Chris Frantz of Talking Heads

by Carl Wiser

The rhythm section romance of the Talking Heads is one for the ages. Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth paired up at the Rhode Island School of Design, where Chris was in a band called The Artistics with David Byrne. Chris and Tina graduated in 1974 (with degrees in painting), formed Talking Heads with Byrne the following year, and got married in 1977, a few months before their first album (the one with "Psycho Killer," with a French part written by Weymouth) was released. They interrupted their honeymoon when the band got a gig opening for Bryan Ferry - gotta have your priorities.

Talking Heads became one of the most dazzlingly innovative bands of their time; music-makers in particular mention them all the time as an influence, and inevitably cite their grooves as a key component. When the band took a hiatus in 1980, Chris and Tina recorded an album as Tom Tom Club, which sounds nothing like Talking Heads on the topline but is some seriously ear-catching music, especially the groovetastic "Genius Of Love," later reworked by Mariah Carey for her #1 hit "Fantasy." Their album went Gold before any Talking Heads album did.

In his memoir, Remain In Love, Frantz recounts in vivid detail the Talking Heads' incredible journey. They got their start in the New York City CBGB scene of the mid-'70s, and when they moved up the ranks, it put them in contact with a who's who of superstars and tastemakers - Lou Reed, the Ramones, David Bowie, Andy Warhol, the B-52s - all of whom show up in anecdotes.

Here, Frantz explains why Talking Heads didn't record any more cover songs after "Take Me To The River," why the phrase "new wave" was coined for the band, and how some of their best songs came together, including "Naive Melody."
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): What was it like writing down your life story?

Chris Frantz: I really enjoyed it. I got a literary agent, a very good one. It was two guys who work together, and they said to me, "You know, we're very critical and we don't usually take rock stars, but we think you have a pretty good story to tell."

They said, "Here's what you have to do: You have to have an outline, a precis, and three chapters. They don't have to be long chapters, but they have to be knockout."

So I did that with their cooperation and took it to the London book fair. The next day I had a book deal, not only for London, but also an offer for the United States. I thought, "Wow, this is really easy."

Then I thought, "I have to finish the book now," and I had this big anxiety attack, which is not like me at all. I was imagining the amount of work it would entail and wondering if I could buckle down and do it, but in the end I did it. You know what relieved my anxiety attack? CBD oil. It really worked. I'm skeptical of mood relaxers but the CBD oil really did the trick.

I wrote the book in three different locations: My home here in Connecticut; Pequot Library in Southport, Connecticut, and I also wrote a good deal in France at Brittany where Tina's mother has a home. I had a couple good writing sessions there, and also down at Compass Point in the Bahamas, where we did so much good work together. The studio, unfortunately, is no longer there. The building is there but it's accountants' offices now.

Talking Heads were an insanely good live band, but they stopped performing in 1984 at the decree of David Byrne. Their last tour is documented in the concert film Stop Making Sense, where we see the band, augmented by Bernie Worrell, Alex Weir and Steve Scales, locked in tight. They made three albums they never got to perform, starting with Little Creatures in 1985.
Songfacts: When you made the Little Creatures album, did you know you wouldn't be performing those songs live?

Frantz: We hoped that David would change his mind, but he was really not into touring anymore. He thought Stop Making Sense would tour for us, which it sort of did for a while. But as Lou Reed told us very early on [in Lou Reed voice], "Whatever you do, you gotta tour, because the fans, they like to view the body."

Songfacts: You wrote some of the lyrics on that album, I think "Perfect World."

Frantz: Yeah, I wrote those lyrics very early in the Talking Heads evolution, way before we made our first album. I guess David kept them and had them in a little file and decided to use them, which is nice.

Songfacts: Can you talk about those lyrics?

Frantz: Sure. It's about a relationship between a young guy and a girl. It also has a reference to being on an incline, which in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a little train that goes up the mountain - like a little tram. They call it "the incline." So that's where I got the line, "I'm riding on an incline." It was a mini love story.

Chris and Tina on their wedding day in 1977Chris and Tina on their wedding day in 1977
Songfacts: Why is "This Must Be The Place" subtitled "Naive Melody"?

Frantz: That was the original title. We called it "Naive Melody" before there were any lyrics put to it. That album [Speaking In Tongues, 1983], we recorded all the basic tracks instrumentally and then the lyrics were added after. We were touring as well as recording that year, so we would record the basic track, then we would go off on tour, then we would come back, go to another studio and add overdubs and things like that. Then we would go away again on another tour, and after the tour David would take some time and write some lyrics, then we'd go back in the studio and he'd sing the lyrics and we'd add additional percussion and whatever else we wanted.

So the original basic track was called "Naive Melody" because the melody was naive-sounding, the melody of the keyboard. When David finished writing the lyrics, he called it "This Must Be The Place" but decided to keep "Naive Melody" as part of the title but in parentheses.

He played that little keyboard part: doot doot do-do-do-do do, doot doot. Tina played guitar and Jerry played keyboard bass. I played drums because I was the only one who knew how to play drums.

Songfacts: That song has taken on a whole new life. It's far more popular now than I remember it being when it was released.

Frantz: Well, it's a very comforting song. I think people listen to it and it kind of warms their hearts because it's a song with a happy and secure message. I love that song myself. It's really sweet - quite an accomplishment for a band such as ours.

Songfacts: How did the Al Green B-side "Take Me To The River" come to your attention?

Frantz: It was on one of his albums that I had in my collection. We played another Al Green song called "Love And Happiness," then we added "Take Me To The River," which got a really good reaction from our rather small audiences in the early days, so as we became more popular we kept it in our live show and it always got a good reaction. I don't think most people knew it was an Al Green song.

When it came time to record our second album [More Songs About Buildings and Food, 1978, the first of three produced by Brian Eno], we decided to give it a shot. Brian Eno really liked it and he told us we should slow it down as much as possible. Al Green plays it at a fairly uptempo, and that's how we had played it up until Eno said, "We should slow this down and play it as slow as possible without messing up." So we did that and he was right: It came out way more sexy. It felt like church. Then we added some effects to it to make it sound like it was almost under water.

Songfacts: Did Talking Heads ever record another cover song?

Frantz: I don't think we did. David got mad - this is so David Byrne - he got mad that the hit was not one of his songs. "Take Me To The River" was our first Top 40 single, and it was like a miracle, because we really weren't expecting to have a Top 40 single. When that happened, it meant we could get a lot of gigs that we couldn't have gotten as an unknown band, and everything started to move a lot faster for us.

But David resented that it wasn't one of his songs that was the hit, so he said, "I'm not doing any more cover songs."

Songfacts: Did the Talking Heads ever write and record a song with the specific intention of having a hit?

Frantz: No. We were very fortunate in that we had commercial success, artistic success, and critical acclaim. We had all three of those things, but our commercial success began very small and it gradually spiraled up. We never got Michael Jackson or Madonna kind of success, but we had a very comfortable and what would have been long-lasting success because we were a band that could deliver a good live show as well as make a good record.

The cast and crew from Stop Making Sense. Chris and Tina are at the bottom with their two-year-old son, Robin. David Byrne is wearing a big suit.

Songfacts: The one song I thought maybe you structured to be a hit is "Wild Wild Life," because it sounds so hooky and chorus-y.

Frantz: Well, that was the album for David's movie, True Stories [1986], and he demoed all those songs before we recorded them. When I say "demo," I mean just a beatbox drum machine and a guitar. We had to fill in the blanks. We had to take it from zero to 100 miles an hour.

"Wild Wild Life" was a fun song to play. It's too bad - it would have been great live.

Songfacts: What's one of the other songs that would have been fantastic live that you never got to play?

Frantz: "Road To Nowhere." On the Naked album [1988], "Blind." "Stay Up Late" on Little Creatures.

Songfacts: How did the song "Crosseyed And Painless" get its title?

Frantz: David created that title. I'm not sure what he was thinking, but crosseyed and painless is a state that we have all been in in at least one point in our lives. I think he was probably thinking of that state of intoxication.

Songfacts: I was surprised to read that you did not connect at all with the "Heaven" lyric.

Frantz: I connected to the song "Heaven," but I didn't relate to the idea that heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. I understand it's kind of a zen thing, but I didn't really connect with it. I did like the chord changes - it reminded me of a Neil Young song.

Songfacts: What lyrics did you most connect with?

Frantz: "Psycho Killer," "Warning Sign," "The Girls Want To Be With The Girls." We didn't write these lyrics, but "Artists Only." "Live During Wartime" is a great lyric. There are many to choose from. "Don't Worry About The Government" - that's so wild.

Songfacts: The Stop Making Sense version of "Burning Down The House" is the first time I heard that song, and it comes crashing to this cold ending and the crowd goes bananas. But on the studio version it just fades out. Why didn't you do a cold ending when you did the studio version?

Frantz: Probably because the lyrics were written way after we recorded the basic track. It's kind of normal to fade songs - at least it was back then.

Talking Heads' first tour was opening for the Ramones in EuropeTalking Heads' first tour was opening for the Ramones in Europe
Songfacts: Did Seymour Stein [their label boss at Sire] invent the term "new wave" specifically for Talking Heads?

Frantz: As far as I know, he did, yes. I give him credit for that because the problem we were encountering was that radio programmers in the United States - Top 40 and Album Oriented Rock stations - their program directors would say, "We don't play punk music. We only play good music."

Seymour had to figure out a way to get around it, so he said, "Talking Heads are not punk music, they're new wave." Then, the program directors would say, "Oh, new wave. I guess we can play that." So we started to get, very gradually, airplay.

"New wave" was a French film term for Truffaut and Godard and that group of filmmakers - cinema verite.

Songfacts: Outside of the Ramones, it seemed like CBGB bands like you guys, Blondie and Television were not punk at all. They were very intricate, completely different.

Frantz: But because we had played at CBGB and because there was this whole punk movement going on at the time, we got lumped in with that crowd. Even the Ramones didn't refer to themselves as punk. That was really a British thing. The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Sham 69 - those guys referred to themselves as punk, but we certainly never did.

Frantz and Weymouth produced the 1988 Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers album Conscious Party, and the follow-up, One Bright Day, the next year. Both won Grammy Awards for Best Reggae Album and established the next generation of musical Marleys in America. "Tomorrow People," from Conscious Party, is the first Top 40 hit for any Marley, including Bob.
Songfacts: What are the particular challenges in producing reggae?

Frantz: A lot of reggae musicians are kind of like "keepers of the flame." There's a whole reggae tradition: If it's a reggae song you have to do this and you have to do that. So as a producer, you have to try to get the musicians to think internationally. Not to change their reggae rhythms or anything like that, but to have a universal point of view.

Ziggy was really good. His band was Ethiopian guys who lived in Chicago. They were really great players and they were open to the idea of new production techniques and new sounds that maybe hadn't been on a Bob Marley record or a Toots And The Maytals record. Tina and I could sit and listen to them perform, and they were so tight and such accomplished players that many times all we had to do was say, "Oh, that's great. What's next?"

With that first album we were walking a tightrope because we had one foot in traditional reggae and another foot in what the young kids, the new kids of reggae, were into. Virgin America was very concerned that the production values be up to international standards and didn't sound like it was recorded in one afternoon, pressed that evening and on the DJ's turntable that same night.

One of the surprising insights in Remain In Love is that Talking Heads had no input into who inducted them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when they entered in 2002. Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis got the call; the band - Frantz, Weymouth, Byrne and Jerry Harrison - reunited at the ceremony and performed three songs: "Psycho Killer," "Life During Wartime" and "Burning Down the House." It was the last time they played together.

Fun fact: Chris and Tina are one of two married couples in the Hall. Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa are the other.
Songfacts: Why didn't you get to choose who inducted you into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Frantz: They just don't let you - they control that. The board, or whoever it is at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, decides who's going to induct who. I think Lou Reed wanted us to ask him, and that would have been cool. And we would have loved to have Kraftwerk induct us because we loved Kraftwerk and we thought Ralf [Hutter] and Florian [Schneider] would be like [Schwarzenegger-like voice], "OK, you are IN-DUC-TED." But we got Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who was actually very good and very funny.

Songfacts: I was surprised they assigned you somebody.

Frantz: We thought it was kind of weird, but c'est la vie.

Songfacts: Are you playing a cowbell on "And She Was"?

Frantz: No, that is our percussionist Steve Scales who played that cowbell.

Songfacts: But it is a cowbell?

Frantz: Yes it is.

Songfacts: What is the best drumming on a song that you didn't play?

Frantz: There are so many to choose from, but I would say Clyde Stubblefield for James Brown on "The Funky Drummer," parts 1 and 2. I have no idea how he played it, but it's been sampled on even more songs than "Genius Of Love" has.

It's highly syncopated, and there's more than one syncopation going on. It's like the layers of an onion: You have one layer of syncopation and then you have another and possibly even another on top of that. It's what we call polyrhythmic, and it's very sexy, very good for dancing.

Songfacts: Did you ever play anything like that on Talking Heads material?

Frantz: I did my best to do something like that on "The Great Curve," and also on "Crosseyed And Painless." But of course it doesn't come out sounding like Clyde Stubblefield. It's my very limited impression of it.

Songfacts: Well, you've certainly made your mark, not just with fans but also with musicians. Glen Ballard told us "Once In A Lifetime" is pretty near perfect, especially the groove.

Frantz: The whole thing with Talking Heads, Tina said it when she was being interviewed by Dick Clark on American Bandstand. He said, "Ultimately, what would you like to accomplish," and she said, "We'd like to make our mark in music history."

That's really how we felt in Talking Heads and also Tom Tom Club. We wanted to have a legacy, and thank God, we do.

Songfacts: What do you consider the definitive Talking Heads song?

Frantz: I'm going to go with the first song we ever wrote, "Psycho Killer," because it's all mixed up: It's a little bit crazy and it's a little bit funky. It's kind of like Alice Cooper meets Sam & Dave. It hits the mark.

July 20, 2020
Get Remain In Love here.
In 2014, Chris told us the "Genius Of Love" story.
Here are the Talking Heads Songfacts entries
Photos: Frantz Archives (1, 3, 4), Laura Weymouth (2)

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