Talking Tom Tom Club: Chris Frantz & Tina Weymouth Interviewed

As Tom Tom Club hit the UK, Stephen Dalton sits down for a fascinating chat about Talking Heads, their relationship with David Byrne, their creative and romantic relationship, and why working with the Happy Mondays was even more difficult than you might have thought

Thirty years ago, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz checked into Compass Point studios in Nassau and began recording some of history’s most uplifting, intoxicating, euphoric sunshine-pop anthems. Initially a one-off side project between Talking Heads albums, Tom Tom Club scored instant chart success on both sides of the Atlantic with their evergreen early singles ‘Genius of Love’ and ‘Wordy Rappinghood’. This light-headed groove collective became a forward-thinking melting pot where rap, reggae and funk met art-rock downtown. This was a disco. This was a party. But Chris and Tina clearly were not fooling around.

Married since 1977, Weymouth and Frantz rose to fame as the rhythm section of New York City’s most influential and revered post-punk band, but they were already becoming estranged from their former art-school friend David Byrne by the time Tom Tom Club launched. Talking Heads functioned sporadically for another decade, finally unravelling messily in 1991 after the singer told an LA Times reporter the band had split. He later admitted he was just trying to change the subject, but this shock news left his bandmates angry and bereft. Relations with Byrne remain frosty to this day.

But Tom Tom Club soldiered on. In between producing and recording with the likes of Happy Mondays, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed and Gorillaz, they have now released five studio albums over three decades. Even as Chris and Tina turn 60, their liquid carnival grooves and dreamy singalong lyrics remain agelessly sublime, and arguably more influential than even Talking Heads – ‘Genius of Love’ and ‘Wordy Rappinghood’ alone have been sampled or covered by countless artists, including Grandmaster Flash, Mariah Carey, Tupac, Coolio and Busta Rhymes.

Now based in Connecticut, with a newly refurbished home studio, Chris and Tina recently began recording new material again following a long sabbatical. Chris also hosts a monthly show on the local public radio station, WPKN. With a newly re-issued double album, Live @ The Clubhouse, Tom Tom Club are currently touring to celebrate their 30th anniversary. They play six dates in Britain this week, their first for a decade. Go see them. It’s fun. Natural fun.

It’s been more than a decade since Tom Tom Club’s last studio album, The Good, The Bad, and The Funky. Why the long delay?

Chris Frantz: We had a lot going on in our lives. We have families, we have kids, we have parents. I don’t want to go into specific detail but sometimes family takes precedence over art. But now, everything seems to be cool so we are back on track again, and very happy to be coming to the UK and Ireland – people in the UK have always been great to us, both with Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club.

The Tom Tom Club line-up has obviously changed over 30 years. Tina’s sisters Lani and Laura are no longer in the band, right?

Tina Weymouth: No they’re not, they opted out. They don’t like touring, they don’t like leaving their husbands and so on – they don’t dig it the way I do.

Clearly the trick is to get your husband to play in the band with you…

TW: That’s probably a lot to do with it, ha! Actually it was the other way around, he got me in the band. He’d been trying that for years, and finally succeeded.

You originally booked dub reggae legend Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry to produce your debut single ‘Genius of Love’, but he failed to turn up at Compass Point studios. Have you ever wondered how that record might have sounded if he had?

CF: I have thought about it often! Ha! We love Lee Perry, but with hindsight it is probably just as well he didn’t turn up. We have spent some time with him over the years, also down at Compass Point when he was working on one of his own records – I guess you could say he was hiding out there at the invitation of Chris Blackwell. We got to know him a bit and he’s a truly remarkable person. I heard him once, when Paul McCartney asked to work with him, he said something to the effect of: ‘Yes, I’ll do a record for Paul McCartney, but I don’t want to have to deal with the artist…’ Ha!

Those early Tom Tom Club singles were pretty groundbreaking in mixing up disco, funk, reggae and rap with post-punk art-school attitude. Was that a conscious strategy?

TW: It was sort of organically grown that way. We wanted to make a dance record, we didn’t want to sound like our other band and compete with that. We wanted to make something more escapist. And I think we succeeded rather well, actually.

CF: It was partly a reflection of where we lived, but more a reflection of our record collections and what we liked to listen to in our loft at home. We have always been very fond of American soul music and R&B and reggae, and then there was this new thing called hip hop – actually it wasn’t even called hip hop yet, they called it ‘rap music’. We were coming off a Talking Heads album called Remain in Light – a great, wonderful, amazing record. But we wanted to do something that was more of a party record, a bit more festive, something that would work easily on a dancefloor.

Were you keen clubbers during this period? Did you go to legendary New York discos like Studio 54 and Paradise Garage?

CF: I only went to Studio 54 two times. I did go to Paradise Garage, but more often it would be the Mudd Club or Danceteria. Yes, we were habitués… Tina and I are excellent dancers.

New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s is often mythologised nowadays as a hugely creative arty-party scene. You were at the heart of that whirlwind, living and making music in downtown Manhattan. Do you ever miss it?

TW: No. I love thinking about it, I love reading the books, I love seeing old friends from that time – but I don’t really want to go back at all. Ha! I would really rather go forward. It’s romanticised now in the same way we all love that 1920s period in Paris – actually, even though I can’t stand him as a person, Woody Allen made a wonderful little commentary on that in his latest film, Midnight in Paris. It’s all about fantasising about another time. But I understand that desire, and I certainly would like to go back to a time when radio had real DJs, and deregulation hadn’t killed the music business, because there was much more room for so many different kinds of acts.

Even in the supposedly progressive post-punk era, it was still rare to see women in bands. Did you feel like a feminist trailblazer at the time, Tina?

TW: No, because I always thought to see myself specifically that way was to rob myself of my actual work, which was not all about feminism. I was about music per se, I didn’t want to put the focus on the feminine part.

You were certainly never marketed as a sex symbol, not even in a knowing and empowered way like Debbie Harry…

TW: Well, I wasn’t sexy like Debbie…

Ahem, I beg to differ…

TW: Oh dear. Ha! Thank you, that’s very kind. But the truth is, that would never have worked for us, we weren’t like that, With Debbie, I think they actually wanted to cover up her actual genius. And she used it, you know, it was fun for her to kind of hide behind it. She didn’t have to play smart, she could just be smart.

Hilly Kristal’s legendary Manhattan punk club CBGBs finally closed in 2006. Did you mourn its passing or had it become an irrelevant relic of a lost age?

CF: I’m sorry it closed, because it was still the only place in town where kids in bands who had dreams of playing in New York could go without any record company support. They could audition and Hilly would usually say yes, and then they would have a platform from which to launch themselves – just like we did, and Television and Patti Smith and the Ramones, all those great bands. Yes, maybe things weren’t quite as exciting as they had been at CBGBs, but both of my kids played there with their bands, and that was the only place in New York City where they could get a gig. So I feel like it still had an important purpose, and I’m sorry it’s gone.

There were already tensions between you two and David Byrne when Tom Tom Club started, and yet Talking Heads still managed to stumble on for another decade. Do you think the commercial success of those early Tom Tom Club singles helped prolong the Heads?

CF: It actually did, yes. It’s really no secret that David always had his sights set on a career outside Talking Heads – he felt like that was just one phase of his development. And I think the fact that we were selling tons of record on our first album, and getting lots of airplay, and having people sample our songs – that made David think, ‘Oh, maybe these people are still of value to me.’ Ha! But bless David’s heart, I don’t really want to disparage him because the stuff that we did together was so remarkable and outstanding… but, you know, nobody’s perfect.

You have often criticised David as emotionally remote, inarticulate and self-absorbed in previous interviews. He told me recently he had come to the conclusion that he is slightly autistic, do you think this may explain his behaviour in Talking Heads?

CF: Yes, and if you know anything about autism then you know it’s not something that can be cured. It doesn’t go away. A lot of people are on what’s called the ‘high functioning’ end, and I think in David’s case that is very likely true.

You mean he is like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man?

CF: Well, ha, not exactly… but he is an excellent driver.

TW: In Talking Heads, I didn’t like it that people would say: ‘What is that guy? Is he a moron or a genius?’ So I said, ‘Oh, he’s a genius’ – I much preferred that people thought that. But that’s not true either, none of us are Stephen Hawking. If that was the case we’d be the Hawking Heads… ha!

When Talking Heads reunited to play the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, Chris called it a ‘happy ending’. But is it true you then proposed a full reunion, which David firmly rejected?

CF: Well, I think we all hoped – Jerry and Tina and I – that David would just kind of wake up and think: ‘What was I thinking? Talking Heads was a great band, wonderful chemistry, why don’t we just take one more lap around the track just for the hell of it?’ But I guess in the back of our minds we knew that was not on David’s agenda.

So David has completely dismissed any reunion plans?

TW: Oh yeah, several times.

Have you literally turned down million-dollar offers to reform?

CF: I didn’t! I might be a drummer but I’m not stupid!

How do things stand between you and David now? Would you call him a friend?

CF: Um… ‘friend’ is not really an accurate word. I would say… er… ‘longtime collaborator’.

Do you actually miss the friendship you once had in Talking Heads, or just the musical chemistry?

TW: Oh, the musical chemistry was definitely special, but you can’t get anything back. It’s all about now-stalgia, that’s what we’ve got to aim for today. A friend of mine came up with that one. Let’s just be here in this present moment and enjoy it.

Maybe it is best to accept that great bands have a finite natural lifespan? Lots of rock reunions often look cheesy and forced, after all…

TW: That wasn’t true for us, though, because people are still copying us. Fortunately it’s not so bad for Chris and I, we have had our own band for 30 years, our other band. But I did feel really terrible at the time because I thought we were doing something really wonderful, and I thought it was all quite a lie to say that was over when that wasn’t the case. But I don’t think about it much any more. It took a long time for my kids to even find out about Talking Heads. They really didn’t know what a good band we used to have until the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But now, as Chris likes to say, its all Courvoisier under the bridge.

You two have also just celebrated your 34th wedding anniversary, which must be the longest marriage in rock history. What is your secret?

CF: It’s some kind of miracle, really. You know, Tina’s adorable, and always will be, and I do my best to be, er, a good boyfriend. I think that’s part of it – tenderness, affection, those things go a long way in a marriage. I still think of her as my girlfriend.

TW: The secret? Amazing good luck. I got really super lucky! I never expected that I would marry, I wasn’t groomed for it. I have five sisters – I was groomed to be a teacher or maybe an artist of some kind. I was taught hard work and the rewards of it, and told not to be selfish. And then I had these other sisters, younger, incredibly beautiful, and it was like they were going to marry diplomats and give great parties and dress in fine clothes. I never really anticipated that I would be marriageable, I never identified with the princesses in fairy tales, I was much more likely to identify with the knight in shining armour or whoever got to ride horses. Ha! Tomboy stuff.

You are also both from military families. Do you think that was a factor?

TW: That helps. He understands, he doesn’t have a ridiculous idea about it. The military was great: we would move all the time, and the families are the last people to want to see war. We were like the peace movement, the original peace movement. My dad was one of the founders of Veterans For Peace. So I think it helped that we could both understand where the other was coming from – there wasn’t this Hollywood demonisation going on. For us the military was a meritocracy, you don’t get where you’re going without having earned it. It’s not like politicians, it’s not about how much money you have.

So Chris, are you the ‘laughing boyfriend’ that Tina sings about in ‘Genius of Love’, or is the lyric not that literal?

CF: Um… I think maybe it is that literal, ha! At least that’s what Tina told me.

Soon after Talking Heads officially split, you produced the 1992 Happy Mondays album Yes Please!, the notorious crack-fuelled multiple-injury car-crash later credited with destroying Factory Records. Were those Barbados sessions as apocalyptic as they have been painted?

CF: It was even more chaotic than it has been painted. You had to be there to really understand how dreadful things were. Tina and I went into that project completely unprepared for what the Happy Mondays were like – at least Shaun Ryder and the management. All we knew was they were this happening band from England, recording in Barbados, why not? We went there with all the best intentions as we had just done a couple of platinum records for Ziggy Marley, and we felt: we can handle this. And we did handle it, but we should have really quit after the second or third day. But we’re just not quitters, so we hung in there. And we always loved Tony Wilson, he was a big champion of Talking Heads from the first time we ever went to Manchester, so we were happy to be involved in something to do with him. We hung in there, but in retrospect it is kind of a miracle that any record got made at all.

TW: We were thrown a little bit off balance, we had just been hit with a newspaper article announcing that our band had broken up, so it was like a reactive reflex. I just wanted to flee – ‘Sure, yeah! You want to make a record like Nirvana? Sure, we’ll go to Barbados, that sounds like fun!’ Ha! We really didn’t know what we were getting into. We should have done what Paul Oakenfold did, he did a much better job because he didn’t give the band what they wanted. That would have been better for Tony Wilson too. What a great guy, he really didn’t get what he deserved with that one. He did all the right things, he got Shaun into rehab… Shaun is incorrigible, but you still can’t take away from the fact that he’s an artist. Crazy, but there you go.

Listening back to it today, that album is not as awful as its reputation suggests…

CF: It got terrible reviews when it came out, but I went back and listened to a few of the tracks after I saw 24 Hour Party People. There is some cool stuff there. But it was trial by fire.

Are you still friendly with Shaun?

TW: I would not call him a friend, but an acquaintance. If he can use me, he would. Ha! That’s how friendly it gets. But Paul Ryder, we had him open for Tom Tom Club with his new group in Los Angeles last autumn, he’s a very decent fellow. All of them are decent, it’s just Shaun is off his rocker. He’s a true wild man.

A few years later, you ended up as guests on the first Gorillaz album. How did that connection happen?

CF: Dan The Automator was a friend of ours, and he was producing that record. We were vaguely acquainted with Damon from when he was the bartender at the Portobello hotel – we would come in late after a Tom Tom Club or Talking Heads show and he would be the bartender at this very fabulous London hotel. Then later on, he became famous. He asked us to do one track, they sent us the files, we did our thing and they seemed happy with it. But we never saw Damon… haven’t seen him since either, ha! Although I would love to.

So what is the future for Tom Tom Club after this anniversary tour?

CF: We are planning on continuing with Tom Tom Club, but in addition we are going to do other things. We might just call it ‘Chris and Tina’, because when people hear the name Tom Tom Club they expect a certain type of music – fun, escapist, good-time songs. And we don’t always feel that way – a lot of the time we do, but sometimes even we have a darker side.

TW: Right now we just invested all of our remaining life savings into rebuilding our home studio. It’s 20 years old and, just like an old car, it was coming to juddering halt. So we recuperated, recycled all we could, and rebuilt. Now all we want to do is just be in there and work on new stuff. I have no idea what will come out of it, but as long as we still have friends out there who are interested, we will come and play.

July 14th – Cardiff University

July 15th, 16, 17th – London, Jazz Cafe

July 19th – Birmingham, HMV Institute

July 21st – Glasgow, ABC

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