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A Conversation With Chris Frantz

Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth
Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz

Although Chris Frantz has lived the rock lifestyle, you wouldn’t know it by his convivial personality. Easy going and laid back, the legendary drummer for Talking Heads and co-founder of Tom Tom Club has spent his career making some of the most seminal music of the last half-century.

After recording eight studio albums with Talking Heads and six with Tom Tom Club, Frantz decided it was time to do something different. Already an established painter and producer, he put down his drumsticks and picked up his pen to write his new memoir, Remain in Love.

In addition to taking readers to the early days of Talking Heads, a band formed at Rhode Island School of Design who found their groove after moving to New York, Frantz also digs deep into the dynamics of the band and his problematic relationship with its enigmatic singer, David Byrne.

There is also his romance with Tina Weymouth, tours with The Ramones and glimpses of the CBGB’s scene that thrived in 1970s. Along the way there are encounters with many of his larger than life contemporaries, Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, and Brian Eno.

Beneath his aw-shucks demeanor, Frantz is a creative spirit who understands both the importance of creating melodies and putting words to paper. Serving as a detailed chronicle of a band whose influence remains massive today.

Reflective, funny and filled with rich storytelling, Remain in Love is a briskly paced memoir that recalls a golden age in American music and forever changes how Talking Heads are perceived today.

Rob Levy: What made you decide to write an autobiography? 

Chris Frantz: I felt like I had a good story to tell and I felt that as an insider in the band who was there from day one until the present day. I knew some things that needed to be told. I also felt like, and I hope I was able to convey this in the book, that Talking Heads was really a wonderful experience for me in the same way that certain fans comment on how great the band made them feel. It made me feel great too and I am very grateful for that. I am so grateful for all the experiences I had with Tina and our band.

RL: Was there anything Tina asked you to not put in the book?

CF: Tina didn’t give me any direction. I knew from personal experience that there are some things she would want people to know about and some things she would want left out. Also, she is writing her own book, so some of the stories that I could have maybe told are probably better told by her.

RL: How long did it take to write the book?

CF: About eighteen months. I didn’t write constantly for eighteen months. I would write for a week or maybe ten days at a time and then take a few days off. It turns out that I really enjoyed the writing process. My editor, my manager and my agents were all very supportive in helping me. It was a very agreeable experience for me.

Remain in Love by Chris Frantz

RL: Are you by nature a writer or was writing this book a new experience for you?

CF: Writing the book was going out on a limb for me because I hadn’t really written very much. I had done a few reviews and things for magazines as well as Tommy Ramone’s obituary for Rolling Stone. But, after some wobbly anxiety I really enjoyed writing this book and had a good time doing it.

RL: How have you balanced your personal career with your musical one?

CF: Sometimes Tina and I have to take a little time off of business and not talk about business. We try not to bring it up until lunchtime. We have to give each other a little space that way.

RL: Tell me about the first time and the last time you played the drums.

CF: They start you off with this little rubber drum pad and sticks. It is not really a drum at all. When I got my drums, my father was in the military reserves. I was twelve years old and I had been playing drums in my elementary school band for a year and a half already, but I didn’t have any drums at home. I came home one night, and he had two Ludwig field snares and one bass drum for me. His reserve unit was going to throw them out and he got them for me. The first time I played them it was so much more exciting than that rubber pad. I loved marching around my driveway banging on my drums. 

I have this vintage Gretsch drumkit from 1964. It is a set of Champagne Sparkle drums that I bought from a collector. I loved the drum sound that Charlie Watts from the Rolling Stones got on those early records. Anyway, I sat down to play them, and I had not played them for a really long time and quickly realized I was out of shape. So now I am playing them for a little bit each day, trying to get myself back in shape.

RL: You have such a unique style of drumming. Who are your influences?

CF: Besides Charlie Watts and Ringo Starr, I really admire John Bonham of Led Zeppelin who was amazing. But, when I sit down to play, what I hear in my head is more akin to the Stax and soul drummers like Al Jackson Jr. who played with Booker T. & the M.G.’s and Al Green. Bennie Benjamin from Motown too. I didn’t even know his name until I found out about him on the internet. Those Motown guys really didn’t get credit for anything. Also, Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks from James Brown’s band and Bernard Purdie who played drums on “Rock Steady” by Aretha Franklin amongst so many other great records.

Talking Heads
Talking Heads

RL: Did you feel the need to come clean about some of the false perceptions? About Talking Heads?

CF: What I wanted to say was that people who don’t really know tend to think of Talking Heads as a band of just one genius. But really it was a team of geniuses. I mean look at the parts that Jerry Harrison and Tina played. David Byrne is not the main character of this story. He is one of many characters in the book and most of them are very interesting people. And so is he. However, when I sat down to write the book the last thing I wanted people to think of me was that I was an embittered, mean spirited and nasty guy who wants to beat up the singer. That is just not me. I am not that type of guy. I tried to accentuate the positive whenever possible. Like any presidential administration, no rock n’ roll band is perfect either.

RL: When you were on the road with Talking Heads, who did you play with that you loved and did any of them influence you as well?

CF: I would say out of all the bands we played with I can name two that I felt a real kinship with. The Ramones, who we opened for at CBGB’s for our first show and in Europe on our first tour. I love those guys, even. The other was The B-52’s. we toured extensively with them. We had the same manager and they were on the bill with us a lot. It was a really exciting show. They were loads of fun.

RL: With the 40th anniversary of Remain in Light approaching is there any chance at all of a Talking Heads reunion?

CF: It would be such a pleasant surprise if we got a call about getting back together for a few shows. But that call has not come but that is okay, we have a good legacy.

RL: In Remain in Love you mention that the band was post-punk before there was a post-punk. Does that idea describe the creative energy of New York in the 1970s?

CF: We were fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time when we moved to New York in the autumn of 1974. CBGB’s was just a very small scene at that time and it hadn’t blossomed yet. But there was this whole scene happening in the East Village with poetry, literature and filmmaking. There also was the scene in SoHo with painting, art and sculpture. There was conceptual and performance art going on at The Kitchen. It was a very culturally rich time. Many people say it happened because everything was so cheap, and the city was falling apart. Artists could afford to rent a loft back then. There was also the beginnings of an interesting night life: Danceteria and the Mud Club. It was a very romantic time too.

RL: Since the Velvet Underground was such a huge influence on your music, I was wondering if you have a good Lou Reed story?

CF: When we released our second Tom Tom Club album, Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom, we decided we would do a tour of residencies in night clubs in various cities. In New York, I went to see Hilly Kristal at CBGB’s and asked if we could do three weeks of dates there. He loved the idea and it was packed every night. We had a different opening act every night and we had special guests like Dee Dee Ramone or Debbie Harry. On the final night Lou performed with us. He knew we had recorded a version of “Femme Fatale” on the album and he played guitar on it for us. So, when he played with us at CBGB’s he knew we were going to be playing that song, so he came out and did “Femme Fatale”with us along with “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll.” The place went nuts. The only thing he asked from us is that we send a limo to come and get him. We all thought that was hilarious and we sent the biggest one we could afford to come get him.

RL: Can you speak of how Tom Tom Club were influenced by hip hop?

CF: I never went to the South Bronx to hear the real DJs and stuff, but we loved everything we were hearing coming from there. I was hearing it on WBLS and a few other radio stations during that time. But with Tom Tom Club we also wanted to incorporate our deep love of reggae and Latin music into our sound. Really what we were trying to create with that first album was a great party record.

RL: What was it like working with Brian Eno?

CF: Brian is a great producer and if you are interested in making an album with unpredictable aspects to it, he is your man. He is also very good at dealing with the content on a record. He is very critical and will draw the best out of the artists he works with. I have a great deal of respect for Brian. One problem we eventually ran into was that the more success we had with him the more demands he made. For example, with Remain in Light he wanted it to be credited as Remain in Light by Talking Heads and Brian Eno. He was already the producer and getting paid to make it with us, why all of a sudden does he have to have his name on the front cover? It was along the lines of one thing after another and we just decided to do Speaking in Tongues ourselves. But the stuff we did with him is unquestionably great work and he was a big part of that.

RL: Are you working on any new Tom Tom Club material?

CF: We have been talking about it for a while. But both Tina and I have this book writing bug now so we will have to see. I think it is very possible. We have discussed doing something of an electronic nature, just the two of us, something ultramodern.

RL: What are you working on next?

CF: I am thinking of working on another book. Something different, probably a travel one since no one can go out and travel it might be fun to read about it. Tina is in the early days of writing a book of her own. That is about it really. No one is breaking down our door for a new record. But you know what they say: if you light a cigarette the bus comes.

For more information on Remain in Love visit the Macmillan Books website. It’s available at all good book stores as well as Amazon.