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Rock Royalty

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club Prove That Music, Marriage and the Suburbs Do Rock



Photograpg by Egan Frantz

It’s hard to know what to expect when you are summoned to meet genuine rock royalty. In this case, the assignment was to interview not one — but two — inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, icons of the ’80s with more than ten critically acclaimed albums and a slew of gold records under their belts.

Unlike other Connecticut rock legends, like Keith Richards of Weston, you won’t find Fairfield’s Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, founders of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, in the tabloids for antics like falling out of a palm tree in Fiji. More likely, you will run into Frantz working out at the Fairfield Fitness Edge or perusing the organic produce at the local Stop & Shop and Weymouth bellying up to the sushi bar at Fin or grabbing a coffee at Las Vetas Lounge, two of her favorite in-town haunts.

That doesn’t mean that they don’t have a good time. Jokes Frantz, “We are very discreet. People have no idea how wild we can be.”

On a mild and sunlit afternoon, at the couple’s cozy Fairfield home, we discussed everything from local politics to parenting to the ebb and flow of their prolific careers, all over a pot of proper English tea.

Pulling up the winding pea-gravel drive to Frantz and Weymouth’s bucolic Greenfield Hill home, one is reminded of the English countryside. A weathered split-rail fence running along the front of the house allows passersby to take in the views of the pond that abuts their barn-style contemporary home. With the sun glinting off the water, the setting is a far cry from the gritty, industrial loft, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where the couple made their home in the late ’70s; the kind of place where the heat went off everyday at 4 p.m.; a place musicians were forced to live because residential buildings and rock musicians made incompatible bedfellows.

Tina Weymouth is a striking petite blonde with piercing eyes. This day she dressed casually in faded jeans. She recalls, “We didn’t come here until we had children. You can’t be a musician and be in a residential section; everybody complains about the noise. They don’t mind fire engines and the streets being ripped up by jackhammers, but if you play music, they resent it.” Frantz adds, “And if you play the drums, forget it.”

“For a while, we lived in a loft on Chrystie Street, just three blocks from CBGB,” says Frantz, a handsome, silver-haired man who casually sports a button-down and a smile. “It was totally convenient for us, but it was rough; there were $5 hookers outside our building and pimps with baseball bats under their coats, though nobody ever robbed us.”

While ready to make a change, “it was a big step for us to move up here,” he says. “We were basically living out of a suitcase for ten years and we thought, Are we putting ourselves out to pasture? And, in a way, you do get out of the loop when you get up here, but you have to make a conscious effort to stay on top of what’s happening and let people know you are still alive. I’m not complaining. It was a good move on our part. The schools are good, the air is cleaner, and it’s quieter. Of course, some people want just the opposite, but we had plenty of that.”

In truth, the constant partying was catching up with Frantz. “I had to get out of New York; the nightlife was killing me,” he admits. “I must say, I had a ball, but it took its toll. Tina never succumbed to the drug thing the way that I did, but now, for the past fourteen years, I go to the gym and work out. I quit smoking. I just needed to put the brakes on.”

When people take pot shots at rock stars who have stepped out of the limelight, Tina rolls her eyes. “Some might pooh-pooh us as old dinosaur rock stars who move out to the country and take up gardening. So what?” she says. “Whatever it is that connects us back to nature is what also connects us back to ourselves and to community. Otherwise, we were living in this really false community where big egos attracted other big egos. Getting away from that scene gives you a reality check.”

Still, the recent closing of CBGB was the sad end to an era. One that Frantz recalls wistfully, “Now, three of the original Ramones are dead. We miss those guys. We were very different, but we all had a really strong work ethic and we all loved to rock.

“When I first walked in to CBGB’s I thought it could be our Cavern Club. I was right. I’m sorry to see it go, but it sure went out with a bang, didn’t it?”

Home in Fairfield

Inside the inviting Shaker kitchen, inspired by Claude Monet’s dining room colors at Giverny, Frantz takes a whistling teakettle off the gas burner and fusses with the quilted tea cozy. Now I realize just how far my first impression has strayed from my imagination. Although one might not expect Weymouth and Frantz to open the door in leather jeans and spiked hair, one might reasonably presume a little rock-star attitude from the acclaimed bassist and drummer who, along with singer David Byrne, created one of the most influential bands of all time in the Talking Heads and went on to prolific careers writing, recording and producing music as the Tom Tom Club and for other artists.

When I mention this to Frantz, he says, “Don’t worry, we still have our leathers. Black ones. And they still fit, too.”

Refreshingly, both are genuinely low-key, as is their home, a warm and inviting rambler, outfitted with family heirlooms, Shaker pieces and well-loved antiques. The house sits in direct contrast to what Tina calls the nearby “baronial Colonials” — massive, hodgepodge homes surrounded by large fences that block out meadows, fields and curiosity seekers.

Unchecked development is one of the couple’s biggest peeves. “When we first moved here,” recalls Frantz, “we were really attracted to the ambience of New England — the architecture, the stone walls, the split-rail fences, the little white churches. But now you’ve got these developers going crazy. I’m all for building a fine house, but I’m really disappointed with our neighbors who have erected a giant fence around their side of the pond, so where people used to walk by and see the ducks, geese, herons and turtles, now they’re cut off. Quickly, we’re losing the ambience that makes the place so beautiful.”

As we’re chatting at the kitchen table, the couple’s eldest son, Robin — a scruffy-cool twenty-something known in the musical world as Kid Ginseng —breezes in and introduces himself. Brushing his long hair from his eyes, he makes his way into the adjacent music room, part of the Clubhouse, the family’s onsite recording studio, to practice for an upcoming gig at Westport’s Toquet Hall. It isn’t long before an electronic beat seeps through the closed studio door into the kitchen, evidence that the music bug has wormed its way into the next generation.

Egan, twenty, the couple’s younger son, has been in many bands and was known to shake things up at Greens Farms Academy by sporting a massive, multicolored Mohawk along with the staid uniform. He was the drummer in the band Teenagers, now defunct, and is enrolled at the International Center of Photography.

Today, Robin has called dibs on the Clubhouse, but when the music industry returns from its seasonal lull, Robin will have to reserve his time in the studio just like everyone else. Although tucked away in suburbia, the Clubhouse has incubated a host of original music. Over the years, it has served as the recording studio for a variety of international artists, including Gorillaz (UK), Ofra Haza (Israel), Shirley Manson (Scotland) and Michael Hutchence (Australia). It is also the place where bands, such as Los Fabulosos Cadillacs (Argentina), Zita Swoon (Belgium) and Supergrass (UK), come to make remixes. What’s more, it’s the birthplace of three Tom Tom Club albums, including Live at the Clubhouse, which was taped before a live audience of friends and neighbors in 2001.

Doesn’t the noise level tick off the neighbors? “I must say, we’ve had band rehearsals here for twenty years and nobody has ever complained,” says Frantz. “Quite the contrary. They say, ‘That was very good today. Glad to hear you’re back to work.’ ”

The Rise to Cult Status
   
Weymouth and Frantz, both painters, had just graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design when they moved to New York to start an experimental band with Weymouth on bass, Frantz on drums and Byrne on guitar and vocals. They adopted the name Talking Heads and opened for punk bands like the Ramones and Television at CBGB on the fringes of lower Manhattan.

The turning point came in 1977. In one year, they recorded their first album, Talking Heads: 77, went on a European tour and were married, cementing what would become a thirty-year partnership in music and in life.

With the addition of Jerry Harrison on keyboards, the Talking Heads eventually recorded ten albums and piled up an impressive array of ’80s anthems, including  “Psycho Killer,” “Life During Wartime,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House,” “Take Me to the River” and a slew of other hits that received such frequent airplay during those years that you would have had to live in Kabul not to recognize the Talking Heads’ trademark sound.

From the late ’70s through the mid-’80s, they toured the world and led the lives of rock stars, appearing on Saturday Night Live, David Letterman and, of course, MTV, a groundbreaking new medium launched in 1981 that brought Talking Heads into the public consciousness in an edgy, video format. In 1984, the Talking Heads’ cult status in rock history was assured following the release of filmmaker Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, often cited as the quintessential rock concert film.

Despite the fame, there was an ever-widening fissure in the band’s foundation. It was widely written that David Byrne was a difficult personality, a self-involved artiste who frustrated fans with frequent breaks to pursue outside projects. When asked what prompted them to start the Tom Tom Club in 1981 at the height of Talking Heads’ celebrity, Tina replies bluntly, “We had no choice.”

“Our group broke up umpteen times because our singer would just say, ‘I don’t want to do that any more,’ and then he would do these side projects. Tom Tom Club was just to keep us occupied and to give us a little bit to pay the rent,” recalls Tina. “But then — it was very weird — Tom Tom Club had a gold record before Talking Heads, and that’s what brought our singer back to start Talking Heads again.”

Frantz explains, “David told us, ‘I’m going to do something with Twyla Tharp,’ and he left us hanging. We went to our accountant, who said, ‘Look you’ve got $2,000 in the bank; you had better do something.’ ”

So, during the hiatus, Frantz and Weymouth flew down to the Bahamas and teamed up with an array of funky musicians. Their catchy, hip-hop sound and reggae dance beat caught the attention of “the Great Chris Blackwell, the man who founded Island Records and brought Bob Marley to the world,” says Frantz. Blackwell, a friend of their manager, heard their new single, “Wordy Rappinghood,” and liked it so much that he greenlighted a whole album. Frantz says laughing: “It turned out to be the best-selling album we’d ever had.”

While “Wordy Rappinghood” burned up the charts, it was the hypnotic electronic ambient sound and the catchy lyrics “Whatcha gonna do when you get outta jail, I’m gonna have some fun. What do you consider fun? Fun, natural fun” on the track “Genius of Love” that launched the Tom Tom Club into the stratosphere. “Genius of Love” became one of the most sampled songs ever recorded, eventually used by more than fifty artists, including Grandmaster Flash, Ziggy Marley, Mariah Carey and the Black Eyed Peas. The album went gold in 1982.

Weymouth felt the tide shifting. “People connected with this new band in ways that they didn’t with Talking Heads and, in some ways, we were freer.”

Frantz agrees. “With Tom Tom Club, we deliberately did something different sounding than Talking Heads, not only because Tina was the singer, but the whole style of music was different. We didn’t want people to say, ‘They’re copying their other band.’ ”

One can’t talk about the Tom Tom Club’s leap into an entirely new sound without giving a nod to local Mystic Bowie, the dynamic performer who met Chris and Tina at a gig in the early ’90s and brought his reggae and Caribbean musical vibe to bear on the band’s 2000 album The Good, The Bad and The Funky, eventually emerging as one of the band’s energetic singers. Since the early days of their pairing, the chemistry has been charmed, withstanding the rigors of more than a decade of touring, recording and performing.

But, initially, taking such a departure from their signature sound gave Frantz a bad case of nerves. “The first afternoon we went into the recording studio, I was so tipsy that when I heard the playback I thought, What are we doing?”

Weymouth explains, “That’s because he had decided to take a sauna beforehand to relax, and Grace Jones had told him, ‘Put some vodka on the rocks; it’ll help you mellow out.’ So he brought in this huge tea glass with vodka and ice and drank it down instead of pouring it over the rocks. He was out of it for three days.”

Frantz sobered up, and the fans clamored for more of Tom Tom Club’s inventive sound, featuring Tina and her sisters, Lani and Laura, on vocals and a funky hybrid of dance, reggae and the then-new hip-hop.

The success of Tom Tom Club’s first album brought Talking Heads together again to record four more albums — all of them gold and two went platinum. Eleven years since their last concert (Australia 1984) and five years after their last studio album, Talking Heads officially came to an end in 1995 without fanfare.

Not ones to go quietly into the night, Frantz and Weymouth joined with former band mate Jerry Harrison in 1996 for a reunion of sorts. The plan was to make a record under the moniker The Heads. But the new venture was short-lived. Adamantly opposed to any form of reconciliation, David Byrne slapped the band with an injunction. It would be their final joint production.

Almost. In 2002 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came to call, asking the group to perform together at the induction ceremony; Tina, Chris, David and Jerry had all been nominated. For this momentous occasion, the former bandmates put aside bruised egos and picked up where they left off to give an unforgettable performance at which Frantz exclaimed, “I want to thank the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for giving this band a happy ending.”

Still humbled by the attention, Frantz says, “We count our blessings. We’ve somehow managed to live the life we love. We’ve been rewarded for pursuing our dreams and we’ve lived to tell the tale. Everyone should be so lucky.”

Back into the Mix

In September 2005 Chris and Tina brought their dream of going down in music history closer to home, when they received the 2005 Artist of the Year Award, presented by the Fairfield Arts Council. When they got the call proposing that they accept Artist of the Year and play the benefit at Fairfield’s Quick Center, they were fixing up their home to sell before moving to Europe.

Tina recalls, “As long as there was the possibility of pursuing our passion here and remaining part of the American conversation for solutions for our own country, we could not very well become permanent expatriates. We said, ‘Oh great! Art is appreciated much more than war here after all! Let’s start our next project right here.’ ”

Ryan Odinak, executive director of the Fairfield Arts Council says, “Tina commented that being awarded the Fairfield Arts Council Artist of the Year Award was like a “coming out” party in Fairfield. After years of international travel and performing, the event offered an opportunity for the community where they live to celebrate their talent and accomplishment. They seemed genuinely touched by receiving the honor.”

Since the event, Frantz and Weymouth have stayed in touch with FAC by attending events, offering their financial patronage and hosting a small dinner at the River House Tavern in Westport that benefited FAC. Odinak says, “They are both interested in where FAC is headed and in the future of the Artist of the Year event.”

Home Is the Hub

At home, Tina and Chris are just regular folk, divvying up domestic duties in their own modern arrangement and making one another laugh. “In our case,” Tina explains, “Chris does all the cooking and shopping, but I do all the fixing, all the hammering, screwing and technical stuff.”

For the moment, there are no big tour plans on the horizon, although Frantz says, “We still love to perform. That’s the best part of this gig! But expenses these days are crazy. We’ve been taking a break from the road until we have something new to promote and a new story to tell.”

So they maintain a low profile, working on new sounds in the studio and mentoring young musicians.

Weymouth says, “Through our children at school, we have met quite a few young artists and it has been important to us to actively demonstrate to their parents that a career in the arts is indeed viable, if not as glamorous as people think.”

They are interested in local politics (fans of Diane Farrell); they frequent area restaurants (Centro, Matsu, St. Tropez and River Tavern are favorites) and they are civic-minded, with strong opinions about everything from global warming to the war in Iraq to local building development.

At the end of the day, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth are happy they decided to put down roots in Fairfield County, where they have created a haven for their family and their friends. Tina loves that her home is the hub for creative pursuits and a bridge between the two generations. “When the kids were little, it was our band that was living here,” she says with a knowing smile, “but now that the kids are big, they bring their bands and they are coming in and out. It’s wonderful.”

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