Back 'n' Black

Frank Black Francis and his Pixies return dry and determined after a dozen years

When the Pixies broke onto the Boston music scene in the mid '80s, they looked more like a group of shithead townies than like a band that would change the course of rock 'n' roll history. Dressed in suburban drab, they were a band of few words and fewer stage antics. But their music was furious and unclassifiable, Black Francis's guttural outbursts were startling, and his straight-faced delivery of quirky, abstract, sardonic lyrics caught people off guard. Most didn't know what to make of them. But the curious fascination of a few gradually grew into a sizable following among loyalists. Today, even after the Pixies have been credited with spawning alternative rock—and on the tail end of an international reunion tour that brings them to New York this Saturday for the first time in ages, with eight sold-out shows running through December 18—any one Pixie could walk into Wal-Mart unnoticed and maybe even get asked, "Excuse me, do you work here?"

When asked how the band's return after 12 years feels, Black Francis (or Frank Black, the guy who led the Catholics following the Pixies' breakup; or Charles Michael Kittredge Thompson IV, as he was named at birth) says, "It feels triumphant in the sense of like, 'Wow, people really did like us.' But it felt triumphant the first time around. We were a successful band, we had lots of roadies working for us, we made money, we recorded records, we went on tour, we played plenty of sold-out shows, and we didn't have day jobs."

But despite all that, and despite having videos aired on MTV in the late '80s and early '90s and selling an impressive number of albums for a band that never quite went mainstream, the Pixies didn't nearly match the commercial success of certain bands that they influenced. "I think that was just a miscalculation on everyone's part, even our own," Black explains. "We're kind of in that arty-farty category. And I'm sorry, but you're just not going to see us on People in the News on CNN. There's this ridiculous show on international CNN that I see when I'm on tour in Europe—they spotlight all these up-and-coming bands, all these success stories—and this big-lipped model woman hosts it . . . " He starts laughing. "I'm sorry, nothing against her—I feel like I'm being really cruel. But it's just kind of easy to poke fun at, it's very middle-of-the-road, and very safe and awkward in its presentation—you're not going to see the Pixies on a show like that, you're just not."

La la love you: One big, happy family
photo: Chapman Baehler
La la love you: One big, happy family

The fact that Black Francis broke up the Pixies via fax is well documented, and speculations still abound about whether bassist Kim Deal and Black's falling-out had to do with her substance abuse, a creative-power struggle, or perhaps even a romantic affair turned sour. But who cares? Whatever their differences were, they seem to have reconciled. "It's fun," says Black of the tour. "We're enjoying each other's company, and enjoying playing the songs, and enjoying our success. But we're not saying that we have some grand statement to make necessarily; we sort of did that already." Asked what that statement was, he explains, "I think it's telling that the only movie that the band has sat down and watched together, other than on a tour bus, is Eraserhead—I think that kind of sums up a lot of what the band is about. Talking about David Lynch specifically, he kind of entertains you while he makes you a little uncomfortable, and I think the Pixies are a little bit about that: entertaining you, but maybe at the same time making you feel a little awkward or uncomfortable about what you're listening to—but not necessarily in an aggressive way.

"I remember what it was like to be on a festival bill with the Pixies back in 1989, and it's not the way that it is now," Black says. Then he jokingly adds, "I feel like a good 40 to 50 percent of the audience is looking at us going, 'When are they going to kick a beach ball out here? How come they're just standing there and playing?' "

Probably the most striking difference, though, concerns the absence of certain substances—it's a dry tour. "There isn't any alcohol onstage, and there isn't any in the dressing rooms," Black explains. "There are certain people who are seeking to abstain from drugs and alcohol, so everybody—in a spirit of love and cooperation—is going, 'Hey, cool, we're not going to tempt you.' " He sees this as positive. "Let's face it, when people get high, they get loud, sometimes they get obnoxious, and some people have real personality shifts. Performing in a band, you deal with people who are on drugs or alcohol all the time, and it's not like, 'Oh man, people were so groovy tonight because they were all fucked-up.' It's like, 'Man oh man, the people down in the front row tonight were all fucked-up—they were so annoying! They stole my spare microphone! They deliberately put their hands all over my set list so I couldn't see what the next song was!' " He laughs. " 'They got all pissed off at me because I wouldn't sign their boobs!' "

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