“Four minutes of total perfection!” That’s the exact (and beautifully tailored) energy David Byrne brings to John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch, a new Netflix children’s special that might actually be too hyperspecific for youngsters who don’t live within the 212 metropolitan area. (Not that we’re complaining.) Without giving too much away, Byrne’s music video vignette in the special, “Pay Attention,” laments how parents can sometimes be inadvertently dismissive while their kids embrace their creativity — all while sounding like a B-side from More Songs About Buildings and Food. (“You will regret the skits you missed out on! / You will regret it for years!”) He also, delightfully, wears a Frozen princess gown and later appears in a segment called “Paper Mâché Time.” Before a recent American Utopia performance, Byrne gave Vulture a quick call to discuss the creation of “Pay Attention,” as well as his fear of volcanoes and favorite Oh, Hello jokes.
Were you an enthusiast of John’s comedy before he reached out to you for this special?
Yeah, I was. I’d seen his stand-up stuff and I saw Oh, Hello. We had met originally because I was invited up onstage during that talk segment during Oh, Hello during its run a few years ago. That was pretty exciting.
Do you have a favorite Oh, Hello joke?
It was probably one of the references they make to the Upper West Side. It’s very New York specific. If you know that neighborhood at all you’d recognize those jokes immediately. What’s yours?
Oh, definitely the fake Steely Dan song.
Yes. [Laughs.] That nicely fits into the Upper West Side.
I’d love to know how John, a man who has no children and no musical ability, pitched this children’s musical special to you.
It was so vague and scattered. Hearing him talk about it was just like, This is a kids thing, kids have anxiety, kids love songs. It was a little unclear with what it was going to be, but I trusted him. Whatever it was going to be, I knew it was going to be interesting. It’s really good that it’s sort of for children, with children, and that they were going to acknowledge their fears and anxieties and what makes them angry. It wasn’t a happy, happy, happy show — there’s another level going on. We talked about my fears and John’s fears as children. My fear happened to be volcanoes, which made its way into the show. I also talked about how adults don’t often like to pay attention to their kids. You know those parents: “Oh, come out and perform that cute song you learned!” And then nobody pays attention to it. Why was I just made a fool of here?
Do volcanoes still make you nervous?
I think I’ve gotten over my fear. Thinking of volcanoes really did wake me up in the middle of the night for a long time. Thankfully we don’t have any volcanoes in the East Coast.
My colleague interviewed Eli Bolin, who composed all the songs, and he said one of the most excruciating minutes of his life was waiting for you to give a verdict about the song’s demo, given that it was heavily Talking Heads inspired. What were your first impressions of “Pay Attention”?
I was told that the song was written specifically for me. It was great. I thought Eli was doing an impersonation of me, so now this was going to be me doing my version of Eli doing me. [Laughs.] Just a lot of layers there. I had a few little suggestions with phrasings and such, just so it could fit the melody and have it be easier to sing.
Yeah, you’re credited as a lyricist on the song — can you walk me through how that demo transformed into the final version? And what changes you made and added?
The things I suggested were very small. I wish I could take credit for the funnier lyrics. John and Eli were nice to let me do some tinkering. It was more like, “If I change this word here it’ll make the verse flow a bit better. The melody would be better if we changed this sentence to this.”
I’d really like to emphasize how much I like this line: “Mom’s friend Patty / pay attention. Her adult son / pay attention. Some guy’s wife / pay attention. Man with mustache / we respect you.”
Ronald Reagan, pay attention!
Since the song is essentially a screw-you to adults for being distracted too much, what do you hope youngsters will get out of it?
That they realize it’s such a shared experience for being a kid. Hey, I mean, I knew that feeling. It definitely happened to me. A lot of youngsters will recognize that, which is really nice. But I hope it doesn’t stop them from being creative.
Your scene partner, Lexi, vibed with you so well. Was she or any of the kids starstruck by who you were?
Oh, no, not at all. I don’t think they knew me or Talking Heads. Their parents, I’d say … maybe, yes. [Laughs.] All the kids were great. They weren’t hamming it up or overdoing it. Also, the place where we shot was so interesting. It was a community center, church, and meeting place in Queens. I was really fascinated by that. The kids, not so much.
Were those your own snazzy suits?
They were indeed my own suits. They asked me to bring some things and I was happy to oblige.
Was your Frozen costume comfortable?
It didn’t quite fit, but I’m glad I wore it. I knew the vibe they were going for.
You’re identified as a “musician and craftsman” for your papier-mâché segment. What’s the last thing you crafted?
This is disappointing, but that was made up. That was a Sack Lunch Bunch creative flourish. I will say, I just love the part where Jacob turns to me and is like, Don’t worry, David Byrne. He thought volcanoes still made me upset.
Since this special is, in earnest, being targeted to children, there’s bound to be a lot of youngsters who enjoy your segment but aren’t aware of your musical past. If you could recommend one Talking Heads song as their first exposure to the band, what would it be and why?
Oh, wow. Probably not “Psycho Killer.” Or the songs adults would probably like. I don’t know, to be honest, and I’ll have to give that question some deeper thought. I’d like to know myself. I’d be very happy if they just enjoyed any of my songs. I assume kids don’t know me at all and when they see me in this special they’ll go, Who’s that dude? That crazy grandpa over there? Who’s that weird guy?