Tina Weymouth: Talking Heads, Remain In Love tour and a lifetime in music

Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club co-founder and bassist Tina Weymouth talks to Headliner about her and husband Chris Frantz’s upcoming Remain In Love tour, her incredible life in music, and how she became one of the most iconic and influential musicians of the 20th century…

She may be best known as a founder member of one of the most inspirational bands of the 20th century in Talking Heads, but Tina Weymouth is one of those unique talents whose influence extends far beyond a singular guise. A trailblazing bassist who emerged at a point when rock was an almost exclusively all-male affair, she not only paved the way for a new generation of women in bands, but also went on to co-found another hugely significant act in the form of Tom Tom Club with her husband Chris Frantz. The couple also produced records down the years for the likes of Happy Mondays and Ziggy Marley. And, as we quickly discover, she’s an incredibly captivating storyteller.

What was initially scheduled to be a 20 minute chat about her and Frantz’s upcoming Remain In Love tour – a run of ‘in conversation’ sessions taking place across the UK in May following the launch of his memoir of the same name in 2020 – turns into a two-hour sojourn through early-‘70s New York, a remarkable lifetime in music, and how it has felt to have the love of her life by her side through each and every twist and turn.

“I’ve had the gift of living with the happiest man in the world… what a gift that is,” she beams with a genuine warmth and affection that rarely dims during our Zoom call, as she joins us from her Connecticut home. Through her formative years as a musician, to more recent projects and all in between, she speaks candidly and at length, always engaging and engaged, never seemingly going through the motions, as can sometimes (understandably) be the case with some when covering well-trodden ground from decades gone by.

Of course, this is something that she and Frantz will no doubt be doing at each of the Remain In Love tour dates. So why take an ‘in conversation’ tour on the road now? And why this side of the pond?

“We just wanted to come back and see our friends in the UK,” she laughs. “Like everyone, we have felt the isolation of the pandemic and just want to reconnect. And Chris’s book came out in the midst of lockdown, so he never got to do a book tour, and this is really fun as I get to come along as a sidekick!”

Frantz’s Remain In Love is a joyful reflection on a hugely successful career, made all the more unique by his and Weymouth’s 45-year marriage and musical partnership. For two people to stay so happily married for so long while working in music is a rarity. To do so while in the same band/s is unheard of.

“We became friends in art school and I knew his dream was to form a band, which he did with a band called The Artistics, with David Byrne,” says Weymouth, taking us back to their first encounter. “I had a very old little car, a Plymouth Valiant, and would drive the band everywhere. That was my first role, a supporting role. Then one day, the band had just started doing shows, and David came to our painting studio and said he’d written a song called Psycho Killer. He had a title and part of the chorus, but he needed more words. So, we sat down and we wrote this song, and it was a lot of fun. That was our first song, in January ’74.

It was a cauldron of feverish activity. Tina Weymouth

“We moved to New York City – we thought about London, Paris, Rome – but New York seemed like the place a lot of different artists were going. And New York was broke, but we had a lot of fun with no money. But there was garbage in the streets, rats, dead dogs, it was just a crazy time. We lived until the mid-‘80s in an apartment that had no heat after 4pm, so we had to make sacrifices but it was well worth it. We had a great chemistry. Then at the beginning of ’77 we brought in the great Jerry Harrison. Then we got a manager and that was it.”

Before long, Weymouth, Frantz, Byrne, and the newly recruited Jerry Harrison, were looking at new ways to evolve what was already a sound quite unlike anything else coming out of the city. The band’s first two records Talking Heads ’77 and More Songs About Buildings And Food were scratchy, twitchy post-punk affairs that, while different to the music being made at the time, had its roots in the CBGB, Mudd Club scene of the late ‘70s. The following album, 1979’s Fear Of Music showcased a more experimental rock side, with a dash of the ‘world music’ influences that were to follow with the album’s opening track I Zimbra.

But it was 1980’s Remain In Light that saw Talking Heads elevated from innovative post-punk icons to bona fide musical pioneers. Free from genre, convention or any obligation to commercial success, despite spawning arguably the band’s most famous song in Once In A Lifetime, Remain In Light represented a seismic leap in what a ‘guitar band’ could be and what could be achieved in a recording studio.

Before sessions began on the record, Byrne, whom Weymouth suggests was essentially on a ‘sabbatical’ from Talking Heads at the time, started working with producer and former Roxy Music member Brian Eno on what would become their joint album My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. However, knowing that Eno was in NYC, and with Harrison in the midst of making a solo record, Weymouth and Frantz invited Eno to their studio for a jam. They also formed Tom Tom Club around this time, which we come to later.

“In 1979, David and Brian had been making My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, although that came out after Remain In Light,” Weymouth explains. “We ended up not knowing what was going on between them, but we knew Brian was in town. So, we told Brian we were jamming in our loft, and Brian said, ‘I don’t really play any instruments’. We said that’s OK. Chris and I are just having fun. We have decided were just going to play each other’s instruments and try to be like children who are excited again and not take ourselves too seriously.

We wanted to create something beyond our limitations. Tina Weymouth

“I think Fear Of Music was our best rock album and I really thought we might be going in that direction, but with things as they were we just had to keep our minds open. So Jerry called us and was like, ‘Brian Eno is jamming with you?! I’ll be right over’! Then we thought, let’s give David a call, as he was really playing hard to get with us,” she smiles. “And as soon as we said Brian was over jamming with us he was over there in an hour! That was very funny, and we had a lot of fun. Eventually we ended up playing our own instruments and we got some cool little sketches we took into the studio and ended up making Remain In Light. It was a wonderful experience. Brian really liked us, and we liked him a lot.”

Having worked ostensibly within the confines of a traditional rock band setup prior to Remain In Light, how did they find the process of adapting not just to a new way of writing, but a new way of recording?

“The first two albums were all written before Jerry joined the band,” she says. “Our first tour was opening for the Ramones in Europe, and that was so exciting, and it changed us and who we were. And Jerry worked really hard to adapt. Sometimes he was doubling me, sometimes David, and by doing that he got to know who we were, and we were truly a four-piece by the time we finished that tour. It was great to do it that way as it was very natural and organic. And then Remain In Light was a whole different thing.

“The songs were not constructed normally, like verse, chorus verse. We were almost limited to two chords, but like jazz you can take two chords and put things on top and create new dimensions on top of that. That was an eye opener for us, and we worked that way again on Speaking In Tongues. It would always start with drums and bass until we got to the albums that David wanted for his True Stories movie (True Stories and Naked). He went to a very old-fashioned pop format of songwriting. He had these sketches in mind for his film. We did those albums back-to-back, one is the songs from the film and the other album is the outtakes, but they worked very well in their own right, but very differently.”

It was after these two records that Talking Heads came to an abrupt and unexpected end, when Byrne reportedly announced that he had left the band in an interview with the Los Angeles Times before informing the group.

“We weren’t prepared for it at all as we’d just signed a big contract that had taken six years to put together - a five album contract,” Weymouth says, still with a hint of incredulity in her tone. “So we were not prepared and we were not told. Chris was the child of an army office, me of a naval officer, and in the military it’s a family and a meritocracy. And honour and duty are just part of the way of life, so we were taken aback as David had told us he was on a sabbatical, so we sat waiting and waiting, we didn’t form another band.

“Tom Tom Club was a good thing, but that was formed as something for me and Chris to do while David and Brian were working together, and Jerry was working on his solo album before Remain In Light. And through Tom Tom Club we started getting offers to take both bands on the road. We never intended that to become a touring band. We were doing it because David and Jerry had gone off to do solo albums, but we were always loyal to the band – Talking Heads was our baby. For a while Tom Tom Club was good, we went gold long before Talking Heads did, and a lot of people discovered Talking Heads because they found out in interviews with Tom Tom Club that we were also in Talking Heads. It wasn’t right the way it was done, it wasn’t the proper way, And that’s about all I have to say about that.”

David and Chris wanted to mould me. I was like a little machine. Tina Weymouth

Despite the unexpected conclusion of Talking Heads, the body of work they amassed during their time together continues to stand as one of the most formidable and influential of the past 50 years. To this day, echoes of the sound they spearheaded all those years ago can be heard in the work of new artists, not least on account of Weymouth’s instantly recognisable bass playing style and her interplay with Frantz’s beats. At once minimalist and highly inventive, her sparse bass parts are not just crucial in anchoring the often-frenetic nature of the Talking Heads catalogue, but regularly serve as the lead instrument – think Psycho Killer, Once In A Liftetime, Pull Up The Roots, Warning Sign, the list goes on.

“It was always about adapting,” says Weymouth of how she developed her role as bassist. “I had played a little flute, guitar, little English handbells in my youth, and bass was what was needed for the band. And it was thanks to both Chris, who was the most accomplished player when we started as a trio, and David. The two of them knew I shared their sensibilities and they wanted to mould me, and I was like a little machine. But after six months of jamming and rehearsing for four or five hours every day of the week for five and a half months, it just gelled in my mind.

“We didn’t have a tape recorder. David had a Dictaphone but you couldn’t really hear anything, so I had to memorise everything and we just wrote and evolved constantly. It was a cauldron of feverish activity. And because we weren’t ‘good’ in terms of being really accomplished players, we would just avoid being derivative and try to create something beyond our limitations. We’d keep trying and trying until something gelled. Real persistence and a lot of frustration, but you just had to do that.”

The conversation shifts back to the Remain In Love tour, and if there are any particular projects or moments from her career that she is looking forward to discussing outside of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club.

“Well, we’ve worked with a lot of great artists,” she says. “We really enjoyed working with Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers. Even more fun, if possible, was working with Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, who are this huge band in South America, and when they play in New York City they fill the biggest venues. And even the Happy Mondays [she pauses and then laughs]. At the time it gave us white hairs! It was insane, but it was very interesting. You can’t say we were bored! It was a real lesson, too.”

How so?

“They totally led us astray," she continues. “They sent over their ‘best person’, Paul Ryder, to say, ‘we want to make a record like Nirvana, where the band plays songs’, and we said, OK, sure... It was quite a challenge! We had just turned 40 and they had just turned 30, and they acted like we were so old, but we had to be like their parents. The Ryders actually brought their parents along and I think Mr Ryder brought along a biography of John Belushi to help understand his own children [laughs]. And he was only 50 years old, so I thought, this is like the blind leading the blind leading the blind. They were all children!”

Working with Happy Mondays gave us white hairs. It was insane. Tina Weymouth

Perhaps unsurprisingly, recording sessions were often fraught and fruitless.

“The drummer never wanted to hear the band, he just wanted a click track in his cans, and I couldn’t understand that, but he was like an athlete. He just played and would say, ‘now I’m done’. They each had their own approach. They were all over the place. Moose - I loved him - he had a book called 1,000 Guitar Chords and he would open the book and say ‘I’m going to play this chord and this chord today’ and that was it. When it came to lyrics, that was very difficult.

“And nobody told us they were junkies! It was like, what happened here? You send them overseas to an island where you can be hanged for having a joint? I couldn’t believe it. They said, ‘Shaun dropped his bottle of methadone in the airport, and he was on the floor licking it up just for the plane ride. He arrived and the only thing he could get was crack cocaine, which is completely insane and so destructive. And of course, it meant fewer and fewer returns. And Bez was throwing up over the mixing desk… it was insane.

“It made for a great film, 24 Hour Party People. I loved Tony Wilson and I never understood exactly his philosophy, because he let the bands run amok, but it was his philosophy and he wanted them to just figure out what they were doing for themselves. And that is kind of commendable.”

Despite feeling that we could continue comfortably for another two hours, the clock finally catches up with us, and our conversation draws to a close. If the time we have spent here is anything to go by, the Remain In Love ‘in conversation’ sessions with her and Frantz promise to be every bit as joyous, insightful and entertaining as one would expect from a couple who have not only spent their lives making music for the ages, but, evidently, have had so much fun doing it.

Remain in Love tour dates: 

May 25th Shelodian Theatre, Oxford 
27th Electric Ballroom London
28th Brudenell Social Club Leeds