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!



David Byrne and his 12 - piece mo­bile band rock­ing 3Arena

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