You probably know David Byrne as the lead singer and songwriter of the Talking Heads, the hugely influential post-punk rock band of the late 1970s and ’80s. They broke up more than thirty years ago, but Byrne has been on his own eclectic journey ever since. His artistic innovations blurred the boundaries of music, theater and art. He’s won an Oscar, a Grammy and a Tony, toured with salsa singers, collaborated with neuroscientists, made films and just been nominated for another Oscar. David Byrne, now 70, is as creative, energetic and unusual as he was when he was 23, an art school dropout, just starting to perform on stage with his friends as the Talking Heads.
David Byrne at CBGBs in 1975: The band is called Talking Heads and the song is called Psycho Killer…
David Byrne: So I wanted to matter too. It’s not like, “Are we having fun tonight?”
Anderson Cooper: There’s nothing like, “How are you?”
David Byrne: How are you?
Both: New York!
This is one of David Byrne’s first performances. It was 1975 at CBGBs, the legendary music club where the Ramones, Patti Smith, and Blondie were just getting started.
Psycho Killer was the second song written by David Byrne. And it was Talking Heads’ first hit.
Anderson Cooper: When you hear it now, what do you think?
David Byrne: I’m glad I did. But I’m glad I didn’t stick with it like I did– oh, like, “It’s working. Let’s do more like it.” I’m glad I decided, “No. Now you have to do something that’s a little more original musically.”
And he did just that. With Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison, Talking Heads released eight albums over the next 13 years.
They were edgy, groundbreaking, critically acclaimed and a commercial hit.
Melding rock with funk, disco, afro-beat and avant-garde.
They all studied art in college and it showed in their music videos that were in heavy rotation on MTV.
Byrne’s strange movements and mannerisms attracted most of the attention.
Which wasn’t always easy for the introverted singer. Dick Clark tried to ask him about it on American Bandstand in 1979.
Dick Clark on “American Bandstand”: Are you a shy person?
David Byrne on “American Bandstand”: I’d say…
Anderson Cooper: It seems contradictory to a lot of people, the introvert who is performing on a stage in front of thousands of people and has reached great heights.
David Byrne: It seems contradictory, but in retrospect it makes perfect sense. Your way of announcing your existence and communicating your thoughts to people is through performance, and then I can go back into my shell after that. But I would tell myself to these people, what I was thinking, what I was feeling. So when it’s your only option, it’s a lifesaver.
David Byrne’s shame returns. He was born in Scotland, but his family moved to Baltimore when he was eight years old. His accent was so thick that his classmates could barely understand him. He was an outsider, happier making music at home in his basement with a reel-to-reel tape recorder than hanging out with other kids.
David Byrne: My discomfort with social situations often meant I would focus intently on my drawing, or learning to play other people’s music, or things like that. And it goes on for ages. And kind of hyper-focused as you want. So that becomes– well, a kind of superpower.
Ultra-focused may have been a superpower, but it caused problems between Byrne and the band that flared up on tour in 1983.
David Byron: I became kind of obsessed with showing it and playing it, I think. I couldn’t have been the most pleasant person to deal with at the time.
Anderson Cooper: Demanding.
David Byrne: Yes. Yes.
Byrne took center stage, famously wearing this outrageously oversized suit.
The show was turned into a movie by director Jonathan Demme called Stop Making Sense. It is considered one of the greatest concert films of all time.
The Talking Heads made three more albums, but Byrne was increasingly branching out on his own.
David Byrne: I started to feel more comfortable as a person, writing different kinds of songs, songs that maybe weren’t too boring and weird, some fans maybe disappointed, you know? “We’re like — really weird people.” Or, “We liked that guy who was t– really struggling with himself and having a really hard time.” And I thought, “Why do you want this on me? For your own amusement, right?
In 1988 he founded a world music label.
He then released an album of Latin songs and wrote music for films, dance companies and experimental theatre.
David Byrne: I really started a different kind of musical interest.
Anderson Cooper: You’ve started collaborating with a lot of artists from different genres.
David Byrne: Yes. And– and I thought, “I want to do more of this. And by then it was almost over.
There was no official announcement, but eventually Byrne made an offhand remark to a reporter that Talking Heads had broken up. He neglected, it seems, to tell the band.
ANDERSON COOPER: The band members said that– you didn’t actually talk to them and said the band was over. That they read about it in a newspaper.
David Byrne: I don’t know about that. But, well, it could be. And I think it’s very possible that I didn’t handle it as well as I could have.
Byrne never looked back, and he followed his own beat, no matter how off-beat it was.
Ten years ago, Byrne staged a pop opera called Here Lies Love in collaboration with Fatboy Slim. It’s all about the people, Imelda Marcos, the wife of the former dictator of the Philippines. It is now scheduled to open on Broadway this summer.
When he became enamored with high school color guard teams in 2015, he ditched staging arena shows consisting of team flag spinning, weapon tossing and dancing to the pop music of Nelly Furtado and St. Vincent.
David Byrne: I thought, “Oh, it’s just going to highlight their talent and bring people together who wouldn’t normally be together.” And it wasn’t until I saw the show that I realized, “It’s– it’s not about that at all.” What it’s really delivering is this message about inclusion. That’s what this is about. They kind of expressed it.
Anderson Cooper: But isn’t it amazing that you can start doing something with one thing in mind, and yet it has a life of its own.
David Byrne: I believe– what I do and what other people do that way, it will deliver what it wants to say. But someone else might be looking at it, “What are you talking about? You don’t know what you’re doing? You don’t know why you’re doing it? You don’t know where it’s going to end? I just believe it, yeah.
He has a small studio in his New York City apartment where he tinkers with lyrics and new ideas. As he did in his parents’ basement many years ago.
David Byrne: The first stanza seems promising.
ANDERSON COOPER: Do you stop and ruminate on certain things and come back to–
David Byrne: Yeah, I might see, if I get a chorus or something. I might try, like, a chorus.
Byron is New York’s greatest resident. He has lived in the city for five decades, and it is not uncommon to see him riding his bicycle. He seems to be always moving, always searching.
His downtown office is filled with books, records and odd memorabilia he’s picked up here and there.
David Byrne: This wonderful wine from Turkmenistan.
Hidden among the chaos is a Grammy and his 1988 Oscar for composing the soundtrack to “The Last Emperor.”
David Byrne: It’s not on the lowest shelf.
Anderson Cooper: I mean, David. Really. Does the academy know about this?
David Byrne: You know when you go into someone’s office and they have all their awards–
ANDERSON COOPER: Yeah, it’s–
David Byrne: All framed around them?
ANDERSON COOPER: Yeah, or magazine covers or– you don’t– you don’t have a wall of pride.
His office is where he drives to be cheerful.
An online magazine highlights creative solutions to complex problems, from reinventing food banks in Chicago to turning French parking lots into solar farms.
Anderson Cooper: So is there reason to be cheerful?
David Byrne: Oh, yes. Yes, yes. If you get up in the morning and start scrolling through Doom on your phone or your tablet or laptop or whatever, you think, “No, no, no, no, no. The world is going to hell in a handbasket.” But– there are people and places, organizations doing things that are really making a difference to find solutions to things.
That optimism led to the hit Broadway show Byrne created and starred in American Utopia.
David Byrne: It’s actually like the performance branch of Reason to Be Cheerful. It’s really about– hope and possibility and what– how we can work together as human beings.
His old songs are mixed with new songs.
Byrne wanted the musicians to remain completely unattached. allowing them to move freely around the stage. It was less a Broadway musical, more an eccentric revival.
David Byrne: It’s this amazing feeling when– there’s music around you, when there’s a whole team that’s making music.
David Byrne: It’s not just a loner or anything like that. It is this combined thing that gives it this extra power.
Byrne’s latest theatrical experience may be his most unusual. It’s an interactive journey into his past called Theater of the Mind, created in collaboration with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Audience members receive random name tags and are led on a semi-autobiographical tour of Byrne’s memories… like a kitchen out of proportion, which makes anyone in it feel like a child.
The show is full of surprises that the audience takes part in… some of them based on neuroscience experiments. We agree to let them go, but they make you question your own perception and perhaps your memory.
Theater of the Mind ends in a replica of his parents’ attic. Like Byron’s life, the show tells a story about how our identities bend over time and how we all have the power to change.
Anderson Cooper: I like the idea that you can change your story. You can change the narrative.
David Byrne: It would be a horrible world if people didn’t change for the rest of their lives. Or they were– they were an angry person, or an upset person, or a depressed person and that’s your fate. But that is not true.
Anderson Cooper: Do you think you’ve changed that much?
David Byrne: I think, yes, I’m a very different person from when I was younger.
Anderson Cooper: Were you aware of those changes?
David Byrne: Sometimes my friends would say, “You’re a really different person than you were when I first met you. You’re a really different person now.”
ANDERSON COOPER: Anyway– did they say it nicely? Or are they screaming at the top of their lungs?
David Byrne: No. It was a wonderful way. It was, “Wow, you’ve really changed.”
Produced by Michael H. Gavshon Associate Producer, Nadeem Roberts. Broadcast Associate, Annabelle Hanflig. Edited by Daniel J. Glucksman.