Pop Quiz: David Byrne on how he finds utopia on the stage

Via San Francisco Chronicle

By Aidin Vaziri

Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with David Byrne. Since walking away from his old band Talking Heads in 1991, the 66-year-old musician has published a book of his sketches of trees, designed bicycle parking racks for New York, released albums by obscure Brazilian artists, appeared in “The Simpsons” and recorded a song cycle about the life of Imelda Marcos.

This is not one of those times.

Byrne is currently touring his first solo album in 14 years, “American Utopia,” and the live show is one of the most talked-about concerts of the year.

The Chronicle caught up with the singer and songwriter during a tour stop in Boston.

Q: You and the band are wearing gray suits onstage every night. Do you know how much weight you have sweated off since the tour started?

A: No, I don’t weigh myself ever. But I do have to buckle my belt one notch tighter.

Q: Are you reconsidering planning this tour in the middle of the summer?

A: I was kind of surprised because I thought it was going to be worse than it has been. I thought in South America we were going to be completely wrung out, but I think London may have been one of the worst. They don’t build theaters with air conditioning. We were just gushing sweat.

Q: For this show, you wanted to strip away all the ephemera that people have come to associate with pop concerts. Did that mean going to a lot of Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber concerts for research?

A: I haven’t been to those shows. I saw a Katy Perry show. I saw the Beyoncé show. I go to a fair number of shows. Sometimes you see something and you go, “There was some really inspirational stuff there.” But this feels like something different. There are obvious strands it’s pulling together. But as a whole, it’s something else.

Q: You and all the musicians onstage are working with wireless instruments. How difficult was it to make that happen?

A: It was fairly difficult. It took about a year of research. We’ve all seen shows where the guitars and singers are wireless. But to expand that to all the drummers and keyboards — that’s a lot of wireless channels. You have to make sure you don’t have something else in the vicinity or you’re going to have taxi stuff coming over the PA.

As you’ve probably seen, we’re using a lightweight aluminum chain as a curtain. We had to make sure the radio frequencies didn’t bounce off that. There was a lot of technical puzzle solving to go through.

Q: With six percussionists onstage, does everything become dance music — new songs, old songs, ballads?

A: I think so. The thing about all these mobile drummers is that they sound like a drum kit. It sounds like one machine, one entity. That’s because they’re really good musicians.

Q: At any point, will you be singing to a lamp like you do in “Stop Making Sense”?

A: Yes. There’s one song where the stage is just lit by one lamp. I don’t sing to it, but it sort of lights the whole stage.

Q: When you play more than one show in a city, do you mix up the set list?

A: We’re just like a Broadway show or a movie. We’ve been doing a consistent show so far, but we’ve been learning some new material we can draw from.

Q: You run a website dedicated to good news, Reasons to be Cheerful. Is it difficult to find daily content?

A: Sometimes it is. But it’s surprising there’s still stuff I’m finding. Often, it’s local news or news from smaller countries.

Q: Being politically minded, how do you keep your spirits up onstage when things are really bad?

A: There are days when something happens in the news and it’s like a punch to the gut and it preys on my mind while I’m performing. But there are other times I find something encouraging somewhere, and we have a really nice community with the band and the crew. It’s kind of a wonderful thing. The utopia is happening right there onstage. In a way, we’re showing you other things happening.

Q: You became a U.S. citizen in 2012. Do you regret it now?

A: No. It allows me to vote. I think voting now is more important than ever. The turnout from the young vote is shameful — for people like 18 to 30-something, it’s like 20 percent. Are you kidding me? If you want to live in a democracy, you’ve got to vote. You’ve got to do something.

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