Frank Black to play Birdy"s Frank Black isn"t bitter - not that anyone would blame him if he was. As the cherubic frontman and creative engine of the pioneering late "80s, early "90s alternative rock band the Pixies, Black was rock"s nasty darling. He was THE GUY with THE BAND, a zeitgeist with heavy guitar chops and a guttural, dizzying vocal style. "Sing it like you hate the bitch," he"d once been advised. His sound mattered, and everybody else - people who didn"t matter but wanted to - was dialing up his frequency.
Frank Black, touring with his backing band, the Catholics, will appear at Birdy"s on March 27.
But many fans and critics still haven"t forgiven him for disbanding the band via press release in 1993. Despite cultivating one of the few rock styles that deserves to be called unique, Black has never been able to recreate the success of the Pixies in his solo career. It"s tough when you are ready to move on, but the rest of the world likes things just the way they are. When, you have to wonder, does "Frank Black, former Pixies frontman" earn the right to become "Frank Black, solo artist"? Well, maybe never, and as far as Black"s concerned, that"s just fine. "I am just happy to be a musician," he said during a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles. "That"s what I do. That was always my dream Ö mission accomplished. If you start focusing on that stuff too much, then it"s all about glory and money and stuff Ö It"s nice to enjoy those things, but if you"re too focused on that stuff I think it can have a detrimental effect on your music." Much like Frank Lloyd Wright, who built structures that were both immediately recognizable as houses and yet unlike anything that had come before them, Black"s songwriting, and his willingness to zig where others zag, has limited the reach of his appeal. "I don"t want to insult audiences. Audiences are not stupid," Black hedged. "However, I think you can generalize and say, audiences like to get hit over the head with the stupid stick. I think there are a lot more passive listeners in the world than there are active listeners. That"s just the nature of the world. I think my music might - not that it is so complicated - but it might require the palate of an active listener." Currently, Black is touring with his backing band, the Catholics, in support of last August"s simultaneous release of the twin albums - fraternal, not identical - Black Letter Days and Devil"s Workshop. Black will be appearing at Birdy"s March 27. No artificial flavor The Catholics have been on board for the last five albums and their presence has lent a continuity to Black"s sounds that was previously missing. His notoriously mercurial records - especially his eponymous solo debut and its follow-up, Teenager of the Year - behave like manic acrobats, abruptly switching between musical styles and tempos, even languages. "The records that I have been associated with are eclectic by nature and have a smattering of different types of songs," Black said. "I think there are more similarities among all my records than there are differences. It"s just that it isn"t apparent because you have different players, different instrumentations, different producers. All those things affect it enormously." The new sound has a country roadhouse feel: lots of twang and pedal steel guitar, with just a dash of banjo. It"s the kind of sound that evokes long desert drives in gas gulping Cadillacs with their tops peeled back; an appropriate soundtrack for anybody who ever pulled into the kind of outpost gas station/general store that doesn"t exist anymore and answered, "I dunno," when the attendant asked, "So, where you headed, son?" "Some of it comes from the instrumentation and from the arrangement certainly," Black said. "You start adding pedal steel guitar and suddenly you are evoking Americana, you know. But, I think, too, just when you start to do things like that it brings out certain flavors in your music that are already there. I think that there is a lot of country and western influence in my music, even in the Pixies music; it"s just that it"s not as apparent. But if I were to sit down and play some Pixies songs on the guitar and play you some more cowboy songs from the Frank Black records, I think I could make the argument that you could see the similarity." Each of the albums with the Catholics has been recorded live to two-track with few or, in the case of the last three albums, no edits on the finished product. The result is music that is more organic than technological. No artificial filler here. No music that has been dubbed, mixed and corrected to death. In essence, what you have is a live performance, sans audience. You hear it just as the band played it. Minimalist as the approach may be, Black resists the suggestion that he has gone lo-fi. Many of the Frank Sinatra albums were recorded the same way he insists, and nobody has suggested that Ol" Blue Eyes was lo-fi. The songs will tell you how they need to be expressed, Black said. You just have to pay attention and have the willingness to stay with it until it is finished. Black is a self-taught musician, and the lack of formal training has served him well. It"s often reflected in the unusual structure of his songs. Nobody ever taught him that you couldn"t do things that way. "The weirder the song is, the more natural of an expression it is," Black observed. "The super eclectic ones, those are the ones where I didn"t really think about it at all, I just sort of went with some feeling and left it as is. The songs that are maybe less eclectic, they might have a lot more thought put into it. The weirder it is, the less self-conscious it is. For me anyway." Bare to the bones Much like the recording process, the current tour is stripped bare to the bones. Black isn"t much into the rock and roll lifestyle, and the two vans and no roadies tour reflects that. "The actual music, being on a stage, being in a club, being in a recording studio: To me, that is the fantasy," he said. "I"m a little offended at the other aspects of it. Drugs, sex, rock and roll. I find it a little hokey and I think musicians that buy into that are very hokey, indeed. To think that they are the only people in the world who"ve ever had sex or taken drugs, it can get really junior high school." Expect to hear songs from throughout Black"s career, not just the Catholics era, and maybe a few you haven"t heard before. The band is including some work from their next album, due out later this fall, in the set. "I feel like when people haven"t seen us for a while you can get away with a lot more, and you are more friendly, I am more friendly," Black said. "I might loosen up and have a couple glasses of wine and be all chatty between songs and really try to be there with the crowd, more than if it"s like, "OK, here we are again in Chicago at the place we always play at." It"s just a different thing." He may not make it here very often, but there is a lot of the Midwesterner in Black"s musical approach. You just put your head down and do your job; everything else will work itself out. "I just do what I do," he said. "I think I"m doing the best I can. I think I"m giving it 110 percent Ö No one deserves success. It is always nice to see someone who is really good get success, but I don"t really think you can make the argument that anyone deserves it Ö It"s the mood of the people. The people have all decided they are going to like this and they are not going to like this. That is just the way that it is. There is not any kind of evil conspiracy going on. There really isn"t. You just get what you get and then you do the best you can with it." And so Black is back on the road, no tour bus and no roadies, just a couple vans and the band, setting up their own gear, grinding out a show and then loading it back into the van, onto the next town. "I love it. I adore it. There is nothing better, man." Frank Black and the Catholics are appearing at Birdy"s, 2131 E. 71st St., March 27 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $13. Call 254-8971 for more information.