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Tom Tom Club: Genius of Life (& Love) (Interview)

Reported by JontySkrufff on October 5, 2010

Chris Frantz from Tom Tom Club and Talking Heads chatted to Jonty Skrufff  recently about the origins of both bands. Part 2 of the interview is below:

Tom Tom Club: Genius of Life (& Love) (Interview)

"We went to art school and we naturally admired a lot of artists, many of whom were successful during their own lifetime. So we didn't feel that having success in your old lifetime was a 'bad thing'.  Andy Warhol for example, was a source of inspiration for us, and he was hugely successful.”

Studying Art at Rhode Island School of Design in Providence in the early 70s, drummer Chris Frantz first started working with vocalist David Byrne in a band called the Artistics, which spilt up within a year as the duo moved to New York. Accompanying them was Chris’ girlfriend Tina Weymouth, who after they struggled to find a bass player for their new band, taught herself to play with encouragement from Chris.

"I said to Tina...look, Suzi Quatro is playing bass....”, he laughs.

Calling themselves Talking Heads (after a TV Guide explanation of the term as 'all content, no action’) the band debuted at New York’s CBGBs club on June 8 1975, opening for upcoming scenesters the Ramones.

25 years later, both the Ramones and Talking Heads are rightly revered as two of THE greatest rock bands of all time (Talking Heads were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002), though Chris is quick to point out that success is always relative.

“Many of the artists we admired had their personal struggles and their lives weren't easy of course, but they managed to communicate to a lot of people and to have commercial success as well as being highly credible artistically," he says.

“The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and David Bowie and Elvis Presley did too but I don't think we ever thought we would be THAT huge,” he laughs, “And we weren't.”

Instead Chris and Tina nowadays operate  solely as Tom Tom Club, the Talking Heads side project they launched in 1981, through which they’d ended up becoming some of the most sampled artists in history, in particular via their groundbreaking club track Genius Of Love. Though Mariah Carey’s 1995 interpretation remains the best-known, scores of hip hop producers have also sampled it before and after, earning them healthy royalty checks throughout the intervening years.

 "We had a good team, our management and attorneys, working for us, and they took care of us. We would point out to them when we heard something and they would write a letter and that would be it, we were never ripped off,” says Chris.

“I would say,” he chuckles sardonically, “We were more ripped off by another guy, whose name I won't mention,” he laughs.

Cryptic comments aside, he’s otherwise upbeat, clearly cheerful about the new (re-released) Tom Tom Club Genius of Live album, which includes an additional disc of 11 remixes of Genius of Love, by the likes of Money Mark, Ozomatli, Monareta and Isa GT.

"We were initially only going to do a few remixes, the label had suggested Thomas Cookman, who's an old friend of ours and he said he has a few artists who would like to have a go at remixing Genius of Love, did we mind if they gave it a shot?’ says Chris. 

“Tina and I said 'of course'. Word got out that a few of them were doing it, so a few other artists asked too and in the end we ended up with 11. It could be that Thomas didn't send us them all, I don't know but we didn't say no to any of them that we heard because they were all excellent.” 

"Some of these artists we'd heard of but some of them we hadn’t, like Kinky, example,” he continues.

“It turns out that some of the producers who are unknown to us are huge in Latin America: they play stadiums.  Tina and I were very pleased with the results. And it made sense to release something new alongside our live CD as in incentive for people who bought the CD the first time."

Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff): How did the track come about itself in 1981?

Chris Frantz (Tom Tom Club): "David Byrne was doing a solo album which turned out to be the Catherine Wheel and Jerry Harrison then told us that he was doing a solo album too so Tina and I thought that we should do a record too. Chris Blackwell invited us down to Nassau to Compass Point Studios where we had already made three albums as Talking Heads. He said 'go into the studio and give me a single' and if I like the single then you can do a whole album'. The first single we did was Wordy Rappinghood, he listened to it and said 'OK, now I'd love to have a whole album'.  We recorded three basic tracks in that very first session, one of which was Genius Of Love. We didn't complete it until later because we had to go off and do another Talking Heads tour."

Skrufff: Were these tracks based on ideas you'd been playing around with for ages?

Chris Frantz (Tom Tom Club): "No. We did a tiny bit of pre production at our apartment but most of it was written and composed as we recorded it; which was what we'd also done with the Talking Heads album Remain In Light. It was done with the same process."

Skrufff: With Genius of Love, was there an element of luck in finding the core riff? How did it come about?

Chris Frantz (Tom Tom Club): "We came up with that hook of Genius of Love in our little apartment in Nassau, and then when we replayed it down below in the studio we took several different very minimal parts and played them together. And that's how that worked. The actual record has a lot of edits in it, done by the engineer Stephen Stanley, really good edits. In those days it was cutting tape. We created different sections, then he further created different sections and breaks by doing edits."

Skrufff: Fleetwood Mac's Lindsay Buckingham was saying he conceived Tusk partly as a result of Talking Heads, in response to how mainstream Rumours was, how much attention were you paying to the likes of Fleetwood Mac during the early days of punk and Talking Heads?

Chris Frantz (Tom Tom Club): "We were amazed by the continued success of that one Fleetwood Mac album Rumours. We played that album at our wedding: on a record player. We had a small wedding and we didn't have a band, we had a record player. That was very au courrant at the time, in 1977. But we didn't hate them at all. There were some bands in those punk days who looked down their noses at mainstream success but I don't think we ever felt that way."

Skrufff: Did the success you had with Talking Heads bring pressure to continue doing the same thing musically?

Chris Frantz (Tom Tom Club): "We set up a progression of change, involving ometimes changing very radically, sometimes just a little bit here and a little bit there. We always felt that our audience was perceptive enough and open enough musically speaking to welcome change. This was the 70s and 80s when things were much more wide open than they are now. Even radio stations were more open than now. With both Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, one album might be very different from the next. 

"Though when you have a big success record companies always want you to follow it up with something equally successful- and quickly. So that was a strain on our second Tom Tom Club record. We had Talking Heads going on at the same time and we didn't really have time to sit down and spend the time we really wanted to. But in retrospect it sounds great to me."

Skrufff; What's the story of Mariah Carey sampling Genius, it's a pretty straight lift, isn't it?

Chris Frantz (Tom Tom Club): "Yes, it's like a pure sample of the song that's looped. She basically added her song into our song and the music is ours, it wasn't a replay."

Skrufff: Did she approach you and ask permission first?

Chris Frantz (Tom Tom Club): "Yes, her attorneys did. We were in France at the time and her attorneys called our attorneys and they proposed that Mariah Carey was going to do a version of the song. We got back to America, they played it to us and it was clear to me that it was a sample of instrumental breaks in our song. So we negotiated with them and the results were great."

Skrufff: Did all the others do it after Mariah?

Chris Frantz (Tom Tom Club): "No, she was one of the later ones actually.  It continues to happen. I've noticed it happens in waves, every so often a new generation comes along and rediscovers it."

Skrufff: Have you ever refused permission?

Chris Frantz (Tom Tom Club): "I think just the once because the lyrics were so aggressive and despicable that we said no. That was during the heyday of Gangsta (rap)."

Skrufff: Once In A Lifetime is one of Talking Heads' most electronic sounding tracks; how did it come about?

Chris Frantz (Tom Tom Club): "Those Remain in Light recording sessions were done in Nassau at Compass Point Studios and Brian Eno was producing. With that particular track it began with Tina and myself laying down bass and drums and that was the launching pad for the rest of the song. There was some rhythm guitar being played along with us in the studio too which was later erased and replaced with a different rhythm part. What we were aiming for was to create a good rhythm bed to pay everything else on top of and that's how that song began.

The keyboards are by Jerry Harrison and David played the guitar. Bass and drums then guitar and then keyboards were laid down then (Brian) Eno did some treatments of the various instruments and then months later lyrics were added along with some background vocals and added percussion. And then it was mixed.

When we recorded the basic tracks they sounded amazing, David said to the rest of the band, they sound amazing I've got to write some amazing lyrics to go with them. We were in no hurry and didn't want to spoil things by putting some dumb ass lyrics on them so David was given a lot of time to write them (mumbling in the background) . . . Tina says it was two months. I believe he took a ride across the country in a rented car and listened to the radio and checked out Southern Baptist preachers and stuff like that- as one does when driving across America, on AM radio. That was the inspiration for the vocals of Once In A Lifetime."

Skrufff: Was that a life-changing track?

Chris Frantz (Tom Tom Club): "Well, i suppose you could say that, it was really great, we all felt like we'd really accomplished something. We really look to our friends for criticism and hoped that they liked it and they all loved it.  Our little band came a long way in a few years." 

Jonty Skrufff