Road to somewhere

The pop maverick David Byrne has built a label in his own image: quirky, intriguing - and very successful
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The wonderfully eclectic world-music label Luaka Bop and the musical tastes of the former Talking Heads front man, David Byrne, are inextricably linked: Byrne has always been one of pop music's great eccentrics and has often harnessed the power of Latino and African rhythms in his music, so it's no surprise that Luaka Bop originated from that maelstrom of creative energy.

The wonderfully eclectic world-music label Luaka Bop and the musical tastes of the former Talking Heads front man, David Byrne, are inextricably linked: Byrne has always been one of pop music's great eccentrics and has often harnessed the power of Latino and African rhythms in his music, so it's no surprise that Luaka Bop originated from that maelstrom of creative energy.

What is surprising, even to Byrne, is its success. Providing a decent alternative to Peter Gabriel's Real World imprint, Byrne and his co-conspirator, Yale Evelev, have carved out a classy, colourful and adventurous back-catalogue. Artists such as the alt-Americana singer-songwriter Jim White, the groove-merchants Zap Mama, the Afro-Peruvian songbird Susana Baca and the legendary psychedelic Brazilian trio Os Mutantes have been given a new lease of life through the off-kilter vision of Byrne and Evelev - and the musical landscape would look a lot less colourful without them.

The idea for Luaka Bop formulated in the late Eighties, when Byrne was at the tail end of Talking Heads and about to embark on a successful solo career. "I'd been doing mix tapes of Brazilian and Cuban music for myself and for friends," he says from his office in New York. "When people make mix tapes, they spend ages annotating them and sequencing the tracks, so I realised that, with a little bit more graphic design and some legal work, I could put this stuff out. But I didn't realistically think they would reach a very large public, even though they were my personal favourites."

The first release of Brazilian classics from the Seventies and Eighties, Beleza Tropical, exceeded expectations."It did really well; better than my own record, in fact," he says. "And I think from the beginning, part of the idea was to present this music, not as if it was ethnic recordings for the academic musicologist, but that it was cool, hip music. As cool as anything else you might be hearing in New York or wherever. So through the graphic design, the label notes and the choice of material, I think that's what we managed to achieve."

Releases such as the Brazilian Classics series, and subsequent albums from the likes of Brazilian avant-garde Tropicalista Tom Zé, and Venezuelan funk combo Los Amigos Invisibles, gave Luaka Bop a particular Latin American feel. "It came from me living in New York," he says. "A good percentage of the town is Latin American. Like other major cities, the former colonies are present. I'd been going to Latin clubs and seeing a lot of Latin rock bands, but it never got mentioned in the mainstream press, even though the audiences would often be huge. So, it was a natural step to represent these kinds of artists on our label."

Los Amigos's José Luis Pardo remembers how the band came to the attention of Byrne. "We came here in '95 to do some gigs, and luckily left five copies of our first record with a Venezuelan friend, who was manager of Tower Records in New York," he says. "David picked up one of these and I guess he was really impressed with it because, a month later, he sent Yale to check us out. It was flattering to be picked up by David."

Luaka Bop's most celebrated artist, Baca, whose career spiralled after her self-titled album was released by the label. "I met David through the children of some friends who loaned me Rei Momo, on which he sang with Celia Cruz," she says. "When he came to Peru with Yale, his all-seeing eyes sparkled with energy and interest. I love to cook, so we decided to have them over to the house. We invited a friend who spoke English and had the most wonderful time."

"Although Luaka Bop isn't a very big recording company, it's a daring one. It has the audacity of presenting very creative music, made by honest musicians, and I think it is this that marks the difference from other companies. It has a special sensibility when receiving new material, and is respectful of your music and creation. My relationship with Luaka Bop is full of anecdotes and magic, and I love David very much."

Sérgio Dias, of Os Mutantes, believes that their best-of compilation was the end result of renewed interest in the band. "The Luaka deal was a consequence of our music and ideas having already reached out to people," he says. "I think our approach of pushing the envelope inspired many people, and I know that Mutantes had already played an important role on the alternative scene, and that guys such as Beck, Nirvana, L7, The Bangles, Sean Lennon and many others were drinking from our waters." The compilation gave many people the chance to hear Os Mutantes for the first time, and gave Dias the impetus to plan a series of reunion concerts in Brazil.

White, on the other hand, was an example of Byrne's wish to nurture new talent, even when it wasn't recognised elsewhere. "I'd recorded this demo with a dodgy four-track, and it was possibly the worst tape ever," says White. "All the major record labels rejected it, and I thought my friend was joking when she rang me to say that Luaka Bop was interested. When I walked into the office, David came running up and said that it was an honour to meet such a great songwriter. Then, the next thing I knew, he asked his assistant if there was any interesting post today and started opening it up in front of me. So, I'd gone from feeling this thrill of adulation to wondering what I should do next? When he eventually looked up, he asked if I was going to be using any pedal steel guitar on the album? I came away not really knowing if I had a record label or not." His debut album, The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus!, became one of the labels biggest critical successes.

Byrne says that its approach to signing artists is a mixture of liking the music and seeing whether it's financially feasible to sign a particular act. "We do have to be realistic and think what kind of artist we can connect with on the ground level," he says. "Hopefully we'll be able to nurture their talent and give them a chance for their careers to blow up. But you never know. We heard an early demo on Nelly Furtado and it was quite different from her album - quite raw and sung in Portuguese and English. We really liked it, but didn't realise there was a bidding war for her. In a situation like that, you congratulate yourself for having the same tastes as a million other people and take sustenance in the fact that your taste isn't completely on the fringe.

"I always feel the same way about everything, whether it's my own stuff, Talking Heads or Luaka Bop. Every so often something clicks, and you can't predict what it's going to be. I can't make it happen, but occasionally it does. And other stuff will have a smaller audience, but that's OK because as long as its got longevity, you can survive - and so can the artist."

Eight classic Luaka Bop albums have just been reissued by V2

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