David Byrne talks 'American Utopia,' biking with Oake & Riley

David Byrne
David Byrne (Jody Rogac)
David Byrne talks with Oake & Riley
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This week on The Current, Brian Oake and Jill Riley called up David Byrne — lead singer/guitarist of Talking Heads and visionary solo artist — to chat about his new album American Utopia and his upcoming shows at the Orpheum (May 17-18; both nights are sold out, although tickets are available on the resale market).

Use the audio player above to hear their conversation, or read the transcript below.

Jill Riley: David Byrne is coming to town — American Utopia is the new record. Thursday and Friday, a second show was added due to popular demand. And you know what, we have him on the line right now.

David Byrne: I'm surprised that there was a second show added. It's incredibly exciting.

Brian Oake: [When] you announced this show, you said it was going to be the biggest production you had done since the concerts that led to the movie Stop Making Sense. It seems to me that would engender a lot of interest, and a lot of response.

Riley: [laughs] Right.

Oake: Why do you find it surprising that a second show was added?

Byrne: Well, you might be right. I think the words I used were "most ambitious," which doesn't mean I've succeeded at that — although I think I have. I think I have. But maybe, that was a way of telling people: there's going to be some entertainment here. It's going to be something special. You don't want to miss it. Without tooting my own horn too much, I think it's kind of true.

Riley: Now, without letting too much out of the bag before people get to see this show, can you expand on what you have planned exactly for the live show?

Byrne: Well, the material is, of course, a mix of new and old. And in-between. But what's unique is that the stage is completely empty. There's nothing on the stage. No amplifiers, no music stands. No risers. No keyboards. Nothing. But there's 12 musicians, and they're all carrying their instruments. In some ways, like a drum line would carry all their drums. So the entire band is mobile. We all interact and do all kinds of staging things that you never could do with a traditional set-up.

Oake: As we were saying "hello" just off the air, you said you know Minneapolis well. How far back do you go with the Twin Cities here in Minnesota?

Byrne: Well, Talking Heads had an audience there. Not a huge audience, but we were playing clubs and stuff — oh, gosh — '78, I guess. Maybe even before that. And then eventually, we graduated to First Avenue. Then, I did theater stuff at the Guthrie and the Walker, staying at these apartments on Loring.

Oake: Mmhmm, Loring Park.

Byrne: I could go for bike rides, where you go from one lake to another. If you keep going, you end up by the Mississippi, and you can make your way back into town. Lot of fun.

Riley: We're on the line with David Byrne. The new record is American Utopia; looking forward to a couple shows at the Orpheum Theatre. Looking at the credits, and all the producers and musicians you worked with on this record, what does the word "collaboration" mean to you?

Byrne: It's something I enjoy doing a lot. I find that it's a way of challenging me not to get into a rut and do the stuff I'm comfortable doing, or that I know how to do well. Working with other people will push me into something I'm a little bit unfamiliar with. It'll challenge me a little bit. So I like that. I like that.

There's an awful lot of them on the record. It's kind of like a hip-hop record. There's so many collaborators and producers on there.

Oake: Brian Eno's involvement is all over this new record, American Utopia, but you've been working on and off with Brian Eno for a very, very long time. What's the nature of that relationship and that collaboration that makes you want to keep coming back? Does he pull something good out of you? Does he do that challenging thing you talk about? Why do you keep coming back to Brian Eno?

Byrne: Yeah, he does that challenging thing. We also have remained friends and have spent a lot of time, when we're in the same city, talking about stuff that's not music-related. Which is kind of a breath of fresh air. But sometimes it turns into, "Oh yes, something you might be interested in musically right here." That works. Yes! And we have a great deal of respect for one another. So, despite a collaborative thing being sometimes a challenge to both parties, we respect one another, so that helps make it work. And we've worked together for a very long time.

Oake: You made a mention of biking. And for people who maybe don't know, bicycling is an absolute passion and way of life for you. How did you come to decide that bicycling is important, and then really continuing to be an important part of who you are and what you do?

Byrne: I was living on the Lower East Side here. Sometimes it was a little hard to get a taxi. Sometimes I wanted to do a few things in an evening, like maybe go to an art opening and hear some music or meet some friends somewhere. And I'd realized that [biking] allows me to do that. And it gives me complete freedom. I can just jump on the bike and go to the next thing, or visit this, or check this out. It gave me this real sense of freedom and agency; I didn't have to wait for a ride or look for a parking space. I didn't have to find a place where I could get a taxi. I was my own master; I could just go where I wanted to go when I wanted to go. That's what started me off. That was a great feeling.

Riley: So in the next couple of days, when David Byrne is in town, yes, you did see him riding his bike around the city. Just in case you did a double-take.

Oake: Please, don't hit David Byrne on his bike. Not in the Twin Cities! Please, 'cause we want to get to both these shows. Going back to the new record, David — American Utopia — it had been a couple years since you did the record with St. Vincent. A few years, actually. Love This Giant. And prior to that, with Fatboy Slim doing Here Lies Love. You do visual art. You write. [You're] literally a multidisciplinarian. When do you know, you know what, there's enough of it percolating up that it's time to get back to music. How did you get back to American Utopia?

Byrne: It just happened. Brian Eno sent these drum tracks; I had a pile of lyrics that I'd been saving up on my desk. And the two things were there at the same time. [laughs] And I said, "Hey, let's see if we can put these together." And I was thrilled [by] the way it worked, and I just thought, "I'm making a record." I got very excited about it, and I said, "I think I'm going to do a tour as well." This'll be really fun to play.

Oake: Do you make these songs, put them together, and then themes reveal themselves? Or do you go in with a mission statement? Sort of like, "I'd like it to ultimately be in this shape"? Or do you wait until the shape reveals itself?

Byrne: I wait until it reveals itself. When an artist says that, it sounds like he doesn't really know what he's doing. Just floundering around. But it is true; you know what a song is about, but sometimes, the real meaning doesn't reveal itself until later. For instance, the single — "Everybody's Coming To My House" — it has a slight feeling of dread. I definitely remember hosting parties at my house or my loft and then not being the most social person or going to hide in a back room.

There's a thing that just came out — there's a small choir in Detroit who did a version of the song, it sounds more welcoming and inclusive. The vibe is: "Isn't it great that everybody's coming over?" And we all actually do live in the same house. They may have hit on what the song is really about.

Oake: We are looking forward to the two shows that are happening at the Orpheum Theatre. It's been really, really nice to talk with you. Hopefully, the weather cooperates, and you'll be able to bike around the city. You'll be able to check things out. And we look forward to digging a little deeper on the record. Are there other things that you've got sitting on the back burner that you're like, "Once I'm done with this tour, this is my next thing right here"? Like a cookbook, or possibly, something on the Home Shopping Network? Anything like that?

Byrne: [laughs] No, for a couple of years now, I've been working on a theatrical, immersive thing. I've done some workshops and small iterations of it. So I'll probably go back to it and see if I can move that along to the next stage.

Riley: David, I've been reading about this series, Reasons To Be Cheerful. What is that all about?

Byrne: It's named after an Ian Dury song from a couple of years ago. Around the same time I started writing the songs for this record, I was getting angry and depressed and worried about the state of the nation, the state of the world. I started collecting things that gave me hope and a sense of possibility. It might be about sustainable energy; it might be about prison reform; education system. It wasn't like, oh, somebody has a good idea. These were ideas that had been put into action and had been proven to work. I thought, "I'm going to collect these, and these will help keep me sane." It became a project.

Riley: We're going to end on a hopeful note. Reasons To Be Cheerful. Do a little googling on that; it's something David Byrne has been working on. The record is American Utopia; couple shows at the Orpheum. David Byrne, thank you for taking the time this morning, and enjoy your time in Minneapolis.

Byrne: Thank you!

Oake: Wonderful to talk to you, David. Take care, and good luck with the rest of the tour.

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