David Byrne on Voter Suppression, Self-Improvement, and Why the Talking Heads Still Wont Reunite – IndieWire

Posted: October 4, 2020 at 7:57 pm

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Anyone who has seen Stop Making Sense knows that David Byrne puts on a good show. If Jonathan Demmes rousing 1984 concert film embodies the galvanizing physicality of the Talking Heads frontman, American Utopia is a full-throated sequel. Nearly four decades later, Byrne has matured into a socially-conscious performance artist, but he still brings the house down with the same catchy tunes. Spike Lee directs the dazzling feature-film version of Byrnes hit Broadway show, which found raves in 2019 and had a 2020 revival on the books before the pandemic took charge. The world has changed dramatically since then, but American Utopia is more than prescient; its a call to action that somehow meets the divisive moment surrounding its release.

The HBO production opened TIFF and next plays at two drive-in dates for New York Film Festival (where Byrne is expected to attend) along with virtual screenings. Like the show, the movie (which was recorded at a single performance in New York) finds Byrne addressing the audience in between a vibrant blend of song-and-dance numbers with a robust team of performers behind him.

It also finds the singer-songwriter settling into an activist role that eluded him for much his career. In between songs and monologues that address everything from immigration to police violence, he advocates for voter registration and urges audience members to make sure they enroll in the lobby. Now, Byrne is taking things one step further, joining forces with Participant Media to launch a voter registration campaign around the release. Hes also working with his journalistic initiative, Reasons to Be Cheerful, on a new project called We Are Not Divided. How did Byrne go from apolitical rock star to infuse his work with advocacy?

A few days before the New York homecoming of American Utopia, Byrne spoke via Zoom with IndieWire about his political awakening, making art in the pandemic, and confronting his own flaws including a recently unearthed video of him in blackface for a promotional video tied to Stop Making Sense. Looking back on those days, he also provided a definitive answer on whether the Talking Heads will ever reunite.

In one of the more striking moments of the show, you visualize Americas low voter turnout in local elections by using the audience as a prop, shining a spotlight on 20 percent of the room. How did this idea come to you?

Greg Allen/Invision/AP

I was doing the show first as a concert tour. Id been doing the pitch for people to vote, and Headcount, a voter organization, would have a table in the lobby. We continued that on Broadway, but it was then that I realized I had an opportunity since were parked in one theater for me to play with this and talk to people more. When youre on tour, they dont want you talking too much. Theyre like, Play the music, were here to have a good time. This was a nice opportunity. It wasnt my idea. Somebody else I forget who suggested to me that the percentages of voter turnout that I mentioned could be visualized. We could actually see it when I say that 20 percent of the audience turns out for local elections, light that up, so you could picture what it looks like. [laughs]

I dont know if itll make everybody vote, but it sure made it much clearer than if you just say it. I emphasize turnout because in the United States the turnout is best for national elections, but its still only 55 percent, and you wonder what the other 45 percent are thinking about. Are they thinking, Ill just go along with whatever they decide?

You became an American citizen in 2012. How has your relationship to participatory democracy evolved since then?

I feel like, yes, the system we have is far from perfect. Theres a lot of chicanery and gerrymandering and voter suppression. At the same time, were never going to change anything unless we can vote in representatives who are willing to address those kind of issues. Thats the voice we have. We can demonstrate on the streets, but really, every citizen has a voice and the ability to vote. It took a long time to get that. People died to get that. Dont treat it lightly. A lot of countries dont have this. We really have to do this.

How would you like to see the system improve?

Im a big proponent of rank choice voting, which addresses the problem of people thinking their vote doesnt matter: This thing is going red or blue or whatever, so why should I even bother? It always goes that! With rank-choice voting, you put your first, second, third choice, whatever. If your first doesnt get in, the votes that you and others cast for that person go to your second choice. So now youve got more people supporting that person. Rather than losing all sense of voice at all, youve got somebody who might not be exactly what you want, but at least in that direction of what you want.

How do you understand undecided voters? You travel the world and must have fans whose views are all over the place.

My understanding from things Ive read is that there are fewer undecideds than we think. It does happen but its really harder to change peoples minds than we give credit to them for. So I just put effort into this: Whatever you feel, get out there and vote. Lets at least get as close as we can to representing the collective feelings we have so we can get around voter suppression and everything else. People do change their points of view when they find some common ground.

When you were living here, but not a citizen, how did you relate to these aspects of our society?

I spoke out about specific issues, but for the most part, I was less active. Maybe its a function of getting older, but I just started to feel like, Oh, this wont matter to my career now, so I can say whatever I like. So I started speaking out a bit more not in a partisan way, I have my own personal feelings there, but insofar as equality, race relations, voting, immigration, all these specific issues that I have a personal connection to.

To what extent do you believe your art actually become a catalyst for change?

Ive been asking myself this question how much influence art can have and I dont know the answer yet. In some cases, it definitely has an effect. In most cases, I think what it does is let people know that there are other people like them out there, whether its a movie they all like or a song. People create little communities around cultural stuff and they find a way to come together over that. It lets them know theyre not alone, and that whatever crap theyre going through in their lives, there are other people going through things too. That gives them the feeling that its possible to surmount these things. Its less about specific issues and policies; its more

Some critics have written about Stop Making Sense as a truly political work. It was made in the middle of Ronald Regans America, a lot of the songs deal with feeling sort of out place in society, and so on. How much of that seems accurate to you?

I havent watched that film in a while.

You should! Its still great.

[laughs] Thank you. I was aware that in that film especially the way that Jonathan [Demme] filmed it, the way he gave time for all the band members, you had a sense of it being like a little community. You got to know each of the people as personalities. Then you saw them interact, playing together. That was a major statement. It was never stated but I think it had a big effect on the audience, the audience felt that, that each of these people were individuals. It wasnt just me and a backup band. And I think you get that from this one, too the sense that sometimes Im in the background. Everybody gets the spotlight at some point.

Greg Allen/Invision/AP

American Utopia climaxes with Road to Nowhere. The lyrics to that song are almost despondent at times, but you perform it in such a hopeful way especially in American Utopia, where youre literally dancing and partying with the audience as you sing.

Its always been a song that has that contradiction built into it. Listen to it literally, and it sounds like its talking about death. Were going down this road to nowhere. And yet it feels very joyous, and I always felt thats what makes the song work. Were all heading down the road to nowhere, but we can all enjoy the trip. Its really a wonderful thing.

American Utopia is such a physical show. Youre almost always in motion, dancing, pacing, engaging the audience throughout. How emotionally and mentally exhausting was it to do this night after night?

It was more mentally exhausting than it was physically. Some of the other performers, especially the ones that dance a lot, I get a little bit of their reflective glory. Theyre dancing their assess off around me and Im not moving half as much, but it feels like Im part of their energy. I get a little more credit than Im due, but it is totally nonstop. Youve got 10 seconds when you finish one song to move somewhere else and boom youre starting the next one. Catch your breath and off you go! Being on tour is one thing but doing a show like that where youre there every night and on Saturdays doing it twice is really something.

The show is so rooted in the concerns of 2020. It almost feels like a recap of recent history. When you stage it live again and I certainly hope you do how do you expect to modify it to reflect an ever-changing world?

Were hoping to do it live again. I think Id probably do a few adjustments to acknowledge all the stuff weve been through. Its kind of amazing. The concert part of the show was put together before the election. I was pooling the elements together, writing songs. The Broadway show and the filming was obviously before the pandemic. Yet when you watch it, it seems like its talking about whats happening now, which is kind of sad in that not much has changed, but it does keep the film current.

What compelled you to approach Spike Lee to direct the film?

Im a fan and wed crossed paths many times over the decades in New York. Wed been in contact a little bit, not a lot. I thought, hes going to get this show, and if hes free, it might be something hed like to do. He has done live shows before. Its in his wheelhouse. All of his films are dealing with contemporary issues in one way or another. Thats a big part of this show. Also, Jonathan Demme was a friend of Spikes and similar to that film, its kind of an ensemble piece. Youve got these characters who interact on this set, everything happens within that, were not going to go out and break into other places. He knows how to capture that stuff.

The part of the film where his voice is most visible is the performance of Janelle Mones Hell You Talmbout, when you and the rest of the cast name Black victims of police shootings. Spike has crafted this montage with the relatives of the victims and works in recent names, including George Floyd, who hadnt been shot when you did the show.

Yeah, he had some ideas on that. Mostly he just wanted to capture what we were doing, but on this one, he said, My office and I have been in contact with some of the families of these people the wives, the husbands, mothers. Wed like to incorporate them into the show. He did it seamlessly. He figured out in an afternoon how to get everyone onstage so it all fit in there. The song was already incredibly emotional but it just takes it to another level, seeing those family members there.

In light of all this, lets talk about how you responded to the promotional video from 1984 that resurfaced where you were wearing blackface. In the show, you almost seem to allude to this kind of issue from your past. Introducing Hell You Talmbout, you say, I need to be better. So what you were actually thinking about when you decided to include that line?

I wasnt thinking of this old promo video I did 30 years ago. I was just thinking back on my life, how much my attitude has changed, and I can only assume that if its changed that much over my life that I still got a ways to go, that Im not done. Im still learning, adjusting my thinking, and being aware of stuff I didnt know about.

I just had a talk earlier this afternoon with a theater company in Denver that Im working with in like two years from now. We started talking about this issue and lots of people had similar stories from their own lives. One woman was watching the movie Splash with her daughter and realized, This is not a good message for a little girl to see, and yet it was one of my favorite films as a child. Another guy said, I was in high school and I decided for something I was doing that it would be funny to dress up as Osama Bin Laden?

Oh, God.

Yes. We change. Thats the whole point. At the time, this guy said, everybody thought it was hilarious. Now, of course, we think about it the way you did. Oh, God. Ugh! You cringe! You cringe at some of the stuff we liked years ago! We can evolve. That was my point. With the statement, I decided, Im going to put this out there and Im not going to try and hide from this. Its a good thing to accept that we can evolve.

How are you dealing with the pandemic as an artist and finding ways to create new work?

Sipa USA via AP

Im mainly focusing my journalism project, Reasons to Be Cheerful, and that thing I mentioned thats two years off. Theres another project that might happen in December, I hope, that could actually get people together. It wont have a performance from me, but Im involved in it remotely in some ways. Im very lucky that way.

What about music?

Not a lot of music. I feel like Im trying to puzzle out how I respond to all of this not just the pandemic, the marches, the police stuff. Everything thats going on. Its almost like the curtain hasnt parted; its been ripped down. I dont want to just do an op-ed piece. That doesnt really work as a song.

You started Reasons to Be Cheerful after the 2016 election, when the concept provided a contrast to the national mood. How do you see its future, especially in an America where Trump actually wins in November?

Wow. I cant say whats going to happen in November, but my feeling since Ive been doing this now for a few years has been that I have to look for local initiatives, things in different cities and states around the world where theyre actually solving problems, offering solutions, and maybe those can be copied or scaled up. That gives me some kind of encouragement that when the national level fails us, on the local level, things are still happening.

Youre a famous New Yorker. During the first presidential debate, Trump called New York City a ghost town, and I was reminded of an editorial you wrote in The New York Times a few years back where you said the city was pricing out artists. How do you feel about the way it stands now?

Oddly enough, in some areas, the rents have come down because of the pandemic and so I have friends who are artists and musicians who are now looking at better apartments in the city. Its too early to tell but its almost like the artists are moving back in. That might be premature, but you never know. Im sticking around.

Its impossible not to think about this last question while watching American Utopia, but Im almost afraid to ask it. How sick are you of being asked whether the Talking Heads will get back together?

[laughs] Well, Ive been asked enough that I have a stock answer!

Give me something better before you default to that.

What can I say? Its just not going to happen. It is kind of sad that we arent friendly because we were all very close at one point, but as we know, that sometimes happens, too. But artistically, in terms of what we do, its actually not that much of a surprise. People grow and change and become interested in other things. They want to do things in a different way. Thats just what happens.

David Byrnes American Utopia premieres on HBO on Saturday, October 17.

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David Byrne on Voter Suppression, Self-Improvement, and Why the Talking Heads Still Wont Reunite - IndieWire

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October 4th, 2020 at 7:57 pm

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