On the eve of the release of an HBO film, American Utopia, and an illustrated book, the renaissance rock star talked to TIME about curiosity, percussionists on foot and the joy of connecting with others.
American Utopia is an album, a show, an HBO film and a book. Some of the songs are new, but some are classics. Is utopia something that you’ve been thinking about your whole career? There seem to be various times in one’s life where you can focus on certain things, and those become things that you’re really interested in. And this seemed to be one of those moments; I could pull from a lot of my work in the past, but I could also look to the future and deal with more civic engagement. The country was kind of at one another’s throats, so it seemed to be a moment when that seemed important to do.
Since you performed the show on Broadway, America seems to have become even more dystopic. Does this make the work more relevant? A lot of things we bring up in the show have been issues for quite a while now, whether it’s immigration or voting, race. And the fact that those things have become even more in our face doesn’t exactly make me happy, but it shows that it was right to be talking about this stuff, because it’s not going to starve itself. We have to oppress it.
Why did you decide to make voting the thing you advocated for? I became aware of how few of us vote. About half the people in the country don’t mind the other half telling them how the future’s gonna be and how their children’s future’s gonna be. I think people don’t want to give up their voice. It’s far from perfect, but at the same time I think we have to make an effort. We have to vote. And so yes, I have plans to go to Pennsylvania where turnout is very important, in a nonpartisan way.
You start the show talking about the brains of children. The book also has a childlike playfulness. Do you lean into childhood in your work? There’s an element of playfulness and whimsy. And there’s an element of curiosity. I don’t want to assume an attitude where I’m too cool or that I know it all. I tend to come to things and go, “Well, what is that? And how does that work?”
You speculate in the show that the connections that we have in our brains as infants become connections to other people. Have the past few months made you feel differently about that? I do need a dose of kind of hope every once in a while. Because like so many of us, I wake up and I read a few newspapers in the morning, and then I’m furious.
More than half the cast of American Utopia—six people—are percussionists. Why so many? I’m a big fan of percussion groups and marching groups—whether it’s samba schools or second line groups or drum lines. There’s a really different feeling than a drummer on a kit. And there’s a different feeling when it’s multiple people doing it. You have this visceral sense of collective effort, that something is being achieved collectively that could not be done individually. There’s a joy to it. It’s important to the whole of what the show is.
You are pretty light on your feet, especially considering you’re 68. Is dance a key means of expression for you? Oh. Yes. I realized many, many years ago that I could discover a way to express myself with my body that was not an imitation of some other kind of dance tradition or pop music tradition. I could find a way to do this that is totally my own, not the moves that I think I’m supposed to be doing. And I realized it helps tell the story that we’re trying to impart on stage.
As in the concert movie Stop Making Sense, a suit is a big part of this performance. Why suits? I wanted us all to be wearing the same thing. So we appear like a tribe or a team. In the end I just thought a nicely done suit that’s tailored to each of us is gonna look fairly attractive. And then I thought oh, but we can’t be wearing business shoes. That’s gonna look pretty clunky, and that’s taking it just one step too far. So I thought let’s try barefoot. That counteracts the formality of the suit a little bit.
America seems to be struggling with balancing individual rights and the good of the team right now. How do you see it? In a show like this one, it’s very much a collaboration. It’s not me micro-managing every bit of it. I have tried doing that, and it doesn’t work as well, you don’t get as much, and it’s not as much fun. So I’m very much of the feeling that yes, we have individual rights, but there are instances where if you curtail those a little bit and cooperate with other people, you get something that you could never get by yourself.
In this spirit of connection, have you reconnected with the other former members of Talking Heads? We communicate. We’ve managed to find common ground and deal with legal stuff and whatever that affects all of us. But we’re not all palling around.
Does that pain you? I’m not sad about not working together; we all change, and we have other interests. But yeah, personally it is a little bit sad.
How has the pandemic been treating you? Did you find that a period of enforced isolation was good for your creativity? I have not written a single song since the pandemic. I’m working on a dance project with a choreographer, and we’re trying to figure out if the audience gets to dance in a socially distant way. We did a test with a small audience, and boy do people love that.
Why haven’t you written songs? This has been hard. I’ve been asking myself, How do you respond to this in a song? I can’t ignore it; I can’t just write a bunch of songs, as if everything in the last couple of years didn’t happen. You have to acknowledge it, and I don’t quite know how to do that yet, in a way that doesn’t feel preachy.
How much of your bandwidth are you devoting to your good news website Reasons to be Cheerful? Less than I would like, but at times quite a bit. But I have a good little team there. I realize you’re not gonna get rich on this but I started doing it for my own peace of mind.
Would your vote in the upcoming election surprise anybody? I don’t think so. In my work, or in the shows and on Reasons to be Cheerful, I very much make an effort to stay nonpartisan. I’m not going to push my opinions on other people in that way. But I certainly do want everyone who can vote to get out there and vote.
Is there one issue that you feel particularly strongly about? I’m not a one issue voter. But if we don’t do something about climate, we are truly up the river without a paddle. And we have to do that fairly soon. And I believe it’s true that we have to mobilize for that the way we didn’t mobilize for the pandemic, as if it was like World War II or something. We have to really shift the priorities of the country. I think capitalism needs a rethink. It works a lot of the time, but it needs to be more regulated than it has been. And that has allowed a lot of inequality, which in general is bad for the economy, it’s bad for people, it’s inefficient. And yeah, besides it being wrong.
Correction, Oct. 15
The original version of this story misstated the type of book Byrne recently wrote with Maira Kalman. It is an illustrated book, not a children’s book.