I pride myself on sticking to a budget. So when I was conceiving the show, I thought, “How many musicians is this going to take?” I go back to the agent, “What size theaters am I doing? Am I going to make enough money to pay those musicians?” Eventually the math worked out. It’s purely practical.
When you introduce “I Zimbra,” you discuss Dada poetry and how a certain generation used absurdity to make sense of the world around them. How do you make sense of the chaos today?
I can’t make sense of all of it. [Long pause] Oh, wow. I’m still, like I say in the show, trying to figure it out. Why do we behave the way that we do? Why do we do this? Sometimes it just seems horrible, and sometimes what we do feels beautiful. I certainly don’t have it figured out. Gradually, over the course of a life, you think you’ve got certain things figured out: “Oh, I know why people do that.” But it’s certainly nowhere near knowing why people do what they do.
One of the most moving parts of the show is in “This Must Be the Place,” where you do a pause after saying, “Love me till my heart stops.” People just cheer. How did that come about?
At first, we were making a little joke that’s based on this stop that’s in “Lazy.” It was a reference back to that, and then it turned into something else. It felt more heartfelt than a gag.
Speaking of the audience cheering, is it weird for you to have the audience sitting the whole time instead of dancing?
Yeah. We’re getting used to it. They’re pretty much always up at the end, and depending on what night it is and how they feel, they get up in the middle for some songs and sit down again. But when we were on tour, they would generally be up by the third song and just stay up to the end of the show. And we got used to that, maybe a little spoiled by that, but it’s a different thing.
I realized that as much as we love that and kind of got addicted to that — and audiences enjoy it too — having the audience seated in a nice theater in the Broadway setting is an opportunity to do other things. At a regular show, I could never get away with all the talking that I do. People would get frustrated: “Enough with the talking.” I don’t know in the concert context if you get the whole arc of the show, whereas on Broadway with people sitting, people can absorb more of that stuff and put it all together, and they’re dancing by the end.
At the show I attended, you sort of gave people permission to dance to “Burning Down the House.”
Yes. I see them dancing in their seats before that, but by then I can see that pretty much everybody is squirming in their seats and they don’t know whether they are allowed to dance in that setting or if the ushers are gonna come down and hit them with flashlights. And they’re not. So I say the ushers are not going to stop you, and by that point, it’s like you’ve popped the top off the bottle and they just go, “Whoa!” and they stand up. I think it will all change once word gets out.
On the theme of including everyone at your show, how would you feel about your former bandmates coming to the show? Would you want them to come?
I’d love if they wanted to see it, if they were curious what I was doing. Jerry [Harrison] often comes. He lives in San Francisco or Marin County, so he often comes to see my shows when I’m out there.
I’ve gotten the impression that there was no back-and-forth between you and the other members.
There’s a little bit. Not much, but there’s a little bit.
Tina Weymouth said a long time ago that you were “a man incapable of returning friendship.”
[Laughs] Yep, there’s some bad blood out there.
I’m glad there is some back and forth. Why are some of your bigger Talking Heads hits — “Psycho Killer,” “Life During Wartime” — not in the show?
Some of them didn’t seem to help tell story. After it became apparent what the narrative arc or the story was, this journey of a person, some of those didn’t seem to be helping that. People would probably like to hear them, but I thought it would be more important — and luckily, there’s enough of a catalog — that I can pick stuff that actually helps connect the dots as opposed to sticking in songs because “Oh, people would want to hear this.”
Are you still feeling the same way you always have about reunions with the band?
Yeah. [Pauses] I’m trying to think of any reunions I might have seen where I felt, “This needed to happen,” where it allows a band to move on to the next step. With the Pixies, I thought it was terribly justified because the public caught up with what they were doing. So they finally got the audience that they deserved early on, whereas we did OK.
Right, I was just thinking of how Paul Simon would tour with Art Garfunkel for old time’s sake. I didn’t know if that ever moved you.
No, not really.
Before “I Watch TV,” you tell a story about how you immersed yourself in television in 1977. What do you remember learning from doing that, especially since TV 40 years ago was very different than it is today?
I learned that contrary to what I was hoping — having a window into society and myself — it’s not a complete view. There’s a lot missing. You see a lot of things that are “what,” but you don’t get any of the “why.” And, like the internet, it can be very seductive but also empty calories.
What inspired the lyrics to “Born Under Punches”?
Wow. I can’t always explain what the songs are about. Sometimes I can, but sometimes I can’t. I know that “The heat goes on, the heat goes on” — I think that was a [New York] Post or Daily News headline that summer. It was a heat wave.
“I’m a tumbler”?
I think that might have come from Zap Comix. There was a comic where a guy comes up to a gas station and there’s a sign that says, “Get your tumblers in the back,” and there are these guys who kind of beat the shit out of him.
I know you used to give yourself strictures for some of your lyrics, like on “Animals” you wanted to write about animals that set bad examples, so I didn’t know if it was something like that.
I did sometimes. I still do that. There’s not much in the show, but on the album I did some songs like that. [American Utopia’s] “Bullet” came from writing from the point of view of a bullet going through someone, taking their life bit by bit. You’re aware of all the life that was and could have been and all the different parts and the devastation going through with the bullet.
Do you consider your music political?
Yeah, in the wider sense. It’s not necessarily partisan political, but in the larger sense, yeah.
With the idea of everyone being dressed the same, I wasn’t sure if it was a statement about socialism or egalitarianism, where everyone is equal.
Yes, this show in particular, I think it’s evident that it’s very democratic in that way. The drummers get to come down stage and it’s their moment to be the stars, and everybody comes forward and gets a showcase. You never know when that’s going to happen. They’re all moving around and being the front person at some point. It’s not all about me being in the front, backed by a band. So that is political, but not in the didactic way. It’s in a way that an audience can experience it. They experience a different kind of social order and they see it working, and I think that has a huge impact.
Going back to “Born Under Punches,” last year, I interviewed the Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo about her interpretation of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light album, and we discussed cultural appropriation. She said she did not view what your band did on that album as appropriation because you gave credit to Fela Kuti as an inspiration, but you’ve faced criticism about appropriation over the years. Where do you draw the line between appropriation and multiculturalism?
Some things are really easy. Like, if you took a song or music from another culture and copied it and put English words to it, but didn’t really collaborate with those musicians, and then made a lot of money on it — that’s an important element, too, whether you make a lot of money on it — but it’s very complicated. But I think as Angelique has said and others, in Africa, they’d be listening to James Brown, Cuban music. She heard Talking Heads when she moved to Paris, but you’d have African bands that would imitate Cuban grooves and melodies and the Cuban music originally was something that came out of Africa.
It’s like making a big circle and then it goes back around, and the Cubans are listening to what the Africans are doing. The same thing happens in Brazil, and it happened here. You’ve got a lot of R&B that made its way back to Africa, so Fela and Afrobeat were as much influenced by a lot of R&B and soul and Coltrane and everything else that was happening here as it was indigenous African music. It’s pretty hard to dig down to a place where you go, “Oh, here’s the pure primal music.” You can almost never get there.
I think a lot of it is not in absolutes but in the attitude and how you deal with it, and how you relate to the people you’re working with and the music you love. Like she said, if you acknowledge it and bring this great music that you’ve heard to light, as opposed to just borrowing it and stealing, it is a very different thing.
Similarly, you perform Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” in the show, where you call out the names of people of color who were killed by police. You said you asked her if a “white man of a certain age” could sing it. What did she tell you?
[Laughs] She loved it. I was kind of surprised. There was no hesitation. She’s very generous. So I continue to ask her, “We’re doing it on Broadway now. You sure you’re OK with all this?” “Yeah.”
I thought I had to do that; I had to check with her and see what her take was on that. Because otherwise, it could seem pretty strange. She’s about getting the message out.
There’s a point in the show where you mention James Baldwin, and someone in the audience on the night I attended the show went “Uh-oh.” Have you gotten weird reactions to these things?
What do you think they meant by that? That I was going to get all academic? It hasn’t happened very much on Broadway, but we have had people walk out during “Hell You Talmabout,” and we know it’s about that song because sometimes they’ll yell something out as they leave. But it wasn’t that often. And it’s very, very, very little on Broadway, which is maybe what you expect given the demographic.
Well, the people who are buying tickets are making an investment in someone they believe in.
Right. You’re inclined to agree with them. But we’ll see. My hope is that more people come to the show who aren’t familiar with me or what I do or the songs, and they just hear, “There’s this really good show.” And they’ll discover it when they come and see if they like the music or not.
Do you see a way of achieving an American utopia?
Incrementally, yes. As I say in the show, sometimes it’s little by little, but the good news is that we can change. Not all of us have the same ideas we had when we were young — or our parents’ generation — whether that’s ideas about race or same-sex [marriage] or whatever it might be. A lot of things have changed where, when I was a child, it would be hard to imagine those things could change. Many of them have, and many of them have a long way to go. But the amount of change that there has been is kind of astonishing if you can remember where things were a few decades ago. So the fact that there is evidence of that happening is pretty hopeful.
You tell a story before “Everybody’s Coming to My House” about how some children covered it and they made it sound more inclusive than maybe you felt singing it, that in your version you’re more wary of everyone coming over.
It sounds that way. I didn’t intend it to be that way, but I realize I come across that way. People will hear me and think immediately what I say is ironic, even if it’s not. I think this show dispels quite a bit of that, but it’s still there. People bring that baggage to that.
Are you done with irony?
No, but I’ve broadened my palate somewhat. It’s not my go-to thing all the time.