27 Nov 2020

INTERVIEW: David Byrne on his new Spike Lee-directed film

From Music 101, 11:00 am on 27 November 2020

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Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne talks to RNZ Music's Tony Stamp about his new film American Utopia. Directed by Spike Lee, it captures the original Broadway play, featuring songs from Byrne's entire career.

Stop Making Sense, the 1984 movie that captured Talking Heads performing live at the height of their powers, is still widely regarded as the best concert film of all time. Thirty six years later, former bandleader David Byrne has released a follow up that's as significant in its own way.

The new film weaves songs from his entire career through a narrative structure that features spoken word interludes, choreography, and an eleven-piece band who are wireless and free to roam the whole stage. Byrne and his players all wear grey suits, and none wear shoes.

American Utopia started as a concert, became a Broadway show, and is now a movie directed by Spike Lee. It’s surprisingly politically charged, and features some weighty moments, but is always buoyed by Byrne and his band’s incredible onstage energy, not to mention their virtuoso playing - often delivered while performing choreographed moves. Lee captures all this with his signature flair.

Tony Stamp spoke to David Byrne via Zoom. He was in his office in New York City.

David Byrne

David Byrne Photo: supplied

Tony Stamp: What was the biggest difference between working with the late Jonathan Demme on Stop Making Sense, and Spike Lee on American Utopia?

David Byrne: Spike might have been in the audience more often than Jonathan. Spike came to a lot of shows. Jonathan did too, but I wasn’t as aware of him. He would come to shows in advance of the filming, and videotape the show, so he could study it and get to know it. But Spike would be there and we’d spot him in the aisles. He’d kind of be lurking, or hiding behind speakers. You’d see a face peeking just above the stage. ‘That’s Spike Lee down there!’

TS: You’ve said the lack of footwear came from wearing the suits, and not wanting to put your performers in dress shoes. Did it also help when you’re so active onstage - making things a little bit more tactile underfoot?

DB: I felt it did. I felt it grounds you in a way. It makes you feel that you’re more intimately in contact with the ground - although it’s not the ground, it’s a stage. But it does have that kind of feeling. It also has a little bit of a feeling of nakedness and vulnerability. That kind of offsets the suit as well. Suits look a little bit like armour, you know? Not just because they’re grey, but because of what they are. You can kind of offset that by having something that’s very vulnerable like bare feet.

TS: Do you think that sense of vulnerability helped with your performances?

DB: It did mine! It made me feel very much like just a humble human being up there. Slightly unprotected. I had to relate directly to the audience, in a way. 

TS: Every musician onstage in American Utopia is performing wirelessly. Did that idea come from African music, where there’s no real distinction between dancers and musicians? African music was such a big inspiration for Remain In Light and a lot of your work since then, do you see this as a continuation of that?

DB: In a sense. That’s a good insight. My inspirations might have been a little more second hand. They might have been via Brazil, where all the percussionists in the Samba schools dance around and play the drums, sometimes on a stage, but sometimes on the street, as well.

David Byrne and band

David Byrne and band Photo: supplied

Same thing with Second Line groups in New Orleans where they follow the funeral procession, and get people to come out of their houses and dance. They’re playing percussion and brass and things on the streets. Those were examples that I had in my head. I thought if we can capture some of that energy and excitement, and bring it in front of an audience, that would be really thrilling. 

TS: Are you still a voracious consumer of music from around the world?

DB: Yeah, I am. I haven’t been travelling as much these days, but yes…

TS: Maybe this is a good juncture to ask how the last eight months have been for you, pandemic-wise. I assume you’ve been staying secluded.

DB: I have. I’ve been mainly in my house. I live alone, so it does get lonely sometimes. But I go for bike rides with friends or band members. We explore New York City boroughs and parts of the city we aren’t that familiar with. So that’s good, and we can be socially distanced but kind of be together. 

I’ve started to jot down some song lyrics and notes recently, but for a long time: nothing. Nothing. I think during the lockdown there was a feeling of ‘What are my priorities? What do I need to do? Why am I doing this? Why am I doing anything?’ I think a lot of people felt that. ‘Why am I getting up in the morning? I know I’m supposed to do this today, but why?’ Of course we manage to get out of bed and get on with it, but it’s been a strange time. 

TS: I was going to ask about cycling actually - I know you’re a cycling enthusiast, and the film actually ends with you and the band cycling through New York City. What’s your favourite place to cycle?

DB: Where are you? Are you in New Zealand?

TS: I’m in New Zealand, yeah.

DB: Well, we had a lovely ride, an extraordinary ride, in Wellington. There’s a little peninsula just west of Wellington, and there’s a bike path along the road, and you can go all the way around the peninsula, then you come back by the airport all the way back into town.

I mean… all right, you live in New Zealand. But for us this was really extraordinary. Incredibly beautiful. At every turn in the road we’d go ‘Oh my goodness, look at this, look how beautiful this is. Seriously that was one of the best ones ever.

TS: I mean it’s similar for me seeing you going through New York, that looks incredible.  

DB: Very very different. New York does have more protected bike lanes than it used to, so it’s much safer than it used to be, which is great. 

Sometimes the most exciting rides are not the ones you might expect. Like I went with some friends recently to Staten Island. It’s a borough of New York, but it’s an island, apart from the rest of New York, and it’s the only part of New York that voted for Trump.

This is home of Trump supporters and the Wu Tang Clan. Imagine that combination! There’s also a sizable Sri Lankan population there. 

We also discovered in one part of Staten Island there’s a whole lot of wild turkeys that just wander the neighbourhood and cross the streets. And they’re big! These are really big birds. They’re not as big as an emu, but they’re heading there. And they’re bold. You don’t want to get next to them.

American Utopia in action

American Utopia in action Photo: supplied

TS: When you were putting the show together and coming up with its narrative, and weaving through songs from the American Utopia album, but also from your past work with Talking Heads and your solo work, was it a tricky process choosing which songs you were going to include? The second part of that question is did it force you to see them in a new context, or a new light?

DB: Yes to both. I realised when I was putting the show together - not the concert but the Broadway show that is the Spike Lee film - I knew that we had to really focus on making the journey or the narrative arc as clear as possible. I thought ok, we’re going to have to take certain songs out, where there was too much of a pause, or it was an energetic song but it wasn’t helping tell the story. 

And I knew that I could pick songs from my catalogue, and new ones as well. So there was enough that I could kind of pick and choose what might work where. You don’t know until you try it. But I knew that for example, ‘Psycho Killer’ was not going to go into the set for this show. Thematically or whatever, it didn’t fit. People might have enjoyed it, but I thought ‘No, we’re trying to tell a story here, and that song doesn’t belong’. But I’m in the good position of having enough stuff to pick from.

TS: Were you surprised to find how many of these songs do flow narratively? Personally I was taken with seeing some of the lyrics in a new light. A line like ‘Same as it ever was’ has a completely different meaning I think in 2020. Were you surprised by that?

DB: Yes. And it’s very nice - you put a song in a different context like this and it takes on a different meaning. They’re versatile, and you can adjust the meaning according to how you use it, and where you put it, and what’s going on in the world.

There’s a line that I say at the very beginning, where I’m saying hello, and I say to the audience ‘Thank you for leaving your homes’, and of course before the pandemic that was just a throw-away funny line. It sometimes got a little bit of a chuckle. But during the pandemic it takes on this major meaning. The idea of leaving our homes and going to a show is now… not for you, you’re doing fine. But for the rest of us are still dealing with this thing, and for the most part are confined to our homes. Although I’m in my office.

TS: It’s a beautiful room.

DB: Thank you. There’s some nice ladies in the background [points at some paintings].

TS: Performing the show in this way where everyone is wireless, and there is so much movement and energy onstage, I wondered if there was a learning curve, in terms of fitness for the band, but also for the musicians learning to play while they’re doing these choreographed moves.

David Byrne and his American Utopia band

David Byrne and his American Utopia band Photo: supplied

DB: There was a big learning curve in the beginning. And there was some grumbling. Especially from the percussion section: ‘I have to carry this thing for ninety minutes? And move around?’

And yes, that is what you have to do. So we took it easy in the beginning. As we were rehearsing, we’d rehearse part of it, then say ‘Ok take a break. Take your drums off’.

But people did get stronger. And we had to have drum harnesses built, with braces in the back, so they’re not using their spine to hold up this thing. Otherwise we’d have huge chiropractor bills. 

TS: The show is explicitly political in places. I wondered if anyone has ever suggested to you that you might want to get into politics.

DB: Yes, audience members yell that out. I have become more engaged over recent years, but the public-facing me tends to be non-partisan. I try not to endorse politicians or political parties. Privately I have my own opinions. But, for instance in the show I urge people to vote, but I’m not going to tell them ‘Vote for this one or that one.’ I tend to stay out of that.

I approach different issues, whether it might be immigration or things like that, but I bring it down to a personal level. When I talk about immigration in the show I say ‘The band comes from all these different places, and here we are, and if we’d been kept apart, or kept out, this show would not exist.’

TS: You smile a lot more onstage these days.

DB: Oh yes.

TS: Do you think in general you’re a more optimistic person now?

DB: I think so, yes. I think I’m a little bit less anxiety-prone. I’m a little bit less of a micro-manager, who might demand that I be managing every little detail. I realise now that other people are perfectly capable of managing some of their own stuff. Which makes for a much more relaxed atmosphere.

TS: I watched an interview with the comedian John Mulaney, who you worked with on his special The Sack Lunch Bunch, and he said that you were a big influence on him, growing up as a shy, quiet individual. He saw you as a role model. I have to think you’re aware that this is part of your legacy. So, at what point did you realise there was a generation of slightly insecure, quiet people who were looking to you in that way?

DB: Wow, that’s very nice. I mean that certainly is the way that it’s worked for me. People that I look at and I go ‘Oh, that’s someone that’s a little bit like me, and they’ve kind of made their way in the world. Ok, so there’s hope for me’. That happens all the time. Especially among music fans. You see all these quasi-eccentric characters, and you go ‘That person is expressing what I feel, and what I’ve been afraid to say, or afraid to admit. Especially as young people, when we’re trying to figure things out. I feel that it’s really important to have that variety of examples in front of you.