David Byrne Talks American Utopia, Broadway, And Bicycling Despite Tragedy
Most rock stars of a certain age are content to luxuriate in the Tommy Bahama beach chair of nostalgia, recycling the hits on periodic reunion tours and watching the easy money roll in on the king tide. David Byrne, of course, is not most rock stars. The Talking Heads co-founder never expressed any interest in getting the band back together; since its dissolution in 1991, Byrne has perpetually pushed forward with a genre-blending array of creative output, from music to film to books to… PowerPoint presentations. And now he’s on Broadway of all places, with an innovative new dance-theater production that sold out concert venues around the world last year. Called American Utopia, the show stars David Byrne and an ensemble of 11 musicians who carry their instruments for the entire performance, weaving in and around each other in a kinetic tapestry of organic grooves. The choreography, by trailblazing dance-theater director Annie-B Parson, is characteristically ingenious, adding multiple dimensions to the music, which draws from Byrne’s album of the same name, with other songs from his solo career and a few Talking Heads gems sprinkled judiciously throughout, all reborn anew with a powerful percussive backbone.
Previews begin tonight at the Hudson Theatre, with a limited run through January 19th. (Tickets.) We recently spoke with Byrne, a longtime New Yorker, about the show, the nation, and other NYC topics.
Should audience members who are familiar with Broadway musicals come to this expecting the kind of story that they might expect from a typical Broadway musical, or should one approach this more as a concert experience? It’s a kind of hybrid. I wouldn’t say a story but I would say a narrative arc. So it’s not a story in the conventional sense but I think there’s a beginning and a middle and an end. And it takes you on a kind of journey through a person’s development. I think you get that. But it’s not done in a conventional way, like then this happened, then this happened, then this happened and or with acted out scenes of course. But I think audiences have sensed that. So we’re trying to bring that out a little bit more.
In an interview with Rolling Stone you said American Utopia portrays the state of the country, and who we are and who we hope to be. Can you elaborate? What is the state of the country from your view? And who are we? Well. I’m looking at it from a more hopeful point of view than what I read in the morning papers. I’m looking at it from the point of view of what we can be, and what we are on the inside, and the promise that we show. And I think we kind of make that evident on stage. We show, in a way, what’s possible. And for an audience that’s fairly moving because… So it’s this show biz thing: Show don’t tell. We show them that it’s possible rather than telling them verbally what’s possible. They actually see it and they experience it in front of their eyes.
Can you talk about your process for crafting the lyrics? I read that you pulled lines from old notebooks. What were you looking for? What was your selection process? Some of them were very old notebooks. In some of them I was looking for… myself. Parts of myself. Maybe sometimes my earlier self, that I could then adapt to kind of a contemporary presentation of contemporary music and a contemporary show. I think that kind of worked. I could rework some of those things to reflect the world we live in now. But oddly enough it hasn’t changed that much. Like the song “Bullet.” Obviously that wasn’t written last week, but it continues to have some relevance. Sadly. Every week that goes by it seems the song is speaking about that.
And you seem to be determined to have an optimistic view of America. Yeah. That’s a survival tactic. I’d be bitter and angry and cynical, if I didn’t do this.
Is this the most physically demanding show you’ve done? No, I think Stop Making Sense might have been that. But this is pretty demanding. I’m in motion almost all the time.
You seem to me to be an artist who is more attuned to off-Broadway than Broadway. Have there been any Broadway shows that have resonated with you and made you think you find a home here? Every once in a while, yeah, but they’re usually ones that originated off-Broadway. Hedwig, a couple of years ago. What the Constitution Means to Me. The Jungle, which I saw at St. Ann’s, I know that’s going to Broadway. Yeah there’s a lot of stuff that eventually ends up on Broadway that might not have been designed for it, but it seems maybe the definition of what fits there has opened up a little bit?
You still reside in New York, and I know you’ve written about the ways in which New York City is making it difficult for artists and stifling culture. Do you ever think about making your home somewhere else? If you couldn’t live in NYC, is there another place you think you’d call home. I ask myself that all the time but I haven’t done it. [Laughs] I think we’ve all probably been to different places and thought, ‘Ooh, it’s nice here.’ But maybe it’s because I’m used to it, maybe because my friends are here. There still is a lot of culture, but for younger people who are trying to make their way, it can be pretty tough.
And it’s tougher in ways that are different than it was when you were coming out. Is that your view? Yeah I would say so. When I was coming up rents were pretty cheap. I was sharing a loft with other band members, but I could pay my share with a little part time job. Which left plenty of time to do other things, like write songs. I think that might be hard to do now.
Are you still an avid bicyclist? Yes. Yeah. But I’m curious why there have been so many bike fatalities in the first half of this year. Because it kind of goes against the trend; usually the trend is the more cyclists you have on the road, the more drivers are used to them. So it’s not an unexpected thing. And so the actual fatalities per capita goes down. So to see it kind of start going up again, it’s kind of mysterious. You wonder what’s going on here. It’s tragic.
Do you have any theories? No, I don’t.
Is it something that gives you pause before you get on a bike in the city? A little bit but I’m pretty good about making my way along the bike lane, especially the protected ones. And maybe I don’t stop at every light, but I stop at most of them.
Do you think there are things that the city should be doing or should have done by now to make the city safer for cyclists? Yeah I mean I always think things could go faster. But it is moving along. It hasn’t stopped. So I think that’s kind of exciting. It hasn’t reached the point where anyone has said, ‘Oh that’s enough. We can stop doing that now.’
Right. But these battles are still being fought. Years ago that was the battle over the Prospect Park West bike lane and that went on for years, and now there’s the battle over the Central Park West bike lane. Yeah. Those will happen. All right. Maybe people would rather have some trucks? It’s a mystery to me why someone would prefer the noxious fume-spewing cars. I guess it’s just their own convenience. They want to be able to park outside their house of whatever. I remember in some places there was resistance to having bike parking and bike racks and bike lanes, and then they found out that when they had them, the businesses on those streets got a lot more business. Their businesses improved with walk-ins. It’s a lot easier to do a walk in when you’re on a bike then if you’re in a car right? And so they completely turned around and businesses started asking for bike lanes and bike racks. So that just takes time.
But you’ve been biking in the city a long time, and it seems from what I hear from you that you think it’s gotten safer? Yes, I think it has. Gradually. I don’t understand what’s been going on this year, but in general it’s becoming a little more accommodating. It’s safer. The next step after more bike lanes will be parking. Places like Japan and various cities in Europe, in places where bikes are going to congregate, they have to provide parking and sometimes that means an actual structure. I remember biking to see a movie in a shopping mall in downtown Tokyo, and the bike parking was this amazing kind of automated thing. I’ve never seen anything like it. But that’s what you have to have, otherwise they’re just all over the place, locked to every available surface outside.
So I assume as the star of a hit Broadway show you’ll be able to bring your bicycle into the theater with you and keep it in the dressing room. I don’t know about the dressing room but yes I think they’ll probably let me bring it in somewhere.
Do you have a favorite bike ride in New York City? Well, there are some I recommend to people depending on how much time they have. There’s the boardwalk in Staten Island. That’s really nice. You’re riding riding along the Atlantic. Similarly there’s one that goes from Bensonhurst or some place? Sunset Park. Along the water, and if you want you can continue to Coney Island. Those are kind of for visitors on a weekend. But more and more it’s just a pleasant way to get around, rather than a battle.
And you’ll be riding your bike to the Broadway performances? Unless it’s raining or snowing. Right.