Tom Tom Club: Heads Above, Groove Below

Pioneering rhythm section goes back out on road in anticipation of 30th anniversary

It’s not been easy to see Tom Tom Club play live. The pioneering, avant-percussive Dance Rock band, formed in 1981 by Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz (her husband), has taken a back seat in recent years to family life.

Tom Tom Club — the duo augmented with other players and vocalists — does put out the occasional album. The latest, a just-released collection called Genius of Live, pairs tracks from 2000’s Live at the Club House with remix tributes to the band’s classic “Genius of Love” hit. And the band does equally occasional gigs, often near the pair’s home in Fairfield, Conn., or overseas.

This year, Frantz and Weymouth are taking Tom Tom Club — including two additional singers, Victoria Clamp and Jamaican-born Mystic Bowie, scratcher Kid Ginseng and keyboard/percussionist Bruce Martin — out for a few fall shows in advance of next year’s big 30th anniversary plans. The group is doing just 10 dates on the East and West coasts, including a headlining gig Saturday night at the MidPoint Music Festival.

How’d Cincinnati get so lucky? It turns out Frantz has close roots in the region. He and Weymouth even got married at a Presbyterian church in Washington, Ky., a historic settlement along the Ohio River near Maysville, in 1977.

“I was born in Fort Campbell because my dad was in the Army — he was a West Pointer,” Frantz says by phone from his home. “My mother is from Kentucky and my grandfather and grandmother retired to Washington. My grandfather was born and raised there, and he went back and bought the house he grew up in and restored it. My mom donated it to some people who were starting a museum.”

That is the Harriet Beecher Stowe Slavery to Freedom Museum, because Stowe took refuge from a Cincinnati cholera epidemic by staying with a former student from Western Female Institute in Cincinnati. While there, Stowe visited a slave auction, an event that prompted her to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, according to the town’s Web site.

“(Stowe) stayed with my ancestors in that house,” Frantz says. “My mother here in Connecticut still has a sofa she supposedly sat on.”

As a result, Frantz has relatives throughout northern Kentucky, and some are planning to come to MidPoint for the show. He says Tom Tom Club last played the area in 1990, as part of an “Escape From New York” tour with The Ramones and Deborah Harry that stopped at Kings Island. After that, you have to go back to their brief set during Talking Heads’ 1983-1984 tour, which stopped at Miami University, following the success of “Burning Down the House.”

That was Talking Heads’ last U.S. tour. Its lead singer, David Byrne, has gone on to a solo career and sometimes covers the group’s famous New Wave-defining Rock songs with his touring bands. Weymouth, during a separate phone interview, isn’t happy with that situation.

“David Byrne said the movie (Stop Making Sense, filmed in 1983) could tour for us,” she remembers. “So now he takes out a cover band. He can’t get away without doing it, that’s what people come to see him for. We won’t be doing any Talking Heads numbers, not because we don’t love them but we would like to do them with Talking Heads.”

It turns out Tom Tom Club’s music also has a regional connection. Probably their most famous song, “Genius of Love,” with its laid-back, funked-up beat and irresistibly catchy, high-pitched keyboard riff, owes something to Dayton band Zapp, founded by Hamilton-born Roger Troutman, who used a talkbox to create unusual vocal sounds. Before finding R&B success with Zapp, Troutman — who died tragically in 1999 — fronted a group called Roger and the Human Body in the 1970s.

“The beat of ‘Genius of Love’ was inspired by the (Bootsy Collins-co-produced) song ‘More Bounce to the Ounce’ by Zapp,’’ Frantz explains. “When I was a kid, I used to hear about people going to hear the band Roger and the Human Body playing in Cincinnati. They had something unique unto themselves.”

It’s pretty common now for Alternative Rock and Dance music — especially Hip Hop — to mix and match. Witness Kanye West’s new single, “Monster,” with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. But it was more than rare in Talking Heads’ world of mid-1970s New York Punk — it was dangerous. Punks were rebelling against all forms of commercial Pop, especially what they considered the overly produced Disco music of the day. To them, it was the phony antithesis of “real” Rock & Roll.

Yet Tom Tom Club’s duo — like Talking Heads and other New York musical progressives — were attracted to Disco’s and Funk’s rhythms.

“With Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, we were always looking for something unique unto ourselves,” Frantz says. “That came from our art-school background.” (Talking Heads was founded in New York in 1975 by the three graduates of Rhode Island School of Design; fourth member Jerry Harrison also joined them.)

“Tina and I and the other guys in Talking Heads always felt some of the most interesting and even avant-garde stuff in recorded music was happening in the Dance-music scene,” Frantz says. “Punk music didn’t like Disco, but we were never really part of that way of thinking. We were surrounded by punks and adored bands like The Ramones. But we looked at black music and Dance music, Soul and Reggae, as sources of inspiration. We still do today.”

TOM TOM CLUB plays the MidPoint Music Festival Saturday under the Topic Design Tent at Grammer's. The 7:30 p.m. bill includes (The) Tony Castles and Caravan of Thieves. Get show and venue details here. Get all the MidPoint details here.
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