David Byrne: The Alchemist

David Byrne: The Alchemist
 Credit: Andrew Whitton www.andrewwhitton.com

Credit: Andrew Whitton www.andrewwhitton.com

This article originally appeared in Q389.

David Byrne’s astonishing American Utopia stage show completely reinvents the pop concert. It has been described as “the best live show of all time”, but that might undersell it. Dorian Lynskey joins the tour in Paris and talks to the former Talking Heads singer about its genesis and purpose.

Last year, David Byrne’s concert booking agent informed him that he was having a Leonard Cohen moment. “That doesn’t mean I’m writing songs like Leonard Cohen,” Byrne says jovially, backstage at the Philharmonie in Paris. “That would be a dream. It means you have a sudden audience growth spurt. I thought, ‘Good, that will give me the budget to realise this show that I’m imagining.’” 

In promoter-speak, “a Leonard Cohen moment” refers to the point in 2008 when the 73-year-old singer returned to live performance after a 15-year absence and enjoyed the biggest audiences of his life. Byrne, 66, is enjoying a similar late boom but unlike Cohen, he didn’t need to have his life savings demolished by a crooked business manager to get there. He didn’t even need to take time off. In the past decade, rock’s dapper Renaissance man has staged ambitious collaborative tours with Brian Eno and St Vincent, and mounted Here Lies Love, a disco musical about Imelda Marcos, co-written with Fatboy Slim. Big ideas are Byrne’s staple diet. 

Nothing he has done since the heyday of Talking Heads, however, has ignited such paroxysms of glee as his current American Utopia tour, which opened in New Jersey in March and graduates to arenas in the autumn. It’s been attracting Hamilton levels of praise, variously described as “an unmitigated triumph”, “a new career peak”, and “the best live show of all time”. Plaudits like that could go to Byrne’s head – if he actually read them. “I’ve been making a point not to read reviews,” he says. “It takes a bit of willpower but sometimes their interpretation of what the show is about can be very different from what you think you’re doing. And I thought, ‘No, let me live in the illusion that whatever it is I think I’m doing is coming across.’”

 Credit: Andrew Whitton www.andrewwhitton.com

Credit: Andrew Whitton www.andrewwhitton.com

When Byrne announced the tour dates last December, he promised that American Utopia would be his “most ambitious” tour since Speaking In Tongues, the Talking Heads show that was immortalised in Jonathan Demme’s 1984 movie Stop Making Sense. That’s not a claim to make unless you can back it up. Demme’s movie, filmed over three nights at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, represented Talking Heads’ artistic pinnacle, and not just because Byrne refused to tour their subsequent three albums. The image of the singer in a bizarrely oversized white suit proved so indelible that he later joked it would be mentioned on his tombstone: “Here lies David Byrne. Why the big suit?” Byrne conceived the show with such obsessive attention to detail that it drove his bandmates crazy (he was a less agreeable character then), but they couldn’t argue with the results. Stop Making Sense is still widely regarded as the most brilliant concert movie ever made, partly because, by withholding shots of the audience, Demme put the viewer in the front row. “We wanted the viewer to feel that he was part of the experience instead of watching these other people have a good time,” said bassist Tina Weymouth. The principle then, as now, was inclusion. 

Byrne says that this tour and that one have something in common: the culmination of an idea rather than a bolt from the blue. The second-half appearance of additional musicians during 1980’s Remain In Light tour got him thinking about expanding the narrative arc of Speaking In Tongues, steadily dilating from one man with a boombox into a stage bustling with people. Similarly, the mobile brass section on the St Vincent tour led him to wonder, what if everybody moved? No mic stands, no drum kit, no video screens, no leads or pedals: no fixed points at all. “I thought that would be different from anything anybody had seen,” he says. “Except for hip-hop, where sometimes it’s just Kanye or Kendrick onstage. I thought, ‘Can you do that with a whole band?’ And it turns out you can, but it takes a lot of figuring out.” 

The concept seemed to gel with the American Utopia album’s themes of liberation, community and constant motion. The record, which he was making while planning the tour, is political less because of what it protests against than what it celebrates. “I thought by stripping everything away from the stage, it makes it about us as human beings,” Byrne says. “It’s not about stuff. It’s not about explosions, or big screens with crazy imagery, or lighting that’s going to blow your face away. It’s about people. And I think that’s what people need now. They miss that connection. This is part of what’s got the world so fucked up at the moment. They think social media is actually connecting with people. It’s not. Ticking Like is not connecting with people, I’m sorry.”

 Credit: Andrew Whitton www.andrewwhitton.com

Credit: Andrew Whitton www.andrewwhitton.com

Byrne knew that bringing the idea to life would require a lot of time, money and expertise. To plot the stage movements he turned to celebrated New York choreographer Annie-B Parson, who had worked on his previous two tours and Here Lies Love, as well as David Bowie’s play Lazarus. Parson’s choreography splits the difference between precision and spontaneity. Apart from backing singers Tendayi Kuumba and Chris Giarmo, says Byrne, none of the musicians are trained dancers “so our movement is a bit on the not-quite-precise side, but we’re doing the best we can and we’re enjoying it, which I think works in our favour.” 

Byrne himself came up with the curtain of ultra-light aluminium chains that surrounds the stage and can look, depending on the lighting, like cloth, bamboo or metal walls. Lighting designer Rob Sinclair suggested the stage uniform of grey suits, fitted with state-of-the-art sensors that guide the spotlights automatically. Unlike black or white suits, grey can be made to disappear or pop out by the application of different lights. Byrne assembled most of the international, multiracial band from people he’d worked with before, commissioning percussionist Mauro Refosco to design the drum section. The whole process took a year of problem-solving, culminating in a month of rehearsals. Byrne has exploited his Leonard Cohen moment to the hilt. “Emerging bands, don’t try this!” he advises.

 Credit: Andrew Whitton www.andrewwhitton.com

Credit: Andrew Whitton www.andrewwhitton.com

It’s 9.40pm in the auditorium of the Paris Philharmonie, an eye-popping 2400-seat space with curvilinear balconies and acoustic panels that rise and fall like hills or waves. Even in the moments just before the show, when there’s nothing but a bare stage and some taped birdsong, it feels like something special is about to happen.  

The design of live shows is now so reliably spectacular on the level of stadiums and arenas that you can almost take it for granted. If you go to see U2 or Taylor Swift, you can expect to see your ticket money put to work in startling new ways. In theatres, however, smaller stages and budgets tend to limit what can be done beyond clever videos and lights, which makes American Utopia all the more remarkable. Using little more than bodies, instruments and invention, Byrne and his team have re-imagined the pop concert from the ground up. In the space of a couple of hours, this unprecedented mindmeld of modern dance, avant-garde theatre, art installation, soul revue and carnival parade makes the conventional rock show seem as old-fashioned as music hall. 

Intentionally or otherwise, the first number functions as a clever bit of misdirection. Byrne appears sitting at a table cradling a model brain and sings Here alone, with music that you might assume is prerecorded (not true: everything you hear is played live). But eight musicians join him for Lazy, his 2002 house music hit with X-Press 2, and another three for I Zimbra, Talking Heads’ writhing take on Afrobeat. The audience is already dancing so hard that the floor is shuddering. Byrne has chosen songs from every corner of his career and rearranged them so that somebody who didn’t know his back catalogue wouldn’t be able to distinguish between Fatboy Slim, St Vincent, Talking Heads or his new album. There are obvious crowd-pleasers – Once In A Lifetime, Burning Down The House, This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) – but none of the energy troughs that usually occur when a veteran artist intersperses the hits with new songs. “We were trying to keep a balance between the new material and the old material and the in-between material,” says Byrne. “In many cases people can’t tell the difference, and that’s pretty great.” 

The reason everything works is because there’s always something happening. For I Should Watch TV, the musicians advance on Byrne like an enemy army. For Bullet, they march around him in a circle like a cult, silhouetted by his blindingly bright handheld light. They hide behind the curtain with only arms and legs protruding (Doing The Right Thing), or play dead on the floor before rising one by one (I Dance Like This). The most striking idea is the simplest: a single, intense light at the front of the stage, which produces vast, dancing shadows during the Talking Heads song Blind. Every song has its own visual character. Byrne is alone in a harsh spotlight for the verses of Once In A Lifetime, spasming like he does at the end of Psycho Killer in Stop Making Sense, but every time the chorus kicks in, the lights go up and the whole band dances to the front of the stage. The song starts as a nervous breakdown and ends as a party. Once In A Lifetime was explicitly written in the persona of a 1980s televangelist but Byrne says he plays many more roles during the show, even if nobody knows what they are. “Sometimes there’s more than one character per song. I think people get that in a subliminal way, even if they can’t put it into words.”

 Credit: Andrew Whitton www.andrewwhitton.com

Credit: Andrew Whitton www.andrewwhitton.com

Byrne also brings politics into the show like he never has before. His first extended address to the audience is a plea for voter registration. “Europe’s facing a lot of the same problems as we are,” he says. “You don’t have quite as crazy a person in charge but watch out. Be careful.” The Trump moment also explains why he chose to end such a joyous show with a cover of Hell You Talmbout, Janelle Monaé’s stark, percussive tribute to black Americans murdered by the police. This final gut-punch of reality is both unsettling and deeply moving. “The times we’re living in, we can’t be silent any more,” he explains. “Every citizen and every entertainer has a responsibility to speak out and try and do whatever they can. I thought, ‘If this kills the vibe then so be it.’ Sometimes the audience is like, ‘Huh, this is not leaving us on a cheery note.’ But it is something that needs to be said.” 

Byrne and his band certainly earn that final, dissonant moment. This is a show where nobody goes to the bar or toilet unless they absolutely have to, because if you don’t pay attention, you’ll miss something brilliant. Peeling away the crusty shell of received wisdom, American Utopia makes the whole experience of live performance feel fresh. By deconstructing and reconfiguring the drum kit over and over again, the six percussionists force you to notice the relationship between sound and movement, turning the stage into a theatre of rhythm. The energy comes off the stage in waves, like radiation. And when guitarist Angie Swan plays her only solo of the night at the end of an intense The Great Curve, with the rest of the band surrounding her like worshippers, it’s as if you’ve never seen a guitar solo before. Byrne stands off to the side, glowing with exertion, a stripe of sweat down the back of his suit, like a fan at his own show. 

Byrne says that they’re all so “ecstatic” by the end of the night that on the way to the dressing room afterwards, they’re shouting to each other about what just happened. The mood in the auditorium is similarly elated. It is hard to imagine a concert audience more berserk with joy as the Philharmonie is during Burning Down The House, especially certain English people who have just received text messages informing them that England has won the penalty shootout against Colombia. Ecstatic is the word. 

Byrne says that the setlist will be refreshed in time for the arena shows and that he’s considering extending the tour into 2019. “There’s a possibility but I want to see how I feel. I don’t want to push it to the point where it stops being fun.” He also says the show might be filmed at some point, and it would be a crying shame if it wasn’t captured for posterity, even if the perfect director, Demme, died last year. When Byrne compared this tour to Stop Making Sense, he ran the risk of setting expectations unreasonably high. The crazy thing is that he’s exceeded them. Most artists don’t get to reinvent the pop concert once in a lifetime. David Byrne has done it twice.