Tom tom club

Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth moved to New York City and started the Talking Heads in 1975 with David Byrne as a trio, joining with Jerry Harrison in ’77. A few years later came the Tom Tom Club, a popular fusion of hip-hop with funk and world music polyrhythms, catchy lyrics, and a strong sense of playfulness. One year prior to this interview the Talking Heads were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Here they talk about their early collaborations and their latest adventures in the Tom Tom Club.

Conversation with Chris Frantz
Conversation with Tina Weymouth

BC : I’m not sure everyone is aware of the fact that Tom Tom Club did not actually spawn after Talking Heads dissipated. This is a band that started while Talking Heads was still in existence. Can you tell us how it formed and how were you able to make it work while touring with the Talking Heads?

CF : Well, Talking Heads was kind of like our first baby. We started Talking Heads in 1975. And we didn’t do our first performances…well actually our first real performance was in ’75, but we didn’t make our first record until ’77. Then that band really took off quickly, you know…not everywhere in the world but in the sort of cool places. Boston was one of the first places we played after New York City…at The Rat, if you remember that place…

BC : Sure, it was infamous…

CF : Yeah, so around about 1980 our lead singer David Byrne told us that he was going to be doing a solo project, an outside project, which was actually called The Catherine Wheel, a collaboration with Twyla Tharp, music for dance. And Jerry Harrison was a Harvard guy, well known in Boston, and he decided he was going to do a solo project too. So Tina and I looked at each other and said “What are we going to do?”

And we decided rather than separate solo projects (laughing) we would do something together along with friends and various members of our family. And a friend of ours who we had met when working down at Compass Point Studios, Chris Blackwell of Island Records suggested we come to Compass Point and cut a single. And he said if he liked the single, we could do a whole album. So we went down and we cut this song called “Wordy Rappinghood”, which incidentally was never released as a single in America because we were just on Island in the U.K. and Europe. So it was released immediately as a single in Europe and it did really well.
So Chris Blackwell said by all means, make a whole album. So we then went back into the studio and did the rest of the album including this track called “Genius Of Love” which was eventually released as a single in America in 1981, but only after Island Records had shipped and sold like 100,000 12” singles. Seymour Stein and the people at Warner Brothers sort of said “Oh, maybe Chris and Tina are on to something. We should release this album over here.” So they did and to date it’s still one of the biggest selling records we’ve ever had, either with Talking Heads or Tom Tom Club.

BC : Wow, I didn’t realize that. “Wordy Rappinghood” I play a lot on the show and it amazes me that almost every time I play that song I always get calls asking me what it is. And it surprises me that more people don’t recognize it but I’m wondering if it was because it was never released as a single here in the States so people don’t know it, but they’ll know “Genius of Love”.

CF : Right Well you know the song “Wordy Rappinghood” is making a huge comeback in Europe right now in the whole “Electroclash” scene, as they call it. Those new electronic kids really dig it and they’ve used that little keyboard riff, you know {singing the opening bars} over and over again in remixes and stuff. It’s even being used in France right now for a cookie commercial…a children-oriented commercial for a French cookie called Le Petit Ecolier (The Little Schoolboy). So over here it’s always been “Genius of Love” that’s the more well-known track, but in Europe and other parts of the world it’s “Wordy Rappinghood”. And we’re still trying to write songs that have that kind of impact. And it’s so hard to do.

BC : Those songs have a real catch to them. It’s funny you mention the Electroclash scene because my show is sort of an amalgam of electronic music and experimental music and “Wordy Rappinghood” just fits really well in that context. With the new juxtapositions of electronic music into pop music that song really gets people attention. Maybe ten years ago people would have said, “Oh that song sounds like a synth 80s thing”, but now it just sounds so topical.

CF : (laughing) It’s funny. What goes around comes around.

BC : So who are you performing with on this tour? You’ve had a rotating cast of characters on the records and previous tours, Steve Scales, Bernie Worrell from Parliament/Funkadelic. Is it the same people on the Clubhouse record?

CF : Well we don’t have Steve Scales on percussion. I think Steve moved to Atlanta or something. He called a few people and said he was moving to Atlanta from Brooklyn but I haven’t heard from him to know if that’s really true or not. Steve is big on the whole gospel thing right now. He’s playing with one of those huge gospel choirs and a full band.

Instead we have Kid Ginseng on turntables scratching. And he’s pretty cool, we’re really excited about what he offers. He’s younger than we are so it means he kind of brings some youth into the whole thing. And we also have a different guitarist this time, a guy by the name of Fuzz, who’s really great. He was formerly with a band called Deep Banana Blackout, one of the better sounding funk bands that I’ve heard.

BC : Yeah, they’re great.

CF : They did reunite for a performance at The Gathering of the Vibes just a couple nights ago opening for James Brown in upstate New York. So he’s really great.

The other people are Bruce Martin on keyboards and percussion. Bruce has been with us since the late 80s. And Victoria Clamp singing with us, and she’s been singing with us a long time. And a Jamaican by the name of Mystic Bowie also on vocals. Mystic is on the Live At The Clubhouse record. And who am I forgetting? Me and Tina on bass and drums.

BC : You mentioned Kid Ginseng…this guy was part of the whole DJ battle scene, right? I remember the movie Scratch came out and documented the whole scratch turntablist scene. Is he part of that circle?

CF : He was but he’s leaning now toward more electronic composing with keyboards and sequencers and things. While he’s still a fantastic scratch, he’s starting to broaden his spectrum.

BC : And Victoria and Bruce have been with you a long time. Can you talk about how you met Mystic Bowie?

CF : Mystic Bowie has been with us for several years. Mystic we met at a Mardi Gras party. A friend of ours in New York originally from Louisiana has this zydeco band called Blue Guru and they play this party in New York every year at Mardi Gras. He has his band plus this whole slew of special guests and at one time he invited us to play with him. We played along with this singer named Mystic Bowie and it turned out that he was living near us in Connecticut just outside of New York City, he was one of our neighbors.

We had a wonderful singer named Charles Pettigrew who had a band in Boston, actually, called Down Avenue. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them, they were kind of like a new romantic band in the late 80s. Charles unfortunately got very sick and passed away from cancer so we needed a singer and Mystic Bowie was in the neighborhood. So we gave him a call to see if he’d be interested and he’s been singing with us ever since. He’s really very charismatic and has some great dance moves.

The Tom Tom Club is all about having a good time. There’s some spirituality involved also. But we like to make people dance or give them the opportunity to dance, so everybody in the band sort of works to that end.

BC : There seems to be a lot of different world music in there too, Jamaican, Nigerian, etc. Do you look for collaborations with people of different ethnicities to bring in different polyrhythms and things like that?

CF : Oh yeah, for many years we’ve been thrilled and excited by African music, the music of the Caribbean, reggae, calypso, salsa, and soka, and all those different styles. I mean…we don’t really think of ourselves as a reggae band or anything like that. And we’re not really a straight funk band either. But we have a lot of elements from those different styles that we like to sort of absorb by osmosis.

BC : I read somewhere that when Tom Tom Club was performing with Talking Heads on tour, it was used as a way to give David Byrne a break or for him to do a costume change…is that right?

CF : Yeah, yeah. In retrospect maybe we should have had him change his costume right on stage, right in front of the audience, instead of going backstage (laughing)….

BC : That would have been appropriate…

CF : Yeah, the whole Stop Making Sense thing is really great. Speaking of how great that band was, we were just in Asheville, North Carolina playing in a little club and we got into town the night before. And Bernie Worrell was playing with his band The Woo Warriors. They were playing the same little place we were, so we sat in with Bernie and it was really cool. And we played “Burning Down The House”.

BC : Who approached Bernie for that original collaboration?

CF : That was Jerry who made the call. And we’ve been friends with Bernie ever since.

BC : The P-Funk connection is definitely there.

CF : I think he was recommended by a guy named Busta “Cherry” Jones, a bass player we had met. He played on that first expanded band tour for Remain In Light. He is unfortunately also deceased. But he was the connection for Bernie, Steve Scales, and a singer named Dolette McDonald who worked with us back then.
BC : I remember when Stop Making Sense was re-released in the theaters. And you get, at least I got, a sort of sigh of relief when Tom Tom Club comes on. There was sort of a dichotomy between Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club because maybe Tom Tom is a little lighter and bouncier, even though Talking Heads is a funk band in many ways. Was that something you were looking for, to sort of escape and do something different?

CF : Well we thought it was a good idea to do something completely different because otherwise people would say “Well it’s just a pale imitation of their other band”…which is what they ended up saying about Jerry’s album, for example. Even though Jerry…I mean, poor Jerry, he’s a brilliant keyboardist but a lot of people thought that the stuff he did was either played by [Brian] Eno or by Bernie Worrell, when in fact neither of them did,
it was all Jerry. But that’s what happens and the press often, the guys who write about records, often don’t really know what they’re talking about.

BC : They almost never do.

CF : (laughing) Right. But yeah, I guess Tom Tom Club always had more bounce than the Talking Heads (laughing).

BC : Yeah, every time I see that film when Tom Tom comes on it’s sort of like “Aaahh”, it’s just a welcome change of pace.

CF : I’m glad to hear you say that.

BC : Can you talk about the new live record? It sounds very produced even though it’s a live record…

CF : Well Live At The Clubhouse is just a very faithful recording of how our band sounded one year ago. The engineer that did it was a guy named Jay Newland who won a Grammy this year for his work with Norah Jones. He’s a guy who’s recorded a lot of live albums and jazz musicians like Charlie Haden and Etta James. He understands the bass frequencies. He understands how the air moves in a room (laughing). And he did a great job.

BC : What is The Clubhouse exactly?

CF : The Clubhouse is a recording studio next door to our home. And we built it back in 1990. And it was a really good idea to do it I think because we’ve made a number of really good records there since, not just our own, but other people’s records also. It’s great that we don’t have to go to a record company with our hat in our hands. And with the advent of a lot of digital recording nobody really has to do that anymore but it’s nice when you have a room with a good board and a lot of old vintage gear, Neve EQs and things like that that make for a nice sounding record. We wanted to capture the whole set for posterity so that came out to being 2 CDs.

We invited in about 50 or 60 of our friends and neighbors. We had a bar, you know…made it like a night club. We played the set twice so we would have 2 takes.

BC : How do the songs come about? Is it a combination of you and Tina experimenting with different sounds and rhythms?

CF : Pretty much. We’re not really prolific writers. I wish we were more prolific. We work things out and rework them and rework them again, and then finally we decide we’re finished. We often end up taking away a lot of what we’ve done by the end. I think it’s kind of a process like painting where you try something and you decide you don’t like it so you just paint it out (laughs).

BC : Tina, I read that Chris introduced you to the bass…? Or convinced you to take it up? How did that work…

TW : Well let’s see. (pause) I think Paul McCartney actually introduced me to the bass (laughing). He was the first person who I became really aware of as a bass player. I just always liked all parts of the songs. I had played guitar since I was 14 and I’d never been in a rock band, had never thought about that. But Chris kept trying to get me to join his band. And I thought they were all weirdos…I really liked them, but I didn’t see myself in a rock band. And then he started getting really desperate and leaving all these Suzi Quatro records around…(laughs)

TW : And then I found out about Carol Kaye, who was the bass player on Pet Sounds, which is one of my favorite albums. And the boys kept saying, “Bass! Bass guitar, that’s what we need, that’s what we need!” Otherwise I had learned to play flute too but that didn’t fit in rock, and so I said okay, I’ll learn to do this. And I think David [Byrne] gave me a half-hour lesson where he showed me a 12-bar blues. He taught me Slippin’ and a Slidin’. And that was it!

And after that I just had to really listen. And I had no tape recorders, so we had no idea…I would write things down to try to remember how they went. I was
always asking David, “Show me where your fingers are, show me where your fingers are”, that sort of thing. And then trying to find the thing that fit in between his vocal and the drums and his guitar. Because his guitar was really like shards of glass. He liked this really brittle, bright, clangy kind of guitar sound.

BC : Right…

TW : You know, David’s a great rhythm guitarist. He loves that kind of TK Studios from Miami sound, and KC and the Sunshine Band, the southern funk bands. And we dug that too. So we came in with that kind of an attitude, but also at the same time trying to deny playing as much of possible in the kind of blues format. I mean it was hard because we would sometimes end up – of course – in the typical 1-5-4 recordings.

When we finally got to Remain In Light we had pared it down to just basically like two chords, so then you can do things like always trying to avoid the root note…that’s me, that’s what I was trying to do. But with Remain In Light we were recording songs before they were written and laying down textures. Everything was completely improvised in the studio. We had been writing that way for so long that it finally became our studio style. And it is to this day our way of writing. We don’t do the singer-songwriter thing because it’s become so predictable for us that we’re much more interested in pursuing things that stir the imagination by being different if possible.

BC : And they sound that way too. With Tom Tom Club the songs end up sounding more organic than coming from the approach of sitting down and writing a piece of music and lyrics for each instrument.

TW : Right, because we didn’t want to follow some kind of theory because it’s what deadens modern composition…all of the genres of music, from classical to jazz, they become kind of stuck. And so the best things that happen are well, like turntablism coming in as an instrument, you know, people spinning on their heads, the new dance. These things completely change the way a culture thinks or approaches how it creates what it likes to think, to work, and to move to. And music is so much like prayer, so essential, that people will always need it like food or air or water.

BC : Right, it becomes a necessity. It’s interesting because I’ve had this conversation before with others and the idea of composition becomes almost irrelevant if you start to really think about the end goal of what you’re actually trying to do. I mean, it becomes a book that’s just dead that you can read. And instead of trying to make music you end up trying to figure out what chord changes should go on or getting stuck in the composition. And there are scores of records where the artists are talking about their compositions in the liner notes that is just the most boring thing in the world, because it’s like “Who cares where it came from or what it’s about?” If you care that much about it then the music itself is deadened.

TW : Yeah, it becomes a sort of typist mentality. And it’s dry and brittle and loses all of its fresh vitality. Of course new kids who come along and play old-time music, they bring something fresh to it, you know. Like the kids who are playing punk now. They bring a fresh attitude, they bring their juicy testosterone, the teenagers do. And it’s very cool. But then you think, well wouldn’t it be great if they learned this but then broke out of this format or formula and started carving out some new turf.

BC : Yeah, I think there is a new movement in punk music but I think it’s under the surface of what most people hear about. I mean there are bands playing in the punk “style” if you want to call Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Robert Quine and the early CBGBs scene the origins of punk, but they have new approaches or a different approach. It takes maturity, I mean, these are twenty-somethings, not teenagers…

TW : I think there is an underground, there is a hardcore scene. There is a hip-hop underground we don’t hear about…

BC : Do you miss playing the intimate spaces like CBGBs?

TW : We are playing the intimate venues like CBGBs! I mean, we love to playing the large festivals because there’s nothing like playing to hundreds of thousands of people. It’s been a long time since we were in front of those numbers. I kind of like the small festivals too because I almost can’t stand it when they bring in the mainstream acts because all the color gets lost. So the clubs are where it’s at but all the mom & pop businesses are getting squeezed by the corporate giants, the deregulated monsters running around.

BC : It’s hard to stay alive…

TW : Well the strong will survive, you know? I mean, you have to trust the American people that the majority of them are going to be smarter than some people who would like to tell us what to think. But in music and art this is where we get our spunk. This is where people gather together and celebrate their differences. Which is so American…the melting pot of our society. So the music plays a vital role and all the music the young people are coming up with too. But there hasn’t been anything really breakthrough because there has not been support for the newer kinds of things. I mean, Star Search, oh my God…

BC : …it’s so depressing…

TW : It’s like they’re trying to find the next Vegas act, you know? (laughs) The next silly thing, the next money bag. It’s very boring, it doesn’t serve the culture. But it takes labels to break new young acts, with the marketing and the promotion. And then the stores have to cooperate as well.

BC : Well Live at the Clubhouse was released on your own label, right?

TW : Yes, Tip Top and we were working with Artists Direct, although they are now finito. As was the label previous, Rykodisc! It’s amazing, this is what’s happening with the deregulation and the FCC allowing these monsters to gobble the indies. We’re seeing a lot of labels closing down. I think Rykodisc will somehow survive as a name brand but it won’t be what it was because it’s not the mom-and-pop thing anymore. They ran like a little Singer sewing machine, no breakdown until they had their knees broken.

BC : This new record you’re in support of was recorded a year ago, is that right?

TW : Right, this is the album we’re promoting right now because it takes so long to promote anything these days. We make really good studio albums but then our live work takes it to the next level.

BC : Well the live shows are incredible. That’s why it was so great to see this one come out because it’s like, finally we have a live record!

TW : Well, it was going to come out. It was time to document it. We sell it on the road, this is what we do. Like all the little hardcore bands, we have our own little tiny share of the marketplace (laughing). But it’s the way to go. We’re the small rodents that survived when the dinosaurs were killed! (laughing)

That’s what we are. Art will survive. They say painting is dead, rock is dead. Well then we’ll survive in some new form and evolve.