David Byrne is always on to the next adventure

For nearly 50 years, from Talking Heads to ‘American Utopia,’ he’s charted his own path

David Byrne poses for a portrait on the set of his upcoming show "Theater of the Mind" in Denver on Aug. 13.
David Byrne poses for a portrait on the set of his upcoming show “Theater of the Mind” in Denver on Aug. 13. (Stephen Speranza/For The Washington Post)

DENVER — They have gathered for David Byrne’s funeral, sitting in a bright room facing a coffin that’s been customized to also serve as a piano. A childhood photo of the deceased rests on a stand nearby. A guest book, too. But before anyone can tear up, the coffin lid opens and up pops David Byrne. Except it’s not the wiry singer of “Psycho Killer” but a 6-foot-2 Black actor named donnie l. betts who peppers the assembled with questions: “Am I still dead? Am I still me? Am I alive again? Am I still David?”

A few rows back the real David Byrne, the white-haired singer who did indeed once front a rock band called Talking Heads, rolls into a chortle. He has seen this coffin thing many times. It still gets him.

“It’s just funny to have the actor come out of a coffin that looks like a piano,” he says. “I don’t think of it as being myself.”

Byrne is here in Denver putting the finishing touches on “Theater of the Mind,” a sprawling project that’s part installation, part performance piece. It arrives only months after he wrapped “American Utopia,” the Broadway smash that featured him, bare footed and gray-suited, singing, dancing and delivering bite-size commentaries. The production won a Tony and set a house record for weekly ticket gross at the Hudson Theatre. As is typical for Byrne, the two pieces share almost nothing stylistically.

At 70, Byrne remains an original, a recognized rock star who is just as likely to publish a book of black-and-white sketches as make a new album. In a culture driven by nostalgia, he seems allergic to the easy repeat. Over the last decade, Byrne has created a musical about Imelda Marcos set in a disco, filmed a documentary on marching band color guards, collaborated on a record with St. Vincent, launched an online news issues magazine and appeared in “John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch,” a tipsy children’s special for which he wore a blue “Frozen” dress and confessed his fear of volcanoes. What he has not done is perform with his onetime band, Talking Heads. They last played together at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2002. Jerry Harrison, the group’s multi-instrumentalist, says that he’s given up nudging Byrne to reunite.

“There’s a lot of fans who would like to see us reform, so I’m disappointed we don’t do it,” he says. “But David has always said he never wants to do something just for the money.”

“Theater of the Mind” predates “American Utopia.” Byrne and Mala Gaonkar, an investment fund manager who is also a creative writer, have been working on some version of the show since at least 2015. The production costs $4 million with Byrne’s nonprofit, the Arbutus Foundation, supplying 15 percent of the budget. It is being presented with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in 15,000 square-feet of an industrial building. Byrne will not be part of the performances but several guides — some women, some men, but all going by the name David Byrne — will usher in groups of 16 people through seven rooms that represent a different stage of life. And even if the guide character shares some personal details with the actual Byrne, “Theater of the Mind” is not overtly autobiographical. The production, he hopes, will make you contemplate not his life but the ideas that drive it.

One of “Theater of the Mind’s” main themes is how people change. The idea is peppered throughout the script and it’s a subject Byrne and Gaonkar often discuss.

“What it feels like to us is that there’s a continuity and we’re the same,” Byrne says. “Oh yeah, I have maybe some different opinions now or I wouldn’t do that anymore, but I used to do that. And then the more you think about it, the more you think, I may have the same physical body in some sense, but I’m a completely different person than I was however many years ago. There’s a real possibility that you really are a completely different person. That’s profound.”

That’s about as close as Byrne will ever get to linking his personal life to his work. He has always resisted the idea of a straight memoir (“it would be too boring”) but is conscious of what it means to be a public person with brand recognition. It’s why he hesitated, at first, to use his name for the main character of “Theater of the Mind.” That currency can be useful, he concedes, but “I want to make sure that I’m not promoting me. I’m promoting the show.”

Fittingly, “Theater of the Mind” throws curveballs at those looking for breadcrumbs of Byrne’s real history. The script finds the guide talking about being 19 and taking a brainless job as a security scanner in Glasgow, Scotland, to support his art. But the real Byrne’s family moved out of Glasgow when he was two. The guide’s mother, we learn, dabbles in painting and the prop department has provided a few of her wildly sexualized canvases. But it is actually Tom Byrne, the real Byrne’s late father, who painted as a hobby. The electrical engineer favored works done in the style of Henri Matisse.

“To me, it makes it more exciting thinking that it’s from David’s life because I respect David and I’m interested in sort of digging into that, whether or not it’s true or not,” says LeeAnn Rossi, who has worked with Byrne as a producer for a decade. “That’s kind of what the show is about anyway. What is real? And he’s been pretty clear and honest about sort of how he’s felt like he’s changed over time as a human.”

Byrne is polite and warm enough in conversation. If he doesn’t buy into a question, he doesn’t fake it and play along. He gives a quick response and waits for a subject that engages him more. He doesn’t invite probing into his personal life and tends to keep the chat going through data he’s gathered — about a place’s history, a study he read about in a magazine, or an innocuous question about your own habits. (“Did you do any cooking during the pandemic?”)

His manner, his clear lack of interest in confessionals can make it feel almost wrong to cheapen the conversation by going off the professional grid. (For the record, he divorced artist Adelle Lutz in 2004. They share one daughter and a grandson.) It also seems fruitless to push too hard to see where life merges with art. It somehow feels cleaner to leave that art open to interpretation.

It’s that type of abstract dislocation that made Talking Heads so effective. He created it with his avoidant eyes, that anxious voice, which sometimes seemed to be shouting that morning’s front page, and the jagged rhythms delivered through his Gibson 12-string. The songs were short stories, where characters discovered the holes in the American Dream (“Once in a Lifetime”) or merely tried to survive (“Life During Wartime”). And somehow Byrne managed to write one of the sweetest love songs of the 1980s (“This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)”).

A few years ago, comedian John Mulaney, a longtime fan, sent Byrne an email to tell him how much “Glass, Concrete and Stone” meant to him. The song, the opener on Byrne’s 2004 album, “Grown Backwards,” resonated when Mulaney began to take note of how early his father had to get up for work. He thought of it again when he started traveling intensely for gigs, waking before dawn for his next flight.

“And he wrote back,” Mulaney laughs, “and said, ‘It’s amazing how many songs I have about you.’ ”

This air of mystery also lets Byrne explore his own growth in a way that’s both public and private. Years ago, Byrne self-diagnosed himself as being on the autism spectrum. The suggestion came first from his friend, Darcy Lee, who ran a gift shop. She had watched the behavior others labeled odd or quirky. Huddling in the corner at parties. Disappearing from social events without a warning. One day, Lee was reading an article about Asperger’s syndrome.

“I’d never heard of it and she was just kind of like, ‘David, this is you,’ ” Byrne says. “She goes on to read about people who are fairly mildly on the spectrum. And I thought, I’m not totally that way now but a lot of those kinds of behaviors and feelings were things I totally got.”

When he was a boy, Byrne remembers a birthday party in which he simply hid in another room until it was over. And as Talking Heads found a first taste of stardom in 1977, his unapproachability came off as almost high theater — except that it was no performance. The stage, Byrne says, was the only place he could escape and feel free to express himself.

That feeling of being different began early. In Baltimore, where his family settled after emigrating — Tom Byrne, an electrical engineer, had been hired at Westinghouse — they lived in a relatively working-class neighborhood. But they got Scientific American magazine and went to political protests and art museums.

“The other kids in elementary school, they went to Ohio and thought that was really far,” says younger sister Celia Byrne, now an epidemiologist in Maryland. “We camped across the country and my parents felt like exploring America was important. We’d also go and visit relatives in Scotland.”

Music became an outlet. He played guitar. He experimented with loops and overdubs on a reel-to-reel tape machine his father set up. He kept playing when he got to the Rhode Island School of Design in 1971, eventually forming a band with classmates Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz and former Modern Lovers keyboardist Harrison. For just over a decade, from roughly 1977 to 1988, they proved capable of playing anything: funk, electronics, world beat, or four-chord rock as they went from darlings of New York’s CBGB’s scene to one of the biggest rock bands in the world.

In “Theater of the Mind,” the guide Byrne talks to an earlier version of himself.

“Maybe we just see things differently,” he says. “Differently enough that maybe you and I aren’t the same person anymore.”

It’s easy to see how this line in particular might relate to Byrne. In Denver, he politely makes suggestions to his collaborators. In Frantz’s 2020 memoir, “Remain in Love,” he is a microphone-hurling hothead who rarely, if ever, gives anyone else credit. Byrne, who has not read the book, did not dispute the portrayal.

He talks of making 1984’s “Stop Making Sense,” the Jonathan Demme concert film of the band’s carefully choreographed road show. The Byrne who oversaw the production, with its detailed lighting cues and the appearance of his iconic, oversized suit, was not the soft-spoken “DB” found in the “Theater of the Mind” rehearsals. He says he changed, in part, after working on 1986′s “True Stories” film. That production taught him to learn to trust others and delegate authority. That could also help relieve the intense pressure he felt to make everything perfect.

“Before that I thought, ‘Nobody understands what I want to do,’ ” he says today. “I have to be the boss guy. ‘No, don’t do it that way. You’ve got to do it this way. No, you f—ing idiot.’ And I might have been right but you don’t have to deal with people that way. You can sort of include people and make them part of your vision or idea.”

Does he long to make peace with Frantz and Weymouth and try one final farewell tour? No. Byrne talks of feeling physically ill from the tension while the band was recording their final album, 1988’s “Naked.” He’s pleased to hear that Harrison, who he gets along with and has seen “American Utopia” on Broadway, has been exploring the 1980 Talking Heads record, “Remain in Light,” with a band that includes guitarist Adrian Belew. Of the anger directed at him by Frantz, he remains perplexed.

“Like I said, I know that I wasn’t the easiest person to work,” he says. “But I guess a part of me just says, that was a long time ago. Can you just move on? Surely you’ve got better things to do.”

That Byrne has shied away from the expected has cost him fans in the past. Just after Talking Heads ended, he recorded “Rei Momo,” a masterful and danceable, Latin-inspired album that included Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco. On the ensuing tour, he played just two Talking Heads songs. Neither was “Psycho Killer” or the band’s lone, top-10 hit, “Burning Down the House.” A Latin-inspired album may not have appealed to the Patrick Batemans of the world, but at least it was music. Soon Byrne moved on to lectures centered around PowerPoint presentations. He published a book of photos. He began to show his art in galleries and museums.

The awkward, withdrawn art school kid somehow also became the grand collaborator who Pitchfork once described as someone who would partner with another artist if you promised him “a half-empty bag of Doritos.” “That wasn’t a compliment,” Byrne wrote in “How Music Works,” his 2012 book, “through, to be honest, it’s not that far from the truth.”

He made music with Fatboy Slim and Selena. He launched projects that allowed him to indulge his own curiosities. In 2016’s “Contemporary Color” film, Byrne wanted to create a new appreciation for color guards, the sabre-tossing crews that usually accompany marching bands. He recruited Nelly Furtado, Nico Muhly and public radio host Ira Glass for the project to collaborate with different color guards for a filmed performance. There is also Reasons to Be Cheerful, an online magazine that features stories written by Byrne and others about how problems, from disease spread to food shortages, were solved through new ideas.

The thread that runs through all of these projects is his desire to make art that people don’t immediately think of as art. Or to bring elements from one discipline or arena into another. In “American Utopia,” a production packed with familiar staples of his catalogue, Byrne took particular pride in collaborating again with choreographer Annie-B Parson.

“I’d worked with her for a while and really like her work and I thought, ‘These audiences would never go to one of her shows,’ ” he says. “You just move it into a different context and it takes on a whole different meaning. People can go, ‘Oh I get it now.’ ”

And something inside Byrne changed. He became more comfortable with himself, and in turn, his rock star past. He had the Asperger’s epiphany and learned to adapt, no longer needed to flee social settings. There would still be things he resisted — politely dismissing Mulaney’s suggestion he wear a “Stop Making Sense”-esque oversized suit jacket in the Netflix special, for example — but he also learned the joy he can bring by embracing some of his past. In “American Utopia,” the crowd would rise, dancing as soon as he began plucking the D string that marks the opening of “Burning Down the House.”

“Uplifting, exhilarating, thought provoking, poetic,” said actor Jude Law after seeing the show one night. “It’s very hard to capture that kind of joyfulness.”

In Denver, Byrne arrives for a recent rehearsal just before noon, wheeling through the back door of the factory space. There are no green M&M demands on his rider, but for this production he did require that his black Tern folding bike be shipped. (The last car Byrne owned was a Citroën that he drove in the late 1980s when he lived in Los Angeles.) The crew is already assembled, working out the kinks in the elaborate computer program meant to trigger effects in each room, talking through budget and audience projections, making updates to the script. When Byrne arrives, he first huddles with Charlie Miller, the executive director of the DCPA’s Off-Center program, and then with Gaonkar, who rolls in on a bicycle he rented her.

“Theater of the Mind,” which runs through Dec. 18, mashes the theatrical, audience participatory experience of a “Sleep No More” with a narrative of a life in reverse. There are perception-bending brain games, serious moments of contemplation and bits also meant to entertain. In one room, at an AstroTurfed staging of the David Byrne character’s 10-year-old birthday party, Lynyrd Skynyrd plays on a small radio as audience members don goggles and try to toss metal washers into an oddly elusive bucket. The activity says something about perception — the goggles were developed by a scientist at M.I.T. — but is also just simple fun. Byrne breaks into laughter as he watches the newcomers in the group discover how hard it is to throw a washer into the bucket. And then, after they’ve adjusted, how difficult it is to adjust back to “normal.”

“If you are worried that this change is permanent, that we have completely messed up your eyesight, I know I was, well don’t worry, just keep tossing the washers,” the guide tells the group.

Byrne is detail-oriented, keeping a pencil in his left hand to scribble notes on paper. He does not oversee as much as participate in the walk through, wanting to understand what it will feel like for an audience member. Over two days of observation, he never raises his voice, never snaps.

The weeks in Denver will end when “Theater of the Mind” gets running. Then Byrne will be onto his next project. His home remains Manhattan, where he works out an office space that’s packed with old tapes, books and even an Oscar. (Best original score, “The Last Emperor,” 1987.)

In that space on a Tuesday in July, Byrne’s Ramis, a full-size bike he’s modified, is across from the door. Even on winter nights after “American Utopia,” he would emerge from the stage door, helmet strapped on, to head home on his two-wheeler. In Denver, I had asked to ride with him one morning to rehearsal but he had a problem with a wheel and ended up renting an electric scooter for the 3 1/2 mile commute from his temporary apartment. He makes good on the rain check back in New York and we start out down Grand Street in the heat of the late afternoon rush hour.

Keeping up with him can be deceivingly daunting. On this day, he wore no helmet, only a Panama hat, and a pair of Mary Janes without socks. We scooted past convenience stores and a fish market, turned onto FDR Drive and the Con Edison power plant.

“I love the feeling of floating with the bike,” he says during the ride. “Not that I’m doing anything fancy. I love that I kind of have agency.”

I fumble with my phone at red lights, trying to record what he’s saying.

At one stop, he tells me how he had struggled to write music during the pandemic but now had a stack of lyrics on his desk, waiting for him to pick up his Quinto guitar and compose. I asked if he could ever leave New York. I imagined all of the activity, the noise, the action sparked his creativity. “I always tell myself, wouldn’t it be nice to live someplace a little less fast, a little less aggressive,” he says. “But I haven’t done it.”

Along the East River, we ride down the path next to the water. There are no more cars, but the pavement is congested with pedestrians and other bikers. Byrne doesn’t seem to notice. He flicks his bell occasionally, but most of the time he just weaves in and out like a slalom skier. I’ve put my phone in my pocket by this point, too focused on steering to ask more questions. He is up ahead, floating across concrete. I just want to make sure I can keep up with the man in the Panama hat.


An earlier version of this article misspelled Chris Frantz’s name as Franz. This article has been corrected.

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