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INTERVIEW: Frank Black
The Quietus , September 29th, 2016 16:11

As Pixies gear up for the release of their first new album proper since their reunion, we catch up with Frank Black about painting, the new album and the band's legacy

When I call Frank Black he tells me he's been painting all day, in between interviews. Knowing that he is a family man, a practical man, that he owns a house, and that he sends his kids to a Waldorf school, I immediately assume he's doing his share of handicraft around the home. It's part of being a parent, like driving the kids to school or clearing up the house. I'm about to ask him what it is he's painting exactly. Windows, doors, or an entire room? I'm about to say that it's a pain to do and I'm impressed, to say the least, by this casual way of combining his role as the singer and principal spokesperson of the genre-defining Pixies with the tasks of the mundane. Then again, Frank Black aka Black Francis aka Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV's appearance and habitus (unimposing and kind) have long been seen to somehow contradict his sound, which with Pixies was often dissonant and expressive, while being energetic and whisky-fueled on his solo releases.

This incongruence between rock's flashy imaginary and such an ordinary reality must have been particularly striking in the Pixies' early days, when a noise-loving maniac produced their first album, Surfer Rosa, and ideas of subcultural authenticity were still very much adhered to. “What's initially intriguing is the disparity between these genial unruffled people and such … ruffled music,” wrote Simon Reynolds after meeting the band in 1988. These thoughts are flashing through my head when I hear Black saying, “It's always good if I can paint, no matter what the circumstances in my life are.” It dawns on me that rock-mythology (albeit the perculiar Pixies version) has been fooling me again. He says he has a studio about 10 miles from where he lives in Massachusetts. He paints a lot when he's not on tour or with his family. He needs to be creative.

Pixies starting touring again in 2004, only playing their old songs for the better part of the next decade, before releasing three EPs that would become 2014's Indie Cindy, their first album in more than 20 years. The end of this month sees the release of their sixth studio album, Head Carrier, before going on to a European tour in November with numerous dates in the UK already sold out.

tQ caught up with Black to talk to him about recording the album, taking up painting and the band's legacy and future.

Frank, what exactly is a head carrier with reference to the album title?

Frank Black: The title's a reference to the martyrs and saints that had their head cut off. I guess the miracle of those things is that they remain alive, if only for a short time, and they are able to carry their heads. And the most famous story of this is Saint Denis of France [the patron saint of Paris], who continued to preach while he walked down the hill of Montmatre in Paris towards the river Seine for about seven kilometers or something, preaching the whole way, keeping his voice the whole way. And so he dies at the river's edge. I don't know what the origins of the word are, but the other word, besides head carrier is cephalophore. This is a particular thing, you know, catholic stories of martyrs who had their head removed and then continued to be miraculous in the last moments of their life. The song 'Head Carrier' is a story of Saint Denis, who was beheaded along with his two assistants, his two colleagues, and the song is sung from the perspective of one of his colleagues.

I'd like to hear about the process of how the new record came to be. You've said that Head Carrier was Pixies' comeback album, whereas Indie Cindy was more of a transitional record. How would you explain this?

FB: Well, the transitional record was the first record that we made in many years and in the middle of making that record we lost a member of the group. So we didn't know what do to at the time but we felt like, well, we got the songs and we got the studio and we got the producer and we're here so let's just make it. It won't be necessarily what people want ideally. It might not be what we want, ideally, but we like to work and we just felt like we had to do it because we didn't know how the band was going to change. We weren't going to flake you know, that change happened, but we needed to get on with the music.

We knew the record was going to be transitional while we were making it. We knew people were going to view it suspiciously and people were going to view it suspiciously maybe even if we didn't lose Kim Deal from the band, you know, because it was the first record we made in 20 years of whatever, so we already knew that it was going to be be a transitional thing and now you're about to release your comeback album for real.

This time you worked with a new producer, after working with Gil Norton on the last four albums. His name's Tom Dalgety. It seems that he comes from a heavy rock music background, or at least he's very interested in these heavy guitar bands. Why work with a new producer on this record?

FB: We could have worked with the same producer that we usually work with, Gil, but we felt like we had a new band member and we wanted to have the record being about the future and not about the past as much as we could. So we needed a challenge, a different person, you know, and so, we talked about different producers but basically, our manager suggested Dalgety and we had dinner with him and he seemed like a great guy.

So it was a feeling?

FB: That's the most important thing, to get along with people. When you feel like you click with them. That's more important even then what their background is or what they've done before, how good they are, how new they are or whatever. All that stuff is really secondary to just getting along with the person. Because everyone, I think all musicians and producers, they know the real goal is to come up with a record that is entertaining and not boring, that's the goal. I think if everyone agrees that that's the goal then it doesn't matter who's the band and it doesn't matter who's the producer. It just means that that you try to realise the ambition no matter what the situation is or who the people are. Turns out that we like him a lot and we'll probably work with him again.

Did you have similar ideas about what the record was going to sound like? Or did it happen in the making?

FB: I'm sure that Tom had some ideas about what he thought the record was supposed to sound like. But he didn't necessarily talk about that a lot with us. We certainly didn't have any visions about what it should sound like. We just basically worried about fine music and writing music and trying to be a good band for the producer. We didn't worry about the vision. We were comfortable. I don't like to have everything all worked out in my head because there's always a chance of it coming out different than you think it should anyway. But it was relaxing knowing that Tom seemed like he had an idea about what we had to do. So we just let him do it. We didn't really get in his business too much.

But you did enter the studio with already written songs, right?

FB: Yeah, sure.

Which was a bit different to making Indie Cindy, where it's been said that you worked on songs actively in the studio.

FB: Yeah, well we had songs before we went into making Indie Cindy, but most of those songs were just based on demos that I made myself with the producer and the band was not really involved. It very much was a record based on a kind of blueprint without rehearsing. On this record we went a more traditional way of rehearsing and making demos and making more demos. We did all the work before we actually went into the final recording studio.

You have stated that with Head Carrier you were trying to get out of your comfort zone, maybe to break with established narratives of what the Pixies sound like, what they are. I do have to say though that there are quite a few songs on the record that will sound… familiar, I think is the right word, to a Pixies fan, more so than the music on Indie Cindy.

FB: Yeah, I suppose that can be. Again, that's a result I think of a band working in a rehearsal space. Whereas Indie Cindy... I don't think I've heard people describe that record as psychedelic, but to me Indie Cindy, in a subtle way, is more psychedelic than a lot of our other records. You know, to a certain extent, any song that we do is gonna have a certain familiarity because, well, we're a good band and if you're a good band then the filter of the band is pretty strong. So it doesn't really matter what songs you do, they're going to end up sounding like Pixies. I like to think that some of the songs are not the type of songs that you would have heard on other records. Some of the song styles are different.

Let's get straight to some of the songs. There's the already notorious 'All I Think About Now', which you co-wrote with, and is sung by, new bass player Paz Lenchantin. The story goes that you asked Paz to write a song and she told you to write the lyrics. Then you said you'd do it, but she was to tell you what to write about. Her idea was to compose it as a letter to Kim Deal. Now, the beginning of the song reminds me an awful lot of 'Where Is My Mind'.

FB: We didn't know that it was going to be evocative of 'Where Is My Mind' when we did it. At some point we started to hear that, but I guess it involves the musical action of placing two notes together that are a semitone away from each other, which is very common in rock music. It's that kind of thing happening in 'Where Is My Mind'. The song at the time seemed to want those notes in it. I believe that Paz was playing some semitone juxtapositions on her bass, but she felt like this should be played on guitar. Then we had Joe play it on guitar and we liked the way that it sounded and we were like 'oh, this reminds us of 'Where Is My Mind''. But it's not the same chord progression and I don't think that the notes shift in even the same pattern or the same way. It's just because it's two notes that are close to each other. Yeah, it reminds me of 'Where Is My Mind', but it's also different than that because that's just the way it came out. We weren't trying to make it sound like 'Where Is My Mind'.

The lyrics in the song, you've also suggested, are universal, they're applicable to all kinds of situations, though written about a very specific situation. Another song on the album, 'You Might As Well Be Gone', starts with you singing: “You're the chosen one, but I could use a change.” Is this a sort of reaction to 'All I Think About Now'? It seems like a counterweight to the other song, which to me is quite nostalgic.

FB: This is not intentional. The song 'You Might As Well Be Gone' was done much earlier in the writing process, like 6 months before, so that song existed first. But I guess they both come from the similar emotional viewpoint, similar kinds of emotions. Then you put them together on a record and then you have a dialogue between two different songs. But this is something that just happens, you can't plan it. Well, you can plan it but we're not really big planners in that way.

You've said that, with regards to family obligations, it doesn't feel right to release records that don't sell anymore, while in the last couple of years you've been quite prolific as a solo artist. I'd just like to mention a collaboration with Reid Paley, you did a couple years back, which is a kind of weird country record. It has this really nice, raw Tom Waits feel to it, but it probably didn't sell very well. You've also released two albums with your wife since 2009, as Grand Duchy, and of course nearly 20 solo records as Black Francis since the early nineties. Now, if you say, no more records which won't sell, does that mean more Pixies or what?

FB: You know, if Pixies are active and they exist as a group then I will throw my songs in with those guys, because we have an opportunity to play for a larger audience. If I have more creativity that I want to get out of me, I try to find other ways than pursuing solo records so much. I don't think I'll never do one again, because if I'm not making a Pixies record then I need to do something else. But I won't necessarily make new music because when you make a record there are these great expectations on the side of the record company who are going to produce your record, promoters that are going to do your shows. They want you to do interviews, they want you to play shows. I mean, they want it to be a campaign. I feel like I haven't really been able to satisfy some of these people in the music business with proper campaigns behind those solo records. I'm not necessarily going to make any money out of it, but it means I have to take myself away from Pixies and from my family, simply to exist as an artist. This is hard to pay for. So what do I do? I paint! I've taken to painting in the last few years.

I'd be curious to see your paintings at some point.

FB: I'm working on it. I'm painting today. Hopefully I'll have a show some time.

You stand in a great tradition of people who started to paint after becoming famous as musicians. Captain Beefheart is the obvious example, but I can think of a number of musicians who turned to painting later in their life.

FB: I initially felt shy about doing painting because I wasn't a professional painter. I almost felt like I didn't deserve to paint. But I have gradually adopted a different kind of attitude about this. I think that painting is a very ancient form of expression. I think everybody has a painter inside of them somewhere. As I paint, I realise, while it's something I do very much by myself, it's very solitary, the creative process feels similar to making music to me now, at least as far as my brain is concerned.

Pixies' latest album, Head Carrier, is out now. They tour the UK from November into December and you can get tickets here