Interview with Frank Black

Originally published in Stylus 13. 5 (2002)

[Photo by Rosario López]

Frank Black is the mastermind behind The Pixies, who paved the way for the alt-rock explosion of the early 1990s, and can count Kurt Cobain and David Bowie among his many fans.

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 USA 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 LA, 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.”

Interview with UFO Expert Chris Rutkowski

I don’t remember where this was originally published, or when. Before 2005 sometime.

Chris Rutkowski is a leading authority on UFO phenomenon and, along with Geoff Dittman, publishes the annual Canadian UFO Survey. He is the author of a number of books including Visitations? (1989), Unnatural History (1993), and Abductions & Aliens – What’s Really Going On? (1999). I got a chance to talk to him a few weeks before an episode of the documentary series Magnificent Obsessions following Rutkowski’s investigations aired.

How did you become interested in UFOs?

My background is that I have a Bachelor’s degree in Astronomy and a Master’s degree in Science Education, specializing in Astronomy. I was always interested in offbeat things, and in the mid-70s we were just at the end of the great “space race” and I had watched the moon landings and it was a hot topic back then.

In 1975, there was a rash of UFO sightings in Manitoba and I began investigating them, I went out with friends and one day I started writing up what I had heard from some of the people that had seen things. I had the article published and soon I was getting requests for more articles and more comments and to give lectures, and pretty soon I was the great UFO expert.

How has the face of UFOlogy changed since the mid-70s?

There are a lot of things that are different about it. For one thing, abduction phenomena has really taken over in terms of UFOs, many people claim to have been abducted. The first classic abduction case took place in 1961, some have found a few others before then but it was generally determined to be the 1960s [when abductions began to be reported], but it never took off until the late 1980s or so, and then it really surpassed and supplanted a lot of other stuff.

The other interesting thing is that crop circles have become commonplace, and people say “well, that was caused by aliens” or whatever. They were unheard of before the late 80s. I had actually been investigating many rings of grain and grass left behind, supposedly, by the UFOs into the early 70s, but now those types of cases where a person sees a UFO land and take off and something’s left behind, those have almost completely disappeared, and we’re left with these crop circles which may or may not have anything to do with UFOs.

The biggest change is the fact that here we are, more than 50 years after the beginning of the flying saucer era, and we still don’t appear to have many more answers, and there’s still rampant speculation going on. To me, that’s a significant observation. 50 years, later—more than 50 years later, 55, 56 years later—it appears that science is no closer to understanding why people are so attracted to this phenomenon.

One of the things you mention in the show is that some of the stigma attached to UFO contact has started to fall away, in the sense that people seem to be more willing, because so many people seem to be reporting these sorts of things, to report their own cases. [Roughly 10% of Canadians claim to have seen a UFO of some sort.] As some of that stigma falls away, what kind of changes do you expect to see?

Well, we’re certainly receiving more and more reports from the past. Just today I received a report from the Northwest Territories, from 2001. People read a little about UFOs or they see something in the newspaper (although media reporting of UFOs has really declined, to the point where it’s certainly not news anymore in many situations). We’ve already been pummelled with X-Files and numerous other TV shows, like Spielberg’s Taken, and we all have this influence of media-type UFOs and aliens in our minds, and I think because of all this people are more willing to talk about experiences they’ve had, because it seems to be more accepted by society. Whether it’s real or not seems to have been put aside, and it’s just accepted by society that people may have had experiences of one form or another and that it is acceptable for people to talk about them.

What is the biggest challenge facing professional recognition of UFO research?

I think the biggest challenge facing professional recognition of this kind of research is the lack of recognized professionals.

What’s the strangest or most compelling case that you’ve come across, personally, in your research?

The most compelling case for me remains the Falcon Lake case of Stefan Michalak, back from 1967. That case had everything you would want: there was evidence found at the site, there was radioactive debris, there was physical and physiological effects on the witness, there was intense government investigation from the United States as well as Canada, and we still are completely out in the cold as to what may have happened.

Michalak died just a few years ago, and maintained until he died that what he saw was what he claimed to have seen. He never said it was an alien spacecraft, he never talked in those terms, he just said “this is my experience, I don’t know what it was.” The rest was left to speculation. The U.S. Air Force simply left it as unexplained in their official report on the case.

So it’s certainly, not only the best case in Canada in terms of evidence and documentation, but probably one of the better cases in the world. We can point to Roswell, for example, if you want to look at a case there, but here’s an eyewitness to something that was seen and touched and felt and heard and drawn and evidence was left behind, and we have all the documents from all those various agencies, and so it’s a very fascinating case and I think the jury’s still out on it.

I’ve got two more of the standard questions that you might hear—

No, I’ve never seen anything myself.

What are your personal beliefs on the matter? Are there aliens visiting us, in your opinion?

With my astronomical background, I know there’s likely extraterrestrial life out there somewhere. I would find it odd that anyone would not think that there would be life out there. Whether they’re visiting here, I know all too well the distances involved, so I would find it absolutely remarkable if anybody was coming here. At the same time, there’s no reason why, given an advanced technology, they wouldn’t find a way of getting here, given we were all that interesting.

Why would an alien invader, who would be beyond reproach by virtue of possessing such an advanced technology, require secrecy?

I wouldn’t phrase it in those terms, which I think is where the confusion comes from. I would say, rather than look at it in militaristic terms, I would consider the aliens anthropologists. By reason of the argument, they would be more advanced than we are, and I guess in a sort of version of the Star Trek prime directive, the point is not to really influence the culture or get involved in the culture.

In fact, there’s a great argument to be made that aliens don’t really need to land on Earth at all, because (and this is one of the great arguments against crop circles) why would you need to land, when you could simply monitor TV signals and observe from space? You really don’t need to land on the planet and sample the planet and people at all.

Especially with reality TV shows.

[Laughs] Yeah.

Do you have any comments on the Mysterious Obsessions episode itself?

I’ve been involved in a number of TV projects—I was on Unsolved Mysteries, I was on Sightings, I was on A&E’s Unexplained, and on a host of lesser productions—and certainly Magnificent Obsessions focuses on a specific aspect of UFOs, on investigation, and the case reports, and what do you do with the case reports and how investigators do carry it out.

I would say it’s easily one of the best (if not the best) projects of this kind, and particularly because it’s Canadian they’ve done a really good job of capturing what’s behind the UFO phenomenon in terms of sightings and the people involved.

It was done very straight and level-headed, without interjecting any sardonic or satirical editorializing, which is what a lot of news show will do. The people who they chose to include, Stanton Friedman, Brian Vike, Errol Bruce-Knapp, and myself, we take the subject very seriously, and the program treated us with respect, which is something not often found on this subject.