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David Byrne on His Broadway Show “American Utopia,” Talking Heads, Reasons to Be Cheerful & More

StoryNovember 29, 2019
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An hour with David Byrne, the celebrated musician, artist, writer, cycling enthusiast, filmmaker and now Broadway star. He has a new hit Broadway show called “American Utopia.” The show grew out of Byrne’s recent world tour, which the British music publication NME said “may just be the best live show of all time.” Byrne talks about the production, his time in the groundbreaking band Talking Heads, his website Reasons to Be Cheerful, Greta Thunberg and more.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour with David Byrne, the celebrated musician, artist, writer, cycling enthusiast, filmmaker and now Broadway star. His new Broadway show is called American Utopia. It’s receiving rave reviews.

DAVID BYRNE: [singing “Once in a Lifetime”]
Well, how did I get here?
Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Letting the days go by
Once in a lifetime

AMY GOODMAN: American Utopia grew out of David Byrne’s recent world tour, which the British music publication NME said, quote, “may just be the best live show of all time,” unquote. The production features David Byrne and 11 musical artists from around the globe, including six percussionists, performing a selection of songs from, well, throughout his remarkable career, featured on his most recent album, American Utopia, to highlights from his legendary band Talking Heads, including “Burning Down the House.”

TALKING HEADS: [performing “Burning Down the House”]
Watch out you might get what you’re after
Boom babies strange but not a stranger
I’m an ordinary guy
Burning down the house

AMY GOODMAN: Also, “This Must Be the Place.”

TALKING HEADS: [performing “This Must Be the Place”]
Home is where I want to be
Pick me up and turn me around
I feel numb, born with a weak heart
Guess I must be having fun

AMY GOODMAN: American Utopia is just one of David Byrne’s current projects. He also recently launched the online magazine Reasons to Be Cheerful, that highlights solutions-oriented stories around the globe. David Byrne recently came into the Democracy Now! studios on his day off from Broadway. I asked him to talk about the name of his recent album and Broadway show, American Utopia.

DAVID BYRNE: It’s — wow. Partly because it’s sort of the last thing you expect to hear, the words, especially connected with me and at this particular time, with everything that’s going on, it’s kind of like, “Is he serious? Is he being ironic? Is he — does it have some other kind of meaning?” And I thought, “No, let’s be serious about it. Let’s be sincere about this. And although utopia may never exist, may never be achievable, let’s think about what it is we want and what it is we would like to change and what we would like to — where we would like to be, how would we like to be, that kind of thing.” And I thought, “That’s part of what we’re — part of what the show is.” It shows people an alternative way of being.

AMY GOODMAN: You also quote James Baldwin in the play: “I still believe we can do with this country something that has not been done before.”

DAVID BYRNE: It’s not typical of him. But I thought, “But he said this.” And I thought, “So he — despite all his life and everything he wrote about, he didn’t give up. He didn’t get totally cynical. He felt like there’s still possibility here.”

AMY GOODMAN: So you share that optimism?

DAVID BYRNE: Not every day, but I try to. I try to keep that alive.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I called this production a play, because that’s what we say on Broadway. It’s not really — well, it’s certainly not just a play. It’s not a rock opera. What words do you use?

DAVID BYRNE: I think we just call it a show. But it’s — OK, it evolved from a concert tour, as you mentioned, but then we realized that, OK, in a Broadway setting, you have the opportunity to do something else with it. You’re still going to play a lot of songs, but you have the opportunity to kind of make an arc and tell sort of a story. I don’t mean a literal story like “And then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.” But you can kind of make it in a story of ideas that takes you from one place and then you end up somewhere else at the end.

AMY GOODMAN: And you begin by talking about how babies have way more connections in their brains than we do.

DAVID BYRNE: Yes, yes. It really is something I read recently, that babies have a lot more neural connections than we do and that as they grow up. Until we’re 20 years old, those connections are being pruned and stripped back. And what a thing to — what a thing to think about, I thought, that on the face of it, they’re kind of our — it would seem like, well, does that mean that we’re less — that babies somehow have more or perceive more than we do, and that we have — and I think it’s kind of true. I think babies are kind of getting everything. They just can’t make any sense of it, and they’re trying to figure it out. And to try to figure it out, they have to say, “I’m going to ignore this. And this is — Mom is more important than that person over there.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, babies have more connections, but then, as we grow older, maybe to compensate a little, we build connections outside.

DAVID BYRNE: That’s what I’m saying. I’m saying that our social connections, our connections with other people, is something that we — as you said, that we grow as we mature.

AMY GOODMAN: And the show American Utopia is certainly a manifestation of that. I mean, it’s so simple. I won’t exactly use the word austere, but very stripped down. And explain who you wrote this show for.

DAVID BYRNE: Oh, I’m sure that like a lot of things I do, that the show was conceived as a kind of therapy for myself. You want to — can we present something like this, and is it going to have the effect on me and on the audience that I hope it might? I imagined that by stripping everything away, all the projections and equipment and stage paraphernalia, and leaving it be just us — and just us, the musicians — I thought that puts us kind of on the same level as the audience, in a way. We’re not protected by having all this stuff. It’s just kind of us as human beings talking to you all out there as human beings. And I thought, “That can be pretty powerful.” I mean, you see it with a standup comedian or somebody like that doing something like that, but you don’t see it in a music show very often. So I thought, “Let’s see if that feels like a more immediate kind of connection between us and the audience. And then we’ll start from there and see where that goes.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, here you have 12 musicians, including yourself. And you were all there in your somewhat austere gray suits, but the opposite of austere as you perform. And you introduce us to everyone with a simple sentence. Can you share that sentence? About immigration?

DAVID BYRNE: Oh, yes, yes, yes. That’s that, yes. I make various points throughout the show, but I try and always make it be very, whatever, personal or immediate or not a kind of didactic point, but kind of like there it is, you see it right in front of you. And at one point, I make a point that, myself, I’m a naturalized citizen, and some of the band —

AMY GOODMAN: From Scotland.

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah. Some of the band members are from France and Brazil, etc. And so I said, “Yes, we’re all immigrants, and this show, you know, would not exist without us being able to be here.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, would you like to elaborate further, because you have more than a sentence in between performances, about the pointed reference that you’re making about immigration —

DAVID BYRNE: Oh, that’s — this one —

AMY GOODMAN: — about this, for example, show not being able to happen if it weren’t for all of you from around the globe?

DAVID BYRNE: Exactly. So, the audience — the good thing about putting that in the context of the show is the audience gets it immediately. They’ve just — they’ve been dancing and enjoying this music, and then you realize — then you can say to them, “This thing that you’ve just enjoyed, it wouldn’t be here unless these people were allowed into our country.” That includes me. And so, it’s a very — it’s kind of a very visceral way of making the point, rather than kind of a dogmatic policy way. It’s like, “You just enjoyed something that wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t here.”

AMY GOODMAN: In 2018, you said it in a slightly different way. Last year, you said — you created an online playlist titled “Beautiful [bleep] holes,” in response to Trump’s comments.

DAVID BYRNE: Yes. People did write me from various places and say, “Thank you for this.” Yeah, I thought, “Well, let the music speak. Let the music speak for people from these countries. And let’s have a listen to the music that they’re making, which is incredible.”

AMY GOODMAN: Can you give us a thumbnail, David Byrne, sketch of your life, how you came into music, especially for young people? Talk about where you were born, where you grew up, and then how you discovered music.

DAVID BYRNE: OK. I was born in Scotland. My parents came with me to Canada and then moved to Baltimore for work. I was in high school, say, in the late '60s. I'm old enough to have experienced that and the explosion of kind of pop music. Lots of kids wanted to be in bands or be musicians or a performer, this kind of thing. And I did, too.

I was very, very shy, but I realized that performing became an outlet. I could get on stage and do kind of outrageous things and then retreat into my shell. And I’d kind of — I had an outlet. I had kind of announced my existence and my creativity, and then I could kind of retreat again.

Maybe relevant to kind of young people, I had no ambitions to be a musician. My ambition was to be a fine artist and show in galleries and things like that. That’s what I wanted to do, or to be an engineer, like do technical kind of work.

AMY GOODMAN: Your dad did that?

DAVID BYRNE: My dad did that. And I liked that, too, and I saw creativity there that was similar to the arts. But it was always — in our world, it’s always kept very separate. So, I thought of music as — what do you call it? An avocation? It was something that I did for pleasure with friends, and I took it very seriously, but I never thought that it would be a career or a way to make a living. I thought, “There’s people who have gone to school for this, and there’s people who are really, really good. I’m just doing it for fun.” But, eventually, it kind of won out.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you went to RISD, Rhode Island School of Design.

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah, I went to an art school, and I went to Maryland Institute, another art school. And I was constantly making things in hopes of kind of getting a show. I had no idea how to do that. But at the same time, I was writing songs and, yes, auditioned at some clubs downtown. And I kind of — I was very lucky. We were very lucky. It was kind of the right — the right thing at the right moment in the right time. And there were other groups emerging from this club. The press all of a sudden was kind of paying attention to what was going on. We were playing original music, which was very unusual at that time for bands at a bar to just play original music. That was —

AMY GOODMAN: Like the Ramones, you opened for?

DAVID BYRNE: Yes, the Ramones. There was a group called Television, Patti Smith. So, we were all kind of playing the same — same venues, same places.

AMY GOODMAN: Your college pal was named?

DAVID BYRNE: I had a college pal named Marc Kehoe. And I had my friends that were in Talking Heads, was Chris and Tina, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth. And then we brought in another guy to play keyboards.

AMY GOODMAN: And Tina, actually, she wasn’t — she didn’t naturally play the bass guitar.

DAVID BYRNE: No, she didn’t. Like Chris, they were — they were painters. They were also from art school, and their training was as painters. But they — Chris, especially — liked music, and Tina took an interest and decided that she would learn.

AMY GOODMAN: So you needed a bass guitarist, so she figured, “OK, I’ll do that.”

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah, yeah. And, well, she said, “I’ll do that.” And I said, “So, fine, fine.” I think that coming out of, say, sort of an arty milieu, I think we felt that virtuosity in itself was not a high priority. It was not a value insofar as music goes. What was more important was that — what you had to communicate and that if you could communicate that with fairly simple means, if that’s what was available to you. As long, I mean, you didn’t try to do something that was beyond your means. But you could. You could — with very little, you could communicate quite a lot. And so, the idea that we just brought in friends who would learn how to play didn’t seem that strange to us.

AMY GOODMAN: So you play at CBGB, not very much. You open for the Ramones, and a music producer hears you from outside on the sidewalk.

DAVID BYRNE: Well, yes. So, people in the kind of music world and record labels and the kind of alternative press, etc., started coming and hearing us and the other bands. And we were very lucky to be part of that at that time. I mean, if we would have been — I can imagine if we had been somewhere else doing the exact same thing, we would have gone completely unnoticed. I mean, I like to think that we were writing something that had some kind of interesting quality to it, but I also know that there was a certain amount of luck involved, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: David Byrne, the legendary musician and now Broadway star. His show American Utopia is on Broadway now. When we come back, he’ll talk about collaborating with Brian Eno, Reasons to Be Cheerful and the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re continuing our conversation with David Byrne, co-founder of Talking Heads, star of the new Broadway show American Utopia. The show has drawn some comparisons to the Talking Heads 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, which was directed by Jonathan Demme.

TALKING HEADS: [performing “Life During Wartime”]
This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco,
This ain’t no fooling around
No time for dancing, or lovey dovey,
I ain’t got time for that now
Transmit the message, to the receiver,
Hope for an answer some day

AMY GOODMAN: I asked David Byrne to talk about working with Jonathan Demme on the film.

DAVID BYRNE: He shot a performance we did. And that’s kind of — it’s kind of a document of a tour that we were doing at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: Like four nights in a row?

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah, he shot four nights in a row in one place, so that it could be edited together to appear to be one night. And that was kind of the tour that we were doing. The film version is a little compressed. But similar to this, the show that I’m doing now, it was a very simple idea, but then fairly complicated to realize it. In that one, the idea was, start with a stage with nothing on it, bring everything on and show the audience what it takes to make a show. Bring on the lights and projectors, and wheel in the equipment and this and that. And they get to see everything assembled one by one, until by about — I don’t know — halfway through, everything is working, and it’s like, “Oh, we’ve seen how this comes together now.” It was an attempt to be really transparent.

AMY GOODMAN: So tell us about your collaboration over the years with Brian Eno, one of the great music producers of the last decades, how you met him and what it meant for the two of you to work together.

DAVID BYRNE: Talking Heads worked on three records with Brian Eno, and I’ve worked on two or three with him, as well, including this most recent one. And we were introduced when we played in a small club in London — it was our first show in England — by another musician, a guy named John Cale, who was in a band called The Velvet Underground. And we idolized John and Velvet Underground and Brian Eno and the band he was in, Roxy Music. So, this was like — we were kind of bowled over by meeting these people that we admired very much.

Similar to what I was saying about working with musicians who weren’t virtuosos, Brian isn’t, say, a virtuoso musician or technician, but he has lots of ideas, and he’s willing to experiment a lot in the studio and whatever. So, that appealed to us. It also appealed that we could talk to him just as a friend, as a person, and it wasn’t all music business talk. You could spend a whole evening together and never talk about music at all, which I thought was a good sign.

AMY GOODMAN: You collaborated on, for example, “I Zimbra.”

TALKING HEADS: [performing “I Zimbra”]
Gadji beri bimba clandridi
Lauli lonni cadori gadjam
A bim beri glassala glandride

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about “I Zimbra.”

DAVID BYRNE: In the — yeah, OK, in the show that we’re doing, I mention that Brian Eno suggested that we use this nonsense poem by a Dada artist named Hugo Ball for the lyrics of a song that we were having trouble finding lyrics to. Again, we had the music and a melody, but we couldn’t figure out the lyrics. So, the kind of world of these Dada — in the current show, I describe a little bit what was going on at the time, the context of what these Dada artists were doing. Hugo Ball and another one that I was more familiar with, Kurt Schwitters, they both did these kind of nonsense chants or poems or — well, Schwitters called his a sonata. Hugo Ball and quite a few of the others became exiles. This was in the ’30s. A lot of them moved to — they were exiled to Zurich. They ended up in Zurich, and a lot of them hung out at a performance place there. A lot of their art was performance-based. And that was called Cabaret Voltaire. So it was this community of exiles and refugees that came together making this art movement.

AMY GOODMAN: Fleeing the Nazis.

DAVID BYRNE: Yes, fleeing the Nazis. And a lot of them converged there. They felt that their art was, in a way, a response to the kind of craziness that they were seeing in the world. Their art was very kind of absurd and funny, but they felt like, in a way, it was a direct response to what they were seeing around them.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why did you feel it was important to address fascism in the ’80s and now again right now?

DAVID BYRNE: I never say that, but I think the connection is pretty obvious to an audience. I describe the context that they are — that these nonsense poems and their artwork came out of. There had been an economic crash. The Nazis were coming to power. And there was — and whole countries were sliding into authoritarian and fascist regimes. And I thought — sometimes I pause, and I go — and just let that sink in and see if you might see some parallels there. But I never say that. Let the audience make the connection. And then I go on and talk about how these artists respond, what their response was.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have a great desire to burn down the house right now?

DAVID BYRNE: No, I’m trying the Reasons to Be Cheerful thing. I’m giving it a good try.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain Reasons to Be Cheerful. Explain what you’ve started with this online magazine.

DAVID BYRNE: It started at least a couple of years ago. Like a lot of people, I’d wake up in the morning and read a lot of news and end up either depressed or cynical or angry or whatever. And I thought, “Well, that’s a reasonable response, given what I’d read.” But I also thought, “This is not good for my health.” And it’s also not good for how to respond to these things that I had been reading about. And being in — finding yourself in that frame of mind isn’t a very constructive place to kind of respond to it. So I thought — so I started saving things that seemed hopeful or initiatives, sometimes small things that have been done in a little town or in another country, that had proved to be successful. And at first I started just posting those online. Then, more recently, it became more official, with a little team of editors and writers and web designers and all that kind of thing.

And it’s often called solutions journalism. It focuses not just on good news, like someone’s donated a lot of money to schools or someone has done a good deed, but on a whole initiative that has proven to be successful and that, one would hope, can be then used as a model and adopted by other places. That’s the idea. We don’t have the time. We’re not activists, in that we don’t try and get these things adopted. The assumption is that if we put it out there, people might discover it and realize, “Oh, someone’s found a solution to this. Maybe we should look at that.” It constantly shocks me that — people trying to reinvent the wheel with various policies or whatever it might be, when you realize, “But wait a minute. They’ve got a perfectly good health system, let’s say, that works over there. Why don’t we just do that?”

AMY GOODMAN: So, one of the things that you’ve gotten involved with is the Bard Prison Initiative. Can you talk about that as one of these solutions?

DAVID BYRNE: Oh, yeah, yeah. That, yes, OK. Bard College, just a little bit upstate here, started a program where inmates at some of the colleges in that area — and there’s quite a few prisons in that area — can actually get degrees, full-on degrees. And they have teachers, and it works. People get the degrees. What happens is they emerge then from the prison ready to get jobs, trained — and not just trained in making license plates or something like that, but real training — and the recidivism rate, the rate that they might go back, get back in prison, just drops. I mean, it’s like pshew!

So, the recidivism rate in the United States is terrible. I mean, it’s like instead of preparing people to return into society, it’s almost like you’re creating criminals. You’re creating prisons because that ends up being what they know. This turns that around and makes people have a possible future, and it works. So other places have been adopting it, other colleges and universities. I know, I think, Wesleyan in Pennsylvania and a few others. And so, kind of step by step, it gets adopted, and seems to be a good alternative to what generally happens in prisons here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to ask you about riding your bicycle. I’ve been reading your books, How Music Works and Bicycle Diaries. You didn’t ride it here today, but we often see you somewhere in town riding that bike. When did you start?

DAVID BYRNE: I seem to remember starting in the late '70s. I lived in Lower East Side and SoHo, and there wasn't a lot of taxi service there. Taxis, at that time, to me, would have been kind of expensive. And so, if I wanted to go hear some music or go see an art gallery opening or visit friends or this or that, I discovered that my old bike that I had as a child worked really well. And I abandoned it sometimes, but then eventually came back and realized, “Oh, this is a great way to get around.” And now New York and a lot of other cities have become a lot more accommodating. There’s a lot more bike lanes, and there’s a whole bunch just announced the other day. There’s a whole bunch planned to go in in the next couple years.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, now, with the whole issue of the climate catastrophe, you’re leading the way.

DAVID BYRNE: Well, thank you, but I realized that I started doing it because it was practical and it felt good. It’s a really nice feeling, unless you’re terrified and you’re riding in the middle of traffic. But if you’re in a protected bike lane or something, riding along the river, it’s really a wonderful feeling. It’s hard to explain, just kind of coasting and steering and the winds blowing and all that. And I realized that feeling is what’s going to convince people to do that. The effect is it lowers the carbon footprint, but you’re not going to get to people — get people to ride just by saying, “You have to ride to lower your carbon footprint.” It’s very hard, I think, to convince people to do things because it’s good for them or good for society in general.

AMY GOODMAN: Which brings me to the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. And I’m not just going to —

DAVID BYRNE: I mentioned her in the show the other day.


DAVID BYRNE: It got applause.

AMY GOODMAN: So, she comes to this country. She won’t fly, because she is deeply concerned about greenhouse gas emissions. She takes this high-speed, zero-emissions sailboat, comes into New York Harbor. And, of course, we now know her as the young woman who addresses world leaders at the U.N. Climate Action Summit a few weeks ago. And as they applaud her when she gets up with her long braid, she says, “How dare you!”

GRETA THUNBERG: People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!

AMY GOODMAN: But I wanted to go to a different aspect of Greta, or it’s partly what motivates her. And it also is a link between you and her. In your book How Music Works_, you write about how you felt you suffer from borderline Asperger’s. And that’s something Greta talks about. She was here sitting in the chair you’re sitting in, and she talkedcrisis about what she called her superpower. Let’s watch.

GRETA THUNBERG: When I’m really interested in something, I get superfocused on that. And I can spend hours upon hours not getting tired of reading about it and still be interested to learn more about it. And that is very common for people on the autism spectrum. And yeah, and it just — I think that was one of the reasons why, why I was one of the few who really reacted to the climate crisis, because I couldn’t connect the dots why people were just going on like before and still saying, “Yes, climate change is very important.” I don’t get that double moral, in a way, the difference from between what — between what you know and what you say and what you do, how you act.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Greta Thunberg, 16-year-old Swedish climate activist. When we met her in Poland at the last U.N. climate summit, she was 15, and her Twitter handle said, you know, “15-year-old climate activist with Asperger’s.” So, you also have talked about that in your life.

DAVID BYRNE: I think I’ve largely grown out of it. That often happens, so I read. But I was aware, yes, that when I was younger, as Greta says, I was painfully shy, but I’d also find an interest, and I would just like bury myself in it, which was — as she says, is a kind of nice thing to be able to do sometimes. And not everybody can do that. And I thought — I never felt that I was handicapped. I felt that I was just different. And I felt that —

AMY GOODMAN: And where did the difference get expressed?

DAVID BYRNE: Well, I think that the fact that I felt socially awkward, that pushed me to perform, the fact I could say things I wanted to say, I could announce my existence and be in front of people in a performance setting, and then I could retreat into my kind of shell after that. But I had managed to find an outlet.

AMY GOODMAN: David Byrne, the legendary musician, now Broadway star. When we come back, we’ll talk more about his Broadway show American Utopia, as well as Janelle Monáe, police violence and more.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with David Byrne. In his new Broadway show, David Byrne often takes a moment during the show to talk about the importance of voting. I asked him why.

AMY GOODMAN: Why are elections important to you? And what do you think about the fact that so few people vote in the United States? In other parts of the world, in places like Haiti, I mean, in the past, people have been gunned down when they go to the polls, or even when they run, but still they do. In this country, little more than, if we’re lucky, half the population who can vote votes.

DAVID BYRNE: Yes, I allude to this — or, not just allude. I bring that up. The voting turnouts, especially in local elections, can be pretty dismal. So I’m trying to say, you know, this really does make a difference. Local representation, local laws can really have a huge effect. You might feel that impotent in regards to the federal government, to the larger thing, but a lot of change can happen locally, and that can kind of accumulate. So, yeah, I’ve been pushing for that. Yes, there are – there are countries that have mandatory voting. And if you don’t vote, they take your driver’s license away. I think that might be — I think that’s a good thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Getting your driver’s license taken away or voting?

DAVID BYRNE: Well, no, I think mandatory voting, that it’s kind of like, if you’re going to live here, you have to participate.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about ranked voting?

DAVID BYRNE: Ranked voting is a system where, yes, it’s ranked. You go, “This is my favorite candidate. This is the second, third, fourth.” So, if the first one doesn’t win, things kind of move around. And the end result is that the person who ends up winning, it’s a more representative choice. It represents more of the opinion of the voters instead of being a person winning by one vote and that’s it, and then half the voters feel like, “That was not what I wanted.” In that system, there’s much less wasted votes — “wasted” as in my vote didn’t move the needle at all. It’s a system where everybody’s vote does move the needle a little bit.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get back to American Utopia. There is just an incredibly powerful moment in this show where you’re singing someone else’s song, giving of course her full credit, and I wanted to turn to her, Janelle Monáe, when she performed at the Women’s March the day after President Trump was inaugurated.

JANELLE MONÁE: [performing “Hell You Talmbout”] Everybody, put those hands in the air and sing with us.
Hell you talmbout
Hell you talmbout
Hell you talmbout
Hell you talmbout
Hell you talmbout
Hell you talmbout
Janisha Fonville
Hell you talmbout
Hell you talmbout
Hell you talmbout
Hell you talmbout
Hell you talmbout
Hell you talmbout
Remember Janisha Fonville, say her name
Janisha Fonville, say her name
Janisha Fonville, say her name
Janisha Fonville, say her name
Sandra Bland, say her name
Sandra Bland, say her name
Sandra Bland, say her name
Sandra Bland, say her name
Natasha McKenna, say her name
Natasha McKenna, say her name
Natasha McKenna, say her name
Natasha McKenna, say her name
Say her name
Say her name
Say her name
Say her name

AMY GOODMAN: Janelle Monáe singing “Hell You Talmbout.” And what’s really significant is where she’s singing it, the day after President Trump was inaugurated, when he was talking about his inauguration crowd being bigger than President Obama’s, and then, the next day, this mass of women, hundreds of thousands of women, putting his crowd size to shame. You were there that day, David Byrne.

DAVID BYRNE: Yes. Lots of us showed up. And, of course, we were all asking ourselves, “What does this mean? And does this accomplish anything? What does — yeah, what does this do, us all being here?” And there were people who were being dismissive and saying, “Oh, this is just people kind of manifesting, and then they’ll forget about it tomorrow or whatever.” But I think not. I think people — there’s such a strong feeling when that many people assemble. There was this great feeling of camaraderie, people from all different walks of life being there, that that kind of stays with you. You can kind of — that’s sustenance. You can use that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about using that, and what you did reaching out to Janelle.

DAVID BYRNE: I had heard this song that she did. She did a recording of it. And I found it one of the most moving, I guess you’d say, protest songs that I had ever heard. I thought what was special about it’s a requiem. It’s just naming these people and asking you to remember these people who have been taken, these people who have been killed. So it doesn’t try to explain in a direct way. You can put it together for yourself, what’s going on.

Freddie Gray, say his name
Freddie Gray, won’t you say his name
Aiyana Jones, say her name
Aiyana Jones, say her name

DAVID BYRNE: It just says, “Remember. Remember this. And don’t forget them.” So, I thought — given the times we live in, I thought it’s — I often do a song by someone else, and I thought it’s time to do a song that has kind of some weight to it, the response to the times that we live in. So, I asked what she would think of me doing that song. She loved the idea. You know, got a beautiful letter back that she said, “Yes, we’d love this. The song’s for everybody.”

AMY GOODMAN: So how do you feel when you sing it every night at the theater?

DAVID BYRNE: It is — I have to say it is rough doing that every night.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s not just you, of course; it’s the whole ensemble.

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah, the whole group, and it’s a part of the show where we put down all our regular instruments and we’re all just playing percussion and seeing these names. And, yes, it’s incredibly moving. Sometimes it’s really hard to get through it. You know, my voice cracks, and, yeah, it’s that kind of song.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, you’re singing about police brutality, whether it’s Atatiana Jefferson or it’s Sandra Bland, whether it’s Amadou Diallo or it’s Sean Bell. And, of course, these names are continually being added to.

DAVID BYRNE: Yes, we keep changing the names and updating the names. And there’s names that people will be very familiar with and others that they won’t know as much.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about a difficult time, David Byrne. After American Utopia, the CD, came out, you put a statement out, essentially apologizing for the all-male musical cast who recorded this. Can you talk about how that happened? And one of the things I think that comes out very much in American Utopia is you say, “I’m part of the problem.” And you very honestly said that after the CD came out.

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah, the — I mean, I collaborate with all sorts of people, genders, races, etc., most of the time, but I was — yes, I was called out. What was interesting was, I didn’t even realize it, that I had made a record and it was almost — it was all men who contributed to making of the record. And so, though, that’s important, that you can — that someone like myself, who thinks of himself as being aware and — yes, about all this — it’s so deeply embedded in us, as people in the culture, that — as I say in the show, I said, “I, myself, have to change,” that I can be as guilty — despite saying I don’t want to, I can be as guilty as anyone else of this kind of discrimination.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, you have a new CD out which is the live production of American Utopia, and that has the women and men in this performance.

DAVID BYRNE: Yes, it does.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Caetano Veloso, the Brazilian artist who you have collaborated with over time — in fact, you’re deeply involved with Brazilian music. What brought you into that world?

DAVID BYRNE: It was quite by accident. I was working, and then, on some of my spare time, I would go to a record store. And I was just very curious. I would see these records, and I had no idea what they were. And so I bought a few, listened to them, and I thought, “These are really good.” I really — this was in the mid-’80s. And so I went, bought more, and then I bought more, and then I bought more. And then, eventually, I thought, “This is — I love this stuff.” What I heard was music that was really beautiful, melodic and emotionally touching, but that also had — in other ways, was very radical and had things to say.

CAETANO VELOSO: [performing “Alfomega”]

DAVID BYRNE: And yet, I thought, in their country, these are successful pop artists. What a wonderful thing that it doesn’t — it never turns into a formula, that they’re valued for this kind of experimentation and the work that they do. So, I thought, yeah, I wish things could be more like that here. But I’ll take it, take it where you can get it.

AMY GOODMAN: This whole movement called Tropicália.

DAVID BYRNE: Yes, a lot of it came out of that and then continued later. There was a kind of — yes, there was a revolution, I guess, in the late ’60s, early ’70s, that was eventually suppressed by the military government there, but it had a long, long-term effect.

AMY GOODMAN: And Caetano, in fact, himself, of course, was and was jailed.

DAVID BYRNE: Yes, he was jailed. So was Gilberto Gil, quite a number of others. And similar musicians that I met later in Argentina and Chile, they were exiled or jailed. Anyway, so we became friends and kind of either collaborated or just kept in touch now for a very long time.

AMY GOODMAN: Caetano Veloso, sometimes called the Bob Dylan of Brazil, has been speaking up very much about the authoritarianism in Brazil today with Bolsonaro, the new president, known as the Trump of the Amazon. And he was introducing a film recently, The Edge of Democracy by Petra Costa, talking about the jailing of Lula, the Worker Party president, and the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. How does it feel for you to see — and it’s not only in Brazil — but to see this country, Brazil, turning towards authoritarianism?

DAVID BYRNE: It’s really sad. It’s —

AMY GOODMAN: But also the massive movements that are resisting.

DAVID BYRNE: Yes, I’ve seen this film, The Edge of Democracy, and it explains a little bit how it happened, kind of step by step. There’s a lot of machinations about how — trapping Lula and kind of moving pieces around so that these people could take control of the government. Yes, it’s really sad. It’s a country I love. I love what they — you know, how they live and what they stand for. But this seems like a real tragedy. Well, you can’t help but look at it as being something that is a symptom, and that things like this are happening all over the world, this kind of rise of authoritarians, which is frightening. But in some cases, you wonder what drove people to kind of — in some cases, it’s just forced upon them. In other cases, there was a kind of desire for a strongman. And you wonder, “How does that happen?”

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see parallels here?

DAVID BYRNE: Oh, yeah, I see parallels here, and in the Philippines and other places. One of the things I’ve been thinking lately is that sometimes the context that people find themselves in — in this case, in our case, it might be the context of job stagnation, that they don’t see a future for their children, or something along these lines, or they no longer trust the government, combined with the kind of rise of the internet and social things, where there’s no fixed truth anymore. Everything is up. Every story is up for grabs, and anybody can be saying anything. And I thought, all those factors have a huge effect on people. And it’s not that — I think it’s more the situation, like, that drives people into a kind of desperate search for something, as opposed to it being something innate in people.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned the Philippines, what we’re seeing today with the authoritarian leader, the close Trump ally, Duterte. You did this incredible — you wrote this incredible musical track for — or you can tell me how you describe it, I don’t know the lingo — for a Public Theater production called Here Lies Love. And that’s about a previous dictator and dictator’s family, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.

DAVID BYRNE: It was a — well, a musical about the rise and eventual fall of the Marcos dynasty or the Marcos regime at that point. Many of them are still around. Imelda loved going to discos, so I set the show in a disco. So it’s a very kind of festive atmosphere. It was an atmosphere that she would have been familiar with. The challenge, I thought —

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, the audience, we, we’re all standing throughout.

DAVID BYRNE: You’re the patrons of the disco.

AMY GOODMAN: We don’t sit down.

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah, you don’t sit down. You’re the patrons in the disco. You’re dancing and having a great time. So, that was — the aim of that and what I wanted to do was I wanted the audience to, in some ways, empathize with her and her husband. So I wanted the audience to kind of be on their side and kind of cheer them on, knowing full well that it was going to end up as a dictatorship. The audience knows that — at least I think some of them do — and yet they’re swept away, and they’re cheering it on. And I thought, that, to me, is key, to let the audience experience that kind of thing and then realize, “Oh, look where we are now. Now we have to get rid of them.”

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to Here Lies Love.

IMELDA MARCOS: [played by Jaygee Macapugay] They were dancin’, dancing together
Dancin’, oh so beautifully

AMY GOODMAN: Here Lies Love at The Public Theater. That’s where it was performed. And it was not only about the Marcoses but also Ninoy Aquino, who famously returned to the Philippines, and as he’s coming down from the plane, he is gunned down and assassinated, the man that Marcos was most threatened by.

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah, he knew that that was very likely to happen. But his death, after — it took a few years, but his assassination kind of triggered the events that led to the overthrow of the Marcos regime. They called it people power. It was completely peaceful. It was just people just came out and said, “We’re not leaving.”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to David Byrne, and he’s very good to spend this time with us, because he has a grueling performance schedule as he is a Broadway star right now, as Broadway stars do. But I want to talk about a few more collaborations, like — and the people who also sing your songs and appreciate what you do, like Angélique Kidjo, the great singer from Benin, who recently recreated the Talking Heads album Remain in Light. Here she’s covering the song “Born Under Punches.”

ANGÉLIQUE KIDJO: [performing “Born Under Punches”]
All I want is to breathe.
Won’t you breathe with me.
Find a little space so we move in-between.
And keep one step ahead of yourself.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Angélique Kidjo singing “Born Under Punches.” She told the Financial Times about meeting David Byrne at the club SOB’s in New York and said, “We started talking music. An American guy that knows about Fela and knows about [King] Sunny Adé? This dude is crazy, but good crazy.”

DAVID BYRNE: One of Angélique’s early records, I heard it, and I was blown away and loved her as a performer, as a person. So we’ve known each other for quite a long time. And then, yeah, a year or two ago, she decided to do a Talking Heads cover — cover a Talking Heads record top to bottom, which was incredibly flattering. Incredibly, yeah, and, in some ways, a kind of vindication for me, that it’s always this kind of balancing act between kind of a white musician in New York doing music that admits to having — being influenced by African musicians, musicians from other parts of the world. “Cultural appropriation,” that phrase gets thrown around. But somehow, working with Angélique and other things, it becomes — you see that it’s more of an exchange, and it goes every which way.

AMY GOODMAN: That was David Byrne, the legendary musician, artist and now Broadway star. His show, American Utopia. And that does it for today’s show.

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