Chris Frantz,
The TVD Interview

Drummer Chris Frantz has already gotten acclaim for his 2020 memoir Remain in Love, chronicling his life with Tina Weymouth in Talking Heads and the Tom Tom Club. But now he’s planning a second book, using the skills he honed at the art school where Talking Heads sprang.

“I just got a shipment of art supplies,” Frantz announced at a recent online chat sponsored by the Mark Twain House in Hartford. “I’m going to start a new book, which I’m going to illustrate. I’m giving you the exclusive. I’ve never illustrated a book before. I didn’t study illustration or anything, but I’m going to give it a go.”

Frantz’ event was part of his Covid-era book tour chat that I was lucky enough to host. What was his connection to the Mark Twain House? Well, he and Tina Weymouth have lived in Connecticut for years, as Twain did.

And there’s more: Weymouth’s great-grandfather, the French poet Anatole Le Braz, “the Bard of Brittany” was a contemporary and friend of Sam Clemens. And Twain’s celebrated Hartford neighbor, Harriet Beecher Stowe, witnessed a Kentucky slave auction that led to Uncle Tom’s Cabin during a time when she was  staying at the house where Frantz’s grandfather was raised.

But mostly we talked about what also filled his memoir—life with Weymouth in Talking Heads and the Tom Tom Club. And how it all came out of art school—a common place for UK bands to form, maybe, but not so much in the states. In their case, it was the Rhode Island School of Design, circa 1973, and they were out for fun.

“It was called the Artistics,” Frantz said of the band they formed at the Providence school. “It was David Byrne and myself and another guy named David Anderson who is a friend of mine from Washington, Kentucky, and Hank Stahler on bass. People came and went. We had friends coming and going in the band all the time. But that’s where we wrote our first songs.”

And art school helped there, too, he said. “What really determined what we did in music is what was instilled with us at RISD: it’s okay to be inspired by the great artists that have come before you. It’s fine to use them as a source of inspiration, as a springboard. But really what you have to do is dig down deep and reveal something in your music or your art that is unique unto itself. If you don’t do that, if you’re a copycat, that’s not good. That’s not art.”

Up to then the Artistics were happy being a popular campus dance band. “We had been playing songs by the Troggs and Paul Revere and the Raiders and the Ventures and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and Al Green. The whole reason for the Artistics’ existence was to entertain our friends, to play at parties and dances, and providing our friends with a good time. At one point, David said, maybe we should try writing our own songs.”

Frantz set the scene for their first collaboration, which turned out to be one of the band’s biggest songs. “One day Tina and I were painting,” he recalled. “One day there was a knock on the door and it was David. He said, I’ve got a song, it’s pretty cool, it’s sort of based on the style of Alice Cooper. And I thought, wow! Because Alice Cooper was the No. 1 hit artist of the time, he had hit big with “Billion Dollar Babies” and songs like that. So David sat down in our studio with his little acoustic guitar—a very beat up, funky, guitar that had paint splatters on it. And he started to play:

I can’t seem to face up to the facts
I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax
I can’t sleep ‘cause my bed’s on fire
Don’t touch me cause I’m a real live wire

“I said, ‘Whoa! That’s really good!’” Frantz recalled. “And he said, ‘I could use a little help on it. I want the middle eight to be in a foreign language. And I need some more verses.’ So Tina, who spoke French in the home, her mother was French, said, I can do that. So she sat down and wrote the middle eight of ‘Psycho Killer,’ the French part.”

Psycho Killer
Qu’est-ce que c’est
Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-far better
Run, run, run, run, run, run, run away

“Then I wrote a few more verses,” Frantz said, and they were done.

“We started playing that song in the Artistics and we couldn’t help notice that when we played it they really loved it, even more than they loved ‘I Can’t Control Myself’ by the Troggs. So we thought: OK, we should do more of this. The next song we wrote was ‘Warning Sign.’ And then we went to New York.”

New York was just the right place for the trio, especially since they moved into a place three blocks away from a little Bowery joint that had been friendly to an array of fledgling bands. A friend of his had advised them about the club so he checked it out.

“The first band I saw there was the Ramones. The second band I saw was the Patti Smith Group, when it was just Patti and Lenny Kaye on guitar, two people. The third band I saw was Television. And the fourth band was an early pre-Blondie version of Blondie, I think it was called the Angel and the Snake.”

The bands only drew a dozen or so at a time, but in a way that was fine, Frantz said. “It was like an incubator, so if you messed up, if you did a terrible show, or made a big mistake or something, not that many people saw it. You could kind of get away with it and come back next time and make amends with your audience.”

They could see something was happening, with all the variety of music being created by these young bands. “Each one was different,” he said. “They were authentic. They were not cover bands or copycat bands. I said to myself when I walked in and saw that, I thought: Hallelujah. This would be kind of like the Cavern Club was for The Beatles.”

Sure enough the club earned enough caché that when Talking Heads—now a quartet with Jerry Harrison—toured England for the first time opening for the Ramones in 1977, “all the promoters had to do was put up a sign that said ‘Two New York Bands from CBGBs’ and the kids would come, and the band would sell out. Because people were hip to the fact that there was this place called CBGBs and the music coming out of it was super cool.”

By then, Frantz said, “all of Europe and England knew about the Ramones. They didn’t know yet about the Talking Heads, though they knew a little bit. We were played a little bit on the radio, we had a single, ‘Love Building on Fire,’ and people liked it.”

England at the time was at the peak of its punk era, The Clash had just released its debut album, the Sex Pistols were around. They went to see bands like The Slits and The Damned, and they came to see their tour.

By the time Talking Heads returned to the US, they were newly energized to finish their debut that would be called Talking Heads ’77. “That tour really was where Tina, Jerry, David and me felt yeah, this is it. We got something great here, let’s get it on, let’s do this. “

And so they did. They got some notice, some college radio play and growing audiences on their headlining club tour. But, he said, “when we realized it was happening on a national level is when we were able to do TV shows like Saturday Night Live and American Bandstand, which we almost did back to back.”

Don’t laugh at Dick Clark’s Saturday show. “American Bandstand was a very influential TV show. It’s so funny,” Frantz said. “If you’re on American Bandstand, people start to take you seriously. That’s the power of TV.”

Frantz’ book celebrates the band’s tours and recordings, but it also aims to set the record straight about who wrote what—even when as frontman, Byrne sometimes took full credit. It was an irritation that undercut the joy they felt on stage.

“What I hoped to convey in this book was that Talking Heads really was a shared experience,” Frantz said. “Look, there’s no denying that David Byrne is a star performer; he just is. He’s a star performer. This is why we asked him to be in our band, because we could see that, even in the very early days.”

“We could see that this guy is different, and this guy has something extraordinary to convey to the audience. And we were always very supportive. We always believed in David. We still do. I adore the guy. But unfortunately, the feeling was not mutual. At least most of the time, it didn’t seem like it was, it didn’t feel like it was. So sometimes that got under our skin.”

That made all the sweeter the time Chris and Tina’s side project, Tom Tom Club, ended up doing much better than solo efforts by the other two—or anything by the Talking Heads did for that matter with international hits for “Wordy Rappinghood” and especially “Genius of Love,” which was sampled in dozens of songs including one pop megahit.

“We’ve done very well with ‘Genius of Love.’ Frantz said. “Particularly our good friend Mariah Carey. That song, “Fantasy,” which is basically a rewrite of “Genius of Love,” I don’t know how long that sat at No. 1.” (Well, it debuted at No. 1 in 1995 and stayed at the top for eight weeks).

Talking Heads called it quits in 1991, but the band got together to play one more time, when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. “It was a great night.”

But their latest recognition for Talking Heads came with considerably less fanfare. “We just got Lifetime Achievement awards from the Grammys,” Frantz said. “It just came in the mail yesterday.” Because of Covid, “they’re not going to do a ceremony this year.”

But, he added, “Better to get a Lifetime Achievement award than Band of the Year.”

Chris Frantz’s Remain in Love (St. Martin’s Press, $29.99) is available at bookstores now.

Frantz hosts the Lockdown Music Festival, an online fundraiser, Saturday, March 13, from 7 to 9 p.m. ET with Deep Banana Blackout, Xeno & Oaklander, The Zambonis, Mystic Bowie’s Talking Dreads, Plastic Ivy, Sadie Dupuis and the Du-Rites. Donations support arts education at the Neighborhood Studios in Bridgeport.

The Grammys air Sunday night at 8PM EST on CBS.

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