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David Byrne had no intention of making a new album last year. “It’s completely by accident,” the Talking Heads frontman explained to me by phone recently. “I didn’t sit there and go, ‘I’m going to write a record.'” The process that resulted in his first solo album in 14 years, American Utopia, began very organically. His friend and longtime collaborator Brian Eno sent him a few drum tracks, which Byrne started messing around with, adding different sonic textures and musical parts. “Next thing I knew, I got 10 songs or more and thought, ‘I’m going to turn these into a record,'” he recalled. “Then I go, okay, now I made a record, I really have to see it through. I have to refine it and polish it and shape it so it’s as good as it can be.”
“As good as it can be,” is quite good indeed. As someone who is almost patently allergic to nostalgia, Byrne has put together an album that not only sounds fresh, but concerns itself with the world as it exists in this moment, right now. And as absurd as the album title may sound in the era of Trump, American Utopia is not a cynical document. Like on his recent Reasons To Be Cheerful talk at the New School, there’s an aspirational, if not optimistic vibe that permeates throughout American Utopia. Byrne is not a man who presumes to have the answers, but he remains intensely interested in at least bringing some of the central questions of our time to the fore. After all, as he sings on “Everybody’s Coming To My House,” “We’re only tourists in this life / Only tourists, but the view is nice.”
Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Byrne about American Utopia, his thoughts on Trump and the President’s opinions of African and Caribbean countries specifically, and also find out what he’s been reading and watching lately.
In your book, How Music Works, you wrote that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung or performed. I was wondering if you could talk about some of the context that shaped this particular album?
Throw it right back in my face! There’s lots of different things. In the most general sense, I started off writing over drum tracks that I got from Brian Eno and then, by my nature, started shaping those into song formats. So that would maybe be the first thing, the first context. I can probably guess that the words were somewhat informed by the world I saw around me. I don’t like to write about anything too directly. I might be concerned about a political situation, but it’s going to be kind be of limiting to write specifically about a political situation or an issue because I feel like that sort of dates a song. I’m not sure it’s actually very effective. I’m sure the climate, the kind of political climate, the social climate, all that had a huge effect on what I’ve been writing.
I think there’s something to be said for that. It’s resonates to a wider audience to tackle themes or a feeling in the air than to simply say, ‘Oh the President sucks’ in a song.
Yes, exactly. Oddly enough, a lot of these were written before the Trump election. So, although they seem to resonate with a lot of what has been happening in the last year, they were written before that, which just goes to show that a lot of this stuff is not you, or is not you as of the last year or the last six months. It’s been there lurking.
You and Brian Eno have a pretty long relationship together artistically. Can you talk about how you guys work, how you make music together? Does he send you some stuff and he’s like, ‘Check this out.’ How does that collaboration work 40 years later?
It’s still pretty good. As you said, We’ll send things back and forth. He’ll send me something. I’ll add something to it or reshape it, send it back to him. A little bit of back and forth. In this case, after a certain amount of back and forth I had gotten very enthusiastic about the songs and had kind of added more musicians to change it, shape the stuff in various ways. At some point Brian said, ‘I think these are yours now. It’s not a joint collaboration anymore.’ Not that he didn’t influence them to an incredible degree, but he was saying, ‘You have taken charge of these now.’
He kind of released ownership in some respects.
Yeah. He was sort of like, ‘You own these now, not me. This is not a joint ownership.’ That was very generous of him. I mean, he could have reacted in a less friendly way and said, ‘You’ve run away with this stuff.’ [Laughs].
I love that he’s credited on “Everybody’s Coming to My House” as playing Robot Rhythm Guitar. What does that mean?
It might mean that he’s taking a guitar sound out of some sort of sampler or synthesizer and playing it in a very kind of robotic, mechanical way.
In a press release related to this album you said, ‘Many of us suspect we are not satisfied with the world we live in.’ Do you count yourself as one of those people?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, by nature I think I’m a fairly happy and cheerful person, but that does not mean that I’m satisfied or happy with the way things are in what I see around me.
Is that on a political level, social level, culturally?
Mainly political, social and economic. I would say, yeah. I think that’s true for a lot of people and it doesn’t even matter what side of the political fence you’re on. People on all sides feel that kind of discontent.
I watched the Reasons To Be Cheerful talk that you gave at The New School and really enjoyed it. There seems to be a strain of negativity that runs through a lot of culture and I thought it was somewhat noble on your part to point out these things in our world that you can look to and say, okay it’s not all bad. Where does that impulse from within you come to lift people’s spirits in a sense?
I think this is just to keep my own sanity [Laughs].
I’ve been afraid of falling into despair or anger or frustration or whatever and I just thought, I don’t want that to be what rules me. I want to take charge of this myself. So, I think that’s what drove me to start collecting these things.
In relation to that, after Donald Trump came out with his “Shitholes” comments I thought the way that you responded by making a “Beautiful Shitholes” playlist was a glorious counter-stroke. To say, here are the hard the examples of how you are completely wrong.
I just thought, come on, listen to this incredible outpouring of creativity in music and joy from these people that you are completely dismissing. I’m sure he’s not going to listen to those, but it’s just kind of something you have to do. You have to, you can’t just let it pass.
How long did it take you to put that together?
It probably took me a couple of hours because I already have a lot of those songs on various playlists. I make a lot of playlists for myself.
I loved your gospel playlist too.
Thank you, thank you.
So much of your own music through the years, I think it’s fair to say, has been influenced or colored by the sounds from cultures that stem from African and Caribbean countries. From your perspective how do you feel about this attempt through the conservative side to otherize these people or portray them in a light that they are lesser than?
Oh my God, are we going to have to go through this all over again? I thought we were past this. Nope, we’re not past it yet. We’re absolutely not past it yet. One of the things that I noticed when I was younger is that, as much as people like myself would like to think that we’re above a lot of biases and prejudices, things in our society, we’re not. If you grow up in a racist society, it gets into you, even if you don’t intend it to. Even if you don’t want it to. It’s there. You start having a biased attitudes about things. You think that if just by saying, ‘Oh no, I don’t think like,’ that you’re going to kind of make it not happen. It’s not going to be there, but that’s not true. It takes more work than just saying, ‘That’s not me.’ I guess what I’m saying is, it’s not as simple as just pointing at somebody else and going, ‘They’re the bad guys.’
I thought the chorus to the song “Every Day Is A Miracle” is particularly striking. “Every day is a miracle / Every day is an unpaid bill / You gotta sing for your supper / Love one another.” There was, I don’t know, there was this dogged aspiration to that line that really touched me. I was wondering where that came from.
The chorus is a counter to the absurdist stuff that’s described in the verses. I realized it, once I described all this absurd stuff. I thought, now what do I do? I thought, I have to kind of embrace it. I have to say that this world is miraculous because the obvious reaction would be, something else. We’re maybe slightly unexpected reaction, given that all the stuff I’ve described, would be to say, this is beautiful. This is really miraculous, but then I throw in, every day is maybe an unpaid bill. So it’s not all, it’s not all good.
How do you come to learn about Sampha?
It might have been through a music review I read somewhere. At some point one of the partners in this label Young Turks, Sampha is on that label, at some point he was kind of helping me out to take the record further from where I had taken it. He said, ‘Oh Sampha’s in town, do you want to see if he’ll come by and play something?’ He played something, but I think we ended up keeping one note. It was a good ballad.
Have you heard his album Process?
Yes, I’d heard his album before meeting him.
Do you listen to much hip-hop?
Not a lot. I went to see Chance the Rapper a couple months ago in New York. That was a great show.
You’ve described your upcoming tour as your most ambitious shows since Stop Making Sense. What can people expect when you hit the road this time around?
We haven’t worked everything out. We’re still in rehearsals, but we’re starting from an equally simple, but ambitious premise. That is, in this case, to have the whole show be on a completely empty stage. No risers, no instruments, no lighting instruments, no whatever. It’s just us. The musicians and we’re not tethered to answer anything. Even the drummer. Well there’s not a drummer, there’s six of them and they are all mobile. Everybody’s mobile. So everybody can move around all the time. So it’s all going to be about us. Us as a whole, a community of 12 people. I thought, that’s going to be interesting. It will be interesting and to do a show that’s about us and what we can do as bodies, filling a space as opposed to screens and pyrotechnics. I’m excited about that.
How did you come up with that concept?
I did a tour with St. Vincent a few years ago and we had all the brass players on wireless, which was an obvious idea, because you always see brass players in marching bands or whatever and they’re all kind of moving around and I thought, okay, we can do that with them. This time around, I thought, can I do it with the drums? I checked, and I thought, it’s a little more complicated, we’re going to need six drummers to get the sound, but if you can do, you can do it. It’s more like a drum line than a traditional drummer.
I’m sure you see your fair share of shows from other artists, do you recognize your influence on the live concert presentation? I don’t want to over inflate the impact of Stop Making Sense, but I feel like that was one of the first concert where it was like, I’m going to take the concert and I’m going to completely deconstruct it and create a narrative. Like Kanye West’s Yeezus tour or the floating stage with Saint Pablo, there was a narrative to that show. Are you ever like, ‘Oh I see what they’re doing there, I can see where this is coming from?’
I’m flattered that you see some kind of connection. Those are amazing shows and amazing staging, stuff that’s just amazing. I’m probably the last person to recognize that stuff. I was told that, not the show that’s out now but the previous one, Justin Timberlake, he said was heavily influenced by my show. I saw it on a video and I thought, ‘Really? I’m flattered, but okay’. I’m not sure exactly where that shows up, but okay, I’ll take it.
You have so many different projects going on in addition to this album. How do you juggle your energy and put it into all these things while keeping them balanced inside your own head?
I think I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing as the psychiatrist might say. Not that I’m going to do anything else today, but like when I’m finished with these interviews I’ll just sort of switch that part of myself off. There will be times where I’ll go, ‘Okay, today I’m going to work on this,’ and will maybe not think of anything else and then the next day it might be something different. To me, that seems natural. It also seems natural to me that sometimes you can’t push things to develop or evolve any faster than they want to go. I’m a hard worker, so I don’t want things to be slow. I know that sometimes you can’t rush it.
I’m going to hit you with a mini lightning round of just some random questions I’ve been curious to ask you about. How do you listen to music? Do you stream? Listen to CDs? Vinyl?
Sadly I don’t really listen to vinyl very often. Sometimes if I go over to friends houses they will have a turntable set up and it’s a lot of fun because people will take turns putting on records, which becomes a more social experience. I listen to some streaming. I listen to some downloads that I will make into my own playlists, which sometimes includes songs I’ve ripped off of obscure CDs that I own. What I’ve discovered is some things I have on CD you can’t get on streaming.
They’re not on downloads either. I know those very services would love to have everything, but there’s some little gaps here and there and sometimes I mix things together. Once in awhile, I’ll listen to a CD. Not very often anymore. There was one I got from Japan the other day because they’re big on CDs in Japan. That’s the only way you could get it.
What was the CD?
It was a singer named, I think her name was Kari, Kamari, something like that. Kind of an arty, experimental pop singer.
What was the last book you read?
I think it’s called the Evolution Of Beauty by a guy named [Richard] Prum. it’s about Darwin’s sexual selection theory and how that has been overlooked and this guy thinks it explains a lot of things. I thought that was really interesting.
What was the last movie you saw in the theater?
Just the other day I saw, a friend is in a movie called, Bets. My friend Lena Hall, is the star of this movie which I think is just coming out now. She has some devastating lines in it. It’s very funny.
If you were to recommend one Talking Heads album to a new person who never heard your band before what would the album be?
Oh jeez, I don’t know. It’s really odd. I think Speaking in Tongues was maybe the most popular one or Little Creatures. I think Little Creatures had the most radio songs on it, but a lot of people swear by Remain In Light. I don’t know. We tried to make each one a little bit different than the others.
You have an Oscar and you have a Grammy, which means you’re only two away from getting the EGOT. Do you ever anticipate going back in the theater or maybe television to fill it out?
I’ve never thought of it that way, in terms of, I just want to work in television so I can get the other award. I guess, no, but I do have, I’ve done a couple musicals in the theater and there’s a TV thing I’ve been pitching. We’ll see what happens.
When people finally listen to American Utopia, what do you want them to take away about you as the artist? What do you want them to take away as the message from the album itself? How do you want people to feel when they hear this?
I want them to feel safe that I’m on their side. That I’m with you in the sense of being supportive, but I’m also going to surprise you sometimes. You’re going to get some stuff that’s comforting, but you’re also going to get some unexpected surprises.