The legendary David Byrne reflects on his formative years, the mystery that underpins making music, and his cathartic Broadway experience, “American Utopia.”

Design Matters: David Byrne

MUSICIAN / WRITER / ARTIST / LYRICIST

2021

David Byrne / music / performance art / American Utopia / Talking Heads / Maira Kalman

Transcript


Debbie Millman:

What do you think about when you think about David Byrne? The Talking Heads, no doubt, and some of the most joyful pop music ever, but there’s so much more to the man. Over the years, he has collaborated with artists in dance, theater, film and television, which has resulted in him winning an Oscar, many Grammy awards, and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Before the pandemic hit, he had a Broadway show called American Utopia, which has been turned into a film directed by Spike Lee, and a book by the same name illustrated by the great Maira Kalman. He joins me today to talk about his extraordinary life, making so many extraordinary things. David Byrne, welcome to Design Matters.


David Byrne:

Thank you.


Debbie Millman:

David, I understand you donned an Elsa costume during your recent appearance on John Mulvaney’s television show. Are you a fan of the movie Frozen?


David Byrne:

You know, I’ve never seen Frozen? That’s a big hole in my cultural literacy, I know that, but I did know what it was referring to.


Debbie Millman:

You also said on the show that as you were growing up, you were afraid of volcanoes. I’m wondering why.


David Byrne:

Well, when I was a child, I read about this volcano that grew quite suddenly within a space of a few months in a farmer’s field in Mexico. I don’t know how old I was, 8 maybe, something like that. I don’t know. And it completely terrified me that a mountain could erupt in the, what seemed to me to be the backyard and spew fire and destruction. And so I was terrified and I would run to my parents’ room in the middle of the night and go, “Could there be any volcanoes here?” And they would keep reassuring me—no, there are no volcanoes likely to happen in Baltimore. But it took a while before I got over that.


Debbie Millman:

You were born in Scotland, but moved to Canada when you were 2 and then to a town outside of Baltimore where you grew up. And I understand that when you were a little boy, you thought you might want to be a mailman.


David Byrne:

Wow. How did that bit of information get out? Yes. I don’t know what age I was, but I was old enough to know that the mailman was a steady job and you got benefits, you got medical. It was if you’re a federal employee. So you got medical and Social Security and all that. So somehow I knew about that and I thought, and you get to be on the outdoors and there’s nobody bossing you around outdoors. You’re just kind of walking around and you can think to yourself, nobody’s hovering over you. You can think to yourself, you can sing a song. You could mull things over in your mind. And I thought that sounds like the best job in the world.


Debbie Millman:

And I read that when you were in high school, you ran for student office on a platform to get the jukebox back in the cafeteria and eliminate faculty advisors. And I understand that you almost won, but then I started thinking about it and I was wondering, why was the jukebox taken out in the first place? Was it sort of a, the dance movie with Kevin Bacon? I was wondering if that happened to your town—you weren’t allowed to dance anymore.


David Byrne:

Oh, yes. I’m sure the jukebox was a little bit disruptive in the cafeteria, but I was extraordinarily shy; maybe because of that, I had nothing to lose by doing something ridiculous like running for student council president, or other things that I would do. And later on, jumping up on stage and singing. So that idea of not having anything to lose, not having any social capital, that meant a lot to me that ended up having an advantage to it.


Debbie Millman:

Yes. Your dad was an electrical engineer and also an amateur painter. And I read that if he found a nice frame, he would take a saw and cut off part of the picture to fit the frame. And I’m wondering if that is sort of where you got your Dada-ist influences.


David Byrne:

Well, I don’t know if I got that influenced. I think even when I was younger, I thought there’s something not right about that. There’s something not quite right about that.


Debbie Millman:

I kind of love though. It’s so basic.


David Byrne:

It’s like, “Ah, the shirt’s too small for me. I just cut off my arm.”


Debbie Millman:

You took up the harmonica at 5 years old, and I read that by the time you were a teenager, you kept a transistor radio under your pillow so your parents wouldn’t hear it, but it seems as if your dad really encouraged your interest in music. You’ve written about how he modified a small Norelco reel-to-reel recorder when you were in high school. And I’m wondering what kinds of things you were recording back then?


David Byrne:

I’d read about things and hear things on records that I got out of the library, whether it was like a John Cage thing or Beatles or different kinds of jazz things, you could get these records out of the public library. So I was trying to educate myself to become aware of all these things. And some of these things I thought I would try myself. So I remember one thing was as many layers of sort of guitar feedback and microphone feedback as I could possibly get, because my dad helped me do a thing where I could record what was then called sound-on-sound. Sound-on-sound was a little tricky. It’s not the same as multi-track recording like what exists now in recording studios or on your laptop, it’s the kind of thing where you would listen to the sound coming off the tape recorder, you could add something to it, and then it would get rerecorded on another recording head on the same tape recorder.


David Byrne:

So basically you had destroyed what was there previously, but in the process, you’d added something to it. But if the thing you added was not perfect, well, you just had to start from scratch. But I remember doing one, which was lots of feedback and howling sounds and all this kind of very noisy unpleasant stuff, layer upon layer of that. And then I recorded some songs as well. I tried to do a version of the Turtle’s song “Happy Together” using coffee cans as drums.


Debbie Millman:

I know that listening to “Mr. Tambourine Man” performed by The Byrds, and Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” had a big impact on you. And you’ve written about how after hearing “Purple Haze,” you felt like the world was suddenly a bigger, more mysterious, more exciting place. And I’m wondering, in what way did that happen? Like how did that happen? Did it just overcome you, change your DNA?


David Byrne:

Both those songs, yes, I was hearing on that little transistor radio that I had under my pillow and they were being played on the radio. And part of it was the sound, the sound of those songs. There were sounds that they were making with their guitars and everything else and the arrangements that I’d never heard before. And somehow it was just like, “Wow, that is amazing. I didn’t know you could do that. What is that about?” And then of course the words were unlike any kind of the, “I love you, dah, dah, dah” songs that we were used to hearing on pop radio, and that too was saying there’s another world out there where people are talking about other kinds of things, more than what I know about in my suburban town out here. Where do I go? Is this something that happens in downtown Baltimore or do I have to go to New York? I had no idea.


Debbie Millman:

Did you teach yourself how to play guitar and ukulele and how to read music?


David Byrne:

Yeah. I don’t read music well at all, but I did teach myself to play. And I did that with the aid of the songbooks. I had, I think, a Bob Dylan song book and some others, and the chords tended to be fairly simple on those songs. And so if you learn three or four chords, you could play a lot of those songs. So for me, rather than learning scales and theory, this gave me the reward of being able to play a song that I’d heard immediately. I think if somebody wants to learn something, they should constantly be getting rewarded along the way.


Debbie Millman:

You began performing in local college coffee houses. And I read that you played rock songs in a folk music style and aggressive songs on the ukulele, and so I’m wondering what kinds of aggressive songs were you playing on the ukulele?


David Byrne:

Ukulele, I remember doing “Summertime Blues” or kind of Eddie Cochran of rockabilly singer and possibly a psychedelic group called Blue Cheer. I think Who did that song as well. Number of people did it. So it was around, but it was interesting that the audiences were all sort of compartmentalized. The folk audience had never heard these songs. And there were songs by various pop artists, whether it’s rock or R&B or whatever, that were quite literate and their writing was really, really good. But the folk crowd stayed in their bubble and they were unaware of that. So I took advantage of that and played that stuff. And they were like, “Oh, that’s a really good song, who wrote that song?” And some pop group that most people would have known about. So it made me realize that, yes, we get into our little aesthetic bubbles that way. And we might miss something as a result.


Debbie Millman:

Given the range of your artistic pursuits at the time, I was really surprised to read that your teachers and your guidance counselors tried to talk you out of going to art school. Why did they do that?


David Byrne:

Maybe they didn’t see any future in it, financially. I was interested in engineering and science at the same time that I was interested in music, art and things like that. I saw them all as being equally valid creative endeavors, but they were very, again, each in their own bubble in their own silos. And I went to one school and said, “Well, can I take classes in the art department over there? And also in the science and engineering department?” They said, “Oh, no, you can’t mix that.” And I just thought, this is a problem; I’m interested in both, but also I just did it myself anyway.


Debbie Millman:

So you were admitted to both Carnegie Mellon university and the Rhode Island School of Design. And I read that you picked RISD because the graffiti in the halls was better.


David Byrne:

There’s a lot of truth to that. That’s probably not the only reason. You sense this kind of idea of kind of creativity just bubbling over. And people were just expressing themselves on every surface. And in the science and engineering school, it seemed very contained. I knew that there was creativity there, very, very creative people, but it seemed like it was being tamped down in some ways.


Debbie Millman:

Well, at least it’s a decision based on some sort of artistic criteria. My criteria was choosing the school that I went to because my best friend Tammy went.


David Byrne:

Well. I hope it worked out for you.


Debbie Millman:

But no regrets.


David Byrne:

Good.


Debbie Millman:

It wasn’t exactly the most learned of criteria. You spent a year at RISD, then transferred to Maryland Institute College of the art. And in Maryland, you formed a duo called Bizadi with Marc Kehoe, who played the accordion. And I read that you sometimes performed with a lighted candle on your hand-me-down violin bow, while singing the standard “Pennies From Heaven.” And when you see that—these were early attempts at performance art, or was it just experimenting to find your voice? Tell me what some of the motivation was in doing something like that.


David Byrne:

I suppose it had some aspects of performance art in it. I mean, some of what we did was bizarre, but I think we both felt that it always had to be entertaining as well. We weren’t going to do something that was going to bore the audience to tears or be confrontational and aggressive towards the audience. We might do something strange, but we all wanted to keep it entertaining at all times, no matter how strange it was. I remember one time, I think Marc played maybe a fairly contemporary song. I think it might’ve been “96 Tears” or something, or maybe it was one of those other standards. I struck poses. Like I’d stand on one leg and put my arms out and just hold that. And then I’d do another one. These were not difficult poses, but my demeanor said, “Check me out. Isn’t this amazing what I’m doing?” Of course it wasn’t amazing at all. It was things like that.


Debbie Millman:

And how long you were staying in position. Marina Abramovic would say that that was something that takes stamina.


David Byrne:

Yes, it did take a little bit of stamina.


Debbie Millman:

Was this around the time you shaved off your beard in the middle of a performance while Marc’s girlfriend held up cue cards written in Russian?


David Byrne:

It could be around the same time.


Debbie Millman:

I just love that. It was a lot of blood when you did that, by the way.


David Byrne:

Yes. It’s hard to shave off a beard without a mirror, but yeah.


Debbie Millman:

You spent a year at Mica and then dropped out and returned to Rhode Island to visit friends and ended up forming a rock band you called The Artistics. And I read that you began by doing cover songs at loft parties in Providence. And you said this about your early performances: “I was flailing about to see who I was, switching from an Amish look to a crazy androgynous rock and roller. And I wasn’t afraid at least to do so in public.” So David, given how profoundly shy you were, what gave you this sense of freedom to experiment so freely on stage?


David Byrne:

Well, I think part of that freedom to be somewhat outrageous or whatever on stage is because again, I felt like I didn’t have a lot of social capital to lose. I didn’t have that a lot to lose. And what I had to gain was that being shy around people in a normal life, I could express myself on stage. That was a platform where you could express yourself, whether it was in a song or how you were moving or how you dressed or whatever. So it was a way, of course, announcing “here I am, I have something to say. Look at me, look at me, look at me” kind of thing.


Debbie Millman:

Without having to admit it?


David Byrne:

Yeah. Without having to say that at the time, in a certain sense, that’s what you’re doing. At that age we’re not quite sure how we want to be. It was a period also where I felt free to cycle through all these different versions of myself and see what felt or what I felt comfortable with.


Debbie Millman:

In your book How Music Works, you state that at that time—and this is how you refer to yourself, this is not how I’m referring to you—you wrote, “Desperate Dave did not have ambitions to be a professional musician, that seemed wholly unrealistic.” And I’m wondering when did that change?


David Byrne:

I don’t think it changed until a small audience, there might’ve been 20 people or maybe even less at CBGBs, heard us play. I think we opened for The Ramones maybe.


Debbie Millman:

Oh, with Talking Heads.


David Byrne:

Yeah. Until they heard us play with Talking Heads, we’d rehearsed a number of songs enough to play maybe for half an hour. And when those people paid attention and actually applauded, and some of them actually said, “Hey, you’re doing something interesting here,” well, at least it encouraged me to not give it up. I thought, Oh, if these 20 people like it, maybe they’ll tell their friends or maybe it’ll be 40 people next time, who knows. I could be on to something here.


Debbie Millman:

What was the first song you ever wrote?


David Byrne:

When I was a teenager, I tried to write one, some kind of amalgamation of things I was hearing. I think I tried to write one called “Baldheaded Woman,” and it was terrible, really terrible. Never performed it. It was terrible. But years later in a similar attempt, I thought I would do a folk song about a serial killer and sort of not seriously, but sort of just, “Oh, let me see if I can write a song.” Let’s say Alice Cooper was as folky, what would that sound like? So it was just an experiment to see if I could write a song, and it turned out I could. I got help from Chris and Tina, the drummer and bass player. And it turned out to be a really popular song.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. I mean—


David Byrne:

A bit of an albatross, actually, because when I wrote it, I felt like it was just an experiment to see if I could write a song.


Debbie Millman:

And that’s a pretty amazing song. Like your first song out of the gate, that’s a home run. That’s like a bases-loaded home run.


David Byrne:

Well, thank you. But then it became something like, OK, I didn’t feel like it was that original, but I felt like now you have to write songs that are really you. That was an experiment just to see if you could do it; now you can do it, but now you have to do it more from the heart, more from something that is unique. And that is different from what people are doing.


Debbie Millman:

When I saw American Utopia, which we’ll talk about in a bit, I was struck by how fresh a lot of the songs sounded, especially because I’m really familiar with your catalog and I’ve been a fan since ’77. So I came away from the show feeling like, I felt like when I left a Joni Mitchell concert with her doing her songs in really unique ways that surprise you and still really give you the sense of understanding them and knowing them, but also feeling like maybe you’re hearing them this way for the very first time. And I was wondering, do you ever get tired of playing a song? One of the things that Joni said in one of her concerts was nobody ever asked van Gogh to paint “Starry Night” again.


David Byrne:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

And so I was wondering how you feel about playing “Psycho Killer” all these decades later?


David Byrne:

It seems that if the arrangements are right, there’s enough song so I can pick ones that seemed to have a contemporary resonance. If I can do that, then they feel fresh and they still feel relevant. They don’t feel like, “Oh, this is just dredging up the past.” But your bigger question is when you’re doing musicians on tour or actors or musicians or whatever on Broadway on theater, they’re basically doing the same thing every night, night after night after night. And does it gets boring or do they completely zone out and start thinking about, “Oh yeah, don’t forget to pick up some milk and some spinach or something on the way home tonight”? While you’re singing you’re making a grocery list. Actually, that doesn’t happen. I mean, it has happened once or twice, but mostly it doesn’t happen. It’s kind of amazing.


David Byrne:

Maybe it’s because you’re with an audience. So there’s a connection between you as a performer and the audience that’s kind of fresh every night. That connection that happens is real, it’s immediate, it’s in the moment. And in a way, that’s what the performance is about. Sometimes more than the actual material.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve said that though much of your own music may initially have been composed in isolation, it only approached its final shape being performed live. And I was wondering if that was also the component that when you’re performing live, anything can and does happen. And maybe that energy that’s being created at the same time you’re performing something does make it a bit different.


David Byrne:

It’s true. And in the beginning when I started making music and performing, it was very much true that the songs would take shape through live performance. You’d have a kind of sketch out or an arrangement, but then the arrangement would really start to flesh itself out and you find out where the strong and weak parts were when you start performing it night after night in front of people, and then you record it. So its polishing and shaping has all happened in front of an audience. And then the recording is basically an attempt to capture that. And now it’s kind of flipped all around. You create something in the studio or on the computer or whatever like that and then you have to figure out, “what do I do in front of an audience? Do I just reproduce this thing or do I have to translate it into something else that works in front of an audience?” I don’t have an answer. It’s a dilemma in a way.


Debbie Millman:

Well, part of, I think what’s wonderful for people that really enjoy listening to music and really following an artist’s career, is watching how they evolve and watching how they grow and change. But it seems now that so many performers have to emerge fully formed and then there isn’t as much room for them to really change and grow because of the fear that their fans might abandoned them. And that’s really sad.


David Byrne:

I agree. One of the things that the internet and people being able to video performances and record them with their phones and then upload those and everything, it means that yes, from the beginning, everything is splashed out there to the public. It’s rare that you have this tiny little community that you can evolve in. And then when you really get your stuff into some kind of shape, then you can put it to a wider public. That can happen, but it’s harder for people to do now.


Debbie Millman:

Your sound as a band, The Talking Heads sound, began to expand and grow and evolve when you started working with Brian Eno, and in all the research that I did, I could not find out how you first met. How did you and Brian Eno first meet?


David Byrne:

We met when another musician, a guy named John Cale, who used to be in The Velvet Underground—


Debbie Millman:

Yes.


David Byrne:

… Me and Talking Heads, we’re big fans of The Velvet Underground. And we met John, John would come to CBGBs and see us. And we were in London and I guess he was there and he brought Brian Eno around, and we knew Eno from Roxy music. And I don’t think we thought, Oh, will you produce our next record? We just, we just thought, Oh, this person is wonderful and shares a lot of our interests and they’re fun to hang out with, all that sort of thing. So that was how that got started.


Debbie Millman:

You and Eno independently collaborated on the album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, in addition to all of the albums that you worked on with him and Talking Heads. And you’ve worked with him many times since. What is the biggest thing you learned from him?


David Byrne:

I’ve learned a lot from working with Brian, it’s what always tempts me to try working with him again, to come up with some reason to do that. He often likes to emphasize the texture of a piece of music over the kind of, say, the chords or the melody or the harmonic things, aspect of it. That’s an exaggeration, but there’s some truth to that. He likes to push when one is producing groups. I think he sometimes likes to push them to experiment and do something they haven’t done before. I found that to be exciting. And when at work, you sometimes end up with something that you wouldn’t have ever arrived at in another way. If you had sat down and said, “this is what I want to do, and this is how I’m going to write it, this is what it’s going to be,” you would have never come up with that.


David Byrne:

I had previously written words and melodies over top of jams that the band and I had done, but Brian was ready to take that further and encouraged us to just do that in the studio, sort of improvise and come up with the music in the studio. And then I would say, “Give me a couple of weeks and I’ll go away and write words to this stuff.” And I realized that, that was a possibility that you could actually write songs that way. That was kind of a surprise.


Debbie Millman:

The magic of songwriting. And I’ve talked a lot about this with musicians that I’ve interviewed on the show. As somebody that has spent a whole life drawing and writing and designing and making things, writing music has seemed to be the one area of the arts that feels the most mysterious, sort of conjuring something up from nothing with both music and mood and words. It’s such a gift. It’s an incredible gift.


David Byrne:

I agree. I’ve read that music engages a lot of different parts of the brain, and many, many senses all at once. More than some of the other arts and humanities, I think that music has a certain amount of ambiguity to it. If something’s, say, written down in a novel or something like that, it has to be described, but in music, you’re going straight to the emotion of it. You can convey what it feels like, and you don’t have to describe that.


Debbie Millman:

And there could also be a tension between the way you’re conveying it and what the words actually are. There could be that tension.


David Byrne:

Yes, exactly. There might be other forms that could do that, but music can do that really well, where there could be a tension between what you’re saying and what the music sounds like. I mean, music could be very aggressive sounding, but the lyrics could be somebody very lonely and heartbroken. And it seems like they’re clashing against one another, but that’s how that works.


Debbie Millman:

That’s the music I actually like the most. There’s also the tension between, well, is the singer-songwriter singing about themselves or are they singing about me without them even really knowing about it?


David Byrne:

Exactly.


Debbie Millman:

So that part I love. David, collaboration has been a constant thread through your career so much so that Pitchfork once wrote that you would collaborate with anyone for a bag of Doritos. And I took a bit of offense to that, thinking that your culinary tastes was far better. Though you’ve written that though this wasn’t intended as a compliment, it’s really not that far from the truth. Some of the people you’ve worked with include Robert Wilson, Twyla Tharp, Philip Glass, Fatboy Slim, Florence Welch, De La Soul, St. Vincent, Jonathan Demme, Hillman Curtis, a wonderful friend, late, great Hillman Curtis, Howard Finster, Robert Rauschenberg, Dave Eggers, a slew of graphic designers, including Tibor Kalman and Emily Oberman, who is my best friend, at M and Company, Peter Saville, Stephen Doyle, Stefan Sagmeister. And I read that over the years, you’ve learned that you can work with people in a way that’s not so dictatorial. And I’d love to know how you learn that as someone that also can sometimes struggle with that.


David Byrne:

Don’t we all. I think when I was younger, I had maybe an idea of, I want to do this, I want to do this. I’m imagining like this. This is the vision I have. This is how I imagine this either sounding or how I imagined this looking or whatever it might be. And I’d be very much my way or the highway about that. And kind of like, “no, it has to be like this. It has to be exactly like this.” I’m not the calmest person in the world sometimes. So I would maybe get a bit aggressive and shouting about insisting that it be done as correctly as I saw it. I learned over the years that you maybe get the same results, but you don’t have to do all that. That often people enjoy working together. They want to be on the same team and achieve the same ends in many cases.


David Byrne:

And so you don’t have to yell at them. They actually want to join together with you and do the same thing. And if the guiding and the shaping can be done in a much more subtle, in a joyful way, kind of thing, dawned on me slowly. I’m not sure exactly how it happened.


Debbie Millman:

Maybe just being more comfortable in your own skin?


David Byrne:

Maybe being comfortable in my own skin. Maybe feeling that after having kind of sat around and achieved things a little bit, I might’ve felt like, if this doesn’t work out, it’s not the end of the world. You can still go on.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. I think that happens with age. At least it has for me. You kind of realize how many times you’ve previously thought this was the worst or last or the messiest. And then you suddenly realize, it just changes and you go on. You’ve stated that audiences love it when a performer walks the tight rope in front of them. Like sports fans, they feel like their support is what keeps the team winning. Given the way you skate across so many genres, do you seek out this tight rope? Do you feel comfortable being in a place where you’re not exactly sure where you might fall?


David Byrne:

Yeah, I do. I remember 2018, I guess, we toured for good part of the year. And then it was an interest in bringing the show to Broadway. I knew that we’d have to change the show to do it there. We’d have to make some adjustments to be a slightly different audience. It’s a slightly different situation, set of expectations, etc. So I thought, yes, this is going to be a challenge. People may not like this kind of thing, but a Broadway audience may not like this. They may go, “Where’s the story?” But I thought, yes, I thought that would be more of a challenge and more interesting for me than just touring for another year doing exactly the same thing. I thought, Oh, look, I can take what I’m doing and kind of build on it and it may not work. I talked to the producers of the Broadway show the other day and they said, “We really didn’t know that this was going to work.” Of course the band and I all felt like, “yeah, it will be fine.”


Debbie Millman:

Well, you had a successful run touring it. I mean, that part was—


David Byrne:

Yeah. So we felt like, yes, oh, the tour worked, but at the same time I knew that a Broadway audience and a Broadway theater comes with a different set of expectations. So I thought this is not guaranteed.


Debbie Millman:

Did you put the album together first and then take it out on tour, or were you creating the album while on tour?


David Byrne:

There was an album, I don’t know, maybe it’s four or five of the songs that are in the show came from a recent album that was done before the tour. As I was doing the record, I was starting to picture in my head a bunch of drummers on stage. And I had that image and I thought, let’s build on that.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve said this about the songs of American Utopia on your website: “The title is not ironic. The songs don’t describe an imaginary and possibly impossible place, but rather they attempt to describe the world we live in now. And that world, when we look at it, as we live in it, as it impacts on us immediately, commands us to ask ourselves ‘is there another way, a better way, a different way.’” And as I was reading that and going through your body of work, I was wondering if somehow this was on some level a sequel to True Stories.


David Byrne:

Wow. I hadn’t thought that. When you just read that back to me, I thought, Wow, that sure is what we’ve been asking ourselves in the last year during the pandemic, and—


Debbie Millman:

Yes.


David Byrne:

… Black Lives Matter and everything else that’s been going on. We’re kind of on pause now. When we go back, is there a better way to do things? Can we rethink things? We don’t have to go back to the way we were.


Debbie Millman:

As far as I know, this is the only live performance where all of the musicians are untethered. You play all wirelessly. You have no amps, no wires showing on stage. We’ve seen untethered guitars for years now and untethered microphones, but not so much percussion. And did I see someone blowing into their percussion?


David Byrne:

Yeah. Tim has this weird thing that he can blow air into and it changes the pitch of his drum. I didn’t know this thing exists.


Debbie Millman:

New Music Express stated that American Utopia might be the most ambitious and impressive live show of all time. And I agree; I saw it with a mutual friend of ours, Maria Popova, and we were just struck by how utterly joyous it was. Pre-pandemic, you were performing six shows a week. How hard was it to bring that level of energy where you’re actually in the audience at one point, to every single person?


David Byrne:

It was actually not that hard. I mean, yes, I would go to bed and I wouldn’t go out. I talked to other theater performers who would do things with six or seven shows a week. And I say, “How do you do that?” They go, “Don’t go out and hang with your friends afterwards.”


Debbie Millman:

No hard partying?


David Byrne:

No, don’t party. It’ll totally wear you out. Take care of yourself. Don’t party with your friends. If you want to see them, see them for lunch the next day or something like that. So I took that advice. But it’s also true that you’re connecting with the audience in a show like this, and they react, they laugh or they dance, and that’s incredibly energizing for a performer to have people react like that. So it sort of never gets tired.


Debbie Millman:

You have a superfan. His name is Spike Lee. He went to see the show numerous times and then asked you if you wanted to make a film of it. And I read that when you asked him if he wanted to shorten anything or open something up or change the order, he said, “No, it works the way it is. I don’t want to mess with it.” And the movie truly does manage to keep the energy of the live performance while also offering shots and angles that a live audience would never be able to see. I love the aerial shots that he did. Are you happy with the way the film came out?


David Byrne:

I’m very happy with the way the film turned out. I’m a big fan of Spike and also a fan of his director of photography, Ellen, and then Chris; between the two of them, they really kind of mapped out “this is how we’re going to shoot this song. This is how we’re going to capture this moment.” So it wasn’t just a haphazard, “let’s throw a bunch of cameras out there and keep our fingers crossed.” There was a plan and I felt like the band and I were in good hands. So we could focus on what our job was.


Debbie Millman:

Are you excited about the murmurings of it being a possible Oscar best film contender?


David Byrne:

I’ll be very surprised because it falls under the documentary category.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah, but The New York Times is actually talking about it as best picture.


David Byrne:

Ouchies.


Debbie Millman:

Well, that’s what I read.


David Byrne:

Well.


Debbie Millman:

So you stated that American Utopia was not originally conceived as an entity that would work across so many platforms. It went from an album to a concert to a Broadway show to a film, and now it’s also a book that you have published with the great artist and illustrator Maira Kalman, and the book extends the work that you and Maira have done for quite some time. She did the work for the stage curtain. You also worked with her 34 years ago on her first children’s book, Stay Up Late. So how did the book American Utopia come to life?


David Byrne:

I approached Maira about doing the stage curtain, which was partly inspired by Alex Timbers, the theater director, who said your one is long enough that you could probably ask the producers for your own curtain, and that it can be something where you can introduce the themes of what you’re going to be dealing with for the rest of the evening. It’s almost like the show begins when they start looking at the curtain. Alex showed me a picture from like, some, I don’t know, 1950s children’s book or something that was a map of the United States, and kind of the folklore of the United States. So up in the Northwest was a picture of Paul Bunyan, and then maybe a New York state was Ichabod Crane or Rip Van Winkle. And so it was all these characters all over the map of the States.


And I thought, Oh, that might be a way to do it. Instead of having just some all-over big design, we show the kind of humanity that we’re talking about. And I immediately then just thought of Maira, and yes, we’d worked together before. So she did that beautifully. And then we looked at it and said, “Can we turn this into something else?” People might want to go like, go home with a poster of this curtain or something. And I think between Maira and her son, Alex, they came up with the idea. I think they came up with the idea—oh, let’s do it as a picture book.


Debbie Millman:

It’s beautiful. It’s a standalone piece, but it also is a side-by-side piece. It has that sort of same humanity and pathos and optimism of the show and also something that you could just read and enjoy.


David Byrne:

It really captured pretty much the same mood as the show.


Debbie Millman:

David, the last thing I want to ask you about is achievement. You were recently asked what your greatest achievement in life was, and though you acknowledge that your answer was a cliché, I was really touched by it. And you said that your greatest achievement in life was your daughter, and now you also have a grandson. Congratulations.


David Byrne:

Thank you.


Debbie Millman:

In the same interview, you stated that coming from you, she could have been such a mess, but she’s not and she’s happy, very happy. David, why on earth would you think that coming from you, she could have been a mess?


David Byrne:

I was not a horrible parent, but I was on tour sometimes. I recall that there were times when I just thought, Oh, this parent thing, I really don’t get it. Or there’s other times when I thought, Oh, this parent thing, it doesn’t fit with the picture I have of myself of being this independent artist, Bohemian type. And yet I actually enjoyed it very much. But yes. So all those kinds of things. Luckily, the little ones are more resilient than maybe we give them credit for.


Debbie Millman:

Yes. I also see that your daughter is a designer. So I guess the creativity is running in the family.


David Byrne:

Maybe.


Debbie Millman:

David Byrne, thank you so much for creating so many extraordinary things in the world. And thank you for joining me today on Design Matters and having this conversation with me.


David Byrne:

Thank you.


Debbie Millman:

You can read more about David Byrne’s Body of Work at davidbyrne.com. You can also listen to David Byrne Radio on Apple Music. American Utopia, the film, is on HBO and American Utopia, the book, is in bookstores. This is the 17th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters. And I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman