In the early ’70s, when Rhode Island School of Design student Mark Kehoe resolved to make a short horror film, he asked two of his peers to provide the score. Though it was the musicians’ first meeting, their music, an ominous cacophony that rose and fell in volume, was successfully recorded in one take. That success would mark the beginning of an illustrious, almost two-decades-long collaboration between drummer Chris Frantz and guitarist David Byrne.
“David had this great guitar,” says Frantz, who MD caught up with this past November. “It was like a Fender Telecaster, but he’d covered the body in leopard-skin contact paper. I thought, Oh, I like his style.” The duo soon invited two musician friends to start a band, which they called the Artistics. When Byrne and Frantz moved to New York to start a new group, finding a third member proved troublesome at first. Frantz’s then-girlfriend (now wife), Tina Weymouth, reluctantly joined them on bass. “She came home one day with a Fender Precision bass that she’d purchased on layaway,” says Frantz. “I just thought to myself, Hallelujah.” The three of them formed Talking Heads in 1975, and in 1977 brought in the former keyboardist for the Modern Lovers, Jerry Harrison, to play keys and rhythm guitar.
Talking Heads quickly dove into a remarkable career that resulted in eight studio albums, the well-known 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, numerous side collaborations, and years of touring, fearless creativity, and stardom. The members’ art-school roots—Weymouth originally met Frantz and Byrne at RISD, and Harrison had attended Harvard University for architecture—greatly influenced their music. And each brought his or her own personality, musical instincts, and chops to the table, in the process challenging the very definition of rock ’n’ roll by incorporating international styles with relentless eccentricity.
A hybrid of rock, funk, African, and dance music, their fourth studio album, 1980’s Remain in Light, has often been cited as the pinnacle of their musical experimentation. Its laudable artfulness can undoubtedly be attributed to the band’s highly collaborative writing process. “Every Talking Heads album, and Remain in Light in particular, was a real collaboration between the four band members and producer Brian Eno,” Frantz insists, adding with a chuckle, “it wasn’t the brainstorm of some egghead somewhere.”
Frantz—whose memoir, Remain in Love, is scheduled for a 2020 release from St. Martin’s Press, coinciding with the fortieth anniversary of Remain in Light—remembers the writing process for the album well. He describes it as organic, stemming from jam sessions conducted while the band was at Compass Point Studio in the Bahamas, where the band had recorded their sophomore album, More Songs About Buildings and Food. Even to the brink of booking studio time to record the album, the group didn’t have any songs written. “In retrospect, some people—I’m not going to name any names—but they tried to give the impression that there was some grand concept from the very beginning. There wasn’t. It was just a band sitting around playing.
“So we went down to Compass Point,” Frantz continues. “Brian came, David and Jerry came, Tina and I came, and an engineer named Rhett Davies, who’d worked on More Songs with us, came. And we just started laying down rhythm parts. Now, it’s true that we were very much into dance music and African music at that time. We were veering away from sort of the more predictable elements of rock music. There were no lyrics. There were no songs to go by—what we had to do was create it layer by layer from the bottom up: ‘the bottom’ meaning the drums and bass.”
To ensure that no two songs on the record would sound the same, Frantz and Weymouth aimed to have each track be rhythmically engaging but unique from the next. Frantz’s job was especially demanding. “Everybody else, even Tina, could change their parts as time went on. But the drums—once you record them, you can’t really change them. This was the days of analog, before Pro Tools editing. But we [Frantz and Weymouth] rose to the challenge, and I think most people would agree that we did a pretty good job.”
Undeniably, Frantz shines on the album by owning his role as timekeeper with unwavering confidence. Playing a Mojave Red Rogers kit that he bought from Manny’s Music with his first recording contract advance, along with a 7″ Ludwig snare, he sets the foundation for the band’s multilayered parts. On the opening track, “Born Under Punches,” the drummer performs a direct, four-measure loop in 4/4; the snare hits on the downbeats of the loop’s last measure are especially effective, establishing a break for the ears as well as a simple guide for counting. Frantz delivers an equally strong presence in even busier songs on the album. “Crosseyed and Painless” features a driving beat that, when married with the guitar and other overdubs, results in something that recalls if not outright mimics an Afrobeat groove. And “Seen and Not Seen” incorporates a repeating two-16th-one-8th rhythm in the toms and kick drum that offers cohesion for the web of rhythm instruments. Tastefully laying back on slower tracks, Frantz provides sparse but bold accents on the snare in the slow-building song “The Overload” and on the bass drum and toms in the single “Once in a Lifetime.”
While providing the rhythmic backbone for Remain in Light, the drummer helped Talking Heads break ground in the rock idiom; from the first days of recording the album, when Frantz and Weymouth’s parts were being tracked, the musicians were noticeably playing outside the norm. “After the third day,” recalls Frantz, “Rhett Davies quit. He said, ‘I can’t stand it—every time you do something that sounds cool, Brian says it sounds too commercial and rejects it.’”
A young Jamaican producer, Steven Stanley, was brought in to record the basic tracks, and eventually rock producer Dave Jerden, who’d been working with Eno and Byrne in California on their collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, took the reins. “Dave Jerden was really cool to work with,” says Frantz. “He was into the project—the artistic nature of it, and the idea of doing something that was pretty radical for a rock group to be doing.”
Frantz and Weymouth recorded twelve rhythm beds, eight of which made the official album. Byrne and Harrison also tracked guitar and keyboard sketches that, according to Frantz, would later change. “Once we had [the rhythm bed], then David and Jerry could take as much time as they wanted to perfect their parts,” Franz says. “So their parts were added, and everybody was really happy.”
Byrne’s vocals were recorded at Sigma Sound Studios in New York when the band returned from the Bahamas. “David said, ‘Well, I haven’t got any lyrics,’ because it was time for him to start singing. But we said, ‘That’s fine, David; you take your time. These are really special kinds of tracks—they deserve a special kind of lyrics.’ He came up with some great stuff.”
In New York, the band also recorded auxiliary parts, including Adrian Belew’s guitar solos and José Rossy’s percussion. “The parts [Rossy] added are just fabulous—very colorful—and they made it even more dancey, which is what we were looking for,” explains Frantz. Rossy’s brilliance shines particularly strongly on “The Great Curve” and “Listening Wind.”
Once Remain in Light was released, Talking Heads recruited a powerhouse group of performers to cover the additional parts onstage, including “Busta Cherry” Jones on bass, Bernie Worrell on keys, Dolette McDonald on vocals, and Steve Scales on percussion. “We rehearsed just for a week, I guess it was,” recalls Frantz, “and then we played this big festival outside of Toronto called Heatwave. Let me just say that we blew everybody else at that festival off the stage. First of all, nobody was expecting it. And second of all, it was really good.”
Today Remain in Light is considered one of the most important albums in rock history. The Library of Congress recognized it in 2017, and artists ranging from Angélique Kidjo to Phish have paid tribute to the band by covering the record in its entirety. “It was an album that didn’t really sell as well as our previous ones did,” notes Frantz. “But in the long run, it’s the winner.”
For more with Chris Frantz, go to moderndrummer.com.