“I’m going to be a much better person in about 40 seconds,” a bleary Frank Black assures Clash, eyeing his first espresso of the day outside a west London café.
The troubles of the day, which include a BBC live session and the infinitely perplexing question of where to find a sturdy cardboard box to post clothes home in, appear almost insurmountable in the bright morning light.
The close of his European tour promoting best-of package ‘Frank Black 93-03’ and forthcoming solo outing ‘Bluefinger’ has left this hoary old man of alternative rock somewhat jaded. “Yesterday, we had the end in sight. I was hungover, so I had a little hair of the dog, then the hair of the dog became the dog again.” Coffee one-shots be damned: by the sound of things, it’s time to cook up some Nescafe in a spoon and go intravenous…
You really shouldn’t need an introduction to the man his mum knows as Charles Thompson IV. Having fronted the wildly influential Pixies, he’s had a wide and varied solo career, pursuing muses such as surf, punk rock and Nashville twang. These stylistic shifts have also been accompanied by changes in name: from Black Francis to Frank Black to Frank Black and the Catholics and finally back to Black Francis for the punky, edgy ‘Bluefinger’. The reason for all the chopping about? Why, semiotics, of course.
Apparently, ‘Frank Black’ was muddying the creative waters. “My wife said, ‘You’re cocooned: go blossom into a beautiful butterfly.’ So I changed it back to Black Francis.” Shifting back to the tag of his Pixies days gave Black the “most mild notion: go up-tempo and aggressive. I go through the symbolism of it; Black is back baby: it just happens.”
It’s all about head space, you see: “When you go to Nashville to work with some old cats, you don’t sit around thinking ‘How do I make the songs more like that?’ You already know how they’re going to sound. You don’t go there with a load of ‘jnk jnk jnk’ songs. It’s a non-starter.”
If you think that this belies a delicate, analytical artistic framework, you’re punching the wrong cat, buddy. “I’m reactive, instinctive, more spontaneous. About five years ago I learnt that in the Chinese zodiac I was a snake. He responds to what’s in front of him, to the tremor in the earth, as opposed to the monkey, who can climb the tree, look down the road and have all this artistic vision or whatever.”
When it comes to writing songs, “there’s not a lot of intellectual forethought. I can sit around afterwards and do that. There’s no blueprint, I just… do.” As a nominal snake, Black isn’t concerned about carving out thematic niches for his songs: “Beck said every song is its own nation, with rules and customs. This song is the nation of Boogady Boo, and it does this but it never does that. It’s a sovereign nation, you can’t just change it. You’ll destroy it in the process.” He pauses. “I’m one of those songwriters…”
Frank’s status as a family man has amplified his predilection for a free-flowing creative process. “I’ve only been a dad for the last two years; I went from having no kids to having four kids. It hasn’t affected my music emotionally, but I don’t have the time. I used to like working spontaneously; you know, have a spliff, be a little goofy but now I have to say ‘let’s record, right now!’”
I’m under the shadow of not one, but two dead bands.
Time’s inexorable march has brought more than just parental responsibilities for 42-year-old Black: he no longer needs to slum it in the back of a transit van when he hauls his tours around the globe.
“I have enough money in the till at the moment that I can pretend I’m a star. I don’t care if the accountant says I’m bottoming out. If I’m in a hotel, I’ll say ‘I want a suite, you know what, give me a fucking suite.’ You just have to hope there’s milk for baby…” Swilling the last dregs of his second espresso, he reflects, “Thank God for that Pixies reunion, it paid for a lot of stuff for a couple of years…”
Ah yes, The Pixies. Clash has been told this is a sticky subject, so it’s with trepidation that we ask how it’s been being That Guy from That Band. “I had a good run in 1989, it put me on the cover of Melody Maker but now I’m like the cultish troubadour guy going ‘Here I come with my earnest songs…’” he shrugs.
Despite this nonchalant start, Black’s voice assumes a faintly bitter, ironic tone as he expands on the Pixies’ musical legacy. “I cannot stomach one more occasion where I have to emote about how it feels to have the knowledge that Kurt Cobain wrote ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ after listening to the Pixies.” Pushing his sunglasses back onto his face, he half-laughs, “I’m under the shadow of not one, but two dead bands. One hasn’t made a record since 1991, the other hasn’t made a record since whenever he blew his head off.”
Shades of this entropy tinge the conversation when it turns to his career post-Pixies, with its commercial and critical ups and downs. “Things change, people change, time occurs, time passes, and people go ‘Actually, we really like this really weird stuff from this period of time from this obscure artist’…” His bluff, defiant demeanour returns as the interview ends: “I don’t have any regrets. I don’t know how to do it any other way.”