David Byrne Explains the Secret “Psycho Killer” Subtext of ‘Stop Making Sense’ at Lincoln Center

David Byrne was pretty bummed to be out of town a couple weeks ago when Katy Perry brought her emoji-laden live spectacle to New York arenas. “I would never want to do all that, but it might spark an idea,” the former Talking Heads leader told the crowd at Lincoln Center Friday night (August 1). How he got from Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads’ influential concert film that’s currently celebrating its 30th anniversary with a digital release and theatrical run, to the queen of the “California Gurls” is a testament to Byrne’s unique creative wiring. Following a screening of Stop Making Sense at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Sound + Vision series, Byrne gave a glimpse into his mind, including his intended second meaning behind the rock doc: the “Psycho Killer” trying to heal through human connection and art. 

Everything is fair game for Byrne’s inspiration; his source material for the tour immortalized by Jonathan Demme in Stop Making Sense is proof of this. He drew from Pentecostal preachers, the sacred traditions in Haiti and Brazil, New York’s downtown theater scene in the early 1980s, and the tradition of presentational theater in Bali and Indonesia. Humble as usual, Byrne noted that the religious influences were nothing surprising: “A lot of pop music cinders are a secular version of” sacred ceremonies.

More than that, Byrne said the experience of Stop Making Sense and the 1983 Speaking in Tongues tour it chronicled was about “accepting the artificiality of being onstage.” But damn if there weren’t some “bad hair moments” that left Byrne cringing when he re-watched the film at Lincoln Center that night.

As for Byrne’s other misgivings about Stop Making Sense, he says they’re small and technical — signs of datedness and a few camera angles. But it’s the film’s look that defined it as one of the greatest concert films of all time, from its long camera shots to its lack of bright lights and hokey audience footage. Thirty years later, Stop Making Sense remains an explosion of joy that speaks to the power of live music. Surprisingly, Byrne said the band’s unbridled displays were largely rehearsed by the time Demme and his crew started shooting at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater over the course of three nights. They weren’t so much choreographed as there were unspoken consistences — when some dance move or staging worked live, the quartet and their extended live band just kept doing it. And Byrne barely trained for the highly physical routine of the tour — he merely stretched before showtime.

Byrne, who is unsure of where his “big suit” from the film is at the moment (“it’s currently on its own tour”), explained that he envisioned two narratives when creating the tour at the heart of Stop Making Sense. The primary narrative is obvious and meta: the deconstruction of the rock concert, starting with one guy on an empty stage and working up to a full band, lighting, and stylized sets. The second narrative is more psychological: Byrne as the “Psycho Killer,” “twitchy, angsty, and alone” until he finds catharsis in healing through his bandmates. It’s clear there’s something not right with this character at the film’s start, when Byrne takes to the stage alone, stumbling about as he strums through “Psycho Killer” not acknowledging his surroundings.

Watching Byrne nonchalantly navigate complicated audience questions about his creative process (“I need an assignment — I’m paralyzed with no limitations”) and the film’s near-lossless digital multitrack audio recording (“obsessive about it, it was kind of a nightmare”), it’s hard to believe he could have ever identified with the “Psycho Killer” character. He’s got immense taste, but he doesn’t make a big deal of it — something that still shows through in Stop Making Sense. Byrne’s in the midst of writing and workshopping new music currently, so expect more of his effortless cool soon, in whatever weird form it may take.