Chris Frantz talks Tom Tom Club, Talking Heads and the future

By Bill Forman

Context is everything. In 1979, when “Air Can Hurt You Too” appeared on Talking Heads’ “Fear of Music” album, its lyrics felt more paranoia than prophecy. But today, in a time of global warming and airborne disease, lyrics like “Some people say not to worry about the air/Some people never had experience with air” sounds eerily prescient

By this point, the band’s debut album, “Talking Heads ’77,” and its unsettling single “Psycho Killer” had already established it as one of most quirky bands to come out of New York City’s punk scene. Formed by Rhode Island School of Design graduates singer/guitarist David Byrne, bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz, as well as former Modern Lovers keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison, the band would go on to find unexpected success in the coming years, reaching their artistic pinnacle in 1980 with the epic, Brian Eno-produced “Remain in Light.”

Once the album was finished, the four musicians took a break to pursue individual side projects. Byrne collaborated with Eno. Harrison worked on a solo album. And future husband and wife Frantz and Weymouth took off to the Bahamas to record as Tom Tom Club, whose laid-back singles “The Genius of Love” and “Wordy Rappinghood” would propel them to success on a par with Talking Heads.

Recently, Faber & Faber published Frantz’s “Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina,” an engaging memoir that recounts his experiences in both bands, as well as his 40-year relationship with Weymouth. I caught up with Frantz recently to talk about all of that, as well as Talking Heads’ cursed visits to San Francisco, family tragedy during quarantine, and the duo’s idea for their next musical project.

Tom Tom Club’s debut came out a year after “Remain in Light,” which I’ve always thought of as Talking Heads’ densest-sounding album. By contrast, you and Tina went for a very breezy, kind of island vibe, which left a lot of space in both the arrangements and the production. Was there a sense of relief that came with that?

Yeah, although I was very on edge when we began the Tom Tom Club project because, just like with “Remain in Light,” we hadn’t written anything. It was all being composed in the studio as we recorded it. So, you know, we were flying by the seat of our pants, you might say.

But even before we entered the studio with Tom Tom Club, Tina and I knew we wanted to do something completely different sounding from Talking Heads. We didn’t want to appear to be riding on the coattails of our other band. We loved reggae, soca and calypso. And we also loved this new thing we were hearing on the radio called rap. So that’s why we sound different. I’m pretty sure that a lot of people didn’t have any idea that Tom Tom Club was in any way connected to Talking Heads.

You both grew up listening to your parents’ calypso records, which is pretty unusual for kids from Southern California and Kentucky. So after you met at the Rhode Island School of Design, it must not have taken long to recognize each other as kindred spirits.

Correct. Before we even got into the music thing, we were studying art together and we really liked each other’s paintings. We also liked a lot of the same painters throughout history. I guess Tina knew more about classical painting and I knew more about contemporary painting. And so we exchanged ideas and thoughts.

What was it like moving from Rhode Island to New York City? There had to be some degree of culture shock.

Tina, David and I all lived in this loft together at 195 Chrystie Street on the Lower East Side. And so, yeah, we all got to go through culture shock at the exact same time. I think it was a shock to our systems, but we all handled it very well.

When you started going to venues like CBGB, who were some of your favorite bands to go see?

I remember going to a show at CBGB for the first time and seeing the Ramones. I had actually thought the Ramones would be a Mexican band, but instead they were these four guys my age from Forest Hills, Queens. Back in those days, sometimes they would stop in the middle of the song and start yelling at each other; it was kind of like a conceptual art project. And I thought, this is fantastic!

And the next weekend, the headlining band was Television with Richard Hell on bass. And then I saw Patti Smith. And then I saw Blondie, who weren’t even called Blondie yet. I knew something really cool was happening and that we wanted to be part of that.

So I have a question that relates to the song “Psycho Killer.” During the “Talking Heads ’77” tour, you played an afternoon show at UC-Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza. As it turned out, that was just hours after (politician/activist) Harvey Milk had been shot. Did you know about it before you went onstage, or did you only find out afterward? 

No, we found out after—at least I did. You know, it seemed like every time we went to San Francisco, something happened. The next time we went, the Jonestown Massacre happened, and a lot of those people were from San Francisco. And then another time, we were actually there with Tom Tom Club and were just leaving town when the earthquake happened—the big one that closed everything down for weeks. I started to feel like, wow, we should probably just not go to San Francisco.

So what’s next for you two?

Well, Tina has started working on a book of her own, and we’ve been thinking we might do something electronic together. Like, you know, we’re of a certain age, but we’re still kind of hip. And this is something she and I could do together. We love Tom Tom Club and Talking Heads, but this is something we could record low budget, keep the costs down, and just have some fun with it.

You could do a cover Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream.”

I’d love to cover that song. We’ll call it “Stream, Baby, Stream.”

So earlier this month, right after your Rolling Stone magazine interview came out, blogs started posting headlines like “Chris Frantz Talks About the Possibility of a Talking Heads Reunion.” But what you’d actually talked about in that interview was the impossibility of a Talking Heads reunion. Have the prospects for a reunion really gone that far past the “never say never” stage?

Well, if David woke up one day and said, “I’m going to call Chris and Tina and Jerry and see if they’d like to do some shows or make a new album, we would be crazy to say no. You know, it might work or it might not work, but when we started the band, it (was like it) might work or it might not work too, right? It’s like, when you’re an artist, you have to take some chances. I think it would be fun, but I don’t think it’s going to happen, because David has said so many times he doesn’t want to. But who knows? Maybe one day he might get the fear of God put into him. (Laughs.)

Stranger things have happened. Peter Gabriel talked about how his father, who was a lifelong atheist, let his nursing home’s Catholic priest administer last rites. He said his father wanted to hedge his bets.

You know, my mother passed away on April 11 from COVID virus. She wasn’t Catholic, but she was Episcopalian, and they also have last rites. And she was administered last rites over the telephone while the rest of us listened in, because we weren’t allowed to visit her. And it was so—how shall I put this?—beautifully surreal. I don’t think it could have been more surreal than hearing your mother get her last rites over the telephone, where various members of the family are connected long distance. That was something wild, but that’s the kind of year we’ve been having.