Originally published in Stylus 13. 5 (2002)
Frank Black is one of the most influential rock artists of all time. The mastermind behind The Pixies, who paved the way for the alt-rock explosion of the early 1990s, he can count Kurt Cobain and David Bowie among the many fans he has inspired. At the time of this interview, Black had recently released two new albums with his band the Catholics, Black Letter Days and Devil’s Workshop, as well as the original Pixies demos (known to fans as The Purple Tape) as The Pixies.
You have a history of avoiding the press, and once claimed you’d never do another interview. So how come you’re talking to a loser like myself?
I do interviews all the time. I may not have done interviews on a particular record years ago, but I usually do interviews.
What turned you around?
I guess it’s just the nature of the business. You have to let your customers know you’ve got a record out, and the best way to do that is to talk to a journalist. Also, hopefully, it’s an opportunity to, you know, be misunderstood.
Why did you decide to release two separate albums? Are they meant to be companion pieces or are they supposed to stand alone?
Either/or, I guess. You can buy one, you can buy both. I made two records this year, so I’m releasing two records. If I made three records I probably would have—well, I probably wouldn’t have gotten away with three records, I would have gotten too much resistance from the powers that be. Seems that they can handle two records.
What I’m wondering is why not a double album.
Why? Oh, well, it’s two different sections, two different lineups, two different producers. So it’s sort of out of deference to some of the people involved. I didn’t mix and match, I just kind of left them separate.
On the two new albums the American West dominates both the lyrical and the musical content. Why is there that focus?
I guess it’s just the whole idea of going west. The first time I went west I was a baby, so I don’t have any memory of it, but subsequently I ended up moving back east, and then back west again, back east and back west again . . . I’ve done that a lot in my life, growing up, and of course I travel around as a musician, so I’m still very much in touch with that experience of heading west across the continent. And of course I live in L.A., so even though I haven’t moved for quite some time now I’m always coming back here from somewhere, most often moving in a westerly direction from other parts of the U.S.A. or from Europe. Or Canada.
Black Letter Days is bookended with two covers of the same Tom Waits song, “The Black Rider.” Why did you choose this song to cover in such a prominent fashion?
We started to play that at our show about a year and a half ago. We tried a couple of different covers when we were recording, but that was the one that we did the best. Even then, I wasn’t happy with the way we were doing it . . . so we started to fool around with it a bit and have some fun, and the result was one reel of tape with probably seven different versions of “The Black Rider,” one devolving into the next and getting sillier, so what you hear is the first take and the last take. It wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, we’re just doing the song because we like it. Lyrically, the song is, on the one hand, really kind of dark and ghoulish, but on the other hand it’s very cabaret. It’s like, “Welcome everybody, to the night club. Let me sing you a song about the Devil.” It’s got this show biz-y kind of vibe.
Do you know if Tom Waits has heard the song?
No idea. He’s a busy guy, I’m sure he’s got other things to do than sit around with the new Frank Black record.
I understand that you recorded these albums in a portable studio of some sort.
Yeah, we’ve got a real vintage analog pile of gear, it’s all in flight cases. We move it around to different spaces and set it up and hopefully get a good sound going. We’ve set it up in three or four spaces now, all in L.A., but we have hopes of moving it to other cities and setting it up in other warehouses.
Were you still recording live to two tracks?
Yeah. Or one track. Some of those songs are in mono. There are mono recordings on both albums actually. We have a mono machine and a stereo machine.
What is it about this method of recording that appeals to you?
I just like the challenge. It’s fun to have that parameter. We’re a band, so let’s all play together as a band. We’ll either pull it off together or fail, and we’ll put all our successes on an album and hopefully eliminate the failures. It’s very simple, instead of constructing this facsimile of a performance.
It’s interesting, because the trend now is towards overproduction. Every song you hear on the radio is, as you say, a construction.
Right. There are no rules, I’m not against anybody doing that, it’s just that what people do with that technology is they tend to iron everything out, so everything’s on 10—as loud as it can be, as bright as it can be, as perfect as it can be—and the people who are doing that are the ones who are really trying to be on corporate radio, which is only playing 10 songs or whatever. They’re all trying to fit into a certain super tiny niche because of the rewards available to those that make it into the exclusive club of commercial radio . . . I don’t listen to the radio, the music’s too bland and there’s just too much advertising. It’s just so, so corporate. [Makes disgusted sound.] I have no interest in it at all.
Why did you decide to release The Purple Tape [as The Pixies] at this time?
It’s just the way that it worked out, it’s been talked about for a couple years but we never got all our paperwork together or whatever until now, so it’s just a coincidence it came out in the same summer as the other albums.
What about the decision to re-record “Velvety,” with lyrics?
Well, that’s just some song I wrote in junior high and I never wrote lyrics for. When the Pixies did a version of it as a B-side I called it “Velvety Instrumental Version” as a reference to the Velvet Underground, because I was really into them at the time and I fancied myself able to pull off that kind of sound, which is maybe not that accurate. So I kind of painted myself into a corner, I was like, “Okay, I called it the instrumental version, so now I have to write a song called ‘Velvety.’ ” So that became the lyrical direction of the song, I had to write a song about some woman name Velvety. I like those kinds of random parameters. That’s what songs are a lot of the time, they’re just games that you play, sometimes it’s a language thing, sometimes it’s a meter thing or a rhyming thing, there are all kinds of neurotic little games going on.
It seems that your past success has put you in this position where people demand that you grow as an artist, but then when you do they start condemning you for not sounding like The Pixies.
Right. Thank you for saying that.
Is it frustrating working under the shadow of that band?
Yeah, it’s occasionally depressing, when you read some review that totally pans you or something . . . The only thing that’s would give me revenge would be if I had a hit that somehow overshadowed it. Unless that happens, that’s always going to be the thing hangs over me and, well, that’s okay. People like to talk about successes, frequently a success happens to someone early on in their career and it’s hard to escape that, not just for me but for anyone.
You’ve claimed to have had UFO experiences in the past. Would you care to tell me about them? (I’m a huge UFO fan.)
Well, there was a UFO that hung out over a house I was staying at when I was a baby and I heard about it years later from my family members. I was so surprised to hear this story, that they all saw this thing floating in the sky above the house, called the police and everything. They thought it was the end of the world. I had another experience that I do remember, that my brother and I had involving kind of a missile- or a rocket-shaped craft that passed over us in the morning or afternoon when we were outside playing. It was completely silent and passed slowly over us and we stopped and looked at it. And then we went back to our playing, you know, we were fairly young. We never talked about it to anyone, not even to each other, and it came up in conversation 25 years or so later. We were both surprised that the other one remembered it, we each thought it was our own weird personal memory, and we just found it really surprising that we both had this kind of shared memory of the same thing. I’m not really sure if I believe in UFOs, but I’ve had a couple of odd experiences.
You’ve also talked about a comet making you decide to start a band.
Well, I was down in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and I was getting ready to go on a world trip. I was going to go down to New Zealand to look at Halley’s comet which was passing by that year. It just seemed like a cool thing to do. I had begun to make preparations to drop out of school and to go do that, when I thought, “Wait a minute, what am I doing? I’m going to go to New Zealand and look at a comet? It’s cool, but what is it that I’ve been dreaming about my whole life? It’s to be a rock musician.” So it was kind of interesting how the whole comet thing brought this to the top of my head, like ‘That is not my calling, to wander right now, my calling is to do this.”