David Byrne is the founder of the Talking Heads, author of the nonfiction books How Music Works and Bicycle Diaries, and an avid thinker, performer and activist. In 2013, his musical collaboration with Fatboy Slim, Here Lies Love, launched at New York's Public Theatre. The high-energy, disco-fueled performance puts the audience in the middle of the life story of Imelda Marcos and the last days of her husband Ferdinand's dictatorship in the Philippines, and the Rep's mainstage theatre will be completely redesigned to accommodate the sprawling immersive experience. We sat down with Byrne and Seattle Repertory Theatre's artistic director Braden Abraham to discuss the show, this tumultuous year in culture, and what the future may hold.
After working on it for years with Fatboy Slim, you released Here Lies Love as a double album in 2010, and then a couple years later you launched it as a stage production. Did you intend it to be a performance all along or were you gonna release the album and end there?
David Byrne: The double album was done because I had basically thrown in the towel and given up on it making it to the stage. Not totally, but I tried and I thought, this is not happening. At least I can present the songs as I hear them. And I'll cast different singers, because I think each singer will get the different vocal attitude for each song.
There were a couple concerts where we presented the material, which helped because I could tell right away, we have a little bit of fat here to cut away. A couple songs that weren’t helping to tell the story—fun songs, but they weren’t pushing the story along. So those went out immediately. That was it, until somebody said, "You know, the director of the Public [Theatre of New York, Oskar Eustis] rides a bicycle!" [laughs] That was a point of contact. And also now I had this deluxe, recorded package. Not many people could write something and plunk down a thing like that and say, "And this is what it's supposed to sound like!" So I had a really good selling tool.
But it was still a process. It's been years. You’ve probably gone through this, where you start developing something and the form itself is so unusual that you're trying to figure out how we do this. It wasn’t a thumbs up—"Oh yes we're gonna do this!" It was a thumbs up, like, "OK, we'll go to our first workshop, and we'll see if you can solve some of the problems of the storytelling." And that worked, and then we went to our second, third workshop. Probably by the third workshop we were like "OK, we got this figured out. It's gonna work. Now we have to figure out the physical logistics."
So it was really collaborating with the director, Alex Timbers, that brought it to the stage.
Byrne: Yup. Yup. Yeah. I mean, I knew that I wanted to have the audience in the middle and the action going around the perimeter. But they came up with the moving platforms and all this stuff where I thought, "You guys are crazy."
Now that it's a finished piece, as an album and a performance, what's your role as it comes to Seattle?
Byrne: With the new actors, I'll have feedback about how they interpret a song. Alex and I have a relationship so I'll go to him and say, "Can I talk about the history?" Not just, "Make your voice like that." That would have to go through the music director, because sometimes there's issues [with the actors]—if their background is musical theater, they might sing in a very Broadway music theatre manner. And my thing is to get them to sing more club or pop style.
Since I did so much research, I'm often the one who tells them, OK, here's what historically your character is going through right now, here's what just happened, here's the family background. I give them all the stuff they can draw on for their character.
Braden Abraham: A lot of the material, a lot of the lyrics, are formed from direct quotes and meticulous research that David has done that's really pulled from history.
Byrne: In the Philippines, English is one of their main languages, so a lot of this stuff is exactly what they said. Including the title.
A direct transcription of actual quotes. That’s interesting.
Byrne: They were like gifts to me. There was a moment when Imelda was talking to an interviewer and describing herself as the people's star and slave, I thought, there's a song title right there! [Laughs]
So now that it's played in a couple different cities, as you bring the production to Seattle is anything different? Have you adapted the staging now that you've tried it a few times? My understanding is that the theatereis being torn apart and rebuilt to be more like a disco or nightclub…
Byrne: There are architectural plans to show how that can work. But I'm sure it's gonna be some surprises, where were gonna have to move this scene from here to here now, this is gonna have to change, this and that…
Abraham: This is the biggest project we've ever done. We've never done anything like this, where we transform the theatre in this radical way. But it's something I've been excited about exploring for years. And when I saw Here Lies Love a couple years ago in New York, I immediately started thinking how we could do this in Seattle. I thought about doing it in alternate venues, and thought about doing it here, how we could make this transformation happen. When I found out that David and Alex were interested in taking it to the West Coast, and we got involved and it looked like it would work out for us to start it here, we really put our heads to, how do we take the space we have and transform it? So we've engaged an architect. We're removing the seats. We're decking out over the orchestra. The set is changing slightly but it's really about scale, so a majority of the audience will be on the floor, in the middle of the set in an immersive experience just like they were in New York and London. But it'll be a slightly larger scale and there will be more seats on the sides and we'll use a portion of the balcony for folks who don’t want to stand.
David, a big part of your book How Music Works is about how setting affects the musical experience; where one has a musical experience affects the experience. Was that part of what you were thinking when you decided to put the audience in the middle of the room?
Byrne: Some of my ideas were proved wrong, but yes. The original idea going way, way back was to stage it in a giant disco. At the time these giant warehouse discos—they're pretty much all gone now—but there used to be these giant discos that were a big warehouse. Way back the day, in the late '70s early '80s, I'd occasionally gone to one of them. And they'd have live acts, but the live act would perform their two hits to a backing track. Whether it was Freda Payne or Gloria Gaynor or Grace Jones or whatever, they'd come in and the stage would be really tiny, and they'd arrive in costume with a digital audio tape and that would be their backing band. And someone would cue up the tape an they'd do a long version of their hit or hits and it would last maybe 15 minutes and that would be their show, and after everyone would go back to dancing to the DJ.
But I thought, wait a minute, you could take that further! You could have more of those stage platforms and you could tell a story and the audience could be dancing or drinking or doing whatever they do at the same time. Where I was completely wrong [laughs] was I thought you could have the songs be more like long extended dance mixes where people would get the story but almost by osmosis. They wouldn't have to stand there and watch, they'd just kind of get it. And I've realized no, you really do have to pay attention.
That extended-mix version sounds like you're really breaking out of form and trying something entirely new.
Byrne: There's an element of that. A lot of that experience is still there. But in order to really tell the story and get what's going on, you really have to pay more attention than what I was imagining.
Abraham: There's an emotional knowledge that’s transferred through the experience of the show. And part of what makes it so exceptional is that it's so successful at doing both things: creating an immersive experience, where the audience is inside the world of the play, you're on the set, the performers are all around you, you feel the music, the lights are on you, you see the projections, the story is happening to you and you feel the emotional charge of that. And at the same time you're experiencing this very absorbing, emotional narrative about 30 years of history in the Philippines and the rise and fall of the Marcos regime and the People Power Revolutions sweeping them from power. So it's both of those simultaneously, which is very hard to pull off, and this does it very well.
You’ve given so much though to how music works, I wonder if you’ve give the same degree of thought to how musicals work.
Byrne: [Laughs] I didn’t know the rules of musicals. People would tell me, David, you need to have a song where the lead character tells you what she wants. What their ambitions are. What their dreams are. I had no idea. Naively I blocked it out as far as the story, but they said there's certain tried-and-true things to get an audience invested in the story. And I would resist using any of those conventions, but some of them are basic truths that you can only resist for so long. But that I was not familiar with them meant I had a real big learning curve. But it was also a blessing in a way, in that I didn't go in with a formula.
Abraham: And you really get the story through the songs. It's all sung through the songs. There are short snippets of dialogue but you get the whole thing through the music. That blend of form and content is really exciting.
What does the story of Imelda Marcos tell us about our present moment?
Byrne: Quite a lot right now. I had lunch with some Filipino journalists that I know who happened to be in New York the other day. And they said, "David, you have to tell people even more. [The despots] are coming back." Their thing is, people don't remember. They said, "You think your guy is bad, look what we got—he's going out and killing people." And he's already brought Marcos' body back into the heroes cemetery. Marcos, having embezzled so much from the country, wasn't allowed to be buried in whatever Arlington they have. And they snuck him back in. And they're backing the son, whose name is—here it comes—Bongbong. Bongbong Marcos. Yup. They're grooming him to probably follow this guy [Duterte].
The sequel is writing itself.
Byrne: The sequel is writing itself. The president who was just ousted by this strongman was Aquino's son. So you have the same families battling it out over and over again, which is not so different from our country either. And now they have a crazy strongman who's in and they feel like there's a big parallel. Though ours is probably not likely to go in with death squads and start killing people.
Abraham: There's a shared rhetoric in scapegoating minorities, a law and order platform. There are patterns to the rhetoric.
That makes this even more timely. And eerie. It's been a rough year, with the passing of some of our greatest musical artists and also with this election. I wonder how you handled that, David. The deaths of Bowie and Prince, people that were guiding lights, and then this election that pulled the wool off from the way people view this country…. How do you respond to that? What's the artist's role as these tragedies continue to befall us?
Byrne: Wow. That’s a big one. [Pause] I think you have the role of any citizen. Right now you can see how Trump is aligning his cabinet and all that stuff, and you look at those guys and you go, we know what they wanna do. They haven’t done it yet but we know what they wanna do. My assumption is that he'll be the figurehead like he's back on The Apprentice and those guys will do all the stuff. And he'll show up and take credit, spin things so he looks good. Even though he won't be able to fulfill all the promises he made on the campaign trail—not like he ever intended to. That’s gonna be inane. How is that gonna play out, all this stuff about bringing jobs back? And you're gonna cut taxes on the rich? And you're gonna cut their medical and all this other stuff? And they're gonna let you do that? It's gonna be interesting.
As a musician, I don’t really write protest songs. Protest songs are a tough one for me. But doing things like this musical, and I've been working on another one, you can actually deal with ideas in this format in a way that’s emotional and people who like pop music can relate to. They get emotionally involved but in this case there's also ideas about politics and in this case demagogues and dictators that people love and then the mask falls off.
Abraham: And then the inspiration here too of democracy is only as strong as our participation and here you have the People Power Revolution, which is this nonviolent resistance that swept these dictators from power. And I think it's a tremendous, uplifting story, a hopeful story to look at that history and see the strength of the Filipino people and how they did that.
That sounds necessary right now. Along similar lines, you've lamented the changes in New York City, David, and Seattle is going through a lot of the same problems with gentrification and the loss of artists and artist spaces. Have you found any solutions? Is it just a matter of leaving and starting fresh?
Byrne: A lot of folks are doing that. A lot of musicians in New York, friends of mine, have moved to LA. Probably for the weather, but also because rents are cheaper, they get a little house and a little garden and they feel like this is the dream in some ways, I'm not just being shoved out of one apartment after another.
Being such a sprawl, I don’t know if LA is the same kind of community is that New York is or Seattle or Vancouver, other places going through that whole gentrification thing. Traditional I think has been to mandate that there's a mix of various rents and rent control so you have people of various incomes living in proximity and you have businesses that are the same way, where it's not all big chain stores. But [laughs] it all got swept away, in New York anyway.
Have you found anyplace doing it right?
Byrne: That’s a really good question. I can't point to anywhere yet.
I imagine Scandinavia.
Byrne: They do incredibly well with bicycles and that sort of stuff, which has an outgoing effect on pollution and foot traffic so you get more interactions and street life because of that. But…
Gotta keep looking.
Byrne: Yes, that would be my focus too. Keep looking and if somebody seems to get it right, go, "There's the model. Others should be doing that."
In How Music Works, you discuss each medium of recorded music that's evolved, from wax cylinders to 8-tracks to mp3s, and talk about how music is disappearing in its physical form as it becomes digitized. I wonder if as we move into the digital age and music loses its tangibility, does it lose importance?
Byrne: No, it still means a lot to people. It’s a confusing moment for people right now, not because of the intangibility but partly because there's no, whatever, metadata, for music, for streaming. And I think that’s gonna change. There's incredible value there, when you can find out who wrote it, who played on it, what band they were in before, where they came from, who they have collaborated with. And you use that to go, "Oh that person wrote that, I'm gonna check that out," so you build a personal network of things you like and know about. Right now everything is just a music file that you hear, with maybe an artist name and song title and that’s it. I think that’s gonna change, so some of that richness will come back.
No, it means a lot to people. [Laughs] Last I heard—and it may have changed—like 80 percent of people who go to YouTube go for music. That’s a lot of people, that’s a lot of money—not going to musicians but whatever, it's a huge thing. So it drives people and therefore it means a lot to Google, that music is the thing that people are passionate about. I did this little thing with these business people about a month ago, and most of them were not in the music business, but I had an old iPod, one of the really old ones, and I said, "This is what changed Apple. It wasn’t the phone—this was way before the phone. This is what made them cool again." It was music.
That’s good to hear. I remember in high school being defined by the music we listened to. There's so much new media now, I don't know if that still happens.
Byrne: I don’t know that either. If it wasn’t music how would you be defined?
I dunno—maybe which websites you read? But maybe it's held true. I don’t have a lot of interaction with high school kids these days. You ever find yourself in the company of teens, twentysomethings?
Byrne: Yes, my daughter and her friends. They like music but they're not as fanatical about it as I was. But they like it. But she never was. I think that was probably a dad thing: "My dad's got that covered."
Tickets for Here Lies Love are on sale now. Performances begin April 7 at Seattle Rep and run through May 28.