|2001 - Genuises Of Love (MusicToday)|
Genuises Of Love: Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Tom Tom Club
Always trying to escape the constraints and expectations established by creating popular music, Weymouth and Frantz also realize the value of a recognizable name. The Tom Tom Club, now that the Talking Heads are no more, serves as a home base for fans and offers the founding duo an outlet to create fun dance music with people they respect and enjoy. Musictoday talked to Chris and Tina about their background, the Tom Tom Club, the Talking Heads, performing live, and the overriding passion that these two continue to have for music.
Musictoday: How did you and Tina meet, and when did you decide to pursue music together?
Chris Frantz: We met in a painting class when we were in the Rhode Island School of Design. We got along very well together and we began sharing a studio together. When we graduated and moved to New York, we had this vague idea that I would form a band and she would be a painter, but everything was up in the air. I found a loft near the Bowery and invited both Tina and David Byrne to live with me. The understanding was that David and I were going to start a band and look for additional musicians. I approached a few people, but they kind of looked at me and then looked at David, and shook their heads and said, "No." [laughs] We didn't have that rock star look. After a few months of not finding someone…You know, when you're starting a band and you want it to be something a little different than what's out there, you can't just get some guy who recycles old blues licks, old Chuck Berry licks, which is what a lot of bands at the time were doing. But when you're starting a band, the chemistry is very important, you need someone who shares the same aesthetic. More and more, I started to think, I should just ask Tina. Much to my surprise and David's, and after some thought, she went out and put a deposit on a bass guitar [Tina had been playing folk guitar until that point]. We didn't have much money then, because we were all working day jobs, so it took her a while to accumulate the money. But then one day, she came home with a new bass and an amp and the rest is history.
Mt: That was when?
Chris: That was 1974.
Mt: What prompted this side project (Tom Tom Club) in the first place?
Chris: We had just finished the big Remain in Light tour with Talking Heads, and David had announced that he was going to do a solo project and Jerry [Harrison] had announced he was going to do one, and I thought, "Well, what do we do?" So we decided to do a record, and Chris Blackwell of Island Records, whom we had met while working with the Talking Heads down in Nassau, said, "Why don't you come down to my studio and record a single, and if I like it, we'll have you do a whole album." So, we went down there and the first thing we recorded was "Wordy Rappinghood," which did very well all over Europe and Latin America and even Southeast Asia. Basically, it was number one in, like, 17 countries. Chris Blackwell heard that song and said, "Now I want you to do a whole album."
Mt: What was it like when "Genius of Love" and "Wordy Rappinghood" broke on radio? How did that affect your life?
Chris: It was positive. It gave us new confidence. It was surprising, because in America, it sold primarily to a black audience and we had not previously had much success with that audience. It was interesting that the R&B crowd really liked "Genius of Love," and still does. I still hear the song on Hot 97 in New York. All of a sudden, we had respect from the R&B community and the soon-to-be-called hip hop community. You know, when I hear it called "the hip hop community," I always wonder where that community is. [laughs]
Mt: I heard that you recently recut "Genius" for the X-ecutioners because the original masters to the song had been lost.
Chris: Yeah, we tried to reproduce it note for note, and I think we did a pretty good job. We gave the X-ecutioners the tracks and they pressed up on vinyl different parts that they liked and scratched it into a new song. It's really good.
Mt: So how does a label misplace the masters to that song, a song that big?
Chris: They just lost it somehow. We found out that this happens all the time. Once an album has been released, the label owns the masters and has the right to do whatever they want with them, including losing them. I talked to one guy who worked for Aerosmith as an engineer. He said he was sent out to look for the master reel to "Dream On," and he found it in the big CBS vault, propping up an air conditioning duct, and it had water leaking down onto it.
After a recording hiatus of more than eight years, the Tom Tom Club produced The Good, The Bad, And The Funky last year. The album has brought Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz back to the forefront of dance music once again.
Mt: What spurred the idea of making the new album after so many years? In the same vein, was it difficult to pick back up after all that time?
Chris: No it wasn't difficult at all, we didn't even miss a step somehow. We had been producing some albums, and while that's great fun, it's not the same as being the artist yourself. We have our own studio, so we said let's do some more music. About this time, the comedian Bette Middler came to us and asked us to write some songs for her, which was kind of off the wall. For several reasons, those songs were never used by her, but it ended up that we had a few songs under our belt. We thought they sounded really good, so we decided to use them ourselves. We wrote some songs with Charles Pettigrew [Charles and Eddie] that were in the soul style. And we worked with Mystic Bowie and Toots from Toots and the Maytals, and it was just a good excuse to get in there and do some funky stuff.
Mt: What will your live line-up be like? Will any of your special guests that appeared on The Good, The Bad, And The Funky be present?
Chris: Unfortunately, Charles Pettigrew died last April, which is so sad. Charles was part of our show up until that point. He had cancer. We will have Mystic Bowie, a Jamaican singer we've known for about ten years. He has his own band, Mystic Bowie and the Pallbearers-they do sort of a Meters thing combined with reggae. Mystic will be touring with us. He was on the new album and also sang on our track on the Phish tribute album. Victoria Clamp [Saturn's Child] is one of our singers, and has been singing with us for over ten years. Robbie Aceto will be playing guitar, and he's capable not only of playing those choppy funky rhythm parts that we like so much, but he also is excellent at ambient, atmospheric kind of stuff. On keyboards and percussion, we have Bruce Martin, who has been with TTC for more than ten years. Abdou M'Boup [Manu Dibango, Harry Belafonte] is also playing percussion. Abdou is from Senegal.
In past years, the Tom Tom Club has had the drawing power to play consecutive nights (up to a week at a time) at the same venue-taking up residencies, they call it. This time around, Frantz, Weymouth, and company have to prove themselves all over again, one of the cruel realities of the music business. To club owners and booking agents, past success matters little. The bottom line is: will your band draw today? As Chris went to fetch Tina to the phone, he reminisced that he attended nursery school in Charlottesville, Musictoday's quaint home in Central Virginia.
Mt: Do you still get that electric charge when you get up to perform in front of people?
Tina Weymouth: Oh yeah, that's the only reason we do it. We're not getting paid. We have these great musicians with us and it gives us a real charge. And the audience gives us a charge, because they keep it interesting all the time.
Mt: Describe your ideal venue for gigging. I read that you performed at Rock in Rio in front of 350,000 people as the B-52s rhythm section. What a rush! Is that preferable to an intimate club setting?
Tina: Actually, it was 360,000. We groove off of everything, any sort of live show. There's just such a fantastic…even the inner dialogue you're having with yourself, between you and the music, which for me, is the search for God. So just playing music with other people and sharing your response to it, which is emotional, intellectual, spiritual, even physical, it feels more full of life than anything else. What can I say? It's our passion.
Mt: Are the mindsets for playing with Talking Heads vs. Tom Tom Club different?
Tina: Talking Heads was our identity; it was who we were. Tom Tom Club was an outlet that we created, so that we wouldn't step on Talking Heads. Sometimes, it kind of annoys me, because people don't understand it was a group. Because I know that Talking Heads was very much-image-wise-married to the image of David Byrne, who really wanted to take on that image, to be that puppet; whereas we always saw it as a team effort. It came together organically as a concept. The conceptual aspect of it was mainly driven by David, because he was purely a conceptual artist. He was a different kind of artist, because he didn't play any instruments or paint or anything. We were painters. Talking Heads, for me and Chris, was a very personal thing that we shared with a lot of people. It wasn't just one thing for us. In a way, I'm glad it's over, because it allows us to move beyond the restrictions that followed, partly because of people's expectations. It's the reason I'd like to move out of Tom Tom Club, too. Do you know about this project the Gorillaz?
Mt: Yes, we actually just reviewed the disc for the site.
Tina: You know, Chris and I are on it, too. It's very much done with the spirit of Tom Tom Club, as sort of a think tank for music. We always thought the Tom Tom Club could change to anything, but it too acquired this image, which was cartoon animation and this percolating, real light hearted dance music. Even the Beatles found it hard to escape their image; they were trapped by it. It was interesting to learn in art school that many of the Japanese painters and calligraphers would change their names intentionally in order to keep their relationship to the art always fresh. This way, others' expectations can be avoided, because these expectations make the art less malleable and make it exist as an entity in and of itself, and that loses some of the power of the art for the artist. So when they change names, it prods them to pursue their art as opposed to pursuing it as a commercial business. I have respect for those who make money at art and do it well and smartly, because that commercial aspect keeps the world going and running, in a sense. That's why Chris and I have to keep Tom Tom Club always going, and as soon as it gets boring or stops moving forward, we'll quit.
Mt: Are you considering another TTC record?
Tina: Chris and I will continue to make records together, in one form or another. At this point, we have to keep TTC going for people to recognize. It's a cruel heartless world out there in commercial rock 'n' roll, and when you take as much time off as we did, eight years between records, booking agents don't know if you'll draw. So we have to keep TTC going if we're not going to be on the road, for the same reason George Clinton keeps P-Funk going. You know, they can have their other bands, but to keep it all going, they need one continuing entity for the recognition factor. The audience has to know where to go to get the next thing.
Mt: Who are some people you really dream of working with?
Tina: I would really love to work with Paul McCartney. [laughs] Isn't that arrogant?
Mt: No. I think all musicians would love to work with Paul.
Tina: We have this friend Wally Baderoo that I adore working with, we worked with him in TTC and Talking Heads, and Wally has worked with Paul. He said, here we were doing all these things we thought we'd discovered…Wally went to law school before taking music and he sort of wedded classical music to African music. He's really amazing. They call him the Professor. He's like the French Brian Eno, although I think he knows a lot more than Brian, [laughs] but don't tell Brian I said that! He's way ahead of Brian because he can actually play instruments and he's not a punk like Brian. Anyway, he played with Paul McCartney and there was nothing they could do that Paul hadn't done before. It would be different for him to work with Chris and I. Another thing I'd like to do is be the rhythm section, completely treated, for Kraftwerk, for Ralf [Hutter] and Flori [Schneider]. That would be a really exciting project. I'd like to make Ralf laugh-he's so serious. We have been working with Galen Ayers, a young girl who lives in Spain. She's the daughter of Kevin Ayers, who was part of the first incarnation of the Soft Machine, who always opened for Jimi Hendrix. They were Jimi's favorite band. Kevin has several daughters, but Galen is the one following in his footsteps. I'm so pleased to be working with her, I mean she's twice my age, but I'm learning from her and she's learning from me. She reminds me where I've come from, which was playing my acoustic guitar and singing. I wasn't originally a bass player, just like Paul [McCartney], I found out I was needed, because everyone wants to play guitar. Anyway, we started cutting some tracks with Galen and Richard Lloyd of Television. He's one of my favorite guitarists. His mentor was Jimi Hendrix when he was just 14. Jimi was always pounding everything he knew into that kid.
Mt: Besides what you are working on, who are you listening to these days?
Tina: Oh my God, it's really broad, OK? Dolly Parton, we've always listened to her. Emmylou Harris, we've always listened to her. Neil Young. You have to keep supporting these artists throughout a career. If Zapp were alive, we'd be buying Roger Troutman records. Everything that Lee "Scratch" Perry has done, everything that Brian Eno has done, everything that John Cale has done, everything that Phillip Glass has done, everything that Lou Reed has done, everything that the Velvet Underground has done. I wish that Lou wasn't such a narcissist. With VU, it's so difficult to pinpoint what made them so magical. Oh, Michael Franti of Spearhead, Chris and I really love what he's doing now that he's on a little indie label. He'll be performing with us at the Jammy Awards. We try to listen to things that aren't getting played on the radio. I mean, we love Shaggy and Missy Elliot, we have those albums, but we try to buy CDs by other people that don't get the radio play. Radio just serves up the same people again and again, and that's so boring. There's another artist that I like because of her pure approach, in the same way that Nirvana was pure or the Ramones were pure, it's this girl called Peaches. She's wild and out there, really raw. I continue to like the work of Kid Ginseng. His stuff keeps growing, and is very, very raw.
Mt: So you've got your ears to the underground?
Tina: Yeah, because that's where they do it because they just love it. And that's not a put down of mainstream music, at least I hope it's not. At that level, though, the kids are doing it because it's a passion and they just adore it. Sure they would like to make it commercially, but they don't expect it. They know that it's a selective process that includes the Hollywood beauty stereotype, which is so boring and non-rock 'n' roll. It's like in the '50s, when the industry was trying to throw Pat Boone on us, when you could be listening to Little Richard. What overturned it was folk music, of all things. That was the revolution.
Mt: What type of message do you guys have for aspiring bands trying to make it, or even just to make their art well and push the envelope?
Tina: Stick to your instincts. Sometimes, you have to go through a phase whether you like it or not. Stick to it, even if people are telling you otherwise, that it's not fashionable or whatever. Because it's going to come out anyway, and if you try to suppress it, it will come out as a perversion. Trust your instincts and know that art is not predictable. Art is not golf, as great as that may be. There are 360 degrees of choice to make. Also, be aware of who your audience may be. How far can you take your own personal likes or dislikes, because making it can be a good or a bad thing. If you have this passion for music, you don't stop doing it-it chooses you and doesn't release you. I get these letters sometimes that say, well, I'm giving up my music because I'm not going to make it. And I say, what are you talking about? Make it, not make it? What's the difference? Music is a language, it's a dance of life, and it can be a part of your life without being something that earns. You can sing at church. It's a form of communion. So, stick to it.
Mt: Thank you very much for your time and happy anniversary.
Tina: Thank you, it was a pleasure.
Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz are humble, appreciative, enthusiastic, inquiring, passionate, and open to change. Maybe this is what keeps the Tom Tom Club fresh, even twenty years after bursting on the scene. Even if the unforgiving music biz keeps TTC from putting out future hit records, Chris and Tina have devoted much of their lives to their art and you can be sure they'll continue to do so. Music has chosen them and it will never release them from its grip. Besides, a great rhythm section is always in demand.