Give the Chinese What They Want
As the past and present leader of the Pixies, Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV (a/k/a Black Francis, a/k/a Frank Black) is the undisputed master of melodic-postpunk primacy. As an interview subject he is rumored to be affable yet reserved, amiable yet remote. Knowing such, I tread lightly.
I presume he would rather not discuss the Pixies (disbanded to great dismay in '93, reformed to great acclaim in '04), preferring instead questions regarding his 13-year solo career, which has lately compelled him to take on a string of solo acoustic dates while riding a bus with his wife, four children, a nanny, a tour manager, and a driver.
After all, it's more than laborious to imagine this poster child for onstage catharsis leading a load-out of Big Wheels and booster seats. I offer possible (but unlikely) parallels: the Partridge Family, the Trapp Family Singers. Perhaps even the Simpsons, who, upon entering the Witness Protection Program in an effort to escape archnemesis Sideshow Bob, actually adopt the last name Thompson.
"Maybe the Osbournes," Black says with a laugh. "We're just going to give it a shot, you know, to see if we're a showbiz family. I don't know how to do anything else."
So far, so good. Life is a cordial sundae topped with a sweet (if reticent) cherry. But when I ask Black whether he harbors hopes of writing songs while sharing a tour bus with, again, his wife, four children, a nanny, a tour manager, and a driver, he instead proceeds to expound on the possibility of a new Pixies record.
And I, for lack of a better term, am fucking astounded.
"There's some gentle talk among the Pixies," Black says. "And when I say 'gentle' I mean it's like even via other people and stuffit's kind of crazybut, you know, about getting together to jam. And when I say 'jam,' we're not like Phish or whatever. We don't jam in that sense. What you do is you almost meditate on the material. You play it over and over again. You practice, you know, and that's what we need to do as a band if we're ever going to record again."
That the Pixies must depend upon the "gentle talk" of go-betweens to schedule a rehearsal is odd. That the same quartetdespite sharing a stage for well over 100 shows in the last two years alonehas not yet transitioned into being a complete band again is odder still. Until you remember that you're talking about the Pixies. Towering tales of personality conflicts, professional disagreements, and general animosity from the group's final days linger like a hangover. So for many, news of a Pixies reunion was on par with the loaves and the fishes, the water turning into wine.
Following the band's initial dissolution, Charles Thompson reversed his Pixies nom de plume (Black Francis became Frank Black) and released an album annually, more or less, for the next dozen years, often with his crack backing band the Catholics. Much excellent work was overlooked because it wasn't the Pixies, and some not-so-excellent work was passed over for the same reason. And yet on the eve of the Pixies' most unlikely convergencewith his profile thus as elevated as it had been in a decadeBlack made the first of two sojourns to Nashville, where marathon recording stints with Southern studio vets such as Steve Cropper, Spooner Oldham, and David Hood produced over two hours of materialBlack's initial foray into Americana, 2005's Honeycomb, as well as the more recent double-disc set Fast Man Raider Man.
The sessions were "a long-standing whim," Black says. "I had over the years become a very huge fan of [Bob Dylan's] Blonde on Blonde. I started talking about this with [producer] John Tiven like 10 years ago when he was in New York. And he would very gently call me every six months or so, and sometimes he would bring it up, and sometimes he wouldn't, but he occasionally would say, 'Hey Charles, so you ready to make Black on Blonde?' "
Do Honeycomb and FMRM make that cut? "I guess you could say both records represent the sort of Black on Blonde scenario, where the artiste heads to Nashville and works with musicians that got a lot of mojo," Black says. "I mean, I wasn't necessarily trying to sound like Blonde on Blonde or anything like that. It was just to kind of go through that experience'Hey, I want to go to Nashville. I want to play with those guys.' "
Fair enough. But both releases have once again been overshadowed by the specter of uncertainty: a beloved band unsure of its next move. So what exactly do Frank Black fans want? Well, the Pixies, of course. The soft-verse, loud-chorus formula as found in your proto-grunge program. "They want Surfer Rosa or Doolittle," Black says. "Those are the records which I have gold discs for. Those are the most popular records, and so just the sheer numbers of that audience, the audience that likes those records, it's like sort of dealing with, like, China or something. What do people want? Well, what people? Which people, you know? Even among my most ardent fans I can kind of suss that there's a variety of opinions there, but for me, people are the Chinese. They're this other vast audience which bought a bunch of copies of Doolittle and a bunch of copies of Surfer Rosa, so they're like the army of people, and yeah, what they want is they want some more of that."
And so maybe, finally, once more, for the first time ever, Black is ready to give it to them. But will it be as a solo artist? Or with the band that helped make Boston famous?
"I remember performing recently [with the Pixies] in Zagreb, Croatia," Black recalls. "We were playing at a little outdoor sports arena, and it was full. There were four-and-a-half thousand people, so that's pretty good for a band that, you know, is in Croatia and hasn't put out a record for 12 years. And I was standing on the stage and I had this little inspired epiphany, enjoying myself there in the summer evening, in the big, massive Pixies sing-along there with the Croatians. I said, 'You know, if I can't get the Pixies to record another record, screw it. Maybe I won't be able to come back to Croatia and deliver the Pixies, but maybe I can come up with something that will, you know, be an approximation of that.' "
For this month, Frank Black and family will take in the bounty of America's vistas among acoustic tour stops. But come September, somewhere within this country's great expanse, the Pixies will get together to jam (but not like Phish). Or they may not. "If the Pixies are suspicious of meor if they think that they don't want to be in a band with me, or if I don't have their vote of confidencethen it's kind of over and I can't get there," Black says. "I can't get to that same space. I've never really felt the need to do it, but talking about Zagreb, Croatia, the other night, I mean, I'm thinking, 'Well, you know, maybe that's what people want, even if I can't do it with the original band.' " Maybe, instead, he can do it with his wife, four children, a nanny, a tour manager, and a driver.
Frank Black headlines Southpaw Saturday, August 19, and opens for the Foo Fighters Monday, August 21, at the Beacon Theater.
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