David Byrne Isn’t Himself
Every year is probably an interesting one for an artist as restless and inquisitive as David Byrne, but I’m willing to bet that 2023 was especially so. In September, a newly restored edition of “Stop Making Sense,” the landmark 1984 concert film by Byrne’s former band, Talking Heads, returned to theaters to much (richly deserved) ballyhoo. Before that, “Here Lies Love,” a musical based on the life of the former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos, began a five-month run on Broadway. That show featured lyrics by Byrne and music written by him and Fatboy Slim, and was staged in such a way that a regular old theater was transformed into a shape-shifting disco. The film is a rock concert as joyous celebration of community; the musical a seductive portrait of power’s distorting effects. “Rather than be told this is what the world can be like,’’ says Byrne, 71, about his work, “it’s kind of like, ‘We’re going to show to you how things could be.’ ”
It was a little surprising to me to see how strong the enthusiasm still is for “Stop Making Sense.”1
People really have an emotional connection to that film. But do you? What do you feel when you watch it? It’s almost as if I’m watching a character. I’m a little removed. I retain elements of that person but not all of him. It’s like, Oh, what is the connection between me and that being that I’m looking at?
That’s a difficult question to answer, isn’t it? Yeah, and that applies to all of us, not just me. Lots of other people, scientists and philosophers, think about this more than I have: Where is the difference between yourself here and here and here? Is there any continuous self? You could say you’ve retained memories from various parts of your life, but memories are very malleable. We reshape them every time we remember them. They’re not fixed. Every self you go through, you dredge something up and make it apply to whoever you are at that moment. It’s a hard thing for us to intuitively accept the idea of “self is an illusion.” It’s very Buddhist, but it’s also increasingly more scientific. It’s not just a spiritual concept. It’s also a kind of neural concept.
But I think of you as having a unique individual identity as a musician. What does it mean to have an individual sensibility if there’s not a consistent self to attach it to? Well, in our culture there’s a lot of emphasis on the individual: I have a right to do this, I have a right to do that. There’s a sense that you’re making these decisions about your life or what you want to do or say and that they’re all coming from you. But they’re not! Who you are at any given moment is defined by the social context. We’re not quite ants, but we’re social animals. To pull one ant away and say, That ant decided to do that! No. We do things because we’re part of a larger community. I feel like the pendulum in our culture here has swung maybe a little too far into the individual zone — away from a sense of community. It’s all about me, me, me. That’s what you think, but everything you’re saying is coming from people around you or the internet. You’re not making this up yourself. We do some things as individuals, but a lot of things we do are socially determined. Way more than we would like to admit. I mean, we tend to look down on arranged marriages, for example, but then you look at who people connect with and you go, I could have arranged that. You think that you’ve had this freedom of choice but, well, your parents might have picked the same person for you.
David Byrne in the Talking Heads concert film, ‘‘Stop Making Sense’’ (1984), which returned to theaters this year.
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns, via Getty Images
That probably doesn’t speak well to our willingness to break out of our own little social boxes. It works out fine, but I guess I’m saying we tend to think we’re more sophisticated and individualistic than people who go through arranged marriages. I’m not advocating for arranged marriages, I’m just saying, hmm.
Just to go back to “Stop Making Sense” for a minute. My understanding is that you’re not a particularly nostalgic guy, but did the enthusiasm around the film’s rerelease make you think any differently about nostalgia? I think some older Talking Heads fans who have gone to see “Stop Making Sense” — this new print — will have come with a certain sense of nostalgia. They remember when they saw that tour or when they first heard the band. So there’s that, which is very nice, but what’s unusual is now you have kids in their 20s and 30s and younger going to see it and finding their own meaning in it. It’s not like, Oh, this is dad’s music. When I was doing press with the band recently, I think Jerry2
might have pointed out that that might be partly to do with the fact that a lot of the things we did are very analog. The lighting: Most of it is nothing you couldn’t have done in 1930. There’s nothing technically that speaks of the ’80s. It’s not rooted in a particular musical era.
So do you feel any nostalgia for that music or that time? No.
The moment of “Stop Making Sense” was arguably a peak of popularity for Talking Heads, and I think there’s a sense that if you’d made different decisions back then things could’ve gotten even bigger.
Was that ever tempting? There was definitely a sense that Talking Heads were at their most popular after “Stop Making Sense.” “Stop Making Sense” the live was like a greatest-hits album for us; “Little Creatures” was a big album. And there was a sense of, you should be now playing arenas and stadiums. I felt like, no. We’d occasionally played those larger venues, and though it’s a thrill to be invited to do that, it felt very impersonal. I didn’t feel connected to the crowd. It was more this kind of tribal rally thing going on. Which is all very nice, but I thought, I can feel it hemming me in creatively. I thought, They want this, and we have to give this, and if we did and then varied from that, whew, it’s not going to be good.
What is “this”? Play the hits. Which I still do, but I mix it in with other things.
Maybe this is apocryphal, but is it right that the band declined an offer to play Live Aid? That concert was a career rocket-booster for the people who played. No, I think it was a tour that maybe Peter Gabriel was on.
The Amnesty International tour?
It was an Amnesty tour, and we agreed with all the principles and what it was about, but I think at the time I did feel like we were moving into other things. I don’t know where. I was moving into other things. I think some of the band might’ve thought, Oh, this would’ve been a great opportunity for us to be part of that.
From fairly early in your recording career with something like “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts”7
about how you’ve seen arguments about cultural appropriation change over the years? I think the phrase that was used with “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” was “cultural imperialism.” I thought, That’s not quite right. I remember the first time I went to Brazil, and there was one little station that played sambas, and everything else was playing American pop tunes. I thought, That’s cultural imperialism: when the multinational record companies find it easier to promote the same artists everywhere rather than nurture local talent. Obviously if some artist pretends to be kind of something that they’re not, then that can be kind of disturbing. You’re appropriating whatever it might be. That said, I feel that everybody should be allowed to borrow from everything. Not overtly steal musically but borrow from anything, incorporate, and it should be able to flow every which way. I mean, I go further and feel that you don’t have to only write from your own experience.
The artistic self is a malleable thing. But now I’m thinking again about the idea of having no fixed self at all. Some people might find that idea uncomfortable. Is there something liberating about it? Yes. The liberating part is that we’re not fixed. Parts of ourselves, what we think of ourselves — those things can change. There were long centuries where slavery was considered kind of essential. There was no debate about it — very little anyway. But what’s encouraging is that those beliefs, which seemed at one point to be fundamental, can change. The idea that women should have the vote, have the same rights as men — these are really fundamental ideas about who we are, and they can change. Sometimes slower than we would like, but they do. That’s encouraging.
How have you changed? Wow. Well, I realized quite a few years ago that as much as I might like to deny it, I harbored a lot of racial biases. At that point, a younger liberal person would say, Oh, I’m not racist, or I believe in equality. But at the same time, I was aware that I was also harboring these inner biases that I could occasionally sense. I realized I may rationally say that I’m not racist, but I have implicit biases that I would like to deny but they’re there. Overcoming those is more difficult than just rationally saying, Oh, no, that’s not right. Those beliefs and biases, whether they’re about race or women’s rights or whatever they might be, those things can take a long time to fundamentally change within us. I would like to think that I’ve been engaged in that process and was trying in “American Utopia”9
to demonstrate that that can be done. That kind of change can happen, but it doesn’t happen with this snap of fingers.
How do you do it? Good question. Let me think of some examples. People might say, Germans don’t have a sense of humor, or all Italians are really passionate; you might see a bunch of kids on a street corner and think, There’s trouble, I’m going to avoid them. In my experience, the way to work through some of that stuff is just to get to know other people as individuals a little bit better, and that starts to break those biases down. But that’s a slow process. And for somebody who’s not maybe the most social person in the world, that takes some work.
Arielle Jacobs, as Imelda Marcos, in the Broadway musical ‘‘Here Lies Love,’’ for which Byrne wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the music.
But it starts, I think, with curiosity. Do you think curiosity can be cultivated? Or are some people just innately more curious than others? I think you can develop a willingness to try new things, but curiosity is kind of self-motivated. I sense that for many people, they love the feeling of the familiar and the secure and a place where the answers are. Whether the answers are through religion or their political affiliation or family, there’s a security that comes with that, and that would imply maybe a lack of willingness to be curious and go outside that zone. If you feel like the answers are in here, why would you bother to go elsewhere? I’ve been reading about the pre-Enlightenment.
Oh! Which showed a similar kind of thing in some ways. Religion and other things provided all the answers. Not only the answers of how things work, but it also answered why — because God made them that way. Then science comes along, and you maintain the how, but the why is now left behind. Max Weber talks about the great disenchantment.
That’s when everything in the world seems enchanted, and it’s filled with this power — a kind of spiritual power — and then as science and everything starts to take over, things don’t have that magical aura anymore. That is definitely a loss. I could understand why people would want to maintain some of that security of knowing that there are answers, even if they’re not totally accurate.
Do you feel enchantment about the world? I feel that. I think a lot of people in the sciences feel that, too. They feel that the way things work in physics or biology or whatever it might be is still kind of marvelous. Even though they’re not just saying God or the gods made it this way, it’s still moving and amazing. And this idea of ecology, our awareness of the network or web of connections in physics and nature and biology, there’s a sense of wonder in that connection. Yes, to me, there’s a growing sense that lots of different things in the world are related to one another and connected in ways that we are still discovering. It’s not quite religious, but it is amazing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.