'We can better ourselves': David Byrne reveals his definition of utopia

The legendary Talking Heads frontman takes a message of hope to Broadway.

The legendary Talking Heads frontman takes a message of hope to Broadway

David Byrne's show American Utopia is on Broadway through February. (Facebook/DBtodomundo)

Like many people who follow the news these days, David Byrne found himself getting up in the morning, reading the headlines, and feeling, as he puts it, "disgusted and cynical and angry and sad."

But instead of sinking into that cynicism, the legendary Talking Heads frontman, solo musician, artist and author began to examine the opposite: the promise of utopia.

"We have this longing to improve things, this idea that we can better ourselves and better our situation collectively. So utopia is something I think that one never reaches, but the idea that one keeps striving to improve things, and correct things that are wrong," Byrne told q host Tom Power.

For Byrne, the promise of utopia is less about picturing a perfect world, and more about trying to imagine what a different world could look like.

"I feel like we're at a place where we're in danger of falling into a kind of very cynical view of things," he says. "But at the same time, a lot of people are trying to imagine how could things be different."

That message is at the core of Byrne's latest album and live show, American Utopia — described by NME as perhaps "the best live show of all time — and Broadway run, which closes in February. 

'It's just us and you'

The Broadway show features his 11-piece band wearing grey suits and performing entirely on foot with no wires, amps or stands — not even shoes — visible on stage. As a result, the performers are free to dance, form sections, change positions and interact.

As the performers are untethered and on foot, Byrne says there's a much more visceral sense of connection between them and the audience.

"It's very liberating that we can move around everywhere — and I realized at some point that it meant that the audience relates to us directly as people."

"So here's a little group of people and we're relating to you, the audience, a larger group of people. And there's nothing between us. We're not hiding behind funny lights or risers or sets or any other standard stuff. It's just us and you, and we're having a kind of dialogue."

While most concerts feature a relatively random assortment of songs, the American Utopia set list — which includes everything from Talking Heads classics such as Once in a Lifetime and Burning Down the House to brand new tracks — is deliberately ordered in a way that transports the audience to a specific destination.

After hearing a snippet of the opening song Here in the q studio in New York, Byrne explains the thinking behind that order.

"It starts the show and it's me at a table holding a brain. So it's a person who's very much within themselves and thinking about things and trying to figure things out, very kind of inward," he said. Over the course of the show, he explains, the person slowly comes out of himself and begins connecting with other people.

"By the end of the show, this person — that's me — and the band become more socially engaged as well. So we become engaged in the much wider world beyond our little community. So it's a step-by-step thing, and I think the audience senses that. 

We have to address the times that we live in and what's going on.- David Byrne

Part of that community feel includes a powerful ending to the show: a cover of Janelle Monae's 2015 protest song Hell You Talmbout, which has the band and crowd repeating the names of black Americans who have died in police encounters or racial violence.

"I felt that in the times that we live in, we're kind of compelled to address all these issues," Byrne said. "I would often do a cover song at the end of a show and it would be a kind of a party and a dance for fun, and this time I realized no — we have to say something. We have to address the times that we live in and what's going on."

— Written by Jennifer Van Evra and produced by ​Emma Godmere

Miss an episode of CBC q? Download our podcast.



To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.