Frank Black: “When I get asked about Nirvana, I think, ‘Am I being validated because some other dude mentioned my name?’ F*ck that!”
In a darkened London hotel room, wearing a black suit and heavy shades, Charles Thompson IV appears to be in a glum mood. The man commonly known as Black Francis – when fronting influential indie-rock band Pixies – and later, Frank Black in his solo artist guise, is tired. After 35 years leading the charge in a band adored by critically acclaimed songwriters in the vein of Kurt Cobain and PJ Harvey, the idea of reflecting back upon that life is a little testing, seemingly.
Pixies have established a rep as being one of the most influential bands in heavy rock, lending their loud-quiet-loud dynamic to a raft of thrashing guitar bands, from Foo Fighters to Smashing Pumpkins. When they reformed in 2004, after breaking up a decade earlier, their return was treated with an almost religious adulation.
“It was gratifying,” says Charles. “But that had always been the kind of response we’d got in certain places, especially in the UK, Holland, France, Germany, we always got very zealous crowds at all our gigs.”
Meanwhile, Charles, now in his mid-50s, has a hefty collection of solo records to his name – 10 in total, each one defined by a distinctive vocal range comprising angelic, choir boy swooning at one end of the spectrum and a manic werewolf’s howl at the other.
“I learned how to sing louder when I was a teenager,” he says. “A neighbour of mine – who was a musician from Thailand – taught me how to belt things out. The neighbour said, ‘Sing it like you hate that bitch.’ It was a good lesson.”
Charles is also a member of a very exclusive club: he claims to have seen a flying saucer. “I saw a UFO in my backyard when I was little. A big silver rocket, silent, slow, no marking, low to the ground not very high up. It was moving very slowly over the house…”
Weren’t you petrified?
“It wasn’t a terrifying experience. We were young enough, my brother and I, to just accept it and go, ‘Oh, okay.’ I’d have a very different reaction now, but at the time we didn’t know what we were looking at. We didn’t question it either. It didn’t seem threatening.”
Sci-fi and UFOs have been recurring themes in your lyrics over the years. Were you a fan as a kid?
“Yeah, all the typical stuff. I read Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut books. Lyrically and musically, I like all kinds of music and all different kinds of pop and underground records. But when you’re young you don’t know where to begin. You want to try everything and see what it’s like, even if you ultimately fail at it. You want to do country music, rock’n’roll, blues, punk rock, metal, hardcore, reggae. You want to try it all. I knew I wasn’t going to be good at all of it, but I wanted to at least understand those forms a little bit more. The best way to understand something is to try to play it yourself and hopefully something good will come out of it, or some sort of hybrid. I suppose that might be where our good calls have been: the hybridisation of genres. I guess that’s what we do more than anything. I write spontaneously and can come up with something in the moment that doesn’t need rewriting. I feel like I’ve done so much of that spontaneous writing that I’ve embraced it for too long. So sometimes I’ll go back to certain material and I think, ‘Hmm, this isn’t good enough.’ I’ve tried to be more patient and adopt rewriting as I’ve gotten older.”
Is it true that you actually won a ‘Teenager Of The Year’ award, as mentioned in your 1994 album of the same name?
“I did! So did my brother, it was just an award that they gave out of the school we went to. It was a fun way to spend fifty bucks on college books when you went off to college. It was for good students.”
Did you imagine you would still be doing this when the Pixies started 35 years ago?
“I didn’t imagine anything. I’ve always been in the moment, or the season. I’ve never really done things that I would really contemplate.”
What were you like when the Pixies were starting out?
“I suppose I was enthusiastic and eager to make a mark; eager to figure something out. Being eager to get out of town was always the focus of my band. It was like, ‘How do we get on some bigger circuit, out of this circuit that we were on?’ That circuit wasn’t even regional, but based on the city of Boston. There might have been some other cities in that area, but getting away meant you were ‘official’; that you were in the club.”
You and Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago made quite a racket together. How did you meet?
“In college [University of Massachusetts], we were roommates. Was it a noisy room? I don’t know. We had a couple of acoustic guitars and I think he had an electric, but I don’t remember it ever getting super loud. It didn’t really get loud until we moved to Boston and started a real band. [Dinosaur Jr. frontman] J Mascis was around at the same time. He’s my neighbour now and I’ve known him since I was 18. He was already doing music with Dinosaur [before they became Dinosaur Jr.] then. He was kind of a model for me, because I thought, ‘Well, he’s doing it, he’s putting out singles and working in a band.’ It seemed like he was in that world, so that was validating. I thought, ‘If he can do it then maybe I can do it too.’ But J seemed much more connected and cooler than I was, but it didn’t discourage me. It just made me think, ‘Well, I should do the same as him.’”
Did you and Joey make for the perfect collision of ideas when you got together creatively?
“No, I don’t think we even had any concept of what the perfect collision of ideas would be. We just wanted to do it. I don’t think we assessed everything that completely. We were excited about things, so we played our first gig in a place called Jack’s Lounge and everyone liked it, and we haven’t looked back since. But we didn’t really think about anything, we just moved forward in that instinctive way.”
Which artists did you admire?
“I listened to a lot of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, and Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth and Violent Femmes. We liked a lot of ’60s stuff, too – Donovan and The Animals. We were pretty well schooled in the classics.”
Were people taken aback when you started screaming in clubs with the Pixies?
“I didn’t know that I was any good at being loud until I started playing clubs and I was shouting. But it’s part of rock’n’roll, or punk or whatever, so it wasn’t like I invented shouting. But I think that when I did it, for whatever reason – my physique, my physiological make-up or whatever – ensured that I would be really loud on the mic and people really perked up when I did it. I haven’t tried to use it as a trick or anything. I try not to anyway. I just try to make it part of the vocabulary of the music we’re playing. But I heard about my voice pretty early on from sound people when they said, ‘Damn, you sing loud.’”
Once the Pixies had started to explode, what was it like having a wave of indie-rock and grunge bands referencing your loud-quiet-loud dynamic constantly?
“It was fine. We didn’t really care. We didn’t invent loud-quiet-loud dynamics. There’s dynamics in all kinds of music. I remember hearing Sisters Of Mercy down at the discotheque and there was a lot of dynamic in those big open verses with just a bass, a kick [drum] and a snare. Then something bigger happened in another part of the song that lifted it. There’s plenty of stuff that had dynamics like that that we caught from other bands. It’s not really copying it. And it’s natural that if you do something good, then other people are going to say, ‘Oh, I like that band.’ If someone becomes famous like Nirvana did I can’t really do anything with that information other than sounding like a pompous ass about it. Or, if I go the other direction, I run the risk of sounding unappreciative. At some point I started to resent it a little bit too. Especially being asked about it, because I knew that they were famous and they had some very successful records, but when I’d get asked a question about Nirvana over and over again, I’d think, ‘Where do I fit into this? Am I Nirvana Jr? Am I being validated because some other dude mentioned my name?’ It’s like, ‘Fuck that.’ I can’t do anything about it.”
Did you ever talk to Kurt about it?
“I never met him. I think he was a shy person because we were certainly in the same buildings, or the same venues, or the same places a lot of times, but we never actually met.”
Once bassist Kim Deal and drummer Dave Lovering joined the band, what was the energy in the room like?
“Dave liked the songs that I’d brought to the rehearsals. It was all very practical and the attitude was, ‘Okay, we’re going to try to get a gig at this particular club.’ Joey and I would go to shows and time how long the bands played for and say, ‘Okay, so we need to have this much material.’ Then we would time our material in the rehearsal space. I suppose we could have just asked someone, ‘Hey, how long is an opening slot on a Tuesday night?’ But we were too shy. We rehearsed a lot. We went to our rehearsal space every chance that we could. Not to brag, but my sense was that we rehearsed more than the other bands that were around. It seemed like a lot of the other bands were partying a lot in their rehearsal space. But we took it really seriously, because we knew we had to. There were all these out-of-town indie bands coming to play all the clubs and they were considered cool. We’d go to watch Swans, Sonic Youth or whoever. We knew there was a cool factor that we had to achieve, but we knew we had to achieve it in our own way. We couldn’t just imitate other bands. We had to find our own voice and figure it out. That was probably a good instinct that we had, so we did what we could do with what we had.”
You’ve been Black Francis and Frank Black over the years. Do you enjoy the romance of the alter ego?
“I don’t know if it’s alter ego or not. It’s a form, like a stage name. I don’t know, I’ve always had a little fun with it. I knew I didn’t want to use my regular name; I always wanted to have a stage name. We’re not a very theatrical band naturally, so wherever we can inject a little bit of theatre into it we did, and it’s a nice thing to play with. Even now, it’s turned into this thing where we’re known for just playing and not really talking much. That’s strangely become part of the theatre. Nine times out of 10 we’ll say nothing on the microphone unless it’s a lyric for a song and that becomes the schtick. Wherever we can find it, we’ll use a bit of theatre. Did it add mystery to the band? I guess so, yeah. If that’s the response then fine. Charles Thompson: it’s not much of a stage name. But Black Francis? That has a zing to it.”
The Pixies broke up in 1993. Did you feel like a band on the edge in the build-up?
“Yeah, I suppose.”
What was causing the friction back then?
“Just personal stuff between band members. It wasn’t anything that doesn’t happen in every other band. It was pretty typical stuff.”
Was there a point where you thought the Pixies would never play together again?
“When I broke the band up! No, in truth I didn’t think it was permanent. I was merely acting spontaneously, again, it was very in the moment. I didn’t question it or anything, I just moved on with my life. What was the point where I decided it was over? I don’t know, but it was probably at least a year or two before we actually split.”
What was it that brought you back together in 2004?
“Some commercial radio show in London. I made a joke about getting the band together after responding to a question about the old days. I’d said something really sarcastic or facetious. And they knew that I wasn’t being serious, but they decided – after I’d left the building – to broadcast it as if I was. It spiralled from there into other news and music outlets. It was different because the internet wasn’t so prominent then, like the new 24-hour news cycles on CNN. Although, weirdly, I think that did end up on CNN, as if they knew about our existence. Whatever news outlets were looking for content were saying that we were getting back together, and I hadn’t said that, at least not seriously. Then people were calling me up from the band going, ‘What’s this all about?’ I said, ‘I’m sorry I just made this joke and it got out of control, but I don’t know… should we?’ And so we did.”
Did the band lose something when Kim left in 2013?
“Well, yeah, sure, whatever magical quality or whatever she brought to the mix, that’s gone. Whether what we’re doing now is less than, or as good as, or just different from that, we don’t really know ourselves. We just leave it up to the audience to decide. Some of them will subscribe to one view, others will subscribe to another. We could go and play Zagreb or somewhere and I can guarantee you that half the people don’t even know which one of us is Joey or which one is Black Francis. And they don’t really care. They’re not really tuned into that wavelength. We’re not comic book heroes they’ve been obsessing over.”
As a religious man, did your dad try to steer you away from rock’n’roll?
“My dad has never been discouraging about any sort of musical pursuit. If it’s creative, I’ve never been discouraged, and I’m appreciative of that. What do my parents think of the music? Well, they’re my parents, they think it’s the most amazing thing that’s ever happened!”
How were you treated when the police led you away during your impromptu street gig in Dublin in 2008?
“That was a great moment. They didn’t arrest me. They just removed me from the scene so that it would disperse. I don’t know if it’s part of the Irish character where they’re just always looking for a party, because I think most of the people in that square didn’t know what was going on, or what the deal was. It was this kinda weird, outta control crowd thing that happened and was not intended, and no-one planned it. It had nothing to do with me, but it had everything to do with Dublin, the Irish mentality and a lot of Guinness!”
Interview originally published in September 2019.
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