Tina Talks Heads, Tom Toms, and How to Succeed at Bass Without Really Trying
Tina Weymouth thinks she finally gets it. "It's marketing," the diminutive 46-year-old groans. "Duke Ellington and Miles Davis were never one-man bands; they worked with many different players and singers. But the marketing of rock bands has led to this belief that a band must always have the same singer."
Eight years after Talking Heads' eighth and apparently final album, Naked, Weymouth and drummer/husband Chris Frantz have rejoined guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison and are making music together again--albeit without high-profile frontman David Byrne. But make no mistake: this savvy threesome, now dubbed simply the Heads, is as committed as ever. "People originally said we weren't going to make it with David," Tina sighs. "They told us he was awful--but that just made us love him and back him even more. Now, many people's first response is, 'What? You're going to try it without David?' It's silly and absurd. We were never just drones surrounding the queen bee--it was always a team. I mean, if it takes only one person to make a band, wouldn't Ric Ocasek have had a great solo career?"
Even during punk's heydey, few bands did so much with so little. When a former marching band drummer, a super-eccentric singer/guitarist, and a neophyte bassist--all former classmates at the Rhode Island School of Design--began gigging in New York as Talking Heads in 1975, they'd already come farther than many had predicted. Byrne and Frantz formed the Artistics at R.I.S.D., and they took the core of their band to the Big Apple at Weymouth's urging. "The Artistics were a really great group that no one could listen to," Tina laughs. "They were so loud. But I loved them, and I used to cart them around in my old Plymouth Valiant." Unfortunately, few New York City bassists shared Tina's enthusiasm, and the Artistics couldn't lure any of the locals into their fold.
"The three of us moved to New York together in September of '74," Weymouth recalls, "and within a month Chris was begging me to play bass. We all shared a loft just down the street from CBGB's; he'd go there every night looking for a bass player, but no one was interested. So he started to play Suzi Quatro albums for me. Of course, she was really cute and all, but I'd taught myself guitar out of Bob Dylan songbooks and spent two years in an English handbell-ringer group--so playing bass in a band seemed very far-removed to me. It just didn't seem realistic. I mean, I did it only to please Chris; I figured I would leave as soon as they found a real bass player."
So you were completely new to bass when you joined Talking Heads?
Oh, yes [laughs]. I began putting five dollars a week down on a bass at We Buy Guitars on 48th Street, and when I finally paid it off, Chris and David began working with me. Chris was very encouraging and supportive; it was occasionally weird to have your boyfriend yelling at you, but he was always a great, um... egger-onner. And David was marvelous in that he was so hard on me; he had no patience whatsoever [laughs].
Another person who helped me out tremendously was [jazz trumpeter] Don Cherry. His family lived in our building, and he was always offering encouragement. I actually might have quit if it weren't for Don; having someone so incredibly accomplished tell me not to give up was really wonderful.
Even though it must have been a struggle, the three of you seemed to gel pretty quickly.
I think so. I'd been interested in David's and Chris's playing since the Artistics days, so I was already familiar with their sound, and I loved it. David's guitar playing was very brittle--almost African--and he sang really high. He's left-handed but plays right-handed guitar, so that separates his speech from his rhythm-guitar phrasing in his brain. I immediately saw he was doing something different--at least compared to Bob Dylan [laughs]. So I thought, This is really not to be missed; it's too good.
Then there was Chris, who played like a soul man--sweet and solid, with that rock-steady kick and snare. And yet his hi-hat was always pushing and pulling the beat.
His snare can be almost military at times.
Well, he is the son of a general. But he never wanted to be a soldier; he just wanted to play drums.
What do you remember most about the band's early days?
I remember how committed we were, but also how tough it was. We were on Christy Street, near the Bowery, and it was simply a space that was both affordable and non-residential, so we could play our music. We lived on pasta and cottage cheese. We had no shower and no hot water--just a hot plate and a mini fridge. Our big refrigerator was the window ledge. The toilet was down the hall, and I was the only one who ever cleaned it. But it never really got clean, so eventually I just spraypainted it silver, v† la Andy Warhol.
The whole setup was really unsanitary and dangerous and weird. This was right when Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver came out, and I had to cut off all my hair to avoid being propositioned by pimps on my way to CBGB's. I still looked 15, and after seeing little Jodi Foster in that movie, I just said, "No more!" But I think being absolutely bone poor is the most motivating thing in the world. We were so committed; we rehearsed seven days a week.
FOUND A JOB
From Christy Street to MTV to the new album, No Talking Just Head, Weymouth has maintained the same less-is-more vibe that first turned heads nearly 20 years ago. Onstage and in the studio, her steadfast commitment to the group aesthetic has moved her from bass to synth bass to guitar and back to bass--all in service of the song, and all tackled with an equally childlike innocence and gut-level adherence to the groove. So when Tina says she's "just a punk girl doin' it funky" in "Get Offa Your Pedestal" from the new album, we all know there's a little more to it than that.
How did you first approach playing alongside David's quirky guitar style?
Trying to understand what was going on in David's head was never easy, and he was never able to articulate what he was doing. So I just broke down everything he did into very basic components--sections and segments--and then pieced them back together like a puzzle. I figured if he was going to play these really edgy parts, I should do something contrapuntal. I didn't see the point in just playing root notes in unison, especially since I felt there was something missing in the midrange of our little trio.
Maybe that's why some of your cooler early lines sound more like trombone parts than conventional bass lines.
Yes, there was definitely an attempt to create things that were like horn parts. But that was because I was listening to lots of R&B. And with only three people in the band, my parts always needed a lot of melody. David's voice was bare--his words and expressions were really interesting, but his voice would stretch out into this strange whine. Only later did we discover he has a beautiful baritone.
Melodic or not, your parts were quite spare, too.
I was a punk in many ways; we had this do-or-die, "get in there and hang on for dear life" attitude I think was really great. But as for playing lots of 16th-notes and 32nd-notes, what's the point? I mean, what drives me totally antsy when I listen to Jimi Hendrix--I just cannot sit still--is not all the feedback but his incredible blues timing. And Chris, David, and I always loved that type of R&B timing. Ever since we were first starting out, we dreamed of the day when we'd be these old timers who could play slow, because we always played too fast in front of a crowd. It's only through years of experience and playing together that you can really play in the pocket, and it always annoyed us to take it out of the pocket when we got too excited.
Also, from the beginning, we were trying to create something people would want to listen to, despite all of David's edginess. We wanted the music to be attractive, so we tried to make it really emotional.
You developed a knack for catchy, repeating figures, which became a real trademark.
My earlier playing was busier, although still quite minimal. Then I got even more minimal when we put together the big band in the '80s, because I had to. It was often just a matter of necessity. And you have to understand we made the first two records over a four-year period, from 1974 to '78; after that, we would tour for eight months a year, and then we'd write and record really fast for two months so David would have time to come up with lyrics. There were no vacations; it was always playing, playing, playing. So there just wasn't time to go through and create five or six sections per song.
How did adding Jerry Harrison to the band affect the material?
He helped tremendously with the performance, but almost all of the songs on those first two records were basically written in our first incarnation, as a trio. So Jerry was fitting into a pre-existing thing.
In the early '80s, you embraced synth bass when many bass players swore it was the end of the world.
Yeah, well, I didn't have that sort of macho identity with my bass. I'm not that wrapped up in being a bass player. I am like a jealous lover if I hear someone playing my bass, though--it's like they're making love to my lover. How dare they? [Laughs.] I'll hear the voice of my bass calling, and I have to go stroke it and play it again.
Another reason I ended up on keyboards so much was that David assembled the big band for the Remain in Light tour. It was really just the four of us on the record, with occasional appearances by Robert Fripp or Adrian Belew on guitar for eight bars or so. But then, to keep from getting bored, David and Jerry added [keyboardist] Bernie Worrell and [bassist] Busta Jones for the tour. Having Busta in the band was fun for me, because it allowed me to do other things besides play bass, and to see the structure of a song from another perspective.
It really just made me more flexible. Like with "Burning Down the House" [Speaking in Tongues]--I originally wrote my part on bass guitar, but when I got into the studio it didn't sound tight enough for me. So I ended up playing it on a Prophet 5 [synthesizer]. Now we're playing "Burning Down the House" live on tour again with the Heads, and I'm back to playing it on bass guitar and it sounds really good. You serve the song; that is of utmost importance.
You bounce back and forth between a pick and your fingers a lot, but your tone is remarkably consistent.
It really just depends on the feel I want. I believe the sound you're getting very much influences the part you're going to get. That's why it's essential to get yourself a nice, rich tone so you can enjoy playing a really simple part, because sometimes that's all the song requires.
The late '70s witnessed the beginning of a fertile, three-album relationship between Talking Heads and maverick producer Brian Eno, which would see the band move from the brainy art-funk of 1978's More Songs About Buildings and Food to the transitional Afro-punk of 1979's Fear of Music to the wild polyrhythmic groove-fest of 1982's Remain in Light. At some point during this collaboration, the band's relationship with David Byrne began to show signs of strain, and the situation only worsened with the head Head's successful forays into film during the mid '80s.
Were things really that bad with David?
Well, let's just say I offered to leave the band several times if he thought it would help. But he's very strange, and whenever I offered what I thought he said he wanted, he didn't want it.
How nice for you.
It's not about nice with David. He's a very controlling person, and it wasn't until our third record, Fear of Music, that I just said, "David, leave me alone. Please!" I never minded what Chris would tell me, because even though he could make me mad as hell [laughs], we could communicate and work it out. But with David it's all or nothing--total aggression or total meekness. So I always tried to act like a very gentle older sister with him. I could yell at Chris, but I could never yell at David. I often kept Chris from punching David, which I now regret because I think David could have used a good spanking [laughs].
But isn't that just the way it is in bands? They're so difficult to understand, yet once you all start playing music together, everything else drops away. It's strange. I do still love David; I just wish he loved us.
How did the band's partnership with Brian Eno affect things?
We were huge fans of his, and even when David began acting weird we brought Eno back into the picture for Remain in Light because he was so full of ideas--and I think that record is wonderful for having had Eno as part of it. He's very good at pushing and stretching boundaries, and only people who are willing to put their hand in the fire should work with him.
He and David had some sort of falling out during their My Life in the Bush of Ghosts [Sire] project in 1980, and that created tension. But it was good for the group to have so many ideas bouncing around in the studio. Sometimes Brian wanted more of his ideas than ours, but I don't think that's frustrating--that's just him. What's frustrating is when you don't have ideas.
Were David and Brian responsible for the cut-and-paste approach to bass on Remain in Light, where multiple bass tracks were recorded and then pieced together during mixdown?
Yes, those lines were created by Eno, purely with the studio. Both Brian and David were constantly playing bass during those sessions, and I encouraged it. But whenever I would show up to the studio in the morning, before the two of them had arrived, the engineer would take me aside and say, "Look, this is really bothering me. These guys keep missing beats." So he'd have me replay what they had recorded the night before.
After the success of Speaking in Tongues, the film projects--Stop Making Sense and True Stories--and the back-to-basics Little Creatures album, the band seemed rejuvenated with Naked in 1988.
Boy, we really were. I love that album. It was very challenging to do, because by this time David was hardly communicating with any of us. Ever since True Stories, he had this office and he would have a secretary call us. It's been that way ever since. But we were all very excited to be playing again. It had taken a long time for David to get over his "filmmaker" vibe, and those sessions felt like, well... the old David, from pre-success days.
BOOMING & ZOOMING
The Talking Heads' "pre-success" days offered more than just memories of a happier David Byrne. In 1981, on brief hiatus from the band, Weymouth and Frantz channeled their excess inspiration into an all-hands-on-deck side project that was as relaxed as the Heads had become rigid. Family and friends gathered at the couple's Bahamas chateau to form Tom Tom Club, and the resulting collection of loopy dance tracks yielded several surprise crossover hits.
Why did you and Chris create Tom Tom Club?
Tom Tom Club was intended solely to support me and Chris--to put food on the table. We had no money, and we decided to work up our own songs instead of accepting the session work we were being offered.
What was it like to score big hits with a record many said was lightweight and frivolous?
It was weird. A friend told us we'd created a major minor record; she said it's not an important record because it doesn't address serious themes--but in fact, "Wordy Rappinghood" and "Genius of Love" [both on Tom Tom Club] deal with extremely serious and profound things. To me they're like fairy tales, which deal with dangerous themes people couldn't touch any other way. "Genius of Love" is about extraordinary pain and loss, but I deliberately did not put people who had died in the lyrics. We were definitely not trying to reach the intello-muso audience of Talking Heads, but those songs are much more dangerous than they first seem.
"Genius of Love" might very well have become your signature riff.
Listen, I want people to know this: I wrote the part, but I had to get someone else to play it at the last minute. We were given extremely limited studio time--just three days--and when it was time to do that track my whole right arm seized up in a terrible cramp, and I couldn't play. I had never played in the studio around the clock like we were doing, so I didn't even know that could happen. I ended up waking the assistant engineer--he was asleep under the console--and I showed him the part, and he played it. Chris was mad, but I really couldn't play; my hand wouldn't even close. So we did what we had to do. These things happen.
THE GIRLS WANT TO BE WITH THE GIRLS
As a continually inventive bassist riding the wave of a 20-plus-year career, Weymouth clearly has more to offer the bass world than just her gender. Still, she's put up with untold grief as a woman in the male-dominated arena of rock, and her survival--coupled with her onstage ascent from novice to seasoned pro--makes her a continued inspiration to aspiring players everywhere.
You inspired a generation of bassists who'd been led to believe bass was not for them.
Thank you. I'm really not so great. And they should all be just as grateful to Chris because he pushed me, and to Suzi Quatro and Carol Kaye, too. But, yeah--I think you can look at me and say, "Wow, there's this small, small person working away at this. If she can do it, I can." It's a punk thing, you know? Obviously, the bass guitar does limit me physically. But there are ways of getting around limitations, and my size was almost like a dare to boys. I know Bono used me to taunt Adam Clayton when they were starting out, which was terrible for Adam! [Laughs.]
Kim Gordon once touted a belief that a woman's instinctively supportive nature lends itself to bass more than, say, aggressive lead guitar.
That's a very interesting point of view. I don't know that it holds for all individuals, but it says so much about Kim, as a person and how she feels about her band. Hmmm--I think women are nurturing and supportive in bands, and as for bass, your role is totally one of support. That's why I find it obnoxious to sing and play at the same time, because when I'm singing it doesn't feel like the bass player is there for me. It's just not the same.
With the status of Talking Heads in a state of seemingly permanent limbo ("We've been told by the lawyers not to even think about the future," Tina grimaces), Frantz, Harrison, and Weymouth decided to regroup and record their own album. Instead of saddling a single lead singer with Byrne's legacy, though, they came up with a novel concept for No Talking Just Head: why not invite a different lead singer for each song? Guests from Blondie's Debbie Harry to INXS's Michael Hutchence to Live's Ed Kowalczyk to former Concrete Blonde bassist Johnette Napolitano (who sings and plays guitar on the current tour) joined forces with the Heads' intuitive groove machine, producing a record that's as varied as they come.
Having a different singer perform each song is a rather bold approach in this rock-star-obsessed age.
Well, we are the little band that boldly goes forth where no other band dares to go [laughs]. And we hope to pioneer something for other musicians who are in bands, too. What we have now is a contract for a band without a singer. Isn't that awesome? It's a big risk for our label, but we've promised to find a singer no matter what.
Also, I want this to be a success for more than just ourselves. I want it for everyone who got screwed the first time around, who got frozen out when the big payoff came. Now we have the same team in place again, and I want them to get their rewards--psychologically and emotionally. It's not about money with us; it never was. We just want enough to survive and to be able to continue.
Before the Heads, you stopped playing completely for a year. What was that like?
It was very depressing. But if you're not in demand, what are you to do? I went back to painting to sort of put a balm on the wound. Then when I came back to playing, I realized it was really good not to play for a while, because I was all thumbs again and it altered my perspective. But you don't forget how to play; it's like riding a bicycle. Playing is really in your head and in your heart, anyway.
How did Johnette Napolitano fit into the lineup?
Oh, just great. She's really good at delivering the edgy stuff. [Ed. Note: Napolitano was profiled in November '93.] And it shows how good songs like "Burning Down the House" and "Life During Wartime" [Remain in Light] always were, because they lend themselves to different interpretations. There have been a few cover versions of Talking Heads songs, but Bonnie Raitt really softened "Burning Down the House," and even Living Colour's version of "Memories Can't Wait" [Fear of Music] lacked the edginess I want.
So far, reviews of the album have been mixed.
First of all, I think the artists who sing on this record have to be recognized for each being really original; there's not a copycat in the bunch. As for people's acceptance of our approach, it requires a reach that some don't have, and I'm sorry for that. Certain critics don't have it, that's for sure. It's interesting; people in touch with the underground really seem to dig and understand where we're coming from and what we're doing. But on a national level, say Rolling Stone, the outlook has been much more restricted and much more cut off from what's going on.
We read that at a recent show, you saw a couple having sex in the middle of the crowd. True?
[Laughs.] Yes, at the Roxie in Los Angeles. People asked, "Weren't you distracted?" And I wondered, How is it they weren't? It was pretty amazing and funny--but it's actually not the first time we've seen it. It happened at Red Rocks in Denver, on the Speaking in Tongues tour. During "Life During Wartime," David was to run out into the audience, up to the bleachers, and through this door under the console that led back underground to the stage. He had the spotlight following him through the bleachers, but then it just stopped on a dime on this couple that was doing it as David ran past. The light was on them for another four or five minutes, during the whole song, and they weren't even aware. They were like insects under a microscope, with everybody watching and cheering. Of course, David was angry the spotlight wasn't following him!
"I've come full circle," Tina Weymouth says of her decision to strap on once again the single-cutaway, two-pickup Hofner hollowbody she's had for her whole career. (Her original was stolen in '78, but a sympathetic fan sold her another shortly after.) "It's really light, it has a little neck, and it's hard for some engineers to handle--but it's funky as all get out."
In addition to the Hofner, Tina's bass stockpile has included (roughly in this order) a '70s sunburst Fender Precision, now on display at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; a competition-striped Fender Mustang; a Gibson Triumph; a Fender Musicmaster; a custom-made Veillette-Citron Standard 4-string; a Steinberger; and a '63 Fender Jazz. "Early on, I experimented a lot with short-scale basses other than my Hofner," she recalls. "They helped me to get my confidence up--so they were useful for a while--but I could never get the sound I wanted. It certainly didn't matter onstage, because you probably couldn't hear me anyway. But they definitely do not sound as good."
Tina still owns the bare-bones, "heavy-duty" stage rig she assembled in 1979. It features two JBL K-145 15" speakers plugged into a Gallien-Krueger 400B head. For the current tour, she's treated herself to a brand-spankin'-new Ampeg SVT Classic and an accompanying Ampeg 8x10 cab. Rock on.
"When it comes to effects, I go through periods of change," Weymouth admits. "Right now I'm using just a little MXR Flanger; it gives me a bit of extra sustain and chorusing. I think effects are great in the studio--I say, 'Go for it!' But onstage, you must simplify. Everything breaks in the live situation; it's amazing. My mother calls it la malaise des choses--the malaise of things."
A Selected Discography
With the Heads: No Talking Just Head, Radioactive/ MCA. With Tom Tom Club: (all on Sire) Dark Sneak Love Action; Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom; Close to the Bone; Tom Tom Club. With Talking Heads: (all on Sire) Popular Favorites, 1984-1992--Sand in the Vaseline; Naked; True Stories; Little Creatures; Stop Making Sense; Speaking in Tongues; The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads; Remain in Light; Fear of Music; More Songs About Buildings and Food; '77.