Jim Sullivan catches up with the groundbreaking drummer for Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club on his 70th trip around the sun
As Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz approaches 70 – the big day is May 8 – he asks a very “Once in a Lifetime”-like question: “When I look at the number 70 in print, I think to myself, ‘Whoa, I’m getting up there. How did this happen?’”
Of course, as anyone still breathing will tell you, getting old(er) beats the alternative. “I give thanks that I’m alive and well,” says Frantz, via email earlier this week. “So many of our old friends are not. Tina and I are about to celebrate our 45th anniversary in June and I’m well aware of how fortunate I’ve been. I feel like every man should be so lucky.”
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
Frantz has spent the vast majority of his life – professionally and personally, on stage and off – with bassist Tina Weymouth, forming the rhythm section in both Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club. They live in Fairfield, Connecticut.
“I’ve been working together with Tina since 1974,” Frantz says. “When people ask me what it’s like, I tell them I’ve never known it any other way, nor would I want to. She rocks the bass guitar like no one else. She never plays a cliché. She never shows off. She never plays the usual. She is always in a process of creating or re-imagining. So yes, my work with Tina has always brought me great joy.”
In 2020, Frantz published Remain in Love, a memoir of his life before, during and after Talking Heads. He met his future wife and what he recalls as “a perfect New England day” at the Rhode Island School of Design, same place they met singer-guitarist David Byrne. They started a band, then all moved to New York and became one of the top CBGB bands – which is where I first saw them as a trio in December 1976, just before keyboardist Jerry Harrison joined. God, they were good!
The three wrote “Psycho Killer” smack dab in the middle of David (Son of Sam) Berkowitz’s killing spree in New York City. It would become the group’s first hit and calling card, the tall and twitchy Byrne fully inhabiting the character, being tense and nervous, unable to relax and hating on people for impoliteness. Sure, there was a darkly comic element, but it was all about trying to control those dark impulses and it struck a chord. Who hasn’t felt that way? And most of us aren’t psychotic.
The band grew in leaps and bounds, incorporated funk, R&B and world music; they became standard bearers for whatever you want to call that smart mainstream music that exploded out of punk rock. They gave us “Burning Down the House,” “Life During Wartime,” “And She Was,” “Road to Nowhere” “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody),” “I Zimbra,” “The Big Country” and much more. Club dates became theater dates as their popularity grew. They expanded into a big band, adding up to nine players in the Stop Making Sense era of the early ‘80s. Talking Heads shows were celebratory; whatever irony that was etched into the band’s original essence took a backseat to the ‘80s joy of syncopation.
As time went on and, as Frantz writes, “the more successful Talking Heads became, the more cold and dyspeptic David became.” He was staking a claim as a solo artist, doing projects with Brian Eno and was still the head Talking Head. (Frantz and Weymouth had their Tom Tom Club, too, of course, and those pleasures included “Wordy Rappinghood” and “Genius of Love.”) In 1991, Byrne pulled the plug, Frantz writing that he “sneaked out of Talking Heads.” All told though, Remain In Love is far less scathing toward Byrne than many expected it would be.
AUDIO: Talking Heads at CBGB 1976
Writing a memoir, I know, can be very much a process of rediscovery and a learning process. What did you rediscover or learn about yourself and about Talking Heads as you worked through Remain in Love?
My story is one of having dreams and doing everything in my power to make these dreams come true. I was amazed to rediscover how much work this entailed, but also how powerful the need for creative expression can be and how strong the support of my loved ones has been over the years.
In the book, obviously, you reflect upon a few of the less-pleasant moments of Talking Heads experience, but I got the feeling from reading it your credo may have been “accentuate the positive.” That the good far out-weighed the bad. True?
In my life, I’ve almost always chosen to be optimistic. Anyone who’s been in a band, or loved a band, knows that this can be a path with many twists and turns. I’m very proud of the music we made together. Who wouldn’t be? The last thing I wanted Remain In Love to be was a story written by a grumpy old man!
Certainly, the key bands that emerged from the early CBGB scene – you, The Ramones, The Dead Boys, Blondie, Television, The Cramps etc. – all had very different styles, but somehow appealed to a similar audience. “Punk” and then “New Wave” were labels tossed upon you all. Did that matter to you? Did you see each band as doing something distinctive and, yet, as I’m thinking, did you feel you were part of an intimate club?
Punk was a marketing term created by someone in the music business or the music press to sell records. None of the bands we knew at CBGB sounded alike or called themselves punk, but it was a clever handle to describe a band whose music was outside of the mainstream. When it became clear that there was a lot of resistance to play “Punk” music on commercial radio, Seymour Stein of Sire Records said about our band, “Talking Heads are not Punk. Talking Heads are New Wave!” Then the radio programmers who shunned punk music could say, “Oh, Talking Heads are New Wave? I guess we can play New Wave.” It was all about marketing.
When I’m talking to musicians who’ve succeeded about breakthrough moments – that special time when you feel like you’ve achieved that first goal – they often speak of that as the best time of their life (career-wise). Would that be the case for you and if so when would that moment or moments be?
Fortunately, with Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club we had many breakthrough moments. Our tour of the UK and Europe supporting the Ramones in the spring of ’77 was definitely a huge breakthrough. It was the first tour we ever did and my first trip to Europe. The Sex Pistols and The Clash, the Jam and The Slits had just released their first albums. It was a terribly exciting time for us.
When we were students at the Rhode Island School of Design, Tina and I watched Soul Train on TV every Saturday morning. So when we got the call that Don Cornelius had invited Tom Tom Club to perform on Soul Train, we felt like this was another breakthrough for us and another dream come true. We played on Soul Train in the morning. That same evening, we went over to the Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard and shot Stop Making Sense. It was a very big day!
Drummer questions: When you began, who were your heroes or role models? (If I could only play like …)
The short list is Gene Krupa, Mel Taylor of The Ventures, Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts and Al Jackson Jr. of Booker T. and the MGs.
And: When Talking Heads “big band” emerged – more rhythm, more percussionists – how did you feel about that evolution? Whose idea was it and were you happy in that mix?
David and Eno were convinced that Remain In Light was not able to be performed by a four-piece band. So Jerry called up our friend Busta “Cherry” Jones who then called Bernie Worrell, Steve Scales and Dolette McDonald. We already knew Adrian Belew and somebody called him. It was a killer band. If you haven’t already seen it, check out Talking Heads Live in Rome on YouTube.
VIDEO: Talking Heads Live in Rome 1981
We’re all pretty certain we’ve seen the last of Talking Heads. How about Tom Tom Club which, as you told me earlier is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. May we hear any new recorded music or any live dates once the pandemic restrictions ease?
For the upcoming Record Store Day [June 12], Tom Tom Club will be re-releasing a great, relatively unknown album that we made in the year 2000 called The Good, The Bad, And The Funky for the first time on vinyl. It’s possible that we may do some new recordings, too. It’s also possible that more books will be written. Touring is up in the air this time, but we still love to play.