LEGEND OF THE YEAR
Having just played a stunning show at Dublin’s 3Arena, art-pop icon DAVID BYRNE discusses his brilliant stage production, performing Talking Heads classics, and collaborating with St. Vincent and Brian Eno. Plus he talks about remaining optimistic in the
Art-pop icon David Byrne discusses his brilliant stage production, performing Talking Heads classics, and collaborating with St. Vincent and Brian Eno.
AREMARKABLE RUN of shows at 3Arena over the past 18 months – including memorable gigs by Radiohead, Kendrick Lamar, and Beck & the Yeah Yeah
Yeahs – culminated this autumn in an incredible one-two, with gigs by rock icons Robert Plant and David Byrne within the same week.
Byrne was touring his latest album, American Utopia, an inspired mix of new wave grooves and world music influences that searched for some optimism amidst the politically tumultuous times we live in. The material sounded truly brilliant at Byrne’s Dublin date, which also found him performing scintillating takes on Talking Heads classics.
As you would expect from the man who devised probably the greatest ever concert film in Stop Making Sense, the stage production was wonderfully imaginative. The band freely roamed the stage whilst Byrne captivated the audience out front, and the show was able to incorporate mass singalongs as well as more leftfield flourishes: in one fantastic moment, the band circled Byrne as he sang beside a lamp, which crept offstage as the tune ended.
It was a vintage piece of Lynchian surrealism, which illustrated that Byrne remains one of the most vital and fascinating live performers around. After such a magnificent show, we had no choice but to make him the Hot Press Legend of the Year.
With the tour enjoying such rave critical notices, it must be a very gratifying moment for Byrne.
“Well, I’ve learned to avoid reading reviews,” he chuckles, talking from Hong Kong, the latest stop-off on the American Utopia tour. “But news of how well the show has been received has indeed filtered back. Of course that makes me happy – a lot of work and risky innovation went into this show.”
What were Byrne’s intentions with the production, and why did he decide to have the band freely roaming the stage?
“Oh my, the concept goes back at least a year before the tour began,” he explains. “I’d done a tour with St. Vincent, with all eight brass players mobile and some choreography, but fully half the stage was still filled with the drum riser and a keyboard stand. This time I asked myself, ‘Can I make those mobile too?’
“I had also done a show that involved 10 colour-guard teams paired with musical artists, so I had a toe in the world of marching bands and crazy movement. Lastly, my booking agent told me I was having a Leonard Cohen moment, by which he meant that the demand for my live shows had very much increased. That made me think, ‘Ah, now maybe is the time to try out this mobile idea, as that demand might cover the cost of the larger band.’”
Having hit on the concept for the show,
Byrne then had to set about making it a reality. As he notes, realising his vision is always a collaborative process.
“I may be a musician, but I am also quite practical minded,” he says. “That process set the stage for the technical puzzle-solving that followed; the harnesses, the light tracking system, the chain as curtain etc. Only after those questions were answered could I begin to truly get creative and collaborate with Annie-B Parson, the choreographer, and Rob Sinclair, the lighting designer.
“What’s intriguing to me is that while all those design and production elements are interesting, they are actually only things that provide the scaffolding for the true content of the show – that’s what it feels like. It makes you think about other people and possibility.”
As touched on earlier, American Utopia is a very positive, outward looking album, at a time when international politics is becoming more isolationist. Was that a deliberate statement?
“The title of record does not reflect the current state of politics,” replies Byrne, “but I sense a deeper layer – a place where there is still hope and potential.”
The album also reunites Byrne with Brian
Eno, with whom he has had one of the most celebrated collaborative partnerships in the history of rock. Eno co-produced a string of early landmark albums for Talking Heads, including More Songs About Buildings And Food, Fear Of Music and Remain In Light.
The duo also collaborated on 1981’s art-rock opus My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, a record that exerted a considerable influence on Nine Inch Nails, amongst others. What is it that Byrne feels he and Eno bring out in each other?
“Well, Brian’s programmed drum tracks were what inspired me to start writing this new material,” he says. “That in turn inspired me to imagine how to tour it. I suppose I like that he approaches music in a structural way – he leaves it to me or others to create the lyrical content, in terms of what a song is about on that level. But it is often a radically new structure that allows one to imagine and get excited about a new set of songs, at least for me.”
More recently, Byrne has a struck up another
fruitful creative partnership with Annie Clark, AKA St. Vincent, with the duo collaborating on the 2012 album Love This Giant and subsequently touring it. Does he view St Vincent as a kindred artistic spirit?
“Oh yes,” he enthuses. “I see Annie very much as someone who is up for trying things, musically, visually and in performance.”
The Talking Heads material at 3Arena was simply magical, particularly the midset combo of ‘This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)’ and ‘Once In A Lifetime’. How does Byrne feel about playing those tunes these days?
“Somehow, some of those songs have remained fresh,” he responds, “or at least the band and I have managed to reinvent them enough to keep them fresh. To be honest, yes, it’s a tightrope – I enjoy doing some of the older favourites, but too many and I’d become an oldies act, and I’d lose interest and hang it all up. The balance is tricky, but the audiences seem to be loving the whole show, not differentiating too much between new and old material – the show itself helps that to happen.”
Picking out a favourite Talking Heads song is exceptionally difficult, but if forced to choose I’d probably go for ‘Road To Nowhere’ – also performed in 3Arena – which seems to have an extra resonance in the current political climate. Does
Byrne feel the track has taken on an extra dimension of late?
“Ha-ha!” he laughs. “Wait another year and the first line of ‘Dog’s Mind’ will seem prescient as well!”
As Byrne suggests, the opening lines of that American Utopia tune do chime with the tenor of the times: “The judge was all hungover / When the President took the stand / So didn’t really notice / When things got out of hand”. The second verse, meanwhile, is even more chilling, with Byrne singing, “Then the press boys thank the President / And he tells them what to say / There’s a photo opportunity / And then they’re sent away”.
On a happier note, Byrne has many fond memories of playing in Ireland, where he and Talking Heads have always been beloved (Stop Making Sense even played regularly in one Dublin cinema for years).
“I remember bringing the big Latin band to the Point,” he says. “I also played the Symphony Hall when a man named David Byrne was managing the place! I also played the Stadium, and there were a few festivals and a gig in Galway as well.”
As we wrap up, I ask Byrne if there’s any music he’d like to recommend us?
“Yes!” he says. “I have a playlist that I do on the first of every month. It’s on my website and the streaming services. This month, no surprise, it’s all songs of protest and activism.”
Byrne has also penned notes to go along with the playlist on his website, which make for interesting reading.
“Not too many years ago there was a spate of newspaper and magazine articles asking where all the ‘protest’ songs were,” he writes. "Well, here they are... about 60 years worth, non-stop. They never went away – in fact, they now come from all directions in every possible genre – country songs, giant pop hits, hip hop, classic rock, indie and folk. Yes, maybe there weren’t many songs questioning the wisdom of invading Iraq, but almost every other issue has been addressed.”
Featured on the eclectic playlist are Rihanna’s ‘Man Down’, the Pet Shop
Boys’ ‘Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)’, ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black And
I’m Proud (Pts. 1 & 2)’ by James Brown, and Public Enemy’s ‘Fight The Power’. Elsewhere, also included are U2’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ and a cover of Wings’ ‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish’ by US Celtic rock maestros Blackthorn.
What have been Byrne’s cultural highlights of the year?
“I have been travelling the world and playing some shows at the same time,” he says. “But I’ve been leaving time to meet people and see things. I’m off to see some alternative arts spaces here in Hong Kong this afternoon.”
Finally, probed for his favourite reading matter this year, Byrne gives the thumbs to Robert Kuttner’s Can Democracy
Survive Global Capitalism?; Exact Thinking In Demented Timesby Karl Sigmund; and Nine Lives: In Search Of The Sacred In Modern India by William Dalrymple.
So that’s David Byrne – still as challenging, fascinating and outrageously gifted as ever. A true legend!
“IT’S A TIGHTROPE
– I ENJOY DOING SOME OF THE OLDER FAVOURITES, BUT TOO MANY AND I’D BECOME AN OLDIES ACT”
David Byrne and his 12 - piece mobile band rocking 3Arena