Tina Weymouth discusses Tom Tom Club's renaissance

There seemed to be a call again, says bassist Tina Weymouth, explaining the return of Tom Tom Club, the rhythm-oriented band she founded in 1981 with her husband (and former Talking Heads band-mate) Chris Frantz. "It took a while for the timing to be right. And then, with everybody sampling our old records, we thought, 'Yeah, we've got to make more!'"
Tom Tom Club is currently touring in support of a strong new Rykodisc CD, The Good the Bad and the Funky. Their first full-length album in eight years, it continues the Club's tradition of showcasing stellar guest performers. Among those contributing vocals to the disc are Toots Hibbert of legendary reggae ensemble Toots and the Maytals, Charles Pettigrew of the duo Charles and Eddie and Jamaican toaster Mystic Bowie.
"The whole idea is to be inclusive," says Weymouth. "That's what the Club was always about. We always wanted to be modern-world models of how people could get together and work together."
They extend that concept to special generosity in their song-licensing deals. Tom Tom compositions (including their breakthrough hit "Genius of Love") have been successfully covered and/or sampled in songs by such artists as Mariah Carey, Sean "Puffy" Combs, LL Cool J, Grandmaster Flash, Ziggy Marley and Tupac Shakur.
"We realized that young hip-hop artists have to refer backwards to old songs, and if the fees for sampling those are too high, it becomes prohibitive," explains Weymouth. "So we always made it real affordable. We'd say, 'Give us a percentage.' I think that's why we ended up getting sampled so much, because they realized it was possible and affordable."
Weymouth and Frantz formed Tom Tom Club after cutting 1980's Remain in Light with the now-defunct Talking Heads. Their fellow Heads David Byrne and Jerry Harrison had already secured solo contracts of their own through the band's label, Warner Bros./Sire Records, but Weymouth and Frantz approached Island Records, a reggae-oriented label then based in the Bahamas. "Often times Chris and I were doing something in Talking Heads that was a little more of a reggae beat," remembers Weymouth. "Even in 'Once in a Lifetime.'"
After waiting in frustration for the legendary Lee "Scratch" Perry to produce the first Tom Tom Club session, the couple proceeded without him. In three days they recorded basic versions of "Genius of Love" and "Wordy Rappinghood," with two of Weymouth's five sisters ("the two who lived in New York and didn't have husbands or other obligations") contributing vocals. Island was pleased and quickly released both songs as singles.
"We sold about 125,000 copies of 'Genius of Love' as a 12-inch before Warner/Sire would even give us a deal," says Weymouth. "It was very strange, like a kind of racism almost. We could see that, ahh, we were the people that were not supposed to make important music because we weren't singer/songwriters. It's almost disagreeable to me, this whole sort of elevation of the singer/ songwriter to godlike, messianic points."
Weymouth and Frantz performed Tom Tom material during the filming of Stop Making Sense, the 1984 Talking Heads concert movie, as a favor to Byrne (giving him time to change into his famous "big suit"). "I agreed to do it on condition that it would not be in the film," states Weymouth, who felt betrayed when the footage was included. "I had one sister who didn't talk to me for eight years because of it. She was my best friend but completely cut me off after that because — as a member of Tom Tom Club — why didn't she get to be in the movie?"
Tensions with Byrne culminated when, during a December '91 press conference, he publicly announced that the group had disbanded — news that came as a shock to Weymouth and Frantz. Today Weymouth characterizes Byrne as "a high-functioning autistic" and scoffs at the widespread notion that he is an intellectual, noting that he dropped out of college after his freshman year.
"I don't know who he is," she says sadly. "He's an amalgamation. He's got my handwriting, and he's borrowed a lot of perspectives and working processes not only from me and Chris but from Brian Eno. I'm so grateful that we made all that really wonderful music then. My only unhappiness is that David ended it the way he did. He cut us off like cancerous limbs, and I really don't feel that way about us. There was a lot of life in Talking Heads."
Abbreviating the group's name to simply the Heads, Weymouth and Frantz recorded with fellow alumnus Harrison, using an assortment of singers. The Heads first and only release to date, 1996's slyly-titled No Talking Just Head, featured just vocals by Debbie Harry, Michael Hutchence, Richard Hell and Live's Ed Kowalczyk, among others.
Ironically, Tom Tom Club's re-emergence began with last year's deluxe Rykodisc DVD re-release of Stop Making Sense, which brought the Massachusetts-based label to Weymouth and Frantz's attention. "That made us aware of what good people they were. We said, 'Oh my God, these are people like us.'"
Weymouth is particularly enthused about the touring ensemble presently taking The Good the Bad and the Funky on the road. "They are so brilliant, so wonderful," she says. "I feel like a proud mother when I think about them. We've got Robby Aceto, who plays on the new record, on guitar; and Bruce Martin, whom I've been playing with for many years now, playing keyboard and percussion. And our very dear old friend Abdou M'Boup, who we met when we were writing and recording [the Talking Heads'] Naked in 1987, is playing percussion with us now."
Filling in for vocalist Charles Pettigrew, who is off the tour due to illness, are two singers: Victoria Clamp, whom Weymouth calls her "adopted sister," and Mystic Bowie, who appears on the CD. "He fills in for Toots Hibbert on 'She's Dangerous' and for Charles on 'Holy Water,'" explains Weymouth.
"I feel Chris and I are so blessed," she says, "and I'm just going to enjoy it for the moment, while it lasts, because you never know — tomorrow the bus might run you over."
Tom Tom Club plays the Masquerade, Sun., Nov., 5. Show time is 8 p.m. Tickets are $16 in advance. For more information, call 404-577-2007.