St. Francis’ New Black Mass
Frank Black and the Catholics (SpinArt)
Nik Rainey watches the “domini”s fall with Frank Black
by Nik Rainey
It’s an illustrative coincidence that two live-in-studio CDs featuring the two (not dissimilar) faces of the art-popster formerly known as Charles Thompson are arriving in the racks almost simultaneously. The first,The Pixies at the BBC (4AD/Elektra), collects four radio sessions recorded by the already-legendary (and frequently disinterred) band during the period when their chief theorist answered to the handle Black Francis; the second,Frank Black and the Catholics (SpinART), is a live-to-two-track document of the latest outfit donned by one of modern rock’s jolliest enigmas, twelve tracks laid down over the course of three days with nary an overdub to be found. And, in keeping with a career full of unlikely juxtapositions and surprising inversions of the norm, the new model winds up outpacing the vintage vehicle. With a few notable exceptions (particularly the take on the fragile, underappreciated Bossanova track “Ana”), the Pixies album falls prey to the same sickness that renders too many Peel Sessions EPs more engaging in theory than in practice, the original brilliance of the songs scuffed and dulled by logy, enervated performances (“Wave of Mutilation”? Ripple of paper cuts, more like) and that infamously flat BBC production (it’s the government’s network, after all – construct your conspiracy theorems as you will). The Catholics, conversely, finds our man Frank stripped of the artifice that’s constricted his last couple of solo efforts and sparking like a live wire again, balancing his standard mythopoesic musings with unprecedented snatches of emotional directness (cf. “Do You Feel Bad About It?,” “I Need Peace,” and “Suffering”) that dare to restore the human face to his out-there-a-minute persona. Maybe the back-to-front best thing he’s done since, dare I shimmy out on this thin limb, Doolittle; certainly one of the best records of this year regardless. So naturally I had to track the man down and find out what becomes this reclusive legend most. Where would you expect to find the man who provided the match from which the oily flannel rags of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll swindle this decade has seen went up in a conflagration of overblown loud/soft dynamics, the only man in rock history (to my knowledge) to have a Lance Henriksen character named after him, the man who reclaimed rock in the name of all the bedroom-dwelling geek savants of the world? In local temporary housing with a malfunctioning phone that makes the first three minutes of this conversation sound like one of the sonic pranks Albini pulled on Surfer Rosa? Bingo, dingo…
Frank Black’s Answering Machine: “(beeeeep) Hi, this is Frank Black. Uh, um, if this is my next interview, call me back in about five minutes. I’m having some trouble with my ph-(click, feedback)”
Frank Black: Hey, are you there?
Yeah. Is this Frank?
Yep. Listen, I’m sorry about this. I don’t know why but this phone’s been giving me trouble all morning.
No problem. It seems to be fixed now.
Yeah. That’s a rel- (static, hissing, click, dial tone)
Oh, hell. I’d better try this again. Good thing it’s a local call. Now, how do you switch o-(click)
My Tape: -she was starting to hyperventilate and I had to tell her, “No, that’s just a figure of speech. You don’t actually bl-” (click, ringing)
Frank (picking up): I think I’ve got this figured out.
You’re here in Boston, right? Are you living here again?
No, we’re staying in a temporary apartment right now. The cost of living in Boston is quite high these days, as I’m sure you know, and the hotel situation is also through the roof. We looked into these by-the-week apartments – there are tons of them around here! So if you wanna stay here for three or four weeks, that’s the way to go. And I haven’t lived here for nine years, so it’s a great set-up to simulate the experience of living in Boston again. There are problems, like the phones, as you’ve seen, and also these, uh, efficiency kitchens – the other night, I was trying to cook a full chicken and some other stuff, and, well, trying to balance red-hot pans in a tiny space like that, you can kinda get yourself in trouble. It’s nice not to have to eat at a restaurant every time you’re hungry, but now I have to clean up.
I’m sure you’ve been asked a lot about the name of your band. The immediate connotation one gets is the religious one, but...
Actually, that is the meaning, or at least the thing that made that possible – before Rich Gilbert joined the band, everyone else in the band except for myself was raised Catholic. I’m trying to reconstruct how it came up – I think we were on the road, just sitting around talking about our upbringings, and my girlfriend, who is also Catholic, kinda quipped, “You guys should call yourselves Frank Black and the Catholics!” and it stuck, like these things sometimes do. It doesn’t really mean anything, or maybe I should say it has whatever meaning you want to attach to it, since I’ve always been fond of leaving things open to interpretation. But we’re not doing it to be provocative – those days are gone, when you could name your band something outrageous just to get a rise out of people. That’s kinda silly at this point. The only people that really took issue with it were a couple of European journalists who used it as an angle, as if somehow I’m trying to ruffle peoples’ feathers. It’s kinda cute – “Brace yourself… here’s FRANK BLACK AND THE CATHOLICS!”
I like that “Green Acres” quote at the beginning of the disc. Was that your way of heralding a return to musical basics?
Nah, it was just a spontaneous thing the band did while they were waiting for me to finish tuning my guitar. After so many takes, it’s easy to start fooling around – Lyle started playing that little “da-da-da-da-da-boom-boom” and the others picked up on it, then you can hear that little “whoomp” from me plugging into my amp. It’s all there; I left it on the album. It keeps with the whole live aspect of it, though there was a tactical purpose for doing it that way as well. We recorded the record Thursday through Sunday one week, and I was in the mastering studio the next Thursday, after calling them up – (panting furtively) “When’s the next available session?” It was a fait accompli, so I couldn’t have it taken away from me by a record company out to sweeten it, dull it down or something. It was a nice soft way of being firm about it – live-to-two-track, songs in alphabetical order, that’s it, it can’t be changed.
Oh, the songs are alphabetical, aren’t they? You used to do your set lists that way in the Pixies.
Yeah, that’s an old gag of mine. I tried it before with the Pixies, to have the running order of one of the albums be alphabetical, but it never really worked. Part of it was just that the flow never worked, part of it was that everything has to be subjected to a big discussion when you’re in a democracy like that – you want this, someone else wants a little of that, the producer, the manager, the engineer all have their say… For this record, and it just so happened that it sounded good that way, logical. The whole idea of alphabetizing pop songs into a collection is a way to randomize it, get it away from having to be seen as some kind of unified statement. It’s anti-art, in a sense: the song is greater than the collection, the moment itself is important and it doesn’t matter in what order those moments fall. It saves you a lot of frustration and wasted energy trying to organize things, which is why I don’t do set lists anymore. It’s a liberating thing for the musicians to play the songs when the songs decide they wanna be played.
Was it a conscious decision to write more direct, less abstract lyrics?
It was definitely a conscious decision this time around. After The Cult of Ray, I came to the conclusion that, okay, I wasn’t gonna be too uptight about these things or try too hard to be obscure – not that some things weren’t going to be obscure by their nature, I wasn’t about to start twisting things into shapes they didn’t want to be in, but I thought that I’d pitch a few down the middle and not be ashamed about it. To see how close to the clichés I could come without being a cliché, and get results that are at least somewhat favorable to people. Like the presentation, the songs are a little cleaner, something you could listen to and say, “Okay, I get it.” I think these are more universal songs, songs that somebody other than me could sing, not as eccentric – or egocentric – as they could be.
Is there anything – music, art, film, books – that’s inspired you lately?
Nothing. Nothing in particular, I should say, but there never is, other than the entire thing, the whole body of pop music, which is permanently in place – pick up your guitar and it’s there. It’s running through it already, it’s in your vocabulary. There’s no need to make a concerted effort to reflect or pay homage to a single song or band or book or movie; it’ll come out if it’s there.
It’s interesting to hear you say that, because a lot of the critical analysis about you would have it that you’re ambivalent about, or somewhat removed at least, from rock ‘n’ roll. But you’re still a believer, aren’t you?
Yeah, sure. Absolutely. I don’t even know what people mean when they ask me those things.
Are you haunted by your history?
I’m aware of it in more of a financial/business way, which is really all it is, more that than any sort of culturally significant event. I don’t listen to those records anymore.
And how does Frank Black relate to Black Francis?
There’s a certain continuity, of course. I am, after all, the same guy. I suppose maybe Black Francis was a little more pretentious than Frank Black is. That goes with age, really, that’s the sort of thing a guy does when he’s in his first band. But when I say “pretentious,” I don’t mean that in any critical way; it was never contrived or anything I overly pondered. It was more an attempt at the time to be “arty,” which is certainly not a bad thing. Sure, looking back I do cringe now and then, but hell, I can say that of the first few Frank Black records, too.
Does your history affect the way people react to you? Everything seems so accelerated these days; you’re still a young man, and yet I wonder if some folks don’t think of you as some sort of rock ‘n’ roll relic before your time.
Journalists do (chuckles), sure. The record-buying public, not so much, some yes, most no. Some of the kids who listen to me now don’t even know the Pixies stuff so much, so there’s not much of a stigma that follows me, though I do get a bit of that now and again. If it does hang over me, it actually has more of a positive effect than a negative one. It gives me a certain amount of street credibility, so even if I put out an obscure record or it gets bad reviews or it’s on some tiny label – and all of those have happened, as you well know – even with all those things it’ll still manage to bear some sort of distinction because of my past, and I certainly won’t grouse about that.
I haven’t really bothered anybody with this before, but it seems somewhat appropriate in your case: How do you plan to spend the millennial changeover?
Oh, I don’t know, I’m sort of against – I’m not anti-New Year’s Eve but I am kind of anti-2000. Again, it’s just artificially imposed randomness that doesn’t really signify anything. No, actually, I’ll take that back a little bit – there is a sort of change in the mass consciousness that people are aware of, in the aggregate: things are starting to crest, mostly because people tend to be on the same page about it, so that has an effect. But I’m opposed to that kind of false chronology – I mean, what about the Mayan calendar? Don’t the Mayans get any say in the matter? I’ve always been on their side, you know.
Maybe you should bring this to Chris Carter’s attention. He’s been sullying your good name with that damn “other” TV show of his!
Oh, no, see, I always looked at that as just a cool-sounding title, like, you know… Bossanova or something! I like that for the feeling it evokes rather than being literal about it. I’m sure Chris would agree.
(Doing a Tom Snyder impression, for some reason) Fair enough, sir. Well, I’m sure you have more interviews to do…
Yeah, I’d better go and figure out what the hell’s up with these phones. I’m a little tired, too – I was up late last night even though I knew I had interviews this morning. I was, we… what was I doing last night? I guess it was one of those things where you just stay up too late for no good reason but to stay up too late. And the kitchen is a mess, still!