Somehow it almost seems too simple. The Talking Heads scoured New York’s underground in 1975 looking for a bassist, without luck. So Tina Weymouth, the group’s closest friend, who had never played bass before, decided to learn the instrument and join the band. In nine years’ time, Martina Michelle Weymouth, has infused fresh and imaginative bass lines into the radical, sophisticated new wave style of Talking Heads, and now colors the music of Tom Tom Club as well.
Talking Heads — an enigma, although one of the more delightful ones in popular music. It’s undeniable that they are now creating “popular music” after their Speaking In Tongues finished as one of 1983’s top LPs and the single “Burning Down The House” flamed high on pop and dance charts.
Still, Weymouth sees Talking Heads as a cult band. “I don’t see it as a mass success,” the 33-year-old bassist recently told The Rocket. “I think it’s just a very large cult audience. Enough people have seen us live over the past years and that it’s built up slowly. I still think we’re better live than on record.”
The latest Talking Heads records, Speaking In Tongues and Remain In Light, have a much different sound than early efforts such as Talking Heads ’77 and More Songs About Buildings & Food. Today the band includes ten members, layering dense washes of sound and rhythmic pulses — the playing is tight and economical. In the earlier days, the band was known for is piercing, raw, two-guitars/bass/drums sound. Talking Heads were not the most highly trained musicians when they were first getting things rolling. “You don’t have to be a virtuoso at all,” says drummer Chris Frantz, who is also Tina Weymouth’s husband. “You just have to have a good idea. It’s nice if it’s well performed, but it doesn’t have to be. I think that’s the best thing new wave has done for recorded music in general. It’s nice when somebody — maybe an architect — can get an idea for a song, do an independent record, have it be a smash, and have an enormous influence on people that have been doing music for years.”
In The Name Of This Book Is Talking Heads [Proteus Pub., dist. by Scribner’s ], by Krista Reese, Tina Weymouth is referred to as “an itinerant Navy brat.” Her mother is French, and Tina has lived in France as well as in various parts of the States. “It makes a big difference in what you know you can do in life if experience has taught you that you can live anywhere,” she says.
Weymouth met David Byrne and Chris Frantz and the Rhode Island School Of Design, and began supporting their band, the Artistics. During that time she co-wrote what would later be a Talking Heads song, “Psycho Killer” [Talking Heads ’77] with Byrne and Frantz. When she and Frantz graduated from the school, Tina suggested that the three of them move to New York. There was some mention of starting a band.
David and Chris were soon spending more time jamming than painting. They searched for a bassist, hanging around CBGB and the Mudd Club at night, talking to musicians. When their efforts failed, it became logical, at least to Tina, that she should pick up the bass. That suggestion did not meet with great approval from the one who would have to do the teaching, DAvid Byrne. He did finally agree; however, the friction in the band over the bass chair has been well-documented. After the group landed a recording contract in 1977, Byrne made Weymouth audition for the band again. Although bassist Busta “Cherry” Jones joined the group to tour in 1980 and ’81, Weymouth has been the sole bassist for the last two tours, and does not deny she’s happy about that.
Watching Weymouth perform, it’s easy to see how much more confidence she has in her playing now than she had when Talking Heads first started playing CBGB. The band’s stage is now like a street scene, full of motion, When they began in 1975, their rigid poses were seen as a statement against the pretentious rock world. “We would wear white shirts and black trousers, and David and Tina would stand there like little statues,” says Frantz, “While other bands are wearing these fancy glitter costumes and jumping around, and the guitar player naturally was acting like he was having an orgasm while doing his solos. All that had just gotten to be a drag for us.” Tina no longer stands fixed, eyes glued to Byrne’s guitar. She rocks back and forth in a steady rhythm, and her bass lines land with precision.
Further extending her confidence is the success of Tom Tom Club, originally conceived by Tina and Chris as a project to explore some musical turf outside Talking Heads. However, Tom Tom Club quickly grew into a full-fledged band in its own right. Songs such as “Genius Of Love,” “Wordy Rappinghood,” and “The Man With The Four-Way Hips” [the former two are from Tom Tom Club and the latter is from Close To The Bone] have been played heavily at dance clubs and on radio stations across the country since the group’s debut album in 1981.
There’s quite a difference between the intellectual, radical intensity of Talking Heads and the lighthearted island sound of Tom Tom Club. In the Weymouth/Frantz rhythm section you can hear influences such as James Brown, Booker T. And The MGs, K C And The Sunshine Band, and Manu Dibango. Since Tina and Chris moved to the Bahamas several years ago, some Caribbean flavor has infiltrated Tom Tom Club as well — reggae, calypso, junkanoo, soca, and spooge. Tom Tom Club numbers a dozen members, including Tina’s sisters Lani and Laura, and Chris’ brother Roddy. “We try to keep a festive, familial, and relaxed feeling.” says Frantz. “It’s really a collaboration amongst every member.” Weymouth adds, “We like the attitudes toward music in the Bahamas, especially for the Tom Tom Club.”
All the members of Talking Heads have recorded projects outside the band, and it seems to have made the group itself stronger. Attendance for Talking Heads steadily increases, and cult band or not, they are leaving an increasingly broad mark on popular music. And between her two groups, Tina Weymouth is a very busy woman, not only performing with the band, but keeping an eye on her year-and-a-half-old son Robin, who tours with her.
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Do you think it’s more fashionable for the bass to be played simply, in a minimalist way?
There have always been people who pushed for it to be something simple that held the beat together — a kind of melodic, rhythmic glue, so to speak, between the other melodic instruments and the drums. And I’ve sort of chosen two different approaches. One is to play bass kind of like the way I would imagine horn parts to sound. And the other came with Remain In Light : I began to think about the bass more as a drum — as sort of tuned drums — and to really get even simpler, because at that time there was, and I think there still is to a degree, a glut of a bass style that’s very flashy, to my mind. It has a lot of pops in it, and it involves your thumb and knuckle. That’s mainly used on funk records, and it’s a great technique for certain kinds of songs. It’s really fast. But with our band it doesn’t cut very well because there’s such a thick mesh of rhythm already going on. It just doesn’t work very well for us to do that.
The funk style was one of Busta Jones’ strong points in the band, wasn’t it?
Yeah, he could do that. When Busta was in the group it was a lot of fun, but it was also like two kinds in one palace. It just didn’t work out that well. When King Sunny Ade came to this country, he had seven drummers and five guitar players, but there was still only one bass player.
Are you happy to be the only bassist in the group?
I think it works a lot better. I never thought it could work with two bassists, but it wasn’t my idea to ask Busta. I like Busta. I was actually the first person in the group to meet him and get to know him. But I didn’t think there was much room for him, so when we were working together I acquiesced many of my parts to him and there wasn’t much for him to do. It was too late to say forget it. I wanted to accommodate him into the group, so I chose instead to give him more of my parts and invent new ones for myself to play, either on keyboards or guitar, or just to sing, which was something I hadn’t attempted in the group before.
While developing as a bassist, what sort of music did you listen to?
Just before I joined Talking Heads I was really interested in R&B dance music, James Brown, and all the offshoots of that — everybody who was doing R&Bf at the time. Kool And The Gang and … I can’t even name them all because there were so many good ones doing it.
Didn’t you also have some musical background on guitar before picking up bass?
I was actually in an amateur group that toured when I was 12: English handbell ringers. And I taught myself to play guitar when I was 14. Then I started learning how to play the flute and piano the same way. I’m a self-taught musician.
Could you describe how you made the transition to bass?
Well, I wasn’t a rock and roll guitarist, and I wasn’t playing electric guitar, so it wasn’t that kind of a transition. I was sort of fingerpicking mostly. So that kind of moved into bass pretty naturally. The only difficult thing was that it is physically much harder to play bass. What I had in mind and what I could actually do technically were two different things. So I had to really limit myself to playing very simple kinds of parts that I could technically play well, so that I could sound good, and I had to leave the rest of it till later. Well, with each successive album, I think all of us got better. We all worked at it. We tried to do things that were hard for us to do technically.
What did you mean when you said you sometimes thought of bass in terms of horn parts?
[Producer/synthesist Brian] Eno actually achieved something that I really was pleased with on a song called “Electric Guitar” [Fear Of Music]. He put an effect on my bass so that it really sounded like a tuba, and I was real pleased with that. But in our early songs, such as “The Girls Want To Be With The Girls” [More Songs About Buildings & Food] or “Love Goes To A Building On Fire” [Attack Of The Killer B’s], I thought of doing things that were just like horn bursts that would continue throughout the whole song. I wouldn’t stop playing, whereas real horn players might not be playing throughout the entire song. I was very moved by the horn parts on James Brown records.
Since you started on guitar, do you see more of the bass’ melodic possibilities than you otherwise might have?
I don’t know if musicians think that way, because a lot of them play a lot of different instruments. I guess some people have a specialty and they focus on that. Bass is my specialty, but but I always try to have the same pleasure that I had at first when I began playing. Whenever you switch instruments it’s just fun, the fun of making a sound or making a noise the way that a kid approaches an instrument.
Has any of your guitar playing technique carried over to bass?
I still use my thumb and forefinger from my picking days, because I find that the thumb is a real strong finger. But I don’t all the time, and because we used to tour eight months a year and do two shows a night, I would play till my fingers bled. So I learned from that — actually it was Sid Vicious, who was also a bass player, who told me I should start using a pick after he saw my hands on one of the early tours. And I did. I began to use a pick, and then I learned to do the two-finger alternating style. And Busta taught me some of his licks that are the fashion. ANd I just found whatever worked best for every song, because sometimes you want a different sound. Sometimes you want something that has a real sharp, elastic quality to it. I’ve also been using a lot of bass synthesizer. Moog is real good for bass, and you can get good sounds on the Oberheim OBX — and on the [Sequential Circuits] Prophet. I’ve used those as well because sometimes they just sound a lot better. On “Burning Down The House,” when we were jamming to create that song, I started playing it on electric bass. And as the song developed, and there was more and more happening on top, I moved to the Moog because it cut better.
So, being the bassist for you now means playing keyboards and more?
Yeah. and sometimes I play guitar, too. It sort of freshens me up and makes me have a new outlook on things. It makes me get simpler rather than more complicated. Rather than try to outdo myself, it just makes me get more to the point. I always thought Jaco Pastorius is a very strange bird. I understand that when he gets up in the morning, he puts on his bass like it’s an article of clothing, and he wears it all the time — even when he‘s having a conversation with you. He’s just constantly playing. And that‘s in the pursuit of new licks and better technique. I thought that was such a strange idea. something that I could never buckle down to myself. I‘ve
always liked the idea of being able to stretch out and do different kinds of things, and not be scared by new things, like the bass synthesizer. I’ve met some really good electric bass players who freak out at the idea of bass synthesizer, because they think it’s going to take the work away from them, and I don’t get it. I don’t believe that.
Are you referring to any specific types of synthesizers?
It doesn‘t matter. All of them. Just the idea of playing a keyboard instead of a stringed instrument. I think it’s great to try adapting what you do to keyboard. Sometimes you think of things that you would never think to do on the stringed, fretted instrument when you’re on the keyboard. You just would never even arrive at them otherwise.
How would you say the role of the bass has changed in Talking Heads’ music since the band started?
Well, we‘re a little funkier than when we started. I think the R&B element was always present, in the rhythm section in particular. Experience had a lot to do with the major difference. When we began, we were three pieces, and David played a very spiky, tinny rhythm guitar. And it left a big hole between what he was doing and what Chris was doing on drums. So there was a tendency on my part to play more trebly, and with less bottom so that it was more midrange, and to play kind of long, sustained, simple notes. I would say I do more like half notes and quarter notes than anything like eighth notes, in order to kind of smooth out the spikiness of our sound. It always was going to keep that element; even now there are these edges. But now that there is so much layering going on, I have to even be more conscious about being simple, and making
sure that I play on the “one.” And the “one” is very important. Everything else is less important after that, just sort of flourishes to add color or dynamics. But it’s even more important now than ever to be simple, with nine other people, because there’s a lot going on. Bernie [WorreII] occasionally throws in some low-end licks on the Clavinet, so I have to keep it pretty simple.
On your last tour, you were using a Steinberger bass part of the time.
I tried the Steinberger. and I really liked it. but it didn‘t cut with our group because of the particular range of the guitars and the style of the rhythm playing. It was too bottomy, so I had to go to a more English style. This is a real generalization. but when I say English style, I think of studio records where they use a lot of Rickenbacker with round-wound strings.
Like Chris Squire with Yes?
Yeah. And it has a real twangy kind of sound. So I‘ve been doing that more. rather than a real low end. I‘m sure he‘d get used to it, but it kind of throws David’s vocals off, because he can’t hear it. You sort of feel it more. It’s kind of like reggae, where you hear the bass, but you feel it — it hits you in the chest. For live music that tends to work better, and on record we tried to go for a good, solid bottom. The more the better, especially for the dance clubs. I don‘t use the Steinberger, even though I‘d like to because it’s a really lightweight, small bass. I use a Hofner hollowbody. I also have a custom-made Veillette-Citron. It’s a standard-scale solidbody guitar, and it just happens to be very good for me because it has a narrow neck, more similar to a Fender Jazz Bass. [Ed Note: Harvey Citron says that the bass, a Veillette-Citrort Standard, has a maple body and neck, a rosewood ﬁngerboard, and a transparent blue finish, as well as two custom-wound pickups.]
Do you find being married to the band’s drummer beneficial to your bass playing?
Oh, it’s a bonus.
Would you recommend it for other bands?
Um, that might be awkward in some cases. I think being in a band is like a marriage already, so I don’t think it‘s necessary at all. But it works out really nice with Chris and me. It wouldn‘t matter what instruments we played. you know. We would still find a way to get together on it. But it’s great for us. because we do kind of go through the same sort of influences in music that we’re listening to at various times. And it helps for us to get it together. Sometimes after a longtime of
listening to reggae, for instance. we‘ll begin to absorb it by osmosis, without thinking consciously about it, and so some of the songs will come out like that or with a slightly reggae bottom. But then David and Jerry would put something on top of it that would not be reggae at all, because they didn‘t even know that’s what we were doing.
In Tom Tom Club, you use the bass as a major compositional tool. Do you begin the composing process with bass grooves?
Well. the process on the last two albums was that way. And the next time we‘ll probably do it a different way. But we started with a really good drum track. something that we thought had a really good dance rhythm to it. and then we elaborated from there. The bass was next, and that established all the chord changes. Or if it was just a groove it merely established the key and the basic melodic rhythm. and everything followed from there. The guitars were very often just rhythmic washes. and then the synthesizers carried any melodic licks. And the guitar was almost a percussion instrument. But that doesn‘t mean it wasn‘t important. We consider everything we put down to be something that is absolutely necessary, and without it, no track
would be complete. We never put on anything that was superfluous. but we never left anything off that was going to make it bounce better.
Did you ever compose your songs from the control room? Put down a few bass tracks, fade them in and out, and write the tune that way?
Sometimes I put on three or four bass parts. And I would play the same part all the way through, so I‘d have three or four tracks to work with. Then later we would find out what would actually fit with the vocal. Often after putting layers of tracks down. I would then decide which Ones would be on the verse, and which ones would be on the chorus, and make a cassette recording from that — start taking things out, and then write the vocals, and then see what we could put back in after the vocals were written. It was exciting to work that way for a while. but
now we‘re ready for a change. It was actually a new and innovative kind of thing. and it had begun from something we had learned working with Eno. although we adapted it to our own purposes. It was very innovative at the time, and started a whole new trend in music. But now we have to reinvent it all over again. We have to start something new again, because it’s not new anymore.
Does Talking Heads also record this way now?
More or less, but generally with Talking Heads we kind of jam and work up the parts before we enter the studio. And then we do overdubs on top of that. But there were very few overdubs to be done with drums or bass. That would have already taken place. Yeah, it’s something that we developed under the influence of Brian Eno and reworked. Whatever Eno taught us, we would use the things that worked best for us, and adapt them to our own ideas. He was a very good person to work with when we were first making records and the record companies wanted us to work with a producer. It was a real pleasure to work with somebody like him as opposed to a hack in the music business, which was what happened on our very first album — an album that really didn’t please any of us.
Do you mean Talking Heads ’77?
Yeah. We loved the songs on it, but we never felt that the producer accomplished what we had set out to do.
Has being a woman in rock music posed a challenge for you?
Well, it was tough at first, because of all our preconceptions — my own as well as those of the men. But it’s not so tough anymore. Any I did have some role models, such as Carol Kaye, who worked for Motown for years and had several children as well. And a person like that was a big help. I thought Suzi Quatro could possibly be a role model, but she tended to be just like another guy onstage, and so that wasn’t always such a great thing. Maybe what you should bring with you is what you have that’s personal, and being female is a plus in some ways — certain things that are innate, certain attention to details or that kind of thing. I thought that I should actually work on my confidence in order to bring out those, rather than suppress them and try to be real masculine.
One of the guys.
Yeah. But I am one of the guys, actually. When we talk about the girls, they’re the singers. When we talk about the boys leaving for the stage, I’m one of them. And it’s just because when it comes to playing with other people, and it’s a team working together, everybody has got to support everybody else, without stepping on anybody else’s toes. I already told you about what happened with Busta and me, and there was a definite male/female thing happening then. There were things that I could handle that he couldn’t because of a very rock and roll male ego that he had evolved, and it was easier for me to be submissive. But there are drawbacks to being small, and not as strong in the shoulders and the arms as far as bass playing goes. I wouldn’t think so for guitar.
Your Hofner hollowbody bass is probably pretty light.
It’s pretty light, but the strings are really heavy. But in any case, just doing it has built up my physique so that I have much stronger hands than, ay, David or Jerry. If they attempt to play bass, they can think of some really nice parts, but they can never play them with real punch, merely because of not doing it all the time. I do it all the time, so I’m prepared.
How is the combination of motherhood and the road working out?
Oh, it’s lovely. It’s improved my bass playing tremendously, because while my baby was inside me, I felt like I had to play better for him. And he’s very sensitive to bad tuning. If he hears a bad note, he cringes. It’s true. So I had to play really well for him because I realized it was going to affect him for the rest of his life. That was good motivation.