David Byrne talks new album ‘American Utopia’ and why we all have Reasons to Be Cheerful
David Byrne has not one, but two Van Goghs hanging in his office in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City. Both are reproductions of “The Bedroom,” with one hanging just inches above the other.
“There’s a city in China that specializes in art reproductions,” the 65-year-old polymath said in a recent interview with Mic. “You can order any famous painting online, and they just price it by the size. So I said, ‘I’m going to get two and see what happens.’”
What happened was the two reproductions came out, in Byrne’s own words, “really different,” a fact which seems to bring him immense joy. “I thought I should’ve gotten more of them, so that each one is slightly different,” he said before laughing mischievously.
There’s a metaphor here somewhere, about how Byrne gets a kick out of imperfection; about how he wants you to look at the world more closely and see, like him, the sublime peculiarities; or maybe, if we’re stretching a bit, about how he is a champion of global interconnectedness (in this case, a Dutch painting is brought to America through China).
Everything Byrne is doing right now — and the former Talking Heads frontman remains prolific, making music and art, writing books, giving presentations and riding his bicycle — seems to relate back to these qualities. While much of the country and the world appears divided and downtrodden, Byrne has been giving a series of talks called Reasons to Be Cheerful — not based on “empty feel-good” reasons, he emphasized, but tried-and-true innovations.
And on his newest album American Utopia, released Friday, Byrne likewise finds silver linings and odd bits of enchantment in a troubled world. On the chorus of one jubilant yet cheeky song titled “Every Day Is a Miracle,” Byrne sings, “Every day is a miracle/ Every day is an unpaid bill/ You’ve got to sing for your supper/ Love one another.” He mixes appreciation and wonder with weariness and a command to spread positive energy. (The song also contains quirky lines like, “The mind is a soft boiled potato/ A jewel in a chocolate shell.”)
With its minimalist electronic production, worldly rhythms, idiosyncratic lyrics and lengthy list of collaborators (including longtime Byrne associate Brian Eno and musicians like Sampha and Thomas Bartlett), American Utopia feels both contemporary and authentic to the baby boomer who made it, which in itself is a tremendous feat. Rare is the rock star who continues pushing themselves past 40.
But Byrne shows no signs of slowing down or looking back. He is energized and curious; and, if you need proof, he’s about to embark on an ambitiously choreographed seven-month-long world tour.
(Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Mic: So how did American Utopia first come about?
David Byrne: A couple of years ago — before Trump was elected or any of that — I got some drum tracks from my friend Brian Eno, which he made and I heard and I said, “What are you doing with these?” He said, “I don’t know.” I said, “Let me try to write songs over them.” So that kicked it off. I wasn’t sitting around going, “Oh, I gotta make a record” or “What am I going to do? What am I going to write about?”
And I had a collection of lyrics that I didn’t know what to do with. They just started accumulating. So when I had these drum tracks I thought, “Oh, let’s try these lyrics on the tracks and see what happens.” And I was very excited about it. They rapidly turned into songs and then it was a whole evolutionary process — bringing musicians in, turning it into more of a live band, turning it into more of an electronic thing. It evolved and went all over the place and then eventually got to where it is, which was kind of like, “Uh, I think it’s done now.”
I read in one article that producer and musician Mattis With came in and essentially said, “I like these but I want to retool them with these younger artists.”
DB: Yes, that was his idea.
What was your initial reaction when he said that?
DB: Well, maybe not surprisingly, at first I [went], “Well, what don’t you like? What’s wrong?” But then another part of me was saying, “I don’t have a record deal. I’m not beholden to anyone. Sure, I have nothing to lose. Let’s try it on a few things and see. Without making a full commitment, let’s try it on a few things. And if it works, then fine.” And we did a few songs. I was happy with the results of maybe two out of three, and I thought, “Okay, let’s keep doing this. This is a good idea.” I’m not familiar with most of the people — a few of them, yes — but most of the people he brought in, young electronic people and DJs, I was totally unfamiliar with.
I know With found most of the collaborators. In general, though, how do you find collaborators? What do you look for?
DB: It depends. Sometimes it’ll be a musician who has the kind of musical ability to realize something that I’m imagining, and I can kind of direct him a little bit. Other times it’s like, “No, I have no idea. I want to hear your take on this. Rather than you getting direction from me, I want to hear your take on this.”
You recently got in a bit of hot water after you posted a photo of your American Utopia collaborators to Instagram and people pointed out the list didn’t include any women. For someone who it seems like has tried throughout their career to always be inclusive, how does that happen?
DB: How does that happen? People like myself, we tend to think that we’re immune to those kinds of tendencies, and we’re not. We tend to think, “Oh, we’re the good guys. We would never do that.” But sometimes we do. And maybe we don’t do it most of the time, but sometimes we do. And we’re living in a time where it’s good to be aware of that.
Do you think there’s anything that can be done beyond raising awareness of these representational issues? Do you think there should be some kind of version of the Rooney Rule in music?
DB: It’s a really good question. Frances McDormand brought it up at the Oscars, the inclusion rider thing. Which is kind of a similar thing. It’s a kind of thing where what’s on the screen, or the people behind the screen making the movie, has to reflect society in general rather than just a bunch of white guys. I think there’s ways to nudge things in that direction. It’s very tricky. In some ways, it amounts to affirmative action, where you’re saying, “We’re going to force you to make something that’s more representative.” Which [is] a little artificial. But also, given the hundreds and thousands of years of discrimination, maybe that’s what it takes to rebalance things a little bit.
You recently spearheaded what you call the Reasons to Be Cheerful project, a cross-platform attempt to highlight encouraging things going on in the world. What was the impetus for that?
DB: That started around the same time as the record, though it wasn’t really connected. I think I sensed that society was becoming more divisive — not just here, but in Europe and other places — and I was waking up reading the newspaper and being very disturbed and angry. And I thought, “That’s not a good way to go about my life. Let me see if I can find some sort of antidote, something that’s not just going to be empty feel-good, but that genuinely gives me some hope, a sense that there are possibilities.”
I didn’t think long-range about it. I just thought, “I’m going to create a folder on my computer and just start collecting these articles.” And then, you know, they accumulate, you start putting them into different categories, you realize, “Oh, a trend has emerged.” I tended to gravitate toward things that had proven to be successful, things that could be adapted or adopted but in different places; they weren’t unique to one place. So I thought, “Oh, without realizing it, a project has created itself.” And BRIC Arts Media [in Brooklyn] asked if I would do something. And I said, “Oh, I’d like to do a talk and tell people about these things I’ve been collecting. I think people might not know about some of them.”
Have there been any responses from people since you started giving the talks?
DB: Oh, yeah. I did a bunch of them in Europe about a month ago. It keeps evolving, it keeps changing. For instance, in Europe I think the first one was in Copenhagen [Denmark], and there was one in Amsterdam. There, I took out almost all the [bits about the advances cities are making for bicycling]; they don’t need to hear about that. And I substituted other stuff about sustainable energy and some other things.
And there were different kinds of reactions. One was that people would sometimes ask, “Well, what can we do?” [Laughs.] And I was not going to tell them, “Oh, here’s what you need to do.” But sometimes somebody else in the audience would stand up and go, “I have an organization” or, “There’s an organization I can recommend.” So they would kind of get together themselves. And I thought that was great, because I’m not about to tell people in Copenhagen what they should do.
And then there was some criticism that came my way, where people would ask, “Why don’t you have anything from South Asia? Or Africa? You’re not representing everywhere.” I said, “I would love to. Help me out.”
Cheerfulness is a little bit different than optimism. I’m wondering if you’re optimistic right now.
DB: I’m often really skeptical. I’m not somebody who would just go, “Oh, it’s going to be fine.” I’ll be skeptical and I’ll really want to investigate something and go, “Okay, this looks like it’s going to be fine.” But I tend to be skeptical and critical. I want something to be validated and really checked, and then I’ll go, “Yes, this looks like it works.” In general, though, my temperament is upbeat.
OK, but in this moment you’ve located all these reasons to be cheerful. What I’m wondering is if you are also able to be optimistic that we’re going to get through all the madness that is going on.
DB: Not necessarily. But I’m trying to do my part and say, “There’s some things here and here.”
Does this moment remind you of any other moment you’ve lived through, either artistically or politically?
DB: Yeah, socially and politically it does. I’m old enough to remember the late ’60s. I was in high school. And there was the Vietnam War. And it completely split the country — in a different way, but it completely split the country. Parents and children were not talking to each other, neighbors were not talking to each other because they had different points of view. And the war was kind of the trigger point: You were either for it or against it. It was not totally down partisan party lines. But it was really just a lot of yelling at each other — some of the stuff that’s happening now. I don’t know if all the healing has happened from that. But we have moved on from that, and there was some healing. The [two sides have] begun to talk to one another more.
With your latest shows, what’s the audience like?
DB: In these warmup shows we’ve been doing — I think it’s the exception — it’s a lot of older white people. Probably more established fans who jumped onto whatever ticket sites and got their tickets right off the bat. But from the last tour I did with Annie Clark and the one I did before that, I’d say that’s not typical. The tour I did about six years ago, before the one with St. Vincent, I noticed the audience was really diverse. There were Talking Heads fans; there was a younger audience who had never seen Talking Heads before. I thought, “This is great.” It was much more diverse. It was kind of what you would hope for.
You’re known for putting on some historically great shows. What’s the best show you’ve ever been to as a fan?
DB: Wow. I can think of two that I’ve seen kinda recently rather than older ones. There’s a French artist named Camille who just does amazing shows. She’s a singer-songwriter, really inventive. I think she won the equivalent of a French Grammy for the best live show.
What was great about that show?
DB: You had no idea what you were going to get. The one she did recently had a lot of percussion instruments around the stage and one keyboard player. So there were all these things where people go around and hit on things. And then there was one she did before that where everyone in the group, every sound was made with voices. There were no instruments at all. And so people would loop the drum beats with their voice. She had, like, a human-beatbox person doing the beats. It was amazing.
And then a few years ago, I saw Janelle Monáe’s show — St. Vincent, my daughter and I drove to Atlantic City [New Jersey] because she was playing in one of the places there. And it was unbelievable. She had little skits and dramatic stuff. There was a set where it was like a white box. And her energy was like she was James Brown or something, just unbelievable.
The cover art for American Utopia is by the late painter Purvis Young. How did you become aware of his art?
DB: I’m a big fan of what’s called “outsider art.” So I was aware of him. I realized at some point that a lot of those artists, they often paint an imaginary better world. And I thought, “These people are often imagining possibilities. They’re imagining what could be.” And I looked at some of his things and thought, “Oh, this is kind of perfect. This person [depicted in the painting] looks like a kindly kind of face, who’s calm, [of] indeterminate race.” There was some other one he had where you could hardly tell what the gender was either. And I thought, “Oh, that’s pretty nice.” Sometimes he does ones where it’s dancing figures.
And how’d you become acquainted with “outsider art” more generally?
DB: This was a long time ago. I saw in a book or a gallery that there was art made by people who were social outcasts or self-taught. Some of them [were] kind of mentally troubled in various ways, but they were making incredible art. And then I saw things in galleries — like this guy, Henry Darger, whose work was discovered in his Chicago apartment. I thought, “This is amazing stuff.”
I found it very moving that they were kind of exploring and digging into really dark parts of themselves that I recognized as parts of ourselves, myself. And I thought, in some ways, they were being braver and maybe more honest about it than a lot of contemporary artists. And also they were untainted by the marketplace. Which, it’s debatable whether artists are reacting to the market or not. But at least when I was first encountering a lot of this stuff, I thought to myself, “This is maybe more authentic because they’re not making it for an audience.”
Do you consider yourself an outsider artist to some extent right now?
DB: [Laughs.] Maybe a little bit. But I’m, you know, I’m aware of the market, of the music business, all that stuff.
I also wanted to talk about an op-ed you wrote for the Guardian in 2013 about New York a few years ago. In it, you were pretty down on New York and the changes New York finance has wrought.
DB: Yeah, yeah. I was worried about all the gentrification and the rising rents, and driving creative people out of parts of the city.
Do you still feel that way, or are you starting to find things to be cheerful about in New York?
DB: Oh, there’s definitely things to be cheerful about. There’s stuff that I go to see all the time. But I would say for a lot of emerging artists — my daughter and her boyfriend, she works in art and jewelry; he’s an artist, they moved upstate. Being driven further north as the rents increase, that’s kind of typical. And a lot of musicians I know moved to Los Angeles. We’ll see how long that lasts.
But part of that is because they can have a little house, or a little bit more space so they can have a little studio as well as a living space. Making ends meet is not as much of a struggle. There’s still a lot going on here, but I thought, “This is something to keep an eye on.” Because it’s not just about musicians and crazy artists. There’s a whole kind of creative class that the economy and the vitality and innovation — that’s what cities are about — if you eliminate that, then the city just becomes a pleasure dome for people who have already made their money.
Do you still engage with the city’s culture?
DB: Oh yeah, all the time. I’m going to stuff later today. I’m going to an alternative arts fair called “Spring Break.” There’s all these arts fairs, but I tend to avoid those ones and go to the alternative ones. Spring Break is a really cool one that’s in a different location every time. And then there’s another thing that I’m curious about. I think it’s called “Spyscape.” I think it’s more immersive. I’m curious about it.
Lastly, is there anything you haven’t done in your career that you would still like to do?
DB: There’s lots!
You’ve done a lot!
DB: Well, there are things that have failed or things that I’ve pitched and they’ve not happened. There were movies I wanted to do that I could not get done. I’m not blaming anyone else. But there were things that I wanted to do where I never got to that point.
Do you think you’ll revisit those things?
DB: Some of them I might.