Byrne, baby, Byrne
By Michael Archer
The rock icon on song cycles, cycling, and escaping the past with Imelda Marcos. And you may ask yourself, is this my beautiful new business model?
Setting Imelda Marcos’s life to music—dance beats, no less—seems a perfectly mainstream concept coming from David Byrne. After all, this is a man who placed an old pump organ inside the Great Hall of the Battery Maritime Building in New York City and used hoses to connect it to pumps and motors set throughout the century-old former ferry terminal, so that when visitors pushed the organ’s keys they were “Playing the Building,” the project’s name. Still, a musical version of the former Phillippine First Lady’s life will likely raise some eyebrows. But beyond that, it’s also a potential new business model for the record industry. How so? By creating a musical biography of Marcos, one with a specific narrative thread, Byrne hopes to drum up demand not just for the catchiest of the songs, but the entire arc of the CD collection.
Here Lies Love, in which Byrne, 57, collaborates with Fatboy Slim (Norman Cook) to chronicle the rise and fall of Marcos and her relationship with former servant Estrella Cumpas, seems a perfectly logical progression for the frontman and principle song writer for the legendary Talking Heads, the influential band that placed four albums on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. Throughout his career, Byrne has collaborated with musicians as varied as Selena, members of Devo, and Luaka Bop. His world music label has released work from Os Mutantes, the Brazilian psychedelic rock band, and the Belgian group Zap Mama.
Here Lies Love, too, features vocal cameos from the likes of Florence Welch, Tori Amos, Nathalie Merchant, Sharon Jones, and Camille, as well as from Byrne himself. Love is a double CD, accompanied by a DVD with six videos featuring songs from the album cut to archival and historical footage from the Philippines, and a 120-page hardcover book with lyrics, photos, and essays, written by Byrne, that explain Marcos’s story and the significance of the corresponding lyrics.
Post-Heads, Byrne has acted, directed, and choreographed feature and documentary films, musicals, and ballets; continued a successful solo career; published and exhibited art and design work (he was responsible for a series of bicycle racks—a lady’s shoe and a coffee cup, among them—that were installed on the streets of New York); and written Bicycle Diaries, which chronicled his observations as he pedaled through the world’s major cities. Based on all he’s done since his days as one of the world’s premier rock stars, Byrne feels a connection to Imelda, born into relative poverty, who was constantly trying to escape her past. “I can identify with that,” he says in the interview that follows. “Getting requests for Talking Heads’ reunions or hearing, ‘Play Psycho Killer again.’”
Born in Scotland and still a British citizen, Byrne, has been a United States resident since childhood. A huge supporter of new musicians, he can still be found riding his bicycle around New York City and attending shows and exhibits. Far from the seemingly uncomfortable young man in his Talking Heads’ days (in his blog he calls himself “peculiar” when he moved to NYC in the mid-seventies), Byrne speaks easily and is quick with a laugh. He has become known for his activism—coming out firmly against the Iraq war and denial of global warming, and urging fans to vote in the last election—though his approach to getting people to take action seems less about a sense of urgency and more about common-sense practicality. “I feel like telling people that they should do this because of the environment is not a good reason,” he says, below, on getting people to ride bikes. “But if it's something they like, if it tastes good, if it feels good, or if it’s cool…they might actually do it.”
—Michael Archer for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve just done a CD about Imelda Marcos, Here Lies Love. What is the genesis of this?
David Byrne: First, I remember at one point reading this book by Kapuściński, the Polish writer, who’s, I think, somebody who made up some of the stuff he wrote. His book about the court of Haile Selassie painted the picture of this really surreal, kind of bubble world, from prescribed behavior and all the relationships were very, kind of, complex. I thought, this is very theatrical. It’s like some kind of avant-garde Beckett play or Asian theatre piece, where everybody, all the movement and everything, is kind of artificial and there’s no sense of anything relating to normal life. But there was, where do I go from there…there was no real story. And then when I read that Imelda used to go to discos in New York and turned the rooftop of the palace in Manila into a kind of disco, I thought, wow, here is somebody who brings a kind of musical element into her life, a powerful person. I looked around a little bit more and found video footage of her dancing with Kissinger and her dancing with Khashoggi, the arms dealer, with all the different colored lights going and all that stuff. I thought, “Oh my god, this is pretty good.” So then I spent a long time looking to see if there was a story besides that and I thought, there might be a story of her relationship with this woman who raised her, Estrella. How close they were as children and then Estrella became estranged and they had a very ugly kind of reunion later on. I thought, okay, Estrella might be able to be a stand in or kind of foil for the Philippine people, who, like Estrella, loved the Marcoses very much at first. They were sort of like the Kennedys. They were glamorous and they brought the Philippines to the world stage in a kind of glamorous, attractive way. A certain amount of corruption was almost expected in Philippine politics and, I am generalizing, but it seems that the corruption and embezzling and everything else, really didn’t get out of hand until Marcos declared martial law and then, I mean, within twenty-four hours, he had all the opposition leaders locked up.
Guernica: Estrella is really interesting. What did you make of her?
David Byrne: I was never able to locate her. But she is mentioned in a couple of the biographies and they kind of go into the whole childhood situation. And then, she reappears as someone who tried to make contact with Imelda later on but fails and then gives an interview to a newspaper about their childhood together, which annoys Imelda. Suddenly, she essentially puts Estrella under house arrest as a way of gagging her from talking to the press.
Guernica: So there wasn’t a whole lot of information on her?
David Byrne: No, you don’t know much about her as a person, which is unfortunate I think, in dramatic terms.
Guernica: So, in the storytelling, did you have to imagine her feelings a lot more than you did those of Imelda and Ferdinand because of the lack of information?
David Byrne: Yes. For the most part, I had to imagine her feelings based on what she was doing or what she was hoping. There weren’t lots of interviews where I could kind of find her own, or lift quotes from her like I could from a lot of the other people.
Guernica: Do you prefer it more open-ended like that or do you like to have it sort of laid out a little bit better for you?
David Byrne: I liked it better when I could grab these different quotes from people. They had such a particular way of expressing certain moments and certain things that they were feeling. These little phrases, like “every drop of rain, you feel when you are poor.” That kind of stuff. I would never come up with that.
David Byrne: I mean, I wish I could but it’s so particular and paints a picture and tells you so much. There are other ones like, “Please don’t let them look down on us,” when Imelda is talking about getting the Philippines on the world stage and getting people to respect the Philippines. I just thought, you know [laughs], in one sentence she brings her childhood psychological issues onto the world stage and I couldn’t do that better myself.
Guernica: One of the things that I found interesting about the book was while you’re explaining and telling the story, sometimes in the middle of a sentence, you interject with a commentary. For example, when you are explaining Imelda’s not wanting to be shackled to her past, you have an aside—“Who does?”
David Byrne: Oh, from myself?
Guernica: Yeah. That “Who does?” Does that idea speak to you? You do so many different things and have your thumbs in so many different pies and projects. Is there part of you that relates to that? Not wanting to be shackled to things that you’ve done a long time ago?
David Byrne: Oh, yeah, I can identify with that. Getting requests for Talking Heads reunions or hearing, “Play ‘Psycho Killer’ again.” That kind of stuff. But, in general, sometimes if I am writing something like that, I’ll just be writing it and then, all of a sudden, it will occur to me, “Well, that applies to [you],” I feel that. Or it applies to…whatever, Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. You can say, “Wow! This is the same situation right there.”
Guernica: In the book, you also mention the death of the album and that maybe this kind of storytelling could encourage listeners to sort of stay with you. I know this isn’t exactly a business model, per se, but do you think that artists, musicians, writers, etc. need to start thinking more creatively in those terms?
David Byrne: Well, yeah. I think that if they want people to listen to ten or twelve songs, they have to give the listener a reason to listen to ten or twelve songs or to buy ten or twelve and listen to the whole thing instead of just pulling one or two for their iPod or their computer. In a certain way I thought, oh this will be an experiment, to see if I have given, if giving that incentive, to kind of follow a story or get an added depth to the characters and the songs, if that is enough of an incentive for people to listen to more than one or two songs. I don’t know yet. But I thought, otherwise, like a lot of people, well the album is going to go away pretty fast and we don’t have anything, as a business model, to replace it yet.
Guernica: In “Here Lies Love,” which Florence Welch sings, the back story is that Imelda wants that on her tombstone. Do you really believe that this is how she viewed her personal love and sacrifice for the Philippine people, as you put it? I know that when she was criticized for her excesses, she called it her “duty.” It was her “duty” to give guidelines for the poor to live out their dreams. Do you think this was really how she felt or do you think this was just a way to explain her behavior, get out of the criticism?
David Byrne: That is the question of the ages. Well, that’s a direct quotation from her. So, she certainly said it and she certainly said that she has to be beautiful and go out and represent the Philippines in ball gowns and amongst high society. She used the excuse that people liked to see that. That they liked to live vicariously through her. She is not the first person to say that I don’t think. [Laughs]
Guernica: Well, right, that’s what I mean.
David Byrne: Well, she’s not the last either. And there are probably a lot of pundits out there who might claim that Americans live through celebrity culture, too. The question is, well the question you are really asking is, when people say those kinds of things, are they convincing themselves? Do they really believe it? Or are they being cynical?
David Byrne: How much in denial are they?
David Byrne: Wow. My personal feeling is that human beings have this incredible capacity for denial. I think they do. And that although it’s really hard to believe, I have my doubts. But my feeling is that first they have to convince themselves. First they have to justify this stuff to themselves and if they can do that, even for just the moment that it’s coming out their mouth, then they can kind of mouth it with kind of believable sincerity, even if some of us…our jaws might drop, like “Oh, my god!” But then you look around and go, well, does that apply to everybody? Does that apply to, you know, people that might be going on about Iraq and they’ve just kind of, “never mind about the weapons of mass destruction, what about this? It’s still a good idea.” These kinds of things. They’re just kind of spinning, doing their own spin for themselves…are they trying to reconvince themselves that it must be okay or is there really a deep cynicism at work there? For now, I tend to believe that people can behave really badly but it’s difficult for them to know that they are behaving badly. I think they have to convince themselves that bad behavior is, has some kind of justification. I am not the expert here, but I think that is one of the questions for the ages.
Guernica: Can you talk a little bit about, from the book, the line, “if I were a woman, there might be times when I would feel a certain way, and if only—if only—I could be Sharon Jones for an instant. I could express that feeling perfectly in a song.” The casting of this is incredible, as I think you say, an “all star” cast. How did you go about choosing the song for the person, for the singer, for the vocalist?
David Byrne: Um…[laughs]…making lots of lists…and Norm had some suggestions, Norman Cook. I had some suggestions and some of the songs have a fair amount of variety in their approach and some are like R&B belters and some of the songs are kind of more wistful and some are a little kind of rock & roll-angry and I’d listen to a song and I’d think, “This reminds me of so-and-so’s song. Let’s see if it’s in their range and they might actually want to sing it.” Occasionally, one of the singers would just do it and you would go, “Wow, now it sounds like one of their songs, it doesn’t sound like mine anymore.” Not always, but once in a while.
Guernica: That must be a great feeling.
David Byrne: Yeah, that’s a great feeling. Then it feels like they really own it and the listener doesn’t feel like the singer has just been hired to give voice to somebody else’s idea.
Guernica: Reminds me of Natalie Merchant on “Order 1081,” the declaration of martial law. In the book, you interject again. You largely stay apolitical but then there’s this moment where you write, parenthetically, “It all sounds draconian, but we came perilously close to this in the U.S. under George W. Bush, where for a period of time any substantive criticism of the invasion of Iraq was silenced, and habeas corpus was suspended as well.” It’s like you can’t…
David Byrne: Yeah, sometimes I just feel like I have to inject that because I think, well, are people getting this?
David Byrne: [Laughs] Are they getting what’s being talked about here? And how close…or will people automatically make that leap and go, “Oh, yeah, they did that in the Philippines…that’s a third world country.” Sometimes I feel like, okay, I have to draw the line here. I have to make the connecting thing here.
Guernica: And what are your feelings on the mixing of art and politics?
David Byrne: It’s really difficult. I think there is a little bit of [art and politics] here but it is really the story, for the most part, it’s the story of these people. I mean the characters. I think it’s really hard to make songs that pursue an agenda. You can kind of do it a little bit through a character, so the character gives voice to something or their story, the story of the character tells you something, but, for me anyway, it’s really hard to write directly about politics.
Guernica: Years back we published an interview where Peter Schjeldahl, the art critic for the New Yorker, said his problem with political art wasn’t necessarily that it’s bad art, but terrible politics.
David Byrne: And by that he means, it doesn’t really do the job, it doesn’t convince or…
Guernica: Yeah that’s what I took away from it. As far as “1081” goes, you had mentioned earlier that’s when you felt that the things that Imelda started—the hospitals and orphanages—started to be less important. Do you think it was just fear that made her turn on those things?
David Byrne: You mean when martial law was declared?
David Byrne: For Ferdinand Marcos, it was all timing. His term was about to be up and he wasn’t allowed to have another term as president and it was just too perfectly timed that all this disruption started happening just before he would have had to step down and hold an election. So, they could kind of ratchet up the assassination attempts and bombings and news reports of guerilla uprisings in the hills and could send this back to the United States and say, “We got communists over here! We need help! We need your support!” Some of it being real and some of it being manufactured and some of the assassination attempts and all were completely rigged just to generate fear in the population. Although it sounds like conspiracy mongering, a lot of it, in history, sounds like they generated a lot of it themselves.
Guernica: So the helping of the people that she engaged in, at least somewhat at the start, just became a lower priority.
David Byrne: Yeah, a slightly lower priority. But, I mean, she still, from what I can tell, did these things—made the schools and hospitals. I would have to look at a timeline. But I think some of them became bigger and more grandiose, more kind of uh…self-celebratory hospitals. The Oedipus complex that they rarely mention. He would build these kinds of statues to himself as well. By the time they declared martial law, of course, then all gloves are off, they can censor the press and throw the opposition in jail and pretty much do whatever they want.
Guernica: Your love of cycling is well known. I get the impression, both from the Guardian piece you wrote last year and from Bicycle Diaries, that while you advocate the joys of bicycle riding, you don’t generally get into a lot of activism as far as the environment.
David Byrne: No. Not a lot. Partly because I feel like I came to it really out of the joy of it and the convenience and the practicalities and things like that and I feel like telling people that they should do this because it’s good for the environment is not a good reason. People often won’t change their behavior for that reason. But if it’s something like that, if it tastes good, if it also feels good, or if it’s cool, or any of those other things add that to the “it’s good for the environment” they might actually do it.
Guernica: You can lose weight if the food that’s good for you also tastes good.
David Byrne: Yeah. And if there is some kind of award, whatever that might be as well, yeah, then you have a lot of incentive.
Guernica: What things can we look forward to from you in the future?
David Byrne: I am working with The Public Theater trying to make a theatrical version of this with the director Alex Timbers, the guy who has the Andrew Jackson piece that I think is just opening now. We are just now at the stage of talking, what would be the change structurally and where the kind of problems might lie in the storytelling, that kind of thing. We all agree that it shouldn’t be like a conventional musical with a lot of acting out and then singing.
Guernica: If this works, could you see it becoming a model for musicians in the future?
David Byrne: God forbid! The return of the concept album would kill the format off forever!
Guernica: What could be a viable business model for music?
David Byrne: What’s been missing from digital music sales has been the possibility of added depth. In a printed package one can only include so many images and so much text—for example—but digitally it’s wide open. For the most part at the moment we get less information for slightly less money—though we could be getting a lot more.