David Byrne Interview

On the Imelda Marcos inspired new album
David Byrne
As far as unlikely muses go, creating a modern disco album based on the life of shoe-loving former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos is quite a bizarre undertaking. But then DAVID BYRNE has always enjoyed a challenge.

Here Lies Love’ is the result of Byrne’s research into the convoluted life of Marcos, and his collaboration with Norman ‘Fatboy Slim’ Cook in putting music to her story. Fascinated by the private life of the dictator, the former Talking Heads man created a narrative that was brought to life by a dazzling cast of singers - Santigold, Florence Welch, Tori Amos, Martha Wainwright and Steve Earle among them - and a musical backdrop that brings alive Marcos’ beloved Seventies disco fever.

Far from glorifying or excusing her personal excesses or the martial law regime she and her husband inflicted on their country, ‘Here Lies Love’ explores the human emotions of power and the effects it has.

Meeting with Clash in his central London hotel room, David reveals more about the album’s socio-political backdrop, and why there’s no mention of any of her three thousand shoes...

The obvious first question is why Imelda Marcos? Where did this story come from?

The music really. Way, way in the back of my head I’d been fascinated by the world of a dictator or ruler or someone with a lot of power, the kind of world they build around them and the behaviour that happens around them, and all that kind of thing. I didn’t think much of it until I read something about her liking to go to discos or dance clubs - Studio 54 - and she had a mirrorball installed in one floor of her New York townhouse, and she converted the roof of the Manila palace into a disco. I thought, ‘Well, here’s a powerful person that’s known for outrageous behaviour, but also comes with a soundtrack, and maybe it’s an appropriate soundtrack - maybe I should follow this lead?’ So I did some research, and there was a story. And for me, the story ended when the Marcoses fled the palace in Manila - they were airlifted by US marine helicopters out. And the shoes weren’t discovered until after that, so for me that was also convenient: I don’t have to write a song about the shoes - I don’t have to deal with the shoes at all!

So you’ve bookended the story at that point?

Yeah, just from childhood to exile.

Was it always going to be just a concept album or song cycle, or were there bigger plans?

I thought it would be some kind of hybrid theatrical thing. Originally I thought it could be the kind of thing that could take place in a mega dance club, of which there aren’t many left anymore, but that’s kind of what I imagined. And I thought you could stage it very simply with just a stage in one of those places, the singers could either lip-synch or sing over tracks - as they sometimes do if they have live acts at those places - and you just supplement it with video screens. I thought it could be great; it would be like an evening of dancing and whatever else people do, but they might get a little sense of a story and some characters - it would have a little bit more depth that just getting high and going out dancing. I think it still might have a theatrical life, but I don’t think it will go completely that way.

Is this album something that you can take on tour? Are you planning to perform this at concerts?

I can’t really tour it - I’d need to have a bunch of these singers along, and I don’t think that’s going to happen!

When did Norman Cook come into the picture?

Pretty early on, after I’d done research and after I said, ‘I think there’s a story here’. I contacted him out of the blue - we’d never met but I thought he might be a good match. I already had done research, so I knew what the story was, but I didn’t have any songs yet. So I said, ‘Do you want to help me with this?’

Because you knew what direction you wanted the music to go?

Yeah, I knew that I wanted to have someone that was dance or dance-pop oriented. So I said, ‘You send me some beats or loops or stuff you’ve got in progress, and I’ll write songs and words on top of that’, which is done all the time. Then I did other ones where I wrote over simpler beats, stuff at home, and sent those to Norm to flesh out - and Tom, his friend in Brighton, got more involved in those, because they - the ones where I started them - tended to have more chord changes and stuff in, which didn’t work as well over the dance loops.

I can imagine as an avid collector of music that Norman had a vast supply of loops to hand.

Yeah, he’s got a lot of stuff! (Laughs) It was fascinating to see... There was a couple of trips to Brighton to focus and concentrate on bit, and I noticed Norm works on an old Atari machine, these ancient Atari machines, which I guess he started working on, and he also has a stack of spare machines that he must have got off eBay or some place, so that when it breaks he just plugs in a new one! So, all these sounds are on floppy disks or these ancient storage systems. There was a whole rack of sounds of just drum fills, which I thought, ‘Wow, that’s amazing!’ He’ll have these great fills coming in to different sections, and I’d realise the fills have a completely different drum sound than the groove that follows it, but it doesn’t matter.

Is he a technophobe? He must have been amazed if he say your laptop!

(Laughs) No, he works with a guy named Simon who then moves the stuff over into ProTools and takes it from there.

On your website you have previously discussed the values and validity of collaborations, which is something you’ve done a lot of. Do you find it better to bounce your ideas off other people?

Not always, but a lot, yes. I think there will be periods where I have an idea of something I want to do on my own, but I think it often takes away so much of the awkward or anxious decision making process, or anything you might agonize over - half of that is already decided by someone else.

Or blame.

(Laughs) Yes, or you can blame it on someone else and say, ‘Well, it’s not my fault it came out that way, that’s their bit!’ Or, ‘I did the best with what they gave me!’ But usually it’s stimulating, it’s like a challenge; ‘See what you can do with this’. So that’s been exciting. I’m still doing more of those, but not with Norm.

Is collaborating a progression through to-ing and fro-ing of ideas that you may not always agree on?

I haven’t had too many disagreements. Once in a while. I don’t know why that is. Maybe because we kind of lay out the ground rules ahead of time. It’s like, ‘Okay, I’ll take your track and I won’t mess with it’, or, ‘You can make suggestions to my melody or lyrics or whatever, but essentially I’ll stick to my side of the fence and do my bit, and then I’ll give it back to you’, and back and forth. When it’s split that way, it defuses a lot of possible conflicts. When other people decide that they wanna do a collaboration with me, they’re already in the frame of mind to let go a little bit of what they might do if they did it all themselves.

Are you wary of you who collaborate with? Is it sometimes a difficult decision to make if you’re asked, or are you always game to try?

I’m game, but I’m a little bit picky - although it might not seem like it! (Laughs) I’ve surprised myself occasionally. There’s one, it’s not out yet, but it’s some young musician and producer out of Seattle - a guy named Jherek Bischoff - who, I think it was through one of the dancers on my last tour, sent me a track and just said, ‘I’m doing this project...’ and the track was just gorgeous and really innovative. I think it was ukelele, glockenspiel, and then this whole string section. I thought, ‘This is just amazing’. (Laughs)

Was it one of those cases where you thought, ‘I wish I’d done that’?

Yes, it was kind of like, ‘I wish I’d done that. Well...I could at least get my name on it!’ (Laughs)

In your online journal you said that “words can be a dangerous addition to music”. Are lyrics something that you work hard at, putting a lot of thought into?

Yeah, a lot of the time I do, and I don’t think I succeed a hundred percent of the time. I think I’ve ruined my fair share of tracks by having words that either pin it down too subtly, or the words just aren’t good enough. But yeah, it’s a bit of a task. Some of it is just, to me, simple puzzle solving. You’ve got this pre-determined little bit you’ve got to fill, and you just try endless things until something starts to click, and then you see, ‘Okay, now I see where the next piece goes’.

Do you work with sounds rather than words and their meanings?

Yeah. Which I think a lot of people do, even without thinking about it intuitively.

Do your lyrics evolve? Might you write something and then when you come to record it they’ve changed completely?

No, not too much. I might change a word or two - usually if I change words at the point of recording, it’s just to make...you can sometimes change an ‘its’ to a ‘his’ or ‘her’, or ‘they’ to a ‘her’ or something like that, and that will link up two lines that seemed to not have any connection, then all of a sudden there’s a story being told. Just those little kind of tweaks at the last minute help pull everything together.

When you brought the singers in for this project, were they happy to be given the lyrics by you and told this is what they must sing?

Um... Not always, but in some cases - especially early on - I’d sometimes give them a couple of choices. I’d say, ‘Here are a couple of songs. I think this one is best suited for you, but here’s another one as well.’ There was definitely one singer who wasn’t sure about the song and wanted to hear other ones. Sharon Jones had a little bit of a problem wrapping her tongue around all the various names of Sixties celebrities, socialites and Japanese fashion designers that get mentioned in that song. She was like, ‘Who is this? What is this? How do you say this?’ (Laughs) So she came back for a second visit to the studio and really nailed it the second time.

Some of the lyrics on this album are direct quotes from the actual characters. Does that add a certain personality into the narrative?

It resonates as if this is actually their own words, this is what they were saying and feeling and thinking, and this is the kind of phrase they chose to express what they were going through at that moment, rather than me - at least it seems this way - imposing and assuming or guessing at what was going on. There’s enough stuff out there that I could grab a lot of it.

It must have taken you quite some time to do the research and find those resources.

Yeah, it took about a year. It wasn’t the only thing I was doing that year, but it was a lot of reading and taking notes.

Was there anything that you learned that wasn’t well known about the Marcoses that surprised you, or that didn’t make it into the story?

Yeah, there’s a lot that didn’t make it into the story. For instance, some of the books about that period deal with the American involvement or relationship with the Philippines at that point as a kind of colony for a while, but then a kind of client state or whatever, where they had this huge air force base that they needed to always be sure that the Philippines was on their side. There’s all that kind of stuff. The United States would kind of look the other way at a lot of the things that were going on, because they needed that air force base there. But I didn’t get into much of that stuff. When I mention that there’s a big air force base, I hint that there’s a close relationship with the United States, but I don’t really go much beyond that. The surprise was when I visited the Philippines, and I was surprised at how, well, two things: how grey and muddled everything was. I mean, like most outsiders I would tend to look at things more in black and white terms: this person is good, or this person is bad. There, it’s a little bit more mixed up. Their attitude towards Imelda - and these are not people that worked for her - is that there was definitely a period where the Marcoses did a lot of great things - built roads and clinics and all this kind of stuff; not necessarily the big ostentatious art centre, but they built a lot of smaller places as well that they thought were really wonderful and are still in existence and are still churning out young artists and filmmakers. But that doesn’t negate the other stuff they did, but in their mind it’s not clear cut. It’s not like they’re all bad: they did some horrible things but they also did some good things.

Do you think that was a deliberate ploy by the Marcoses to cover their tracks, or was it perhaps just naivete?

Uh...wow. The answer to that would explain a lot of what goes on with politicians and really powerful people when they’ve got ill-gotten gains but then they start this amazing philanthropy, and you wonder, ‘Are they cynically trying to burnish their image after having made their fortune by being this ruthless predatory person?’ And you wonder, ‘Hmmm, is this a really conscious effort to do that?’ Maybe, but I think it’s also really internalized. They obviously don’t think, ‘I have to clean up my image or people are just going to know me as this nasty go-getter’. I think they think, ‘Oh, I’ve made my fortune and now I can do some good work with all this money I have’, and they start to enjoy the respect and adulation they get from that, as opposed to the fear that they might have inspired previously. I think with the Marcoses it almost worked the other way - they did a lot of their more generous and beneficial stuff early on when they were first a couple, and I think after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in the Seventies, then they pretty much had absolute control: censorship of the press, they could throw opponents in jail without giving due process... Then the reins just came off, and the press couldn’t report on anything that was going on. It seemed to me that that just seems an irresistible invitation to almost anyone; you can see that if anyone in power gets that kind of opportunity, they’ll tend to go for it. (Laughs)

Were you deliberately trying to present the Marcoses’ dichotomy in your music - offsetting the dramatic story and lyrics with upbeat disco music?

To me there is a connection with the dance music - it has this connotation about being fun and escape, you lose yourself in the music and it’s very heady and transcendent - and I think those feelings also connect with the feeling of being a person in power. Although a lot of people who go to dance clubs don’t have any of that power, I think they share that heady feeling, and I thought, ‘That might be why she liked it’ - besides the fact that they were all filled with socialites and everything else.

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Clash Magazine Issue 50



This is the full transcript of an article that appears in the 50th issue of Clash Magazine. Pick it up in stores from May 7th.

You can read the full issue online HERE and subscribe to Clash Magazine HERE.


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I don’t supposed you ever saw Imelda in Studio 54 or around that period?

No. At that period, I remember being disgusted that she and all these other former dictators were all being feted at this nightclub...

Princess Margaret used to go too, I think.

Yeah, all these people were hanging out with Andy Warhol, and there was just no thought of what they were or what they’d done or anything like that. At that time I thought, ‘Where are the values?’ Not that I’ve changed my mind, but at that point it seemed really more cut and dry.

Did you discover any parallels between Imelda’s personality and your own during this process? She could be ambitious and ruthless...

Somebody asked earlier today about this. They didn’t put it that way, they said she seemed to be a kind of person who could separate herself in certain ways from her own life and look at it in a kind of detached way, and that she could put her life into...not exactly different characters, but different personalities. They thought that was a connection with me. I didn’t say no, but I wasn’t aware of it! (Laughs)

Have you faced any opposition from Imelda about this project, or is she happy about it?

She knows about it, but I haven’t heard directly from her. I heard from someone who’s close to her that wasn’t responding to the project but was anticipating misinformation - according to them - that I might have put into the project, and they wanted to - before I got everything wrong - set me straight on a few things. That’s all I’ve heard.

What’s the situation like now with her in the country, is she revered?

It’s complicated. You’d think, after all that’s happened, she wouldn’t be welcomed back in to the country. Not only is she...well, maybe not everyone welcomes her, but she’s not like walking around behind tonnes of bodyguards or anything like that. And I don’t think she’s succeeded recently, but she does occasionally run for Mayor of Manila or some other office. And her kids are in office - I think one is the governer of one state, and another one is a senator from another state. You’d think the whole family would be banned, like they’d say, ‘We’re done with you. You had your way with us. Don’t come back’, but there they are! (Laughs)

In terms of the singers that were involved with this project, did you consciously chase the people or voices that you thought would be best for each part?

I did.

Did you get everyone that you wanted?

No, I didn’t get everyone I wanted. I don’t want that to be a reflection on anybody that’s on there, that they were not first choice (laughs), but I didn’t get everyone I wanted. It won’t be that much of a surprise - I thought it would be really great if I had just one or two of the disco divas on there. I didn’t approach Whitney Houston because I thought her drug stuff might be an issue, but Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer, some of the neo-soul singers I approached, Vanessa Williams... A lot of the people who had big dance hits at that point, I thought it would be nice to have one or two on there. But no. The reactions I tended to get were, ‘Talking what?’ (Laughs) So I thought, ‘Okay, we’re not going to get anywhere here.’

Which narratives did you choose to voice and why?

I tried to get myself out of it as much as possible. I was kind of left with the ‘American Troglodyte’ one, which is just meant to be from the point of view of an anonymous person in the Philippines, just expressing their awe and admiration for all things North American. Except there’s of course an element of ambivalence in there as well. I think I had done a demo of the Aquino voice on the one song ‘Seven Years’ and somebody, it might have been my girlfriend, said, ‘You really sang that well’. So that little bit of flattery was enough for me to go, ‘Okay, I’ll stick with myself on that one’. But the one that Steve Earle sings, I just thought, ‘I can’t pull this off. I can’t pull off this kind of swagger’. But he pulled it off.

You’ve done a number of movie soundtracks, putting your music to someone else’s story. Did this project feel like the reversal of that process?

In a way. Yeah, writing some of the songs was really challenging - I’m not sure I nailed the attitude on all of them, but on some of them it would take me a while before I knew that there would be either a narrative moment or an emotional moment that had to join the dots in the story, and sometimes it was kind of a puzzle to me: ‘How do I express this?’ Not that the songs really tell the story, but they need to express what the people are feeling at that point, and sometimes I wasn’t sure how to do it. The ‘Order 1081’ song, I think it took me a while to figure out what angle to take to do it. I thought, ‘Okay, if I can get it so that she’s reiterating the party line of what the reasons why martial law is needed’, so she’s trying to convince herself that yes, we need to have martial law, the country’s in difficult shape, we’re going through tough times so we need tough actions to deal with that... So I thought she was convincing herself, but maybe she’s not a hundred percent convinced.

Do you think this could be a movie?

I don’t know. I’m working with a director and a theatre production company in New York, so we’ll see if it gets somewhere there. I already think from talking with them there that it will go through some changes to make the narrative work better and various other things, but we’re in agreement that it shouldn’t be like a conventional musical where the characters talk to one another, then they all start singing, and then they talk some more.

So you’re working with people that may form your story into something that will work better for the theatre?

Yeah, they’ve done more narrative theatre, certainly than I have, but they’ve also done theatre that is really more conceptual or unusual, but still very entertaining.

Is this a validation of your album? Are you proud that it’s going to work in this setting?

Yeah, I think it will. I think having gotten it to this point as an album with all these singers, I think it makes a better sale. I can sell the idea a lot better when people can hear it with these singers doing it better than the demos that I had before.

You’re in a fortunate position where you’re not an artist that just releases a dozen songs every two years. Does creative freedom only come after a successful career?

I don’t think it can anymore. Now I think artists are gonna be forced to do that after maybe their second album - they might be able to get two albums out of twelve songs each - and then they have to really give us a reason why we should be interested in the next batch. Of course, a batch of great songs doesn’t need a reason, but in order to attract the attention of the press and to get a buzz going, there sometimes needs to be something else going on beyond a couple of great songs on it.

Starting out as a new band, were there any compromises Talking Heads had to make to find success?

No, I don’t think so. We toured a lot, pretty much incessantly, but that was good, it really got us to be good players - we became really tight as a band after a lot of touring. Musically I thought it was lucky that we kinda left ourselves some kind of escape routes or different avenues to explore. We didn’t automatically right at the beginning say, ‘This is what we are’. It was a little bit vague. We left some openings so that we weren’t going to box ourselves in musically.

I wondered if your label Luaka Bop was a reaction to the way you may have been treated by major labels?

Oh, at times, yeah. Not that I was ever really horribly mistreated - not like some others have been. Maybe it was only verbal, but I remember hearing the ideal of the record business in the Sixties or Seventies that artists would be allowed to develop, and if they did a project that wasn’t commercially successful, that was part of their development. And if you just nurtured them - not like throwing money at them - they would probably inevitably write something that would be more popular, because that’s just part of their ambition anyway: not to always be unpopular! And that seemed to me to be an ideal situation, that the record company would stay hands-off and try to support the artist, but then try and be realistic as well and say, ‘Well, if you want to make a record like that, you can realistically expect to sell this number, which is fine, but then don’t come and ask for a lot of money. Don’t expect a lot of tour support or all these other potential things, but go ahead and do it’. And some artists understood that. Others kinda felt like, ‘No, I should be getting lots of money no matter what I do’.

Good luck!

Yeah, good luck! (Laughs) Try that somewhere!

Is there any kind of common bond or themes between the artists you sign?

Boy, you know, I don’t know. I haven’t been involved in a few years. I kinda backed off when it got to be just too much work.

Because you used to be very hands-on.

Yeah, and then it got to be like half a day every day I was doing stuff, and it wasn’t all musical stuff - a lot of it was business stuff - and I thought, ‘This is not my strength’. There was one period where, I think through my own interests, I had developed contacts with the kind of Latin rock bands and Brazilian acts that were up-and-coming and that were mixing rock/indie/dance stuff with their own music. So some of those people ended up on the label. I thought, ‘Well, if you’ve got this foot in the door, why not do that, since there are already a hundred little labels doing rock bands all over the States. Let me bring in some of the stuff that they’re ignoring. Go for the unacknowledged stuff’. Not that it all sold a lot, but it worked out okay.

There are lots of references to you online as a renaissance man...

Oh, that was from a magazine thing years ago. It was kind of embarrassing. I mean, I was flattered, but at the same time it was embarrassing because for some reason, as I discovered really quickly, people assume that you’ve given yourself that compliment. (Laughs) They’d come in and go, ‘So, you’re the renaissance man?’ And I’d go, ‘I didn’t say that!’

Words by Simon Harper

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