Interview

David Byrne: 'Spike Lee and I have a lot in common'

David Byrne shot at Langham Hotel
David Byrne: ‘I certainly can’t go back to standing on stage with a band and amplifiers.’ Photograph: Phil Fisk/The Observer
David Byrne: ‘I certainly can’t go back to standing on stage with a band and amplifiers.’ Photograph: Phil Fisk/The Observer

The former Talking Heads frontman on the importance of performance, covering Janelle Monáe, and his hope for the American experiment

Sean O’Hagan

Last modified on Tue 15 Dec 2020 15.39 EST

David Byrne is one of popular culture’s great polymaths: a musician, producer, artist, actor, author, record label owner and film-maker. He was a founding member and lead singer of the influential post-punk group Talking Heads and has had a long and varied solo career that has included collaborations with Brian Eno and St Vincent. The film of Byrne’s acclaimed 2019 Broadway stage production of the album American Utopia, directed by Spike Lee, is available on digital download from tomorrow and DVD on 11 January.

How has the lockdown been for you?
When it was warmer, I could go for bike rides around [New York] with friends and band members, so we could at least see each other and explore parts of the city we didn’t know. I still do that occasionally but it’s a little bit harder now it’s getting colder.

When I spoke to you in 2012, you said that, even amid the technical advances of the digital age, people still wanted “the communality of the live experience”. Sadly, that has gone for the time being.
Yes. A lot of musicians are thinking, what are we going to do now? [In the US] there is very little financial support for small venues, which are a crucially important part of the ecosystem of live music. You can’t take that away and expect everything to be fine.

Given all that, your film, American Utopia, is essentially a hymn to live performance.
Yeah, I think that performance is really about us as human beings. Biologically, it is what we are programmed to do and be interested in. The film is about us moving our bodies, playing our instruments and just being in front of you. It’s not about special effects or screens or explosions, which are exciting, too, but it’s people who are the most exciting element.

It’s fair to say that a lot of people would not have seen you and Spike Lee as an obvious creative match.
No [laughs]. Both of us thought that people would hear our two names and go, what is going on here? But it worked out. We have a lot in common. He completely got it. It was very much in his world.

I have to ask, is there any post-production trickery in the film? It looks so immersive at times that it seems like the cinematographer was on stage with you.
No, it is purely what was shot. The film was edited from two different live shows and a third special show we performed for pick-up shots and continuity. The editor had his hands full.

The choreography of the live show was so meticulously worked out, yet it comes across as very spontaneous and incredibly joyous.
We were having a great time, but it did take a while to get there. It was a steep learning curve. At the start, it was all about getting things right – where am I meant to be standing? How am I supposed to be moving? What comes next? Where’s my guitar? It took a while to internalise all that stuff so that you stop thinking about it and relax into just relating to the other musicians.

Is it the most ambitious live show you’ve ever done?
It might be, yes, there’s a lot of technology involved behind the scenes. At least 50 radio frequencies were being used and a computerised light tracking system. There’s even a guy offstage working all the guitar pedals. There’s a lot going on technically, but that’s not the important thing. We were not out to dazzle people with technology.

Is that why the stage is so bare and minimally lit so that nothing distracts from the performance?
Yes. We decided that very early on, but keeping it minimal was the hard part. The stage became sacred territory. No extra lights. No leads. I can run backwards and know I’m not going to trip over something. It was very liberating. I really have no idea where I’m going next. I certainly can’t go back to standing on stage with a band and amplifiers.

There is a political undertow to some of the songs and to your introductions. Do you now consider yourself an artist-activist?
To some degree. I made it a point not to say anything partisan. There is enough of that kind of squabbling going on, so I really didn’t want to add to that. It was really about how we talk about the issues without getting into politics. I realised I could do that because a lot of the evidence is right there on stage. If you want to talk about emigration, just look on the stage. We are all immigrants. I’m an immigrant. If immigration was stopped, we wouldn’t be here. I think the audience gets that we are talking about a country and not just about the people on stage.

One of the most dramatic moments is when you sing the Janelle Monáe song Hell You Talmbout, in which you sing the names of black people killed by the police. You asked her permission first, which suggests you may have had some reservations about singing it.
I asked her: “What do you think of a white man of a certain age doing this song?” I was fully prepared for her to say: “No, this is about a black experience and you can’t co-opt it.” But she didn’t. She felt that the issue was a human issue and that it would be great if I took it on. By the way, I also went to the band and asked each of them: “What do you think about me doing this song? Are you all comfortable?” Everyone was in agreement. And, following her example, we all take turns singing the names of the people who have been killed. Everyone comes to the front to memorialise these names.

In your preamble to the song, you describe it as “a protest song about change” and you also say: “We all need to change. I also need to change.”
Yes, that is something I realised years ago. In a cultural revolution, you have to look at yourself first before you start wagging your finger at other people and telling them what they have to do. I had to look at myself and there’s a lot that needs fixing.

America has gone though some incredibly tumultuous events of late and politics has become incredibly divisive. Has that affected you psychologically?
Yes. It has. I was not that surprised about Donald Trump – we New Yorkers knew what he was like way before he was elected. What was a surprise was how many Republicans completely went along with him and how swiftly that happened. They ignored the racism, the misogyny and the lying. That was a surprise and it kind of broke my heart. It has been very disillusioning. I’m relieved with the result, but I’m not ready to jump for joy just yet.

The film is called American Utopia. Do you believe in the utopian ideal?
No. It’s not possible, but it is something to be approached. There is a longing for improvement and betterment. I think that impulse is still there. A long time ago, the political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville said that America was an experiment and that is still the case. Sometimes, that experiment can fail, but there is hope and that’s what the film is about essentially.

So a better world is possible?
Yes, I think so.