As the singer and songwriter in seminal American rock band the Pixies, Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV aka Frank Black aka Black Francis, is perhaps the most influential songwriter of the modern era. Since the Pixies originally disbanded in 1993, Frank Black has recorded 20 studio albums. However, his prolific output will be forever outweighed by the mammoth influence his songwriting has had on popular (and unpopular) music. A very wry-humoured and candid Frank Black spoke to me in 2008 ahead of his upcoming Australian solo tour, and we discussed why he’ll never rest on his laurels.
Your last trip to Australia was when the Pixies had reformed and you played in Australia for the very first time (in 2007). Was it a weird experience to travel to a country you’d never been to and receive such an overwhelming response?
Yeah, it had its moments. It was enjoyable. However, there were enough conflicts among the band at that time, while the shows were going on, that made it feel like the end of the band the first time (back in 1993). It just felt like the end. It was kind of like, “Yep, this is it. We’re going back to our more obscure lives.” (laughs)
Since you started releasing your solo work, have you had a desire to distance yourself from the sound ofthe Pixies?
I don’t really have enough artistic visionto say, “I want to sound like this or that.” There may be a desire on my part to be respected as a writer, or even to supersede the success of the Pixies. But that’s all ego…which I stand behind. There’s nothing wrong with ego, it’s a part of being a musician. You’ve gotta have some ego, and I’ve got plenty of it. But you get what you get – it’s showbiz. Maybe you get to escape the shadow of something you did before, maybe you don’t. I’m not going to become a dentist! I’m in it to win it, on whatever level. I’m making money as a musician, so I have nothing to complain about. I didn’t start out (in music) saying, “Ok, I am going to rule the world. I am going to be the most important rock singer there ever was. I’m going to be the biggest thing ever! That’s my goal!” That wasn’t my goal! I just wanted to be in a cool fucking rock band, write some music, make some records and play in some clubs – take whatever show business has to offer me. So it’s mission accomplished. I’ve had complete artistic freedom since I became a musician about 22, 23 years ago. No one has ever told me any different. I’ve never signed a contract that dictated what I had to do. I can do whatever I want! I’m a f*#king artist! (laughs) I can never understand when I read about other bands that say, “Oh well, we had to do it because the record company told us to blah blahblah.” What the hell are they talking about? That has not been my experience. I don’t think anybody told Bob Dylan what to do!
You’re currently promoting a mini album called Svn Fngrs. I believer the title is referencing a hero from Irish mythology called Cúchulainn– what made you choose that subject matter?
Well, the concept of the mini-album is ‘Demi-Gods’. Cúchulainn is featured twice on the session, but there are songs about other Demi-Gods, and other subject matter, which through my artistic licence I have determined to be ‘Demi-Godish’ (laughs). Some songs are about an actual demi-god, while others are relating us to the concept of a demi-god in a different sort of way. But how did I come upon this? Do you ever go to Wikipedia? Well, if you look in the left hand column, you will see the ‘random search’ choice. I believe it’s called ‘Random Article’. I must have clicked on it for 45 minutes. It wasn’t like I just chose the first thing that came up! I still haven’t found what I’m looking for! (sings, referencing the U2 song) There I was, clicking away. “No, no, no, maybe, no, no, maybe, no no… ah Demi-Gods! Of course! Tell me more about these Demi-Gods” (laughs). I don’t know why some things appeal to you, but on that particular evening I had contemporary writer’s block – I was under a little bit of pressure. There was the ‘Random Article’ button! Maybe I’ll try it again some time. That’s the kind of guy I am. When the wife and the kids have gone to sleep, I might just start clicking on ‘Random Article’ for a little while and read about obscure history or recipes. I don’t know what I’ll stumble on to! But that’s the wonderful, internet powered world that I live in now. I’m into it.
You’re very prolific compared to other solo artists – do you become discontent when you’re not making a new record?
I think that’s what it is – I’m just restlessor something. I want to make music and I don’t want to sit around and analyse it to death. I know I occupy a niche – I’m not going to sit there and think, “Right, I really need to make a record that’s going to bring me to the next level.” I’ve done that stupid game and it doesn’t work for me. It’s not what makes me feel creative or vital. It might work for other peopleto move in that spirit, but for me it just rubs me the wrong way. I want to express myself and do it. I don’t want to sit around and wonder if something is going to get on the radio. I mean, c’mon, let’s just make some music.
Do you try to avoid doing the same thing twice?
No, I don’t even have any rules about that. I’ve got no rules. I just want to make music. I admire someone like Mark E Smith from The Fall. Let the fucker go! I’m not going to sit around and listen to every one of those fucking records (laughs), but I appreciate it. There’s someone that’s saying, “Fuck it, man. I’m going to express myself whether people love it or not. Sometimes it will be beautiful and resonate with most people. Other times it won’t.” [Mark E Smith] does it because he does it. I like that and I appreciate that. I appreciate other people who have a lot of artistic vision and contemplate. They’ll say, “I’m only going to make a record every two or three years. I’m really going to think about it and construct it.” That’s just how they work. Some people make demos and sketches, and work on it in what I consider to be a tedious fashion. Other people are like, “Go! Put it into record. Woo!” They just blurt it all out. I understand both [approaches] and both are valid. I just happen to be more the type that doesn’t contemplate something for a couple of years.
The music you made over 20 years ago with the Pixies has been embraced by a legion of new kids – why is that?
It’s real, it’s not contrived. Whatever is pretentious about it, is pretentious in a heart-felt way. When I was being pretentious, it was in a sweet way and it’s passionate. It wasn’t like I was saying that we were great – to the people out there I was just like they were, but I was in a band. People could still relate. I think the Pixies’ music had a lot of soul, that isn’t in mainstream music. I’m not saying all mainstream music is like that, but a lot of it is lacking in the soul department. Being young and naive had a lot to do with it too. You can only be young and naive once, before you’re just old. The Pixies was a short burst of creativity. It’s the first band I was ever in! So, it really represented this quick burst of creativity from some people that didn’t really know what they were doing. When that correlation happens, cool stuff happens. You only get that once – that’s not to say that you can’t be something else and do other things later in life, but you’re only in that virginal place at one time.