David Byrne on Voter Suppression, Self-Improvement, and Why the Talking Heads Still Won’t Reunite

As "American Utopia" makes the festival rounds, Byrne explains the way he woke up to political activism and how he's staying busy in the pandemic.
Scottish-American singer and songwriter David Byrne of American new wave band Talking Heads performs during the 2018 Clockenflap Music & Arts Festival in Hong Kong, China, 11 November 2018.  (Imaginechina via AP Images)
David Byrne in "American Utopia"
Li lewei - Imaginechina

Anyone who has seen “Stop Making Sense” knows that David Byrne puts on a good show. If Jonathan Demme’s 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 Byrne’s 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; it’s 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. He’s 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 America’s 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?

FILE - This Oct. 20, 2019 file photo shows David Byrne during the Broadway opening night curtain call of "David Byrne's American Utopia" in New York. The former Talking Heads frontman is collaborating on a book adaptation with the author and illustrator Maira Kalman, who worked on the Broadway show. The book, also called “American Utopia,” will be published Sept. 8 by Bloomsbury. (Photo by Greg Allen/Invision/AP, File)
“American Utopia”Greg Allen/Invision/AP

I was doing the show first as a concert tour. I’d 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 we’re parked in one theater for me to play with this and talk to people more. When you’re on tour, they don’t want you talking too much. They’re like, “Play the music, we’re here to have a good time.” This was a nice opportunity. It wasn’t 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 don’t know if it’ll 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 it’s still only 55 percent, and you wonder what the other 45 percent are thinking about. Are they thinking, “I’ll 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. There’s a lot of chicanery and gerrymandering and voter suppression. At the same time, we’re never going to change anything unless we can vote in representatives who are willing to address those kind of issues. That’s 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. Don’t treat it lightly. A lot of countries don’t have this. We really have to do this.

How would you like to see the system improve?

I’m a big proponent of rank choice voting, which addresses the problem of people thinking their vote doesn’t 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 doesn’t get in, the votes that you and others cast for that person go to your second choice. So now you’ve got more people supporting that person. Rather than losing all sense of voice at all, you’ve 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 I’ve read is that there are fewer undecideds than we think. It does happen but it’s really harder to change people’s minds than we give credit to them for. So I just put effort into this: Whatever you feel, get out there and vote. Let’s 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 it’s a function of getting older, but I just started to feel like, “Oh, this won’t 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?

I’ve been asking myself this question — how much influence art can have — and I don’t 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 it’s 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 they’re not alone, and that whatever crap they’re going through in their lives, there are other people going through things too. That gives them the feeling that it’s possible to surmount these things. It’s less about specific issues and policies; it’s more

Some critics have written about “Stop Making Sense” as a truly political work. It was made in the middle of Ronald Regan’s 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 haven’t watched that film in a while.

You should! It’s 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 wasn’t just me and a backup band. And I think you get that from this one, too — the sense that sometimes I’m in the background. Everybody gets the spotlight at some point.

David Byrne appears on stage during the Broadway opening night curtain call of "David Byrne's American Utopia" at the Hudson Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019, in New York. (Photo by Greg Allen/Invision/AP)
“American Utopia”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 you’re literally dancing and partying with the audience as you sing.

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

“American Utopia” is such a physical show. You’re 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. They’re dancing their assess off around me and I’m not moving half as much, but it feels like I’m part of their energy. I get a little more credit than I’m due, but it is totally nonstop. You’ve got 10 seconds when you finish one song to move somewhere else and — boom — you’re starting the next one. Catch your breath and off you go! Being on tour is one thing but doing a show like that where you’re 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?

We’re hoping to do it live again. I think I’d probably do a few adjustments to acknowledge all the stuff we’ve been through. It’s 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 it’s talking about what’s 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?

I’m a fan and we’d crossed paths many times over the decades in New York. We’d been in contact a little bit, not a lot. I thought, he’s going to get this show, and if he’s free, it might be something he’d like to do. He has done live shows before. It’s in his wheelhouse. All of his films are dealing with contemporary issues in one way or another. That’s a big part of this show. Also, Jonathan Demme was a friend of Spike’s and similar to that film, it’s kind of an ensemble piece. You’ve got these characters who  interact on this set, everything happens within that, we’re 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 Monáe’s “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 hadn’t 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. We’d 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, let’s 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 wasn’t 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 it’s changed that much over my life that I still got a ways to go, that I’m not done. I’m still learning, adjusting my thinking, and being aware of stuff I didn’t know about.

I just had a talk earlier this afternoon with a theater company in Denver that I’m 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. That’s 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, I’m going to put this out there and I’m not going to try and hide from this. It’s 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?

Musician David Byrne is seen at a rally on the steps of City Hall held to denounce cuts to funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities contained in the current proposed Federal Budget platform which would adversely impact the NYC cultural programming; in New York, NY, USA on April 3, 2017. (Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones) *** Please Use Credit from Credit Field ***(Sipa via AP Images)
David Byrne at a City Hall protest held to denounce cuts to funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the HumanitiesSipa USA via AP

I’m mainly focusing on my journalism project, Reasons to Be Cheerful, and that thing I mentioned that’s two years off. There’s another project that might happen in December, I hope, that could actually get people together. It won’t have a performance from me, but I’m involved in it remotely in some ways. I’m very lucky that way.

What about music?

Not a lot of music. I feel like I’m trying to puzzle out how I respond to all of this — not just the pandemic, the marches, the police stuff. Everything that’s going on. It’s almost like the curtain hasn’t parted; it’s been ripped down. I don’t want to just do an op-ed piece. That doesn’t 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 can’t say what’s going to happen in November, but my feeling since I’ve 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 they’re 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.

You’re 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. It’s too early to tell but it’s almost like the artists are moving back in. That might be premature, but you never know. I’m sticking around.

It’s impossible not to think about this last question while watching “American Utopia,” but I’m almost afraid to ask it. How sick are you of being asked whether the Talking Heads will get back together?

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

Give me something better before you default to that.

What can I say? It’s just not going to happen. It is kind of sad that we aren’t 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, it’s 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. That’s just what happens.

“David Byrne’s American Utopia” premieres on HBO on Saturday, October 17. 

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