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Published: 2010/09/30
by Sam Davis

"Complicatedly Simple": Tom Tom Club and Genius of Love

The Tom Tom Club are back on the road for the first time in a decade playing a series of shows that includes stops at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston and the Brooklyn Bowl in NYC. The band released a live album Genius of Live this week, which features a performance from the fall of 2001 along with a collection of “Genius of Love” remixes. Tom Tom Club co-founder Chris Frantz, took some time to discuss the new release, the development of the group and even a bit about the Talking Heads.

So Tom Tom Club is on the road for the first time in ten years. Can you talk about how it feels to be actively playing with the band again?

Well, it’s very nice until your flights get cancelled. We’re happy to be working, and the band is smokin’ hot. It’s a really good band. We had a really good show, well, all of the shows have been good, but we had a really fun show at a little music festival in Cincinnati on Saturday night called the Midpoint Music Festival. It was like the audience was starved for what Tom Tom Club had to offer. It was just wonderful. There were a few thousand people and it was just great.

So, we have been working. Last year, we played two big festivals in Japan and we played a festival in Spain. We played the Island Records 50th anniversary in London. So, it’s not like we haven’t been doing anything, we just haven’t done a bunch of things in a row for a while and it’s fun.

It sounds like the shows have been well-received.

Yes, totally. We also did something just the other day, and it will be airing this week. We did NPR’s ‘Tiny Desk Concert.’ It’s one of NPR’s biggest music things. The band goes in and plays at this guys desk – Bob Boilen who does “All Songs Considered” – and you play stripped down with acoustic instruments. It was really fun. That went over well.

I’d love to hear the Tom Tom Club play on acoustic instruments…

Yeah, we don’t usually do that. But, as it turns out our songs translate pretty well into acoustic form.

Is that something you might look at turning into a future project, or was it just a one-off type-thing?

I think it was more of a one-off type thing. We’ll leave the acoustic format to the acoustic musicians. [Laughs]. We’re heading more towards electronic and dub and stuff like that.

It’s been nearly 30 years since you guys started as the Tom Tom Club, which began as a side-project to Talking Heads. Can you talk about the circumstances that led to the formation of the band and how it evolved?

How it started was Talking Heads was having a pretty good success in the early eighties. We had done our Remain in Light record and we were touring the world, and doing really well. And then our lead singer Mr. Byrne decided he wanted to do a solo album. He informed us he was going to do a solo album but he said “I’m doing this, but I have no idea how long it’s going to take.” It was a collaboration with Twyla Tharp called The Catherine Wheel. And so, then Jerry, the keyboard player, thought “Well, if David’s doing a solo album, I’m going to do a solo album.” So he told us he was going to do one. And then, Tina and I thought “well, what the heck are we going to do?” [Laughs]. You know?

But, fortunately Chris Blackwell of Island Records was hip to the fact that a rhythm section is often what drives a record. Not always, but a lot of times, especially in reggae and funk music, the rhythm section is what drives the record.

And so, he realized that, and he said “Come on down to Compass Point studios, I want you to meet with Lee [“Scratch”] Perry and maybe he’ll produce the record, maybe not, but I want you to meet with him.” And, it just so happened that Lee Perry was in New York at the time. So, we met with him at the Howard Johnson on 8th Ave. where all the reggae bands would stay. And we had a meeting with Lee Perry and he was unusually weird – even for Lee Perry – and he said (in Jamaican accent) “Yah mon, I like to do this project, Tom Tom Club.” So, actually we didn’t even have the name Tom Tom Club yet, but he liked Tina and I well enough, and he had his assistant there who was sort of translating for him. I mean, we understood him fine, but he had this very very hot-like personal assistant, a female. She said “Lee will meet you” and we set the date for March of 1981, I think it was. And so, we went down to Compass Point, we’re waiting for him to show up. Studio’s booked, but Lee Perry doesn’t show. We wait another couple [of] days, “Scratch” still doesn’t show.

Three weeks later, we haven’t heard from him, we can’t locate him, nothing. So we said to Chris Blackwell “Look there’s this kid named Steven Stanley, he’s really great.” Chris knew him, of course, because [Stanley] was working as a staff engineer at Compass Point. [We said] “We’d like to just go into the studio with Stevie.” And he said, “Well, I’ll tell you what, you go in and do a single and if I like it then you can do a whole album.” So we went in and the first song we cut was “Wordy Rappinghood.”

So Chris Blackwell said “Great, I love it. Let’s release it right away and while you’re doing the album. We’ll have a single out to gain a little momentum.” So, they released the single and it went to number one in like seven countries in Europe and a bunch of countries in Latin America. Meanwhile, we were working on the rest of the album at Compass Point and it was just an amazing delightful experience. And, that’s how the project began.

You know, David did his thing and Jerry did his thing but Tom Tom Club was really what hit. And, a lot of people said “Oh, what a surprise.” [Laughs]. But, frankly, I wasn’t surprised because all along Tina and I had an enormous influence on what was happening in Talking Heads, musically speaking. For some reason, a lot of people thought it was like a one man show. But it was never a one man show, and the success of Tom Tom Club is kind of proof of that.

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