Still turning heads


September 5, 2003


The new album "Live @ The Clubhouse" finds one of the greatest rhythm sections in rock--the husband-and-wife team of drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth--doing what they do best, grooving hard and funky, with the band they formed in 1980, the Tom Tom Club.

Renowned for dance-pop hits such as "Genius of Love" and "Wordy Rappinghood" and sampled in recent years by rappers and dance artists such as Tupac, the Black Eyed Peas, Busta Rhymes, Mariah Carey and Ziggy Marley, the Tom Tom Club has now been together for 23 years--more than twice as long as Frantz and Weymouth's first band, though of course they will always be remembered for their role in the pioneering art-punk group the Talking Heads.

In addition to its leaders, the current version of the Tom Tom Club includes percussionists Steve Scales and Abdou M'Boup, singers Victoria Clamp and Mystic Bowie, guitarist Fuzz, keyboardist Bruce Martin and DJ Kid Ginseng.

I spoke with Frantz and Weymouth from their home in Connecticut shortly before the start of the tour.

Q. Tell me about making this live album. It sounds like it was a heck of a party.

Frantz: It was a very good party! We had a nice caterer, a bartender, and 80 of our friends and friends of friends who came by our home. We played the set two times, once in the afternoon and another time later in the evening, so we would have two takes of each song. And we're very happy with the results.

Q. It seems to me that Tom Tom Club has always valued the live experience more than the records.

Frantz: Yeah, it's true. We've always had good bands, but this band that we have now is particularly dynamite. I'm just very happy with everybody's performance, and there's something about playing in front of an audience where we just dig in a little harder than we do in the studio.

Q. As a rhythm section, the joy comes when you see the result of what you're churning out--the people dancing in front of you.

Frantz: I couldn't have put it better myself!

Q. You make a point in your press materials of talking about being anti-nostalgia, of moving forward and not looking back. At the same time, you did that Heads project a few years ago, with Johnette Napolitano subbing for David Byrne, and you're saddled with this incredible legacy. You seem to go back and forth about how to deal with it.

Frantz: You're right, we do. It's a great legacy. Talking Heads is something that will always be a feather in our cap, and now that we're like, up there in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I guess we can relax about it and just live with it instead of trying to fight it in any way. But you do get nonbelievers who think, "You'll never do anything as great as 'Remain in Light' again." If we listened to them, I guess we'd be pretty depressed.

Weymouth: When we were making "Remain in Light," basically David Byrne had left the group and was doing his solo thing. The record company was saying, "How can you get him to come back?" We love to play, and we loved the Talking Heads, so what we did--and it wasn't that calculated, it was just kind of organic--we said, "We're jamming in our loft"--we always rehearsed in Chris and my loft--and we invited first Brian Eno and then David Byrne to come and jam with us, just for fun. So David, who had been spending so much time in the studio, and Brian, who had never played in a band, came and it was fun. We were trading instruments around and it was just fun, and that's how it went in the studio, too. "Remain in Light" came together and we had no pretensions whatsoever that we were making an African record.

Q. I remember a quote from you once, Tina, where you said you had this vision of Byrne and Eno in the future, sitting in the nursing home alone, lost in their thoughts.

Weymouth: Oh, my god, that got me in so much trouble! That was actually in a Rolling Stone interview, and I regretted saying it because of how David took it. But I was just trying to say that there are some people who have thought disorders, and they think the world revolves around them--that nothing happens unless they're thinking it. I was just wondering what was going through David's mind, because we had this great band and yet here he was ignoring it.

Q. Still, if Byrne called you up and said he wanted to do it again, would you?

Weymouth: Oh, yeah! A month ago, we were talking about this box-set package, and the record company was saying, "We can't afford that, it's too expensive." It was a really awesome package idea, and we were all into it during this six-way phone conversation, and I said, "Well, what if we were to do some shows and play some of these songs to promote this, would that change your feelings?" And they said, "Well yeah, that would change everything." And so I said, well, Chris and I would be into it, and Jerry [Harrison], I think you would be into it, right? Jerry said, "Yes, I would be." And then there was silence.

I said, "David, we haven't heard from you." And David said [imitates Byrne's nasal drone], "I said it before, I'll say it again: I'm not doing that." And it was kind of interesting, because emotionally, that was the first time he ever told us that he wasn't going to play with us. I was so surprised that he did the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing and didn't replace us with a bunch of session players.

Q. Where do you think that reluctance comes from?

Weymouth: Oh, that's a billion-dollar question! Sometimes it doesn't pay to try to understand something, you just have to accept what is. And the situation is that he still says he's not coming back, and nobody knows why. Everybody says, "It's such a wonderful group, and half your set is all Talking Heads. Why are you doing this?" And he gets all miffed and pissed off and doesn't understand. It's exactly like [Lou] Reed and [John] Cale [of the Velvet Underground]. Reed just doesn't get it; he just doesn't know why the audience is there.

Q. The irony is that you have a generation of young hip-hop and dance artists who don't know anything about Talking Heads but are into sampling the Tom Tom Club.

Frantz: Exactly, and Tom Tom Club has now been active on and off for longer than Talking Heads ever was. One of the things that's keeping our band Tom Tom Club alive financially is the fact that these hip-hop artists are recording us that way. I love it. For example, we just got a CD for approval by an artist known as Common. Have you heard of him?

Q. I know Common well! He's a Chicago native.

Frantz: His new song, which I love, is called "The New Wave," and the backing is totally "Wordy Rappinghood" from the first Tom Tom Club album. It's a sample put together by some producers called the Play Group, an electronic act from Belgium. It's a wonderful song, and I love it because it gives our track a new life again, and like you said, people that don't remember the old stuff hear it and get turned on by it. Of course, they think it's a Common record, which it is!

Q. You guys have built your own home studio, and you're recording for an independent label these days. How have you seen the music industry change in the last few years? In some ways, it must seem like 1975 again.

Frantz: Yeah, pretty much. I don't know what's going to happen with the music business. I try not to think about it too much because when I do, it's really a conundrum. But I understand why kids are completely bored with a lot of the stuff that's going on, and what few songs they are excited about, they can download for free. I completely relate. Rock 'n' roll has become a banality. You hear it everywhere you go, and it's lame songwriting in many cases. Who wants to listen to a whole album of lame songwriting?

I think it will come around, but people have to adapt and be more interesting. It will probably come from unexpected areas from people with unexpected angles. Like who would have thought that Tina Weymouth, David Byrne, Jerry Harrison and myself--some spunky kids from the various suburbs of our nation--would go anywhere? We thought the great rock 'n' rollers had to be from Memphis or London or Liverpool or Detroit, not from, like, the suburbs of Pittsburgh. We're really interested in people like [New York dance/performance artists] Peaches and Chicks on Speed, people that are not really even musicians, but they're coming up with some music that catches our ear. In a way, it's just as outrageous as Mick Jagger was back in the mid-'60s.