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In Conversation: David Byrne and David Binder

By Boris Kachka

Sean DonnolaThe producer David Binder (left) and musician David Byrne, photographed in Brooklyn on Aug. 13, 2019.

One measure of artistic success is the ability to move the mainstream — to bring once-unimaginable ideas to the widest possible audience. By that metric, few people have been as successful as the musician David Byrne and the producer David Binder. Byrne, of course, headlined the ’80s rock band Talking Heads, which dissolved the barriers between disco and rock, conceptual art and dance pop. Even before going solo in 1989, Byrne’s side projects tentacled into disparate worlds: He collaborated with similarly polymathic artists such as Brian Eno, Robert Wilson and Twyla Tharp; he starred in the writer-director Jonathan Demme’s 1984 documentary “Stop Making Sense”; and two years later, he directed the Robert Altman-on-acid jukebox art film “True Stories.” In the ’90s and beyond, Byrne used his fame to advance and collaborate with a wide range of artists — the world-music acts on his label, Luaka Bop; the D.J. Fatboy Slim on “Here Lies Love,” their 2013 musical about Imelda Marcos; the singer St. Vincent on their joint 2012 album “Love This Giant.” His latest act of radical pop is “American Utopia,” an album and touring rock show (which debuted in 2018) that wears its theme lightly but seriously reimagines space: Mobile musicians hop across a bare stage, dancing to their own music. The work opened on Broadway last month and runs through Feb. 16.

It was inevitable that Byrne, now 67, would cross paths with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of America’s most powerful arts institutions. He wrote lyrics for the composer Philip Glass’s “The Photographer: Far From the Truth,” a mixed-media work about the 19th-century English photographer Eadweard Muybridge that premiered in the United States at BAM’s inaugural Next Wave Festival in 1983. More recently, in 2012, he designed the word-art-inspired bike racks in front of its Peter Jay Sharp Building.

Last year, David Binder, 52, was hired to succeed Joseph Melillo as the artistic director of BAM. Like Byrne, Binder has always been adept at bringing the cutting edge to the masses. Early in his career, he helped turn John Cameron Mitchell’s crazy rock-opera idea into “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” eventually bringing it to Broadway in 2014. In 1998, he placed a bet on an Argentine troupe to make “De La Guarda,” creating not only an Off Broadway money machine but a contemporary template for immersive theatre. These hits powered his dual career as a festival guru and Broadway macher: Binder was a producer of the 2007 High Line Festival (which raised funds to help develop New York’s actual High Line) as well as the guest artistic director of last year’s London International Festival of Theater. Meanwhile, he played the Broadway celebrity game with savvy, casting Sean Combs to draw crowds to 2004’s revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” James Franco to star in 2014’s “Of Mice and Men” revival and Adam Driver and Keri Russell to headline this year’s revival of “Burn This.” One of Binder’s first moves at BAM was to reimagine the Next Wave Festival, which this year replaces Byrne’s generation of mainstays (Laurie AndersonMeredith Monk) with a slate of artists never before seen on a BAM stage. Such an evolution delighted Byrne when the two men met recently, sharing ideas and anecdotes over breakfast at Morandi in New York’s West Village.

DAVID BINDER: I saw “American Utopia” last year at the Kings Theater in Brooklyn, and I just thought it was one of the great rock concerts. There isn’t a kind of existing language to define what it is — it’s unclassifiable. You’ve talked about really using the empty space ...

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah, I imagined that it might be possible to have all the musicians untethered. No mic stands, no platforms, no drums, no monitor wedges, no water bottles even, which is a little tough on me, but that’s fine. I realized that you could take contemporary dance and mix it with pop, put it in front of an audience that has never seen a contemporary dance performance in their life, and they love it.

BINDER: That’s always the fun of it. That’s what I think is so fantastic about it going to Broadway, because it allows you to knock down all these conceptions: What is commercial? What’s a nonprofit work, what’s an uptown work, what’s a downtown work? That is always the thing about you — for 30 years. I have always loved doing that, too. But I was thinking about the title: “American Utopia.” You’ve said it’s not irony; it’s an imagining of what could be.

BYRNE: That’s a pretty good summary.

BINDER: There’s a kind of optimism in your work, which is not something you traditionally associate with downtown artists of a certain era. You say very optimistic things about the future but in tension with very negative things. I think the audience is willing to go with you because they ultimately walk away with not just darkness but some sense of possibility.

T: But aren’t the things you’ve both made — pop music, Broadway shows, art films — often aimed at different audiences?

BYRNE: I don’t let the marketing drive the creative stuff, but I do think at some point, “Oh, this is going to have a limited appeal, so don’t get your hopes up.” We don’t always measure success by ticket sales, but going on Broadway, the dream for me — and I don’t think it will happen — is to eventually get an audience that’s never heard of me, never heard of Talking Heads, but has heard this is a good show.

BINDER: That’s always my goal — to get the people who wouldn’t go see a story of something like “Hedwig,” wouldn’t go see a character who had a botched sex-change operation and a punk rock score. So, David, I talked to the BAM archivists and I didn’t know this, but you were a contributor to the very first Next Wave Festival, for “The Photographer.” What was it like for you to work in that moment, before BAM had the kind of fame it would have three or four years later?

BYRNE: I knew Phil Glass and [the director] JoAnne Akalaitis from Mabou Mines, the theatre group [founded in 1970]. When I moved to New York in the mid-70s [having grown up mostly in Baltimore], I started going to see downtown theatre, and it kind of blew my mind. Mabou Mines and the Wooster Group and the experimental stage director Bob Wilson — I’d never seen anything like it. And I thought, “Well, this is as exciting for me as when I first heard rock ’n’ roll on a transistor radio as a kid.” A door opens and you go, “Look at all this, it’s possible!” I was just thrilled.

BINDER: I grew up in Los Angeles, and mostly I was exposed to touring shows: chandelier-dropping, barricade-busting big Broadway musicals via London. When I moved to New York in 1990, someone took me to BAM — a really good friend. She taught a class, and she brought them to the entire season of Next Wave: They had season tickets. And very early on I saw John Adams’s 1991 opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” [with a book by Alice Goodman]. I was actually working in William Ivey Long’s costume shop on [Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s 1990 musical] “Assassins,” and that was beyond my wildest dreams. But going to BAM completely reshaped my aesthetic.

BYRNE: Did you do some shows before “Hedwig”?

BINDER: Right around the same time, I did “De La Guarda,” and David, you were at the very first performance!

BYRNE: Could have been! An Argentine musician friend of mine, his wife was in the company. So I went with my daughter. They had these bungee cords, they would come down and pick up a member of the audience and lift them up. And my daughter was traumatized. She was really little and she said, “My dad has been abducted by a man with a hairy butt!” [All laugh]

BINDER: It was the most expensive Off Broadway show ever, and the numbers made no sense. Everyone said it was for young people and young people won’t come. It opened in June of ’98, and it lost money every single week until November, and then it clicked. This was pre-social media — now there’d be a way to talk about it. That didn’t exist. But I remember that, on the very first day, I thought, “Maybe we’re not so nuts because David Byrne is here. He knows what’s going on.”

T: Immersive theatre can be a hard sell for critics, and some artists, too.

BYRNE: Maybe when I was younger, I might have been more like, “Just let me watch.” But as I get older, I’m ready to jump in. I went to see Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Off Broadway play “Fairview” last summer, and when it comes to the point [spoiler alert] where the audience and the actors switch places, nobody moved. So I thought, “I guess I gotta do it. I gotta be the first one up there.”

T: You also dabbled in immersive theatre in “The Institute Presents: Neurosociety,” a 2016 exhibit in Silicon Valley that reframed scientific experiments as a theatrical experience. That kind of thing seems increasingly popular.

BYRNE: I think it’s more common as a kind of a marketing thing. And it becomes an Instagram kind of thing. Some business writers in the ’90s published a book called “The Experience Economy.” And they said it’s really successful if they can get shoppers to pay to go shop, which is kind of what Disneyland does.

BINDER: At the Glastonbury Festival, there’s a group called Block9. Since 2016, they’ve built this nightclub area that’s recreated a warehouse in the meatpacking district circa 1982, but like exactly — and to scale. They’re taking it back away from the marketing — making extraordinary work. But David, you’ve done so many things. Do you think there was a time when there were more artists who worked across genres? What enabled people to do that?

BYRNE: I don’t know. The audience was sometimes really small, so maybe the risk wasn’t so high. And the cost of living was cheaper. I remember the early CBGB days when suddenly all these fine artists decided they were going to be in bands, which brought a different aesthetic to music-making. And then not too many years later, it went totally the other way. Everybody who could was suddenly painting.

BINDER: It’s interesting also that now [in New York], you have [multipurpose performance venues like] the Park Avenue Armory and the Shed, but back then, BAM was the only place where large-scale work by that whole community of artists could be presented.

T: But that was a relatively small community of young artists. How do you nurture that now that BAM is a juggernaut?

BINDER: I always want the work to have the widest possible audience. Doing something like “Hedwig” on Broadway, the only thing commercial about it was that it succeeded. I feel like those kinds of boundaries and categories are all falling down, and things that are at the intersection of multiple genres are, of course, BAM’s bread and butter. But the idea of the Next Wave Festival this season is to go back to [the longtime BAM president] Harvey Lichtenstein and Joe Melillo’s original intention. So every single artist in the Next Wave Festival is brand-new to BAM.

BYRNE: It’s about time. It’s exciting. There’s a good chance everything won’t be for everyone. But there are places that have cultivated an audience who will go to see something they’ve never heard of. And that can take a little while, but then once you build up that trust, they’ll see almost whatever you put on.

BINDER: We will eventually reintroduce some of the more legacy BAM artists into Next Wave, but we’re going to try new folks for a couple of years. The things we’re looking for could probably not be done anywhere else in the city. Like this show, “What if They Went to Moscow?” by Christiane Jatahy. Half the audience goes into BAM Rose Cinemas and half goes into the Fisher theatre, and in the Fisher, they see a play inspired by Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” which is filmed with multiple cameras and screened live in the cinema. And then the audiences switch places. I’m also interested in site-specific work. New York organizations tend not to want to get out of the buildings. So we’re going to try that this fall, too.

BYRNE: So, how do you find the shows? Do you spend months going to Edinburgh Fringe and various festivals?

BINDER: I think that Joe Melillo is superhuman. He’d be like, “Oh it’s Tuesday, I’m going to Paris. I’ll be back on Thursday.” I’m not built that way. I tend to go in bigger groupings. So, this Wednesday, I’m going to Zurich, Hamburg, the Netherlands, Edinburgh, Amsterdam and London in nine days. And then that will be it for about a month. But I always feel like the New York audience does feel idiosyncratic. Just because the show is working in those cities, I don’t necessarily think it would here. David, how were the audiences different with “American Utopia?”

BYRNE: It’s pretty consistent, but occasionally we’d get surprised. In Santiago, Chile, we did a festival, and I don’t think this happened anywhere else: A large portion of the audience copied the choreography. So if we did some gesture, they would all start doing it back to us — hundreds of people. I’m going to guess it’s because Santiago has this tradition of mass movements. A number of years ago, they had these huge street protests. They were like performances. There was one where the entire group did the dance from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

BINDER: That’s how I learned to produce. Seriously! Doing street demonstrations and actions in Act Up. One time, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS hired me to produce this action about Guantánamo Bay [where the United States quarantined Haitian refugees with H.I.V. in 1993]. We staged this giant thing in Rockefeller Center, with a Statue of Liberty wrapped up in chains. Jonathan Demme was there, and I remember having this conversation with him. He was like, “I don’t know if I should get arrested.” He’s trying to work it out with me and I’m, like, 25. And he decided he would, so he did.

T: That’s collaboration! “American Utopia” is also, in a sense, about the utopian world of collaboration. That seems to define both of your careers. Does it also help keep the work fresh?

BYRNE: Oh yeah. It pushes me out of my comfort zone, the things I do by habit. I know that there are some artists who feel that collaboration betrays their vision as an artist. There are some who feel like, “My personal vision is sacred. I don’t want to dilute it.” I find that to be riskier — you have this danger of falling into the trap of only being inside yourself.

This interview has been edited and condensed.