In 1979, David Byrne predicted Netflix. “It’ll be as easy to hook your computer up to a central television bank as it is to get the week’s groceries,” he told NME’s Max Bell, sitting in a Paris hotel considering the implications of Talking Heads’ dystopian single ‘Life During Wartime’.
He predicted the Apple Watch in that interview too: “[People will] be surrounded by computers the size of wrist watches.” And he foresaw surveillance culture and data harvesting: “Government surveillance becomes inevitable because there’s this dilemma when you have an increase in information storage. A lot of it is for your convenience, but as more information gets on file, it’s bound to be misused.”
In fact, over 40 years ago, he predicted the entire modern-day experience, as if he instinctively knew what was coming. “We’ll be cushioned by amazing technological development,” he said, “but sitting on Salvation Army furniture.”
The 68-year-old Byrne says today, “You can’t say that you know,” chuckling down a Zoom link from his home in New York and belying his reputation for awkwardness by seeming giddily relieved to be talking to someone. “It’s crazy to set yourself up as some sort of prophet. But there’s plenty of people who have done well with books where they claim to predict what’s going on. I suppose sometimes it’s possible to let yourself imagine, ‘Okay – what if?’ This can evolve into something that exists, can evolve into something more substantial, cheaper – these kinds of things.”
It’s been a lifelong gift. Byrne turned up at CBGBs in 1975 with his art school band Talking Heads touting ‘Psycho Killer’, as if predicting the punk scene’s angular melodic evolution, new wave, before punk was even called punk. In 1980, Talking Heads assimilated African beats and textures into their seminal ‘Remain In Light’ album, foreshadowing ‘world music’ and modern music’s globalist melting pot, then used it to warn America of the dangers of consumerism, selfishness and the collapse of civilisation. Pioneering or propheteering, Byrne has been on the front-line of musical evolution for 45 years, collaborating with fellow visionaries from Brian Eno to St Vincent’s Annie Clark, constantly imagining, ‘What if?’
The live music lockdown has been a frustrating freeze frame, but Byrne was already leading the way into music’s new normal. Launched in 2018, the tour to support his 10th solo album, ‘American Utopia’, has now turned into a cinematic marvel courtesy of Spike Lee – the concert film was released in the UK this week. The original tour was acclaimed as a live music revolution. Using remote technology, Byrne was able to remove all of the traditional equipment clutter from the stage and allow his musicians and dancers, in uniform grey suits and barefoot, to roam around a stage lined with curtains of metal chains with their instruments strapped to them. A Marshally distanced gig, if you will.
“As the show was conceptually coming together, I realised that once we had a completely empty stage the rulebook has now been thrown out,” Byrne says. “Now we can go anywhere and do anything. This is completely liberating. It means that people like drummers, for example, who are usually relegated to the back shadows, can now come to the front – all those kinds of things – which changes the whole dynamic.”
With six performers making up an entire drum kit and Byrne meandering through the choreography trying to navigate a nonsensical world, the show was his most striking and original since he jerked and jived around a constructed-mid-gig band set-up in Jonathan Demme’s legendary 1984 Talking Heads live film Stop Making Sense.
The American Utopia show embarked on a Broadway run last year, where Byrne super-fan Spike Lee saw it twice and leapt at the chance of turning the spectacle into Byrne’s second revolutionary live film, dotted with his musings on the human condition to illuminate the crux of the songs: institutional racism, our lack of modern connection, the erosion of democracy and, on opener ‘Here’, a lecture-like tour of the human brain, Byrne holding aloft a scale model, trying to fathom, ‘How do I work this?’
“I didn’t know how much of a fan Spike was!” Byrne laughs today. “He’d even go, ‘Why don’t you do this song? Why don’t you add this song in’. We knew one another casually so I could text him and say, ‘I want you to come and see our show; I think that you might be interested in making a film of it’.”
“Calling social networks ‘social’ is a bit of an exaggeration”
Are the days of the traditional stage set-up numbered? “Yes, I think so,” he replies. “At least in theatres and concert halls the size that I would normally play, yes. The fact that we can get the music digitally [means] a performance has to be really of value. It has to be really something special, because that’s where the performers are getting their money and that’s what the audience is paying for. They’re not paying very much for streaming music, but they are paying quite a bit to go and see a performance, so the performance has to give them value for money… It has to be really something to see.”
How does David Byrne envisage the future possibilities of live performance?
“I’ve seen a lot of things that hip-hop artists have done – like the Kanye West show where he emerges on a platform that floats above the stage,” he says. “I’d seen one with Kendrick Lamar where it was pretty much just him on stage, an empty stage with just him on stage and a DJ, somebody with a laptop – that was it. I thought, ‘Wow’. Then he started doing things with huge projections behind. There are lots of ways to do this. I love the idea of working with a band, with live musicians. ‘How can I innovate in this kind of way?’ It’s maybe easier for a hip-hop musician who doesn’t have a band to figure out. The pressure is on to come up with new ways of doing this.”
In liberating his musicians from fixed, immovable positions, American Utopia also acts as a metaphor for freeing our minds from our own ingrained ways of thinking. As Byrne intersperses Talking Heads classics such as ‘Once In A Lifetime’, ‘I Zimbra’ and ‘Road To Nowhere’ with choice solo cuts and tracks from ‘American Utopia’, he also dots the show with musings on an array of post-millennial questions: the health of democracy; the rise of xenophobia and fascism; our increasing reliance on materialism and online communication; the climate change threat; the existential nightmare of the dating app; and, crucially, the distances all of these things put between us.
“The ‘likes’ and friends and connections and everything that the internet enables,” he argues, “even Zoom calls like this, they’re no substitute for really being with other people. Calling social networks ‘social’ is a bit of an exaggeration.”
Byrne closes the show with the suggestion that, rather than isolate behind our LCD barriers, we should try to reconnect with each other. In an age when social media has descended into all-out thought war and anyone can find concocted ‘facts’ to support anything they want to believe, is that realistic?
“I have a little bit of hope,” he says. “Not every day, but some days. I have hope that people will abandon a lot of social media, that they’ll realise how intentionally addictive it is, and they’re actually being used, and that they might enjoy actually being with other people rather than just constantly scrolling through their phone. So, I’m a little bit optimistic that people will, in some ways, use this technology a little bit less than they have.”
A key moment in American Utopia comes with Byrne’s cover of Janelle Monae’s ‘Hell You Talmbout’, a confrontational track shouting the names of African-Americans who have been killed by police or in racially motivated attacks – Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd and far, far too many more. Does Byrne think the civil unrest in the wake of Floyd’s death and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement make a serious impact?
“We’ll see how long this continues,” he says, “but in projects that I’m working on – there’s a theatre project I’m working on in Denver, there’s the idea of bringing this show back to Broadway, there’s other projects – those issues came to the fore. Issues of diversity and inclusion and things like that, which were always there. Now they’re being taken more seriously. The producers and theatre owners realise that they can’t push those things aside, that they have to be included in the whole structure of how a show gets put together.
“At least for now, that seems to be a big change. I see it in TV shows and other areas too. There’s a lot of tokenism, but there’s a lot of real opportunity and changed thinking as well.”
“It shocked me how quickly the Republican party fell in line behind Trump”
Elsewhere, he encourages his audience to register to vote, and had registration booths at the shows. He must have been pleased about the record turnout in the recent US election? “Yeah, the turnout was great. Now you just got to keep doing that. Gotta keep doing it at all the local elections, too. It was important for me not to endorse a political party or anything in the show but to say, ‘Listen, we can’t have a democracy if you don’t vote. You have to get out there and let your voice be heard and there’s lots of people trying to block it.’ We have to at least try.”
Will Trump’s loss help bring people together after four years with such a divisive influence in charge?
“Yes. I think for me Trump was not so much a shock; we knew who he is. He was around New York before that, in the reality show [The Apprentice], we knew what kind of character he was. What shocked me was how quickly the Republican party all fell into line behind him, behind this guy who’s obviously a racist, misogynist liar and everything else. But it’s kind of encouraging – although it’s taken four years and with some it’s only with the prospect of him being gone – that quite a few have been breaking ranks. There are some possibilities of bridge building being held out.”
But, he says, “It’s too early to celebrate,” concerned that Senate Majority Leader and fairweather Trump loyalist Mitch McConnell will use any Republican control of the Senate to block many of Biden’s policies from coming into effect. “[This] is what happened with Obama… I want to see real change happen. [Climate change] absolutely needs to be a priority. The clock had turned back over the last four years, so there’s a lot to be done. Whether there’s the willpower to do everything that needs to be done, it remains to be seen, but at least now it’s pointing in the right direction.”
How will he look back on the last four years? Byrne ponders. “I’m hoping that I look back at it as a near-miss.”
American Utopia is as much a personal journey as a dissection of modern ills. Ahead of ‘Everybody’s Coming To My House’, Byrne admits to being a rather socially awkward type. He claims that a choir of Detroit teenagers, when singing the song for the accompanying video, had imbued the song with a far more welcoming message than his own rendition, which found him wracked with the fear that his visitors might never leave. How does someone like that deal with celebrity?
“In a certain way it’s a blessing,” Byrne grins, “because I don’t have to go up to people to talk to them – they sometimes come up to me. In other ways it’s a little bit awkward. Celebrity itself seems very superficial and I have to constantly remind myself that your character, your behaviour and the work that you do is what’s important – not how well known you are, not this thing of celebrity. I learned early on it’s pretty easy to get carried away. But it does have its advantages. I had Spike Lee’s phone number, so I could text him.”
“In a band, you start off as best friends… After a while, it gets a bit much”
Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz’s recent book Remain In Love suggests that the more successful Byrne got early on, the more distant he became.
Byrne nods. “I haven’t read the book, but I know that as we became more successful I definitely used some of that to be able to work on other projects. I worked on a dance score with [American choreographer] Twyla Tharp and I worked on a theatre piece with [director] Robert Wilson – other kinds of things – [and] I started working on directing some of the band’s music videos. So I guess I spent less time just hanging out. As often happens with bands, you start off being all best friends and doing everything together and after a while that gets to be a bit much. Everybody develops their own friends and it’s like, ‘I have my own friends too’. Everybody starts to have their own lives.”
Would he ever consider playing with Talking Heads again? “Probably not. There’s a lot of differences that haven’t entirely gone away. And I think, as is evident in this film, I’m having a pretty good time doing what I’m doing.”
Almost 30 years after their split, Talking Heads are one of the most name-checked bands among new British acts – you only have to look at the likes of spasmodic Brighton post-punkers Squid to see their enduring influence. “I kind of credit the internet with that in a certain way,” Byrne argues, “because you don’t get album credits and all the other bits and pieces when you can just download music or stream music. You’re just getting the music, so it has no context anymore. You don’t know that it’s 30 years old. It’s just a piece of music that you’re listening to right now. It gives it a shot of being kind of relevant again, in some cases. Some things are very much of their time, but if it can transcend that, then it has a shot.”
The future is far too enticing for David Byrne to consider revisiting the past. “I do live alone so sometimes it would get lonely”, he says of lockdown, but he’s been using his Covid downtime to cycle around undiscovered areas of New York and remain philosophical about the aftermath.
“A Talking Heads reunion? Probably not”
“We’ll see how long before the vaccine is in, before we return to being able to socialise,” he says, “but I’m also wondering, ‘How am I going to look at this year? Am I going to look at it as, “Oh yes, that’s the year that was to some extent taken away from our lives; our lives were put on pause?”’ We kept growing; we kept ageing; we keep eating, but it was almost like this barrier had been put up. It has been a period where, in a good way, it’s led us to question a lot of what we do. You get up in the morning and go, ‘Why am I doing this? What am I doing this for? What’s this about?’ Everything is questioned.”
Post-vaccine, he hopes to “travel a little bit” before looking into plans to bring the ‘American Utopia’ show back to Broadway, and possibly even to London if the financial aspects can be worked out. “Often when a show like that travels, the lead actors might travel,” Byrne explains, “but in this case it’s the entire cast that has to travel. So you’ve got a lot of hotel bills and all that kind of stuff. We wanted to do it. There might be a way, if we can figure that out.”
Once we all get our jab, will everyone come to recognise that, as Byrne sings on ‘American Utopia’’s most inspiring track, ‘Every Day Is A Miracle’? “Optimistically, maybe,” he says. “There will be a lot of people who will just go, ‘Let’s get back to normal – get out to the bars, the clubs and discos’. That’s already been happening in New York; there’s been these underground parties where people just can’t help themselves. But after all this it’d be nice to think that people might reassess things a little bit.”
And with the algorithm as the new gatekeeper and technology beginning to subsume the sounds and consumption of music, what does the new wave Nostradamus foresee for rock in the coming decades? Will AIs soon be writing songs for other AIs to consume to inflate the numbers, cutting humanity out of the equation altogether?
“This has been a period where everything is questioned”
“It seems like there’ll be a kind of factory,” Byrne predicts, “an AI factory of things like that, and of newspaper articles and all of this kind of stuff, and it will just exaggerate and duplicate human biases and weaknesses and stupidity. On the other hand, I was part of a panel a while back, and a guy told a story about how his listening habits were Afrofuturism and ambient music – those were his two favourite ways to go. The algorithm tried to find commonalities between the two so it could recommend things to him and he said it was hopeless. Everything it recommended was just horrible because it tried to find commonalities between these two very separate things. This just shows that we’re a little more eclectic than these machines would like to think.”
And in the distant future? Best prepare to welcome your new gloop overlords. Byrne isn’t concerned about The Singularity – the point at which machine intelligence supersedes ours and AI becomes God – but instead believes that future technologies will emulate microbial forms.
“I watched a documentary on slime moulds [a simple slimy organism] the other day,” he says, warming to his sticky theme. “Slime moulds are actually extremely intelligent for being a single-celled organism. They can build networks and bunches of them can communicate. They can learn, they have memories, they can do all these kinds of things that you wouldn’t expect a single-celled organism to be able to do.
“I started thinking, ‘Well, is there a lesson there for AI and machine learning, of how all these emerging properties could be done with something as simple as a single cell?’ It’s all in there… when things interact, they become greater than the sum of their parts. I thought, okay, maybe the future of AI is not in imitating human brains, but imitating these other kinds of networks, these other kinds of intelligences. Forget about imitating human intelligence – there’s other kinds of intelligence out there, and that might be more fruitful. But I don’t know where that leads.”
His grin says he does know, that he has a vision of our icky soup-world future, but maybe the rest of the species isn’t yet advanced enough to handle it. But if we’re evolving towards disaster rather than utopia, we can trust David Byrne to give us plenty of warning.
American Utopia is out now