The Best and Worst of Talking Heads, According to Chris Frantz

Photo: Gus Stewart/Redferns

The rise of Talking Heads (not the Talking Heads, show some damn respect) is, dare we say, a story so good — so enviable — that it’s become synonymous with the downtown New York City music folklore ever since: The quartet’s first gig was opening for the Ramones at CBGB in the mid 1970s, and just as effortlessly as Tina Weymouth can groove her bass strings, they became critical darlings of rock with their debut album, Talking Heads: 77. They released a total of eight albums and one seminal concert film before disbanding for good in 1991, a decision that, as fans often bemoan, was due to the capricious temperament of front man David Byrne. Lucky for us, though, drummer Chris Frantz decided to chronicle it all.

Frantz’s new memoir, Remain in Love (available now), candidly details the band’s highs and lows, as well as his and Weymouth’s decades-long marriage and their musical collective, Tom Tom Club. There’s also a lot of bonus gossip to devour. To celebrate the book’s release, Vulture called up Frantz from his home in Connecticut to ask him some very specific Talking Heads questions. He was a delight.

Best Talking Heads song

I would have to choose “Psycho Killer” as No. 1. It was the first song we ever wrote. Tina and I were still at the Rhode Island School of Design and sharing a painting studio. We were seniors. I had a little band with David called the Artistics, whose purpose was to entertain our friends and play at parties and student events like that. We were primarily a cover band, although we thought that maybe one day we’d write original songs.

This was in the fall of 1973. David came to our studio and he had a sketch of the song. He wrote the first verse and the chorus and told us, “I’m writing a song in the spirit of Alice Cooper.” He was really big at the time. He played us what he had and it was really promising. He said, “I’d like the bridge of the song to be in a foreign language.” Tina speaks French fluently, so I suggested that we should do it in French. David said, “Great idea, because I asked a Japanese girl, and when she found out it was a song about murder she ran the other way.” Tina wrote the bridge in French — very classical, Napoleonic French. I wrote three verses, one of which got dropped later. Within a few hours we had a really good song.

Song you wish Talking Heads never recorded

There’s a song called “Give Me Back My Name” from Little Creatures. It never resonated with me. It was one of David’s “inner thoughts” songs. I’m not sure anybody really related to the song very much, but somehow it got to be on the album. It’s a dispiriting song. The music is good, but the lyrics and vocal melodies are whiny and sad. I wasn’t into it at that particular point in time. I’m not today either.

Song you wish became a bigger hit

“Warning Sign.” I co-wrote that song with David. It was never even a little hit. Of all of our songs, I felt like it was most influenced in the tradition of one of our favorite bands, the Velvet Underground. But it also had aspects of the Beatles — that post-psychedelic era of the Beatles when they got a little bit heavier. The lyrics are very heavy but also silly. I thought that was a splendid combination. Those lyrics still resonate with me even today.

Song whose meaning changed the most for you

“I Zimbra.” The lyrics were taken from the founder of the Dada movement, a man named Hugo Ball. He performed it as a poem at the Cabaret Voltaire. When we were working on this song, I believe it was Brian Eno’s suggestion to use those specific lyrics. The lyrics actually mean nothing [see: “Gadji beri bimba clandridi / Lauli lonni cadori gadjam”], but they sound really important. It sounds even more important to me today than it did back then. I have more knowledge on my end about Dada art and music and dance. Also, having performed it live — although it’s been a long time — it was a song that people really responded strongly to. It made performing it a great pleasure every time.

Most annoying fan narratives

It annoys me when people don’t realize, or don’t seem to realize, that Talking Heads was very much a shared experience — a longtime collaboration that was very successful. Some people tend to believe in a single-bullet theory with David, which isn’t true. It’s very much a unique chemistry. All four members, and some of our extended musical family, contributed. Everybody in the band was a star.

Performance you’d most like to relive

You can actually find this on YouTube somewhere, but there was a concert that was filmed of Talking Heads in Rome in 1980. It was filmed by a national Italian television network. It was the tour we did for Remain in Light, with the entire expanded lineup of nine people onstage. That concert is so fantastic. I’d love to get ahold of the entire footage and clean it up. The audio recording is excellent. If I could reboot that concert, I think the fans would really enjoy it.

Why was this concert particularly visceral?
The audience was like the mob in ancient Rome — you wouldn’t have wanted to fall off the edge of the stage and into them. It was mostly young Italian men, all of them smoking. The entire theater was full of smoke. We used a lot of white lights in the tour, so it gave off a gray, dystopian ambience in the arena. From the moment I walked out onstage, I knew it was going to be like riding a fucking bronco.

Biggest band fight

David changed Remain in Light’s writing credits after everything was all set and approved by the band. He changed the credits to favor himself and Brian Eno as opposed to the other members of the band who had been working together for years and made the music. That was very upsetting. I don’t know that we really ever felt the same about trusting David after that. He had done these types of things before, but that really caught us off guard. It was supposed to list our names in alphabetical order, and he changed it to “David Byrne, Brian Eno, and Talking Heads.” We weren’t happy about that.

Was there ever a resolution?
I’m afraid there was never a proper resolution, and there still isn’t. We learned that if we were going to continue with Talking Heads, we had to roll with certain things. One of those things was David’s need to aggrandize himself at the expense of others.

Best performance from Stop Making Sense

The whole darn movie is fabulous. But it has to be “Life During Wartime.” There was so much unharnessed energy onstage. The thing about Stop Making Sense is that everyone involved did a superlative job — not just the band, but the music crew and the film crew. We got Blade Runner’s director of photography! The choreography on that song never gets old. The whole band was running onstage. That was a good workout. I was lucky that I got to sit on my drummer’s throne. Those were the days before mobile drums.

Performance you’d like to forget

Our very last performance in 1984. It was in New Zealand at a big rock festival. We were the headliners, but there were also other great acts that day — the Pretenders, INXS, and the Eurythmics. It was a very happening little festival. About five songs into our show, David walked off the stage and wasn’t coming back. Everybody looked at me and was like, “Chris, you gotta go talk to him.” I got him and pretty much had to drag him back onstage. I said, “David, what’s going on? Why the heck did you walk off the stage?” And he said, “I’m sick of playing for audiences with their feet in the mud.” As I recall, it wasn’t a festival that had a lot of mud. It was a sunny and dry day. It was a sad moment for all of us, because it was the last day of that particular tour. David didn’t come to the party afterward either. He missed a lot of great New Zealand Champagne.

It was wonderful that you all reunited for your 2002 Rock Hall induction.
That was extra special, yes. We were inducted along with our old friends, the Ramones. Our sons were huge Ramones fans, of Dee Dee in particular. He sat at our table because the rest of the Ramones were mad at him about something. I was very happy to be there and our three performances went great. For us and the Ramones, it was our first year of eligibility.

Most meaningful compliment on your drumming

My drumming isn’t fancy drumming by any means. I’m not a flashy guy when it comes to playing the drums. People have complimented me on my danceability — the way I play drums is the kind of music that makes them want to dance. I’ll take that. I love that.

Best Weymouth bass line

That would be a toss-up between “Psycho Killer” and “Genius of Love.” Both of those songs you know as soon as the bass line comes in.

Rejected ‘Genius of Love’ sample requests

There were only a couple instances when we denied the song, during the pinnacle of gangster rap. One of the lines in a song that we denied was “throw that N-word in the trunk.” We said, uh, no, I don’t think we’re going to say yes to this. We’ve also repeatedly turned down Grand Theft Auto. We don’t like that game. It’s not good for anyone. We’re generally inclined to grant sample use though. We love that the song gets a recharge or another life. That’s what it’s all about.

Ideal Talking Heads reunion

I think the ideal reunion would be to play at the wedding of one of our children.

Best and Worst of Talking Heads, According to Chris Frantz