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Chris Frantz on the ego of Talking Heads frontman David Byrne

Although Talking Heads are one of the most influential bands of all time, they were not without their internal problems. This is seemingly a prerequisite for any band that hits searing heights, and a lot of this was to do with the fraught relationship between frontman David Byrne and the rest of the band. 

For anyone familiar with the group, we all know that it was the sum of its brilliant parts, with drummer Chris Frantz, bassist Tina Weymouth and guitarist Jerry Harrison having vital roles. However, for as long as the band have been revered, it has been Byrne who has dominated discussion of their work.

An intelligent musician and complex mind, Byrne was the perfect frontman for such a pioneering group, with his strange dance moves, cutting lyricism and often confounding persona helping to establish him as one of the greats. He also has the most songwriting credits in the discography of the band, which is an indication to some, that he was the most vital part.

However, in his 2020 memoir, Remain in Love, Frantz, who has his qualms with Byrne but still remains in contact with him, shed some light on what Byrne was really like to work with. It’s clear that Byrne has an ego, and that for the other members of the band, who often got overlooked because of the frontman, working with him was a real struggle.

“It’s like he can’t help himself,” Frantz told The Guardian. “His brain is wired in such a way that he doesn’t know where he ends and other people begin. He can’t imagine that anyone else would be important.”

Explaining this in more detail, Frantz declared that Byrne would often secure the sole writing credit on songs that the whole band had created and that he’d also deride the musicianship of the other band members, being particularly harsh to Weymouth, the only woman in the band. His strange attitude towards his bandmates didn’t stop there, either. He was also far removed from them socially, making them question whether he valued them at all as people and if he actually disliked them. 

Some detractors could wager that Frantz is just bitter about the fact that Byrne is far more revered in the mainstream than he and his wife Weymouth, but this is not the case. In the book, Frantz quickly asserts his gratitude for the opportunity that Talking Heads gave him and the other members and discusses many highlights of his time in the band. He even makes the outlandish claim that they “were post-punk before punk even happened”.

Regardless, Frantz’s depiction of Byrne is a far cry from the one we usually get in the media and offers up an insight into the inner workings of one of the most significant rock bands of all time. He explains that he felt odd around Byrne right from the beginning, and the way that he never looked anyone in the eye, he thought was strange. Although this might be an indication of Byrne’s crippling anxiety, Frantz takes it in the other direction, positing that he might be “on the high end of the spectrum”. 

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Byrne’s idiosyncrasies aside, Frantz recalls the frontman’s arrogance emerging in college, where they met. At one point, Byrne was part of a group visual art show but sneaked into the gallery before it opened and rehung his own work in the front room, pushing everybody else’s to the back. Frantz said: “He was trying to make it seem like it was his show”.

The tensions would slowly rise until Byrne, who had increasingly shown his intentions to go solo, called for some downtime for Talking Heads in 1981 after the release of their masterpiece Remain in Light in 1980. Innovatively reacting to this, Frantz and Weymouth formed Tom Tom Club along with guitarist Adrian Belew, another iconic outfit. 

After Tom Tom Club had released their eponymous debut that year, Frantz, Weymouth and Byrne were in a cab with their manager. He told them that the record had been certified gold, and instead of being congratulated by Byrne, he just stared out of the window looking blue. “He didn’t say a thing,” Frantz remembered. “He was very competitive. Later, David did say things about Tom Tom Club like, ‘Well, that’s merely commercial music,’ as if there was nothing else going for it.”

Despite their differences, the band still carried on creating a string of excellent albums before they called it a day in 1991. During Remain in Love, Frantz recounts the band’s final meeting, when a tired Byrne screamed at the other members: “You should be calling me an asshole”.

With this slightly confusing outburst, Byrne implied that he thought he’d been telling the band that he wanted the band to break up for years, but it was them, Frantz, Weymouth and Harrison, who had kept the band alive for their own selfish reasons. Frantz argued the contrary, saying this reverse psychology was just part of Byrne’s shtick: “We had heard this before, so we thought, ‘If we keep our cool, this will blow over and we’ll get to do another Talking Heads record'”. 

Things were not to be though, and after that meeting, Talking Heads would call it a day. They wouldn’t reunite until 2002.

Frantz has noted that in the years since Talking Heads split, Byrne’s public image has changed markedly. The strange, cold character of the days when Talking Heads were at their zenith has been replaced by a warm and captivating figure. “He’s like Mr Rogers now,” Frantz said. “It’s true that his public image has changed. But friends of mine assure me that he hasn’t. I think he probably just decided that he could catch more bees with honey”.

Frantz is comfortable with his relationship with Byrne, and when asked whether he is jealous of the discrepancies in the success of the two, he replied in the most definitive of ways. “Believe me,” he concluded. “If you knew David Byrne, you would not be jealous of him”.

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