Mom Rock: A Word with Tina Weymouth - Mother's Week on BTR


Tina Weymouth performing with Tom Tom Club in 1986. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Mother’s Day is right around the corner and to honor all those amazing moms out there, we hope you’re having a wonderful Mother’s Week here on BTR.

Moms have the tendency to take on double, triple, even quadruple duty when it comes to their kids, and this mom in particular is an expert at juggling many different roles at once. I’m talking about one of the best bassists in rock history, one of the most influential women in the world of music—the Tina Weymouth, herself.

Tina was the bassist for Talking Heads, which featured her longtime boyfriend, (now husband) drummer Chris Frantz and front-man/guitarist David Byrne. They later added Jerry Harrison on guitar and together, created several groundbreaking records that changed how people thought about music and rock n’ roll. Tina’s bass lines, in particular, differentiated the band with her funk drive, unique rhythms, and no-holding-back attitude. From the dingy streets of NYC’s Lower East Side during the 1970s and ‘80s, to the top of the rock charts, to maintaining her success with numerous hits from her and Chris’ side project, Tom Tom Club, Tina has done it all in her professional life, including raising two happy, healthy children.

This rock-star mom was nice enough to have a long and wonderful phone conversation with BTR about being a hardworking woman in rock, raising kids while exposing them to the joys and protecting them from the harsh realities of life on tour, family life past and present, Zappa, and her personal opinions on motherhood. Be warned: Tina is wonderfully intelligent and well versed. She speaks with the kindest voice, as this conversation felt as comfortable as gossiping after school with a best friend.

BTR: You had your first baby in November 1982 (Robin, 29) after finishing Speaking in Tongues with Talking Heads? How was recording throughout your pregnancy?

Tina Weymouth: I actually went into labor as I was putting in my last bass part. With Egan, we weren’t in the midst of an album when he was born, but he was a little crawling baby when we made the last album, holding his drum sticks. That was the first thing the boys did when they were babies. They both started playing drums, like their dad. That was their first instrument.

BTR: What else did they like to play?

TW: Well, they moved to guitars after they saw the Ramones, and Egan was a drummer in a punk band but now does fine art. Robin went to Savannah College of Art and Design, but now he’s a composer. They both work together, too. They’re young men now, they’re doing their own thing completely.

BTR: Did you ever have to take them on tour with you?

TW: I’d take them on tour to some extent, I thought it was going to be easier than it was. With Talking Heads, I just did one tour with the baby and then that was the end of that then. But with Tom Tom Club, I took them on the last tour that we did with the Ramones. It was called “Escape From New York” and I didn’t want to leave them behind for an extended time. When they’re babies it’s easier, they’re very portable and you can plop a baby into a nanny’s arms and everyone knows how to take care of baby. But when they get to be older, then you have really serious questions arising and the windows of opportunity to address those questions are very short. You need to be around and not just anybody can do that—can answer those questions. Adolescence was a very critical time, I did not tour much. I spent much more quality time with my kids. It was just much more crucial, that’s when your whole frontal lobe is developing. You do the best you can up to age 10 to instill good values and that sort of thing, but after that, you just have to be there because you can’t be instilling it anymore. All you can do is lead by example. You can sit down to dinner each night with everyone and speak on important issues and talk about important things and treat them like equals so that they become equals and think for themselves, because you cannot live in a democracy and not think for yourself.

BTR: Do you think they had a normal family life?

TW: Well, the PTA didn’t think they had a normal life. It’s those parts of moms that just interfere with everything. They just made these vast assumptions that they were better mothers because they weren’t in rock n’ roll. When my kids would get taunted in the schoolyard, they would say, “Oh, you’re mom wears motorcycle pants.” And my kids would say, “Yeah she does!” What wasn’t normal was they learned drug culture really early. We were doing a production for Happy Mondays and they learned by observing how terrible drug abuse was. We had broken arms, broken noses, junkies robbing; it was just an amazing, horrific experience. And immediately following that, we were in an attempted carjacking together. Three gangster crack heads. We got away, me and the two boys, about 4 and 8, and we enrolled in a family Tai Kwan Do course. I wish I had done it as a girl, so that I’d known how to send off a would-be rapist, but I’m so glad I did that with my children. It got them a lot of respect for not fighting but [showed] what to do just in case. I think it was a wonderful thing to do together. Also, it was another opportunity for them; they learned so many things early because of these experiences. We didn’t go to Six Flags or Orlando. We went cruising on a sailboat, we went camping, we would write songs on the guitar—we wanted them to be more self-reliant. Now they say, “Oh, thank you so much, I’m the only one I know that doesn’t hate my parents!”

BTR: Did you have to have them in any really tough positions?

TW: We wrote Naked in 1988 in an old, Long Island City loft and recorded it in Paris, in June that same year. Egan must have been just an infant. I had to have Robin [first born] in that loft but when we had Egan, I just wanted to get out of there. By the time Robin was 3, I wanted to get out. You know, the lead paint and everything. Then when Egan came, we realized that we could pay the same in rent as we could in mortgage and live in nature.

BTR: So having a home made it way better?

TW: Yeah, the kids would come into our studio and set up their little drum kits right next to me and they would sound just like The Velvet Underground back in the day.

BTR: How did the way you learned music compare to the way your kids did?

TW: I’m a self-taught musician. I was listening to the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary—a lot of folk, in fact. I learned a folk finger-picking style from one of those Pete Seeger books with little diagrams with numbers for the fingers.

BTR: Who have your kids’ musical influences become besides you?

TW: It took them time to grow up before they discovered Talking Heads. They first fell in love Tom Tom Club because it was around all the time, and later they liked Talking Heads. They really loved the Beach Boys, but they liked other stuff too. But their tastes were growing all the time. Like I love big band jazz, but I couldn’t stand bebop. I think we all need to mature a little before we can incorporate new patterns and schisms. Sometimes it’s just too complex and some people are so math-minded that they like a good puzzle. They want Zappa, which is a musical Sudoku, but I really much prefer a composition. I much prefer things like Mozart that have real melodies. Most of western music has been built on a very simple time signature, but our African heritage brings over the crazy, complicated polyrhythm. We’re so blessed to have access to European culture, as well as African culture, and so lucky to be part of both in that respect. And thank goodness for radio, radio is what completely informed us back in the day of what was what. Who knew what to buy or who to listen to without radio?

BTR: Did you want your kids to go into music?

TW: Well, one did for a while and it’s not impossible that he might return to it, but I don’t encourage my children to go into music as a career because it’s very hard on your body and on your health and there’s just no money in it. Whatever golden age happened—Mick Jagger said in 120 years of recording, there was a 15 year window where an artist could really, truly thrive, but that ended. Some people still have to do it. It’s a vital passion. It’s sort of do-or-die, but one of the reasons I’m still able to do it is because when we did make a little bit of money, Chris and I just stashed it all away. We only spent half of everything we made. The one half, we invest and invest in ourselves—our music, our health, and then our home and family. I just don’t want to be a burden on my kids. I hope that when I die, I will leave no debt. One thing that stopped a lot of musicians [was] spending money on cocaine and shit like that. It’s empowering the worst kind of people. I just can’t stomach that. That’s what we had to deal with the Happy Mondays. It doesn’t make you a better writer or artist. This goes back to the first rock star, the romantic poet, Lord Byron. He had this idea that you have to be on opium, but look at the Bronte Sisters, they did it without anything.

BTR: Were you ever affected very personally by something like this?

TW: I’ll tell you a great story. Don Cherry was a musician in Ornette Coleman’s band, and Moki was the mother of Neneh Cherry and Eagle-Eye Cherry. With a lot of jazz mucians, they thought they were better if they were taking heroin. So there was never any money for that family and Moki told me one time that, during the hippie flower child day, she made nine patchwork and velour long-dresses and she carried them up to Henri Bendel Sales in New York. She carried them from Brooklyn, on foot, across the bridge, all the way to 57th street. She got $90 and she came home. It was Christmas, and she was able to take the subway on the way home. She bought a turkey and food for the kids, a doll for Neneh and a toy for Eagle-Eye. His first song when he was 8 years old was about cars and food, because he never had it, but Moki Cherry was the most creative artist and the best mother to those kids. It’s so great what women do for their musician lovers. The whole story of rock n’ roll is the women who have supported these men. But watch out for having kids because then you have more babies. The men don’t stop being babies, you know.

BTR: Yeah, you joined a band and learned an instrument for yours, and that worked out pretty well, right?

TW: Chris was my boyfriend since art school and I was living with him and David [Byrne]—or you could say David was living with us. Chris found the place, and the three of us took turns cooking and cleaning up and we rehearsed every day. I bought a bass guitar, and eventually, an amp. You know, one thing at a time and we took it from there. But now David’s manager is working out of that same space, an office now.

BTR: Where was it?

TW: Down on Christie Street, rough part of town back then. We had to push a dead body away from our door one day to get to our day jobs. We lived in lofts for 20 years without heat after 4 pm. We had no showers or bathrooms. I had to travel out to Long Island to shower at my brother’s when I had the train fare for it, but we had fun without money. I mean, it was really rough. I like having money now. New York was broke, though. It wasn’t until Carter, and Congress under him, changed the tax laws on capital gain and that’s when things started to pick up.

BTR: How did the way you grew up compare to the way you raised your kids, with or without the rock ‘n’ roll?

TW: I was one of 8 and I had near perfect parents—five sisters and 2 brothers. My parents were just fantastic. When they grew up, I spent as much time as I could with my children and parents. They were very interesting people and they loved to travel. It was excellent for my kids to experience different cultures with them and my parents made do with so little for so long, but we had great experiences. We learned to sew our own clothes. I think being on a super tight budget makes you more creative. I was still making my stage clothes with Talking Heads. When I wanted to wear something a little different, I would get out my Singer sewing machine and start making it.

BTR: What else would you have to say about being a mother and in rock music?

TW: I don’t recommend parenthood really because no body tells you in advance how hard it’s going to be. They think, “Oh, my parents did it,” but I so understand what Sigmund Frued meant when he said, with infant mortality going down, we start to have a lot of other types of problems. There’s always something, but I’m glad I only had two kids. In a technological world where each kid is a composition of every other kid, I couldn’t imagine bringing more children in the world today. It’s heath care costs, it’s everything. And you better have your body really prepared. Just as its old sperm that causes down syndrome, children spaced closer together are more likely to have autism, there’s a new study out about it.  I was always told, space your babies four years apart because that’s how long it takes. If you don’t get all the vitamins you need, all the nutrients won’t grow while you’re pregnant. It’s like a rose bed—the roses will grow, but you need to prepare the rose bed, the soil needs to be just right, you have to get it ready and then your roses will be beautiful. You cannot take too seriously conception today because you’re not going to have 14 kids and maybe one will turn out great. You’re going to have one, maybe two. How are we going to provide for them? It’s not something people should just automatically do, and certainly not because religion tells you to. Women say, “I want to have a baby because it will be perfect,” but it’s not starting from scratch. It also might be a good idea for people to understand their genetic makeup, and they may change their minds. If two people have a recessive gene for a disease and they find out the chances of their baby having that disease are very high, they may want to consider adoption. There are so many beautiful children all over the world who need homes. Debbie Harry was adopted and she’s so grateful to have a loving family and also very happy to learn she came from a good family. These are very personal decisions and you want to make them the most informed way possible.