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Frank Black
Interview by Dan Kilian
see Frank Black live at Warsaw 11-25

I first saw Frank Black as Black Francis with the Pixies opening for the soon to be irrelevant Love and Rockets in 1989. They tore up the show like a kitchen knife through an expensive collector's painting. The Pixies proved to be The Beatles of Alternative music, heralding new sounds, setting the bar too high for most, releasing a small batch of perfect records, then breaking up. Charles Thompson ditched the artsy Francis moniker for his more workmanlike name, and released two very successful, if not terribly lucrative solo albums, adding ever new sounds into Black's surf-punk-sci-fi stew, pursuing his many obsessions, especially regarding visitors from outer space. Many continuing fans were troubled by The Cult Of Ray; while some songs still rocked, the space talk seemed somehow rote, and the attempt at a straightforward song of romantic heartbreak "I Don't Want To Hurt You (Every Single Time)" seemed clumsy.

It seems Black felt something needed to change after Ray. He assembled The Catholics, and worked damn hard at showing he could write the heart wrenching songs "I Don't Want To Hurt You" wasn't, and lay them alongside strange tales drawn from a broad range of subject matters, making each album an education. Black has also stripped down his sound, playing back-to-basics rock, recorded live into a two-track or mono recorder. The songs must stand on their own, and they certainly do. 2000's Dog In The Sand stomps with Stonesy (Though still singularly Black) vigor, and the double release of Devil's Workshop and Black Letter Days deluge the listener with twangy tales of road weary isolation, historical atrocity, and the sweet pain of a broken heart. These records provide his folkiest feel, and may not be for all hip urbanites, but they will satisfy those looking for a fine enduring American songwriter over the next ephemeral trend.

Black spoke with me by phone from a Toronto Quality Hotel while on tour. He had a slate of morning interviews, and the previous interviewer hadn't called, so that was his shower time. Freshly cleaned, Black spoke in a friendly, amused voice, very calmly, even when cursing his critics or delving deeply into the neurotic obsessions of the songwriting process, laughing often. His language was sprinkled with the Californian "like" and even a "for sure," but his articulate speech did not suggest some stereotypical beach dude, but rather, an unpretentious practitioner of song craft. Like a song, he often speaks in varying persons, commenting back on what he's just said, and switching from "you" to "I" in mid-sentence, especially when realizing the specific case he is.

 

FW: What's the advantage of using a stage name?

FB: It looks better on the marquee.

FW: Does that give you a different persona?

FB: Perhaps in a subtle way, kind of like if I chew a stick of gum, I turn into "gum guy"- a little more aloof, a little faster on his feet. A little more of a smartass. "Gum guy." Ask my wife about "gum guy."

FW: It seems the main advantage of recording live to two-track is speed. What other benefits are there?

FB: The only way that give you more speed is if you go fast. You don't necessarily get speed out of it. You can get speed out of it, but you can get just as bogged down in that kind of recording as you can with multi-track recording.

FW: So what are the advantages?

FB: Well, it's real. It's a recording of a performance, of a real performance between a group of people, an entourage, a band, as opposed to a facsimile of that, which is frequently what people do with multi-track recording. In other words, when people multi-track, they don't necessarily try to go to Sergeant Pepper's impossible surreal world. What they do is build and stack this performance that implies that there's a band playing. In fact what it is is a facsimile of that. There's lots of augmentation and fixing and correcting and doubling and tripling and whatnot. There's nothing wrong with that, so I can't really say that live recording is more advantageous than multi-track because of that, but I prefer it. I prefer it. It's a little more real. It's got a little more heart.

FW: You don't see yourself wanting to approach a Sergeant Pepper's surreal world yourself, again?

FB: I won't say never again, but I've done that a bit. At the moment I'm quite happy trying to channel Frank Sinatra as opposed to John Lennon. I'm referring to recording techniques, the techniques of the 1950's say, versus the 1960's.

FW: There's been some talk of you working with an orchestra. Is that something that would lure you back to a more hi-fi sound?

FB: I don't think that we're gong for a lo-fi sound, just because we're recording live. We go to the same expensive studios or use the same recording equipment that any other band uses, other than the tape machine. We don't really pursue lo-fi unless that's what the song calls for, or that's what the feeling is of what we want to record. I think we pursue hi-fi as much as we ever did. If anything, more so, because it is live and I believe in it, and I want to prove to everybody that it's a good thing. So I think we're constantly trying to make it sound just as good as we can.

FW: Are there special problems that come up with this technique? Mic placement or stage volume?

FB: Separation's a problem some times, if we're all in the same room. We've come up with ways to get around that somewhat. That's a kind of technical problem. Making mistakes is a problem, obviously. You can't just fix a mistake. You've got to go back and do it all over.

FW: I've been listening to these two records The Devil's Workshop and Black Letter Days. I think they're very good.The people I know that have heard them seem to like them very much. Some critics aren't as nice to them. Do you think there's any kind of disconnect, particular to you, because you're not the Pixies?

FB: Yeah. Maybe I'm just being negative because critics can be down on me. My impression is that critics seem to like things that sell a lot of copies. Some kind of financial success on some level. When things are much more obscure, not some obscurity that no one's ever heard of, but maybe an obscurity who used to be somebody. When you're in that situation, when you used to associated with something that was financially more successful, and also critically acclaimed, I think it's hard to get away from that, until you once again ring the bells of success. You're never gonna…I'm never going to… People are always going to say, "Yeah great record. Not quite as good as that old Doolittle record." They're always going to say that. I'm not sure why. I'm just guessing ahead. It has to do with the bottom line. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe my records now just aren't as good.

FW: Is there a conscious decision to move away from that sound, using this much more '50's recording style, using more acoustic guitars and slide guitar?

FB: I guess it's just what happens through time. Other instruments end up in the room. You're a musician; you hang out with other musicians. You hang out in music stores. You hang out in recording studios and there's just this whole world of instruments and people trying out instrument and showing off their instruments and bringing their instruments and borrowing their instruments. It's just a whole little world. And so, you possibly find yourself steeped in twang one day. You don't really plan it.

FW: Have your listening tastes changed?

FB: Not really, no. I like all the same stuff that I've always liked. I may be more familiar with more records, and maybe I'm able to draw on the nuances of certain genres more now than I could, say, when I was twenty, because I've absorbed so much more music. When I was in junior high school I was listening to Leon Russel records.

What really rubs me the wrong way is when English critics dump on me for incorporating a country or southern rock influence. "It's not my right." I've been around country music and folk music my whole fucking life. How dare someone say it would not authentic to incorporate that stuff into my own music? Even The Pixies had the influence of country music and folk music. It's just that people are too stupid to realize it. When I say people, I mean critics that are just talking out of their ass. They're just too dumb to notice. It's almost insulting. I don't want to get all defensive here. It's not like I'm sitting in some fucking palace snorting cocaine.

I'm not a sloth. I'm not saying I expect a pat on the back or anything. I'm happy that critics write about me even if they're giving me bad reviews. As long as they're writing about me I guess it's a good sign. I do sympathize with the position of the critic, somewhat. Let's face it. There are so many great records that have been redeemed through the test of time, as opposed to some review some person gave it on one day, when it was released. How many great records have received a bad review? Where do we begin? I guess critics do have that legacy of lameness.

Wow, I really sound nasty. It's just like…characters. I mentioned the gum guy, and different personas, and interviews can be like that. One interview can adopt a whole vibe or angle and the next one will just be another one.

I'm complaining. I'm just in a complaining mood.

FW: Why did you return to an old instrumental for "Velvety"? You're obviously not lacking songs to work on.

FB: It was an instrumental before. I think it originally had words when I wrote it when I was a teenager. I may have incorporated a line or two from the original lyrics when I was fifteen.

I know why! I'm glad you asked that question. I just remembered why it was around. We had started to play it when we were touring on Dog In The Sand, just the instrumental version. It was a loud, open the set, "Hello! We're here!" kind of rave-up. It was kind of around. One day I had a session, and I didn't have a new song to present to the band and I said "Okay, I'm gonna write some lyrics to this song." As a matter of fact, that was the first thing we recorded for Devil's Workshop, I believe, on the first day.

FW: Is "Velvety," the sister to "Ramona," personifying the Velvet Underground instead of the Ramones?

FB: No, although I had called it "Velvety Instrumental Version" because at the time I thought it sounded like the Velvet Underground, which, of course, it doesn't, in hindsight. So then I was kind of stuck with that. Okay, I called something "Velvety Instrumental Version" so now I've got to write the lyricized version of "Velvety." So I had to think about what "Velvety" meant to me, and it's really lyrically the sister song of a Pixies song called "Velouria." It's the same character, the same imagery. Part of the same lore of Northern California, and Mount Shasta. This woman that I have in mind she's covered in velour. She's like a lemur. She's human, but she's kind of like a cat. She's feline, because she's covered in this short soft hair. Velvety. I suppose it's partially based on my wife, mixed in with lots of other things, things that I've read and things that I've seen when driving around that part of the world, that area of Mt. Shasta. Weed, Eureka.

FW: So Weed is an actual town? You're not just throwing in some drug reference in?

FB: Merle Haggard lives around there, actually. It's a funny area. It's a real New Agey area. I don't know if you've heard of Sedona Arizona, but it's similar to Sedona in that it has these vortices that new agers believe in. I might even kind of believe in them. It has to do with magnetic fields in the Earth's crust. Some are negative and some are positive, some are neutral. I don't really understand it. It's a weird area and the Rosicrucians, that is, the modern cult of Rosicrucians, based of course, in California, published a lot of crack-pot books earlier in the twentieth century including one about this kind of Atlantis continent in the Pacific off the coast of Alaska, Canada or Washington. Up there. Like Atlantis, it sank to the bottom of the sea, and everyone died, but of course, in California many of these beings that were somehow superhuman, or I don't know, they're aliens or something. They're humanesque, but they're not like you or me. They went to Northern California and moved into the hollows of Mount Shasta, which is where they lived in these tunnels. I'm blabbing on, aren't I?

FW: "His Kingly Caves." What's that about?

FB: That is about Graceland. It's about a trip that I took to Graceland many years ago. I thought it would be fun to take hallucinogenic mushrooms while I was there. I was much younger than I am now. It's not something I would really do now. I was young and dumb and I went to Graceland with my girlfriend and we took mushrooms and it was a horrible and tense day. That's a telling of that day in that story.

FW: What is "21 Reasons" about? Who are the 22 singers?

FB: That's about the conquest of California and the natives who lived there by the Spanish back in the 16-1700's. The march north from Baja up north, to just north of San Francisco. The whole mission system. In modern day California there are 21 of these missions. It's the foundation of modern day California. It has quite a checkered history. You start talking about religion and conversion and money and priests and soldiers you know somebody's going to get screwed. It's about all that.

FW: California and the history and Mexico all seem to resonate strongly throughout your career. It seems to come back. Why is that?

FB: I've lived off and on in California my whole life, so I guess just like Lou Reed sings about New York, this is me, I'm interested in these things. I don't know if I have a connection to some of those things that I sing about, or not. I don't know if it's forced or if it's truly inspired by some muse, or ghost. The truth is probably somewhere in between. You pursue things that are around you.

FW: You have a penchant for word games. Dog In The Sand's "Robert Onion" has an acrostic in the lyrics. Anything you want to clue us in on these two records that would be fun to look for?

FB: Well, they're not really satisfying games that one could participate in. I could give an example of a kind of neurotic kind of word game. On the song "True Blue," there's this repeated phrase "In a little while." What happens is, in the following line, after "In a little while" the last syllable always is a syllable from that phrase, "in a little while." For example, "in a little while," the following is "I'm gonna do some wanderin." "In a little while" the next one is "so let's pass the narghile" Then the second half it does the same thing, and it may do it in reverse. The music is in reverse too. There's the "A" section, then the "B" section. It goes back to the "A" section, but then the "C" section is really the "B" section played backwards. There's this whole theme in the lyric, what it's all about, and there's a whole frontward and backward kind of thing there. There's one-this is all theoretical-strain of humanity which devolves, if you want to call it that, and returns to the sea, from whence we came. Maybe tens of thousands of years from now, maybe people will hang out more by the seaside and gradually begin this march back to the ocean. The singer of the song is of that strain in the second half, but in the first half the singer is that strain of humanity that moves away not only from where we are on the land, but away from planet Earth. They go up. Up and out as opposed to the other direction. It's all tied in with the frontward backwards of the lyrics. It's just this incredibly overcomplicated neurotic kind of thing. That's just some little ditty on the record, but sometimes that's what you do when you write a ditty. You become consumed by some little game you're playing. It's almost like it's not in your own control. It's happening very quickly.

FW: What is it about yourself allows you to pick these subjects-"Heloise" is about the nun who had relations with Abelard, at least on some level-what is it about yourself that allows you to draw from a wider amount of subject matters…

FB: The bottom line is, you've got a chord progression and a melody, and you need a lyric. You've got to write about something. Even if you write about nothing. Even if you write a bunch of abstract poetry, you've got to come up with something. If you pursue a subject matter that isn't some kind of crazy game in you brain that's you're going to forget-half the time I don't know what the songs are about, because I'm so consumed by some weird little abstract game in my mind. Five years later, "Hey, what's 'Los Angeles' about?" Man, I don't remember. I was having some crazy thought. The lyrics might be very fragmented, so it's kind of hard to reconstruct the scene in your brain.

Anyway, "Heloise," you've only got a few lines. You don't need to do a lot of research. You don't need to read books or novels to come with the subject matter for a song. All you've got to do is read or hear some little thing and you have an impression of it. It practically writes itself. "Helloise," I had probably written two or three different sets of lyrics before I settled on the last one. I knew that I wanted to write a song called "Helloise." That was the name. I knew I wanted a female name, and that's where it sat. All right, who's Helloise? I don't know who Helloise is? I think on that one I actually researched the name Helloise, to see what came up. I just punched it up on a search engine, and there she was. A nun! Not a nun, she was a pupil of some priest guy, and they had a kid, they took the kid away from her and they castrated the guy and they both retreated back into religious lives, but they wrote to each other, love letters for the rest of their lives, and when they both finally passed away they were buried next to each other in some Paris cemetery. There you go. Gee, I wonder what I should write about?

FW: There seem there are a lot less spaceships, and a lot more heartbreak as your career progresses. Are these break-up records?

FB: No. My wife said "Gee, you're really writing a lot of great songs, Charles, but everyone's gonna think I'm a bitch." Sometimes you just write songs. Some of them are from your own personal experience, but they're not from my diary this month, and this is what I did on my summer vacation. A lot of times they're just things that happened to you a long time ago, or to people in your family. I tend to write depressed, sad songs when I'm content, and when I'm more miserable I tend to get a little abstract, or a little more otherworldly. It's more escapism. I'm saying that generally speaking. It's not that black and white, but that's generally what happens. Because if you're miserable, some people might react to that by saying, "Okay, I'm going to write a song. 'I'm so down, boo hoo.'" Other people are not going to react that way. They're like, "I'm so down" Then when you pursue your art, it's too hard to show what's going on, it's like a double negative. Ahh! I can't do it. It's too much like being in therapy. It's embarrassing. Once you can put some distance between the event and you, it's easier for you; it's easier for me to put it in a song.

FW: Why did you did you decide to frame Black Letter Days with "The Black Rider?"

FB: I don't know. It seemed like a good idea at the time. It was really just one of those, "Hey, let's put both those versions on!" "OK!"

FW: Were they recorded back to back, or at different times?

FB: Same real of tape. That's probably take one and take six. They proceeded to get goofier and goofier, which is why you've got that monster mash version at the end.

FW: Are you worried about the devil?

FB: Do I sing about the devil a lot?

FW: He's in your title, it's framing Black Letter Days. You've got the song "Six Sixty Six" (from the first Frank Black and the Catholics album). Earlier, there seems to be a lot of religious imagery.

FB: Religious imagery for sure. A lot of people have grown up with a lot of religious imagery, so it's fair game.

FW: Do you have strong felt religious beliefs yourself?

FB: No.

FW: What is it like when Joey Santiago comes in and plays. Is that just another musician playing, or is it a special event?

FB: It's a little bit special, especially around other guitar players. I notice it through other guitar players, as opposed to seeing Joey as my friend or as a former bandmate. When I see him playing with other guitar players, sometimes those other guitar players have a lot of technique. Joey is a very natural guitar player. He has technique, but it's his own kind, completely naïve, or free. It's not a style that came out of sitting around practicing scales all day. It's very much like his personality. When he's in the studio, I get to see the reaction of the other guitar players, who all like him very much, but they're always just blown away by him, because they can't believe that he does what he does, and how good it sounds. If you see what he's doing, you can say "Wow. That's so simple," or "That's so weird." He doesn't have all these preconceived notions about what he's supposed to do or not supposed to do. He doesn't have a lot of baggage affecting his style. He's very spontaneous. He's a very interesting guitar player.

FW: What's the hardest thing about writing a song?

FB: I guess, getting myself up to sitting down and composing lyrics. That's fun and easy to do once I get going, but until I actually break the ice, it's like some algebra homework assignment that's hanging over my head. "Aw, shit, I still haven't done my homework. Oh, man, I'm gonna get in trouble." It's like this chore. I always forget how much I enjoy it. Then when I actually sit down and do it, it's like "Oh yeah, I love doing this!" You'd think I would learn after so many years that I like doing this. I should just do it. For some reason it just isn't like that for me, as opposed to picking up a guitar, which is way easier. I enjoy doing that. Even before I sit down to do it, there's no impasse. There's no forcing myself to pick up a guitar and strum on it. That comes really easy. I guess because it's less intellectual. Writing lyrics is a more intellectual thing, and I have to force myself to do it, because I'm not an intellectual. I'm much more likely to sit in a movie theatre or cook on a stove than I am to sit and write poetry.

FW: How do you rate yourself as a songwriter?

FB: Hit and miss.

FW: You don't see yourself as an important songwriter?

FB: Oh, everyone likes to think what they're doing is important, but it would feel foolish to admit that, yes, I consider myself to be an important songwriter. I don't know if I am or not. I'm just doing the best I can. I have a few feathers in my cap. I haven't played at Carnegie Hall. I've never been on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine.

FW: Is that important to you?

FB: No actually. None of that stuff is important really. It's kind of nice when that happens. David Bowie recently recorded one of my songs…

FW: "Cactus"

FB: When something like that happens, you say, "Oh well, I guess I'm not a complete idiot." There's something going on. Bowie likes it. What the hell!

FW: It's quite a thing. Do you have any songs that you say, "That's one of my gems." You always love to play live, and that's one you'd like to be remembered for?

FB: No. Not really. You think that way about certain songs, then you play them enough and you do tire of them. You even go through periods of saying, no, that's not a good song, you go away from it, then sometimes they come back, and you go "Oh it is a good song." I can't say that any song is real dominant. They fall in and out of favor all the time.

FW: What are the band and yourself enjoying playing live right now?

FB: We're doing a lot of rocking songs right now, like "Solid Gold" and "Freedom Rock" and "Thalassocracy" and "Wave of Mutilation." "Men In Black." All these uptempo power rock numbers. We're enjoying that, since we've doing so much of the twang stuff, we haven't been doing so much of the loud rock, so we're enjoying that.

FW: Is the next record going to be a rocker?

FB: I don't know. I have no idea. I don't know until it's done. Then it's like, "So that's what it sounds like."

 



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