Tom Tom Club recently released their first studio material in a decade. The nine track (or ten including bonus track) EP titled Downtown Rockers features five original songs from the band, with remixes from Ed Stasium (more on him later), Arthur Baker (Afrika Bambaataa, New Order), Entro & Ginseng (Entro Senestre and Kid Ginseng) and Chilean DJ Latin Bitman.
You’ll find funky, often unexpected rhythms and classic B-52s spoken word from Chris Frantz, new wave bass lines and that TTC signature vocal delivery from Tina Weymouth, acute and intricate guitar lines from Pablo Martin (hear ‘Won’t Give You Up’s riff; funk played by reggae hands – it’s fantastic) and The Stranglers crossed with The Doors style keys parts. The strength is in the simplicity and whatever genres influenced the group, this is dance music at its core.
On Valentine’s Day I was lucky enough to speak to Chris Frantz about Downtown Rockers, the source of its inspiration and that unmistakeable Tom Tom Club sound.
I’d like to start by saying I love the tracks, I’m sure you’ve heard that a lot recently.
Thank you, that’s very kind, I’m glad to hear it.
There are some incredible guitar riffs - I can hear a lot of Television’s Tom Verlaine in there. You’re working with a new guitarist, is that correct?
Well we did a tour with him before we made the record but he’s the newest member of the band. His name is Pablo Martin, he’s originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina.
How did you meet?
We met him through our friends Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, a band that we produced from Argentina. A lot of us Anglo’s may not have heard of them, but they’re enormously popular. When we were looking for a guitarist I called my friend Sergio from LFC, he has a lot of friends in New York and I figured he might know somebody good. He recommended Pablo, who actually started off as a bassist, learning to play by listening to Tina Weymouth records…so that worked out really well.
What was it that you liked about his playing?
We often look for the person’s personality as much as their musicianship. Pablo has very cool licks but doesn’t over play, he’s not a show-off guitarist. He plays very cool, smart parts and that appealed to us. He’s also very keen on reggae music; that also appealed because reggae timing fits in very well with what we do with TTC. He’ll be interested that you heard some Tom Verlaine because I know he’s a big fan of Television and many new wave bands, he loves that type of thing.
Do you think of this as an upbeat EP?
We’ve always been on the upbeat side, and I think these songs are good for parties and dancing. I think it’s safe to say they will lift people’s spirits.
Is that intentional? A lot of new wave bands and the bands you cite in ‘Downtown Rockers’ are not nearly as positive as you.
We appreciate the dark side, but with TTC we don’t usually go there. But we certainly admire the John Cales and the Lou Reeds, the Tom Verlaines….
You started TTC with the intention of making dance records. Is that still the case?
Dance music has come a long way since the first TTC album and we’re not doing house music or anything like that. I think the main difference is that we’re a band. We play real instruments and perform the songs live, there’s no sequencing or sampling. It won’t fill clubs, but at a rock show people dance to it, for sure. You get what I mean: it’s still dance music, but not in the modern sense.
Would you say that it’s more than just a side project now? You have production credits under your belts, you’ve been working on other projects, but is this your main creative outlet?
It’s our primary outlet at the moment, yes. When we started we had no intention of ever departing from Talking Heads… we never quit Talking Heads it was someone else who did that. [laughing] We were always very appreciative of the audience and the people that bought our records - we never would have abandoned them, even though at one point TTC was doing very well commercially. Talking Heads was always the mother ship and TTC was the baby, but the baby is all grown up.
What were your influences on these tracks?
We had been watching Booker T. & the M.G.’s in Norway on DVD, the audience were all beatniks in beards, turtlenecks and sunglasses; it was very inspiring to us. We’d always loved their music but had never seen this DVD and it reminded us how great that kind of musicianship is - playing simple parts that interlock. It’s similar to what we’ve always done but it reminded us how well that works. So the only instruction we gave the band was, “Do it like Booker T. & the M.G.’s would have done it.” They were our major source of inspiration. Others would be Parliament Funkadelic, and on ‘Downtown Rockers’ things as disparate as Ramones and B-52s, not to mention The Velvet Underground.
Was that really your only instruction? Did that feel like a risk?
Pablo was relatively new to us but Bruce has been with us for 19 years, he was just a kid when he started as a percussionist. Then we found out he was great on keyboards, playing in a very rhythmic, percussive style. Anyway they totally dug the idea and knew what we meant. A lot of music today (no disrespect to pop hits) but a lot of it’s overloaded with little parts burying everything; we wanted the essence to be ascertained. Bruce and Pablo were totally on board, there was no risk.
What interests you in new music at the moment?
I’m digging a lot of these young kids coming out of the UK. The Strypes, I love their sensibility. Also I dig Jake Bugg - that’s exciting to me. It’s a new spin on an old thing, but sounds really fresh, really heartfelt.
Are you excited about the festival circuit?
Yeah, we’re playing ATP festival curated by Deerhunter. We’re excited to do that because I’ve heard it’s very chic. I know it’s not very big, but it’s cool.
What’s the studio process like?
It’s different at different times. On this record we created the songs from jam sessions, when we were satisfied that we had something that sounded hip we would press record. We did that for just a couple of days (which is the same process that we used on Remain In Light), then Tina took those tracks and composed lyrics – I helped a little, but mostly just her, and she wrote the melodies. Tina works alone when writing lyrics and melodies, she’s her own studio engineer - there can’t be anyone there. I think she got sick of having someone staring at her.
What is your favourite part of the studio process?
…When you get a great take of a track, you listen to it large on the big speakers and it sounds good. It’s completely new and it’s very exciting… Then you hear it hundreds of times, but that first time is amazing.
‘Downtown Rockers’ was mixed and re-mixed by Ed Stasium. Was there any particular reason you chose him?
Before we did the recording we were on tour with Psychedelic Furs all over North America, one of the shows was in Aspen and Ed is living out in Colorado. He did the first Talking Heads album, many, many Ramones albums, Mick Jagger solo albums… lots of work, but I hadn’t seen him for a long time so I contacted him on Facebook and asked if he was around. Well he made the eight-hour drive to see us and we had lunch. We were talking about what we were doing and planning to do and he just said, “If you want me to mix anything, I will.” Well great! So we sent him the files for ‘Downtown Rockers’ and he sent us some amazing mixes. Bob Ludwig mastered it in Maine at Gateway Mastering.
How did you decide whom to mention in ‘Downtown Rockers’?
I just picked my favourites, but there are obviously excellent bands that I left out. I was trying to think of people that we actually know (or with most of the Ramones, knew) in person so it would have a personal value. And all those bands we actually know… or knew.
Would you say the song is talking directly to these people?
Yes. Some people might call it nostalgic but we think of it as a little musical history lesson. People might have forgotten about The Cramps or whoever, but we feel that the music is just as important today as it was then. The rawness and musical zeal that they had was just undeniable.
Was it fun making a music video again?
Yeah it was a lot of fun. We shot that in the Club House [Tina and Chris’ studio] and in Brooklyn, which is the new Bowery these days. I mean we realise even if it never goes out on MTV there’s other stuff now. We understand that people today want to see a great video.
Should I be holding out hope for an album?
Right now we love the idea of EPs and in this day and age no one really cares about albums. I love my old albums as much as I ever did, but it seems most people download one track at a time so I reckon a good, strong EP is sufficient.
Well we had a great band and realised when we played with them we were having fun, and the audience responded really well. So in order to do more live shows we’d better get some new material out, publicity for the band. As much as we love making records, it’s also a practical thing for us to do at this point. It’s not like they were banging our door down for new material but for me there are a lot of bands out there at the moment that are influenced by TTC, and it felt like the right time.
From the jam sessions to the EP release, how long did the process take?
It took about four months from beginning to end. That’s not very long in today’s industry. That’s one reason we decided to do an EP, so rather than tackling twelve songs we only had to do half a dozen… but we move pretty quickly.
Do you think the length of your professional and emotional partnership with your wife has anything to do with that?
I think my relationship with Tina is a fantastic thing and it sure does help… Especially on Valentine’s Day. Well I’m sorry you’ve been stuck talking to me. [laughing] Don’t worry about it; it’s been a pleasure.
Words by Finn D'Albert
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'Downtown Rockers' is out now.