Grooving With The Tom Tom Club (Part One: The Chris Frantz Interview)
Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth are musical innovators and heroes. As founding members of the Talking Heads they helped guide that group from the mid- 70s CBGB’s scene into the wide-world beyond. Their 1981 debut album as Tom Tom Club proved influential to the then-nascent medium of hip-hop (and their songs “Genius of Love” and “Wordy Rappinghood” have been covered sampled by a range of artists such as Mariah Carey, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Tupac Shakur, and Puff Daddy). The couple’s production credits over the years include Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers, Happy Mondays, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, and Angelfish (Shirley Manson’s band before she joined Garbage). Graduates of the famed Rhode Island School of Design, Chris and Tina continue to devote their life to all forms of art. They recently released the Good the Bad and the Funky, ending a Tom Tom Club hiatus (during which they focussed on production and recorded/toured with Jerry Harrison and notable vocalists as the Heads). In addition, they crafted a version of “Sand” for the upcoming Sharin’ the Groove Phish tribute album (an appropriate bit of reciprocity since Phish covered the Talking Heads’ Remain In Light in its entirety on 10/31/96). The band will gear up for a number of shows at the end of June including The Jammys (that’s right you read it here first), Gathering of the Vibes and a series of additional northeast gigs. Tour dates, music and band’s fabled message board (in which Chris and Tina actively participate) appear at http://www.tomtomclub.com.
Part two of this piece, an interview with Tina Weymouth will appear next month.
Dean Budnick- First off, I know that many of our readers will be interested to learn about your reaction to the Phish’s performance of Remain In Light back in 1996. When did you first hear about it?
Chris Frantz- After the fact. I have a son who’s eighteen and one of his friend’s older sisters told him, “You know your parents’ album was covered by Phish down in Atlanta.” He passed along that message and I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant. Then she supplied me with a cassette tape of the performance and quite frankly, Tina and I were pretty blown away by it. As a band, the Talking Heads never attempted to play that whole album. We did some songs but we never did the album in its entirety. We thought they did a magnificent job and they really captured the spirit of it.
DB- Had you seen or heard of Phish prior to then?
CF- Well we’ve worked with Steve Lillywhite who had produced one of their studio records [Billy Breathes] and he told us about them. I think we bought that record just because Steve had produced it. Let’s just put it this way, I got turned on to Phish late in the game but what can I say, better late than never.
DB- You recorded “Sand” for the Mockingbird Foundation compilation. How did that come about?
CF- They got in touch with us. They emailed us via our web site, tomtomclub.com and proposed the idea. We responded, followed through and ended up recording it.
DB- How did you select that song?
CF- They offered us to do any Phish song except the ones that were already taken. Our first choice was a song called “Bouncing Around the Room.” It’s interesting because I posted on our web site that we were going to do that I received a lot of negative reaction from Phishheads who told us they felt the song was overtly commercial. As it happened, somebody else had already chosen that song but I must admit I was a bit perplexed.
DB- I would imagine that over the course of your career as both Tom Tom Club and Talking Heads have became more popular people have lobbed that charge your way.
CF- Yes but one thing we’ve learned is that if something is commercial that means people like it. It's a silly thing really this whole idea of what’s commercial or what isn’t. Is it good or is it not good that’s what I care about. Why do we make records? Hopefully because people will like them, at least from our point of view. We never wanted to do something strictly for our own benefit. The audience is part of this. While I wouldn’t say we were a top-40 kind of band, there was a time when we had songs played on the radio.
DB- From a musical standpoint, I think “Bouncing” would have been a fine choice.
CF- We even have a song on our new album called “Time to Bounce,” the first track so it would have fit nicely. We picked “Sand” though which worked out great.
DB- I’d like to go back to something you mentioned earlier. You said that you learned about Phish’s cover of Remain In Light through your son. I know that he also is a turntablist. I’m curious, to what extent has he been an influence on your music in any way?
CF- He’s been an enormous influence lately. He kind of keeps us in touch with what’s happening- what’s cool and what’s not cool. For example he introduced us to the X-ecutioners a group from Brooklyn who are currently doing a record called “Built from Scratch” on Loudd Records. One of their members Mista Sinista did a remix for us on vinyl Of “Who’s Feelin’ It.” On their new record they’re also doing a version of “Genius of Love.”
You know the original masters of “Genius of Love” have been lost, along with “Wordy Rappinghood.” For the X-ecutioners we re-recorded “Genius of Love” note for note. We’re about to send them the masters on Pro Tools, on a disc. Then they’ll take the disc and whatever strikes their fancy as being the most hip-hop they’ll press onto vinyl. Then they’ll scratch that into a new version of the song. It’s kind of wild.
DB- Wait, let’s jump back though to the lost masters. What was the chain of possession there?
CF- They were taken off a reel at Compass Point Studios and then they were sent off London in 1982. Who knows what happened then. People spent months looking for them in the vaults. It could just be that they were misfiled under C for Club not T for Tom Tom but once that happens they’re lost for good. I’m not sure if you’re aware but there are vaults dug into the side of mountains. In Pennsylvania for instance, a few of them used to be coal mines. After all the coal was taken out they put the audio tapes in. [laughs]
DB- Is that proper archival treatment? [laughs]
CF- I was telling that story to someone who worked for Aerosmith who said, “Oh yeah, I once found the master tape for Dream On’ in the Columbia vault propping up a air-conditioning duct with water dripping down onto it. Once the song is mixed and pressed onto vinyl or CD they sort of don’t care anymore.
DB- Along these lines, I’d be curious to hear your take on how the record industry has changed over the course of your own career?
CF- Everything has become mega mega mega. It’s all about huge multinational corporations merging and making things even more mega than they were before. This is going to sound like downer but when we talk to certain people who have been around, like Debbie Harry, Jerry Harrison or Richard Lloyd contemporaries of ours ,we’re all like, “What’s going on?” It used to be that people could have an effect on the culture just by being commanding in one way or another. But now unless someone has a few million dollars to spend, you might as well put the record out yourself and sell it on the internet because no major radio stations are going to play it just because its cool, no major record label is going to get behind it just because it's interesting. On the other hand the thing to be positive about is that music and art seem to thrive in times like this- especially in the recession like we seem to have coming on. You have to create art for art's sake and that’s when the arts really thrive. That’s all there is to it.
DB- In June you’ll be performing both at the Jammys and also at the Gathering of the Vibes. I’d like to hear your impressions of the jamband scene?
CF- What we like about it is that it’s real, not something created by adults for a youthful audience. It’s something real that’s happening on a grassroots level and slowly but surely spiraling into a bigger thing. It’s wonderful for us to see bands with large followings that are thriving off the radar of the big corporate entertainment business. I know that companies like Columbia and Virgin and MCA Universal are starting to get hip to the jamband thing now because it’s just too obvious. It’s starting to get onto their radar now although it’s still only just a blip.
It seems to be a real musical movement although I’m aware that hardly any of them sound alike and that’s also a good thing. Back in the day at CBGB’s all the band sounded different too, at least all the good ones. Blondie sounded nothing like Talking Heads, Talking Heads sounded nothing like Television and Television sounded nothing like the Ramones. And Patti Smith was the godmother of the whole thing and nobody could sound like her. So each band was unique onto itself even though at times we did work together to get things done. All in all I find it very admirable and creative artistically.
DB- In a somewhat related light. Tom Tom Club opened for the Grateful Dead on New Years Eve 1988. How did that come about?
CF- Bill Graham was a big Talking Heads and then a Tom Tom Club fan. He was the promoter and guiding force behind those shows. Also back in 88 we did a three week stint with Tom Tom Club at CBGB’s where we played five nights a week At the same time I think the Grateful Dead were doing eleven nights at Madison Square Garden. Bob Weir would come down to CBGB’s after their show at Madison Square Garden. He was there at least a couple of nights. I don’t know any members of the Grateful Dead real well although we do have some friends in common. Anyhow, I think between all of those connections that’s how it came about.
DB- What are your memories of that night?
CF- In order to help cover our expenses to travel out there with the band we had also booked a show at the Warfield Theatre. So what we did was we opened for the Dead, and the audience gave us a great reaction. Then the Dead let us sit on the stage- they had these Persian carpets and sofas. We stayed for the first couple of songs and then we had to run over to the Warfield to do two more sets of own our. By the end of the night with the exception of Tina we were all pretty looped. I still have the poster here in my music room.
DB- Let’s talking about the new Tom Tom Club disc. It had been a few years since the last Tom Tom Club release, during which you were producing other artists and put out the Heads record. What led you to work on the Good the Bad and the Funky?
CF- Actually, we were working on it on and off for a couple of years. During that time we had DJs and people who did music supervision for films contact us and ask if he had any new stuff. At one point Bette Midler came to us said, “Chris and Tina I would like it if you could write some songs for my new album. I really like the Tom Tom Club and I’d like it if you could write some songs in that style.” So she came up here to our studio and we sat down and worked on some stuff. We didn’t have time to really work with her, between her films and her activism. Also, Warner Brothers ultimately wanted to stick with the trademark power ballads. But we ended up with a few songs that sounded really good to us, so we said “Hey, we’ll use them.” So we changed a few words and that was that. Those songs were “Who’s Feelin’ it” and “Happiness Can’t Buy Money.”
Then we then brought on an engineer named Doug McKean. We worked with him on the Heads project too. He used to be Jerry Harrison's keyboard tech and we’d known him since he just came out of NYU. So we decided to record a whole bunch of stuff and make a record. When we finished the songs, we were prepared to put it out on our label, Tip Top. Then we played the music for Chris Blackwell who decided that his new label, Ryko/Palm would license it.
DB- How do you compose your songs and has this changed over the years?
CF- We almost always begin with a drum pattern. Then Tina adds either a keyboard, guitar or bass depending on what strikes her fancy. Then we start improvising sections- verses and choruses and chord changes and at the same time we’re trying to think of a lyric and/or a title. Before you know it, there’s a song there
This time we also did a few things slightly differently. Tina and I met this wonderful soul singer from Philadelphia, Charles Pettigrew. He was available because his group Charles and Eddie had split up. We saw him do a show, expressed interest in working with him and he agreed. We worked with him on “Soul Fire,” “(C’mon) Surrender” and also “Let There Be Love.” Tina and I pretty much completed the musical backing and he improvised the melody and then worked with Tina on the lyrics. This was a slightly different process than how we had been doing it ourselves [editor’s note: Pettigrew passed away last month after a long bout with cancer. Pettigrew studied jazz at the Berklee School of music before embarking on a career with Down Avenue, Charles & Eddie and then Tom Tom Club.]
DB- What led you to cover the Lee “Scratch” Perry tune “Soul Fire?”
CF- That’s an old favorite from the first time heard it. Lee Perry is one of the all-time greats in reggae and “Soul Fire” is one of his best songs and totally inspiring to us. In that instance we brought in Mystic Bowie who’s from Negril, Jamaica and has been singing reggae since he was a little child. He was a prodigy. He’s a part of our show now.
DB- Of course you’re been on the other side of this process, as Tom Tom Club’s music has been sampled and covered many, many times. I think “Genius of Love” must be up there on the all-time hip-hop samples list. How do you find out when someone wants to sample it?
CF- Usually they contact through business channels and we generally give permission.
DB- So you’ve said no before? What criteria do you use in making that decision?
CF- We only said no one time that I can think of right now. It was one of those over-the-top gangster lyrics. We wouldn’t dream of censoring anyone’s lyrics but we reserve the right to deny permission to use our music if we think its garbage.
DB- Moving back to the Good the Bad and the Funky. You also cover Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby.” What inspired you there?
CF- The song did. It’s a beautiful lyric and so sexy- we always like sexy music. Donna Summer stopped doing the song and said she would never do it again because she associated it with dirty, naughty stuff. You should address this to Tina because she had some dealings with Donna in trying to get permission. Tina can tell you about that
(and Tina willnext month, so stay tuned. Until then be sure to visit the band’s web site at http://www.tomtomclub.com)