BLACK IS BACK
"Nothing can ever be me, no matter how influenced or how much it mimics; there is
something that is integral to the cellular structure of what I am that's different from
Charles Michael Kitridge Thompson (IV), aka Black Francis, aka Frank Black isn't blowing the twin trumpets of existential and creative uniqueness here, he's simply explaining why he's not bothered by attempts to Xerox the sound of his band, the Pixies, who, along with Husker Du before them and subsequently Nirvana, determined the shape of what became known as alterno-rock.
Booming cheerfully down the phone from his home in LA, Charles makes the Pixies sound like meat'n'potatoes - satisfying, but dishing up nothing very different from dozens of other bands. But they were. Stunningly so. When the Pixies leapt into focus (formed in 1986, their early success was a result of touring Europe supporting Throwing Muses in 1988), their sound was seriously seditionary.
It was so many things - twangtastic surf guitar, huge squalls of murderous feedback, primal howling, lascivious and violent lyrics which bordered on the bestial but were bafflingly oblique, Latino-flavoured melodies treated like they were Big Black songs, a deep seam of real humour - put together in such a thrilling new way you totally forgot that some of the components were familiar. The Pixies made A DIFFERENCE. And there's not been many of them in the last decade.
It's now over six years since the band played their last ever show in Vancouver and
Charles (vocals, guitar), Kim Deal (bass, vocals), Joey Santiago (guitar) and David
Lovering (drums) went their separate ways. Charles has had his own less successful
career, as Frank Black, for some time, but he still finds it hard to acknowledge the
fact that legions of bands have been desperately trying to ape the Pixies' sound since
they first heard such rockastic modern classics as "Gigantic", "Debaser" and "Monkey
Gone To Heaven". Even Kurt Cobain admitted that when he wrote "Smells Like Teen Spirit",
he was "trying to write the ultimate pop song" by "basically trying to rip off the
"I'm aware that other people have made flattering comments about me or the Pixies," Charles struggles, "but... I'm in awkward position as regards saying, 'Yeah, we were influential; we were great!' I'm not necessarily disagreeing or trying to be falsely modest, but there were plenty of people who couldn't STAND the Pixies, and I'm respectful of that. Although it hurts if you read a review and someone says it's shit, because that's something you've dedicated your life to."
"But sure, it's nice to hear that heavy hitters like Kurt Cobain or David Bowie mention that you've made some great records. I'm glad that other members of 'the club' have spoken so favourably of me."
What exactly do you think the Pixies' legacy is?
"I hate to reduce it this far," says Charles, "but just some pretty good records. I don't feel like I'm responsible for creating a new sound or technique. Henri Rollins, the Jesus And Mary Chain, Cocteau Twins... They all carved out their own space, too, and I could never say what I was doing went beyond that."
But surely to have someone like Kurt Corbain acknowlege you as a direct influence must
lend extra weight to your reputation?
"Certainly, that's a very high compliment, but... I've probably mentioned Iggy Pop in interviews in extremely reverential tones, but I don't know that I SOUND like Iggy Pop. And, as complementary as it is for Kurt Cobain or Dave Grohl to say, 'Hey, we were trying to do a Pixies thing', they're being modest, because they certainly had their own sound and style. And certainly a lot more mass appeal."
I'm prodding Charles about fame on the eve of release of "Death To The Pixies", a
17-track compilation which distills the greatness of Boston's best-ever band. It's
exactly ten years since their debut album, "Come On Pilgrim", appeared, the title taken
from a Christian folk singer who Charles saw perform at summer camp when he was 13.
"Surfer Rosa", which sealed Pixies' reputation as sonic rabble rousers par excellence,
followed a year later, baring its garage-punk soul and producing their first single,
the exquisite "Gigantic," which went straight to Number One in British independent
"In the Pixies, we didn't really pay our dues," admits Charles. "There was some groundwork laid in the friendship between Joey Santiago and I [the two were room mates at university in Massachusetts in their early 20s and have been friends ever since], but the band formed instantly after that, then we did gigs. We had a record out within a year and suddenly we were on tour and lots of people seemed to really love the band. I'm not saying it was like what it must have been like to be in Nirvana, or Oasis, but it's still heady to be young and to be in Europe for the first time, to suddenly be in front of 5000 Belgian kids and they're all shouting along with this crazy little ditty you scrawled. It's like, what sort of dream did I step into?!"
Well, a dream that spawned a career which ended if not at its peak (they went one bridge too far, with 1991's "Trompe Le Monde", for that), at least on a dignified plateau, and culminated in five albums.
I wonder if there's some kind of gravitas attached to the release of a compilation like
this? After all, it's everything anyone could ever want to hear by the Pixies, a band who
will never release another record.
"Certainly, having a compilation put out of your work is some kind of recognition. The thing I'm most glad about is that we didn't represent any particular scene or fashion. We were as much in a vacuum as any rock band CAN be in a vacuum. I'm not saying we didn't have our influences - we certainly did - but it really did end up coming out individual. It wasn't self-conscious in terms of other bands; it wasn't about what we were trying to be, but about what we were trying NOT to be."
Which was what?
"Well, it goes back some time. When I was 15, there were a load of kids who were into Journey [Seventies MOR cobblers], and I knew I didn't want to have anything to do with THAT," Charles chuckles. "It wasn't like my sense of hip or cool was so overwhelming, but at the time my friends were these young Southern Californian punk rockers, who were listening to Devo and The Ramones and whatever else had managed to crack mall culture. But I wasn't aware of those bands, either. I listened to my own set of records, which had to do with money - if you don't have a lot of money, you tend to go to used record stores."
So what kind of stuff did you buy there?
"The first Cat Stevens record," crackles Charles, "before he had a beard and when he was 18 or 19 and a kind of sex-symbol. It's a terrible record! But I'm sure that other lminaries have similar first records."
Anyone who's been part of any successful band runs obvious risks when they go it
alone, and for every Dave Grohl shining in the spotlight there are a dozen Krist
Novoselics battling to glow even dimly through the shadows of their pasts.
Does Charles Michael Kitridge Thompson (IV) ever feel overshadowed by Black Francis?
"I haven't experienced the success with the Frank Black records that I did with the Pixies' records, but that doesn't bug me because that's just the way it goes," Charles says. "Although it would bother me if I was even LESS popular, and I had to go back to my old job [shipping and receiving in a warehouse]."
But you'll always loom large; what you're doing now will never erase what you did with
the Pixies. Is that a blessing or a curse?
"If I loom large in people's minds, that's fine," decides Charles, "because it really doesn't affect my life. I live in a house like any other man and I don't have any of the problems of fame. That lack of privacy thing has only been an issue once in a while for me, and when it becomes a problem it is very annoying. I can't imagine what it's like for people who are really in the limelight and I definitely sympathise."
"It would be horrible if I couldn't go to the movies and had to think about wearing sunglasses all the time. I don't have any problems when I go buy a taco at my local Mexican eaterie. The guy knows I'm a musician, but he doesn't care - he's not impressed by it."
Well, they do say impressions aren't important. It's just that the indelible mark the Pixies made on rock music is darkly distinctive enough to still trigger the wowee-zowee effect after all these years.
Death to the Pixies, then. Long live the Pixies.
Last Updated 03-21-97