While David Byrne will always be known first and foremost for his music, he's also incredibly skilled at creating iconic visual images to accompany his sound, from the big suit in the Talking Heads concert movie "Stop Making Sense" to his immersive disco-influenced musical about Imelda Marcos "Here Lies Love."
So it's fitting that Byrne's latest project Contemporary Color would involve color guard, a competitive sport found in many high schools and colleges that features dance routines with props like flags, rifles and sabers, typically set to prerecorded music.
Byrne first discovered the sport when he lent a song to a performance team in 2008. He quickly became a fan and thought it would be interesting to set performances to live music. He commissioned friends like St. Vincent, Nelly Furtado and tUnE-yArDs to write songs and pair up with teams. They'll all perform at the Barclays Center this weekend.
amNewYork spoke with Byrne.
What has the process of working with the color guard troupes been like?
The teams have their routines for this year already worked up. They created them for the international competition in Dayton in April. So we didn't ask for new routines to be created, but rather we musicians made music with the existing routines in mind -- same length, similar vibe, etc.
How did you pair musicians and troupes?
By looking at the team's performances and seeing which pairing had a similar feeling. It was very intuitive -- but sometimes it was pretty easy. Pairing St. Vincent with her team, whose program is called "Lunatic" and is about OCD -- our daily issues and not just those who are locked up -- it seemed, ummm, natural as [she] has a slightly cool, crazy and mesmerizing persona in many of her videos and her live show.
How much input did the troupe have into your song and how much did you have into its routine?
I got some feedback from the director of my team when I sent my demo and then I went back and made some changes to my song. … They didn't tell me what to write about or anything like that (though I did write from the POV of an imagined outsider, similar to a lot of the guard kids, who feels ostracized and somewhat put upon but draws on a great source of strength.)
I did ask if I could at some point step off the stage and join their routine but wisely they said, "too dangerous, there are rifles and sabers flying through the air!" So my direct influence has been minimal.
Is it very different writing a song for a color guard performance than writing for one of your albums?
This one has more restrictions -- but then I LOVE restrictions! This one has a set length, and a feeling and mood that has already been established, so one has to try and work within that, which is fun, MUCH better than having unlimited freedom!
What collaborations are you most excited to see?
I've secretly seen some in a virtual way -- by playing the demos over rough videos of the teams rehearsing -- it's beautiful to see. What I'm really looking forward to is the bump up in energy and excitement when the teams and musicians actually come together to play. I think it will be a huge difference from seeing guard with prerecorded music. The energy from the teams will inspire the musicians too, I suspect. It'll all be quite special, insane,and may never happen again.