Black Francis talks Pixies, family, new album
There are so few figures in modern rock who are as enigmatic, or influential, as Frank Black. As a member of the Pixies, he lit a match to the fuse of rock music, leading to the worldwide embrace of grunge. Kurt Cobain, among many others, cited the group as a primary influence.
When the Pixies disintegrated in 1993, a bit too early to cash in on the plaid-shirt alt-rock sweepstakes, Black released a series of mercurial, densely-packed solo albums, each more interesting and vastly different than the last. Whether he was performing with new band The Catholics or as a solo act, his material was challenging and raw.
The success of the Pixies’ worldwide reunion tours of 2004-’06 not only restored the group to its rightful status as icons, it also led to renewed interest in the members’ solo efforts.
Black’s new double album, Fastman Raiderman, was released earlier this year. Recorded in between Pixies show dates with a cast of legendary session players, it’s been acclaimed as Black’s best work in a decade or more.
Black is also known as a reluctant interviewee at best, however, so it was not without some nervousness that NUVO got him on the phone last week to promote his upcoming solo acoustic show at Birdy’s.
Frank Black: Can you hold on a second? I have another writer on the phone. We’re just finishing up.
[Two minutes silence]
Black: Thanks for waiting.
NUVO: No problem. Are you doing a lot of phoners today? That’s got to be rough.
Black: I think so. Let me count. One, two, three, four, five.
NUVO: How enjoyable or unenjoyable is that, being asked the same questions by writers in every single market?
Black: I’ve analyzed it a lot over the years, and the thing I’ve come up with is that it’s not the questions, really, because a writer can ask the most generic question ever, or a whole series of them, in an interview. The interview might consist of the 10 most generic questions possible and I have a great conversation with the guy. I understand that every writer or editor has a particular audience they’re trying to serve, so an interview isn’t going to be about the specifics of my songwriting or whatever. It’s, “Hey! Who is Frank Black?”
Some interviews don’t go well, or I start to get a little antsy or frustrated. I probably come off sounding cranky. I try not to be cranky. On interviews that aren’t going well, I try and analyze the question, tear it apart. “OK, I’ll try to answer your question here, but let’s really analyze what your question really is.” And then it turns into an exercise that the journalist finds a little dreary.
NUVO: Now I’m not intimidated at all.
Black: [Laughs] If I sense that the journalist is actually interested, or at least pretending to be interested, and if he’s trying to have a conversation with me, then it’s really satisfying. But if I sense that they’re just going through the motions — they don’t even ask questions; they just ask me to confirm a bunch of stuff. If you don’t feel like you’re actually together with them, then I feel like a robot or monkey.
NUVO: So I’ll just scrap my first question, then, which was, “Who is Frank Black?”
[Laughter] But when you think about it, it’s kind of a genius question, because you’ve been so many different things to so many people for so long.
Black: I’m a little bit at a crossroads, I think. I’ve certainly satisfied myself, a lot, these last couple of years, in doing what I wanted to do. Especially with this whole Pixies reunion thing, I think there are people who are wishing that I would, I don’t know, perk up a little bit? You know, give them something more aggressive, which I’m certainly capable of. There are times when you’re making music where it’s very internal, and it’s for yourself. Other times, it’s for the audience.
NUVO: But people will certainly be exposed to your newer music in the solo acoustic setting.
Black: I guess. Maybe. I’ve got a few new ones. It’s tough, because, fortunately or unfortunately, I have the audience that I have. In my example, my audience is really alternative-rock crowd and I kind of inherited them from the Pixies days. So even the newcomers are all about the young, hip kind of thing. They’re not into vintagey sounding music. So a lot of them, they struggle. They might be fans because of an album I made long ago. They’re still with me, you know, some of them, but they don’t get it.
NUVO: Does it ever feel like some people would be happier if you came out and played nothing but old Pixies songs. You know, open with “Debaser” and lead them on a nostalgia tour?
Black: If I thought I could get away with that … If I could put together a band and just play a bunch of old songs, if I thought it would satisfy, I’d be more tempted to do it. Face it, that’s my bread and butter right there, those old songs. But I think that the audience is not only tuned into those songs, they’re tuned into that lineup. They’d say, “This ain’t the Pixies.” And it wouldn’t be the Pixies. So I’m not really tempted to do that.
NUVO: That’s good to hear, because I think a lot of people would be unhappy if you knew you could go see the Pixies at Ribfest with Warrant and Slayer and everybody else.
Black: That’s the crossroads where the Pixies are at now. We like being together and we like touring, but we’re running out of places to play. I mean, we just got back from Slovakia and Croatia and we’re going to go to Australia later in the year. So that’s nice, but what’s next? We could play a few shows in South Africa, and some shows in South America, but that’s it. After that, if we don’t put out new material, then we turn into a county fair kind of thing. And I know we don’t want that, so there’s a dilemma.
So I think I’ve finally convinced the other Pixies that we really need to try and record some new material. We haven’t booked any studio, but we are going to get together and play and see if we can actually do that.
NUVO: The business at hand, though, is the new double album. There’s a lot of material on there, it’s almost overwhelming. Did youever feel tempted to cut it down to a single disc?
Black: Sure. It was one CD at one point. But I ended up doing another session. It was the song “In the Time of My Ruin” that I really wanted to get on there. Then there was another song, and this other song, and it became, let’s just do a double disc. To me, there’s no problem with oversized records. Maybe initially people have the impression that there’s too many songs here. “He could have edited this into one really great record.” Every time you put out a damn record that’s long, people say that. Sure. You could edit it down to the three best songs, for crying out loud. But that’s not the point. The point is to put out a hunk of something that people can listen to, whenever, for years to come. You know, this album is all songs. There aren’t any blues songs, there isn’t any spoken-word poetry, there aren’t any garage demos. They’re all songs. I don’t feel like I’ve just crammed a bunch of crap on there. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s not filled with really superfluous stuff.
I’m not asking everyone to sit down and listen to the whole damn thing tonight. With all the downloading that goes on, people are cherry-picking the songs they want to hear. But I think there’s still a reverence for the LP concept. I like records, too, but it’s not really what it’s about. There’s bands, and there’s records and there’s songs. Songs, that’s the real entity. And who is to say?
My favorite Beatles song is “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number),” you know? And that’s how some of my fans look at my music. Their favorite song is “Pure Denizens of the Citizens Band” from the end of Teenager of the Year. The quirky, goofy song about trucking, that’s their favorite one. Not “Monkey Gone To Heaven,” not “Headache.”
Am I supposed to only write epics that have big hooks that appeal to the masses? I don’t know. I thought art was supposed to be a little more fun. [Laughs] I have no problem putting out long records. It’s just music! [laughs]
A critic of mine might say, “Yeah, there’s some good songs on here, but they’re not all good.” And I would disagree with that. I would think that all of my songs on any record I’ve ever made are all valid, and they’re all good enough to be on a record. That’s why I put ’em on there. Am I wrong? Maybe, but all of the little stupid songs have their defenders out there; I know they do.
I’ve got a bunch of songs. Here they are. Sometimes there’s 12 and sometimes there’s 25.
NUVO: Talk about the birthing process of the album. I know it was very lengthy and it was done in fits and starts.
Black: It was all fits and starts, actually. When you add up the workdays in the studio, it comes out to 10 days or something. If it’d been done in one session, it would have been a short session. It was just spread out over two years.
NUVO: I really enjoyed the all-star cast you assembled for the record and —
Black: I did too. Like yourself, I can say that, because I didn’t even pick those guys. The producer did. On a couple of sessions, I brought in a harmonica player and a pedal steel player from Catholics. I knew those guys.
NUVO: I’d think it’d be intimidating to be in the room with Steve Cropper —Black: You’d think that, but he’s pretty easy to cozy up to. He’s a friendly, funny, large presence, who walks in wearing a Hawaiian shirt, carrying his own amp. (Imitates voice) “I’m getting kinda hungry!
When’s lunchtime?” All of these legends, every single one of them, were all perfect gentlemen and all perfectly humble. All of the ego that I’m sure that was there was all checked at the door. They were the most professional people ever, and they were all there to serve ME! It wasn’t, “What’s this that we’re doing?” It was, “Frank, how was that? Do you want me to do it a different way?” It was very nice.
NUVO: Have you ever had the reverse of that? Where you show up to work on someone’s project and people are intimidated by you, you know, kissing your ass, expecting you to be a prima donna, being afraid not to upset you?
Black: I don’t know what people’s expectations are of me. I certainly don’t act like a prima donna in the studio. Prima donnas are young, and maybe they got really famous real fast, and maybe they haven’t had the wind knocked out of them yet. They haven’t been humbled yet. When you work with people who’ve been around the block a few times, they’ve all had their humbling experiences. They don’t have a lot of ego. They save that for the stage.
NUVO: Tom Petersson from Cheap Trick was an unexpected choice. Did he work out well with you?
Black: Very well. I wish he’d been on more songs on the record. I think he was on three songs, and … [To his wife] Watch him, he’s going to fall off that chair. Sorry, I have two little boys in here. JACK! Our little guy here, he really likes the computer. He knows that if he hits the buttons, things will happen.
NUVO: I know a lot of journalists like that. Maybe he’s in training to be a rock critic.
Black: [Laughs] Maybe.
NUVO: What’s interesting to me about the songs on the new album is that they’re all powerful, and they all tell a story, but a lot of them are very dark. But, from reading about your personal life, I know you’re happily married and a new dad. Is it hard to channel dark emotions when you’re personally very happy?
Black: I think that’s how it happens. You’re able to go to dark places when you’re really happy. If you’re in a darker place, it’s very hard, because it’s too much. Too much dark. I find that the better mood I’m in, the darker I like to get. [Laughs]
NUVO: And I understand you’re taking your entire family out on the road with you? Have you done that before? How do young kids respond to the road?
Black: We don’t know. We’re just doing it as an experiment to see if we have what it takes, so we can do it in the future. This particular trip is only three weeks long, and there’s no band, there’s just me, so it seemed like a good time to see if we can be the Partridge Family.
NUVO: When the Pixies came to Indianapolis last year, I gave the show kind of a mixed review, and I was deluged with e-mails and phone calls that were absolutely enraged, just filled with anger that anyone criticize the Pixies. And it’d never struck me before just how beloved that band is, and you are, particularly. Do you feel that way, and is being loved so much in some ways a burden?
Black: We get an indicator from time to time. When we’re playing a really big festival and there’s 20,000 people singing your songs. I don’t really contemplate it. It’s just good luck. It’s, “Oh wow! Show business is really working out for us, I guess.” It’s not something I think about.
NUVO: Yet there are some people, Kurt Cobain comes to mind, who really seem to be tortured by their fame.
Black: Well, I think I can speak for all of the Pixies when I say we can handle it! [Laughs] It’s a good thing. I have the best of both worlds. Even the Pixies aren’t a massive entity. They’re a cult band. So while you have this adulation in concerts, we’re not necessarily instantly recognizable when you see us on the street. We’re not crammed down people’s throats by every magazine and TV show.
NUVO: So when you —
Black: Can you hold on? It’s the next writer on the phone. Just one second.
[Two minutes silence]
Black: Publicity! What can I say! It never ends!