A Cup of Coffee with Chris Frantz


Chris Frantz, drummer for Talking Heads, wants you to know one thing. “A lot of people thought David Byrne was the goose that laid the golden egg. It wasn’t really like that. He was the egg, but he was not the goose.” The goose was Talking Heads. He clarifies, “We always thought Talking Heads was the mother ship and Tom Tom Club and anything else we did was just a spinoff of that.”

Tom Tom Club was a side project he and his wife, bassist Tina Weymouth, came up with during an indefinite early hiatus, when lead singer David Byrne got a gig scoring the Twyla Tharp dance project, The Catherine Wheel. At first Chris and Tina weren’t interested in having a side project, even when the fourth member of the group, guitarist and keyboard player Jerry Harrison, announced he was doing a solo album. It was actually their accountant who convinced them. He said, ‘Yes, you’re doing well, but you just did this big tour of the world with an eight piece band and you’ve only got about $2,000 in the bank. So you’d better do something.’

“Tina and I looked at each other. Neither of us were singers, at least at that time, and we thought, ‘What kind of solo album could we do?'”

Taking advantage of the early ’80s hip hop/dance era, they concocted the Tom Tom Club, whose first album The Tom Tom Club, produced the massive club hits, “Wordy Rappinghood” and “Genius of Love,” propelling it to instant success.

How much success? “Well, let me tell you this story,” says Frantz. “When the first Tom Tom Club album was raging, we were riding in a cab from 57th Street downtown to Irving Plaza. In the car was Tina, myself, our manager, and David Byrne. I wish our manager had waited until David wasn’t in the cab with us. But he said, ‘Hey, guess what? The Tom Tom Club album went gold today.’ Tina and I were like, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ But David was just sitting there, not making any comment. Talking Heads had not had any gold albums in the United States to that point. I think we had one in New Zealand, of all places. So “Genius of Love” is right up there, in terms of sales, with the best of the Talking Heads.”

Chris Frantz:
Our manager was good friends with Chris Blackwell of Island Records. We already knew Chris because he’d passed on Talking Heads. In fairness to him, he said, “I’m putting all of my power into breaking Bob Marley in America.” Anyway, our manager said to Chris, how about if Chris and Tina come down to Compass Point and make a record down there. Being keen on reggae, he understood the power of a good rhythm section. So he said, “Sure, send them down and they can record a single. And if I like the single, then they can do a whole album.” The first song we recorded was called “Wordy Rappinghood.” We recorded it and mixed it in three days. Chris Blackwell came into the studio and said, “I love it. Get started on a whole record. And in the meantime, I’m going to release this as a single in Europe and Latin America.” It did really well. In quite a few countries it went to #1. So we got to work on an album.

We worked with one of the house engineers at Compass Point, Steven Stanley. At that time, he wasn’t getting a lot of work, but Tina and I liked him, and we thought, “We can work with this kid.” We had worked with him a little bit on Remain in Light when the first engineer, Rhett Davis, a very famous British engineer who came down with our producer, Brian Eno, got mad at Eno and left after three days. So we had Steven come in as sort of an interim engineer while this other guy got himself together to come down. Stevie had recorded all the tracks for “Once in a Lifetime,” so we knew he was a good engineer. And he became coproducer with us. We mentioned to him that we liked Lee Perry. Stevie was totally into that sound, except he was much more precise and had a more international outlook. Like, Stevie wasn’t just thinking about what would be hot in Jamaica, he was thinking about the whole world.

“Genius of Love” was the second song we started. We didn’t finish it until a couple of weeks later. I had the idea for the title and Tina wrote the rest of the lyrics and the melody, except for the last line. I wrote:

He’s a genius of love
He’s got a greater depth of feeling
Yes, he’s the genius of love
He’s so deep

We wrote all the songs for the album in the studio. We had learned to write that way on Remain in Light. It’s a good way of coming up with surprise things. If you just sit down with a piano and a vocal and you make a demo, chances are it’s going to sound like something that came before. Same with a singer/songwriter with a guitar: chances are it’s not going to be a real surprise to your ear. But if you go in with no preconceived ideas, or maybe a slightly preconceived idea, but not a fully formulated idea, then it can just go anywhere.

In the studio I’d play the drum part. It’s played by hand, but it’s a loop part. It doesn’t have any fills or anything, but it does have some tom-toms, so I would record a groove with bass drums, snare, and hi-hat. Then Tina would put down her bass. Then I would add a little tom-tom here and there. And then we added the keyboard part, which was actually two keyboard parts combined. Then Tina worked out the vocals with her two sisters, Laura and Lani, and a little bit of screaming by myself. Then we added Adrian Belew on guitar. We also had a Bahamian guitarist named Monty Brown playing a simple rhythm part. He had recently left T-Connection, a Bahamian funk band that had had a few hits.
Chris and Tina started dating in 1972 after they met at the Rhode Island School of Design. They have been married since 1977.
Lyrically, things would get changed as it went along, but Tina had a good idea of what she wanted it to be about. We also wanted to pay tribute to all these great soul artists that we really enjoyed and appreciated, like Smokey Robinson, James Brown, and Sly and Robbie. “There’s no beginning and there is no end/time isn’t present in the dimension.” I didn’t hear that line coming. Tina came up with that. That stuff in the middle, that’s Tina’s sister, Lani, who invented this language when she was a little kid. It’s gibberish, but it sounds like it might be Hindu or something. People at the time were asking, “What kind of language is that?” Well, it’s this language that Tina’s sister Lani invented as a child.

I would say it probably took two 16-hour days to complete, but once we had the bass and drums, we already knew we had a hit. Usually, you wouldn’t say, “This is a hit,” because you don’t want to jinx it, but I think everybody in the room knew it.

It was the next single in Europe but it didn’t really happen there. It was a hit in the dance clubs but it was not a commercial radio hit. But before the album came out Island pressed 100,000 12″ singles and exported them to the US. We were signed to Island only for the UK, Europe, and parts of Latin America. Actually, we didn’t make the deal in the US until one day after Island had sold 100,000 import singles in the United States. Seymour Stein at Sire, bless his heart, woke up that morning and said, “Whoa! I’d better get on this.” And he then offered us a deal. But originally he wasn’t interested.

First time we played “Genius of Love” live was on the tour that became the movie Stop Making Sense. We had never intended for Tom Tom Club to be a live thing. To us it was just an interim thing while Taking Heads waited for David Byrne to be finished with The Catherine Wheel. But in fact, on that tour some people would say, “I didn’t come here tonight to hear Talking Heads, I came here tonight to hear Tom Tom Club.” That was mostly in the big cities, with people who liked urban music. In New York it would be the Mudd Club and Danceteria and Hurrah. All of those places would play music to dance to, but it could be any kind of genre – it wouldn’t necessarily be disco. It might be new wave from England. It might be something from France or Africa. It wasn’t necessarily your cookie-cutter disco bands. But down at CBGB’s, where Talking Heads started, there was a whole “disco sucks” thing. Those people just disdained anything having to do with dancing. To them it was all disco and it was all bad. They didn’t like rap either, but Debbie Harry and Blondie did. They had a big hit with “Rapture,” and then just weeks later we came out with “Wordy Rappinghood,” which was also a white girl rapping. Neither of us knew that the other was doing it, because we were recording in the Bahamas, and they were recording in New York.

The song came out in ’81. So the checks started rolling in as early as ’82, continuing through ’83. And then there might have been a little dry spell. But the song still sounds fresh even today. It still gets used in movies and on certain TV commercials. Recently, it was in Anchorman 2 and The Wolf of Wall Street at the same time. But it was a pity that we didn’t have time, after the initial thing, to really take Tom Tom Club seriously until after Talking Heads was over. Because with Talking Heads we were touring a lot and when we weren’t doing that we were working on new records. We did do several Tom Tom Club records after that, but they were all kind of squeezed into a certain period of time.

The only comment David ever made was when we went to see the premiere of The Catherine Wheel. Tina and I sat with him in the VIP section with Baryshnikov and all these dance people, and afterwards there was a party at Studio 54. So we went to Studio 54 and what should be playing when we walked in but “Genius of Love”? It sounded so good and you could tell everybody in Studio 54 was really getting off on it. David leaned over and he said, ‘How did you get that hand clap sound?’

That was the only thing he ever said about the record.


Recalling My Old Neighbor, John Mayer

We moved to the block in 1985, only a couple of years after I had been hired as the first editor of GUITAR for the Practicing Musician, a publication which would go on to become one of the most popular music magazines of the decade. My neighbor, John Mayer, was then about eight or nine years old. To me he was just another of the regular horde of neighborhood boys who used the tree in our front yard as second base for their stickball games in the summer and the south end zone marker for their football games in the winter. There were at least six of them in the horde, as I recall, including the three Mayer brothers. My two daughters, aged 2 and 7, were definitely charter members of the sidewalk cheering squad that urged those boys on to even more unseemly acts of male bravado on my front lawn. When the older one got old enough, she invited John to a basement boy girl party, where John got claustrophobic and wound up trying to crawl out of the basement window.

It was several years later that I started hearing the sound of an electric guitar wafting out of the window of the house across the street and two houses down. This was just about the time my wife had decided to fulfill a lifelong dream of learning how to play guitar and I had used my influence to get her a discount on a nifty Yamaha FS-310 acoustic. But the speed and fluency displayed by our neighbor (we soon learned it was John) as he deftly mastered the pentatonic scale in less than a week and a half proved too much for her as she earnestly plucked her way through “Mary Had a Little Lamb” for the 90th time. She was his 8th Grade Art teacher, for crying out loud. So she sadly went back to painting portraits.

It seemed like days later, when my older daughter came home to say that John Mayer wanted to know if he could call me to ask for advice about music. Of course, I told her to tell him, heavy metal maven that I was. The difference, I found, between people who were really serious about getting ahead in the arts, and the mere dreamers, was their ability to identify the people who could give them good information, and then go after them, in the process demystifying an otherwise daunting journey.I gave my daughter a Guitar Magazine t-shirt for John, but he never did call.

Nevertheless, when John left the block to attend The Berklee School of Music in Boston, we were impressed but not surprised. We were definitely more surprised come the Spring of 2001, when word came circulating back to the block that a John Mayer was opening for the Dave Matthews Band on his current tour and was soon to have an album out on Columbia Records! This was a leap beyond our ability to grasp. In this fame-drenched world of ours, where the media leads you to believe that every third person is or has a great shot to be famous, if not for fifteen minutes, then at least five, few people realize that just about anyone they’ve heard of is already in the top 1% of all those who struggle daily with making it in the arts. I know. I was one of the perpetrators. In the world of the national magazine, where editors routinely bestow fame in the form of giddy headlines and outsized predictions, everybody is a star; that’s where you start. If you’re in a magazine, on TV, on the radio, or even a rumor on the Internet, fame is a given. But to go from the Berklee School of Music to an opening slot on a Dave Matthews tour would be a defining moment of achievement usually reserved for only the most amazingly brazen of fingerpickers. And John was surely not that brazen. It had to be a different John Mayer.

But then my younger daughter confirmed through her research online that John had put out an independent CD. Good for him—a great first step. I had to tip my cap to my old neighbor, my beat up GUITAR magazine cap, and run out to my local record store to purchase the CD. Not only didn’t they carry it, but I was informed a couple of weeks later by the clerk that they couldn’t even get it. This is a local kid, I ranted. Where else is he going to sell any records? They were a national chain, the ignorant clerk shrugged.

If only John had come to me, I thought, not for advice, but for a blurb. While I was no longer with GUITAR by then, my career as a blurb writer, though it consisted only of two blurbs, was exemplary. Back in 1973, a quote lifted from my review in The New York Times was used to headline an advertisement for another East Coast legend in the making, Bruce Springsteen. Twenty years later, a similarly zingy paragraph of mine helped to launch John Jackson’s book, Big Beat Heat, into an eventual Ralph J. Gleason Award as Rolling Stone Magazine’s Book of the Year.

Oh well, it was a lesson he’d have to learn, and better early than late. In fact, though there was much I could tell John about the heartbreak of not being able to find your latest work in even the local stores, I was sure he’d rather hear it from a peer. In my then soon to be published book, Working Musicians, Brenda Kahn, who had an album out on Columbia in 1992, spoke eloquently on the subject.

“It’s really important to keep fame in perspective,” she said over sandwiches at the Hotel Edison Café. “Fame is like a drug; you can never be famous enough. If you want to get famous, that’s a whole industry networking game. But if you want to be a musician, you get to play music. That’s what you get. You get that experience with the audience. That’s the deal. It took me years and years and years to figure that out.”

Of course, in about another minute and a half, the need for such philosophical advice would become moot. That’s when John Mayer appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, looking a little stiff in front of his band, but yes, it was the same John Mayer of the Fairfield, CT Mayer brothers, of stickball in the summer and football in the winter, and general mayhem all year round.

After that you couldn’t go a day without something else turning up. First it would be a tune buried in the soundtrack of a hip teen show like Felicity or Dawson’s Creek. Then it would be a cut played on WFUV. My daughter started getting Instant Messages from friends all around the country who were listening to John Mayer. Then I ran into a friend of mine in the print music business who said they were bidding on a piece of his publishing. He had an advance copy of the new CD, soon to come out on a subsidiary of Columbia Records! When Mayer’s video started showing up on VH-1 and in the buzz bin at MTV, and Rolling Stone put him in their Hot issue, and Teen People named him ‘Someone to Watch,’ my daughter was heard to proclaim that we had a star on the block.

I looked out the window at the Mayer house, visible through the still bare trees. As yet there were no limos outside, no groupies encamped. But was it only a matter of time?

A few months later his show at the esteemed Irving Plaza sold out quickly, but my daughter, of course, had already purchased her tickets weeks before. Due to some fluke of poor planning, typical of the teenage condition, she wound up having to take her mother as her date. When she was informed that Irving Plaza was a standing room only venue, my wife phoned Mrs. Mayer, to see if she had any pull. “Just a pass a note to John,” she advised her. “He’ll come out and bring you backstage.”

Veteran of many such stage-door imbroglios, I bemoaned their naiveté as the two set off to the show. “He won’t even get the note,” I scoffed.

And yet, not only did they wind up in the V.I.P. Lounge (where there were real couches and a reporter from the Associated Press, as well as a couple of other neighbors), but they sat with the Mayer family, the elderly father, a former principal, the stunned, look-alike younger brother Carl, who probably never forgave me for not giving him a Guitar t-shirt as well. Near tears the whole show, the father was especially nonplussed that the audience knew the lyrics to John’s songs. Otherwise, he was way out in the ether, along with the rest of the family, John included, who stopped by to say hello after the set, his eyes distant, fixed on the immediate itinerary: Philly, Cincinnati, Atlanta, a basketball team on the road to the Final Four. I remember Springsteen like that, when I spoke to him one afternoon in 1973, in the commissary of Columbia Records, flush with the raves for his first album.

“It’s strange, let me tell you, very strange. I don’t know if I dig all this commotion. Lately, you know what I do when I’m not playing—-I sleep, period. I go home and go to sleep, get up and play again. Run to Baltimore to play, run back. This week I’ve got three days off, which is a really big vacation. All I want to do is write some good songs. The main problem is not to lose sight of what is actually going on. All the hype, anyone with any sense just ignores it.”

On the Rosie show, not long after that, Elton John brought Mayer’s name up, out of nowhere, claiming he had “the voice of an angel.” A little while later, Mayer opened for Elvis Costello at the Beacon. Room For Squares went gold. Even my local store had a few copies. Not long after that John caused a near riot when he attempted to visit his old high school.

As famous (infamous) as he’s since become, John has always maintained his outsider’s honesty–something that’s gotten him into trouble in the press more than once. One Halloween not long ago, a neighor of mine found him handing out treats when he brought his daughter to the door. A guitarist himself, he and John talked shop for a half hour while the daughter vainly urged her father to keep moving. Another time, maybe a year later, John was just standing and chatting with friends on our next door neighbor’s lawn. Years ago, before the fame, he and the neighbor used to jam in the neighbor’s living room. A few months ago I got to interview John for the first time, when he was one of the centerpieces at a big music business event, talking about his seemingly magical, seemingly effortless career. He went out of his way to ask about the family. “And I always wanted to tell you how much I appreciated that Guitar t-shirt,” he said.

About fame there is no longer a question. The question has been answered. And yet, though John’s family no longer lives on the block, I’m not certain the block has ever recovered. I heard my two neighbors have been talking about forming a band.

I just hope they don’t divorce their wives and move to Atlanta.


Finding Laura Nyro

One of the most enigmatic and evocative and emotionally intense songwriters ever to hit the Top 40, Laura Nyro’s career survived numerous dips and bends. Known for her late ‘60s smashes, “Wedding Bell Blues” (The 5th Dimension), “Stoned Soul Picnic” (the 5th Dimension), “Sweet Blindness” (the 5th Dimension), “And When I Die” (Peter, Paul & Mary, Blood, Sweat & Tears), “Eli’s Coming” (Three Dog Night), and “Stoney End” (Barbra Streisand), she dropped out of sight at the turn of the decade after releasing Gonna Take a Miracle with Labelle, an album length tribute to the r&b songs she grew singing on New York City subways and rooftops, harmonizing under the moon of love. Quite a departure from the stark and melancholy epics that populated her previous albums, like “Been on a Train” and “The Confession.”

Writing out of personal experience, Laura always stood at the front lines in the battle between the sexes, an emotional firestorm, who moved halfway around the world from the naive bliss of “Wedding Bell Blues.” After her mellow return to action in the late ‘70s, with Nested, Smile, and the live Season of Light, she dropped out again. Five years later Mother’s Spiritual marked a kind of emotional rebirth, a series of songs to and for her newborn son.

Around the release of that album, in 1984, I spoke with Laura, who gave few interviews. But after reading my piece on John Lee Hooker, she agreed to talk to me on the phone about her life as it applied to songwriting, portions of which appeared in USA Today. I had the pleasure of meeting her in person backstage at a Newport Folk Festival just a few years before she died in 1997. “I think that I searched,” she said in a smoky voice conjuring candles and incense, “and I think I traveled far to find something that was very close. People who are going to find their own convictions will all have to go through a certain amount of obstacles. I don’t think I’m different from other people who are searching….to be happy, really. And I’m kind of happy now.”

“When I was very young I remember sitting at a piano and hearing the notes and the chords ring out in the air and I knew there was something special in that sound, some kind of freedom. As a kid I listened to the 50’s songs of urban romance: ”The Wind” by the Diablos, “Oh What a Night” by the Dells, “Happy Happy Birthday Baby” by the Tune Weavers. The first two 45s I bought were “Bye Bye Love” by the Everly Brothers and “Mr. Lee” by the Bobbettes. A year or two later my favorite songs were by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. By the age of 15 I was seriously listening to John Coltrane and jazz singers like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Nina Simone. I remember one spring afternoon at (the High School of) Music & Art. The weather was lovely and me and my friends were sitting outside looking at a newspaper picture of the Beatles arriving in America. We were listening to ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and I felt this thunderbolt in my heart.

“I have a love for simple basic song structure, although sometimes you’d never know it. It’s a musical starting point and you could stay with it or take it to the ends of the earth, because as beautiful as simplicity is, it can become a tradition that stands in the way of exploration. I started off in music with simplicity and then moved into abstraction and some uncharted waters with the exploration of it. Some people would say went off the deep end. I wanted to learn more and I took freedoms with the principles of composition. I used these dark chord structures, suspended chords, advanced dissonances (advanced for rick and roll), rhythms leading to other rhythms within the same song. My jazz background put certain inflections into my songwriting and singing. Throw in all the poetry I’d read since I was a kid and just being a woman, and that’s what made my songs complex and emotionally rich.

“I don’t think you should categorize yourself as an artist. You should allow yourself to grow. Growth is the nature of the creative process. You have to accept it, respect it, and move on. The thing that’s important to me is to express life as I see it. That’s my priority. There’ve been many changes over the years as I saw life differently from age 18 and age 25. You have to remember, I was still a teenager when I made my first record and the world around me started changing at the speed of lightning just because I’d written some provocative songs. The ‘60s started spinning into a whirlwind and outside of some recognition for my music I felt like I was living inside a hurricane. My rhythm of life was more of a free spirited one and then it changed. I kind of felt like I was losing the rhythm of my youth. So many things were happening at the same time. This is how I experienced it. So I started slowly moving out of that scene so I could experience other things in life without a bunch of people breathing down my neck. When I turned 30 my love songs changed from romantic notions to a deeper taste of life. My mother died right before I wrote the songs for Nested. My child was born right before I wrote Mother’s Spiritual.

“The last few years have been so musically abundant that I felt like the Goddess of Creativity. But who knows? Next year I may only write one song, because that kind of songwriting is cyclical, seasonal; it’s the culmination of a deeper experience. It’s like nature, it takes time to seed and then it blooms. Mother’s Spiritual was a wonderful idea that flew through my head in a minute and then took years to manifest because the relationships and responsibilities that were inspiring the music were also pulling me away from it in terms of time. Since I was recording while I was writing it actually took me two and a half years to complete the 14 songs. Most of the songs I wrote a night. I would just wake up in the middle of the night. I had a young baby and that’s when I found the space to write. I didn’t work with a tape recorder. I would write my ideas down. I have love songs written upside down on matchbook covers. I’d write on my hand if there was no paper. Sometimes I might hear a particular instrument, like when I wrote ‘Melody in the Sky’ I heard gypsy violins.

“Once I’m writing I’m very disciplined. I’m there for the music. When I’m writing music there’s a certain magic from the music underlying life. It’s like you’re living at a deeper current. It’s a very complete feeling. You’re taking care of everyday things, but you’re living at the edge of a song.”