David Byrne talks ‘Here Lies Love,’ ‘Stop Making Sense,’ Armisen’s impersonation and why radio once thought Talking Heads were ‘a little too funky for white folks’

“This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around,” David Byrne once proclaimed in Talking Heads’ apocalyptic punk/funk classic “Life During Wartime,” which namechecked the New York night spots Mudd Club and CBGB and was one of the standout herky-jerky/quirky musical numbers of the Heads’ groundbreaking concert film, Stop Making Sense. And now, four decades later, it’s all come full-circle for Byrne, in the most dance-tastic way.

Just as Stop Making Sense gets the deluxe 4K re-release treatment this week (with Byrne set to reunite for the first time since 2002 with estranged bandmates Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison for a Q&A commemorating the film’s anniversary next month), Byrne is bringing dystopian disco to New York’s Broadway scene with the immersive musical Here Lies Love. The musical, written with superstar DJ Fatboy Slim and exploring the Evita-like rise and fall and decadent life of Imelda Marcos, was inspired by another legendary late-‘70s NYC club, Studio 54. And much like “Life During Wartime,” it mixes politics and partying.

“When I read that Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines, loved going to discos, and that she went to Studio 54 and a whole bunch of others, and that she had a mirrorball installed in her New York townhouse. … I thought, ‘Oh, here’s somebody who lives in that world, and maybe there’s some kind of correlation. Maybe there’s some kind of metaphor for the kind of insular bubble world of s powerful person like that — that kind of ecstatic, transcendent feeling that you get kind of on a dance floor,” Byrne tells Yahoo Entertainment. “So, I thought, ‘OK, I’ll start doing the research and see if there’s a story there that could be told this way.’”

Byrne, who got the idea for Here Lies Love almost 20 years ago when he saw footage of Imelda Marcos boogying with Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi under the disco ball in her apartment, admits he was appalled during his occasional visits to Studio 54 back in the day, when controversial figures like Marcos were treated like A-list celebrities alongside the likes of Bianca Jagger and Grace Jones. “I thought, ‘This is the wife of a dictator! Is this really who you want to be photographed with? Does this not matter to you? Or is everybody glamorous, and that’s all that matters?’ I thought, ‘No, no, there’s implications in the real world.’” But the art-pop provocateur clarifies that despite all its glam and glitz, Here Lies Love — for which he visited the Philippines “a couple of times when I was in the writing stage” to test out material and make sure “I wasn’t way off-base” — doesn’t glorify or trivialize the saga of the Marcos regime.

“If you only saw the first half of the show, you’d think we were celebrating Imelda and her husband. But I felt like we had to do that. You have to understand what it feels like to be seduced in that way, the way the Philippine people were. … If you haven’t been seduced, then having a broken heart doesn’t matter,” Byrne explains. “We play on that in the show, absolutely. The audience is kind of seduced by all the music and the dancing and everything like that, and they’re being led down the garden path into a dictatorship. … You, as an audience member, are substituted for the Philippine people. You’re cheering on the Marcoses, applauding and dancing with them as they get elected and come to power. … And then it matters when things go wrong.”

The slow seduction of Here Lies Love — for which the reconstructed Broadway Theatre was transformed into a fully immersive space with 900 seats ripped out to create a Studio 54-like club environment — is similar in a way to the staging of the Jonathan Demme-directed Stop Making Sense, which begins on a sparse stage and then continues to populate with each song.

“There’s a connection with Stop Making Sense in that. Back then, I began to question, why do we always stage shows the same way? Maybe we can rethink the way shows are staged, and maybe you don’t have to just assume, ‘Well, we’re going do it this way, because that’s the way it’s always done,’” Byrne muses. “That was maybe the first time I thought, ‘Let’s rethink what a rock concert could be and how we can stage it and how we can build it, little by little.’ Let the audience see how the whole show is put together, how the music is put together, how the staging is put together, and then kind of flick the switch and put it all into action.” (Side note: Byrne further redefined what a concert experience could be with his American Utopia tour and accompanying Broadway rock spectacle from 2018 to 2022, but he quips that the only way that that musical’s Grammy-winning success affected the Broadway evolution of Here Lies Love is it “helped us get backing and funding!”)

The love of dance is a thread that runs through Byrne’s work — with the Heads, with American Utopia, with the disco-tastic Here Lies Love, even with his hedonistic, key-party-themed “Toe Jam” video with Fatboy Slim’s side-project BPA, which he jokes was his “payback” after he drafted the techno artist to work on the latter musical. “I’m not a trained dancer, but I love to dance. It took me a while to realize that my own quirky movements were OK,” admits Byrne, crediting pop star Toni Basil, who choreographed Talking Heads’ iconic “Once in a Lifetime” video, for helping him realize, “I didn’t have to do what the trained dancers did. I could come up with my own [movements]. So, that was super helpful on Stop Making Sense. We did kind of a similar process to what Toni used to do, where you would have people just kind of jam and move the way they wanted and what they felt at a particular point.”

Byrne adds with a chuckle, “Once Talking Heads got past the initial stage of not moving whatsoever, then I totally embraced dance and choreography and movement and everything onstage. … But before that, I thought, ‘Hmm, I’d rather not do anything than try and do what other people are doing and fail.’” And then a fledgling cable network premiered seven months after “Once in a Lifetime’s” release. “We were lucky that MTV came along, because it gave us a visual outlet that we could latch onto. It was like, ‘Oh, yeah, we know how to do this!’”

While the above-mentioned “Life During Wartime,” which came out two years before MTV, was misguidedly adopted by rock proponents of the “Disco Sucks” movement of 1979, Byrne actually recalls the halcyon era, when Talking Heads first arrived on the scene, as “a nice moment there, where there was an intersection with rock and dance and hip-hop and disco and club music. Everything was possible. You could integrate and mix all those kinds of things. That felt right.” As for the disco backlash that ensued, Byrne said, “I would say race [was the reason]. Right now we still have radio stations that are called the ‘rock’ station and then we have the ‘urban’ station, which actually means Black; it doesn’t mean just people who live in cities. So, radio in the U.S. is still… very segregated. But who knows? Maybe that’ll break down.”

David Byrne attends the ‘Here Lies Love’ Broadway opening night at Broadway Theatre on July 20, 2023 in New York City. (John Nacion/Getty Images)

But Byrne has obviously never stayed in one lane musically, and when he looks back on his half-century career, he chuckles as he recalls the early flak Talking Heads caught from confused radio programmers back when they first mixed disco and rock. “We got a little bit of pushback. There was some fans who were like, ‘Oh, I liked you when you were kind of a smaller band and you were edgier!’ You know, that kind of thing; you always get that. But most of the reaction that way was from radio; they felt that we gotten a little too funky for white folks! And so, there was resistance to playing some of our music for a little while. Then eventually we kind of crossed over, and it was fine.”

And if there was any better evidence of just how much Talking Heads crossed over, it was Fred Armisen and Bill Hader’s recent Stop Making Sense parody for IFC’s Documentary Now! series, in which Armisen played baggy-suited and very Byrne-like frontman Lee Smith. Byrne seems to think imitation is the highest form of flattery, as he says Armisen, Hader, and Maya Rudolph “did a pretty brilliant job” portraying the fictional, Heads-esque art-punk band Test Pattern in the Documentary Now! episode titled “Final Transmission.”

“I was in a club once, a small club here in New York to actually to see a different act, and Fred got up; he was like the opening act,” Byrne recalls with a laugh. “He got up and did an imitation of me — and didn’t know that I was in the audience. It was great! He was really good. And he came over immediately afterwards and he goes, ‘I had no idea you were here. I’m so sorry! I hope it didn’t bother you.’ And I thought, ‘No, no, no, no. It was brilliant.’”

Watch Yahoo Entertainment’s extended David Byrne interview below, in which he discusses his the pioneering production behind Here Lies Love, the chances of it ever becoming a big-screen movie musical, and why its storyline resonates even more now than it did when he and Fatboy Slim began working on it in 2005.

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