David Byrne on His Broadway Show

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David Byrne on His Broadway Show

Postby Marsbar » Fri Nov 29, 2019 2:45 pm

David Byrne on His Broadway Show “American Utopia,” Talking Heads, ReasonsCh to Be eerfl & Muore

AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour with David Byrne, the celebrated musician, artist, writer, cycling enthusiast, filmmaker and now Broadway star. His new Broadway show is called American Utopia. It’s receiving rave reviews.

DAVID BYRNE: [singing “Once in a Lifetime”]
Well, how did I get here?
Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Letting the days go by
Once in a lifetime

AMY GOODMAN: American Utopia grew out of David Byrne’s recent world tour, which the British music publication NME said, quote, “may just be the best live show of all time,” unquote. The production features David Byrne and 11 musical artists from around the globe, including six percussionists, performing a selection of songs from, well, throughout his remarkable career, featured on his most recent album, American Utopia, to highlights from his legendary band Talking Heads, including “Burning Down the House.”

TALKING HEADS: [performing “Burning Down the House”]
Watch out you might get what you’re after
Boom babies strange but not a stranger
I’m an ordinary guy
Burning down the house

AMY GOODMAN: Also, “This Must Be the Place.”

TALKING HEADS: [performing “This Must Be the Place”]
Home is where I want to be
Pick me up and turn me around
I feel numb, born with a weak heart
Guess I must be having fun

AMY GOODMAN: American Utopia is just one of David Byrne’s current projects. He also recently launched the online magazine Reasons to Be Cheerful, that highlights solutions-oriented stories around the globe. David Byrne recently came into the Democracy Now! studios on his day off from Broadway. I asked him to talk about the name of his recent album and Broadway show, American Utopia.

DAVID BYRNE: It’s — wow. Partly because it’s sort of the last thing you expect to hear, the words, especially connected with me and at this particular time, with everything that’s going on, it’s kind of like, “Is he serious? Is he being ironic? Is he — does it have some other kind of meaning?” And I thought, “No, let’s be serious about it. Let’s be sincere about this. And although utopia may never exist, may never be achievable, let’s think about what it is we want and what it is we would like to change and what we would like to — where we would like to be, how would we like to be, that kind of thing.” And I thought, “That’s part of what we’re — part of what the show is.” It shows people an alternative way of being.

AMY GOODMAN: You also quote James Baldwin in the play: “I still believe we can do with this country something that has not been done before.”

DAVID BYRNE: It’s not typical of him. But I thought, “But he said this.” And I thought, “So he — despite all his life and everything he wrote about, he didn’t give up. He didn’t get totally cynical. He felt like there’s still possibility here.”

AMY GOODMAN: So you share that optimism?

DAVID BYRNE: Not every day, but I try to. I try to keep that alive.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I called this production a play, because that’s what we say on Broadway. It’s not really — well, it’s certainly not just a play. It’s not a rock opera. What words do you use?

DAVID BYRNE: I think we just call it a show. But it’s — OK, it evolved from a concert tour, as you mentioned, but then we realized that, OK, in a Broadway setting, you have the opportunity to do something else with it. You’re still going to play a lot of songs, but you have the opportunity to kind of make an arc and tell sort of a story. I don’t mean a literal story like “And then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.” But you can kind of make it in a story of ideas that takes you from one place and then you end up somewhere else at the end.

AMY GOODMAN: And you begin by talking about how babies have way more connections in their brains than we do.

DAVID BYRNE: Yes, yes. It really is something I read recently, that babies have a lot more neural connections than we do and that as they grow up. Until we’re 20 years old, those connections are being pruned and stripped back. And what a thing to — what a thing to think about, I thought, that on the face of it, they’re kind of our — it would seem like, well, does that mean that we’re less — that babies somehow have more or perceive more than we do, and that we have — and I think it’s kind of true. I think babies are kind of getting everything. They just can’t make any sense of it, and they’re trying to figure it out. And to try to figure it out, they have to say, “I’m going to ignore this. And this is — Mom is more important than that person over there.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, babies have more connections, but then, as we grow older, maybe to compensate a little, we build connections outside.

DAVID BYRNE: That’s what I’m saying. I’m saying that our social connections, our connections with other people, is something that we — as you said, that we grow as we mature.

AMY GOODMAN: And the show American Utopia is certainly a manifestation of that. I mean, it’s so simple. I won’t exactly use the word austere, but very stripped down. And explain who you wrote this show for.

DAVID BYRNE: Oh, I’m sure that like a lot of things I do, that the show was conceived as a kind of therapy for myself. You want to — can we present something like this, and is it going to have the effect on me and on the audience that I hope it might? I imagined that by stripping everything away, all the projections and equipment and stage paraphernalia, and leaving it be just us — and just us, the musicians — I thought that puts us kind of on the same level as the audience, in a way. We’re not protected by having all this stuff. It’s just kind of us as human beings talking to you all out there as human beings. And I thought, “That can be pretty powerful.” I mean, you see it with a standup comedian or somebody like that doing something like that, but you don’t see it in a music show very often. So I thought, “Let’s see if that feels like a more immediate kind of connection between us and the audience. And then we’ll start from there and see where that goes.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, here you have 12 musicians, including yourself. And you were all there in your somewhat austere gray suits, but the opposite of austere as you perform. And you introduce us to everyone with a simple sentence. Can you share that sentence? About immigration?

DAVID BYRNE: Oh, yes, yes, yes. That’s that, yes. I make various points throughout the show, but I try and always make it be very, whatever, personal or immediate or not a kind of didactic point, but kind of like there it is, you see it right in front of you. And at one point, I make a point that, myself, I’m a naturalized citizen, and some of the band —

AMY GOODMAN: From Scotland.

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah. Some of the band members are from France and Brazil, etc. And so I said, “Yes, we’re all immigrants, and this show, you know, would not exist without us being able to be here.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, would you like to elaborate further, because you have more than a sentence in between performances, about the pointed reference that you’re making about immigration —

DAVID BYRNE: Oh, that’s — this one —

AMY GOODMAN: — about this, for example, show not being able to happen if it weren’t for all of you from around the globe?

DAVID BYRNE: Exactly. So, the audience — the good thing about putting that in the context of the show is the audience gets it immediately. They’ve just — they’ve been dancing and enjoying this music, and then you realize — then you can say to them, “This thing that you’ve just enjoyed, it wouldn’t be here unless these people were allowed into our country.” That includes me. And so, it’s a very — it’s kind of a very visceral way of making the point, rather than kind of a dogmatic policy way. It’s like, “You just enjoyed something that wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t here.”

AMY GOODMAN: In 2018, you said it in a slightly different way. Last year, you said — you created an online playlist titled “Beautiful [bleep] holes,” in response to Trump’s comments.

DAVID BYRNE: Yes. People did write me from various places and say, “Thank you for this.” Yeah, I thought, “Well, let the music speak. Let the music speak for people from these countries. And let’s have a listen to the music that they’re making, which is incredible.”

AMY GOODMAN: Can you give us a thumbnail, David Byrne, sketch of your life, how you came into music, especially for young people? Talk about where you were born, where you grew up, and then how you discovered music.

DAVID BYRNE: OK. I was born in Scotland. My parents came with me to Canada and then moved to Baltimore for work. I was in high school, say, in the late '60s. I'm old enough to have experienced that and the explosion of kind of pop music. Lots of kids wanted to be in bands or be musicians or a performer, this kind of thing. And I did, too.

I was very, very shy, but I realized that performing became an outlet. I could get on stage and do kind of outrageous things and then retreat into my shell. And I’d kind of — I had an outlet. I had kind of announced my existence and my creativity, and then I could kind of retreat again.

Maybe relevant to kind of young people, I had no ambitions to be a musician. My ambition was to be a fine artist and show in galleries and things like that. That’s what I wanted to do, or to be an engineer, like do technical kind of work.

AMY GOODMAN: Your dad did that?

DAVID BYRNE: My dad did that. And I liked that, too, and I saw creativity there that was similar to the arts. But it was always — in our world, it’s always kept very separate. So, I thought of music as — what do you call it? An avocation? It was something that I did for pleasure with friends, and I took it very seriously, but I never thought that it would be a career or a way to make a living. I thought, “There’s people who have gone to school for this, and there’s people who are really, really good. I’m just doing it for fun.” But, eventually, it kind of won out.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you went to RISD, Rhode Island School of Design.

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah, I went to an art school, and I went to Maryland Institute, another art school. And I was constantly making things in hopes of kind of getting a show. I had no idea how to do that. But at the same time, I was writing songs and, yes, auditioned at some clubs downtown. And I kind of — I was very lucky. We were very lucky. It was kind of the right — the right thing at the right moment in the right time. And there were other groups emerging from this club. The press all of a sudden was kind of paying attention to what was going on. We were playing original music, which was very unusual at that time for bands at a bar to just play original music. That was —

AMY GOODMAN: Like the Ramones, you opened for?

DAVID BYRNE: Yes, the Ramones. There was a group called Television, Patti Smith. So, we were all kind of playing the same — same venues, same places.

AMY GOODMAN: Your college pal was named?

DAVID BYRNE: I had a college pal named Marc Kehoe. And I had my friends that were in Talking Heads, was Chris and Tina, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth. And then we brought in another guy to play keyboards.

AMY GOODMAN: And Tina, actually, she wasn’t — she didn’t naturally play the bass guitar.

DAVID BYRNE: No, she didn’t. Like Chris, they were — they were painters. They were also from art school, and their training was as painters. But they — Chris, especially — liked music, and Tina took an interest and decided that she would learn.

AMY GOODMAN: So you needed a bass guitarist, so she figured, “OK, I’ll do that.”

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah, yeah. And, well, she said, “I’ll do that.” And I said, “So, fine, fine.” I think that coming out of, say, sort of an arty milieu, I think we felt that virtuosity in itself was not a high priority. It was not a value insofar as music goes. What was more important was that — what you had to communicate and that if you could communicate that with fairly simple means, if that’s what was available to you. As long, I mean, you didn’t try to do something that was beyond your means. But you could. You could — with very little, you could communicate quite a lot. And so, the idea that we just brought in friends who would learn how to play didn’t seem that strange to us.

AMY GOODMAN: So you play at CBGB, not very much. You open for the Ramones, and a music producer hears you from outside on the sidewalk.

DAVID BYRNE: Well, yes. So, people in the kind of music world and record labels and the kind of alternative press, etc., started coming and hearing us and the other bands. And we were very lucky to be part of that at that time. I mean, if we would have been — I can imagine if we had been somewhere else doing the exact same thing, we would have gone completely unnoticed. I mean, I like to think that we were writing something that had some kind of interesting quality to it, but I also know that there was a certain amount of luck involved, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: David Byrne, the legendary musician and now Broadway star. His show American Utopia is on Broadway now. When we come back, he’ll talk about collaborating with Brian Eno, Reasons to Be Cheerful and the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re continuing our conversation with David Byrne, co-founder of Talking Heads, star of the new Broadway show American Utopia. The show has drawn some comparisons to the Talking Heads 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, which was directed by Jonathan Demme.

TALKING HEADS: [performing “Life During Wartime”]
This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco,
This ain’t no fooling around
No time for dancing, or lovey dovey,
I ain’t got time for that now
Transmit the message, to the receiver,
Hope for an answer some day

AMY GOODMAN: I asked David Byrne to talk about working with Jonathan Demme on the film.

DAVID BYRNE: He shot a performance we did. And that’s kind of — it’s kind of a document of a tour that we were doing at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: Like four nights in a row?

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah, he shot four nights in a row in one place, so that it could be edited together to appear to be one night. And that was kind of the tour that we were doing. The film version is a little compressed. But similar to this, the show that I’m doing now, it was a very simple idea, but then fairly complicated to realize it. In that one, the idea was, start with a stage with nothing on it, bring everything on and show the audience what it takes to make a show. Bring on the lights and projectors, and wheel in the equipment and this and that. And they get to see everything assembled one by one, until by about — I don’t know — halfway through, everything is working, and it’s like, “Oh, we’ve seen how this comes together now.” It was an attempt to be really transparent.

AMY GOODMAN: So tell us about your collaboration over the years with Brian Eno, one of the great music producers of the last decades, how you met him and what it meant for the two of you to work together.

DAVID BYRNE: Talking Heads worked on three records with Brian Eno, and I’ve worked on two or three with him, as well, including this most recent one. And we were introduced when we played in a small club in London — it was our first show in England — by another musician, a guy named John Cale, who was in a band called The Velvet Underground. And we idolized John and Velvet Underground and Brian Eno and the band he was in, Roxy Music. So, this was like — we were kind of bowled over by meeting these people that we admired very much.

Similar to what I was saying about working with musicians who weren’t virtuosos, Brian isn’t, say, a virtuoso musician or technician, but he has lots of ideas, and he’s willing to experiment a lot in the studio and whatever. So, that appealed to us. It also appealed that we could talk to him just as a friend, as a person, and it wasn’t all music business talk. You could spend a whole evening together and never talk about music at all, which I thought was a good sign.

AMY GOODMAN: You collaborated on, for example, “I Zimbra.”

TALKING HEADS: [performing “I Zimbra”]
Gadji beri bimba clandridi
Lauli lonni cadori gadjam
A bim beri glassala glandride

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about “I Zimbra.”

DAVID BYRNE: In the — yeah, OK, in the show that we’re doing, I mention that Brian Eno suggested that we use this nonsense poem by a Dada artist named Hugo Ball for the lyrics of a song that we were having trouble finding lyrics to. Again, we had the music and a melody, but we couldn’t figure out the lyrics. So, the kind of world of these Dada — in the current show, I describe a little bit what was going on at the time, the context of what these Dada artists were doing. Hugo Ball and another one that I was more familiar with, Kurt Schwitters, they both did these kind of nonsense chants or poems or — well, Schwitters called his a sonata. Hugo Ball and quite a few of the others became exiles. This was in the ’30s. A lot of them moved to — they were exiled to Zurich. They ended up in Zurich, and a lot of them hung out at a performance place there. A lot of their art was performance-based. And that was called Cabaret Voltaire. So it was this community of exiles and refugees that came together making this art movement.

AMY GOODMAN: Fleeing the Nazis.

DAVID BYRNE: Yes, fleeing the Nazis. And a lot of them converged there. They felt that their art was, in a way, a response to the kind of craziness that they were seeing in the world. Their art was very kind of absurd and funny, but they felt like, in a way, it was a direct response to what they were seeing around them.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why did you feel it was important to address fascism in the ’80s and now again right now?

DAVID BYRNE: I never say that, but I think the connection is pretty obvious to an audience. I describe the context that they are — that these nonsense poems and their artwork came out of. There had been an economic crash. The Nazis were coming to power. And there was — and whole countries were sliding into authoritarian and fascist regimes. And I thought — sometimes I pause, and I go — and just let that sink in and see if you might see some parallels there. But I never say that. Let the audience make the connection. And then I go on and talk about how these artists respond, what their response was.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have a great desire to burn down the house right now?

DAVID BYRNE: No, I’m trying the Reasons to Be Cheerful thing. I’m giving it a good try.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain Reasons to Be Cheerful. Explain what you’ve started with this online magazine.

DAVID BYRNE: It started at least a couple of years ago. Like a lot of people, I’d wake up in the morning and read a lot of news and end up either depressed or cynical or angry or whatever. And I thought, “Well, that’s a reasonable response, given what I’d read.” But I also thought, “This is not good for my health.” And it’s also not good for how to respond to these things that I had been reading about. And being in — finding yourself in that frame of mind isn’t a very constructive place to kind of respond to it. So I thought — so I started saving things that seemed hopeful or initiatives, sometimes small things that have been done in a little town or in another country, that had proved to be successful. And at first I started just posting those online. Then, more recently, it became more official, with a little team of editors and writers and web designers and all that kind of thing.

And it’s often called solutions journalism. It focuses not just on good news, like someone’s donated a lot of money to schools or someone has done a good deed, but on a whole initiative that has proven to be successful and that, one would hope, can be then used as a model and adopted by other places. That’s the idea. We don’t have the time. We’re not activists, in that we don’t try and get these things adopted. The assumption is that if we put it out there, people might discover it and realize, “Oh, someone’s found a solution to this. Maybe we should look at that.” It constantly shocks me that — people trying to reinvent the wheel with various policies or whatever it might be, when you realize, “But wait a minute. They’ve got a perfectly good health system, let’s say, that works over there. Why don’t we just do that?”

AMY GOODMAN: So, one of the things that you’ve gotten involved with is the Bard Prison Initiative. Can you talk about that as one of these solutions?

DAVID BYRNE: Oh, yeah, yeah. That, yes, OK. Bard College, just a little bit upstate here, started a program where inmates at some of the colleges in that area — and there’s quite a few prisons in that area — can actually get degrees, full-on degrees. And they have teachers, and it works. People get the degrees. What happens is they emerge then from the prison ready to get jobs, trained — and not just trained in making license plates or something like that, but real training — and the recidivism rate, the rate that they might go back, get back in prison, just drops. I mean, it’s like pshew!

So, the recidivism rate in the United States is terrible. I mean, it’s like instead of preparing people to return into society, it’s almost like you’re creating criminals. You’re creating prisons because that ends up being what they know. This turns that around and makes people have a possible future, and it works. So other places have been adopting it, other colleges and universities. I know, I think, Wesleyan in Pennsylvania and a few others. And so, kind of step by step, it gets adopted, and seems to be a good alternative to what generally happens in prisons here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to ask you about riding your bicycle. I’ve been reading your books, How Music Works and Bicycle Diaries. You didn’t ride it here today, but we often see you somewhere in town riding that bike. When did you start?

DAVID BYRNE: I seem to remember starting in the late '70s. I lived in Lower East Side and SoHo, and there wasn't a lot of taxi service there. Taxis, at that time, to me, would have been kind of expensive. And so, if I wanted to go hear some music or go see an art gallery opening or visit friends or this or that, I discovered that my old bike that I had as a child worked really well. And I abandoned it sometimes, but then eventually came back and realized, “Oh, this is a great way to get around.” And now New York and a lot of other cities have become a lot more accommodating. There’s a lot more bike lanes, and there’s a whole bunch just announced the other day. There’s a whole bunch planned to go in in the next couple years.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, now, with the whole issue of the climate catastrophe, you’re leading the way.

DAVID BYRNE: Well, thank you, but I realized that I started doing it because it was practical and it felt good. It’s a really nice feeling, unless you’re terrified and you’re riding in the middle of traffic. But if you’re in a protected bike lane or something, riding along the river, it’s really a wonderful feeling. It’s hard to explain, just kind of coasting and steering and the winds blowing and all that. And I realized that feeling is what’s going to convince people to do that. The effect is it lowers the carbon footprint, but you’re not going to get to people — get people to ride just by saying, “You have to ride to lower your carbon footprint.” It’s very hard, I think, to convince people to do things because it’s good for them or good for society in general.

AMY GOODMAN: Which brings me to the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. And I’m not just going to —

DAVID BYRNE: I mentioned her in the show the other day.


From https://www.democracynow.org/2019/11/29/david_byrne_on_his_broadway_show
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