As the World Burns, David Byrne Is in His Office Laughing
With 'American Utopia,' the legendary musician returns with his first solo effort in 14 years. We talked to him about Trump, New York City, his fears, and how to be cheerful.
Illustration by Adam Mignanelli
David Byrne’s yellow shelves go on for an eternity, never actually stopping, filled with books and trinkets and more books and more trinkets and even more books and even more trinkets. Sitting in his office in downtown Manhattan feels like you’re inside of his mind, a sensory overload of colors and creativity, with a bicycle resting in the corner. As Byrne drinks coffee before me across the table, giving the backstory of his first solo record in 14 years and outlining what he’s publicly called his most ambitious live show since the Stop Making Sense tour in 1984 (a statement he now regrets after the press really ran with it, even though he believes it to be true), I can’t even look him in the eye. Instead, I’m staring past his slicked back grey hair at the object sitting on the yellow shelf behind him: a package of toilet paper with a statement scribbled on its side, “If only opinions were this useful.”
Not to hone too far in on the toilet paper as a metaphor, but I can’t think of a better representation of Byrne’s approach to art and life. Here’s a man who not only created some of the most influential music that’s ever existed, but did so with a knowing wink, kind of like an esoteric uncle who always uses Thanksgiving dinner to make a weirdly coherent argument for why we should use bicycles to power our televisions. His career, which began in 1975 with the Talking Heads before launching into solo and collaborative work in 1991, is one that’s built upon exploring the world with genuine curiosity, while also shamelessly laughing at it.
Now 65, he’s spent his life pursuing various artistic endeavors—which at this point include multiple novels, two musicals, collaborative records with Brian Eno and St. Vincent, films (please do yourself a favor and re-watch True Stories), articles for The New York Times, and more. He’s an Emmy away from an EGOT, and if you’ve found yourself in New York City for more than a few weeks, there’s a strong chance you’ve seen him chugging along on his bicycle.
Byrne’s new album, American Utopia (out March 9 on Nonesuch Records), falls right in line with his discography. It’s a record that effortlessly moves through his signature harmonies and floating songwriting. At times, he sings from the perspective of a dog in paradise (“Dog’s Mind”); others, he’s musing on whether something should be considered “this” or “that” (“This Is That”), whatever the hell that means. Initially created in tandem over email with Brian Eno, who provided him some electronic drum tracks made by an algorithm (of course), Byrne wrote his lyrics “quickly,” and soon the project morphed into his own.
“There was a point when I was first writing when it was more 50/50, but then [Brian] felt I shifted it over to make it mine,” he says. “[Brian] might have been a little disappointed, but he was very generous too. He was definitely the impetus for me to write some stuff.” Byrne then found more collaborators—Sampha, Oneohtrix Point Never, and more (but notably no women, for which he’s since apologized)—and created a project that analyzed America, both its reality and what it could be.
"The world is looking at the United States being like, 'What the fuck are you guys doing? Are you serious?'"
Given the album’s title, it’s obviously political, but not overtly so. In conversation, he only mentions Donald Trump once by name, but is obviously frustrated by the current political climate, and compares the country’s division to what happened during the Vietnam War.
“This is a place that’s got some stuff to work out,” he says. “The world is looking at the United States being like, ‘What the fuck are you guys doing? Are you serious? We are going to look somewhere else for an example of what and how to live. How to work things out economically, politically, or whatever else.’”
In fact, as part of this album’s rollout, Byrne made it his personal quest to highlight positive things that are happening organically across the world. In a talk series called Reasons To Be Cheerful , the musician showcased small movements in various cultures that focus on climate, transportation, economics, and more. “It definitely started off as me trying to convince myself that things aren’t all going to hell,” he says. But Byrne is clear that he’s not actively trying to change anyone’s mind, but simply wants to provide a platform for ideas that are actually working. In the lecture I attended in January at the New School in New York, a member of the crowd asked if he would run for mayor—to which Byrne responded with a laugh.
Oh yeah, that. The laughing. The best part about talking to David Byrne is that he’s always laughing, no matter the context. In our hour-long conversation, he laughs at serious jokes. He laughs at mundane jokes. He laughs at you choosing water over coffee. He laughs at remembering what New York was like when he moved here, and he laughs at what New York is like now. At times, it seems like he might not give a shit, but that’s because he’s always thinking one step ahead, laughing as we try to keep up.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity.
How do you feel about this record?
[Laughs.] I don’t listen to it all the time. If I listen to it, I’ll go, well this record sounds pretty nice sometimes. Then there are other times when you finish something and a wave of doubt washes over you, and you just go, this is the biggest pile of emperor’s clothes ever. I hope nobody ever finds out. [Laughs.]
As a creative person, it’s encouraging to hear you say something like that. The doubt never goes away?
Oh my god, yes. You work for years on something, and then at the very end you go, uh, I don’t know about this… I hope I feel better tomorrow about this. [Laughs.]
This is the first solo record in quite some time.
Quite some time, although… well, I love collaborating with people. And obviously there are a bunch of collaborators on this one too, but it’s more my record. For the most part, I gotta make the decisions. I’d done two musicals—musical musicals—in the intervening time, and with those, you’re writing from different character’s points of view. In some ways, this album is me. There are still some character songs, but a lot of it is me. Which is very different than the point of view of Joan of Arc…were she a pop singer. [Laughs.]
What is it like for you to return to the creative well? Do you ever feel like you’re running out of gas? How do you push yourself forward?
Yes. I’m asking myself the same questions. Am I repeating myself? Have I run out of gas? Am I desperately flogging a dead horse here? [Laughs.] Whatever! In some cases, I’m doing things that are slightly familiar to me. There are still occasionally songs from the point of view of the anthropologist from Mars, and that’s the long throughline of my career.
The songwriting skill has improved in the sense I can master how the lyrics are delivered with my voice or how they’re set melodically, which changes the meaning. The way… [laughs] the way the melody that goes with “brain of a chicken and dick of a donkey” is really beautiful! It’s very touching. And it would have a different meaning if it had a different melody. And I realized that, OK, there are some new tools in my toolbox here that I can use to enlarge a little bit some of what I’m saying, to get into the world in a slightly different way. So I thought, OK, that’s helpful. I’m not totally repeating myself.
"Are we really in the shit, or is this just a cycle and we’ll get through it?"
This record is called American Utopia, so it’s obviously political. Coming from your perspective, seeing the world evolve and change over the years—should young people be as afraid as we are with what’s going on? Or this just how the world works?
Oh, yeah. Are we really in the shit, or is this just a cycle and we’ll get through it? [Laughs.] Um. [Laughs.] Um. Wow. I think, as do a lot of other people, the extreme divisions in society—which are reflected in the politics—that has reached an extreme, beyond most of what I remember. Although I will say, I remember that kind of split—not necessarily Democrats and Republicans—during the Vietnam War. I’m old enough to have been around when people started protesting the war. Families would not speak to one another. Kids would leave home and not talk to their parents. You can imagine then if it was doing that to families, what it was doing to the country. It was just split. You were either supporting it or you are against it. There was no in between.
So in one sense I can say I have seen this split in the country before, and to some extent it kind of healed up again. And when it did heal up you didn’t have people going, “Alright, were you for or against the war?” They didn’t really hold a grudge. It was like, “OK, we agree that we’re going to live together now.” And one would hope that could happen again. [Laughs.]
I’m going to bring back Vietnam again. In a different way with a similar effect, that war reduced America’s standing in the world amongst a certain generation, meaning not politically or with politicians or whatever, but certainly amongst younger people. Young people no longer thought of America as being this place of freedom and justice and whatever; they thought of it as, this place is as fucked up as other places. We can’t hold them up as being this ideal place anymore. But as I was saying about the schism, there seems to be a possibility that if you get through it, they can heal some of that, bring some of that back, regain some of that respect.
I’m hopeful for that. I think. I don’t know. It’s very bizarre.
I am too. A lot of times I’m not, but if you take the longer view, as you said, if you’re a young person who just woke up to this, you go, “Whoa. Where am I? What is this? I didn’t sign up for this.”
I attended the Reason to Be Cheerful event in New York. What were your motivations for doing a lecture like this? Are you trying to convince yourself?
I find little things—often local, often in another country or community somewhere—that were these ideas that seem to be working and it would catch fire and other places would do it, and so I thought, OK, let’s make a note of those things and that will keep me from falling completely into despair.
It doesn’t completely eliminate all my despair or anger or whatever, but it gets rid of some of it—a little bit, enough to go on.
What’s the response been like?
It’s been generally positive.
It could be read as disingenuous, and you’re opening yourself up to be critiqued.
Oh, of course. “Oh, easy to say as a successful musician that everything’s fine.” [Laughs.] Sometimes people’s reaction is, “OK, so what do we do?” And I am not going to tell you what to do. I am not that guy. But sometimes, during these talks, it’s encouraged other people to work with each other. In Copenhagen, someone stood up and was like, “I run an organization for blah blah blah, check us out online if you’re interested.”
"It doesn’t completely eliminate all my despair or anger or whatever, but it gets rid of some of it—a little bit, enough to go on."
I was listening to this old interview in which you talked about what it was like for you to move to New York. You said a funny thing about experiencing the city for the first time, about being shocked how “there are people from California here.” What do you think the future of New York holds for creative people?
Somewhat surprising to me, young creative people keep making stuff even though sometimes I ask myself, “How do you think you’re going to make a living doing this?” But people keep making it. Musicians keep writing, performing, making music, and I just go, “We don’t hardly make any money from our recordings these days. You know that, don’t you?” [Laughs.]
But they keep doing it. No doubt about it, it’s harder for people to live on a modest to low income here in the city, and nurture their creative work in that way. My daughter and her boyfriend moved upstate. I have a lot of musician friends who moved to LA. Part of that was not just for sunshine, but so they could get cheaper rents and have a den or a place to work on music in their house. So I thought, that’s real. I had assumed as times got tougher economically people would just stop making stuff. But I was wrong about that. They keep making stuff. How they’re going to survive economically and where that’s going to happen is an evolving thing. I don’t know how that’s going to play out.
It’s scary. Do you think the city can sustain the young drive for creativity?
I remember when I moved here, I could work a part time job as a theater usher, which meant I was often not working a full day. I didn’t make a lot of money but it was enough to pay my share of the rent, with other band members as roommates. It left us enough time to rehearse. Sometimes we could even play gigs. It’s pretty hard to survive in New York on a part time job these days. People have got to negotiate that and figure it out. So far, some people are figuring it out.
I’ve heard you and other members of the scene you came up in use the phrase “resist nostalgia.” Why do you think you and others from that era don’t want to look back at it?
Bands or audience members or fans getting nostalgic for an era that either they didn’t experience the first time around, or they did experience and it was an informative period for them—expecting musicians and artists to recreate that is setting up for disappointment on all sides. It’s a recipe for not achieving what it’s set out to achieve, which is too bad. But you know, I still sing Talking Heads songs, and we find a way to make them relevant and fit in with the newer material. I will say that there are probably some acts—a number of years ago, I remember a Pixies reunion. And I thought, you have to make exceptions. They didn’t get the success they deserved the first time around, so let them have it now! There are probably others like that. Then there are others where they were successful the first time around, and you just go, no, you don’t need to do this again.
What piece of advice would you give your 19-year-old self?
Wow. Um. That’s a really good question. Just a couple days ago, I got sent a link from a young musician who must be maybe around 19. It was a SoundCloud link. [Laughs.] And I think, OK, even if it’s really good, do I have any advice? It’s kind of tough. I don’t know. In some ways, it’s a different world. There’s basic things, though. Make sure you learn enough about the business to not get totally fucked over. Don’t assume that other people always know more than you.
I like that last one.
Very early on, creatively, I was aware that I didn’t want to get pegged as being known for one sound or one thing or one subject or whatever. So I thought, OK, you’ve got to do a variety of styles in your music, and maybe even do other kinds of things and activities. So it gives you a little bit of wiggle room. Even if one thing becomes really popular, that could go out of favor and you need to have a range of stuff you can do.
"Don’t assume that other people always know more than you."
Is there anything about which you’re still feeling misunderstood?
I’m aware that I’ve often been thought of as being cold or calculating as an artist. Not compared to Ed Sheeran, that is all calculation. [Laughs.] Or just the fact that I love and take a pleasure in the intellectual analysis of: why did that song work? Why did I like that? What is that about? That, to me, does not destroy the emotional impact of something, just trying to understand why did this make me feel that way. I’m aware that I can come across overly analytical and that some people can read that as a lack of emotional engagement. I have a feeling that there is less of that in what I do now versus maybe what there used to be. So I can see where that comes from. I’ve learned that I am what I am, and I’m not going to deny my propensities, but that the emotions that are in the songs, they will come out and people will feel it. And if it doesn’t, well then, I’ve failed in some ways.
Do you fear failing?
I do. I want things to succeed, like any artist would. I want as wide an audience as possible, but also I’m not willing to make certain changes to get there. I want a record that sounds accessible, but it doesn’t have to be conventional. To me, my dream is to have it both ways. To have something that is pushing the boundaries in some ways, but is accessible in other ways, so that you can hopefully do innovative things but within a context that’s kind of pop music in some ways.
It makes sense that the collaborators would work with you on this album.
Yeah, they’re coming from that same point of view, I think. That you can, in an ideal world, be a creative artist in that way and still reach an audience.
What’s the creative process with you and Brian Eno like?
It’s a little bit different every time. We stay in touch. Last time I saw him was when I was doing some interviews and talks in Europe. He was talking about this group he’s really interested in—not a band. This group called Forensic Architecture, which is more like a tech company. They do a post mortem tech analysis of some tragedy that happened by making a virtual version of the place that it happened, and then running the data in a virtual environment.
That sounds very Brian Eno.
It does, right? [Laughs.] It’s not his thing, but he’s excited by it.
I have time for one more question. The name of the album is American Utopia , so my question for you is: what does America mean to you today?
There was this really nice quote from one of the Republicans after Trump made his shithole comment. I forget who it was now, but they said, “America is not a certain kind of people. It’s an idea, Mr. President.” And I thought, I’ll buy that. For a lot of us, it still is, and we’d like to hold on to that idea.
Eric Sundermann is the editor-in-chief of Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.