Tom Tom Club’s Chris Frantz On David Byrne, Brian Eno And Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry

Julian Marszalek speaks to the Tom Tom Club and Talking Heads mainstay Chris Frantz

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If Talking Heads always seemed to exist in another world to the CBGBs punk scene that nurtured them, Tom Tom Club offered yet another alternative. Formed in 1981 by Talking Heads’ bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz, Tom Tom Club’s sunny, tropical funk was an antidote to the art-school cerebralism of Remain In Light.

Almost 30 years on, Tom Tom Club’s debut sounds as bright as when the stylus hit its grooves the first time round. Sprightly, breezy and infused with an unselfconscious sense of fun, it sounded – as it still does – like a very modern record. Drawing a line in the sand, Tom Tom Club eschewed the influences of their CBGBs contemporaries by immersing themselves in funk, R&B and the then-revolutionary sounds of the nascent hip-hop movement.

The irony, of course, was that what was meant to be a light-hearted vacation away from Talking Heads became a highly influential album that spawned two global hits in the form of ‘Wordy Rappinghood’ and ‘Genius Of Love’, tracks that are guaranteed to fill dancefloors to this very day.

With their debut album and its follow-up, Close To the Bone, set to be re-released in re-mastered and expanded formats alongside an appearance at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire as part of Island Records’ 50th anniversary celebrations, drummer Chris Frantz took some time out to discuss the circumstances that led to their formation, how they nearly came to work with Lee "Scratch" Perry and how the experience of recording Remain In Light shaped Tom Tom Club’s debut.

What were the circumstances that led to the formation of Tom Tom Club?

Chris Frantz: "Well, of course, we were really busy with Talking Heads and our singer, David Byrne, said that he was going to do a solo album and that ended up being called The Catherine Wheel but that he didn’t know how long it was going to take. Then Jerry Harrison, our keyboard player, said, ‘Well, if David’s going to do a solo album then I’m gong to do a solo album!’ So those two guys told us that they were going to be doing solo albums.

"We had just come off tour in 1980 for Remain In Light with the expanded line up and it had really been a great tour and very exciting but it was expensive for us so at the end of the tour our accountant said, ‘Well, you’ve gotta do something because you’ve only got a couple of thousand dollars in the bank!’ So Tina [Weymouth] and I looked at each other and said, ‘What shall we do?’ Tina didn’t want to do a solo album and I didn’t want to do a solo album, so we thought that what we’d do is form some kind of ensemble, some kind of collective that would make a recording. We appealed to [Island Records boss] Chris Blackwell – who we had met through our manager, Gary Kurfirst – and asked if we could do a single and Chris said, ‘Well, why don’t you come down and do a whole album?’

"So Chris Blackwell had the foresight to realise that a rhythm section was totally capable of making a really cool album. We went down to Compass Point studio in Nassau and we started recording what became ‘Wordy Rappinghood’.

"We were kinda busy with Talking Heads and had to go back out on the road so the first album we recorded in two parts. We recorded ‘Wordy Rappinghood’ and then mixed it alongside ‘Genius of Love’ and ‘Lorelei’ and then we had to take time out to go back out on the road with Talking Heads and then we came back and finished the album. This time though, we came back with [Talking Heads tour guitarist] Adrian Belew. Grace Jones was in the studio next door and we were fortunate to have [uber-rhythm section] Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare come in to do some handclaps and we had Tyrone Downey from The Wailers come on down to play keyboards. We also brought down Tina’s sisters Laura and Bonnie to help us sing."

There’s a lot of joy on the album. It must have been quite a happy experience . . .

CF: "Oh, it was! I should also give props to Stephen Stanley, the engineer. We were originally supposed to be produced by Lee "Scratch" Perry. See, we were very interested in dub music and the way it was kinda deconstructing songs and we had a great deal of respect for Lee Perry. Chris Blackwell then offered to arrange a meeting with him in New York and so we met with him there. We had a nice chat with him and he said, ‘Oh yeah, man; I can do it.’

"We had envisioned that he might bring a lot of musicians with him and we were open to being directed by him but after he’d agreed to do it and we’d set a date and booked the studio, we were then waiting in Nassau for him to arrive. And waiting and waiting and waiting and after about three weeks we thought, ‘OK, so this guy’s not coming!’ We tried to reach him and he was unable to be reached.

"And so this young Jamaican kid called Stephen Stanley – at the time he was just barely into his twenties – stepped in. We’d been cutting Remain In Light at Compass Point and the engineer, Red Davies, just upped and left; he’d had a dispute with Brian Eno. So we had no engineer and we were raring to go and Stephen recorded the basic tracks for ‘Once In A Lifetime’. We were really impressed with his capabilities and his speed in the studio and getting things done quickly so we had a good impression of him and we liked him personally and we said to Chris Blackwell, ‘How about we just work with Stephen and not with "Scratch"?’ and Chris said, ‘OK, good idea.’ He was kinda like a junior version of Lee Perry but without the, er, idiosyncrasy!"

Stephen Stanley’s recording methods differed from Brian Eno’s. Did Eno’s methodology have any bearing on Tom Tom Club?

CF: "In many ways we worked in a similar style. Remain In Light was written as we recorded it and much of Tom Tom Club was recorded the same way although we did demo ‘Genius Of Love’ but we just didn’t have the time to make demos. We just went in and started recording and pretty much improvised as we went.

"One thing that was very different from Remain In Light was that we felt very burnt by the credits dispute on that album so we went over and gave credit to everybody on the album including the tape op! You could say we went overboard but it was reaction against the credit narcissism that we’d experienced before [when David Byrne and Brian Eno attempted to claim sole writing and production credits] and we didn’t want anybody to get the impression that we were the goose that laid the golden the egg.

"That whole issue of credit on Remain In Light was awful; it was just appalling. Simply appalling. But that’s all water under the bridge now and there’s no question that David and Brian are very interesting and wonderful artists but it’s too bad that they didn’t see we were all not only major contributors artistically but that we were backing it financially too.

"But with Tom Tom Club the idea was to give everybody in the band a piece of the action."

How did you decide on the album’s collaborators?

CF: "We targeted Adrian because he’d been working with Talking Heads and it was a coincidence that Sly and Robbie were in the studio next to us. We’d met them at Compass Point before and we were very friendly with the Compass Point All-Stars."

What sort of influences were Tom Tom Club soaking up?

CF: "Reggae music, dub, American soul music, early hip-hop and also I guess French stuff like Jane Birkin and chanson music all influenced us."

The debut sounds remarkably fresh after all this time . . . to what do you attribute this?

CF: "Well, it doesn’t really sound like anybody else; when you listen to Tom Tom Club it’s difficult for me to compare it to other things. I think it has a really unique flavour and that has a lot to do with it. Also, it was really well recorded and mixed and it has a lot of space on it. I guess we’re just lucky that it has a timeless quality and I’m really pleased that you’ve noticed that.

"And I guess that being in the Bahamas contributed to that sense of fun and joy and it all got captured on tape. We were all reacting against the dark side; let me put it this way – we didn’t want this record to sound like all our other records with Talking Heads. We thought this was an opportunity to go off in a new direction that was not only more fun but different."

Looking back at that period does it bother you that a lot of the CBGBs alumni were down on disco and dance music and when you read Please Kill Me: An Oral History Of Punk, if feels like Talking Heads have been completely airbrushed from the history of that scene?

CF: "Not really because I think that Please Kill Me is a fun read but I must confess that, having read it, I didn’t realise that I’d spent every night in CBGBs surrounded by junkies and prostitutes! If I’d have known I might have had some more fun! No, I had a wonderful time at CBGBs and, in fact, I’ve been asked to DJ at this gathering they’re going to have for all the people that used to hang out at CBGBs. I’ve been thinking that a lot of my favourite records from that time are disco records and dance music so who knows what will happen if I put on Afrika Bambaataa’s ‘Planet Rock’? Will everyone turn round and yell at me?

"But you know, with Talking Heads we were always inspired by people like Al Green, Smokey Robinson and Otis Redding and I always remember {New York Dolls and Heartbreakers guitarist] Johnny Thunders coming up to us the first time we played and asking, because Tina was playing bass, ‘Are you guys a feminist band?’

"We knew that we couldn’t do The Rolling Stones or The Who or Led Zeppelin and so we deliberately went off in a completely different direction. I guess I was the first person to play like a disco beat underneath a post-modern song arrangement at CBGBs. The thing is, people didn’t really notice because the rest of the music was so off-kilter."

You mentioned black working class influences like Al Green and Otis Redding. You felt the funk then?

CF: "I guess we did. I mean, ‘Genius Of Love’ was completely inspired by a band called Zapp and their song, ‘More Bounce To The Ounce’, but it’s not a rip-off. If you play the two together you’ll see that it was a source of inspiration for us. And James Brown was a tremendous influence on Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club. Let’s face it: James Brown is the king of them all!"

After David Bowie, Tom Tom Club were the first white artists to play Soul Train while ‘Genius Of Love’ was a big hit on black radio stations. How big a deal was that for you?

CF: "It was great because Tina and I bonded as art students at the Rhode Island School Of Design watching Soul Train every Saturday morning. I had a tiny black and white TV in my apartment and I’d invite Tina over to watch Soul Train and this was when the show was still in Chicago before they moved to LA.

"We were asked to do Soul Train in LA when we were out there shooting Stop Making Sense. That was quite a big day; we got up and did Soul Train and then that night shot Stop Making Sense. Yeah, that was a super big day! But it felt like a wonderful crossover. Here we are on this really cool TV show called Soul Train and that must mean we’ve got soul! That’s what we wanted – to have soul."

Looking back at that time, how do you view the legacy of Tom Tom Club?

CF: "I think we had a pretty strong influence on R&B music. I think there’s a lot of R&B music that was heavily influenced by the production of The Tom Tom Club and . . . it’s hard to say what the legacy of The Tom Tom Club is but I know we have one! I think one thing we did was to present an alternative to what people were calling ‘Alternative’ and I think ours is an ‘Alternative Funk’ or something like that. We also made it clear that it was possible to have good time – that you could be cool without ‘cool’ being a prerequisite."

The re-mastered and expanded edition of Tom Tom Club and Close To The Bone are out now

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