The TED Interview
The music of David Byrne’s mind
November 17, 2022
[00:00:00] Steven Johnson:
Welcome to the TED Interview. I'm your host, Steven Johnson. Looking back on this season of the show, we've gone deep into the creative process of one of today's greatest novelists.
[00:00:17] Jennifer Egan:
My conscious ideas are not good enough. Frankly, they're not. So I've gotta get out from under those and get to something that surprises even me.
[00:00:26] Steven Johnson:
We've explored what understanding the deep cosmos tells us about the condition of our humanity.
[00:00:33] Chanda Prescod-Weinstein:
We can't actually predict where these ideas are, are going to come from. And in some sense, the interesting scientific questions that come up, come up through conflict.
[00:00:42] Steven Johnson:
And we've dreamed of a future world without pandemics.
[00:00:47] Mark Smolinski:
If we start thinking differently about how we're monitoring the animal health, the environmental health, and other issues. We could start getting to predicting and preventing these outbreaks without any human disease, and that's when it gets really exciting.
[00:01:00] Steven Johnson:
But for our last episode of this season, we have something really special for you. One of the most original and influential artists of the past 50 years, David Byrne. David Byrne is probably best known for being a founding member of the Talking Heads, but he's had an equally full solo career, including collaborations with the likes of Brian Eno and St. Vincent. His work has been staged on Broadway with the show, American Utopia, and he scored film for features like The Last Emperor.
He's written the terrific book, How Music Works, which we're gonna talk about today quite a bit. One of his latest creations is an immersive theater experience in Denver called “Theater of the Mind”. David is the perfect guest to wrap up a season that has taken us to so many different domains, in part because he's someone who has really refused to settle into just one creative field, and he's truly one of the great collaborators in modern culture. That's next on the TED interview.
[00:02:13] Steven Johnson:
David Byrne. Welcome to the TED interview.
[00:02:16] David Byrne:
Thank you. Thank you for, uh, inviting me to do this.
[00:02:19] Steven Johnson:
I've been just rereading your book, How Music Works, and you tell a story about the early days of the Talking Heads in New York, where you talk about this kind of subtractive approach to coming up with the, the sound and the, and the style and the presentation of the band.
Just quoting from it, you say, “It was a performance style defined by negatives. No show-offy solos, no rock moves or poses. No pomp and drama, no rock hair. It was mathematics. When you subtract all that unwanted stuff from something art or music, what do you have left?” And I thought that was just a fascinating way to think about creativity. Like what can you remove to make something more interesting? Is that, is that an approach that you've tried at other points in your career, or was it somehow uniquely suited to the early days of Talking Heads?
[00:03:05] David Byrne:
Uh, I'm sure I've tried it in other areas as well. The idea is that don't adopt any received or existing ways of doing something, or ways of presenting something or executing something because that won't necessarily be yours.
Um, not that you have to, not that one has to completely reinvent the wheel all the time. I find it's often really good to strip something down and go, “Let's start with the things that, that feel like the, the basic things that you can feel comfortable with,” and it doesn't stay that way with music. Various things got added back in, but only when I found, discovered a way to do it, uh, that felt, felt like it was, uh, integral and authentic to myself. Uh, there was a period where I didn't really move around much on stage, and then eventually I, little by little, I found like, “Oh, there's ways of moving that, that feel integral to me. That don't look like I'm just imitating some rock stars that I've seen before.”
[00:04:15] Steven Johnson:
Staying with those early days of, of the Talking Heads, of CBGBs and, and other venues in downtown Manhattan. When people saw this kind of stripped-down performance style that was missing all of those ingredients, was it, was it confusing for those audiences? Were they like, “Well, where's the rock hair and where are the solos?” Or was that world already so open to new ideas that they immediately, you know, found a place for it?
[00:04:43] David Byrne:
The downtown New York world was a, was and is, well what's left of it, a very small world. But yes, it was very accepting and it was very accepting across the disciplines. You had a lot of artists coming to CBGB to see various bands and uh, which was kind of interesting. Um, and there were artists that we admired, and we felt were kind of influential or we admire them or thought highly of them. They were all very accepting of like, “Here's somebody who's doing something that's a little bit different.”
[00:05:20] Steven Johnson:
CBGB’s is right at the beginning of How Music Works. Um, you talk about the physical space of that, of that room. I saw some shows there before they closed it down in the, in the early nineties when I was first arrived in New York. And it was a, it was a really interesting space, and you, you have a wonderful riff about just how music is in a way, that kind of non-musicians may not realize, is often crafted for the, for the kinds of rooms that it is being performed in. And you talk a little bit about how the early days of Talking Heads were shaped by the physical environment of CBGB. There's been this interesting architectural element that runs through your work, and now you have a new project that is very much about moving through physical space, um, uh, Theater of the Mind. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
[00:06:08] David Byrne:
The Theater of the Mind Project, which is running in Denver, it's an immersive theatre project that's based on a lot of, uh, neuroscience experiments and perceptual phenomena. We started with those as a basis, and then eventually we added a story that takes you through, from one experience to another.
So there's a reason why you're going through, and, uh, the physical structure is it's in a warehouse that's been divided into seven rooms.Aand an audience, a 16-member audience, goes into the first room, they're met by a guide, and that guide, an actor, takes them through all the rest of the rooms. And 15 minutes later, uh, another group of 16 comes into the first room, is met by another actor, and that goes on all day.
And the actor plays a person who is telling you about their life and things that happen to their life that they, maybe their perception of it or their memory of certain things is a, a little bit different than they thought they were. And so they take you back to those places in their life, the rooms where something happened, whether it was the family kitchen or the backyard, or uh, a disco where the person was a DJ. And you see how their perception of things is very malleable and not entirely accurate.
[00:07:38] Steven Johnson:
[laughter] And is it based on your own life?
[00:07:39] David Byrne:
Uh, yes and no. There's a, a, a couple of things that I borrowed from my own life to help with the story. The guide's name is David, and we use a childhood picture of me as a childhood picture of the, uh, character. But other than that, I was never a DJ. The other bits of the story that happened, they're just completely made up. But of course, people tend to think that it's me being autobiographical. And it probably doesn't hurt if they think that.
[00:08:16] Steven Johnson:
And tell me about the neuroscience side of it. So how is that integrated into the, the project?
[00:08:22] David Byrne:
Uh, a lot of it is perceptual phenomena, how we perceive and scale the world, how we hear things. We don't hear, all hear things the same. We don't see things the same. How we perceive things changes based on context, attention, how we prioritize motion over static things. In fact, static things can just completely disappear from our view. They're just not there. All those sorts of things. They're not like cutting-edge things, but when you put them all together, they add up to a way of kind of how, how we build our identity out of our memories of these events and how we perceive things. And you realize that our identities are, therefore, not entirely accurate either.
[00:09:15] Steven Johnson:
Yeah. So fascinating. Well, thinking about other kinds of theater experiences that you've been involved with, you know, you've just come off this incredible run with American Utopia, and I was watching the Spike Lee film version that you did over the weekend. And I think because I had just reread How Music Works, I was really paying attention to the choreography, uh, because you'd written about that a little bit in, in, in that book.
And so there's a great story in How Music Works about, um, this kind of emergent algorithmic dance, uh, choreography strategy that I think Noémie Lafrance, um, introduced. Uh, and I was curious, like, you know, what was the process for coming up with the, the moves for American Utopia?
[00:09:58] David Byrne:
To begin with for, for that tour and that Broadway show, we figured out a way to have all the musicians, every one of them, be completely wireless.
[00:10:10] Steven Johnson:
[00:10:10] David Byrne:
So no one was fixed on stage, not the drummers or the keyboard player. The people who were usually kind of stuck in one spot, they could all move around. That meant that the drumming had to be dispersed amongst six players, uh, ‘cause one person can't be carrying a drum kit.
Uh, but it worked. So that meant, okay, now we have this completely stripped down, empty playing field for in which the musicians can act on, which is kind of a, a dream come true for a choreographer. You're now talking about not just some dancers dancing in front of the band or something like that, but everybody participates.
So we worked with a choreographer, Annie-B Parson, and, uh, I've worked with her before. She is very good at teaching people kind of choreography that she has developed that is within their means to perform, but also working with non-dancers to turn their own movement into a kind of choreography. And that's what I'm, I'm used to doing that for years and years now, where I, I realize that this music or something makes me wanna move this way. So you kind of formalize that and “Okay, when that happens, then you should move that way.” And so it's almost as if the, the music is telling you what, what way to move. And I find that works, that works pretty well. You just have to take, take notes on it, either by videotape or some other means. To, to me, it worked really well.
[00:11:53] Steven Johnson:
Yeah, I would say so. And well, how would you describe your, your own movement style?
[00:12:00] David Byrne:
Well, it's a little bit stiff. I mean, a little bit odd and maybe jerky or, I don't think I've ever tried to move like someone else. I've developed a kind of vocabulary of my own. Um, it's not obviously sexy or anything like that in a, in a kind of conventional way. I've worked something out that works for me.
[00:12:25] Steven Johnson:
It's hard to think of an artist over the last few decades who has had such a wide range of collaborations with such an eclectic mix of people. So it, it seems pretty clear from the outside at least, that this is, this is one of your gifts, right? You're, you're an incredibly gifted songwriter and performer, but you also seem to have a, a talent as a collaborator, and I'm curious, you know, what goes into that skill?
[00:12:49] David Byrne:
Well, yeah, I'm very curious how other people work. How they see things, and you collaborate with them. You kind of find that out. You find out what their creative process is and how they work, and so you kinda learn a little bit more about how to do things than the rut that you kind of tend to get into.
I also find laying out the parameters for the collaboration is pretty important right off the bat. And you say, “Okay, I'm gonna do this. Uh, I have my little area that I'm working in, uh, whether it's like I'm writing the lyrics and singing and you're doing the music, or something like that, or someone on co-writing the script to the Theater of the Mind.”
But then, as with all theatre projects, the director has, uh, input, but the rules are very clear in the theater: director cannot write the script. Only the writers can make the changes, but the director can make suggestions. It's a really smart way of drawing borders and, and making that really clear because when it works, the director, let's say, can make suggestions, but they're not binding.
And so the writer kind of feels a little bit of freedom to try those suggestions, but knowing that if they don't work or if the writer doesn't like them, they can reject them and go back to the way it was. I sometimes enjoy working with other musicians, uh, especially if they can tell me pretty clearly what it is they're after. You know, if people are really vague, it makes it very, very hard, but if they can, even a little bit, that really, really helps.
[00:14:36] Steven Johnson:
One of the things that you, you've written about and has been such an interesting part of your career is the, the relationship between new technologies and the, and the form and the content of, of music. There's some great chapters in How Music Works where you talk about that. And, and this was, in some cases, material that I was familiar with ‘cause I've written about that as well. But there were a number of things that I had not heard before that just blew me away. One of them is the, the way kind of club music in the seventies and early eighties was transformed by the introduction of these 12-inch final singles because of the size of the groove. The actual physical groove on, on, on the records changed the kind of music that you could produce in those venues. Can you explain that history?
[00:15:23] David Byrne:
So a vinyl record has a groove etched into it by a, uh, a thing called a cutting wave. And, uh, there's a little needle that vibrates as it's cutting this groove into the record.
And it's a groove, it's a spiral. It's a very, very long spiral that goes around and around and around and around until it gets to the middle of the record. Um, and then when you put your player, your needle down on it, the it, it responds to those little, uh, vibrations or the little, uh, changes in the groove, and that needle vibrates, and then that's translated into the music that, that you hear that's amplified and all that.
So base frequencies, uh, lower frequencies take up more of the vibration of the needle in the cutting and in the groove than do high frequencies. So, for example, when very early records and cylinders and things like that were recording jazz groups, the lower instruments, like the bass drum and uh, the tuba and things like that, that were in those groups, basically they, they couldn't handle it.
It would make the, the needle, the playback needle on your player jump right outta the groove because it was a bigger change in the groove. So they would actually change the music. They would say, “Okay, you have to step to the back. We, we’re gonna make the bass drum and the, the bass quieter in this music than what it really is.”
But when, uh, DJs and others started coming up with these 12-inch mixes, what were called 12-inch mixes, they would take basically a single, maybe a slightly extended single and play that over a, a disc the size of a whole LP, a 12-inch disc, which meant that the grooves could be wider and further. So the whole record could be louder and the base, the low end, the base, could be more prominent.
So you got suddenly this club music where the, the base was really kind of kicking and the kick drum and all that. And that became much more of a thing. And then of course, then when, when digital recordings came in, there was no limit to how, what you could do with the bass.
[00:17:49] Steven Johnson:
The other thing that I thought in terms of music technology that was so striking, and I'm sure somebody's written a whole book on this, but I never really thought about it, is how revolutionary cassettes were. Audio cassettes.
And this is a technology that's really gone. I mean, my kids do not know what a tape cassette looks like at all, and they know what a vinyl record looks like, but cassettes were a huge, you know, kind of icon of my childhood. But you know, you describe a number of the things that, that cassettes made possible. They were really in, in a sense, the kind of a glimpse of what was coming with digital music.
[00:18:26] David Byrne:
Oh, very much so, yeah. Oh, cassettes were, um, very tiny reel-to-reel tapes, uh, that you didn't have to fuss with. You just popped the thing into the player and you're good to go. You don't have to, like, wind the tape around right reels or anything like that.
But what was really special about this and what really scared the record industry was that not only could you play music on the cassettes, you could record it yourself. And you know, people came out with boom boxes and things so you could record music off the radio, which, which I did. If I heard something I loved, I would just press record and go, “What is that?”
And I would go out often and buy that record. It was actually helping us discover more music. Um, but then you, and you had people like me and many others, uh, making mixtapes. So what would now be called playlists?
[00:19:19] Steven Johnson:
[00:19:20] David Byrne:
Uh, the time was limited. I think you could get like 90 minutes on a, on a cassette. You'd put the songs that kind of fit a particular mood, like a bunch of songs for dancing or songs for kind of late at night or songs that you would send to a special someone as a kind of message about “This is what I love. I hope you like it too.” That kind of thing.
[00:19:43] Steven Johnson:
And then it makes the Walkman possible too, right? So then you have that kind of personal, always on ambient kind of sound following you around because you've got this, you couldn't do that. You couldn't carry around a vinyl record player.
[00:19:55] David Byrne:
And Sony came out with the, the Walkman, which was kind of the analog precursor to the iPod.
[00:20:04] Steven Johnson:
[00:20:05] David Byrne:
And so you had your own private music experience, something that people are really used to now, but then, music was always a public thing. It was playing either on a boombox or over a stereo or in a car or whatever. It was always kind of broadcast in public. And now it became private, which is a very different way of perceiving and kind of consuming music.
[00:20:31] Steven Johnson:
There's also, uh, kind of a history here about the early days of sampling, which you were involved with, um, in the collaboration with, with Brian Eno, my Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
Um, and I, I've always loved this story. I actually wrote about this story in one of my books where Eno kind of moves to New York and he's used to BBC radio, you know, Radio One and Radio Two, and he turns on the radio in New York and there are, there's a crazy person like kind of ranting on the radio and he thinks, “Oh my gosh, this is very unusual. There's a crazy person ranting on the radio. I must record this voice.”
And then he lives there for a little longer and realizes that the radio is just filled with crazy people ranting, uh, in New York City. And so some of those kind of, that found audio that you both collected in that period becomes kind of interlaced into, into that record, which is, you know, one of the points of origin for, for sampling. What I didn't know was that, those, that kind of preacher style that is in a lot of those, um, in a lot of that record influenced your own vocals on Once in a Lifetime.
[00:21:35] David Byrne:
Oh, absolutely. I mean, um, I would listen to some of the radio preachers, um, who were ranting. The good ones are very musical. It's, uh, it's like a kind of poetry that really is in some space between kind of text and music.
Their voice is very repetitive. Um, it has a cadence. It's very musical. So I, yeah, I realized that if I could imagine myself as a preacher and I just in my loft in Lower East Side and just start ranting on my own, and pretending, kind of acting that out, where would that go? So I started doing that and then kind of writing down all the phrases that came to me. And then, yeah, that became the verses of that song.
[00:22:22] Steven Johnson:
I did a conversation years ago with Eno where he talked about this practice that maybe he originated with, with you in the studio, with the Talking Heads, I don't know. But in his later kind of career as a producer with U2 or Coldplay or whatever, when the band comes into the studio, And they've just come off their tour and they've been playing the same songs over and over again.
He does this routine where he has them all play different instruments where he is like, “Okay, Bono, you're playing the drums now and you know, The Edge, you're, you're playing the keyboards.” Whatever. His argument about it is that they sound much worse in an empirical way. You know, Bono is not a good drummer or whatever it happens to be, but there's something about that experience of playing an instrument that you’re not a virtuoso at, um, that kinda liberates the band to make a new sound. And, and I, I always thought that was a great kind of lesson. Like even if you are an incredible guitarist, like, carve out time to play the drums badly, just to explore the kind of possibility space in the, in the studio. Is that, is that something that, that you've done?
[00:23:22] David Byrne:
Yeah. Yeah. Uh, we do, we've done that. We've done it with Eno and with other people as well. Um, obviously you don't actually want something to sound bad. Uh, so if the drumming is really bad, that's sort of not gonna work so well. But what you can sometimes do is like, “If I boom over and play a keyboard part, I'll try and come up with a keyboard part that's within my abilities, uh, that I can do. It might be very, a very limited and simple part, but it'll be, uh, but I can play that well.” Same things with, say, a keyboard player who picks up a guitar, they can probably figure out how to play something, something relatively simple, and yeah, the, the good thing is sometimes you'll come up with things that a keyboard player or a guitar player would not come up with by themselves.
[00:24:11] Steven Johnson:
[00:24:22] Steven Johnson:
Are there any new technologies in the, in the studio, in, in the music world right now that you're particularly interested in? New electronic instruments and new recording techniques? Anything that is potentially as, uh, as interesting as those early synthesizers or the cassette tape?
[00:24:39] David Byrne:
Oh, there's all sorts of thing—sort of programs and software things that come out. I haven't used them, but there's, there's kind of these vocal eliminator, um, kinds of algorithms or software, uh, that will strip a voice off of a song which allows someone doing, who wants to be sampling the song to kind of grab a piece of the music without having the voice in. And there's other ones where they can take an instrument that's already recorded and change the chord structure of it.
I mean, those things are, yeah, to me, are just amazing. They're, I mean, the, the first one allows people to sample music that they wouldn't otherwise be able to sample, but it's not like there's been a shortage of things to sample. Uh, it'll just kind of open that up even further.
I mean, I use the kind of computer to record a lot of things, but I find that my initial writing takes just with kind of pen and pencil and, and an instrument. Uh, it often starts that way because the software tends to lead you to make music that is easy to make with that software.
[00:25:56] Steven Johnson:
Right. Uh, that's interesting.
[00:25:58] David Byrne:
No surprise. No surprise. Uh, so if it makes everything in a 4-4 rhythm, that is very repetitive, well, that's kind of where you’re led. And if you want to do something a little bit outside of the box or a little bit different than that, that's a little bit more work. So you might not do it. But if you kind of do that ahead of time and know that that's what you wanna do, um, then you've kind of, uh, escaped the software trap.
[00:26:29] Steven Johnson:
Yeah, you had a great point about that in the book about the, the kind of the tyranny of the click track that, you know, it really does, if you're working with digital audio tools, it really is a lot easier if it is recorded to a very rigorous, like click track where it's a certain number of beats per minute, and that way you can cut and move things around really easily, but it’s… You're then locked into this very mechanical rhythm that you can, can change the music that you make.
[00:26:55] David Byrne:
Yes, it does. And, and you. You can hear it in older recordings that didn't have click tracks. The, the band will kind of speed up, the group will kind of speed up, or they'll slow down just before a change happens or something like that. It's almost imperceptible, but it has kind of that, that has an emotional effect.
[00:27:19] Steven Johnson:
David, do you find that, um, these new technologies as they come about, are they changing your actual creative process?
[00:27:26] David Byrne:
Uh, they must be. All I can say is they must be that, uh, we, even without realizing it, I think we respond to, uh, the context around us, whether it be economic or technological or, or architectural, or social or whatever it is. Um, so yes, if the technology of music distribution is different, I, I can't help but think that people slowly and incrementally start making different kinds of music that at least they, they hope works better in that format, on that platform.
Um, I know with streaming, there was, I don't think so much now, but there was a period where artists were making records with like 30 tracks on, uh, because that would get them more, kind of, streaming points. Um, they were kind of trying to game the, the algorithm. And I think eventually, you know, the, the streaming platforms said, “Uh oh. No, no, no, no, no. We're not gonna let you get away with this.” But, okay. Um, there's also, at least on streaming, um, a lot of artists have said that pick, and, and listeners have said that the song really has to grab your attention within the first 15 seconds.
Otherwise, it's just easy. You just skip to the next one, which you wouldn't do if you put on a record or some other kind of thing. You, it would be a little bit of extra effort to move, to move to the next song. Uh, so you have people writing songs that kind of intentionally try to come, put the hook and the most kind of catchy part right at the beginning
[00:29:22] Steven Johnson:
Lot of Pink Floyd songs would not have done well in that, in that environment.
[00:29:26] David Byrne:
Nope. Nope. Exactly. Yeah.
[00:29:30] Steven Johnson:
What is your general sense of the overall music ecosystem right now, which is, you know, shaped by technology and by digital distribution and streaming and all that stuff? Do you feel like we are at a particularly healthy point in terms of musical careers and the creation of music? Uh, was there a golden age that we've left behind?
[00:29:53] David Byrne:
Um, it seems to me that now there's just as much creativity as ever. There's an incredible amount of, uh, interesting and creative music being made by artists all over the world. That's really exciting. But at the same time, I think in some ways it's harder for kind of emerging musicians to get noticed, partly because there's so many of them now. It’s easier to record music than it was before, so there's just a lot of it.
Yeah, the field is very crowded. And unless you are kind of the handful of really, really successful artists, it's pretty hard to make a living doing it. I think it's harder to make a living doing it than it was before. That said, you know, musicians can be pretty creative about how they do that too.
[00:30:51] Steven Johnson:
It seems like it's, unless you really want to play live shows all the time, it's hard. It's harder to make a living as a, as a musician just releasing albums and, and not being on the road constantly.
[00:31:03] David Byrne:
I would say so, yes. It's hard, it's hard to make a living doing that. Um, unless you become really successful, or you're writing songs for pop artists or all these other things, or, you know, writing songs for commercials or scores for TV or whatever it might be. Uh, but just kind of doing your own music and recording it and releasing it, it's, that's, yeah. Streaming and all that doesn't pay that well. So it's pretty hard.
[00:31:34] Steven Johnson:
Yeah. I can't remember if it, it was some producer, I think maybe it was Steve Albini or something like that, was writing about how the one thing we forget is how hard it was to get to the point where you could release an album and get it distributed widely in 1970 or 1975.
[00:31:50] David Byrne:
[00:31:51] Steven Johnson:
So there's so many great bands that literally never recorded an album because it was just too complicated to do that.
[00:31:56] David Byrne:
Exactly. And you needed funding, usually from a record company to, to record an album. Now, you don't. You can record it on your laptop and it can sound just as good as a record that was recorded in a, you know, expensive studio back in the day. So that, on the face of it, sounds really good. So you have this glut of really professional-sounding songs and music and recordings out there. But then the question is how do they get noticed?
[00:32:28] Steven Johnson:
Yeah. Two last questions for you on slightly different topics. Um, one of which is about bicycles. I feel like it has become over the years, a kind of a ritual of becoming a New Yorker. You know you're a New Yorker when you've finally had the opportunity to spot David Byrne riding a bike around lower Manhattan, somewhere like that. It's just, you've been a big advocate for biking and, and particularly in urban spaces. We're going through a bit of a renaissance with that right now. Um, just, I'd love to hear you describe why that is, is such an important part of, uh, urban life for you.
[00:33:05] David Byrne:
Wow. Uh, I've been using a bike as my principal means of transportation in New York for a long time now. I've found that it was incredibly efficient unless you were going long distances. Um, it was really efficient. You had to be, you had to be really careful and aware of traffic. Less so now, now there are more bike lanes.
[00:33:31] Steven Johnson:
[00:33:31] David Byrne:
It’s a little bit safer. You still have to watch out for car doors or people making turns and pedestrians walking in front of you and all the various things. But now at least there's bike lanes that didn't exist in the past. Um, yeah, so I find not only is it efficient, um, it, to me it just feels good, the feeling of kind of being self-guided, kind of in control of where I want to go and how I want to get there, and I can, for example, I had like a doctor's appointment on the Upper East Side.
I live in Chelsea, so it's, yeah, I don't know, maybe 40 blocks or something in across town, and I know that bike… I know exactly how long it'll take me to get there. I couldn't ride a bike that day, and so I had to take a cab. And the cab took like half again as long as going on a bike just because Midtown traffic is horrible, horrible.
Um, that might not be true in every city, but I recently for a Theater of the Mind, I spent a lot of time in Denver. Denver has good bike lanes and Denver itself is pretty flat, so it's pretty easy to get, get around there. I recently got an electric bike which I don't use all the time, but if I'm going to somewhere kind of far in Brooklyn, uh, and I live in Manhattan or in Queens or someplace like that, I'll use the electric bike. Uh, and that may just makes it less daunting and more likely that I will say, “Oh yeah, yeah, going over the bridge is no big deal.” Um, yeah, so it's, it just expands the, the radius of how far I can go.
[00:35:23] Steven Johnson:
Last question for you is about another project. Um, in addition to the Broadway shows and the albums and the movies, uh, you started a website, kind of a, a news service on some level, um, called Reasons to Be Cheerful a number of years ago, and it's going strong. You actually just announced a new kind of subscription program, which you can talk about, but what's the origin story of that? And, and tell us what you're up to with that in this latest iteration.
[00:35:51] David Byrne:
Wow. I sort of started doing it for myself. It was before the, before Trump got elected, way before the pandemic, but I discovered that, uh, I'd wake up in the morning and look at the news and get angry or depressed or frustrated as probably a lot of us do. And uh, I thought, “Okay, I need an antidote to this. This is not good for my health. It's not good for my atti—attitude towards the rest of the world, et cetera.”
So I started saving, uh, news articles about people who'd found solutions to things. First, I just started doing it myself and writing about these things myself. And then, uh, a few years ago, kind of made it official, hired writers and editors and web designers and, you know, the whole thing, thing. So now there's a new article researched and discovered by our various writers. Every weekday there's a new story. So it's incredible that, that there's that many stories that are kind of positive.
Our br—our brains are biased towards negative stories. Uh, so it's a little bit of an uphill battle to get people to read about positive stuff or solutions. Uh, but it's kind of working. It's kind of working.
[00:37:12] Steven Johnson:
Yeah. Yeah. It seems like the least interesting thing to people innately, and in terms of the news media are stories of incremental progress, you know. People like to hear stories of gradual decline and terrible calamities or massive breakthroughs.
[00:37:31] David Byrne:
Yeah, yeah. Cure for cancer or something like that. But when you just go—
[00:37:33] Steven Johnson:
Yeah. That’ll make the front page.
[00:37:35] David Byrne:
We just go, “This country or this town has found a way to whatever be energy sustainable in a way that other places could emulate if they chose to do so.” Uh, those are kind of, yeah, incremental stories, but they're kind of really important, yeah. We're asking, inviting people to become subscribers to help support us ‘cause we don't take ads. Um, and we'll see how that goes.
[00:38:01] Steven Johnson:
Thank you for sharing these stories and these insights with us today, uh, as such a treat for us.
That's it for the show today and for this season. The TED interview is part of the TED Audio Collective. This episode was produced by our managing producer, Wilson Sayre, and mixed by Erica Huang. Jimmy Gutierrez and BanBan Cheng are our story editors. Fact-checking by Hana Matsudaira. Farrah Desgranges is our project manager, and Dan O'Donnell is our executive producer.
Special thanks to Constanza Gallardo, Michelle Quint, Anna Phelan, and Rithu Jaganath. Additional thanks this season to Sammy Case, Roxanne Hai Lash. Colin Helms, Julia Dickerson, Daniella Balarezo. Valentina Bojanini, Jeff Dale, Nicole Edine, Will Hennessy, Marie Kim, Antonia Le, Annie O’Dell, and Julia Ross.
I'm your host, Steven Johnson. For more info on my other projects, including my latest book, Extra Life, which is coming out any day now in a kids’ version, you can follow me on Twitter at @stevenbjohnson or sign up for my Substack newsletter: Adjacent Possible.