Beach Boys On Acid: Frank Black prays with the Catholics.
In the Black
Ex-Pixies honcho Frank Black rocks on
By Greg Cahill
Beck once said in an interview that every song is like its own nation. Ex-Pixies kingpin Frank Black would agree: "It has its own laws," he explains during a phone call from his Los Angeles home. "I really think that's true--they come out the way they come out. I'm really just delivering the next batch of songs, whether people like that or not. I almost don't have any control over it." Sounds mystical, but the recent batches of songs out of the blue have served this alt-rock innovator well since forming his current band a half decade ago or so.
Indeed, Frank Black and the Catholics (SpinArt), released in 1998, garnered rave reviews for the singer, songwriter, and guitarist whom Rolling Stone once credited with fronting "the quintessential college rockers." Black's band, the Pixies, were a major influence on Kurt Cobain and the alt-rock revolution that followed Nirvana's 1991 pop-chart ascendancy. It's "the kind of weirdo rock that inspired 1,000 bands to call themselves 'alternative,'" the Philadelphia City Paper opined about the rocker's return to form. "Black invents and takes risks but stays true to his sound."
And what a sound. Seductive pop melodies. Balls-to-the-wall surf riffs ("like the Beach Boys on acid," a critic once noted). Otherworldly lyrics. Black's deranged shrieks. Primal anarchy at its best.
"Even though I try not to read reviews," admits the reclusive Black, "it's good to know there are some good ones out there."
The thing that's gotten those jaded rock critics so excited is that Black--who has been slammed in the past for overproducing otherwise sublime neopsychedelic fare--has opted of late for a raw, stripped-down approach that lends a spontaneous, vibrant spark to his songs.
"All that tedious overdubbing and the latest fix-it-in-the-mix computer technology--we're not interested in that," Black says. "It's rough and ready, a diamond in the rough."
Frank Black started life 38 years ago as Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV. His first taste of the rock life came while banging his guitar in the garage of the suburban Los Angeles home of his Pentecostal mother and stepfather. After the family relocated to Boston, rock and roll took a back seat to other interests, namely astronomy. While living in Puerto Rico as an exchange student, Thompson decided he would either travel to Australia in pursuit of Halley's comet or form a band.
Rock and roll won the toss. Back in Boston, the aspiring singer-songwriter teamed up with college roommate Joey Santiago, a rich Filipino kid with a knack for buzz-saw guitar licks. At the suggestion of his biker-bar-owner biological dad, he changed his name to Black Francis and adopted the moniker Pixies in Panoply for his band after hooking up with Ohio native Kim Deal, a novice bassist, and Deal's drummer friend David Lovering.
In 1987, the Pixies released their explosive debut EP, Come on Pilgrim, on the artsy London-based 4AD label. It was followed the next year by the virulent full-length Surfer Rosa, capturing extensive college radio play and critical raves.
A major label deal followed. But by the time 1989's breakthrough Doolittle (Elektra) hit the airwaves, featuring the college radio fave "Monkey Gone to Heaven," the Pixies were already falling apart owing to tension between the band's founder and Deal. The Pixies released two more albums--1990's Bossanova (which featured some of Black's best UFO-obsessed lyrics) and 1991's Trompe le Monde--but by then Deal had already formed her own band, the Breeders, featuring Tanya Donelly of Throwing Muses.
"We carved out a nice little niche for ourselves," reflects Black. "We had a good little run. But I don't think that if we had stuck it out longer we would have been big and famous. I think that the music was far too quirky for that. The bands that sell millions and millions of records have some kind of mass appeal, a genuine pop cleverness or charisma.
"Sometimes it's just because they're lame and boring, and that's what people are looking for at a particular time."
In 1993, under the new pseudonym Frank Black, Thompson recruited Santiago, members of Pere Ubu, and several session players and released his eponymous solo CD to mixed reviews. In subsequent years, Black fell out of favor with critics who once hailed him as an innovator but later turned against him for being too experimental. "I actually find that even my most quirky moments aren't that quirky compared to [avant-garde San Francisco group] the Residents or some band like that," says Black. "I mean, compared to them I feel like I'm in the Bay City Rollers.
"But I guess it's better to have people writing bad reviews about you than nothing at all. I've always been fortunate in that regard."
These days, Black is living the good life--even the reviews are good. "I have a nice house, a beautiful girlfriend, lots of pets," he says, sounding like the antithesis of the angst-ridden alt-rocker. "My home life is a pretty happy, warm, fuzzy experience in the California sunshine. It's a nice thing to come home to after being in nightclubs and Holiday Inns for a few weeks."
And as for the road, even that's treating Black kindly. "You learn where the good cafes and truck stops are. You learn to love certain stretches of road just for the sheer beauty of it. And, of course, the big payoff at the end of most days is the gig," he says. "We get to play--that's a great reward, getting to play at a rock show. I mean, that never gets boring. There's always something exciting about it, whether it's sold out or not. Whether it's a big club or a tiny club. Whether it's a great place or a shitty place. The bottom line is that you're going to play music and there are going to be people there to hear you, so that always is there. There's always a crowd. There's always you. And there are always your instruments.
"It's exciting to go out there and prove yourself, to go out there and say, 'I have a great rock moment in me, so stick around for a while.'"
Frank Black and the Catholics perform Tuesday, May 14, at 8pm at the Mystic Theatre, 21 Petaluma Blvd., Petaluma. Tickets are $18. David Lovering, scientific phenomenalist, opens the show. 707.765.2121.
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From the May 9-15, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.