Interview: Black Francis a/k/a Frank Blank a/k/a Charles Michael Kittredge Thompson IV
"I've always been Black Francis but I tried to call myself something else for a while and I sort of said, 'All right, enough baloney.' You know, 'Back to who I am for real.' And it is an artier stage name and so for some reason. . . while performing under that moniker, I feel a bit artier."
Today, Black Francis releases the "mini-LP" Svn Fngrs.
Looks like the sort of man who likes to break up via fax, doesn't he?
Know that, regardless of guise, Charles Michael Kittredge Thompson IV is prolific man. An album a year as leader of the Pixies, Black Francis. Another dozen under his Frank Black solo artist pseudonym, and now back to Black Francis--first with Bluefinger, last fall's collection inspired by musician, painter and writer Herman Brood (pretty much the Dutch personification of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll), and currently with Svn Fngrs, a seven-track "mini-LP" that continues to lean left with its subject matter.
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But the man who chortled about "slicing up eyeballs" and "whores with disease" is a bit more grounded in his day-to-day life, for in less than two months Thompson and his spouse, Violet Clark (who played bass on Svn Fngrs), will welcome a fifth child into their Eugene, Oregon home.
We interrupted his progeny's Saturday afternoon efforts to have their dad chase them around the house in order to talk about songwriting, Svn Fngrs and the balancing of career and family.
Let's talk family man versus Herman Brood and his representation of the sex, drugs and rock 'n roll lifestyle. Is that an outlet or escape for you since you're living a "Father Knows Best" life right now?
CT/FB/BF: I have thought about it in those terms. I can't say that it's really like that because I've never really been that type of a hedonist or whatever, you know what I mean? I've just been a lot more conservative, even when I was younger, and so I can't say that I'm, you know, somehow living vicariously. I think people like to hear about those subjects, though, in rock 'n roll music, so it's definitely given me a way to go there.
Do you have to get your mind in a certain place to write about such things?
CT/FB/BF: No, not really. It all seems perfectly normal to me. I mean, I was probably 8 or 9 years old and consuming the Beatles' White Album and Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. II, so, you know, there's plenty of abstract kinds of poetry, oddball couplets and things on those records, so they were always my example, the psychedelic giants of the '60s.
I'm guessing your house tilts toward the crowded side. Is there a room where you can go in order to write? Or do you have to get completely out of the house in order to compose?
CT/FB/BF: Yeah, I pretty much have to basically book a recording studio. I do have an office downtown here where a young kid works for me part-time. You know, we try to sell a few t-shirts and a few CDs, that kind of thing, and I have a piano down there and so sometimes I go there and work. Before that, before we had the office, I used to get a hotel room for a few days and just go there.
So composing during the fatherhood years almost has to be a burst thing.
CT/FB/BF: Yeah, and I think it allows me to continue my habits of procrastination, you know, but I have an excuse now, sort of. It's sort of like, I haven't gotten around to doing it. I've been too busy with my kids and everything.
I just did a whole silent movie soundtrack in San Francisco last weekend.
Is that Golem?
CT/FB/BF: Yeah, I basically showed up for the session a day early and holed myself up in a hotel room. That was writing with a different kind of an aesthetic, you know, because it was a movie and it's real arty and I had a real, strong, clear catalyst, this film that I was scoring. But, you know, we did a whole album. Basically we did 82 minutes worth of music, so definitely a double album's worth of music, and it took about a week, including the writing.
So I think that if you're feeling good, then you can write very quickly. It's kind of like being good at a particular video game or I suppose being a good surfer. Once you're in the zone you can do a lot of stuff in that zone, and kind of make the right editorial kind of decisions very quickly. And get a lot done real fast.
I like to work that way, number one, but, number two, I've been doing it for 20 years or whatever on a regular basis, so I have that background. I've written a bunch of songs. For better or for worse, I've made a lot of records in the last 20 years, so I have that muscle.
And probably the commitment of time, the commitment of time away from the family and the pressure of a limited amount of time in the hotel room doesn't do any damage to the burst either.
CT/FB/BF: Yeah, I get real focused. I don't waste a lot of time. You know, I don't get sideswiped by something else. I'm like, 'Hey, I'm doing this right now and I'm going to do it and I'm going to stay up all night if I have to and that's all there is to it and here we go.'
Let me ask you about Svn Fngrs. You and Violet record for six days and on the seventh you rest. Is there a compositional glue? Like are these all songs you wrote in one specific writing session? Why seven songs?
CT/FB/BF: I think I tried for ten or eleven songs. I wanted to do a full album, and I think I wrote maybe seven or eight new chord progressions, or theoretically what could turn into a so-called song as soon as I put a vocal on top of it. And I even used a couple of bits of music that I recorded last summer that still don't have vocals on them, but you know what? I wrote them not even in a hotel room. I wrote them at the studio while the drummer was having a cigarette outside. I'd say, 'Go have a cigarette,' and he'd come back ten minutes later and we would cut a track and I'd say, 'Okay, go have a cigarette.' I'm going to write another one. And I did seven or eight, nine songs, something like that, and then Violet threw the bass on it.
It sounds like he's a smoking fiend. He's not really, but he smokes these clove cigarettes and they're kind of slow burning, you know. It's like smoking a cigar or something. So I'd say, 'Go have a clove. I'm going to write a lyric.' And he would take off and I'd page him on his cell phone a half hour later and say, 'Okay, I'm ready,' and we would do a vocal. And that's how we'd do the vocals for a couple of days.
And right around when we got seven songs finished and feeling really good about them, I could feel, even before I composed the first couplets for track number eight, that it wasn't happening. I could just go, 'It's gone now.' The creative energy is totally gone. I'm not going to do a full album's worth of material here. I've got seven songs here that are really good. I'm going to finish number eight here and it's going to suck. And I did and it did stink. But I knew it. I could feel the energy was gone, and so I was like, 'Okay, well, that isn't so bad.' I just released this Bluefinger record back in September, so at least I won't be putting that kind of pressure on the record label. Like, 'Okay, I've got another record. I've got a mini-LP, you know. A little off the radar, you know. It doesn't have to be a big deal. You don't have to promote the heck out of it. Just put it out.' And they were agreeable.
So the recording was extremely self-contained.
CT/FB/BF: Yeah, it's sort of like our family can handle, or I should say the parents can handle, a week's worth of chaos without going totally nuts. Honey, I've got to leave for two days in a row to go into the studio. You've got to take care of everybody. You know, for a day she goes and does the bass and I watch the kids for a day. Again, she ends up taking care of the kids and everything when I'm at the studio, but it's basically about a week where I'm not so involved in the day-to-day. And after about a week, because she's pregnant, she's just like totally spent, so yeah it is self-contained in a way. It's like we can handle a week's worth of chaos and then after that we have to take a break and get back to our routine.
The last two records are credited to Black Francis. Are you using that name because it's a different sound or because it's better marketing after the success of the Pixies reunion? Why Black Francis instead of Frank Black or even Charles Thompson?
CT/FB/BF: Well, I hope it's better marketing, but I can't say that that's the reason. But, you know, for sure there's this thought that maybe performing under the old moniker this new or old, forgotten about door has opened, or reopened. And it does sort of feel like that.
Like I just recorded this Golem stuff. Some of that sounds like a Frank Black and the Catholics record, but again, for me personally it's not about a particular sound but it's about a certain kind of door being opened that couldn't be opened before until I made this symbolic gesture.
It just feels like I've always been Black Francis but I tried to call myself something else for a while and I sort of said, 'All right, enough baloney.' You know, back to who I am for real. And it is an artier stage name and so for some reason I have to say while performing under that moniker I feel a bit artier.
The connotation of artier would suggest that one is a little freer to push the boundaries, which brings us back around to the whole Bluefinger/Herman Brood theme.
CT/FB/BF: Yeah, yeah. And also less concern about commercial viability. Not that I was so concerned about that with the Catholics, but going under Frank Black, I really wanted to scratch other itches. You know, it was challenging for me to try to be more formulaic, to try to be traditional, to try to do something that sounded like classic rock. But, you know, definitely I'm feeling more arty again and ready to go at a moment's notice. Just like, Let's go make a record right now, you know. I'll play the vacuum cleaner and you play the pots and pans.
Not only are the last two records credited to Black Francis, but both have "finger" in the title. Is there a connection? Or is it just an odd happenstance that such a particular noun would show up in consecutive album titles?
CT/FB/BF: Yeah, it was just a coincidence but it was a coincidence that I immediately saw, and I liked it. But it is just a coincidence and they're unrelated subject matter. The only thing that's connecting them really is that I guess in everything that I write these days there's a unifying concept. With the Bluefinger record, of course, the unifying concept is Herman Brood. The Svn Fngrs unifying concept is a little broader, but I would call it demigods, half-human, half-god. Not necessarily in a literal sense. Like a couple of the songs are literal. Like "The Seus," which is a reference to the Greek demigod Theseus. But also, for example, the song called "I Sent Away," which is alternate sex fetish robot stuff that I was reading about on the Internet. And there's a song on there about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the builders of the bomb are known collectively as "the demigods," so that fit the unifying concept.
You mentioned "reading on the Internet." Do you consider yourself impressionable?
CT/FB/BF: Only if I've discovered something that really jazzes me, you know. In the case of Svn Fngrs I had no idea what I was going to write about, but I was really up to the gut to try to go above and beyond the call of duty. And so I was under the gun and I was like, 'Okay, what the hell am I going to write about here? What am I going to write about?' And I literally just started doing the random article search function on Wikipedia. And I did this for quite a long time late one evening in a very tired state, and somehow I stumbled upon the article for demigods. And I was like, 'Oh, demigods.' And then, of course, 'Okay, well what is a demigod? And who was a demigod? What do they mean by demigod?' And, of course, on something like Wikipedia one article has other links in it and suddenly you're off, you know. So the Internet has become a really great resource for me because I'm not a deep researcher. I just want to have an impression. I just need to find out some facts. I've already got my little concept going. My little concept is already in place, but I just need some facts so when I rhyme "phone" with "zone" my couplet - well, hopefully it has some artistic merit on its own, regardless of what it's about or if it's about anything - but if it happens to be about something, it'd be nice if it was sort of backing up some cool fact about the subject. It's satisfying, I think, for the listener and it's satisfying for me.
"I Sent Away"
Will the Golem sessions end up as a Black Francis record?
CT/FB/BF: Well, I'm performing it in a couple of weeks down in San Francisco at this film festival. The requisite there is to show up with some music and perform it in some way along to this movie that they're screening. And so I said, Well, that sounds fun, but I have to sort of make a record. I have to have some sort of blueprint, you know. So I went down to San Francisco a couple of weeks ago and made a record with Eric Feldman producing. And got together mostly San Francisco people, although Duane Jarvis is from LA and Jason Carter, the drummer, is from Oregon here. But the other guys are all from San Francisco. So we made this record and in the end I understand it's a public domain film so, of course, we're tempted to release our movie soundtrack as part of a DVD. But I don't know, ultimately, what me or my manager will decide to do. It's more than 80 minutes of music. It sounds cool, but there's about 14 or 15 actual songs and then there's a lot of themes and reprises, so I don't know how interesting that's going to sound on a CD. It may sound okay. I don't know. But it's a lot of music so we're considering doing the rock album, edited version.
You'll be adding child number five to the household before summer. Are you going to be able to tour as much as you're used to or will you have to cut back?
CT/FB/BF: I'm still going to tour. I don't want it to be less necessarily, but I may have to. I don't know. We just wish that we were more successful - not necessarily so we can have more money, although money's always nice - but just so that we could afford to pull it off as an entourage. You know, if we were Madonna, it wouldn't be a problem. We'd just be like, 'Well, there's our crew of four nannies, you know. There's our runner who just buys diapers and batteries.'
It's a little bit different than just jumping into the car with one other person to mix your sound and sell your t-shirts.
CT/FB/BF: Yeah, exactly. On the punk-rock level, it just does not work with a family. And we've tried to do the poor man's Madonna and, you know, it works for a little while. It's okay. But it's a lot of work and I don't know how much the younger kids really love it, because they just want to be home with their stuff
All right then, on to the lightning round. Tell me something you've never done before in your life.
CT/FB/BF: I've never done cocaine.
Tell me something that you've done once and one time only.
The name of a book you've read at least twice.
CT/FB/BF: Through the Looking Glass.
And the name of a movie you've seen at least three times. CT/FB/BF: Brazil.
What's the last album that you bought?
CT/FB/BF: To be honest, it probably was a downloaded record off of iTunes or something. If you wait just one moment I'll look at my computer here and tell you what it is. (pause) Oh, Paolo Conte. That's the last record that I actually purchased. I downloaded probably four or five different Paolo Conte records. He's an Italian guy. He's kind of like a Frank Sinatra/Tom Waits/Leonard Cohen kind of a guy.
Okay, I see how Waits and Cohen go together, but Sinatra's kind of a curveball there.
CT/FB/BF: It's got a little bit of a jazz traditional mainstream kind of edge to it.
CT/FB/BF: Yeah, it's not super avant-garde or anything like that.
Great. And the last question: Do you own a rake?
CT/FB/BF: I do not.
Really? You have four children, a fifth on the way and you don't own a rake?
CT/FB/BF: No, you know, we're not really outside that much in our yard because the construction is still going on outside. We have this beautiful house that the Pixies reunion remodeled. And it's really great on the inside. We just had our first breakfast outside this morning on our little patio, which was nice. But there's a bunch of frogs living in our pool and there's freshly poured concrete and dirt and during the week guys with little tractors, so outside is sort of a no-go zone at the moment.
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