David Byrne bonus Q&A: 'I distinctly remember thinking: Wow, being a mailman would be an ideal job!'

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An scene from "David Byrne's American Utopia." - David Lee/HBO/TNS/TNS

What was David Byrne’s dream job as a kid?

“I don’t know how old I was — probably early adolescence — but I distinctly remember thinking: ‘Wow, being a mailman would be an ideal job!’” said the Oscar, Golden Globe and multiple Grammy Award-winning musician.

“As a mailman, you walk around by yourself, you’re outdoors, your thoughts are your own. Plus, the hours aren’t too bad and the benefits are good. So I thought: ‘Now, that’s a job.’”

Of course, Byrne opted to forge a far different and far broader path all his own. He has explored music, theater and film, as well as writing books and heading his own record label, the now 32-year-old Luaka Bop, devoted to spotlighting a broad array of music from around the world.

More recently, in 2019 he launched Reasons to be Cheerful as a “solutions journalism” website that is “part magazine, part therapy session, part blueprint for a better world.” And, just this past week, he debuted We Are Not Divided, a six-week online multimedia collaborative journalism initiative designed to bridge real and perceived gaps between people.

In the bonus Q&A below, he elaborates on a variety of subjects, including a musical similarity between him and former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant.

Q: In a statement last year announcing Reasons to be Cheerful, you wrote: “It often seems as if the world is going straight to hell. I wake up in the morning, I look at the paper, and I say to myself, ‘Oh no!’ Often, I’m depressed for half the day. I imagine some of you feel the same.” Do you still read the daily paper, or more than one?

A: Yes, I do. And in the last few days, I have thought that maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I should focus on what I’m doing and research the articles I’m doing, and not start the day with all that stuff in the newspapers because I don’t know how constructive it actually is. Part of me says: “I want to know what’s going on.” Another part of me says: “Don’t incapacitate yourself with all that stuff.” But, of course, the part of me that is kind of a news junkie wins out. Newspapers are very seductive to me.

Q: How would you react if you received an offer to become a newspaper editor?

A: (Laughs uproariously) That’s a good question. I don’t know. I don’t know. Right now, I stumbled on this and am doing We Are Not Divided and Reasons to be Cheerful, but I can still do my other work. I’d be afraid of getting sucked into anything full-time. I’ve learned from my creative life that I kind of like being my own boss and working with a group of collaborators who all share a common goal.

Q: When Reasons to be Cheerful was launched in August of 2019, you described it as “part magazine, part therapy session, part blueprint for a better world” and a place to share “smart, proven, replicable solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.” Did you have any direct or indirect inspirations, like, perhaps, Stewart Brand’s CoEvolution Quarterly of The Whole Earth Review, only with a different focus?

A: You mean that were kind of inspirational in that way? Yeah, I remember them. And there’s an online magazine called Grist, which is oriented toward agriculture! (Laughs) Sometimes, I get inspiration there. And mainstream publications, like The Economist, for example, would sometimes publish news articles about people having some sort of success with solar energy in Africa.

Mostly, there was all this doom and gloom, bad news, and occasionally you could find positive things being reported. But, in general there is a bias toward bad news and that gets more clicks and more readers. So I realized Reasons to be Cheerful and, now, We Are Not Divided, is swimming upstream.

Q: We did an interview back in 1985 about the Talking Heads’ concert film, “Stop Making Sense.” You told me at the time: “I see myself as part of the world of all writers and performers. Whereas I think a lot of rock people only see themselves in the context of rock music. That’s a pretty small world, really, and there’s a lot of great stuff beyond that. I have a lot of interests beyond music, and I think that’s healthy.” Did you have even the slightest idea back then you would one day head a nonprofit, or be involved with anything like We Are Not Divided and Reasons to be Cheerful?

A: I never would have imagined I would be involved in this kind of journalistic enterprise. (Laughs) That reference from 35 years ago would have been very surprising to me then. The fact that — until the pandemic — I am still performing and experimenting with different types of theater, that might not be as much of a surprise. As I said to you back then, that (diversification) was one of my interests then. It was a big influence in me to see what was going on in that downtown (New York) theater scene and what people were trying to do around the world.

Q: In your opinion, do things generally have to get worse — sometimes a lot worse, like, say, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant meltdown — before they get better?

A: Sometimes it sadly does seem that way. It takes some sort of straw to break the camel’s back, something to trigger everybody. People have been murdered before George Floyd. But I think with everybody being locked down and thinking about this, and looking at the unequal responses and unequal medical treatment, that was the one that triggered it. It does sometimes take something like that, and it’s sad that it does.

Q: The first encore at each of your “American Utopia” concerts, and in the Broadway iteration, is “Hell You Talmbout,” Janelle Monáe’s chilling 2015 protest song about the senseless killings of Black Americans. Sadly, the song rings even more true today than four years ago.

A: It’s an incredible song. When I first heard “Hell You Talmbout,” I really liked that (it) is a protest song that is not lecturing the listener in a very straightforward way. The song is not telling them exactly what to think. It’s just saying: “These are lives that have been taken from us. Don’t forget them.”

Of course, there is a political message — people have been taken from us — that is very moving and really works. I like protest songs that are not obvious and not preachy. There’s a new song by (Grammy Award-winning former San Diego singer-songwriter) Gregory Porter called ‘Mr. Holland,’ that I think is beautiful and subtle. I really like people who do songs that engage with social issues and take them to a different place.

Q: Pardon my memory, but I don’t recall you ever writing and recording a protest song?

A: No, I don’t think I have either. I have done songs I hope maybe challenged or inspired different ways of thinking, but not a protest song.

Q: In 1984, the Jonathan Deme-directed Talking Heads’ concert film “Stop Making Sense” raised the bar for what a concert could be. In 2018, you raised the bar again with your “American Utopia” tour. Will it be another 36 years before you …

A: Ha-ha-ha-ha! Before I do another breakthrough show? You never know. You never know. Who would have thought that I would kind of re-invent what me and the band could do, on stage. 30-plus years after “Stop Making Sense?” I mean, I sensed that was what was happening when we were creating the show, but who would have thought this would happen? You never know. It could happen again. I don’t know.

Q: Have you ever met Robert Plant?

A: No, I never have.

Q: I ask because both of you still perform songs by your former bands — Led Zeppelin and Talking Heads, respectively — but you both have revamped the songs from what they were.

A: Yeah, I’m aware of that. I have to sort of re-invent the older material, so that it seems of a piece with the newer stuff and so there isn’t a huge difference between them. Also, I’m lucky that there is enough material so that I can cherry-pick the older stuff in a way where I can pick things that integrate well with the newer stuff, so that it doesn’t seem to be a world apart.

Q: You and St. Vincent made a joint album, “Love This Giant,” in 2012. Your tour to promote it included a San Diego show at Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay that I attended. The staging of that show, with some roving brass instrumentalists, seemed to be a precursor to “American Utopia,” albeit without the very high production values and pinpoint staging. Was there a cause and effect between that tour with St. Vincent and “American Utopia,” directly or indirectly?

A: Yeah. I see, in retrospect, that I was inching towards that. The brass section was all mobile. I was, too, and Annie was mobile, sometimes. And it was all an experiment with some of the same concepts.

Q: One of the most ingenious and memorable parts of the “American Utopia” tour was having six roving percussionists, instead of a drummer seated at a drum kit. It brought to mind the Second Line parade bands in New Orleans and the marching samba schools in Brazil.

A: Yes. I, as you said, am aware of the samba school bands where everyone is mobile, and Second Line bands and marching bands at football games. I’m aware there can be this incredible power when you take a drum kit apart and a whole group of people are collaborating and acting as one percussive body, each with a different am, and make something. Somehow, I don’t know exactly how, it felt even stronger emotionally than watching a drummer playing the same thing on a drum kit. It has a real impact when you see different people doing that. I thought: “If I can afford to do that, it could be really powerful.”

Q: So, will you do a stripped-down tour next?

A: I haven’t thought about it yet. But you’re right. Whatever I do next, I can’t continue doing the same thing. It has to be something different.

Q: Last question, for now. And. not to intimidate you, but the best answer I have ever had to this question was from Miles Davis. How would you like to be remembered?

A: (Laughs) It’s hard to imagine what he might have said. Tell me!

Q: He said: “For not being White.”

A: (Cracks up) Oh, my god! Well, oddly, I think some of the things I’m most proud of about what I’ve done over the years is the diversity I feel I’ve brought to my music and performances. And I hope not to make an obvious point of it, but it’s all there for people to see and hear in the “American Utopia” film. That gives that music proof that it is a possibility, even if it’s not us on stage (but on a movie screen), so that’s something. I realize that, in an odd way, my music and shows gives people a sense of hope, but not in a kind of a corny way. And it seems to have crossed over to multiple generations, which is something I’m kind of proud of.

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