Photo by Jody Rogac
By Matt Wardlaw
One thing that’s clear when you listen to the music of David Byrne is that he’s always thinking about something, and he has colorful ways of getting his thoughts out there, dropping quirky lyrical bits that swim in a densely populated musical atmosphere of sound.
Some of Byrne’s thoughts are obvious and direct while others might incubate for a bit in your mind before the true meaning comes crawling out to reveal itself. “It’s Not Dark Up Here,” a track from his latest album, American Utopia, is one such example. “There’s only one way to read a book/And there’s only one way to watch TV/Well, there’s only one way to smell a flower/But there’s a million ways to be free,” he sings in one section, offering up a series of similar observations over the course of the song that are surrounded by a sense of optimism.
“I always laugh at it, because the tone of my voice, to me, it’s like somebody climbing up into the attic of the house and going, ‘Hey, it’s not dark up here!’” Byrne says with a chuckle during a phone conversation from Boston, where he was in town for a pair of concerts. He performs at Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica on Tuesday, Aug. 7. “But I think it has a larger meaning. It’s kind of also saying, ‘Things are not as bad as we thought they were’ or ‘Hey, I climb up this ladder and go through this hole, there’s a way out of here!’ That kind of thing.”
Byrne has been working over the past couple of years to help people see that way out — and the light at the end of the tunnel of a seemingly never-ending cycle of bad news — with his Reasons to Be Cheerful talks, an idea which continues to evolve. There’s now a website where people can submit the positive things that they’re finding, and he continues to look at ways to grow the concept.
Byrne describes the current trek as “the most ambitious show I’ve done since the shows that were filmed for Stop Making Sense.” Annie-B Parson, the artistic director at Brooklyn’s Big Dance Theater, worked with Byrne on the choreography for the show, continuing a collaboration that first began when the former Talking Heads frontman was touring for Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, his 2008 album with Brian Eno. The concerts feature Byrne, surrounded by a 12-piece band, performing songs from his new album in addition to favorites and deeper tracks from his solo career, collaborations and a selection of songs from the Talking Heads catalog.
I wanted to start by talking about the Reasons to Be Cheerful talks that you’ve been doing. How did this idea develop? You are someone who has for a long time been contributing more to the world than just songs. This is the latest example of that.
Well, thank you. It was kind of done for my own mental health. I’d wake up and read the newspaper and get upset and angry and whatever. Which, I realized, I have that in common with a lot of other people, regardless of their political slant or whatever. So it’s kind of a non-partisan frustration, I think. As a response, I started clipping articles that I found that showed something positive or something hopeful. Something that I thought, “Well, here’s a place or a person or an organization that’s doing something that seems to be encouraging and a way out. Because it doesn’t look like many of our elected representatives are getting us out. But a ton of people are doing it themselves, in the communities and cities and some smaller countries. It evolved a little bit. I started doing it a couple of years ago and realized there was a lot more of it than I thought at first, which is very encouraging. So then it became a project. I started posting the stuff and doing little talks where I would kind of outline, “Hey, here’s what I found.” It continues. I keep finding stuff. My only regret is that I don’t have more time to do it while I’m on the road. Because it does require fact-checking, editing and sometimes research and things like that. [Laughs] If you post things online, it’s journalism. And you have a responsibility, just like real journalists do.
What a concept, right?
What a concept, how about that! That in itself is a statement, just the fact that I’m paying people to fact-check and edit and research and all of that kind of stuff. And I’m an individual! I’m not a news organization. [Byrne chuckles]
As you’ve been doing this, what’s been surprising to you about what comes back as a result of these talks and the things that you’re doing?
In the talks, I got a couple of surprising responses. One was people standing up and saying, almost in an accusatory way, they were kind of saying, “Yeah, but what can we do?” You know, I was presenting what I was finding, but I wasn’t giving them an answer in that way. So what happened was that other people in the audience stood up and said, “I have an organization. Contact me. Here’s my website, here’s my [information].” So they started kind of networking amongst themselves. So that was a really nice surprise.
It becomes kind of an unexpected David Byrne town meeting.
Sort of. You know, in a small way. The other thing that happened occasionally was I’d get [more] regional responses that were also kind of challenging where I would present a whole bunch of things that I’d found and then somebody might stand up and say, “You don’t have anything from Asia. You don’t have any South Asian stuff in your list there.” There was a paucity of issues or things in one geographical area. I just said, “Well, help me out here!” I remember South Asia, I think, was one that was mentioned and there actually are a lot of good things happening there. Africa was one that was mentioned. These are places, like Africa, where we’re kind of used to hearing about really good ideas that are going in there, like, “Here’s a thing that’s going to help the schools in Africa” or here’s an idea to do this and here’s an idea to do that. Some of those are untested ideas that the jury is still out. So I tend not to report on stuff where the jury is still out. I don’t want to report on something that is a good idea, but hasn’t really been tested. Anyway, that’s kind of some of the feedback I got.
I like that with the website, there’s a tangible thing that they can access.
Yeah, they can always go to that. We’re trying to update it as much as we can.
You said “non-partisan” earlier and that’s something that stuck out to me about your new record. I loved the quote from NPR about the album that "If a brain in a jar could observe the world, make sense of it and churn it into a batch of songs, it would make the album American Utopia."
What I like about that, is that you can listen to a song like “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets,” and there’s commentary going on there, but you’re not necessarily beating the listener over the head with it, although you are giving them things to think about. Some of the stuff is right there on the surface, while other bits of food for thought are nestled just a bit under the surface. I like the presentation of it all.
Thank you very much. Yeah, I find that didactic songs, songs that point a finger and that kind of thing, some people can do it. I don’t think I can do it, like the other people who are better at that. It’s funny that they should say, “brain in a jar,” because the live show starts with me holding a brain on stage. [Laughs] Maybe they got the idea there, but who knows.
Since you mentioned the live show, “Here’” is the song that closes out this record, and on the current tour, it’s the one that kicks off the show. I think it’s interesting because it kind of illustrates how songs can kind of function differently, depending on the environment. There are similarities, but I would guess, also differences to constructing the narrative of an album sequence and separately, a concert setlist. Can you talk a bit about how “Here,” in this case, fits differently in those two worlds?
On the album — and we did think of it as an album that you might listen to it, the songs in sequence, that kind of thing, we thought of it as a sort of quiet closer. Whereas on the live show, you want the closing of the set to be a little bit of a rousing ending and then we do something that’s more overtly political. And then we leave with that. But yeah, the quiet ending of an album, we kind of flip it around and go, “Well, that’s not going to work on a live show, but you could begin that way quietly and then build up and add the pieces that will bring the energy.”
On the subject of things that are more overtly political, how did you end up starting to do the Janelle Monae cover of “Hell You Talmbout” that is closing the concerts?
I heard it when the song came out. She did it at the Women’s March. When I heard it, I just thought it was one of the most moving political songs to address a moment and address what’s happening in the country, that I’d ever seen. It wasn’t didactic, although it certainly addresses an issue. It really talks about lives that have been cut short. It basically says, “Remember these people, their lives have been ended. Their lives have been cut short.” The implication is unfairly, needlessly. I found it incredibly moving and energetic the way it’s done with the drumline and all of that. I wrote to her and said, “I’m an older white guy and I want to do your song.” She totally gave us her blessing and said, this is a song that anyone can do.
Annie-B Parson did the choreography for this current tour. You have been working with her for a while now and it seems like a really great collaboration, because she’s someone who seems to have a deep understanding and appreciation for your work.
I’ve known her work for a while, kind of New York experimental dance and theater stuff. But I started working with her on the tour I did for the Brian Eno record that I did, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. She choreographed some numbers; we had some dancers in that show. And then, I would go back to her. I went back to her when I did the tour with St. Vincent, and she did all of the choreography on that one. This one, I said, “Annie-B, I’m going to give you a completely clear playing field. There’s going to be no obstructions on stage. You’ve got the whole stage to work with." [That's] pretty irresistible to a choreographer. A lot of choreographers in pop concerts have to deal with risers and musicians who are static and whatever. In this case, it’s like, nope, you’ve got 'em all, and you can work with everybody. So it worked out really well.
The Everything That Happens tour was the one I thought of when thinking about this current tour. I think that’s something that people always expect from you — they know that it’s truly going to be a developed and well thought out show. Once you had the American Utopia album wrapped up, as you said, you gave her free rein, but were there things that you had in mind that you wanted to incorporated into the plans for the show?
Oh yes, I mean, we did a lot of testing to make sure that empty stage idea would technically work. Before I went to her and said, “Annie-B, I’ve done all of the technical research and this is going to work, here we go.” But we would very much collaborate, I mean, we’re working on maybe adding another number, so I wrote to her and said, “One of the band members mentioned that it felt like, people kind of singing around a campfire or a burning oil drum or something like that on the street.” I said, “Not that we’re going to have that or be that literal, but maybe think of that as a starting spot.” I found that to be very evocative, what the band member said. So I would sometimes start that way, send an idea like that to Annie-B and then say, “Okay, now, where do we take it from there? What happens then?” And then sometimes she would come to me and go, “Okay, we want to do something in a circle. We want to make a circle and see what we can do with that.” We have a great working relationship. We bounce ideas off of each other.
There’s obviously material from your Talking Heads past in the show — how do you go about building that into the show in a way that makes sense. Because they’re not in there in a way that feels like, “These are songs I have to play.” The song choices feel specific.
Yeah, there are some choices that I think fit in with all of the other stuff we’re doing, all of the things from my solo records and various collaborations and things like that. I haven’t picked a lot of obscure stuff — there’s plenty of hits there, but it’s not all of the Talking Heads hits. So yeah, we picked stuff that we think really helps the flow of the whole set. And it works. There’s a section in the middle where we’re doing a couple of very quiet, newer songs. And the staging, the ideas that Annie-B came up with and Rob [Sinclair], the lighting guy came up with, are so intriguing and original and surprising, that the audience doesn’t seem to mind that we’re not giving them hits at that moment. They’re seeing something completely surprising. They go with it. Well, because they know they’re going to get upbeat material pretty soon.