Chris Frantz Interview: Talking Heads to Tom Tom Club, Remaining in Love
Image attributed to Chris Frantz
Born May 8, 1951, Chris Frantz is best known as the drummer for the rock band Talking Heads, which was also composed of David Byrne (lead vocals, guitar), Tina Weymouth (bass) and Jerry Harrison (keyboards, guitar). In 2002, Talking Heads were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Four of their albums appear in Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” and three of their songs (“Psycho Killer,” “Life During Wartime” and “Once in a Lifetime”) were included among the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.”
Frantz and his wife, Tina Weymouth, also founded the new wave band Tom Tom Club in 1981 as a side project from Talking Heads. Their best known songs include “Wordy Rappinghood,” “Genius of Love” and a cover of The Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk,” all released on their 1981 debut album Tom Tom Club. Frantz’s memoir, Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina, was published in 2020. The paperback version of the book will be published October 26, 2021, by St. Martin's Press.
"At a certain point, it became the David Byrne show, particularly after the movie Stop Making Sense. I think you probably know how we feel about it, and that is, it’s a shame that in the end, David didn’t really acknowledge the significance of the other members of the band and what their influence and hard work helped to accomplish."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Chris, how are you today?
Chris Frantz: I’m good, thanks. I mustn’t grumble. I feel good. So you’re calling from Alabama.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: All the way from Birmingham.
Chris Frantz: You know, I have a friend in Mobile, but that’s a different city.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I remember you mentioning his name in the book. Bill Oppenheimer, I believe?
Chris Frantz: Yeah, that’s correct. Very good.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are you two still friends?
Chris Frantz: We are. Many times, he’s invited me to the Mardi Gras in Mobile, which evidently is the original Mardi Gras in the United States. But I regret to say, I’ve never taken him up on it. But now that I’m in my golden years, I should really do that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You should definitely add that to your bucket list. Well, I haven’t read the entire book yet, but just in the first 30 pages, you mention being horny in two different situations.
Chris Frantz: (laughs) I was always horny, and you know what, Melissa? Between you and me, I thought that would go away at some point. But it never goes away.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It never does? (laughs)
Chris Frantz: No. Not for me anyway. But my mother raised me well, and I try to behave like a gentleman. I do my best (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What did you want to accomplish by forming a band, Chris, way back in the '70s?
Chris Frantz: I think there were multiple reasons. One was that fame and fortune seemed like it was a possibility back then. Those of us that saw the Beatles and the whole British invasion and before that, Elvis Presley, I think we realized that it’s possible to have a really exciting life if you were in a rock and roll band. I wasn’t a singer, you know. I never thought of myself as a very good singer. So I had to form a band and surround myself with people who were kind of unique and had qualities that you didn’t find in other bands. Let me put it this way. I wasn’t looking for journeymen. I was looking to put together a band with pretty unique individuals. That’s one reason I thought that Tina would be great in the band even though she didn’t yet play the bass guitar.
David was extremely unique and still is. It was obvious to me that he had what we call “star quality.” He was the type of person that if he walked into a room, people noticed even if he didn’t say a single word. He was a good looking guy but also like a train wreck about to happen (laughs). Interesting combination. He and Tina both had a very, shall we say, philosophical way of thinking about the world. So I thought, “Well, this is great because these people are deep.” David wasn’t just in the band to get girls, although, maybe I was (laughs). A lot of musicians loved the fact that girls were attracted to rock musicians, certain type of girls. But what were we talking about?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The formation of the Talking Heads.
Chris Frantz: Right. David moved to New York in the early summer of ’74. Tina and I made the move to New York in mid-October of that year. I got a loft on the Lower East Side. It turned out that it was three blocks away from a place called CBGB. When I first moved to New York, David was living with another friend of ours from the Rhode Island School of Design named Jamie Dalglish, and Jamie was a painter. He had a loft on Bond Street. I went to visit him the first day I was in New York, and David was sleeping on his couch at that time.
Jamie said, “Chris, I know you’re interested in starting a band. There’s something going on at that place across the street called CBGB. You should check it out.” So I did that very night. I walked in, and it was like a dive bar. Nobody was there but the bartender. There wasn’t any music playing. There wasn’t a jukebox playing. It was kind of a sad situation. The smell of the place, even when nobody was in the room, was very interesting. It was a mélange of stale beer, cigarette smoke, dog shit and Chanel No. 5. Oh, and a hint of roach spray.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The Raid brand or something generic? (laughs)
Chris Frantz: I think it was something they probably bought by the gallon and sprayed it around the place. But then I heard this pool game going on in the back. I couldn’t see it, but I heard someone breaking pool balls. I went back, and there were three guys shooting pool, and one of them had a very interesting look. He was dressed in a silver, iridescent sharkskin suit, a black shirt and a purple tie with big Silverfish wraparound sunglasses, kind of like what Elvis wore in 1974. I said, “Is there going to be any music going on?” He said to me in a very distinct Mexican accent, “No, man, but come back on Friday. The Ramones are playing.” I said, “Oh, great. I’ll come back.”
Of course, I thought the Ramones might be a Mexican band. Of course, they were not. They were four guys from Forest Hills, Queens, New York, and they were just amazing. In those days, they were just getting started, and they would stop in the middle of a song and have an argument (laughs). I’d never seen anything like it. The songs were so short and so fast that to me, it was like a conceptual art piece. So that was my first taste of CBGB that particular night in October.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was it during those early days of the band that the Ramones said the Talking Heads sucked?
Chris Frantz: Yes.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Why?
Chris Frantz: It was really only one member of the Ramones that thought we sucked, and that was Johnny Ramone. But he liked the fact that we sucked because he thought we wouldn’t draw any of the spotlight away from the Ramones. That’s how we got our first show opening for the Ramones. It was our second, third and fourth, and then we ended up doing a lot of shows with the Ramones, particularly, the first tour we ever did.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did Johnny Ramone ever change his mind?
Chris Frantz: Not really. He didn’t warm up until much later in his life. Even then, I don’t know if you’d fully describe him as a warm person (laughs). He was mean as a snake.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: In his book, David Byrne said he had “border-line Asperger’s syndrome.” He has also revealed that it could be a superpower that allowed him to really focus on creative pursuits.
Chris Frantz: I think there’s some truth to it being like a superpower. But I found that everybody on the spectrum is different and that we really shouldn’t make assumptions about people because they’ve said they have Asperger’s. I can tell you that we always knew there was something about David that was very unique. He had a particular vision of the world that certainly I did not have. Like that song, “Don’t Worry About the Government.” It takes a very interesting mind to even come up with that title for a rock and roll song (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: True.
Chris Frantz: Tina and I and also Jerry Harrison (who entered the picture later) always thought that David’s unique perspective was a big bonus. As a jumping off point, David always had a very kind of interesting and unexpected idea and would say, “I feel like doing a song about this,” or “I feel like doing a song about that.” We would say, “Great idea.”
I don’t want to give you the impression that we didn’t have ideas also. All four of us had plenty of ideas. At a certain point, it became the David Byrne show, particularly after the movie Stop Making Sense. I think you probably know how we feel about it, and that is, it’s a shame that in the end, David didn’t really acknowledge the significance of the other members of the band and what their influence and hard work helped to accomplish.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How did Stop Making Sense come about?
Chris Frantz: I think we shot it in early '83 maybe. So we’d been touring for six or seven years, and we’d gotten pretty good at our act. We had aligned ourselves with additional sidemen at that point. David and Brian Eno felt that if we didn’t expand the lineup, we couldn’t do justice to the songs that were on the album Remain in Light. I’m not sure I completely agreed, but we added the other musicians like Bernie Worrell and Steve Scales. There was a guy named Busta “Cherry” Jones from Memphis, Tennessee, on an additional bass guitar and Dolette McDonald on vocals. Adrian Belew came in 1980, and was one of the most amazing guitarists. It went from really good to incredible. It was like every night, we never failed.
Every night, we delivered this transcendental experience to people. It also rocked like all get-out, and it was funky. So people loved it. We watched this tour process and thought, “We should make a film of this tour, if only just for the archives.” Around that same time, we had a visit backstage in one of these big locker rooms, and Jonathan Demme came in with his girlfriend, Sandy McLeod, who was also from Alabama. Jonathan and Sandy said, “We’d love to make a movie of this tour.” We had seen Jonathan’s movie Melvin and Howard about the guy who saved Howard Hughes in the dessert from a motorcycle accident. One thing led to another, and we paid for the movie ourselves. On the final night, we wanted to add an additional third night of shooting.
All I can say about Stop Making Sense is that everybody involved evidently was at the top of their game because it’s so good. It’s just undeniably good, not just the band but also the cameramen, the lighting and design. The director of photography was a guy named Jordan Cronenweth who, at the time, had recently shot Blade Runner. So we just had really good people involved. Jonathan knew how to pick a really good team. The Talking Heads delivered the goods. I was so happy it turned out so well because if it hadn’t, we might not be having this conversation right now (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Then I am very glad Stop Making Sense turned out so well (laughs). Where would “Psycho Killer” be without Tina’s thumping bassline driving the song?
Chris Frantz: I know. I know. Tina wrote a really good bass part for that. That was the first song we ever wrote together. That was before Tina was even in the band.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tina could read and write music at that time?
Chris Frantz: Yes. I wouldn’t say she was fluent at it, but she knew more about it than David and I knew about it. On the early records, when we needed something transcribed musically, Tina would be the one who did that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was “Psycho Killer” inspired in even the smallest way by Son of Sam?
Chris Frantz: There’s no question that Son of Sam was a psycho killer. But the reason the song was about a psycho killer is because David said that he got the inspiration for it from an Alice Cooper song. Alice Cooper was very big at that particular point in time with an album called Billion Dollar Babies. The band’s whole thing was about horror. So Alice Cooper was like the springboard for “Psycho Killer.”
The song happened to be written in either late 1972 or early 1973. We were all at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. Tina and I were sharing a painting studio. It must have been ’73 because it was our senior year. Anyway, I had this little band called the Artistics along with David and three other guys. We were a cover band and really enjoyed playing covers and picking out the songs our audience would like. Our primary reason for existing was just to entertain our friends at school. But one day, David and I were talking and said, “Maybe we should write an original song and see how people like it.”
Tina and I were painting one day in our studio. We were preparing for the end of the year, senior year exhibition. There’s a knock on the door, and it was David. He had a beat-up acoustic guitar with paint splattered on it. He came in and said, “I’ve got the beginnings of a song, and I’d like you to help me with it.” We said, “Great.” So David sat down and played the first verse and the chorus, and I immediately thought, “Oh, this is like the Velvet Underground meets Otis Redding.” I loved it. I could just tell it was a great beginning for a song. Then David said, “I was hoping to have the bridge in a foreign language.” He said that he asked a Japanese girl if she’d translate it into Japanese for him, but when she found out the song was called “Psycho Killer,” she absolutely refused to do it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) She may have regretted that hasty decision over the years.
Chris Frantz: (laughs) I told David that Tina’s mother is French and that they always spoke French in the home. Tina agreed to do it and just sat down and did it in a little over an hour. I wrote a couple of more verses, and within a few hours, “Psycho Killer” was more or less done. I mean, it evolved a little bit musically over the years, but this was an indication to me that this was a really good group of people to work with. When we played that song with our band the Artistics, people really liked it.
The audience liked it when we played “I Can’t Explain,” by the Who, “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” by Paul Revere & the Raiders and “The Tracks of My Tears” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. But then when we played “Psycho Killer,” they really liked it. So we thought, “Oh, we should do more of this.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Between the Tom Tom Club and The Talking Heads, which did you find more satisfying and enjoyable?
Chris Frantz: Tina and I both always say Talking Heads was like our first baby, and Tom Tom Club was like the second child, and you love all your children, right? But there’s always a special feeling about the first child that you have. I must say, both bands have been very satisfying. We just recently did a Tom Tom Club show in Chicago, which was at a secret private party. Somebody made us an offer we couldn’t refuse, so we flew out to Chicago and played at this party (laughs). The band was just delightful.
We had a wonderful time. The audience, 500 people, just loved it. In fact, they invited us back for their next party. I don’t know. That may be like trying to reheat the soufflé (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you consider the Tom Tom Club the forefather of hop-hop music with songs like “Genius of Love” and “Wordy Rappinghood”?
Chris Frantz: We get a lot of love from the hip-hop community, as they call it. Just a few weeks ago, there was a song released by a woman who calls herself Latto, and the song is called “Big Energy.” It’s a sample of “Genius of Love.” That’s the backing track. She’s one of these full-figured gals who wears revealing clothing and has a filthy message to deliver (laughs). But she’s pretty great. She’s stunning.
I remember Tina was photographed with Grandmaster Flash by a photographer named Laura Levine. That portrait is now in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. But it was originally shot for the cover of New York Rocker magazine. Tina and I were fans of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. After the shoot, Tina brought him back to the studio where the Talking Heads were working at the time, and he said, “That song of yours, ‘Genius of Love,’ is going to be a big hit.” I said, “Really? You think so?” It had just been released in the United States. He said, “Yeah. Everybody’s going to be playing that song. I think we’re going to do a version of it.” And he did.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: During your musical journey, did you meet Eric Clapton?
Chris Frantz: I did meet him. I met him when he was recording the album Money and Cigarettes at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I ask because he’s been in the news so much after the COVID vaccines became available.
Chris Frantz: So it’s about the anti-vax thing?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes. Eric has donated a lot of money to an anti-vax musical project for a band called Jam for Freedom. One of their songs has lines like, “You can stick your poison vaccine up your ass.”
Chris Frantz: (laughs) Gosh. They sound like real stupid people. I can’t say I really know Eric Clapton. I was more impressed with his wife at the time, Pattie Boyd Harrison Clapton. She was a lovely person. It was obvious why George Harrison and Eric Clapton were so crazy about her. She was quite something and really a nice person also.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I believe David Byrne said last year that he had not read your book Remain in Love.
Chris Frantz: Yeah. I offered to send David an advance copy. He said, “No. No. Please don’t because I’m not going to read it. If I read it, then people would ask me what I thought about it, and I’d have to tell them. But if I don’t read it, I can just say that I didn’t read it, and then I wouldn’t have to tell them.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I don’t imagine there will be a Talking Heads reunion, but it’s my duty to ask.
Chris Frantz: Well, I certainly wish there would be a Talking Heads reunion. But David has just repeatedly refused. But Talking Heads are getting a very nice treatment on Broadway with David Byrne’s American Utopia (laughs). I think 70% of the songs are Talking Heads songs. So it seems like he’ll play those songs with anybody except the Talking Heads (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What are you and Tina doing these days in Connecticut?
Chris Frantz: We’re about to write some new music. We have a studio here, and we updated everything from the wiring on up. We’re completely digital.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How’s your health since you suffered a heart attack last year?
Chris Frantz: I’m doing just fine, thank you. I feel good. I try to make sure I get enough rest, and I do exercise. I lost a lot of weight right after I had that heart attack. Then during the pandemic, it’s creeping back up again. I just have to be more vain like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. They’re extremely vain, and they’re extremely thin (laughs).
But Tina and I walk every day. We walk the dogs. I walk by myself for exercise because the dogs stop every ten feet and just sniff something. I have a trainer. She’s a delightful person. She comes to my house and makes me do squats and lunges and all kinds of stuff that I wouldn’t do if she wasn’t telling me to do it (laughs).
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