A Conversation with Frank Black

in conjunction with
City Pages
Minneapolis, MN; April 2001

Exploring the creative process that connects performing artists with writers and readers alike.

[This is pretty much just the pre-edited, raw interview / conversation.]

Although they had been together since 1985, The Pixies burst on the alt-rock music scene in 1987 with the critically acclaimed EP, Come On, Pilgrim, followed within a year by the Steve Albini-produced knockout debut album, Surfer Rosa. The Massachusetts-based four-piece outfit lived fast and played hard for about six years before calling it quits, leaving a legacy in their wake that perhaps only Nirvana would ever come close to capturing, not only in terms of sheer attitude, but the herky-jerky, stop-start breakneck rhythms that were the band’s trademark.

Personally, I lost interest in the studio albums which followed Surfer Rosa, although I still made a point of seeing the band every time they toured through my neck of the woods, as few groups could deliver the goods like The Pixies in a live performance. After all these years, I hadn’t really thought about the band any more. When the music editor at City Pages asked me if I was interested in talking with the former Pixies singer and founder Charles Thompson (nee Frank Black, aka Black Francis), I thought it would be an interesting opportunity to delve into the psyche of the man who had inspired so many alt-indie-rock bands, as well as to quell some of the gossip about the quirky band he had left behind. Oddly enough, once we started talking, all my planned questions went right out the window, and it was pretty clear we were just going to talk shop for a bit. Somehow, actually, this seemed more appropriate, I think.

The clock was ticking during our all-too-brief conversation, and except for a lot of edited pauses ( – “you know…” and that sort of thing), this is pretty much intact. The only thing that doesn’t really translate from the transcription is the wall of silence I ran into, when I asked about keeping in touch with the other former Pixies. Thompson had remained adamant over the years, that there was no chance of any reunion with old band-mates. Of course, less than three years later, The Pixies played their first reunion since 1993, at The Fine Line Music Café – in Minneapolis, ironically enough. But that would be another story…

Q It’s been a few years since The Pixies, etc; in a nutshell, how would you sum up the journey from that point in your career until now? In terms of the different identities you’ve taken, your style changes…

A I probably incorporate a lot more traditional rock and roll kind of “isms” in my music than I did before. My music is…not quite as angular and quirky as it used to be. I’m probably a lot more…relaxed…about the music business now, just from being in it for a while.

Q What has there been, like five albums now?

A Uh, yeah – there have been five —

Q If memory serves, you did at least one tour early on as “Black Francis”, wasn’t that still while you were in The Pixies?

A Yeah …I just played a couple of solo acoustic shows, in the beginning of 1990, the end of 1989 …the band was still around then …

Q Did any of that stuff ever get documented, or were you ever intending to do anything in that vein, as a solo artist?

A No …you know, there’s some bootlegs floatin’ around, but …you know, they’re just typical, live …I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a bootleg that sounded amazing, or whatever, that was worth putting out officially, you know. It’s sort of just like …a live recording, and it doesn’t sound that great, and maybe the performance isn’t so hot, whatever. I don’t know, there’s a lot missed in a live recording, as you know, that just doesn’t capture what the human ear and eye experience.

Q What was the point of doing tours like that?

A Get gas money, somethin’ to do. [laughs]

Q Did that have anything to do with you deciding to branch off, and work as a solo artist?

A No, no. You know, I still do acoustic shows, sometimes. It’s just like …a way to practice, and it’s a little bit of a thrill, ’cause you generally are playing to less drunks. It’s a little more …coffeehouse, you know. It’s a little bit challenging, and I kinda like it.

Q What kind of age groups do you think you’re playing to, with the different kinds of sets that you’re doing?

A You mean when I’m playing solo? It’s the same age group as when I’m playing with a band, which is a mixed batch, basically. Plenty of people that are over thirty, or even over forty, and some even beyond fifty, and then some still in their teenage years, and plenty of people in their twenties. We generally attract a mixed group of people.

Q I’ve noticed that the first couple of albums you put out as Frank Black were pretty full of layered arrangements and kind of orchestrated production, something along those lines. I think it was right around the time of “The Cult of Ray”, you started to veer towards more of a stripped-down production sound – what accounts for the stylistic changes?

A Oh, astute of you to notice, ’cause, I feel like most people don’t really notice; they just kind of draw a line after “Cult of Ray”, when we actually started recording live. To me, actually, that’s exactly when the change started – is when we recorded “Cult of Ray”. It had to do with tracking, and had to do with how many tracks we were recording to. We were only recording to sixteen tracks on “Cult of Ray”, and so, a lot of the bass drums and lead guitar, would have been done kind of live, and a lot of vocals and overdubs on top of that. A lot of that was because we had to simplify the process, ’cause we just had less tracks to work with, and it ended up being a stripped-down sound – just basically, two guitars, bass and drums – not very many embellishments. The only embellishments really, on that record, were, I think a couple of doubled guitars, and one or two spots where there’s some doubled vocals, but beyond that it’s very stripped down. We liked it – we liked that sound, and I think that we would have continued like that. We sort of accidentally stumbled into live recording through recording a demo that happened to be live to 2-track, and recorded at the same studio. We liked the sound so much, and it was so cost-effective as well, that we just said, this our new way!

Q How much of a change was that for you to get used to? I know that on “Teenager of the Year” you worked with Eric Drew Feldman

A Yeah – actually, we’re gonna be working with him on the next record, too – actually, he’s coming on the tour with us, as our piano player. I’ve asked Eric to be stripped-down, and to keep in synch with us, I’ve asked him to only play piano, and maybe a little Hammond organ. Anyway, I’ve asked him to be a stripped-down piano player, and we’re still gonna record live to 2-track, but we do want to make the arrangements a little more sophisticated. We may add some auxiliary guitar players as well, on some of the songs when we record. We’re still gonna go live, but you know, we wanna go for a bigger production. My ultimate goal would be to make a really slick produced record that was still live to 2-track. But you know, it’s more complicated – you gotta figure out exactly what you wanna do, and then try to do it.

Q Are you currently working on anything right now? Are you touring behind some new material?

A Yeah, it’s …yet-to-be recorded material. We’re just trying out new songs, and new arrangements, and basically getting ready to record an album.

Q At the point when the second album was released under the name “Frank Black and the Catholics”, it seemed that had become kind of a new identity for the band now …

A Yeah, and definitely – in recording live to 2-track – it reinforced whatever band identity we had. I mean, I don’t think that we wanted to call ourselves just “The Catholics”, ’cause, you know, the Frank Black name is worth something on the marketplace to a certain extent, and I am like a front man or whatever – the songwriter guy – so we didn’t feel the need to come up with a band name. It’s also kind of old-fashioned to call yourself “Joe Blow and the So and So’s”, and we liked that vibe.

Q So, how did you land on “Catholics”?

A Uh, my wife’s idea – she heard some of the guys in the band talking about their Catholic upbringing, and said, “hey, you guys ought to call yourself Frank Black and the Catholics”. I dunno, it just stuck; it seemed like a pretty good idea at the time.

Q It would seem that one of the most significant changes outside of the style change – production, and so forth, has been in the songwriting itself. Earlier, your songs were on a larger scale – worldly, you know, UFOs and other kinds of life forms, and on recent albums the songwriting itself seems to be taking a more introspective approach – kind of more personal lyrics, relationships, there’s a couple break-up songs, things like that.

A Yeah, I think I’m just getting more comfortable with going for a more universal or traditional kind of lyric, you know. And, it’s fun to try and be able to do that – try to be Roy Orbison or whatever, you know. I don’t know that I’m really good at it, but I definitely try to do it a lot more as time goes on. I feel like I’m getting better at it.

Q How do you gauge the response? Have you gotten any kind of feedback yet for the new songs, as you’ve taken them out on the road?

A Yeah, I can’t say that – at least yet – it has sort of affected my crowd. You know, my crowd seems to accept the music whether it’s esoteric or whether it’s pop or universal or whatever. There’s usually enough of a mixed batch of it that they don’t seem to sense any big change going on, like, “Oh gee, he’s gone super-simple on us”, or whatever. I think it’s too early, really, to say that that I’ve been able to gain a new crowd for my new everyman personality. That may come one day, where we have enough of these songs out there, like “Headache”, or “I Don’t Wanna Hurt You Every Single Time”, or “Bad Harmony”, or these kinds of songs that have a more simple kind of lyric. It may happen eventually, that we gain some people through that, but I don’t know that that is my strong point, necessarily. My strong point might be more like …a song like “Los Angeles”, or something, kind of more eclectic – so, I’m not gonna throw out the eclectic main qualities of the songs …that might be a strong point.

Q As far as the music itself, are you working with any new approaches in that area of your music right now? Any new kinds of instrumentation or different ideas that you’re playing around with?

A We’re gonna add piano, and I guess that comes out of wanting to achieve a more “classic” rock sound. You know when I say classic rock I don’t necessarily mean “seventies”, although it could mean fifties or sixties, whatever. It could mean Rolling Stones, it could mean Roxy Music, whatever. It could mean Elvis Costello, or Leon Russell. There’s just so many rock ‘n roll artists that have a lot of piano in their records, and I think we want to get some of that into the record.

Q Is the band that you’re gonna be touring with now, with the addition of Eric, the same line up?

A Right, it’s basically The Catholics, and we’ve added Eric Feldman.

Q What kind of stuff are you listening to these days? What’s caught your ear in a good way? Not necessarily just indie rock and that kind of stuff, but anything?

A Well, I find I listen to a lot of Rolling Stones lately, and a lot of Neil Young – especially with Crazy Horse, although lately, I’ve been getting into a copy of Decade, which has a little bit of Crazy Horse stuff on it, but it’s mostly just Neil Young. I have a Brian Ferry cassette in my car that seems to be the one that’s always nearest to where I’m sitting. Sometimes a lot of his song titles just kind of disappear on me, ’cause they’re compilations. I guess when I get a compilation tape or CD I’m less interested in the packaging, so I just listen to it, ’cause I know it’s like, all their hits, or whatever.

Q Is it Ferry’s voice that you like?

A I love Brian Ferry’s voice [excitedly], whether he’s doing the more rock’n roll, rough kind of stuff of the early Roxy Music records, or the later stuff, or a really slick Brian Ferry record, whatever. I just think he’s totally great.

Q Were you a pretty big Roxy Music fan back then?

A Not when they were around, you know – I think I just didn’t know about them. I definitely discovered them after the fact.

Q Do you feel that enough time has enough time gone by, that people can distance you a bit from your reputation with The Pixies, or do you still get a lot of talk about that?

A You mean like fans?

Q Yeah – are people still asking if you guys are ever gonna play together again, or just want to talk about the old days, that sort of thing?

A Oh yeah, people ask that, but obviously there’s always a little more distance between me and that period of my life – time goes on, you know?

Q Do you still keep in touch with those guys?

A Joey Santiago, I see all the time – matter of fact, I’ve been recording all of my new demos over at his house; he’s actually been recording them all for me.

Q But he hasn’t been playing anything with you?

A No – he may actually, because we wanna have some bigger production on our next record. We may have a couple of auxiliary guitar amps, playing what would normally have been an overdub, you know, like in a twenty-four track situation. We may need to bring in other musicians, and he actually may be doing some extra guitar for us – and another guy named Dave Phillips.

Q Well, we’re running out of time here – we’ll be looking forward to seeing you soon in Minneapolis!

A We’re looking forward to it. We usually do pretty good in Minneapolis – we have a lot of fans there. We’ve always looked forward to playing there!

To read the first draft of the article submitted to City Pages GO HERE

To read the completed article that appeared in City Pages GO HERE

© J.Free / City Pages; 2001; 2022