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Grandy Duchy's Frank Black & Violet Clark Interviewed
Mic Wright , April 24th, 2012 05:22

Synth rock couple on record company shenanigans and the legacy of the Pixies

The Quietus is sat in a London coffee shop, just off Regent Street, perched on a table with a laptop and some over-priced juice concoction. In their art space in Oregon, Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson, the human vessel for Frank Black and Black Francis, the demonic howl of the Pixies, and his wife and bandmate in Grand Duchy, Violet Clark, are struggling to hear through the Skype static.

After one aborted question, Clark laughs: “Any question that starts with “Is it weird that…” or “Is it strange that…”, the answer is YES.” It’s going to be one of those interviews and yet, and yet, the good humoured chatter and enthusiasm of Grand Duchy breaks through the bad vibes. We’re all in this together, voices floating somewhere in the ether above the Atlantic.

The Quietus opens the conversation with the contentious point. A Pitchfork review of Let The People Speak, the Grand Duchy record the pair have popped on Skype to promote, has just dropped. And it’s not good. Neither as a piece of writing nor as a review of the album. Inevitably the ‘P’-word has got more play than either Clark or Thompson are entirely comfortable with.

Thompson is sanguine: “It’s not such a problem for me. I’m such a [laughs] ‘veteran’ that I embrace this. Everyone has baggage.” Clark kicks back a little harder: “It’s deeply annoying. Everybody is like, still grieving, all these years on. They want to resurrect that thing. I guess at the end of the day, what’s the name of the band on the cover, it’s Grand Duchy. Pixies doesn’t show up anywhere on the cover or in the liner notes.”

That’s not to say that Thompson baulks at talking about the Pixies. In fact, he’s wildly enthusiastic about the reunion with his old bandmates. There’s a real joy in his description of the four back bashing out those perfect little shards of rock music: “It is hard to see sometimes why people like Pixies records sometimes. When I’m around the other Pixies, I can feel it. When we lock into the first number and the sound is good. It’s kinda like: holy moly, there it is. And I think: I forgot, this is actually true. There’s a chemistry. I couldn’t tell you what it is.”

He continues: “It’s hard to acknowledge that special feeling when you’ve been with people for such a long time and everyone’s grouchy, tired, high and 25-years-old. That’s why bands break up. If you can get back together, you see why it worked first. Hats off to Kim Deal, David Lovering, Joey Santiago and Black Francis!”

Talking about the original break up of the band, he is again pretty philosophical: “The bad feeling was about pretty small stuff ultimately. One thing I’ve learned about bands who are about a long time is that the blueprint of their collective personality kind of remains the same. You’ll change and get more mature, a lot of stuff is exactly the same.”

It’s all rather convivial. But wasn’t young Black Francis…well…a bit…you know…of a jerk to interviewers? Thompson concedes that’s probably true: “It doesn’t bother me now to get the same questions about Nirvana etc. Sometimes it depends what side of the bed you wake up on. It’s less to do with the journalist and more to do with my state of mind.”

“A certain part of the job at this point is I’m either doing the interview or not. I feel, kind of, obligated to give it my best effort. It’s harder when you're younger because you don’t have the experience and probably smoked a big joint before the interview. When you’re taking drugs to better enjoy your interviews, come on!”

The excitement and joie d’vivre found in Thompson and Clark’s interview answers is shot right through Let The People Speak, a delightful little oddity of a record which is commentated on between tracks by the band’s friend, DJ Jonathan L. Clark explains: “He also was a fan from early on of Grand Duchy. He was kind of championing our stuff. It was fun to honour him.”

Thompson elaborates: “My memory of it is that Violet, even before she was officially in the producer’s chair, had said she wanted the record to be about a journey. I’d know this DJ guy for a really long time and at some point Vi suggested getting him to talk between tracks. When we edited his voice, it was almost irrelevant what he was saying. We used his voice as a texture.”

While Clark produced the record she scoffs off any idea that she has “chops”: “I don’t! I’m just…I had more concrete ideas. I pursued them. It’s fun to see things come together. I also had a guy mixing it. His stamp on it is really strong.” That guy is Dean Archer who has played bass for PJ Harvey, The Fall and…Frank Black.

There are nascent plans to tour the record (“We want to play art museums and galleries,” says Clark) and even to make a trip to Europe but the duo have realistic expectations. Thompson says: “The state of affairs being what they are, there are some soft expectations from the powers that be but they’re going through their own struggles so it’s nice to have this situation where there are less rules. The internet changes a lot. It’s nice to make stuff up.”

That said, after so many years in the business, Thompson is still frustrated by record company shenanigans. He says: “I’m really bored of the gatekeepers, year after year, saying: ‘Oh Charles, your newest song that we’re promoting, they’re just not into it and I don’t think we can get it on the big pop programme’. And I’m like: ‘Yeah! No kidding. Why would it?”

Looking back, Thompson has a clear vision of where he sits in the musical landscape: “I’m from the Pixies on 4AD Records. I came into this as a so-called indie artist, before that word was so prevalent, I don’t understand why there’s so much concern about whether or not it goes to a certain place commercially. I didn’t get into this to do that. Why are indie labels trying so hard to set the world on fire? We’re setting it on fire in a different way. We’re trying to be subversive.”

He continues: “The radio plugger who is assisting us on a Tuesday afternoon somewhere, I’m the 10th guy they’ve dragged around town in a taxi that month and they’re already following a script and apologising that the DJ didn’t understand that my record just came out. They always assume that I’m going to get really offended and say: ‘Oh! we know that you’re a star.’ It feels fussy and fake fussy. I’m not complaining. I’m just observing. Where’s all the artsy fartsy man? Everyone’s still gauging everything by numbers.”

Charles Thompson and Violet Clark aka Grand Duchy: not gauging everything by numbers.

Let The People Speak by Grand Duchy is out now on Cooking Vinyl. Watch the Quietus for Frank Black's Baker's Dozen tomorrow