by Mark Kadzielawa
Tom Tom Club formed as a side project to the already successful Talking Heads. The rhythm section consisting of drummer Chris Frantz and bass player/vocalist Tina Weymouth formed the band back in 1981, and they are still here today , and still happily married. With the ever-changing cast of musicians and collaborators passing through the band, Frantz and Weymouth managed to keep the sound fresh and interesting. Tom Tom Club took many breaks in between the records, but always managed to come back with something new and exciting.
The group established a definite style back with their self-titled debut album in 1981. The album produced two huge hits: "Genius of Love," and "Wordy Rappinghood." Needless to say Tom Tom Club was quickly elevated to premier leagues of the 1980s musical trends. But, as Talking Heads took the center stage, Tom Tom Club faded into the background. The band's popularity continued to thrive through countless sampling of their music by various artists. Over the years, Tom Tom Club used variety of sounds to present their music, with very little effect on their style. It remained untouched.
Tom Tom Club outlived even Talking Heads who came to an end in 1991. The band continues to record and tour, and as always attracts new fans. In the world of alternative music, very few bands managed to have such long and impressive career.
Drummer, Chris Frantz, talks about the inner workings of Tom Tom Club, describes all of the releases, and makes predictions about the future of the band.
It’s been 11 years since the last studio record. Is the band working on any new material?
Chris Frantz: Yeah, we’ve been working on some new recordings actually. We’ve rebuild our home studio which is actually in the building next to our home. It’s a very nice studio now, and we’re working to get back into it. We’re hoping to be back in the studio once we’re finishing the current tour. We’re not thinking in terms of albums anymore. We’re thinking in terms of EPs and singles. And I think what we’ll do is release the music both in digital domain, I-Tunes and what not. Also, we will release it on vinyl because we can sell vinyl at our shows, and people love vinyl these days. We love vinyl, it sounds great. We’re not gonna fool around with the pressure of recording the entire album. We’ll do some EPs, three or four songs on each, and when we have enough together, it will be like the old days. We’ll put them together and make an album. So that’s what we’re thinking about in terms of new recordings.
With so many changes in the industry, and musical tastes coming and going, how kind was this time for Tom Tom Club?
It seems like we’re very fortunate in that regard. Everywhere we go in America we hear a lot of our songs on the radio, in elevators, hotel lobbies, and stuff like that. It’s as if the 80s music is back. And we don’t really think of ourselves as an 80s band or anything like that. I mean that’s when we had our big hits. We’d like to think of ourselves as contemporary, but it seems like there is a real craving for the bands of the 80s.
When you formed the project which later became Tom Tom Club, was there an outlined plan as to what kind of music you will play, how you will play it, or did it just worked itself out spontaneously?
It just came out spontaneously. We were down at the Bahamas at the request of Chris Blackwell from Island Records. We loved reggae music, and we loved the early rap music, they didn’t even call it hip hop at the time. We liked all kind of dance music, soul music. We knew that we wanted to do something that was very different from what we were doing with Talking Heads. We didn’t want to be competing with our own band. You don’t want to follow Talking Heads with stuff that sounds like Talking Heads. We deliberately wanted to record something that was different from that. And that’s what came out, and I think we’ve succeeded pretty well.
The first Tom Tom Club album, couldn’t be more in sync with what was going on in Europe musically in 1981. I mean, new wave was getting big, the new romantic movement was on the rise. Yet, you wrote and recorded half a world away. Were you surprised by how well the record worked with what were the current trends at the time?
I wouldn’t use the word surprised, but we were very pleased. At that point in time things were going very well for us with Talking Heads, and it seemed like almost anything was possible. So, the idea of forming another band seemed very possible that another band could do very well too. I don’t think we were surprised because we knew that we had some good ideas, but we were pleased that other people agreed with us that it was worthwhile.
Not too many people know that Adrian Belew played guitar on several cuts from the first album. What was it like to work him in the studio?
Well, we actually had hoped that Adrian would stick with Tom Tom Club. What we did, we recorded all the basic tracks, and then we had Adrian come down. We brought his whole family down. Him and his family, we flew them down to the Bahamas. He came over with his wife, and his two kids, and we had a wonderful time. He overdubbed the guitar part onto the stuff that we’ve had already recorded. We did at least one instrumental track with him that we began with him there. It was called “Tom Tom Theme,” where Adrian actually hit the piano strings with drumsticks, and it was kind of neat. Adrian is a great guitarist, and we actually spoke to Chris Blackwell about offering Adrian a solo deal, which may not have happened if we hadn’t asked him to. We thought very highly about Adrian, but as soon as he finished, he was off working with Robert Fripp. We barely saw him again, and after that I think I only seen him one time since then at the MTV studios.
If the first album was a project that took on a life of its own, by the time you recorded the second album, “Close To The Bone,” you were a band with hits, and expectations. How did things change from being a free from project to a band with hits, and the pressure to produce more hits?
There was some pressure, and we didn’t have enough time either because we were operating in between Talking Heads tours. We’ve had a window of opportunity to make the record, so there was a lot of pressure particularly on Tina. We’ve just had a baby at that time, and everything was different from the first record we did. But in retrospect some people really like that second album. Every record has a different set of challenges. That was definitely more pressured than the first one. Also, we’ve had different musicians playing on the second album. We’ve had Alex Weir on guitar. We basically had the expanded line up of Talking Heads without David and Jerry.
Then there was a four year brake before “Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom” came out. That album showed even more refined face of the band. How was that album approached opposed to the first two?
When you say we weren’t doing Tom Tom Club, it’s because we were busy doing Talking Heads. Again, that album was harder to get together. We didn’t really have a Tom Tom Club band at the time. So we had to find a new group of people to work with, and the songwriting was more difficult for us, and I don’t know why. Maybe we were just a little bit tired of popular music or something. What we did we tried to make this album sound different. We didn’t want to be sounding the same on every record. We tried to give it more of a rock thing with some loud distorted guitars and things like that. One thing we did do was to record with Arthur Baker, some five or six of the tracks. That was fun working with him.
Three years later, “Dark Sneak Love Action,” came out, and once again the album took even more varied approach. It was somewhat techno sounding, but still very clearly Tom Tom Club. What musical fascination were you experiencing at that time?
I remember at that time what was happening. It was grunge music, everybody was making records that sounded either like Nirvana, or Pearl Jam, or Soundgarden. That was kind of a way of doing things, and we were like a voice in the wilderness at that time. It was the first record we’ve made at our home studio, recorded and produced by ourselves. We brought in Steven Stanley to mix it, who had mixed the first two albums, or co-produced the first two albums. We’ve brought him in from Jamaica. I like that album a lot.
The first four albums indicate you were not afraid to take any left turns along the way, and always went with your intuition, and never painted yourself in the corner with one definite sound. Was the fan base able to grow and keep up with what you were doing?
None of our records sold as well as the first album did. And I think our first record sold a lot in the urban community. They just really loved “Genius of Love,” and “Wordy Rappinghood,” and they bought that album in vast numbers. That was the first gold record we’ve had. But they didn’t buy the second one, or the third one, or the fourth one, so I don’t think the fan base really grew from that point on. If anything, it really shrank, but we’re rebuilding it.
At the same time, Talking Heads split up, and you did another project called The Heads. How did these big changes affect you?
It was really rough when David Byrne announced he was not going to be working with the rest of us anymore. It was hard because we put in many years of building the ground work, and doing really great work together. I mean, it’s undeniable that we did really good work together. We’ve reached a point in our lived where we were mature people. It wasn’t like we were kids where we could get in the back of the van and just tour the country, and sleep on people’s floors and stuff like that. We’ve all had families, homes, mortgage payments. The realities of life you see. So, it was a very difficult time because instead of reaping the benefits of all of those years, it all came to a sudden stop. It all ended just like that. We loved working with Jerry Harrison, and we thought we would continue. And just recently Jerry joined Tom Tom Club on stage, so it was sort of electric when he came on and played with us. We got together with Jerry for The Heads back in 1996, and did some basic tracks, and we sent these tracks to various singers, asking them if they would care to join us. Nine out of ten agreed. The only person that declined was Bono, because he was too busy doing other stuff, and that’s completely understandable. Of course we invited David (Byrne) first. We said “David, we’re getting together in the studio, why don’t you come join us,” and he said “No, no way,” so (laughter) we asked other people like Andy Partridge, Maria McKee, Michael Hutchence, Richard Hell, Debbie Harry, and Johnette Napolitano. I mean, really interesting group of people. We ended up touring with Johnette, who is an amazing singer. But she didn’t really like the way we did things. Let me put it this way, I don’t think she would be happy in any situation where she wasn’t in complete control. So, that sort of didn’t work out. Still, we did some great stuff.
Staying on the topics of Talking Heads. How much, if any, of that’s band’s elements and influence were you able to sneak into Tom Tom Club?
Well, we are the reason section for both bands. But with Tom Tom Club we tend to go for a more danceable kind of grooves. We don’t worry so much about the rock aspect Talking Heads had. In fact, in the most recent recording that we did not even finish yet, we’re going more electronic way. I wouldn’t say techno, but I would say electronic, and I’m very pleased with the way it’s sounding. Also, it’s another way where Tina and I could just sort of do everything ourselves in the studio, and we don’t have to rely on other players. Although, we might invite some people to come in and overdub some stuff.
In 2000, Tom Tom Club released “The Good, The Bad, and The Funky.” This time, ten years had passed since the last album. How did things change at that point? Was the perception of the band still the same?
We financed that album completely ourselves. We did it all in our home studio, and we paid for everything, and then we took it to Palm Pictures, Chris Blackwell’s new company after Island. They really like what we did. We’ve had some guest vocalists. We had Charles Pettigrew on a number of tracks. At the time, we were thinking that maybe Tina wouldn’t need to sing every song. She liked that idea, she liked just being able to play bass. We would write the tracks, and then we would get together with a singer and work out the vocal, and contribute some lyrical ideas if they didn’t have any ideas of their own. Tina like that because it took the pressure off her. I live the way she sings, but often time she feels like she does not want to sing. That album actually sold pretty well considering that the business was going down. I mean, it wasn’t a gold record or anything, but it was respectable.
Also, there were I believe two live records, right?
Yes, there were two, but it’s basically the same record. We recorded live in 2002 in our studio in front of a live audience of 80 people or so. It was just friends and family in the audience. We had a bar, food, it was just a big party. The band played two sets, and we ended up taking most of the recording from the first set. We did two sets, so maybe we could get different takes on songs. We released that on something called Artist Direct. The guy who signed us to Artist Direct quit the day after, so we didn’t have a champion there, nobody even knew the record came out. Years later, last year, Thomas Cookman from Nacional Records, who we knew when Tina and I produced Fabulosos Cadillacs for him. They are a band from Argentina that’s enormously popular in Latin America. The play stadiums, kind of like the level that Dave Matthews Band is at here in America. Thomas went on to start his own record label. One day he called us up, and said he was playing that live album we sent him in his office, and people kept popping in asking who it is, and where they can get it. He wanted to re-release it, and Tina and I thought about it for a very short period of time, and agreed. We like him, and we liked what he was doing. And then couple of days later he said he wanted to ask my artists to do remixes of “Genius of Love,” and we’ll have it as a bonus track. Once again, we liked his idea. Then we got like twelve different mixes from twelve different artists, and they were all very interesting and very cool in different ways. So, what we did, we edited down the set, and we have one CD of live music, and one CD of remixes of “Genius of Love.” It’s a lot of “Genius of Love,” but if you take it one song at a time, it’s pretty good. I’m not sure how many copies we’ve sold, but things are looking up for us. Things are looking good. And in the age where everything is difficult in the music business, I consider this a step in the right direction. To be working with somebody who is very independent, and yet has a good knowledge of what’s going on.
You and Tina are one of the very few married couples, and you work together on stage. What are the pluses and minuses of such relationship?
For me, I’ve never known it any other way, neither has Tina. We’ve been doing this together since we were in our early 20s. I can’t say what the minuses can be. I don’t know of any, to me it’s all pluses. I consider myself a very lucky man.