Here Comes The Man: Frank Black Interviewed
, March 8th, 2010 04:57
Ben Hewitt and Black Francis sup on gin and wine respectively as they discuss music, sexuality, ghosts, Lou Reed and Virginia Woolf - and, just maybe, another Pixies reunion tour
Frank Black puts down his glass of red wine and rises from his seat in the upstairs bar of a plush London hotel to greet The Quietus. The last time he was in the capital, he was being worshipped by thousands of ardent Pixies fans as he ripped through material from the band's most famous album, Doolittle. But rather than rest on his laurels and embrace a full Pixies reunion, Francis has shelved any plans to reunite with Kim Deal, Dave Lovering and Joey Santiago on a permanent basis and returned with another solo record, NonStopErotik.
The Quietus sat down with Black to discuss haunted recording studios, the sexiness of Nina Simone and those Pixies rumours . . .
I heard that the stimulus for NonStopErotik was an old guitar you were given. Is that true?
Frank Black: Well, I was given a junk guitar, and I didn't want it. I don't want to carry around some giant object that someone gave me. I've gotta carry this thing all round the country with me till I get home, and hate it for the rest of my life?
I imagine you have a lot of guitars already.
FB: Not guitars so much...it just happened to a guitar. I abandoned the thing and somehow it ended up back in my possession a couple of years later, and I changed my mind about the object. I still think it's a crap, shitty guitar, but it looks cool. It's painted black. And it was given with all the best intentions, and it just became a magical guitar. It seemed to have riffs in it, it seemed to have chords in it.
And you cleaned it with red wine, right? Why?
FB: Yeah, because that was what was available in the room.
Didn't you have any water?
FB: Yeah, there was water, but water wouldn't be good for cleaning an instrument. Not that red wine is any better, but you feel like you can clean something with a liquor more than water. It sterilises it and cleans it, and gets gunk off. And it was kind of romantic. A guitar with a sad little story, in the sad little room that I was.
It said on the press release that the studio was haunted...
FB: Well, yes. That's why I said it. You're the tenth person that's said to me 'You said it was haunted'. [Moves to within an inch of The Quietus' nose]. It was haunted.
Well sometimes, artists have no idea what's been put on their press releases.
FB: Oh, ok then. Well maybe I wasn't clear.
How did you know it was haunted?
FB: [Laughs]. Because all studios are haunted.
Did you feel any kind of supernatural presence?
FB: Presence. There wasn't any flying lampshades or anything like that, but ghosts in the studios - when the session is going good and good stuff is happening, they leave you alone. They don't get mischievous. But then when stuff breaks and you get problems, or something more scary...
Maybe it's a sign that the album was good if they left alone.
FB: That's what I tell myself.
I think the title NonStopErotik raised a lot of eyebrows.
Do you think it's fair to categorise it as a sexual album, or do you think that does it a disservice?
FB: I would hope that the subject of sexuality has a lot more depth than being just about sex. It's not just about sex. That's a major component of it, but there's all the thing that that is connected to. Can you see what I'm saying? I like to think that it's more complex than being 'my sexy album'. Sexy isn't the right word. Sexual is right. Sexy? Maybe here, maybe there...
But then a lot of your work has always been rooted in the sexual. It may have been cryptic, but I think it's always been there.
FB: I think so. The actor Jack Nicholson says that when he does a scene, he has to decide as an actor who his character is. And I think there's a certain amount of acting that goes on in making records, so it doesn't matter what you're singing about...actually, forger what I said about acting. But if you're in tune with your personality, you'll be true to who you are sexually.
What do you think the sexiest record ever made is?
FB: Well that's the perception that another person is going to have, so it's kind difficult for me to say. The question is still valid though...my wife always says 'Oh, that's a sexy one, I like that one' and I say 'Really?'. But that's because she has her own personality, so I don't know.
I meant other people's records, more than you own.
FB: Oh, I apologise. Um...[long pause]. Come back to that one. I don't know...whenever you're asked something like this it's like...A is for Abba and B is for Beatles. Where's my iPhone? [Picks up iPhone and mimes scrolling through it to find an answer to the question].
Going back to NonStopErotik, do you think it's a more complex...
FB: Nina Simone.
FB: Yeah. She's kind of haunting, but there's something about her that's very, very sexual. She's pure. She's pure. She's woman...she's not girl. She's a real woman. She's very seductive...it's like 'Whatever you say, Nina. I'm just going to sit right here and listen to you'.
OK. Do you think that even with the sexual songs on NonStopErotik, there's a lot more complexity to them than their first appears? 'When I Go Down On You', for example, seems to be quite heartfelt - quite romantic...
FB: Yeah, it's a romantic song. The punch line is a sexual thing, but that's not the point. The point is, I suppose, forget about intellectualising everything. The thing that does bring you happiness is the sexualised. This I understand. This means something. Everything else is just a big question mark. This, I know. Everything else, I don't know.
Would it be fair to say you've mellowed a bit on this album, with stripped back songs like 'Rabbits' and [Flying Burrito Brothers cover] 'Wheels'?
FB: Mellowed...no, in my opinion.
FB: Because you're making a sweeping generalisation. I've written 250, 300 songs and 20 albums, and if you were to go through each album, lo and behold, you're going to find some mellow tracks.
FB: Sorry, I didn't mean to be dismissive of your question. That's just my honest response.
It's alright, don't worry. Are you going to play some live shows in the UK to promote the record? Weren't you arrested in Ireland in 2008 for playing an impromptu acoustic gig?
FB: No, that was an exaggeration. I did go away in the police car, but it was a friendly 'Stop this now before someone falls under a bus or something' thing. It was a crowd control situation. People thought I'd been arrested, but they didn't actually arrest me. They didn't know who I was.
I was hoping they might have asked you for an autograph. So you're planning on playing live in the UK again?
FB: I suppose. I don't know. I mean, what's the longest period there's ever been between shows? I don't know, six months tops. More and more I'm kind of...it's like, look, this whole thing is really going to hell in a hand basket, this music business. Let's be sensible about this, and just do away with the campaign, shall we? It's never felt like much of a campaign to me. I'm just some cult artist who put out a lot of records and went out on tour on a regular basis, and yeah, on my current tour I'll play a lot of the most recent recordings because that's what's fresh in my head. But more and more, I'm kind of tired of these old models. Even when they were relevant they didn't seem that relevant, and I get a little frustrated when the record business cling to these old models.
The problem with the big record labels is that they're not willing to have A & R people say 'You know what? New kid on the block, we think you're special. You have your whole life and career ahead of you, so sure, we're going to try to control and manipulate you, but you're an artist after all, and we're going to stick by you throughout your career and the ups and the downs. Because we're going to bet that if you have that stability in your life, and a relationship with a record label who looks after your recordings and what not, it's going to pay dividends'. This whole marketing thing is getting more and more twee, bands are over before they even get a record out. That's the extreme end of it.
I digress, sorry, but you know...'Oh, your new single' - not you, but the radio people. It's just like, 'Come on you guys. Do we have to do this whole single thing again? There is a single, fine, but do we have to pretend that I'm going to have a number one? Come on, I know what's on the radio. Does anything above this sweater [pointing to himself] have anything to do with that? So stop it. It's so boring.
Would you consider doing some more Don't Look Back shows with the Pixies? Say for Surfer Rosa or Come On Pilgrim?
FB: That would be nice.
Would you like to do it?
Do you think it will happen?
FB: I'll tell you what will happen. Whatever will happen...if people really wanna know what's gonna happen with the Pixies, they need to talk to promoters and agents. That's where the business is right now - in the live market. And they're the ones that decide all this shit. So whatever is going to happen - whether they tell us directly or in an indirect way because they feel like they have to manipulate us - they're the ones who know.
We're interested in anything that's going to earn us a fair wage. It's not to say it's not about art, but we made that art fucking twenty years ago. So forget the fucking goddamn art. This ain't about the art anymore. I did the arty farty part. Now it's time to talk about the money. How much do you think we should sell the tickets for? Where do you think we should play? How many shows do you think we should play?
How about new material? Kim Deal said that she wouldn't be interested until the Pixies began to feel like a band again, but you all seemed to be having a good time at the Village Underground and Brixton shows. Could that happen?
FB: Well, that's your observation that it can, so maybe you're right.
You probably have a better idea than me if it's going to happen.
FB: Not necessarily.
Well, it's not my decision...
FB: It's not my decision! If it is, I'd like it too. Of course I would. Do I seem like I've said anything in the past different? The more I talk about it with guys like you the less likely it is to happen.
If you did work on new material, what would your ambitions for it be?
FB: The only ambition would be for it to be good. It will be a success or a failure commercially, but as long as it's good I don't care. And then we can move on, and it will be about business again.
Have you spoken to Kim about the possibility of new material?
FB: I tour with her. I go out to dinner with her. We talk about plenty of shit.
So have the conversations move on at all recently?
FB: I just told you, the more I talk about it with guys like you, the less likely it is to happen.
So you're staying tight lipped on this one?
FB: [Fixes The Quietus with a long, unblinking stare]
OK then. We were speaking in the office about you being a Lou Reed fan. Is that right?
FB: I like Lou Reed, yeah.
I think there's a few loose parallels between your careers, too. Is he someone you'd have an interest in working with?
FB: Just because I like someone doesn't mean I want to work with them. What's Lou Reed going to get out of me?
Well, what would you get out of Lou Reed?
FB: I don't know what he's like to work with. He's a lone wolf. He's not known as a collaborator - he's had a handful over his career. It's just that stage of the hypothetical dream band: pick your four favourite musicians alive and dead... The difference between that and having them all in the same room together in reality. But fair enough, you like someone, would you like to work with them...
I'm a front man, he's a front man, he's 20 years older than me, he's a legend in his own time. Would I like to work with him on some level? Sure. I like Lou Reed. Let's say...who's your favourite author?
Virginia Woolf, probably.
FB: Someone living.
I don't know. Most of my favourite ones are dead.
FB: OK, well, Virginia Woolf is back from the dead. Would you want to work on a book together?
I don't think she'd be very impressed with my contribution.
FB: There you go!
I think there's a bit of a difference between comparing me and Virginia Woolf, and you and Lou Reed.
FB: There isn't though - apart from we're both alive.
I was thinking more about reputation.
FB: Alright, well. You know what I mean. You can't artificially put two people together.
Non Stop Erotik is out soon on Cooking Vinyl