Tom Tom Club Interview: 12 January 2011, New York

Tom Tom Club

Right after New York City’s third snowstorm of the season, the Tom Tom Club arrived at Irving Plaza to heat up the night with their electrifying grooves. Hits such as “Genius of Love” and “Wordy Rappinghood” percolated through the venue before an encore brought out the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” plus “Take Me to the River” featuring vocals by Mystic Bowie. Chris Frantz joked, “My name is Chris and I’ll be your drummer tonight!” His wife Tina Weymouth, leading the charge front and center with her bass, gushed as she thanked the crowd for making the night “so very special”. The tour celebrates a new release Genius of Live, which includes a live recording from 2002 and 11 new remixes by acts such as Kinky, the Pinker Tones and Ozomatli. Fresh off a performance on Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night, the iconic couple sat down with PopMatters to reminiscence and discusses plans for the future.

What a day for a gig! How was doing Jimmy Fallon show last night?

Weymouth: Oh it was so exciting.

Frantz: Jimmy Fallon and the Roots were so wonderful, gracious even. It was a completely delightful experience for us. You know TV can be not that much fun really, but it was fun. We had a good time, everything went well, I thought our performance was super cool, and it seemed like Jimmy Fallon himself was very excited to have us there.

Weymouth: His staff was wonderful and very professional. They did great sound and they also had everything running like clockwork. But without any of the vibes, if [Fallon] wasn’t such a gentleman — he brings about a really wonderful atmosphere. All his people love him.

Now you’re back at Irving Plaza again after 30 years. What were some memories about that first gig here?

Weymouth: That was in 1978 – so it would be 33 years, almost 34.

Frantz: We were doing pretty well with Talking Heads, we were up and coming and our manager who had some experience promoting concerts realized that we were at that time getting too big to play CBGBs from a business point of view. We still always would go back to CBGBs to do stuff but to do a big show, CBGBs was too small. And we weren’t quite big enough to fill the Beacon Theater so he scouted around and he found this place which was an Eastern European social hall at the time – they had never had rock music in here. But they were interested in renting the place out to make a little extra money to keep their social club going. So he had us come down and make sure we liked it. We did love it because at that time we had been spending a lot of time in Europe, and this reminded us of places we’d played in Europe.

Weymouth: Like ballrooms in Europe.

Frantz: Yeah and a ballroom is great because people are standing and they’re more animated than a seated audience.

Weymouth: They can dance, which is fun.

Frantz: Yeah and we always liked that. So Gary said, “How about this place?” We said “Yeah it’s great.” So we did the show here and [Irving Plaza] soon became “the place” to play for new bands in New York. I think the next band to play there was the B-52s. In fact, we joined the B-52s a few years back here for their 25th anniversary.

Weymouth: That’s right! We sat in with them.

Frantz: We sat in with them and Yoko Ono was here and I can’t remember who all else. Some special guests…

So you’ve were back a few years ago but still to have the Tom Tom Club return to the stage here as a headliner has got to be special.

Frantz: Yeah, it’s great

And it’s so apparent that you two enjoy performing, playing in front of an audience.

Weymouth: Well you’ve seen we have a wonderful group. That makes all the difference. Not only are they very, very talented – super talented – but they’re also mentally sane. Well, I used to think that crazy was good but there’s a certain kind of crazy that’s very destructive. And the craziness of this band is that they love each other and they like to be together and they love to perform, which is crazy enough in itself. But they’re so amazing as human beings so it goes well. We get nervous of course because you know, it’s a lot to go out and perform. It’s a lot of nerves.

What about jamming at home? Do you get the same kind of enjoyment of just kicking around playing instruments?

Weymouth: We have a studio at home, so when we’re jamming it’s usually to write and record. We do also rehearse there. There was a year where things were slow and our pool man came by and he said, “You know I play guitar too, and it’s an awful shame that you have all of this and you’re not playing.” I said, “You want to play? You want to jam?” And he said “Yeah!” So we made it once a week he’d come by and jam. I think we called ourselves The Shitty Beatles. And we’d jam strictly songs that they knew – standards. But it was fun! It kind of got our groove back on. So we said wait a minute, we really are musicians. We should get back into doing this.

Your love of dance music created the Tom Tom Club sound. And then you embraced the concept of sampling early on when other people were extremely hesitant. What were your thoughts at the time?

Frantz: Well, the first case of sampling in our song “Genius of Love” was actually before samplers. In those days the bands would actually replay the song and it was Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five a song they did called “It’s Nasty Genius of Love”. And we already knew Grand Master Flash. Tina had done a photo session for New York Rocker there’s a famous photo by Laura Levine of Tina with Grand Master Flash together with their ghetto blasters or boom boxes. We met him and he said to us, “You know this is a very cool beat. You’re gonna be hearing a lot of this.” I said, “Oh really?” He said, “Oh definitely!”

Weymouth: He did a cover. It was a cover.

Frantz: We always get happy when people sample or rework one of our songs because it gives the song another life. There was only one instance where we denied a sampling request and that was just because the lyrics were too gross. It was in the heyday of “gangsta” and there was this one request they sent us for our approval.

Weymouth: It didn’t have any redeeming value as art.

Frantz: We just said, “You know what, not this time.” If you check our website, there’s a list of the known samples and I think it’s up to 47 at this moment.

Weymouth: Well, there’s probably more but we kind of lost track.

Frantz: And now with the advent of the mashup there’s even more. I know there’s even a Miley Cyrus mashup with “Genius of Love” now.

I was recently trying to explain the whole concept of remixes to the next generation – that there wasn’t such a thing once.

Weymouth: Remixes were a way to get rock bands out there on the dance floor in order to sell singles.

Frantz: DJs started the phenomenon. Before they called it a remix, they called it a megamix where they would extend the song. Eventually it came to the point where they were actually changing the music.

Weymouth: But we did things in that first track in “Genius of Love” where we intentionally had breakdowns so that the DJs who were scratching, the original scratchers, could do that. They could do their own extended breaks and break things down and build things with other tunes in them. It was a conscious thing because we really embraced the whole hip hop culture. We wanted our band to be very inclusive, not elitist or exclusionary. We wanted to feel inclusive. That’s why we called it a club. So that people could feel they were part of something. Nowadays, we all know about marketing and promotion and tie-ins but nobody thought that way then. They thought about music in terms of sharing joy. You know, we were still coming out of a terrible recession at the time but people were still enjoying life without a lot of money and trying to make a good party with everything that they did. New York was bubbling with creativity for that reason because it was very affordable then for artists. It was a wonderful time to be alive.

The new release from last fall incorporates even more remixes of more current bands. How did that project come about?

Frantz: Well, we had a live album that we recorded at our home studio in front of a live audience of about 80 friends and family. We made it a big party — the band played and we recorded it. When our friend Tomas Cookman at Nacional Records in Hollywood was playing it in his office he got lots of people popping their heads in saying, “Who’s that? I really like that. That sounds good.” So he called us up saying, “How about we release it?” And we said, “Yes, please!” At his request, we had already done a remix for one of his bands, Mexican Institute of Sound. So he said, “How about if we get a couple of our acts to remix ‘Genius of Love’?” We said, “Great idea!” One thing led to another and before we knew it there was like twelve remixes.

Since the early days of Tom Tom Club and hip-hop, there’s been other new musical genres from indie pop, chill wave and alt rock to name a few. Wondering about your perceptions of some of these styles or current bands you might be listening to?

Frantz: Most recently, I’ve been enjoying this group that calls themselves Pamplemousse. Have you heard of them? They did some ads for Hyundai and they do video songs where its like the video is part of their process. I like them a lot. They’re kind of old fashioned in a way, but in my way of thinking very pure and real. They’ve got their own thing.

Weymouth: We do encourage originality. We like it when people don’t go retro.

Frantz: Due to our relationship with Nacional Records, we’ve been listening to The Pinker Tones, Mexican Institute of Sound, and Money Mark, who’s the musical director for the Beastie Boys.

The Tom Tom Club has also been a family affair with Tina Weymouth’s sisters singing with you. Who are some of the other musicians in the band?

Weymouth: My sisters Laura and Lonnie were on the first album.

Frantz: And the second album.

Weymouth: And the second. They’ve sung with me on other albums but they got involved with family and other careers and I respect that too. We’ve been working for the last 21 years with (singer) Victoria Clamp who’s like a sister to me. We work very well together. And Bruce Martin who’s like family, he’s been playing with us for 20 years. We actually discovered him. He was a percussionist for us and then we realized he plays piano. And he played keyboards the way we like, not overly busy not filling every space. He understood minimalism as a percussionist. He’s a wonderfully accomplished musician. So our band has also become our family. At the beginning you do tend to pick people you trust. I had been singing with my sisters since we were small children. We had a great blend with our voices. I love the Beach Boys and the Everly Brothers and so I really love that sound that you get when you get that kind of blend. So that’s why it started that way, and the rest is how it became. And we’ve just been phenomenally lucky lately.

From now on it’s full tour ahead.

Weymouth: Well yes this year you know. We’ve been experiencing the sandwich years of wanting to be close to our elderly parents and wanting to share our lives with them and have it be interesting, because you know that doesn’t last. Plus our children were still young and we were still launching them. But now we’re able to do much more because the kids have grown and so we’re much more able to do a lot. Plus people have woken up to realize, “Oh my goodness here’s this band that you don’t have to pay $135 to see them,” and they get full pleasure of it. They’re discovering it. They don’t realize we’ve been playing all these years but they’re waking up to it. For all the violence you’re hearing about in the news and the fear mongering that the newscasters give, we appeal to this younger generation that enjoys the positive and can’t stand mean. It’s sort of as if the times have caught up with us.