Former Pixie and long-standing master of the obtuse, Frank Black evinces a small change by taking rock ‘n’ roll head-on. By Matthew Fritch
In a very cold, dank basement lit by a bare lightbulb, I’m at long last face-to-face with Frank Black. Alias Black Francis. Alias Charles Thompson. Alias Chuck. Notorious agent of the underground, complicated code-talker and former leader of a well-known organization responsible for sinister innovations like the “Bone Machine” and the “Wave Of Mutilation.”
A rusted instrument lies on the small table that separates us. A silent man with close-cropped blonde hair sits behind me lighting a succession of cigarettes. This is good. I’m thinking Marathon Man, I’m thinking I have ways of making him talk, I’m thinking … that I’m interrogating Frank Black with the fumbling ineptitude of Colonel Klink.
MAGNET: Throughout your career, you’ve sung in Spanish, French, German. What is it about foreign languages or phra—
Black: “Psycho killer! Qu’est que c’est! Fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa … ”
MAGNET: Sure, but—
Black: “Mi-chelle, ma belle, sont les mots qui vont tres bien ensemble … ”
MAGNET: Point taken. Maybe another way of asking the question is what you find compelling about non-literal lyrics.
Black: You ever listen to a Beatles record? Why don’t we do it in the road? No one will be watching us. Why don’t we do it in the road? Birthday. You say it’s your birthday. Birthday, birthday, birthday.
OK, so we’re actually holed up underneath a bar in Philadelphia where Black is performing a quasi-solo show in support of Dog In The Sand (What Are Records?), his new album with his band the Catholics. Black is restringing his battered guitar on the table, and the fair-haired smoking man behind me is guitarist Dave Philips, a handsome guy who’s more surfing-movie congenial than Hitler-youth menacing. Don’t misunderstand: Black isn’t being a jerk, and our cold war ends as soon as we find a space heater to huddle around. Nor is he being evasive, though his work (both solo and with the Pixies) has often skirted around the edges of easy comprehension, his songs reveling in a shotgun wedding of power chords and opaque lyrics. He’s just not harboring any illusions that he reinvented the wheel—or alternative rock, for that matter—and neither should you.
“I guess some people have vision, but I don’t think a lot of rock people have a lot of vision, necessarily,” says Black. “Because you’re bringing with you to the table every record you’ve ever heard whether you like the record or not. It’s not like, ‘I have this sound in my head and I must get it out.’ It’s like, ‘Let’s go make some rock music.’ That’s how it is for me, and that’s how it is for most people I know.”
Frank Black learned how to scream before he learned how to sing. Not the kind of screaming babies do when they come into this world or the kind of screaming gym teachers do when they find somebody’s jockstrap dangling from the basketball net, but the kind of screaming grown men do because their frustrations and fuck-ups obliterate polite enunciation. Of course, this was a long a time ago, when Black learned to scream. Back then, he was Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV, son of a mother who found religion in the Pentecostal church and a father who made a living tending and managing bars. Growing up in various towns and cities in Southern California, young Charles took the Beatles songbook as his bible, something that didn’t go unnoticed by one of his neighbors.
“His name was Bob—well, he said his name was Bob—and he was kind of a rock ‘n’ roll singer back in Thailand in the early ‘70s,” recalls Black. “He was a neighbor of ours in Los Angeles. He had a little studio in the back of his house and knew I was interested in rock music.” Black showed up at Bob’s place one day and started playing the Beatles’ “Oh! Darling.” Nonplussed by the performance, Bob gave him a lesson in emoting. “His instructions were, ‘C’mon, man, sing it! Scream it, man! Scream it like you hate that bitch!’ It was a little frightening for me, hearing someone talk so aggressively when I was age 13.”
In 1983, Thompson enrolled at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he met a few musician types, among them J Mascis and Joey Santiago. Black and the notoriously terse Mascis didn’t have much to talk about, so it was with Filipino guitarist Santiago whom he struck up a musical partnership.
“[Black] was writing a lot (of songs) in college,” remembers Santiago. “The rate that it was flowing was quite impressive. It was not hard to see that Frank had a lot of talent. We played together frequently, and afterwards, we would fantasize about starting a band.”
Santiago and Black were unenthused about their academic careers. (In 1991, a song about collegiate apathy called “U-Mass”—complete with Black sneering the lyric “it’s educational”—would appear on the Pixies’ Trompe Le Monde. Though Black penned the lyrics later, Santiago remembers working on the guitar riff while in college. “I think we called it the Yardbirds-ish song,” he says. “For whatever reason—I guess it reminded us of the Yardbirds.”) Unsure of why they were at U-Mass in the first place and figuring that college would always be there if they failed, Santiago and Black dropped out and decided to start a band.
“We picked a city,” says Santiago, “and before we knew it, we were at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Boston.”
The Pixies story is one that gets a good dusting every few years or so, so let’s go with the abridged version. Thompson (who adopted the pseudonym Black Francis) and Santiago lived in a car behind the Dunkin’ Donuts for a little while before recruiting bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering. While not a particularly talented batch of musicians, the group compensated for this deficiency by emphasizing a now-common practice of making the verse/chorus jump loud and immediate (thanks in no small part to Black’s quiet-to-caterwaul vocals) while snaking an irresistible melody throughout the songs.
What Wire was to punk, the Pixies were to alternative rock. They were pretentious in a way that seemed natural and cool, they played simply yet came across as smart and you were pretty sure they had something to do with art (David Bowie called them “the Talking Heads of the ‘90s”). Pretty much everything the Pixies blueprinted has been photocopied by other bands to blurry mediocrity and, since the two aren’t mutually exclusive, massive commercial success. The Pixies made five albums before internal strife, particularly between Black and Deal, caused the band to split. Permanently. Which is to say no reunion is forthcoming and please stop asking. Says Black, “I haven’t talked to Kim Deal since the last Pixies show in Vancouver in 1992.”
Starting work on a 1993 self-titled solo album even before the Pixies split became official, Black Francis inverted his name to Frank Black and plowed through the rest of the decade at a quick clip. You’d be forgiven for losing sight of Black’s trajectory over the course of his six solo albums, though the records have as often been brilliant (1994’s Teenager Of The Year) as they’ve been disappointing (1996’s The Cult Of Ray). But you’d be remiss to skip out on Dog In The Sand, because even if you believe Black has been running around in unspectacular musical circles ever since he broke up his beloved Pixies, this album is as close to the bull’s-eye as anything he’s ever done.
Only the target has changed. Dog is Black’s third consecutive album co-billed with the Catholics—Pere Ubu/Captain Beefheart keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman, drummer Scott Boutier, bassist David McCaffrey and guitarists Philips and Rich Gilbert—a lineup that, with the exception of recent addition Philips, has now been intact longer than the Pixies were. Rather than shoot spiky punk missiles at your brain, Dog lobs a well-worn rock toward your heart. Its pedal-steel guitar and Wurlitzer piano instantly evoke country/rock’s earthy groove, albeit with moments of Black’s trademark vitriol (“Hermaphroditos”) and charged pop electricity (“If It Takes All Night”). It’s a bold new direction in music, provided you’ve never heard the music of the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan or the Pixies. Critics have been calling Dog In The Sand a stab at classic rock; Black calls it “no big deal,” citing the influence of classic rock on the first Pixies album.
Yet the evidence mounts: Prior to recording Dog, the Catholics’ tour van was fueled by the steady sounds of Exile On Main Street and Blonde On Blonde. At the very least, we’ll have to charge Black with failure to notch his musical timeline; he’ll counter by invoking the fact that there’s no statute of limitations on a good rock song, no matter what decade it’s from. Besides, were he intent on trying to keep up with the ever-accelerating hip-music treadmill, the 35-year-old Black would be a tired man by now.
“There’s this idea that it’s the open-minded people, the beautiful people, who are listening to the cutting-edge contemporary music,” he says. “And if Frank Black chooses to put his head in the sand and refuses to listen to the new Cheese Brothers record, then he is just a really close-minded individual. You can’t believe how many interviews I do where a stock question is, ‘Who are you listening to?’ And I say Doug Sahm or somebody. ‘No, who are you listening to now?’ There’s a zillion records to listen to, why do you have to listen to something that came out in the last few months? Give me a reason why, besides the fact that they’re fresh. They’re not gonna disappear if I don’t listen to them right now. That’s why they’re called records, you know?”
Commencing with 1998’s Frank Black And The Catholics, Black’s recording method of choice has been live to two-track. This means the band is playing live, without the safety net of overdubs, without the band-aids of doubling a vocal or editing out mistakes. To be accurate, the 1998 album did contain two razorblade edits, and 1999’s Pistolero had one. Dog, recorded in 10 days, contains no edits.
“It’s totally about the attitude of it,” says Black, clearly confident with both the painstaking process of this type of recording—sessions would often last until morning in order to nail down a song—and the end result of an album that feels like, in Black’s words, “going further and further back in time.”
“It was a challenge in that you didn’t want to be the guy that screwed up the take,” says Santiago, who plays on three of Dog’s tracks and assisted in cutting demos for the album at his modest home studio across town in L.A. “Frank did not want any edits and there were none.”
(Incidentally, all the former Pixies now reside in Los Angeles. Santiago fronts lounge-rock act the Martinis with his wife Linda Mallari; Deal is trying to kickstart the long-dormant Breeders; and Lovering has abandoned music in favor of David Lovering’s Science Experiment, his performance art-cum-laboratory demonstration. “It’s weird,” says Black. “He blows stuff up using his powers of mentalism.”)
For all the team spirit that went into recording Dog, however, let us not forget this is Black’s show, that these are his songs.
“There’s too much made about ‘the special band,’” says Black. “There are bands that are special in a certain way, but to put them in some kind of category where they have this sports-team status—that’s just baloney … A lot of people think that musicians have this crass ambition to be a leader in the band, to be a fellow songwriter in the band. I get a lot of questions like, ‘What’s the contribution of the other players? Are you a dictator?’ It isn’t like that. They play their instruments, they play music. They don’t need my little quirky career, they don’t need me to get their songs out there. If they want to do their own songs, they can go start their own fucking band. And they do.”
Black is onstage at the Mercury Lounge, a 300-capacity club on New York City’s Lower East Side, gnawing on a piece of black licorice between songs. He’s been getting hoarse lately, and his voice coach—Black has been taking singing lessons for more than a year now—told him it would help to soothe the vocal cords. Guitarist Philips lingers stage left and a few feet back, content to let Black do the talking.
“So my brother Errol called me up recently after my father died,” says Black. “He called me up and said, ‘Chuck, I found something up in the attic. I’ve got 30 unregistered guns here, Dad’s guns. Each of them has a single bullet in it. I’ll call you back when I figure out what to do.’”
We never find out what Errol—who, incidentally, is in the audience tonight—did about Dad’s guns, but as the muted chords of “Bullet,” one of the best songs on Dog In The Sand, ricochet off the walls of the club, we can pretty much figure out what Black did about the situation. “Please take my rifles, take my guns/You take my place because you are my son.” He sings it in a sad growl that perfectly conveys all he’s inherited and all he’s lost.
“Bullet” is a rare moment of autobiography for Black; he’s stamped himself as an anonymous everyman addressing the world from odd angles, mailing in his observations from the abstract plain. He’s waxed lyrical about Pong, Pachinko and Plato; Ray Bradbury, the Ramones and the fall of the Roman empire. He’s had a broken face, a lost mind and has been kicked in the taco. Oh, and he’s mentioned UFOs once or twice. Big mistake.
“I’m not saying I’ve never referred to [a UFO] in a song, I probably have,” says Black, uncomfortable with providing the soundtrack for conspiracy theorists. “But, in general, I don’t sing about aliens. I do sing about space and space colonization and space travel and also abstract thought about space and what is beyond where we are now, up there, the sky, the heavens, right? Unfortunately, you mention an alien once … Now I don’t do the alien thing at all. I’m a little bit careful about it.” For the record, X-Files creator Chris Carter is a big fan, and the lead character from his now-defunct sci-fi TV series Millennium was indeed named after Black.
Clearly, the quirkiness Black used to wear like a crown now fits less comfortably than it once did. Scattered among Dog In The Sand’s typically leftfield lyrics are themes of regret and forgiveness; the minor-chord piano plea “I’ll Be Blue” sounds like the shedding of a desert teardrop. This from a man who used to rail against love’s smallest slights with the bitterest venom. Apparently, even oddballs get the blues.
“Sure, I’m more tender now than I used to be, but there are examples of tenderness in earlier Pixies songs, too,” says Black. “The longer you do it, the more comfortable you get with clichés and going down well-traveled roads. When you first start out, you’re not real comfortable doing those things because you’re afraid you’re gonna end up sounding bland or generic or rife with cliché. So you do things that are a little more esoteric-sounding—and that’s good. But the longer you do it … people misunderstand.”
The Mercury Lounge audience understands, receiving Black’s songs as gifts and wrapping the bare spots with their own backing vocals. Black dusts off a few Pixies tunes (“Gouge Away,” “Nimrod’s Son,” “Where Is My Mind?”) as well as covers of Tom Waits and Arlo Guthrie, and it all fits together in a jigsaw puzzle of song that only a long-haul artist can complete. Seeing him ply his trade before the select group of devoted fans here tonight, it doesn’t seem so unjust that the Pixies aren’t a household name and that Black hasn’t made it big as a solo artist. He probably never will. He’ll probably never change rock music the way he did with the Pixies. You can only tear down a wall once. What seems important tonight is how comfortable Black is with all he’s built—he owns these songs—and how clear the view can be from the outskirts, from the fringe.
“If you get put in that ‘cult artist’ category, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m in with the cool guys,’” says Black. “I don’t want to sound like I’m tooting my own horn or anything, but to be known as an underdog—that can only be a good thing. It’s better than sucking. I mean, some of these bands on the radio, it’s just like, ‘Are you kidding? You ever listen to a Beatles record before?’”