The Pixies were a weird, contradictory amalgamation of personalities and metaphors that somehow worked in spite of itself, in the grander tradition of what makes rock ‘n roll such a celebratory and cathartic experience. The group literally disintegrated at the pinnacle of their success, leaving a brief legacy that no one has been able to replicate, despite several awkward efforts by those who would carry the torch for “indie” rock.
In the year 2000, Frank Black and the Catholics toured largely on the strength of the previous years’ spinART releases – 1998’s self-titled album, and 1999’s Pistolero, giving audiences a sneak preview of the material which would appear on his finest solo recording to date. This years’ Dog In The Sand, (released on What Are Records), is a classic rock album in the purest sense – “Bullet” could be “Nimrod’s Son” re-written for the hordes of post-millennium-Pixies fans, just as “Hermaphroditos” could be the Stones’ boozey, blues-drenched anthem, “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll”, re-vamped with a nod to the Stooges. So what exactly has been tweaking Black’s interest in music these days?
“Well, a lot of Rolling Stones lately, and a lot of Neil Young – with Crazy Horse”, he confesses. When talking about another, more obvious influence, he literally gushes with admiration: “I LOVE Brian Ferry’s voice!”, he exclaims, – “whether he’s doing the rock’n roll of the early Roxy Music records, or the later stuff – I just think he’s totally great!”
Tracks such as “Llano Del Rio” display a nifty sleight-of-hand – mod-rockin’ skiffle rhythms applied to old school C&W riffs, replete with slide guitar and a “Jambalaya”-styled refrain. “If It Takes All Night” – a simple paean to rock radio – hints at a previously untapped glam-rock influence.
“I probably incorporate a lot more traditional rock and roll-“isms” in my music than I did before. My music is not quite as angular and quirky as it used to be.”
For the 1993 4AD/Elektra release, Teenager of the Year, Black recruited former Captain Beefheart keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman, who had toured with The Pixies during the Trompe Le Monde tour, and was doing a brief stint at the time with Pere Ubu. By now, Feldman is more or less an honorary “Catholic”, and on the new album, the piano defiantly stakes out it’s territory in the rock spotlight – a post which is traditionally reserved for guitars only.
“I guess that comes out of wanting to achieve a more classic rock sound”, he explains, citing such varied influences as Leon Russell and Elvis Costello.
Ironically enough, the biggest turning point in Black’s career came following the 1996 American release, The Cult of Ray, which sold poorly at the time. Subsequently, he was dropped in a label downsizing.
“I feel like most people don’t really notice – but to me, that’s exactly when the change started. It also had to do with tracking – we were only recording to sixteen tracks – a lot of the bass, drums and lead guitar; vocals and overdubs on top of that. We had to simplify the process – we had less tracks to work with, and it ended up being a stripped-down sound.”
The stark, in-your-face dynamics of the past couple of Frank Black albums owe much more to the fact that they were recorded live in the studio, as opposed to the laborious production process which so often drains bands of their creative spontaneity, if not their finances.
“We sort of accidentally stumbled into live recording, through recording a demo that happened to be live to 2-track. We liked the sound so much, and it was so cost-effective – we just said, this is our new way!”
Beyond the stylistic change in the Catholics’ sound, long-time fans have noticed a major shift in the songwriting itself. Gone are the worldly epics about UFOs and alien life forms – on recent albums, the focus seems divided between fables and introspection. What most singer/songwriter types take for granted, Black turns into a wild, revelatory experiment.
“I think I’m getting more comfortable with a more universal or traditional kind of lyric – it’s fun to try and be able to do that. 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.”
And how have the diehard, longtime fans been accepting all of this?
“I think it’s too early, really, to say that that I’ve been able to gain a new crowd for my new (pauses for emphasis) everyman personality.”
Long reluctant to discuss his former band, Black has maintained a solid relationship with former Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago, who helped him record the demos for the new album.
“Obviously there’s always a little more distance between me and that period of my life – time goes on, you know?”
At the same time, 4AD has just released a 19-track Pixies import compilation titled, The Complete ‘B’ Sides, leaving no stone unturned, though it’s an all-too brief footnote to the history of one of the most influential bands of the last decade. Although clearly more of a run-on mix tape, lacking the cohesiveness or vision of a solid album, it still provides yet another fix for starving fans. B-Sides also includes a couple of CD-ROM videos, which reinforce the idea that the whole point of the band was to simply have fun.
All of which comes at a time when Black has decided to start playing many of the celebrated Pixies anthems in his current set, suggesting perhaps that whatever embarrassments the band may have suffered during their brilliant and short-lived career, they had little if anything to do with the actual music they were making.
Frank Black and the Catholics will be performing at First Avenue on April 27th at First Avenue.
© J.Free / City Pages; 2001; 2022
To read the pre-edited interview / conversation GO HERE
To read the published article that appeared in City Pages, GO HERE