Black Francis: The Cream Interview

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Frank Black, Black Francis, Frank Black Francis — under those stage names Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV has split his creative mind between tenures playing unlikely rock star as frontman for the Pixies and playing clubs as a stylistically varied troubadour, as he will appear tonight at Mercy Lounge. For such an enigmatic musical figure, the man himself is quite a candid raconteur. Here is the unabridged version of the Q&A with Francis that appears in this week's Scene. In it, the singer talks about his multiple musical personalities, his love for in-studio spontaneity, his perspective on the Pixies' successful second coming and his next record, which he plans to write with singer-songwriter Reid Paley and record with some Nashville cats in Music City this week.

What is the plan for the record you’re about to record here?
Well, I'm going to be in Nashville for a couple of days. As is the style of a lot of people in that town, people are accustomed to working quickly. Last time I was in Nashville [Reid Paley] met me there, we wrote a bunch of songs and recorded them. There isn't much planned, other than we have an opportunity to do some hotel-room writing and some last-minute, spontaneous recording, which is sort of my favorite type of writing and recording. I prefer it. You can have mixed results, you can have fantastic results, you can come up with something that's not so hot, but the same thing can happen when you plan everything out to death and make demos and do things in a really calculated, slow way. So I like the spontaneity of going in and doing it in the moment.

It seemed to me like starting with the first Frank Black and the Catholics record, you started letting the seams of the process show a little bit — there was more rawness, intimacy and spontaneity. Was that intentional? Or was it something that you just kind of stumbled upon?
Well yeah, that was the beginning of a whole phase of mine that I got really obsessed with live recording, specifically live to two-track analog tape recording, kind of a very old-school 1950s. And so that's what that was all about. Every Catholics session that I did was always live to two-track or live to one-track. And I even took the obsession one step further and built a mobile recording studio that was all analog, mostly vintage gear, and it just became a kind of parameter that definitely lent itself to things being raw.

There's a lot of space on those records, with the roomy drum sounds and everything.
Yeah, I mean, there's no rule that says you have to be spacious, because I think that there are things that are great that are not spacious, but there are definitely a lot of great things with space and there's definitely a lot of shitty things that don't have space. It’s a little harder with that rule but there are definitely principles that seem to work time and time again, you know, "Leave space! Space good!"

That begs the question of, “How much of the end result is the process and how much of it is songwriting?” Given your various monikers, would you say you have multiple personalities as a songwriter?
Totally, yeah! You know, this is not 1965 or whatever. There have been so many different kinds of records made during my lifetime growing up; all different subgenres of rock music, and I don’t really like to listen to only one kind of thing, I don’t like to write one kind of thing, I don’t like to record one kind of thing. It’s not even that I’m such a jack-of-all-trades; I’m not. Some people are really comfortable with a very singular kind of vision, and that’s really valid also. A classic example of that would be, like, Phil Ramone or Johnny Cash. I’m not against that. But that’s not where I’m drawn to. Maybe I should be, but I don’t know what it is. I’m happy being a little more all-over-the-map.

Have you considered making another record like Teenager of the Year, where it’s just this total sprawl of genres, like in a London Calling kind of sense?
Yeah, that’s a good example of a sprawl, London Calling, or even like an old Elvis Costello record doesn’t necessarily sound like all different kinds of music together but it’s definitely, like, lots of ideas within ideas. It’s definitely complicated, even when it’s stripped down and it’s just, like, a four-piece band, there’s just a lot of thought behind it. … I’m into just doing all kinds of things. People get bent out of shape when someone that isn’t country tries to do country, or someone that’s country tries to do rock. Whatever, man, I just like music, you know, and I’m not too hung up about it. I’m really serious in terms of the fact that I like music, but I don’t really think it’s that serious.

Is there a different between the Pixies' Black Francis artistic persona and the solo Frank Black artistic persona as a performer or as a songwriter? Seeing you perform solo is completely different than seeing you perform with the Pixies, in terms of the your demeanor and the way you interact with the crowd; there’s more stage banter, etc.
I suppose it feels different. Remove drums and it turns into a different thing. I don’t know that I analyze it or think about it so much.

Did doing the Pixies reunion and revisiting that catalog have an effect on your solo work?
I don’t really know. I have no idea. I wouldn’t think so. I’m very much about the moment, not necessarily in my life, but in my music. When I’m making music, or performing music or writing music, I’m just very much about what I’m doing at the moment, and it doesn’t require different hats really, it doesn’t require different ways of thinking. For example, I really like playing with musicians that are really great, but I also really like playing with musicians who are not great — they’re just simple musicians because the goal is the same. As long as everyone understands, we have to make this moment, we have to make this song or performance as good as we can, and you can be really rough about it or you can be really inept about it, but there’s a spirit of “We’ve gotta make this good” — as long as everyone’s on that page, it doesn’t really matter.

Did that desire to want to be in the moment make it difficult to sing Pixies songs every night? The last Pixies tour where you were playing Doolittle was really long. Did that much nostalgia take a toll?
It might be a nostalgic [thing] for certain members of the audience, but it’s not really [nostalgic] for me. It’s part of my repertoire, my canon of songs; it’s what I do. It’s not like in 1989 I was trying a different kind of music altogether, or something that was about the moment in fashion. It’s hard for me to think about it in terms of nostalgia. I think that it’s all gotten so blurry anyway with all of the different pop genres. Everything is essentially so derivative that I think it’s pretty rare that you get a totally new form of popular music.

I mean, think about something like hip-hop and rap records, for example: There are a couple of hip-hop records that I’m very familiar with that came out, like, 25 years ago. They were, like, doing the rap 25 years ago, and that has become such a big part of the mainstream cultural vocabulary. It’s hard to say, “What really is new?” There may be new tags, but what popular music form would you say — I’m not saying there aren’t any — but to me, the last new thing that I can remember that was really, truly new, is rap and hip-hop music.

But I think most rock fans would say that the Pixies were innovative within the parameters of traditional rock instrumentation. Does it feel that way having been in the band?
I like the Iggy Pop quote: “It’s all disco.” I totally get it, I totally get it, it’s all disco."

And for someone to dance, the songs don’t necessarily need to have even numbers of bars.
Right.

So what should we expect for the show in Nashville? I only know that it’s billed as a solo appearance
It’ll just be, like, me, a guitar and an amplifier. I don’t do a lot of the, like, acoustic guitar kind of shows, because I’m not really much of a picker’ and I think there’s more I can do with an electric guitar, sonically, that has variety, than I can with an acoustic guitar. I love acoustic guitar, but I’m much better with an acoustic guitar in a studio, playing with a band and doing the big rhythm guitar strum. I admire people that do solo acoustic shows and do it very well, but [that’s] just not where I’m coming from as a musician; it’s not my forte.

Since playing live with the Pixies isn’t a nostalgic thing, are there any current plans to record new material with the band?
I’m not at liberty to discuss that particular subject.

There is speculation out there of a Pixies appearance at Bonnaroo this year. Just cough once if they’re true.
[No cough.] I cannot confirm or deny. It is not currently on my calendar schedule [laughs]. So it probably is a rumor, but who knows! Who knows! The Pixies' big reunion, which was so many years ago now already, was a big rumor, started by me, just as a joke and it ended up turning into the real thing, so, you know.

Was that partly calculated on your part?
No. It wasn’t calculated at all. It was just, like, I made some flippant remark during a radio interview and they decided to turn it into a news event that was inaccurate. They knew it was inaccurate, but they were looking for hits, so to speak. They were trying to get everyone all riled up. And they did, and we ended up getting back together as a result of it.

Well, it’s been nine years now. I mean, that’s longer than the band was together in the first place.
That’s right.

Did you expect it to keep going like that?
I have no expectations. I am alive. I make music. I have no interest in — I have interest in other things — but I don’t necessarily plan on retiring from music, so I don’t really think in terms of, like, “I wonder how long we’re gonna do this for?”

Looking back on it, because the band was so much bigger when it came back, how different was the Pixies experience the second time around?
Well of course, it was enormously satisfying to my ego. At the start of that process, I, among other members of the band, had started to have families. So it was enormously satisfying, from a personal point for all of us, that we were able to better provide for our families. It’s nice when you start to have kids and it’s like “Hey! You just got a big raise, too!” It’s sort of like, “Awesome! Yes!” It’s fantastic. It could have gone the other way.

If there were a band that you could reunite, who would it be?
How 'bout the Talking Heads? That would be nuts; I don’t think I ever got to see Talking Heads perform live.

When they played at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions 10 years or so ago, they sounded great!
Yeah! I think they would be good. I would say either them or Minor Threat.

Will it surprise you if the Pixies are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Have you ever thought about it?
Sure, I’ve thought about it. I don’t know if I would be surprised. I wouldn’t be shocked. I wouldn’t be shocked if we didn’t, either. I suppose it could happen. I supposed it could not happen.

Well, for the record, I’d support it.
Yeah! I mean, I’d go. I’d play. I’d do my thing.

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