Bobby Wooten: “The awesome thing with David Byrne is that there is looseness and improvisation”

(Image credit: Dave Simpson/WireImage/Getty)

There are two types of chaos: punk chaos, when there’s no plan B, and even plan A is fairly sketchy - and jazz chaos, when everyone knows their part so well they don’t even have to think about it any more. Rehearse something enough, and you can break away from it in new ways.

David Byrne’s career could arguably be understood as a movement from the former sort of chaos to the latter. As the frontman of Talking Heads, he was associated with new wave, a genre that moved away from punk towards something more disciplined and experimental. Nonetheless, early Taking Heads were learning to play music as they went, their sound evolving with each gig.

These days Byrne works with virtuoso touring and session musicians to realise his vision. He still thrives on chaos, but now it’s the sort of chaos that’s made by people who know exactly what they’re doing.

Enter Bobby Wooten, the bassist who played on Byrne’s American Utopia tour (We know what you’re thinking, but no - no relation to Victor). The tour supported the album of the same name, but was also a work of art in its own right, and Wooten was central to its creation.

On stage with Byrne, he dances through the thick of action, playing some of the greatest basslines ever written while clearly having the time of his life. This enthusiastic presence is just as engaging when we meet in person. He answers questions with easy sincerity.

Any style I’m playing, I’m listening to the vocals, listening to the groove, and following my heart

How did you start on bass, Bobby?

“I was born into a gospel music family in Chicago, Illinois. My dad was a keyboardist, so the first thing I played was piano. Then some of my friends who loved Blink-182 wanted to play together and someone had to play the bass. One thing led to another, and I fell in love with bass. My dad played keys for Marcus Miller in the Jamaica Boys, so when he played me those records it shot everything off.”

How did you get the gig with David Byrne?

“I worked with him in 2017; he wrote a musical in New York called Joan Of Arc and I was playing bass for that. He was like: 'I’ll be calling soon.' When I got the slot on the tour that was amazing, for sure.”

David Byrne’s basslines aren’t the most complicated, but they’re absolutely front and centre.

“I agree. Where the parts were written by Tina [Weymouth, original Talking Heads bassist] or some other bassist from David’s work outside of Talking Heads, I enjoy them as the part that they are. In the beginning I was trying some licks on Burning Down The House. I found myself thinking ‘That’s not necessary at all.’ The bassline is the heart of the groove, so I just give it all I can.”

How do you get that perfect feel?

“I try to exist within the song. Any style I’m playing, I’m listening to the vocals, listening to the groove, and following my heart. If I’m talking about a groove, that’s just the way a song makes me feel, plus basic phrasing things like long notes and short notes.

“When Talking Heads had just started, Tina was fresh to playing bass, so there’s some of the songs that I started out playing my way, but when I was listening to them on the records and the live shows, she would play them a different way, so now I do it like that.”

Your setlist has some Talking Heads classics, some later material, and a couple of curveballs.

“The breakdown is 21 songs: seven Talking Heads classics, seven from American Utopia and seven things from other albums, collaborations and things like that. The new album sounds more modern, but what I love about this experience is that as a writer and producer I’m learning a lot from David. He likes songs that, when they start, are just there. There’s no need for an elaborate intro - like Once In A Lifetime, that’s really just three notes for the entire song.

“If I’m doing the single, Everybody’s Coming To My House, for instance, I stay true to the part, but it allows me a little bit more freedom to play licks and to add something. If there are moments to breathe and stretch then I do, but it’s still very direct.”

Utopian moves

Any other projects you can tell us about?

“I wrote for the Empire TV show, there’s the upcoming Moulin Rouge broadway show and I’m working on exciting projects with Benjamin Clementine, Jake Troth and Loki Moon. I’m also working with David on something - I can’t say more, but stay tuned.”

For the first week of rehearsal we did six 10-hour days... music and singing. Then the next three weeks were all choreography.

What basses do you play?

“I’ve got a P-Bass. There’s this new company that I’m using for strings, MJC Ironworks. I’ve got steel strings on there. They last ages and I love their character, the way they feel and the brightness that they add. My other bass for the show is a 1965 Harmony H22 with a semi-hollow body. For that, I have flat Pyramid strings. The basses have completely different characters.

“We’re running everything through a Kemper Audio system. There’s no amps or anything onstage. We’ve dialled up the effects we want for each song, and my guitar tech triggers it from the side, from song to song, and even in the middle of songs. The tones you can get are amazing.”

Do you play five-strings at all?

“When I started rehearsals I also had a five-string Pensa-Suhr bass, which I love, but the show has a lot of changes, particularly with the drummers switching harnesses - there’s like six drummers up there. What the crew has to do on the sides of the stage is wild, so I realised it would be easier if I didn’t have three basses. There’s some songs where I would have loved to have it, but overall it was the right choice.”

The show is pretty incredible.

“Yeah, this is my first time doing a production where for the first week of rehearsal we did six 10-hour days. It was all music and singing. Then the next three weeks were all choreography. Two of us are dancers first, but also singers. The rest of the band does a lot of choreography, too.

“The awesome thing is that with David there is a looseness, and good amount of improvisation, even though a lot of the show has to happen exactly right.”

You dance around like a crazy person up there...

“The show’s on an empty stage, which opened things up. David wanted characters, people showing their personalities. I’m always the one who’s moving around on stage - but being given free rein, I learnt the moments when I was going to be improvising licks, and where I needed to be as a dancer. It got more and more comfortable and it reached a point where we could improvise and play off of each other.

“David told me about Stop Making Sense; when one of the guitars did something that really worked he’d be like ‘Yeah, keep doing that’ - it wasn’t choreographed but it became a moment in the show. That’s how we worked on this.”

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