Where Is Frank's Mind?
"Make another Pixies record without Kim Deal? I'll be stoned, wouldn't get away with it..."
In 'Fool the World', an oral history of the Pixies, meticulously compiled by Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz, Charles Thompson offers some background into the underlying tensions between the band members that ultimately led to the 'death' of the Pixies. "It's a band, but it isn't exactly like a democracy. It was my ad they answered in the paper, you know what I mean?" he said just before they regrouped in 2004. This is a pointed defence of the creative control he was wielding which so disgruntled one Kim Deal in particular. Fast forward a few years, and in the aftermath of a hugely successful Pixies reunion, a couple of well-received Nashville recorded solo albums (as Frank Black), and the feral maelstrom that was Black Francis of the Pixies now seems to be mellowing into someone altogether more magnanimous.
Speaking to the Skinny whilst babysitting his young children (newborn Lucy Berlin and 1 year-old Jack Errol, "the problem child") he now says the band is "effectively a democracy", and refers to rumours that he's written new material for the band, but that recording has yet to begin in earnest, if it will at all. "How should I put this? It's all up to Kim Deal, she holds the reins. Everyone has a veto vote, and when one member doesn't want to participate, it's a no go Deal (ahem) and Kim's not interested in making a record now, she's working on Breeders stuff."
So does this veto translate into frustration from his perspective as a workaholic songwriter? "Not at all, everything's very friendly. OK, so I'm more interested in making a record, but what will I do? Make it without Kim Deal? I'll be stoned, wouldn't get away with it. I don't think I'd want to get away with it either."
If this pragmatic tolerance seems at odds with his earlier incarnation (Thompson first wanted to fire Kim Deal, then in frustration disbanded the Pixies via fax), then so does the development of his music. Critics are unsure if his seemingly steady progression from psychotic, screaming hell child into Hank Marvin is a good thing. Many have praised Frank Black's recent, country tinged efforts (last year's 'Honeycomb' and the recently released 'Fastman Raiderman') for their excellent song writing, and those who don't like it, tend in the main to compare it unfavourably to his Pixies material. Thompson is now quite sanguine about this, having spent many years post-Pixies, refusing to speak of 'that band'. "I guess somebody looking for that next exciting, post-punk, guitar scaring rock 'n' roll moment won't like the fact I've turned around and said 'Hey, let's do something soulful, or a little country'. I respect that, some people love what I'm doing now, some don't. That's cool. I couldn't listen to jazz music for years."
So, is the implication that a certain level of maturity is needed to appreciate what he's doing right now? "Not necessarily. I just wanted to try it out. Dylan went to Nashville and made 'Blonde on Blonde' with some good players. Nashville still has good players. I wanted to play there, not necessarily to make a country record, just play with those American musicians who have a lot of vibe. I wanted some mojo in my records."
The players involved on 'Fastman Raiderman' ("I love the title, it sounds like a Quentin Tarantino movie, sounds kinda tough") include Levon Helm from The Band, Tom Petersson of Cheap Trick, Steve Ferrone and Marty Brown, to name but a few and Thompson admits he was in awe of his company at first. "These guys have a lot of flavour. They've been playing in bands since they were 14, it's hardcore. When I say playing in a band, I don't mean like they're getting high for half their career and then putting out half-assed, overdubbed pro-tools records every now and again. And you know, they get criticism for playing with me! They can turn out all these riffs and here they are sitting down with this young (well, younger), post-punk dude - It's oil and vinegar, it doesn't work." With typical penchant for colourful imagery, he continues, "To me, they're just like an old cheese or wine that has matured in a pleasant way. And maybe you're right Mr Reviewer, maybe this old cheese doesn't taste right with that particular bread, but I don't mind. You just get hooked on playing with those guys. I don't care if we're playing Happy Birthday."
Thompson has never been slow to take full credit for forming, disbanding, and ultimately reviving one of popular culture's quintessential acts. He was after all, the driving force and principle lyricist. Indeed, it was the outright strangeness of some of these lyrics, dealing with the curious (alien abduction) and the taboo (incest), coupled with moody, yet catchy melodies, quirky Joey Santiago riffs, fearsome David Lovering drumming and haunting harmonies with Kim Deal which combined to make the irresistible package. That said, though always well-received in the UK, in their USA homeland, they remained a relatively unknown quantity until Kurt Cobain famously suggested that Smells Like Teen Spirit was a failed attempt at a Pixies record.
This 'posthumous' attention has led to millions of new, younger fans, but the attention lavished on the Pixies as a whole hasn't focused itself to the same extreme on Frank Black throughout his moderately successful solo career. Does he think that there is justification in the belief that the whole was perhaps greater than the sum of its parts? "At the time, I didn't think that was true. I guess after all these years, and having played with other people, I give that theory some credibility. Perhaps me and those guys really were the 'magic' line-up."
"Since we got back together, it doesn't feel so different than it did back then. It's not like hey, we haven't released a record in 12 years, it's more like, I'm touring with the Pixies playing Gouge Away and there's always been the Pixies playing Gouge Away. It's like a wrinkle in time. Best of all, because we haven't been doing it for 12 years, it's not boring anymore, it's actually interesting again. It doesn't even hurt to scream anymore."
Fastman Raiderman' is out now.http://www.4ad.com/frankblack