David Byrne Wants to Make Winter Guard the Next Great American Performance Art

Depending on whom you ask, David Byrne has stopped making sense. From writing a disco musical about former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos to designing bike-rack art for New York City’s Department of Transportation and turning an entire building into a playable instrument, Byrne has spent his post-Talking Heads career playing rock’s resident interdisciplinary innovator. He’s the guy who used to write brilliant pop songs (and still occasionally does), but now mostly spends his days mounting projects that others talk themselves out of before the daydream ends.

“I’m not making money off most of this stuff,” he assures me one recent afternoon while we sit on wooden schoolhouse chairs in the back of the narrow Soho loft he uses as his office and storage for his well-catalogued archives. “But I’m very lucky that I’m in the position I’m in where I don’t have to do this to make money.”

Still, Byrne just may be in the midst of the biggest challenge yet within his unofficial role as cultural translator between the highbrow and the rest of American culture: making Color Guard —a military-born tradition that’s translated to high school students tossing and spinning flags, rifles, and sabres in front of marching bands — relevant to those who get to decide what’s relevant in the performing arts. If he could export punk and Afropop to the American masses via Talking Heads, who says he can’t make flag-throwing teenagers interesting to New Yorker-reading crowds?

“In the towns where Color Guard thrives, it’s not completely unknown,” Byrne says. “But in New York, when I’m at a dinner party and I say, ‘Yeah, I’m doing this thing with Color Guard groups.’ People go, ‘What’s that?’”

“‘Well, technically, it’s Winter Guard,’” he corrects himself, adopting a nerdy tone before letting out a chuckle that ends with a genuine grin. “New Yorkers kind of look down their noses at a lot of this stuff. Not all of them do, but there’s this attitude about flyover states.”

Winter Guard differs from Color Guard in its incorporation of modern choreography, light gymnastics, and elaborate themes, which Byrne describes as “a little darker than I thought would be appropriate for kids dancing and leaping about… I have to say, I think a lot of Winter Guard is more well-rehearsed than some performance art, but I won’t go there.”

The king of downtown cool is more down to earth than one would expect.

In Contemporary Color, Byrne folds his recent obsession into a world he knows well. In 2008, a Cambridge, Mass. Winter Guard team, Blessed Sacrament, asked to use “The Forest,” which Byrne had written two decades earlier for a Robert Wilson theater production updating “Epic of Gilgamesh.” “I thought, ‘What high school is listening to this? How did they ever stumble on it?’ But they do. Their directors and designers scour for music that’s atmospheric, provocative, and instrumental, and hasn’t been heard a million times.”

Intrigued, Byrne didn’t charge the team for use of the song, but he did request a DVD of the performance. That sparked in him a fascination with what they call the “Sport of the Arts” and the passionate teen outsiders who find some semblance of identity within it. Though he spent several years going to competitions and learning everything he could about Winter Guard, Byrne says he knew right away that this was a project he wanted to pursue.

It would take “at least a year” convincing cultural institutions to help him elevate North America’s finest Winter Guard teams to stages far beyond the annual WGI championships in Dayton, Ohio. Toronto’s Luminato Festival served as the program’s first two arena performances earlier this week, while the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) presents Contemporary Color’s stateside shows this weekend (June 27 and 28) at the Barclays Center. BAM’s accessible avant-garde approach sits in line with Byrne’s own, making it a fitting home for his performance pieces over the years.

“There’s an experimental sensibility in this, but it’s also mixing in stuff from middle America, which I think some institutions find a little confusing: ‘We don’t know exactly how that fits with our demographic. How do we sell that?’”

David Byrne meets his team, Les Eclipses, at a Winter Guard event in New Jersey earlier this year. (Jake Naughton/BAM)
David Byrne meets his team, Les Eclipses, at a Winter Guard event in New Jersey earlier this year. (Jake Naughton/BAM)

Unsurprisingly, how you sell has more to do with which famous musicians are on board, than how creative the Winter Guard routines get. (But boy do they: a Hitchcock homage, a PSA on child abduction, and a redemption story set in a mental asylum are among the themes explored by the teams in Contemporary Color.) Given his collaborative spirit and influential nature, Byrne didn’t exactly struggle to get ten musical acts — including St. Vincent, The Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock and Money Mark, Nelly Furtado, Blood Orange’s Devonté Hynes, tUnE-yArDs, Kelis (who ended up co-writing a song now performed by Zola Jesus), Lucius, and more — on board with his vision of live-band Winter Guard.

“When David Byrne is on the other end of the phone and he’s excited about something, it’s pretty much impossible to say no,” says Tom Krell, who records emotive electronic ballads under the moniker How To Dress Well.

To give you an idea of how “epic” and “sweeping” the music for Winter Guard routines can be, consider Krell’s approach for his Mechanicsburg, Penn. team: “I think that my music is way less dramatic than their performances! So I actually tried to tone them down a little bit — to dial back the screaming sadness to make the performance a little bit more impressionistic and open.” Krell incorporated “really big heavy drums” and choral elements, via the Pacific Boys choir.

The composer Nico Muhly — whose piece features recordings of This American Life host Ira Glass asking their Winter Guard team Alter Ego questions like, “What were you thinking here in the routine?” — says he “knew literally nothing” before Byrne took him to a noisy bar to have The Winter Guard Conversation.

“I thought he was describing a pagan ritual like something out of The Wicker Man,” Muhly says. “All the symbolism of the guns and the swords and the flags — it felt very ‘other’ to me. Then I realized that all of this was happening like, in Connecticut! And Jersey! So I took myself to YouTube and watched 14,000 videos.”

The musicians’ openness to learn about Winter Guard can be seen in clips posted online in the lead-up to Contemporary Color. (The Ross brothers, documentarians with a talent for capturing homespun American realness, are chronicling the entire process for a future documentary on Contemporary Color.) tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus appears downright giddy when she meets her team, New Jersey’s Emanon Winter Guard, for the first time. She owns her newcomer status through a self-deprecating rifle-tossing lesson from a girl in face paint and a body suit. She gushes over the team’s embrace of robotic dance moves, which end up greatly influencing the direction of her song.

tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus with her team, Emanon at the 2015 WGI championships. (Rebecca Greenfield/BAM)
tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus with her team, Emanon at the 2015 WGI championships. (Rebecca Greenfield/BAM)

Herein lies the real challenge: the musicians must write new songs tailored to the “length and vibe” of routines performed by their assigned teams all season long. This requires dialogue back and forth. One of Contemporary Color’s producers, Chris Giarmo, who has a history with high school Color Guard but “comes from the Brooklyn theater world,” serves as a moderator between the teams and the musicians as they compromise.

“There are nerves on both sides,” Byrne assures. “It’s a completely new, untried area so you have to discover it and adjust as you go.”

For his own piece, Byrne went “pretty straight ahead” with a gospel-tinged inspirational ballad for Montreal’s Les Eclipses, with help from Jess Wolfe, the next-level vocalist of Lucius (see below).

“Their routine is more abstract, but the direction of a song [I was already writing] seemed to capture the feeling, as I imagine it, of a lot of the kids who are in Color Guard,” Byrne says. “They’re a little bit of the outsiders, and they sometimes feel ostracized. Not all, but some. In this world, they’re the heroes. The kids are in tears half the time. They are so passionate, and you want to go with that.”

And so emerges David Byrne’s real motivation for pursuing Winter Guard, which he dubs a “new art form emerging out of mainstream America, that should be encouraged.” He’s not the only one who finds the less obvious aspects of Winter Guard appealing.

“One of the things I love about it is that it feels like genuine community activity,” Muhly says. “Most of the videos aren’t fancily shot archives but rather, phone videos from the performers’ parents, or supportive rival teams. It is really heartwarming to watch this kind of teamwork; a lot of artistic endeavors, particularly in classical music, are very competitive and individualistic, so this was very moving to see.”

Byrne has “no real interest in how they judge their own competitions.” Winter Guard’s precision serves only to inspire “wow” moments “when you see a whole basketball court of flags moving in synch, from side to side.” He jokes that he could envision Contemporary Color’s model becoming a franchise that’s creatively beneficial to local musicians and high school teams in towns across the country.

“You can have something that’s really pushing some boundaries, and be accessible and reach a pretty large audience at the same time. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” he says. “From time to time, we think, ‘Oh, all the popular stuff is really crap, and it’s just catering to the market, and everything else has no interest in the market whatsoever.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, is it?’”