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Friars Interviews

Chris Frantz
Talking Heads

friars appearances 26/05/77  24/01/78

Chris Frantz, London Jazz Cafe, July 15th 2011 (Mike O'Connor)

  The Talking Heads were a classic new-wave band bursting out of the New York CBGBs scene and after playing Friars in 1977 came back eight months later headlining. They went on to greater things and were commercially and artistically huge. The band effectively disbanded in 1988 but were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

David Byrne has forged a solo career, Jerry Harrison is a producer and Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth formed the Tom Tom Club in 1981 and celebrate the 30th anniversary of the band with a UK tour this summer (I saw one of the London gigs and amazing doesn't begin to cover it). We were very privileged to have the thoughts of drummer Chris Frantz for the Friars website.

We spoke to Chris at his home in New York in June 2011.

Chris, thanks for talking to the Friars Aylesbury website.

My pleasure!

You'd been together for about three years by the time of your first appearance at Friars in May 1977 with The Ramones. I guess you were part of the CBGBs connection with you doing that tour?

Yes, and that we were also on Sire Records, the same label as The Ramones. The label head, Seymour Stein, asked us if we would like to do it (the tour) and of course we jumped at the chance. It was the first tour we ever did and the first time I had been to Europe and the UK. It was totally a very exciting time with what they called punk music, but the Talking Heads was never really what you would call punk. We had come from the same sort of roots..(laughs)

I guess there were what was termed 'new wave' elements in there weren't there?

Yes. It was a great pleasure and we returned to Friars Aylesbury in 1978 with Dire Straits.

Yes, a very unknown Dire Straits supporting you!

We had been playing a lot of 'divey' places in those days. Not every place though and every place we played was you could say a step up from CBGBs!

CBGBs was a small old place.....

Yes, but Friars Aylesbury was such a clean newish place. All the staff were very sympathetic, very courteous and treated us really well.

When you first played at that Ramones gig, it was just before Talking Heads 77 came out....

Yes, in fact just before Tina (Weymouth, Heads bassist) and I got married.

When you played that headline show in 1978, we caught you just before More Songs About Buildings and Food came out....

Yes, they were early days for us, but certainly exciting times.

Certainly triumphant times I think....

Yes, I think that's safe to say.

I remember around that 1978 tour, you played the influential Old Grey Whistle Test. Recently they have released compilation DVDs and your performance is on there (Psycho Killer), it's stood the test.

Yes.

After the first album, you moved forward bringing in Brian Eno as producer - was this a band decision or was it record company influence?

It was definitely the band that decided. We had lunch with Brian courtesy of Linda Stein (Seymour's wife who was murdered a couple of years ago). Linda knew we wanted to meet Brian Eno and during that 1977 Ramones tour, there was a point where they went off to play in Norway or Sweden so we had a couple of nights off, so we played a gig of our own in Covent Garden...what was it called...

The Rock Garden?

Yes, that's it, the Rock Garden in Covent Garden, this weird little honeycombed venue. Brian Eno came to the show and Linda Stein was there with us and we arranged to have lunch the following day at a nice English pub. That's when we decided that we were both keen on working with each other. It was a very good partnership for three albums.

Yes, the style of the band's music evolving and Brian Eno to help shape it.....there was some fantastic stuff...

Yes, it was very fruitful! (laughs)

That's a good way to put it! The relationship remained for three albums....up to Remain In Light?

Yeah..More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music and Remain in Light.

There's such quality about those albums and a range of different influences you were bringing in...

The first album, More Songs...., had been written already and had been performed live. To a certain extent Fear of Music as well, but Remain in Light, we wrote them all in the studio as we recorded them which Brian encouraged us to do.

That was also the approach you took with Tom Tom Club......

Yes, and we still take that approach from time to time. As we speak, I am waiting for the engineer to arrive...we have a few things we have done. Everybody wants to hear our old stuff of course (Tom Tom Club), but you have to do some new stuff to keep people interested! Usually, people say "oh, it's not as good as their old stuff!"

I must admit I felt guilty asking you a couple of weeks back if you did L'Elephant live! (from Tom Tom Club's first album). Whilst I love Tom Tom Club, the first album reminds me of a great time in my life.

It is a great album! We're celebrating our 30th anniversary of Tom Tom Club and that album and we're doing shows in July including the UK.

I will be there on the Friday (at Camden Jazz Cafe)! Back to the Heads...the visual image promoted by the band and the Stop Making Sense film, it was famously very minimalist wasn't it?

It borrowed a lot from the modern theatre guy Robert Wilson. In fact we used the lighting director Robert was using at the time. It was not a coincidence that it looked kind of like his work. The backdrop was deliberately or at least appropriated from the artist Ed Ruscha from California who did paintings and prints with words and photographs not unlike the ones in the film. It was very original for a rock show. And it was a hell of a band. That band went down in history!

What was the thinking to getting Jonathan Demme to direct that show/film?

As far as I know, it was a kind of coincidence. We put the word out that we wanted someone to direct a film for us. We wanted to make a record of that particular tour as we knew it was going to be memorable. We thought it would be a documentary and we had also seen his film Melvin and Howard about the guy that rescued Howard Hughes from the desert in Nevada and the story goes that Melvin found and rescued Howard after a motorcycle accident and brings him back to Las Vegas. Hughes then left a considerable amount to Melvin in his will. The film is based on a true story. The movie had received a lot of alternative acclaim and Jonathan was the only person who responded to the feelers we had put out about our making this film. The budget was low - we paid for the film ourselves. Although when we decided to shoot a third day, we borrowed some money from Warner Brothers, but basically the band paid for it themselves. Jonathan was a very good sport and wonderful to work with as were the whole crew. He did such a good job.

Yes he did - it was visually and musically very striking....

The cinematographer on that film was Jordan Cronenweth who had also shot Blade Runner. So we were impressed that Jonathan got him in.

Really it had the production values of a feature film....

Yes.

What I like about it is the fact it isn't a bog standard "here's the DVD of the tour", it was something very different...

It's very unusual and it was also very well recorded by the Record Plant mobile. It was also the first concert film filmed on digital tape. That was something very new for the time.

In terms of the visuals of the band....if we look at Once In A Lifetime...a huge hit here and a very striking video. What was the deal there as nobody in the band apart from David (Byrne) is in the video?

We didn't know anything about a video being made. We were on a little hiatus at the time after quite a lot of touring. David, at the time, had a well known Los Angelino for his girlfriend, the choreographer Toni Basil (yes the Mickey singer) and together they made that video. David presented the video to the rest of the band as a fait accompli but nobody could argue that it wasn't good so we said no problem, it looks great. MTV was a brand new thing and this was one of the first videos in constant rotation on MTV.

I think Talking Heads are remembered as much visually as musically - again, the Road To Nowhere video was so creative....were they band ideas or mainly David's creative mind?

They were band ideas and also David introduced us to a director called Steven Johnson who later did Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer.

At the end of Road To Nowhere we can see what eventually became Sledgehammer...

Yes, exactly. That went on to be Sledgehammer. But Johnson was known to us as the director of Pee Wee's Playhouse which was a TV show featuring Pee Wee Herman. It was a children's show about a grown up dressing as an excitable child...it was all a little pervy! (laughs). He had a period of great success and Johnson was the director. He came from an alternative film making background.

The creativity of the band moved forward with Speaking in Tongues, Little Creatures and True Stories and the band seemed to come to an end. What happened? The final Naked album came out in 1988 and then there was a three year gap before anyone said the Talking Heads are no more.

Nobody wanted the Talking Heads to end except for one person. We were able to forestall the inevitable demise until that time (1991). For a long time, David wanted to put an end to Talking Heads and be a solo act. We were able to convince him....we had a great team of people working for us who wanted to keep the band together. We had the best of both worlds - we had commercial success and artistic credibility. Very few bands have that advantage and we did and everyone wanted to see the Talking Heads continue except for David. Someone said to him that his solo career would never take off until the Talking Heads were no more. So he announced in an interview in the Los Angeles Times that the Talking Heads were no more.

That was the first the rest of the band knew about it wasn't it?

We didn't have that conversation with him, so it was news to us. We knew there was a problem but we always hoped David would see the wisdom of keeping Talking Heads together.

I have seen internet conjecture that the last thing credited to Talking Heads, Sax and Violins, from Wim Wenders' Until The End of The World, didn't feature you or Tina, I suspect because only Jerry (Harrison) and David are in the video - is there any truth in this?

We played on the song. The song was recorded during the Naked sessions and not used. It was remixed and used in the film. Tina and I were avid sailors and at the time we were on a cruise on the Bahamas when it was announced that Wim Wenders wanted to use the song in his film and we had to rush up and do a video. We just said, David and Jerry can take care of that as we're busy cruising in the Bahamas!

It's as simple as that -you played on the song and were unavailable for the video!

Exactly. It's just as well as we had a marvellous time!

How do you see the legacy of the Talking Heads?

I see us as a terrifically influential band. Even bands who don't specifically reference us, there are many who are influenced by us but don't say so. There are some who were commercially successful like U2 or REM who were influenced by Talking Heads. In the current day you have bands like Vampire Weekend, Radiohead.....the legacy is that it's OK to write a song that comes from a different place than traditional rock and roll. Not that we have any disrespect for traditional rock and roll.....a leftfield approach (laughs)

With Tom Tom Club, you started this in some Talking Heads downtime 30 years ago and you are still going strong which is brilliant. The band has turned out to be very influential. For example Genius of Love has been the starting point for many hit records.....

It has, yes.

I remember hearing Grandmaster Flash doing Genius of Love 30 years ago and of course was the hook to Mariah Carey's one decent song.

On our website, www.tomtomclub.com, there's a fairly up to date list of sample usage of our songs. Something like over 50 that we know of...

That's a huge compliment I think.

Yes it is. Genius of Love is one of those songs that still sounds great today. In Tin Pan Alley days, they called them evergreen songs, that never went out of style, it still sounds fresh.

With Genius of Love, the video and the theme for the first album was all these Jimmy Rizzi characters..very distinctive....

I met him (Jimmy) at Joey Ramone's birthday bash. It's a benefit that Joey's brother puts on and Jimmy was there.

You know straightaway it's a Rizzi piece of art...

Oh yes.

I heard you on Janice Forsyth's show on BBC Scotland a couple of weeks back and she asked the $64000 question.....you've been asked so many times about the prospect of a Talking Heads reunion and you certainly seem up for it....do you think it will ever happen?

I won't be holding my breath. If it ever happened, it would be a happy day.

So presumably the reason it's not happening anytime soon is really down to one person.....

I'm afraid so.

You did get back for the induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 though....

Yes, we played three or four songs that night and it was really fun. We rehearsed for a few days beforehand as we hadn't actually played for about 18 years (laughs). We rehearsed and everyone had a good time and it was all cool and that was that.

There is one thing I must ask about given I have the opportunity to hear it from you.....The Happy Mondays Yes Please album which you and Tina produced. That was when they sent Shaun Ryder to Barbados to try to keep him drug free and he ended up in a worse state..

It was a big mess, but what jolly chaps they were.

Really?

No, I'm just kidding (laughs)

I got the impression that from your perspective the whole thing was a nightmare.....

It was a nightmare, it was kind of like Spinal Tap goes to hell!

Had you any idea what you were letting yourselves in for at the time?

We were sort of suckered into it, we didn't know their reputation at all. All we were told was they were a hot new band from England who had enjoyed tremendous success and we thought 'hot new band from England?', 'Barbados?' - lets do it! (laughs)

Sounds good on paper doesn't it?!

Yes, but we didn't know about their addictions. We were unprepared but we found out right away. Once we got together with them, we knew there were big problems.

I'm led to understand that when they took the tapes back to the record company there were no vocals on them?

No vocals got recorded in Barbados. We managed to get him into rehab at The Priory. We came over to England and recorded the vocals as soon as he got out of detox before he had a chance to get all fucked up again which he did, but we got the vocals out of him before that. It's a pity because the band had an interesting chemistry and Shaun is an interesting writer. It was an interesting thing but their bad habits got the better of them and along with the bad habits of New Order.... brought down that whole wonderful thing that Tony Wilson had going (Factory). The reason we got involved is we were big fans of Tony Wilson as a person, we had met him when he came to our shows in Manchester where some of his bands opened for us. When he came calling and asked us to produce this band, we accepted with pleasure, but we didn't know.......

It is a matter of record about Ryder's heroin addiction and his methadone breaking out of its container en route to Barbados, but to fund his drug habit in Barbados, is it really true that he started selling bits of the studio?

Yes (laughs). To trade for crack.

From a producer's point of view, it must have been a complete nightmare!

I did get my first grey hairs there! It wasn't just that either. The police had previously imprisoned Jerry Hall for [allegedly] having a suitcase full of marijuana. We were there just after that and the police called up the studio which was Eddy Grant's studio, saying you'd better get your clients under control there as we know what they're up to and we'll arrest them and search the studio. It was a horrible feeling to say get your clients under control or we're going to bust everybody! So we had that to worry about also. It was pretty dreadful but we did get a few nice days at the beach!

At least something good came out of it! To finish, aside from Tom Tom Club, you also played with Gorillaz didn't you?

Yes, on their first album. The producer, Dan the Automator, called us up and asked if we would be interested in putting on some overdubs if he sent us some stuff. We knew who Damon Albarn was and was a nice guy so we did it, sent it back and they used it. There wasn't a great deal of interaction between us and Gorillaz but at least people noticed we did something on there. It was a high profile thing.

Chris, thanks for your time and best wishes from all at Friars Aylesbury.

You're welcome!

Official Tom Tom Club website

This interview and its content are 2011 Mike O'Connor/www.aylesburyfriars.co.uk and may not be used in whole or in part without permission.

 
 
 

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