Photo by Jody Rogac
By Randy Shulman
“Did we have a following?” wonders David Byrne. “I was not aware.” But, of course, you don’t get to be one of the most influential bands in modern musical history without some kind of an LGBTQ fan base. Still, the iconic former frontman of the Talking Heads, seems genuinely unaware.
“I mean, I was aware of friends and colleagues and collaborators and everything else, but I was not aware of a gay following,” says the 65-year-old, his once jet-black mane now blazing, brilliant white, his demeanor surprisingly cheerful and gentle. “But there were other acts that I knew had a huge gay following that were part of my world.” (The B-52s, anyone?)
“These days, I have to say, despite everything, it’s really refreshing how much society has changed,” he continues. “We’ve got a long ways to go, but when you think of the idea of gay marriage — it just was inconceivable decades ago. It’s really a tribute, I think, that human beings can change, that their points of view can change, that their attitudes actually can change.”
Byrne’s latest album, American Utopia, is a stunning continuation of his unique musical aesthetic. More than a mere assemblage of songs, it’s a cohesive, vibrant journey, featuring a conglomerate of styles that blend effortlessly to create a vibrant whole. Byrne deploys techniques that informed much of the best work by the Heads, notably elaborate, complex rhythmic arrangements (“I’m very much drawn to rhythm — I find it liberating. It’s helped me get through life.”) and piercing, provocative vocals. He’s currently on a critically-acclaimed world tour, featuring an 11-piece band in nearly perpetual motion, that will see him in our area twice, first at The Anthem this Saturday, and again in late July at Merriweather.
Though American Utopia has political and social underpinnings, Byrne didn’t initially set out to make a statement with the record. “I didn’t consciously think about it,” he says. “And then, as it began to emerge, I realized, ‘Yeah, this is what I’m doing.’ I felt like I needed to do it in a way that’s not super-obvious or specific. I can talk about someone dying from a bullet wound, and their life ebbing from them…and I don’t have to refer to recent events in the news. It’s enough to be as a reminder of what happens when somebody’s shot.”
Byrne feels popular music can be an important component in our social toolbox. “It doesn’t answer questions,” he concedes. “And I don’t think music can, in most cases, affect specific change around specific issues. But it can help people come together as a community, and it can give them a kind of solace that allows them to go on.”
Despite the current political climes of the country — indeed, the world — Byrne remains a staunch optimist, evident to anyone who visits davidbyrne.com, where they are immediately confronted by a bright orange banner linking to reasonstobecheerful.world.
“A couple years ago, I started collecting news of things that I felt were hopeful,” he says. “I eventually called it ‘Reasons to Be Cheerful.’ These are things happening around the world, often in local places — in a city here, or a small country there — where they have managed to find a solution to something that seems to be intractable in other places. Somebody has found a way to fix it. And if they can do it, then anybody can do it. So, I find little pockets of hope around the world. And I’m kind of clinging to that at the moment.”
David Byrne’s American Utopia Tour comes to The Anthem on Saturday, May 12. The show is sold out, but tickets are still available for the Merriweather Post Pavilion appearance on Saturday, July 28. Tickets are $60 to $130. Visit merriweathermusic.com or call 877-435-9849.