Suburban Geniuses: Tom Tom Club Keep Their Heads Up in Connecticut

Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, better known as Tom Tom Club, seemed to have different ideas about why they left New York. 

“I was partying too hard,” Mr. Frantz told The Observer with a sigh and a so-sue-me shrug, “and I had to get that all sorted.” 

Ms. Weymouth frowned. “They turned the heat off after 4 p.m.!” she said, essentially dismissing Mr. Frantz’ claim. “I mean the place was great, and we loved the city, but you can’t raise kids where there’s no heat.” 

“Don Cherry lived in our building, with Neneh and Eagle Eye! And Arthur Russell, too!” Mr. Frantz enthused. The couple had kindly picked The Observer up at the Metro North station in Fairfield, Conn., where they live these days, and we tooled around the snowy town in their SUV, checking to see if their preferred restaurants were looking overcrowded. 

“What is the deal tonight?” Mr. Frantz moaned after the second place appeared stuffed with diners. 

“It’s Saturday night, dear,” Ms. Weymouth explained from the backseat. Finally we settled on the Brasserie, a French restaurant. “But the chef is Italian!” Tina told The Observer, in a whisper, as if passing a secret.

She explained that Mr. Frantz is a gifted French chef and that the food he cooks is always “very spiritual.” For founding members of Talking Heads, for downtown royalty, this was a different life from the one they left along with their semi-heated Long Island City loft more than two decades ago. As we made our way across the windswept, icy Brasserie parking lot, getting out of the cold seemed like a sensible imperative. 

Warmth and wine followed. And run-ins with Fairfield society, including the couple’s dentist and an adoring and adorable old woman named Dana who they insisted come to their next gig, a show they played last week at Irving Plaza. “Hope to see you there! And bring Howard! His heart is good, right? He can dance!” The couple greeted all their friends with wide smiles and news of the show. They were already in a celebratory mood. Two thousand eleven, after all, is an anniversary year. Thirty years ago they formed their band during a slow period for their main gig, Talking Heads. Then they headed down to the Bahamas and recorded an album of breezy, funky, syrupy-sweet jams, and one that would make their name (and as Chris has pointed out numerous times, put their kids through school), called “Genius of Love.” The following year that song went to No. 1 in the U.S. Hot Dance Play chart, No. 2 on the Hot Soul Singles chart and No. 31 on the Billboard Hot 100. But its story wasn’t over. It would be sampled by dozens of rap, soul and dance acts, most famously by Mariah Carey in her megahit “Fantasy.”

Although they never really stopped making music as Tom Tom Club, recently the pair have been particularly productive, releasing a double album (one live set, and one disc of new remixes of “Genius of Love”), touring for the first time in nearly a decade, and marking this year’s anniversary with the show at Irving Plaza and a spirited turn on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. The Irving Plaza show was a sleek 80-minute affair in front of a rapt audience (though The Observer didn’t spot Dana or Howard among the bopping crowd). They played their own hits, from “Suboceana” to “Genius” and “Wordy Rappinghood,” encoring with a pair of Talking Heads numbers, “Take Me to the River” and “Psycho Killer.” One particularly charming aspect of Tom Tom is their comfort with playing Talking Heads songs. (Along with the rest of the original lineup, minus David Byrne, the band has recorded and toured over the years as simply Heads.) These days the Tom Tom Club outfit includes a guitarist named Fuzz, a reggae-style toaster named Mystic Bowie and even a DJ. If that sounds a bit jam-band–like, it’s not too far off. They’ve played a number of jam-oriented festivals, and those interested in their Irving Plaza performance will find that New York’s tapers (yeah, like the ones at Phish shows) have it covered. 

“Genius of Love” may have paid for a lot of tuition, and before that for their move to the suburbs, but there’s still a spark of ambition in Mr. Frantz and Ms. Weymouth. “You know, we always read people saying we’re having a comeback or a reunion,” Mr. Frantz groused, “but we never really went away! And it’s hard to raise your profile. We’ve tried marketing people in the past. But everything feels so temporary. Whereas with Facebook I can type something in, give just a little bit of information. Like today I said, ‘During rehearsal Tina went out to feed the birds,’ and included a photo of Tina at the bird feeder. People loved that. And we have a more continuous connection to our fans. It’s so that people would know we’re still alive. I’m at like 4,600 friends, with over a thousand people waiting to be my friends. A lot of them are musicians, but I tell people, ‘Just because I’m your Facebook friend doesn’t mean I want to hear your demo.’”

Ms. Weymouth was more cryptic. “I went to see The Social Network, and I found it disturbing, mostly because all my Facebook friends are imaginary!” She went on to explain that to her the Web was a place where people really can connect, but that most “people spend so much time on it dishing and dissing.”

Of course, all that connection isn’t worth much without music, and though their most iconic hit is turning 30, the duo are still interested in making new sounds. “We just refurbished our recording studio,” Ms. Weymouth said, “so we’re very excited about getting in there and doing some new stuff.”

Always keen to collaborate, in recent years they’ve gotten into younger dance-music producers and performers like Chicks on Speed, Peaches and Money Mark. “I’m not the least bit afraid of reaching out to someone if you like what they do,” Mr. Frantz said. “Sometimes you never hear back from them, but like, with James Murphy, when he just started LCD Soundsystem, we saw him play in Holland, and we introduced ourselves and he told us the first record he ever bought was Talking Heads ’77 and immediately wanted to have lunch and talk about working together.”

“You have to really hustle,” Ms. Weymouth said. Clearly their hard-won slice of Connecticut life and culture isn’t something they want to give up. 

“I mean, sure, you could say it’s really square and suburban, but you could also say it’s this incredibly verdant, inspiring place close to the sea, and it’s still just 50 minutes from New York.” 

But do they miss the city? The Observer wondered.

“Oh, we never really left New York,” Mr. Frantz said.

“New York is the place that enabled us to become ourselves,” Ms. Weymouth added. “I do love New England, though. I wish that the West Coast and New York and New England could just secede.”

editorial@observer.com


Mr. Boylan is an editor at Harper’s Magazine

 

Suburban Geniuses: Tom Tom Club Keep Their Heads Up in Connecticut