How do you groove with six drummers at the same time? This bassist does it while singing and dancing in David Byrne’s critically acclaimed show
David Byrne’s entire reputation is based on being alluringly odd. His bizarre antics as the frontman of the new-wave band Talking Heads were captured and celebrated in their 1984 concert film, Stop Making Sense. If you haven’t watched it, Tina Weymouth’s bass performance is reason enough — but the band’s world-class musicianship, unconventional choreography, and legendary David-Byrne-in-an-absurdly-big-suit bit, are compelling grounds for embarking on the 90-minute experience. Moments such as the puzzling yet captivating dance shared between Byrne and a floor lamp are why the concert made a lasting impression on fans all over the world. Because, strangely — ironically — it actually made sense.
After 30 years, the seminal Stop Making Sense still sets the bar for live concert films, which explains the well-earned hype for David Byrne’s new one: American Utopia. Undeniably, the question on everyone’s lips was: Will it match up to the 1984 classic?
There are, of course, some differences between the two films. American Utopia was originally a touring show, but it found a new home on Broadway in 2019. It’s a theatre performance rather than a rock show, and director Spike Lee captured it for the 2020 film. While Stop Making Senseexpands in stage-gear, musicians, and silly costumes as the night progresses, David has purposefully stripped the stage for American Utopia. His minimalist approach aims to eliminate everything “except the stuff we care about.” The total lack of risers, amplifiers, smoke machines — anything you’d normally expect at a concert — is David’s flavor of odd for this show.
So, what is it that we care about? “Well, that would be us. Us and you. And that is what the show is,” Byrne says. “Us” is Byrne and his 11-piece, grey-suit-wearing, barefoot band, with Bobby Wooten III on bass guitar. The theme of human connection is an important message of this show, and the untethered, wireless movement of 12 musicians on a blank stage proves to be all the audience should need.
Wooten embodies that theme: His spirit is infectious. He struts around the stage with the same ease and flair he uses when he’s not performing to pull off fluffy bucket hats and baby pink overalls. Although he assures me it’s not as straightforward as it looks, he flanks Byrne (or “Grandpa Dave” as Bobby playfully dubs him) blending bass lines, backing vocals, and dance moves with a smile on his face. A musician of many hats, he has a resumé of recording and production credits boasting names such as Jennifer Lopez, Mac Miller, Jennifer Hudson, and Rick Ross.
After an 18-month hiatus, American Utopia has finally returned to the Broadway stage. Bobby and I sat down on a Monday evening — Broadway’s one night off — to talk about his musical background and involvement in the award-winning show.
You were born into a very musical family that runs a choral ensemble. What was growing up and discovering music like for you?
Certainly, the two musical pillars in my life are my grandfather and father. My grandfather started the Wooten Choral Ensemble in 1949. I was born in New Jersey, and we lived there at a time when my dad was doing pop music and studio work, and playing keyboards in Marcus Miller’s band. When I was around five years old, my grandfather wanted to step down from leading the choir, so we moved out to Chicago so that my dad could take it over. At first, it was just me at the piano, not knowing much but being around a bunch of church musicians. I wasn’t playing bass until I was a bit older. It started when two of my friends were sleeping over at my house in the suburbs. It was during the time when Blink-182 were popping off, and my friends were into them. One of them played guitar, one played drums, so when they asked me to jam, I said, “Sure, I’ll pick up the bass and play with you guys.” It was then that my love for bass went deep. I was learning piano under my grandfather, but on bass I fully taught myself, learning whatever songs I wanted. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stevie Wonder, and then a lot of Motown. So then I played keys and bass in the church every week. I never took a bass lesson until I got to college, which was more about learning upright bass. I’m not really actively going to church now, but if I’m making music on a Sunday, I always find I start with gospel music — just playing it for myself. It’s very much a part of me.
How was your experience in college?
I went to the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. I got a jazz degree, with bass as my main instrument, as well as a business degree. I loved those four years. Two professors, Jeremy Allen and David Baker, were a big part of the reason I chose to go there. In my freshman year, all I did was play upright bass, just getting the fundamentals down. I had listened to a lot of jazz, but my big bass love was Marcus Miller — I didn’t get into upright players until college. The players that were immediate for me were Ray Brown and Oscar Pettiford.
Was playing upright bass an instant infatuation?
I was studying jazz, so as a bass player, it felt like, “Well, you have to learn how to play upright bass.” So, it was a necessity, but once I got into it, certainly. I love to walk on upright bass and swing hard. I love the puzzle that can be there; do you want to do step-wise lines, or maybe choral lines or play with substitutions in there? The more I started to transcribe lines and see the different ways that bassists were playing them, the more I realized the many ways I could approach the music depending on what the other musicians were playing. Israel Crosby — his bass lines play off the melody so well, and I think they’re so beautiful. Ray Brown — my man is holding it down low, and then when he wants to come up, he’ll shoot up there. His overall feel is great. Then, Oscar Pettiford — he feels like one of the first among upright players who really breathed melodic life into bass solos. He would even bring it with the bow!
Your dad must have had a huge impact on your musical development and entry into the music industry. What advice did he offer you?
I was going into my senior year of college and I remember him sitting down with me and saying, “Look, what you want to do in life is called the music business, but they’re two different things. You need to be getting the music down and also thinking about your business.” He said how he didn’t know one musician who got all their money from one gig or job. It was more like, you can be the bass player here and the arranger here, you can be the producer here, and maybe the keys player over here — all those things can make up your career in totality. For sure during the pandemic, I had to wear some of those different hats. If I get asked to do something, I’m very much a “Yes, I can do it” person — and then I figure it out later. I was contacted by the TV show Empire when they needed a string arrangement for a song. I’m not traditionally a string arranger, but I know how to arrange music well, so I said, “All right, I’ll do it.” They said, “We need it tomorrow.” I had been questioning buying the East West Studios String Orchestra plug-ins, so I pulled the trigger on those, writing the arrangement while the string sounds were installing. After that, they brought me on as a producer, something I do far more of.
Also, without my dad even telling me anything, it was great to just observe him. He led the choir, so I wasn’t just around a musician, but also a director. Certainly, there’s a mentality that goes along with that, and I can see that in myself now.
Since you listened to your dad’s advice, you play bass, produce music, and now you’ve just started lecturing at the NYU Clive Davis Institute. How is that going?
Yeah, last semester they brought me on as a sort of mentor for seniors online, and when the school reopened, they invited me back to teach a course in music production. I’m learning a tremendous amount from the director of production, Nick Sensano, and fellow professor Bob Power. I’m sitting in on their classes, observing their approaches and learning as much as I can for when I’m teaching my own class. Bob told me it probably takes four or five years to figure out your approach on how you want to teach.
How did you first enter the orbit of David Byrne?
In 2018 he wrote a musical called Joan of Arc, and I played bass on that. Whenever David was around, I would always try to have a good conversation with him. They would always be short, but he’d say, “I hear what you’re adding to the songs. I like it.” On the very last show that we did, he said, “I’m gonna be calling you soon.” I knew he was working on his album, and he ended up calling me for the tour. When he told me there was going to be six drummers, I was like, “Whoa, okay — but I’m still doing it.”
How has it been collaborating with him on this show?
In American Utopia, he very much wants everyone to have their own voice. That’s why there are different characters and each person’s spirit resonates differently. It’s a great thing to be performing on Broadway as yourself. I bring a certain energy that’s different from what Chris Giarmo [backing vocals/dance captain] brings, or what Angie Swan [guitar] brings. It’s not like we are being told how to behave; it’s like, “Yes, be Bobby. Be Angie.” It feels like a sort of understanding he has: “If I surround myself with great people, and let them shine and not interfere, then great things can happen.” When [the show’s choreographer] Annie-B Parson has ideas, it’s like, “Let’s go.” He trusts her and trusts his musicians, so all of their work gets to shine. He definitely has his rules and knows what he wants, and that’s great. What I’ve taken away from working with him is he likes things to be simple: to put forward an idea and not distract from it, which is awesome.
David has talked a little about the meaning of American Utopia, promising that the title isn’t ironic. What is your interpretation of the show’s meaning?
What I think he’s trying to put out there is the show’s through-running message about connections. At the start, he talks about babies’ brains, how they have so many connections but how we lose these pathways as we get older. Then, it looks at a person who’s kind of lost and starts to question everything. In the end, this person realizes how much they need all these relationships and connections, because they make them stronger. I think that is the message, and it goes well with his songs and the writing in his career. The song “Once in a Lifetime” is a perfect example. The lyric, “How did I get here?” It’s like we’re on this journey and we’re not really questioning aspects of it; it’s just moving very fast. That was an aspect of the pandemic that was nice — being able to pause.
I think it’s also a message for the audience, especially when we do songs like “Hell You Talmbout,” which is a Black Lives Matter song. When we were doing that on our tour in 2018, we would be getting booed and people were walking out in some places. It’s more well received on Broadway. Personally, I would really like to see action from individuals when they’re moved by hearing this narrative and seeing this story. That would be my idea of an American Utopia — actual action from everyone.
It does feel like that is an ideal that David is trying to imagine. He quotes this great line from James Baldwin in the show: “I still believe that we can do with this country something that has not been done before.”
Yeah, and David goes on to say, “This, from a man who suffered lifelong oppression and discrimination.” For me, thinking about that quote at times feels hopeful. I personally would like to see more giving and more selfless acts to actually make things feel more healthy and fair for everyone.
Tell me about your social platform, America Learn Your History, that you started during the pandemic.
George Floyd was killed, and I was out protesting, when it struck me: I thought, I can do more than just be a body in the streets. With the lockdown, I had more time, and I figured I have a platform where people would listen. I started thinking about how everyone is on their phones, and that’s how news is consumed now. There was a phrase going around, “Listening and learning,” so I thought, Okay, let’s see who’s listening. I set out to do two-minute episodes on Instagram — and this is where I borrow from David Byrne and his set rules — I’m not doing opinions, just facts, but the facts are delivered from the perspective of someone who looks more like me. It’s fulfilling for me, personally, and I hope it’s a good resource for others.
You mention David has his rules — it seems that one of them is about keeping things simple. Are there any others?
I actually think he would never say, “My rule is about simplicity,” but he has these kind of … “design” rules. For example, one of the first times we were changing the set list on tour, we were figuring out which songs should go where, or be replaced. I suggested moving something, but he said, “I don’t know — that order had 7-7-7.” There were seven Talking Heads songs, seven David Byrne original songs, and then seven songs that were collaborations. That made up the 21 songs that we played. So by putting in, say, an extra Talking Heads song and taking out a song that belonged to a different group meant that the set was not balanced anymore. Another time, we were in my hotel room, producing a song together. First thing, we put this drum groove down. He lays down some piano chords, and then we do the guitar. He plays some chords I would have never done, and they were amazing. Then I go and do the bass and the elements are all there. Then I start to do little accents or whatever; little sparkly things, fluff. But he says, “No, none of that’s necessary.” I was like, Damn … he’s right. I think about that with my own stuff now.
It’s also down to the details of things like the gray suit we wear onstage, and everyone being in the same color. No one has their own character in that way, per se. But he wanted something odd, so he decideed, All right, we’re barefoot. He’s one of the artists that oversees all the aspects of what he puts out. Those artists are obviously rare, so he’s great to be around, especially because he lets me in on his process, too.
I love that a big part of the show is about removing the “fluff” so that it could be just about the humans onstage.
Yeah, we’re enough. We don’t need fireworks and smoke machines!
Were you intrigued at what David Bryne would ask you to do for the show? Were you expecting to have to dance with an inanimate object, like in Stop Making Sense?
When I first got the call from him asking me to play bass, he also wanted to make sure I could sing, which I could. Then he tells me, “Okay, there’s gonna be six drummers.” I’m thinking, well, obviously the drum–bass relationship matters a lot, but there was no way I was saying no to this. I said, “All right, great. Let’s do it.” I didn’t even ask how it was going to work; it was just like, “I’m here. What do you want?” It’s a gig that you don’t even need to know how much they’re gonna pay you, you’re just there. Later on, I learned who would be in the band. I was excited to see that one of the percussionists was Mauro Refosco — he’s worked with David forever. He also records with Vampire Weekend and is on all these recordings that I love. I found out he was one of the music directors and put the drummers together. Karl, the other music director, then told me it would be three that are more the percussionists and three that are more drum-set-based.
Are you using a click track?
Some songs are to click, some aren’t. It’s kind of dependent on if there’s something that is triggered by the keyboard that needs to be in time. Usually, even if there is a click track, I opt not to have it [in my monitors] because the drummers are great. To play with six of them is wild.
So, how was that process, learning to play with six drummers?
The first time we did it, everyone was great but it felt like it was going to need some time to coalesce. After the first few days of rehearsals, we took one day off. We came back Monday, and suddenly they had the groove locked in super tight. It’s like one person is the hi-hat, one is the snare, one is the kick, etc., so to have the core of a drum set split between three minds is a lot. Then they need to know how to play their swing with each other. By week three of the tour rehearsals, we were there. But then, we’re onto choreography. And then there are the vocals. When I got my vocal parts I was thinking, Do they know I’m playing bass to this stuff, too? But, you know, I like a challenge. Some of those songs — “Slippery People,” “Born Under Punches” — what I’m playing on the bass versus what I’m singing is very different. I just had to get the bass down; I can’t ever be thinking about that! Then, it’s the choreography. After we got recordings back from the very first shows of the tour, I said to myself, Okay you gotta go back to a full-on reset — just isolate each part. So I would practice just bass, then just singing. Then the singing and the bass together. Then the singing and the dancing. All these combinations, and doing it like how I do my regular practice routine: very slow, and build it up. I had to full-on go through that again. Maybe it was just the excitement of the crowd and you know, just performing, but I wanted to get it really tight again so it’s all there. It was cool — a challenge for sure that naturally got more comfortable over time.
That’s so many elements to combine. You make it look easy, and it certainly seems like you’re having so much fun onstage. Were you nervous about the dancing element, or did it come naturally to you?
Well, my mom is a dancer. I’m comfortable; I can move around, but never to this degree, for sure. I’ve never been choreographed. It’s one thing when you’re playing and you have moves that are natural to you, but when someone’s telling you to do something that isn’t necessarily your dance forte, that’s another. But definitely, I love to dance.
Has doing this show changed your approach for moving onstage?
Oh, yeah. My dancing background is more like R&B, soul, and hip-hop, and my mom is Puerto Rican and a salsa dancer, so I have that. But with David Byrne and Annie-B Parson, that’s a whole other world. Annie-B’s thing is to have very small but deliberate movements, so now I’m learning her style, which is great. I remember the first time I watched Stop Making Sense — the first time I ever saw Talking Heads — thinking, “This is wild.” If I was the guitarist in this situation, I guess I would be dancing like how he’s dancing, right? Now, I’m doing that. There are moves that are very “David Byrne-ian” or ‘Annie-B Pars-ian’ that are now in my repertoire.
What was your process like learning the bass for the show? Were you diving in deep with Tina Weymouth’s technique and parts, or had David told you to do things a little differently for this show?
I checked everything out — different versions of ways people played the “Naive Melody” bass part, and things like that. I devour stuff like that. At first, I learned the parts on the original recordings, and not just the songs that we’re doing on tour, but kind of everything. Then when I started to watch some live videos, I’m realizing, Oh, Tina played it like this, so I’m changing to play how she played it. She’s an incredible player. I love how sometimes the bass lines are kind of unorthodox, but so … almost cute in ways, and just very fitting for the songs. All from someone who’s not “trained” — not that it matters to me at all. I love when I’m with people who don’t know theory and just want to find something catchy. That’s really the goal, anyway; you can learn the rules, fine, but make something that is palatable, something that people want to listen to. I think her bass lines are so infectious. I come from a jazz/gospel background, so sometimes I’m thinking, I gotta get my fills in. But I remember listening back to my show recording of the song “Once in a Lifetime,” thinking, What? You did a fill there? The bass line is this [sings] — that’s all you gotta do! I was saying to myself, Bobby, it’s the perfect part. Who deviates from perfect?
As time has gone on, I found there are a few songs where I can stretch a little more, such as “Blind” or “Every Day is a Miracle” — they have some more R&B elements. It’s like if you’re working on an album, each song can have its place. If we have a steady rock song, we don’t need all the extravagance, right? But later, after holding down the parts and the groove for so long, it feels right for me to play a bit more and add some new colors, because in the macro perspective of it all, it’s more suiting.
So you use three bass guitars in America Utopia?
Yeah, a Serek 5-string, my P-Bass, and the Harmony H22. The Harmony bass is in a league of its own. When I use it in the studio, it’s just instant ideas. I love that bass. The Harmony was the first short-scale bass I got. I love Pino Palladino, but when I watch him play, I can see his hands are so much bigger than mine. I can’t play how he can play. But when I got a short-scale, I was like, Oh my God, why did I never consider this?
Tim Lefevbre had told me about Serek, and it’s a short-scale 5-string. It’s a bit edgier than my P-Bass. We’re also using Kemper systems for effects, so I dial in my sound a bit more for each song. There are moments with extra reverb or delay, and it’s just like I stepped on a pedal, but really it’s like my tech is my foot. Shout-out to my techs, Jim Corona and Nick Hernandez.
It must be very physically demanding to consistently perform so many shows a week. How do you look after yourself?
Last year when we were doing the film, I decided, I’m going to look better than I’ve ever looked for my grandkids. They’re going to watch this, and I’m going to say to them, “Don’t forget, your grandpa was a G!” I had a personal trainer, a nutritionist, and I didn’t drink for six months. I went full-on.
Did you even try to have a social life during that time? Or were you more, I’m sleeping and doing the show, and that’s it?
My social life was the show, really, but the good thing about doing Broadway in New York is that some of the hangs after the shows are great. We get a lot of actors, comedians, and other musicians who come to see it. Some of those nights are incredible; I don’t need to go anywhere else but our backstage.
Who stands out amongst these backstage party guests?
We’ve had Michelle Obama, Jacob Collier, Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Paul McCartney. I regret not asking him to sign my Harmony bass! He loved the show. It’s awesome when you can see these people in the audience smiling back and enjoying it. One night after the show, Seinfeld was helping David finesse one of his jokes in the show. It’s crazy. –BM
American Utopia is available to stream on HBO, with performances at the St. James Theater in New York until March 2022.
Basses Serek 5 String Midwestern II, Harmony H22, 1965 Fender 1966 Reissue Precision, fretless Ibanez SRH505
Strings MJC Ironworks strings
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