DAVID BYRNE

Q (UK) - - Contents - PHO­TOGRAPHS: AN­DREW WHITTON

Grab a front row seat at the ex-Talk­ing Heads man’s mind-blow­ing live show in Paris.

David Byrne’s as­ton­ish­ing Amer­i­can Utopia stage show com­pletely rein­vents the pop con­cert. It has been de­scribed as “the best live show of all time”, but that might un­der­sell it. Do­rian Lynskey joins the tour in Paris and talks to the former Talk­ing Heads singer about its genesis and pur­pose.

Last year, David Byrne’s con­cert book­ing agent in­formed him that he was hav­ing a Leonard Co­hen mo­ment. “That doesn’t mean I’m writ­ing songs like Leonard Co­hen,” Byrne says jovially, back­stage at the Phil­har­monie in Paris. “That would be a dream. It means you have a sud­den au­di­ence growth spurt. I thought, ‘Good, that will give me the bud­get to re­alise this show that I’m imag­in­ing.’” In pro­moter-speak, “a Leonard Co­hen mo­ment” refers to the point in 2008 when the 73- year-old singer re­turned to live per­for­mance af­ter a 15- year ab­sence and en­joyed the big­gest au­di­ences of his life. Byrne, 66, is en­joy­ing a sim­i­lar late boom but un­like Co­hen, he didn’t need to have his life sav­ings de­mol­ished by a crooked busi­ness man­ager to get there. He didn’t even need to take time off. In the past decade, rock’s dap­per Re­nais­sance man has staged am­bi­tious col­lab­o­ra­tive tours with Brian Eno and St. Vin­cent, and mounted Here Lies Love, a disco mu­si­cal about Imelda Mar­cos, co-writ­ten with Fat­boy Slim. Big ideas are Byrne’s sta­ple diet. Noth­ing he has done since the hey­day of Talk­ing Heads, how­ever, has ig­nited such parox­ysms of glee as his cur­rent Amer­i­can Utopia tour, which opened in New Jer­sey in March and grad­u­ates to are­nas in the

au­tumn. It’s been at­tract­ing Hamil­ton lev­els of praise, var­i­ously de­scribed as “an un­mit­i­gated tri­umph”, “a new ca­reer peak”, and “the best live show of all time”. Plau­dits like that could go to Byrne’s head – if he ac­tu­ally read them. “I’ve been mak­ing a point not to read re­views,” he says. “It takes a bit of willpower but some­times their in­ter­pre­ta­tion of what the show is about can be very dif­fer­ent from what you think you’re do­ing. And I thought, ‘No, let me live in the il­lu­sion that what­ever it is I think I’m do­ing is com­ing across.’”

When Byrne an­nounced the tour dates last De­cem­ber, he promised that Amer­i­can Utopia would be his “most am­bi­tious” tour since Speak­ing In Tongues, the Talk­ing Heads show that was im­mor­talised in Jonathan Demme’s 1984 movie Stop Mak­ing Sense. That’s not a claim to make un­less you can back it up. Demme’s movie, filmed over three nights at the Pan­tages The­atre in Hol­ly­wood, rep­re­sented Talk­ing Heads’ artis­tic pin­na­cle, and not just be­cause Byrne re­fused to tour their sub­se­quent three al­bums. The im­age of the singer in a bizarrely over­sized white suit proved so in­deli­ble that he later joked it would be men­tioned on his tomb­stone: “Here lies David Byrne. Why the big suit?” Byrne con­ceived the show with such ob­ses­sive at­ten­tion to de­tail that it drove his band­mates crazy (he was a less agree­able char­ac­ter then), but they couldn’t ar­gue with the re­sults. Stop Mak­ing Sense is still widely re­garded as the most bril­liant con­cert movie ever made, partly be­cause, by with­hold­ing shots of the au­di­ence, Demme put the viewer in the front row. “We wanted the viewer to feel that he was part of the ex­pe­ri­ence in­stead of watch­ing th­ese other peo­ple have a good time,” said bassist Tina Wey­mouth. The prin­ci­ple then, as now, was in­clu­sion. Byrne says that this tour and that one have some­thing in com­mon: the cul­mi­na­tion of an idea rather than a bolt from the blue. The sec­ond-half ap­pear­ance of ad­di­tional mu­si­cians dur­ing 1980’ s Re­main In Light tour got him think­ing about ex­pand­ing the nar­ra­tive arc of Speak­ing In Tongues, steadily di­lat­ing from one man with a boom­box into a stage bustling with peo­ple. Sim­i­larly, the mo­bile brass sec­tion on the St. Vin­cent tour led him to won­der, what if ev­ery­body moved? No mic stands, no drum kit, no video screens, no leads or ped­als: no fixed points at all. “I thought that would be dif­fer­ent from any­thing anybody had seen,” he says. “Ex­cept for hip-hop, where some­times it’s just Kanye or Ken­drick on­stage. I thought, ‘Can you do that with a whole band?’ And it turns out you can, but it takes a lot of fig­ur­ing out.” The con­cept seemed to gel with the Amer­i­can Utopia al­bum’s themes of lib­er­a­tion, com­mu­nity and con­stant mo­tion. The record, which he was mak­ing while plan­ning the tour, is po­lit­i­cal less be­cause of what it protests against than what it cel­e­brates. “I thought by strip­ping ev­ery­thing away from the stage, it makes it about us as hu­man be­ings,” Byrne says. “It’s not about stuff. It’s not about ex­plo­sions, or big screens with crazy im­agery, or light­ing that’s go­ing to blow your face away. It’s about peo­ple. And I think that’s what peo­ple need now. They miss that con­nec­tion. This is part of what’s got the world so fucked up at the mo­ment. They think so­cial me­dia is ac­tu­ally con­nect­ing with peo­ple. It’s not. Tick­ing Like is not con­nect­ing with peo­ple, I’m sorry.” Byrne knew that bring­ing the idea to life would re­quire a lot of time, money and expertise. To plot the stage move­ments he turned to cel­e­brated New York chore­og­ra­pher An­nie-B Par­son, who had worked on his pre­vi­ous two tours and Here Lies Love, as well as David Bowie’s play Lazarus. Par­son’s chore­og­ra­phy splits the dif­fer­ence be­tween pre­ci­sion and spon­tane­ity. Apart from back­ing singers Ten­dayi Ku­umba and Chris Giarmo, says Byrne, none of the mu­si­cians are trained dancers “so our move­ment is a bit on the not-quite-pre­cise side, but we’re do­ing the best we can and we’re en­joy­ing

“It’s about strip­ping ev­ery­thing away. It’s not about ex­plo­sions or light­ing that’s go­ing to blow your face away. It’s about peo­ple.” David Byrne

it, which I think works in our favour.” Byrne him­self came up with the cur­tain of ul­tra-light alu­minium chains that sur­rounds the stage and can look, depend­ing on the light­ing, like cloth, bam­boo or me­tal walls. Light­ing de­signer Rob Sin­clair sug­gested the stage uni­form of grey suits, fit­ted with sta­teof-the-art sen­sors that guide the spot­lights au­to­mat­i­cally. Un­like black or white suits, grey can be made to dis­ap­pear or pop out by the ap­pli­ca­tion of dif­fer­ent lights. Byrne as­sem­bled most of the in­ter­na­tional, mul­tira­cial band from peo­ple he’d worked with be­fore, com­mis­sion­ing per­cus­sion­ist Mauro Re­fosco to de­sign the drum sec­tion. The whole process took a year of prob­lem­solv­ing, cul­mi­nat­ing in a month of re­hearsals. Byrne has ex­ploited his Leonard Co­hen mo­ment to the hilt. “Emerg­ing bands, don’t try this!” he ad­vises.

It’s 9.40pm in the au­di­to­rium of the Paris Phil­har­monie, an eye­pop­ping 2400- seat space with curvi­lin­ear bal­conies and acous­tic pan­els that rise and fall like hills or waves. Even in the mo­ments just be­fore the show, when there’s noth­ing but a bare stage and some taped bird­song, it feels like some­thing spe­cial is about to hap­pen. The de­sign of live shows is now so re­li­ably spec­tac­u­lar on the level of sta­di­ums and are­nas that you can al­most take it for granted. If you go to see U2 or Tay­lor Swift, you can ex­pect to see your ticket money put to work in star­tling new ways. In the­atres, how­ever, smaller stages and bud­gets tend to limit what can be done beyond clever videos and lights, which makes Amer­i­can Utopia all the more re­mark­able. Us­ing lit­tle more than bod­ies, in­stru­ments and in­ven­tion, Byrne and his team have re-imag­ined the pop con­cert from the ground up. In the space of a cou­ple of hours, this un­prece­dented mind­meld of mod­ern dance, avant-garde the­atre, art in­stal­la­tion, soul re­vue and car­ni­val pa­rade makes the con­ven­tional rock show seem as old-fash­ioned as mu­sic hall. In­ten­tion­ally or other­wise, the first num­ber func­tions as a clever bit of mis­di­rec­tion. Byrne ap­pears sit­ting at a ta­ble cradling a model brain and sings Here alone, with mu­sic that you might as­sume is pre­re­corded (not true: ev­ery­thing you hear is played live). But eight mu­si­cians join him for Lazy, his 2002 house mu­sic hit with X-Press 2, and an­other three for I Zim­bra, Talk­ing Heads’ writhing take on Afrobeat. The au­di­ence is al­ready danc­ing so hard that the floor is shud­der­ing. Byrne has cho­sen songs from ev­ery cor­ner of his ca­reer and re­ar­ranged them so that some­body who didn’t know his back cat­a­logue wouldn’t be able to dis­tin­guish be­tween Fat­boy Slim, St. Vin­cent, Talk­ing Heads or his new al­bum. There are ob­vi­ous crowd-pleasers – Once In A Life­time, Burn­ing Down The House, This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) – but none of the en­ergy troughs that usu­ally oc­cur when a vet­eran artist in­ter­sperses the hits with new songs. “We were try­ing to keep a bal­ance be­tween the new ma­te­rial and the old ma­te­rial and the in-be­tween ma­te­rial,” says Byrne. “In many cases peo­ple can’t tell the dif­fer­ence, and that’s pretty great.” The rea­son ev­ery­thing works is be­cause there’s al­ways some­thing hap­pen­ing. For I Should Watch TV, the mu­si­cians ad­vance on Byrne like an en­emy army. For Bul­let, they march around him in a cir­cle like a cult, sil­hou­et­ted by his blind­ingly bright hand­held

light. They hide be­hind the cur­tain with only arms and legs pro­trud­ing (Do­ing The Right Thing), or play dead on the floor be­fore ris­ing one by one (I Dance Like This). The most strik­ing idea is the sim­plest: a sin­gle, in­tense light at the front of the stage, which pro­duces vast, danc­ing shad­ows dur­ing the Talk­ing Heads song Blind. Ev­ery song has its own visual char­ac­ter. Byrne is alone in a harsh spot­light for the verses of Once In A Life­time, spas­ming like he does at the end of Psy­cho Killer in Stop Mak­ing Sense, but ev­ery time the cho­rus kicks in, the lights go up and the whole band dances to the front of the stage. The song starts as a ner­vous break­down and ends as a party. Once In A Life­time was ex­plic­itly writ­ten in the per­sona of a 1980s tel­e­van­ge­list but Byrne says he plays many more roles dur­ing the show, even if no­body knows what they are. “Some­times there’s more than one char­ac­ter per song. I think peo­ple get that in a sub­lim­i­nal way, even if they can’t put it into words.”

Byrne also brings pol­i­tics into the show like he never has be­fore. His first ex­tended ad­dress to the au­di­ence is a plea for voter reg­is­tra­tion. “Europe’s fac­ing a lot of the same prob­lems as we are,” he says. “You don’t have quite as crazy a per­son in charge but watch out. Be care­ful.” The Trump mo­ment also ex­plains why he chose to end such a joy­ous show with a cover of Hell You Talm­bout, Janelle Monaé’s stark, per­cus­sive trib­ute to black Amer­i­cans mur­dered by the po­lice. This fi­nal gut-punch of re­al­ity is both un­set­tling and deeply mov­ing. “The times we’re liv­ing in, we can’t be silent any more,” he ex­plains. “Ev­ery cit­i­zen and ev­ery en­ter­tainer has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to speak out and try and do what­ever they can. I thought, ‘If this kills the vibe then so be it.’ Some­times the au­di­ence is like, ‘Huh, this is not leav­ing us on a cheery note.’ But it is some­thing that needs to be said.” Byrne and his band cer­tainly earn that fi­nal, dis­so­nant mo­ment. This is a show where no­body goes to the bar or toi­let un­less they ab­so­lutely have to, be­cause if you don’t pay at­ten­tion, you’ll miss some­thing bril­liant. Peel­ing away the crusty shell of

“We try to bal­ance new ma­te­rial, old ma­te­rial and in-be­tween ma­te­rial. In many cases, peo­ple can’t tell the dif fer­ence and that’s great.” David Byrne

re­ceived wis­dom, Amer­i­can Utopia makes the whole ex­pe­ri­ence of live per­for­mance feel fresh. By de­con­struct­ing and re­con­fig­ur­ing the drum kit over and over again, the six per­cus­sion­ists force you to no­tice the relationship be­tween sound and move­ment, turn­ing the stage into a the­atre of rhythm. The en­ergy comes off the stage in waves, like ra­di­a­tion. And when gui­tarist Angie Swan plays her only solo of the night at the end of an in­tense The Great Curve, with the rest of the band sur­round­ing her like wor­ship­pers, it’s as if you’ve never seen a gui­tar solo be­fore. Byrne stands off to the side, glow­ing with ex­er­tion, a stripe of sweat down the back of his suit, like a fan at his own show. Byrne says that they’re all so “ec­static” by the end of the night that on the way to the dress­ing room af­ter­wards, they’re shouting to each other about what just hap­pened. The mood in the au­di­to­rium is sim­i­larly elated. It is hard to imag­ine a con­cert au­di­ence more berserk with joy as the Phil­har­monie is dur­ing Burn­ing Down The House, es­pe­cially cer­tain English peo­ple who have just re­ceived text mes­sages in­form­ing them that Eng­land have won the penalty shootout against Colom­bia. Ec­static is the word. Byrne says that the setlist will be re­freshed in time for the arena shows and that he’s con­sid­er­ing ex­tend­ing the tour into 2019. “There’s a pos­si­bil­ity but I want to see how I feel. I don’t want to push it to the point where it stops be­ing fun.” He also says the show might be filmed at some point, and it would be a cry­ing shame if it wasn’t cap­tured for pos­ter­ity, even if the per­fect direc­tor, Demme, died last year. When Byrne com­pared this tour to Stop Mak­ing Sense, he ran the risk of set­ting ex­pec­ta­tions un­rea­son­ably high. The crazy thing is that he’s ex­ceeded them. Most artists don’t get to rein­vent the pop con­cert once in a life­time. David Byrne has done it twice.

“Rock’s dap­per Re­nais­sance man” and band, back­stage at the Phil­har­monie de Paris.

Shad­ow­play: Talk­ing Heads’ Blind is rein­ter­preted by means of a sin­gle, in­tense light at the front of the stage.

“The en­ergy comes off the stage in waves, like ra­di­a­tion.”

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