Articles: Bob Mould and Black Francis Interview

Bob Mould

By Jim Macnie
Musician, February 1992.
Transcribed by C. Gourraud for Alec Eiffel

Black Francis
Time Square is teeming with holiday bustle, but Back Francis has got his reasons to be tired. Last night his band, the Pixies, were in Baltimore, slapping around the tunes from their latest album, Trompe Le Monde. Francis (Charles Thompson to his friends) fled the gig, got in his rental car and headed up I-95 to New York for a sold-out show and a Musician interview. Static and chatter from the CB helped him steer clear of Smokey, but it didn't give him much sleep.

Almost every review has cited Trompe Le Monde as a return to form, albeit a thoroughly crazed form. It's true: the album's shoes are untied and there's some spit that flies out of its mouth when it roars. And it roars constantly. The Pixies earned their status as post-punks who could wax articulately in the shattered guitar language of the early 80's. Unlike many of their peers, they weren't against embracing some kind of professionalism or orthodoxy. By employing classic structures - surf melodies, pure pop - they continue to grab listeners: the gargantuan wall of guitar sound is bolstered by a genuflection to structure. On their previous record, Bossanova, the spiky fragments that stuck out of their past work got covered with production cream. Trompe Le Monde lets it all hang out again, taking pride in its wooliness.

Speaking of wooliness, walls of sound and lots of hooks, Bob Mould has been doing a scad of acoustic gigs around the globe of late. We figured the man who led Hüsker Dü's guitar charge would know more than a few ways to make a solo performance sound like an army coming through. Mould's two after-Dü discs, Workbook and Black Sheets Of Rain, proved that his views on music were anything but monolithic. They went from fanciful melodies like « Sunspots » (often used during thoughtful pauses on public radio's « All Things Considered ») to « Stop Your Crying, » where the guitar tore down anything that wasn't nailed to his psyche. Currently shopping for a new label, Mould can be heard on the Golden Palominos record, Drunk With Passion. It's his track that sounds like a man is being boiled alive: sweeping fuzz guitar intro, pain and misery lyrics, relentless push. If the Plastic Ono Band was still together, they'd probably let him sit in.

Here comes Bob around the corner in Times Square too, bright-eyed, chipper, with a coffee in his hand.

« I brought the guitar, » says Black Francis, « I hope you brought the pick. »

MUSICIAN: Do either of you get nervous before going onstage?
MOULD: Every night for me. I'm always nervous. And I don't know where I switch off. Thirty seconds in or somewhere. It's like, « What if I forget the gift, or the command or whatever I've got? » It's not like those guys with all the scarves, the singers who do the dance of the seven veils. And if there was a night where I went up there and I was totally sure, I'd probably quit. I like the mystery; I don't want it to be a routine.

MUSICIAN: Charlie, you're not nervous?
FRANCIS: Maybe it's the suppression of nervousness. Sometimes in the middle of a set I kinda feel like, « Am I here? Am I really seeing what I'm seeing? » I quickly try to get rid of that stuff. I find the exit sign in the back quite soothing. I look right at it, do my thing.
MOULD: I like watching you, 'cause you look up a lot. It's really neat.
FRANCIS: Well, it's the 20-yard stare in the 10-yard room. « No one home. »
MOULD: You're such a focal point.
FRANCIS: That's what it is. I think, « I'm just a fat dude with a guitar and I don't want to be here. »
MOULD: Have you ever done a gig where you let go of the guitar and just sang? Just held the mike stand?
FRANCIS: No, but I should.
MOULD: That's the weirdest feeling. I've done it, thrown the guitar down and taken the mike. It's, « Am I Iggy Pop? » It's like people at a party saying, « C'mon, let's dance. » I can't dance to save my life. The only thing I can dance with is a guitar. It's like you've got a blanket up there with you. Linus.
FRANCIS: That's probably how it all started. It's fun to play, but I wish I was Iggy too. Joey Santiago's brother came out with us on auxiliary guitar once and I did some solo singing. It was cool.
MOULD: You have no idea why you try things you shouldn't, and that's what makes it cool. It's the difference between being an artist and a performer. Maybe that's too lofty a term, but I didn't decide to play guitar because I wanted to be in a band, it just happened upon me. I'm sure there are guys who can play circles around either one of us, but do they know what the instrument means? All the hammer-ons and shit. A friend asked, « Can you play like that? » and I said, « Yeah, but that's not what I feel. » Deedledeedeedledeedeedledee. How many notes I can play isn't the boundary I try to cross while playing. I'm trying to take the dark wart that's floating in your mind and make your hands do something with it. Technique sort of sucks. I was listening to the new Pixies record. I thought that some of the guitar things were so unorthodox and I could never do that because, unfortunately, I learned to play the instrument. Playing by feel is great. But it's hard to unlearn once you've learned.
FRANCIS: We definitely feel like ordinary guitar players in our band. We feel okay about it, but sometimes wish we could do a little hammer-on once in a while, for the sake of the moment.
MOULD: Like those descending bends, totally beyond technique. It's not a form, like modal blues or something. It says so much more than the intro to « Dust In The Wind. »
FRANCIS: Part of the beauty of the guitar is that it's somewhat easy, accessible. Everyone knows a couple chords, and if you don't, you can learn a couple chords quickly.

MUSICIAN: Are you interested in becoming a better guitarist?
FRANCIS: I make it more a joke than I probably should, but I just want to be honest about it. Joey and I started out quite rudimentary. Thankfully my mother's sister taught me G-B-A. But yeah, we try to get better. Joey works at it more than me. He gets to stretch his fingers wider. We had a rehearsal space at a heavy metal place this year. It was Ratt or Ozzy next door. You inevitably pay attention to them after a while. And they look at you. Of course you're not playing things you're good at, that you already know. You're rehearsing and you feel silly. But we did go for the drop-D tuning so we could riff with a little bit of heaviness for them. It gave us an extra foot or so of breathing space.
MOULD: I got to a point where I was so bored I started changing all the tunings and it made a big difference. I was just tired playing all the barre chords and cowboy chords - I'd used them too much. There must be more than that. I was hearing something more Celtic or Indian. Traditionally in things I've been involved in, I've been the only guitar player. But when writing, I've got to play two parts at once, like Townshed used to do. « Okay, now I've got to learn how to play the chords and the riff at the same time. » I used the dulcimer for inspiration, and tried to figure out ways for the guitar to sound like a dulcimer. You get into that tuning where it's just Ds and As.
FRANCIS: Oh yeah! I just learned that! Jim Jones from Pere Ubu taught me that the other day! All Ds and As.
MOULD: I think that David Crosby is the guy to talk to about all the weird tunings. But you guys have some amazing guitar work on the new Pixies record.
FRANCIS: It was having Ozzy next door, I'm sure of it. We had our Marshalls out and just kept going over it.
MOULD: You have to be disciplined. I know people who scoff at the you-have-to-play-every-day theory, but if you don't have an instrument around to translate that, if you're not rehearsing a lot, you're lost. How many times are you just sitting there lollygagging with a guitar and then all of a sudden a brainstorm comes out? If you'd been drinking beer or fucking around it wouldn't have happened.
FRANCIS: I don't use notebooks or write anything down. Part of the fun of strumming the guitar is remembering that little chord change from two months ago. Catalogue the riffs. You lose one or two now and then. I'm paranoid that it will go away if I get too organized with it. But I do understand why certain musicians keep a tape recorder at their bedside. I guess there's been the occasion where I've been stoned, driving around in the car in a relaxed state of mind, and hear music in my head. « Oh, shit hot, that's great, that's great! I'm going to remember it tomorrow. » No way, I'll never see that song again.
MOULD: You'd be surprised. they come back at ya. I just heard one in my sleep the other day, horns and strings, the whole works, real tripped out. I've spent the last two days working on it, and I've gotten it out; I'm relieved. Very bizarre though. Like talking in foreign language in your sleep.

MUSICIAN: Let's talk about how you both constructed such drastic style. Real huge sounds.
FRANCIS: I grew up in L.A. when bands like Black Flag were around, but I never listened to them. I was buying used records for 50 cents, and didn't socialize, really; I was lost in headphone-land. I did get to see a Hüsker Dü show when Joey and I dropped out of school and said, « Let's start one of these groups. » And I saw an excellent show by the Hüskers at the Paradise in Boston, where you did « Ticket To Ride » for an encore. Fantastic show, so I knew that Hüsker Dü was a tape I needed to get. I had those albums, a couple of Iggy albums, one Captain Beefheart and a tiny studio apartment. That handful of stuff got me through that particular season. I used to play « Green Eyes » [from Hüsker Dü's Flip Your Wig] over and over. A classic chord progression. Same thing with Iggy's « The Passenger » - one of those repeat songs. At the start of the Pixies I only had four or five albums and the Hüskers were two or three of them.

MUSICIAN: How did the Hüskers develop such a drastic approach? And what made such a whomping sound so attractive?
MOULD: I think it puts off a lot of people and that's the attraction. When the Hüskers were first going we really knew we could put people off with it. It's like extreme jazz; it's so painful that it's curious. The faint of heart are driven away, but those who stay get to see the emotions really tapped. There were only three of us, so we thought we had to fill a lot of space. The speed was a challenge - who could keep it together at that speed? Not many. When we got going fast, there was no other band that could cut a swath like that: double-time stuff that had an almost swing jazz feel beneath it. I think the main reason people put bands together is because they're incredible music fans and so frustrated with what they hear around them. You want to fill the void.
FRANCIS: The key phrase is « fan. » Many people who make records don't act like they have that attitude. You're either passionate about it or not. If you are passionate, chances are good that you won't be boring, and even if you are boring, at least it's damn passionate.
MOULD: A record can be deceiving. A band could be the hottest deal going, but then you go to see them live and in 30 seconds you find out that they just don't care. Then you can see some trashy band of kids with equipment falling apart and you go, « Man, they're dying for this shit. Watch this one. »
FRANCIS: I also become offended at the old cliché that says « Rock music is sex. » Maybe it is to some people, but I was only eight years old when I first said, « What is this great stuff? » It was just a little world I could enter if I wanted to.
MOULD: There are moments in your life where you hear something and say, « I know that person, » or « I understand the root of their aesthetic, where their happiness or pain comes from. » Whether it's the Germs or the Pixies. You say, « Wait, that's the voice of reason in my life. » When I heard the new Pixies record I was kind of jealous. In its first four minutes the record lays out more ideas than some bands do in their careers. Pixies records are a big challenge. You've really got to dig in. a 6/8 break with a walkie-talkie? Critics might hone in on that, but I'm not sure if everyone gets it. And there's this great turn, a phrase, it's kind of like the « Popcorn » break, it just comes along at a perfect time.
FRANCIS: Yeah! We've got another song called « The Surf Epic , » three songs strung together by the « Popcorn » break.

MUSICIAN: The Hüskers brought that post-Spector wall-of-sound thing into punk.
MOULD: After you've been making eight-track demos and then get to 16- or 24-, your first tendency is to fill up all that open space. Then you take it away a bit. then you realize that you really liked it all up there. My problem has always been trying to translate ideas to a producer, which is why I finally learned to do all those things. « This song sounds like ash, I want it to sound like redwood. » They go, « Huh? Then after practicing with that digital reverb or whatever, you find out how to make that river into an ocean, or make the river run upstream. I was making a demo at home, making feedback with the guitar and a $60 amp. It barely sounded like guitar. It just sounded like somebody blowing something up. I fried $500 worth of equipment in three minutes, bit I got the sound. Now when I do the record I've got to bring that channel on digital tape to the studio, because I'm not ever going to get it that way again.
FRANCIS: There's an attraction to volume. Sheer volume is a good thing. I've developed a lot of ear wax, but it's neat.
MOULD: You can realign people's physical chemistry with sound, and that's a great thing. Music is supposed to be beyond articulation and expression. Volume can affect people. When I would go to see Neubauten, I felt like I'd been run over by a truck. I didn't go to watch them, but to find out what it would do to my body. Like getting a massage of the weirdest kind.
FRANCIS: Tell us about the one-note encore you did.
MOULD: Norman, Oklahoma, 35 minutes. Playing at an agricultural hall in '82 or '83. It was one of those nights that really polarized everything. We thought, « What comes next? » You have to deal with all the elements of a show: resonance of the room, what comes at you, and the vibe. So we thought, « Variations on one note. »
FRANCIS: You whittled 'em down to about seven kids?
MOULD: Yeah, they were either totally mesmerized or totally disgusted. That's drama: who's going to hang with this one? It becomes a mantra.

MUSICIAN: Are there parts of metal music that you steer toward?
FRANCIS: Maybe a little tiny bit, but I certainly don't listen to any metal. Someone gave me the new Metallica and I was on a long trip and once I got to learn the patterns I didn't mind it. Diddida-dump diddida-dump diddida-dump. That stuff is wild.
MOULD: I like the guys who play the double bass drums faster than snares, and then do all that straight shit on top. That's funny.
FRANCIS: I can see the attraction, almost like playing a video game in a way. Here we go: left turn, right turn, straight.
MOULD: It's like that math jazz. Pick a number between five and eight, put it in one bag. Then pick six, 12 and 16 and put it in another. Oop! Here's a section to play 7/16, here we go! Don't get me wrong, I love it when people change tempo, but only if it's in the context. Maybe it is. All those kids that play metal grew up in the suburbs, and they're constantly figuring how to get out of the cul de sac. Bouncing their bikes off the cornerstones. Garbage comes on Thursday, look out! All indicative of the society you live in.

MUSICIAN: What did you think about Nirvana's surprise hit? Pretty unorthodox compared to what's right next to it on the charts.
MOULD: You really think it's unorthodox, even compared to what's right next to it?
MUSICIAN: A mountain of pretty damn raw guitars? Definitely.
FRANCIS: Does the hot video have something to do with that? The most records that we ever sold in a week was when one of ours got a little bit warm for a second. They liked the video for « Here Comes Your Man, » they showed it, we sold.
MOULD: The music television channels have become so genre-specific that there's no mystery involved anymore. Now, when MTV flash the name of the blocks up there, I wouldn't go as far as to say that is smacks of racism, but in a sense...to me the allure of music was hearing the word of mouth about a band, or reading about a band from a writer whose opinion I trusted. Now, you've got something in everyone's household telling you what kind of music it is in 20-minute intervals. Where do the Pixies fit into that? Alternative ghetto, or maybe metal. It's as if the change between the rap and the metal section is the changing of the channel. No one's being surprised anymore.
FRANCIS: Plus, you're exposed to the guy's face for three minutes. It's not the world of sound, it's the world of pictures. I was just flipping through last night and saw Nirvana and checked it out a bit. But overall there's nothing there to keep my interest. And it's not as if my standards are too friggin' high. I'll take some good old mainstream crap, but...
MOULD: I don't mean to dis video, I just don't see many people doing anything with it. It all reminds me of commercials. You've got to do 'em and it eats up time and money, and it puts you on the back side of your vision, which isn't right either.
FRANCIS: And you don't get time to practice them. I practice before a tour, doing a record, writing songs. And I don't mind being around the video stuff. Cameras, films. That's fun. But I have no idea about what the art of music television should be. And I think someone should: set up something to aspire to and go for it. But it's usually like, « Okay, we got a week, let's go. » And we just slap something together. We've blown a lot of money on something that didn't get the payback, that's for sure. The record companies are charging you for half of it. It's paid advertising, but they're not taking care of the whole bill. I think the next time I sign a record contract, it's going to be, « Look, if you're going to twist my arm to do videos every time I do a record, then you have to pay for those damn things. »
MOULD: I think the deal that I'm about to close says that I have to pay for them out of my own pocket; they just release them. If they make me do one, it'll be, « Yeah, sure, I'll do it...for $1000 with a couple of friends, and I'll be on both sides of the camera. » The thing about paid commercials is that on music television there's no guarantee that your commercial's going to be aired.
FRANCIS: And then you hear things about Joe Fuckin' President of Video saying to Joe Fuckin' Record Company Guy, « Oh, you got two bands over there, which one you want to be hot? » You hear that and you go, « Gee, why am I working so hard? »
MOULD: If a band can't play live, I don't care how good their video is. At that point it crosses the line from being music to being a Broadway musical. Charlie can't cop out: If your voice is shot, you still play. Me too. I've got to use my imagination when that happens. How can I humor these people when everyone in the room knows my voice is a bag of shit? What other talents do I use to make my performance worthwhile? I'm sitting in a chair, I can't fake it.
FRANCIS: In the space we rehearsed at in Hollywood we could hear them loading their samplers for all the background vocals. It was, « Oh man, just be off key one night please. » No balls at all.
MOULD: Live performance is supposed to be live. I rarely walk out of a show disappointed. If it's a band that I like and they weren't that good, I'm not never going to listen to them again. There are things you have to take into account when you go to see live bands. Certain things are choreographed: there's a set list written, cues reacted to. But there's so much latitude. Someone's tired, someone's drunk. That's what makes a gig a gig. It's a reflection of what the performers and support people went through that day. You're summing up a day. FRANCIS: That's absolutely correct.
MOULD: All the falsity means you have no life, that you eat biodegradable plastic, that you just shit it back out a 10 o'clock every night. If I'm in a pissy mood I just tell people, « Sorry but my day sucked. I've got a cold, speeding ticket, someone smashed my window. The next hour-and-a-half is going to reflect that. » Why hide it? Except that it's taboo to break the illusion of happy performer. people seem to have very rigid lives, sitting in front of computers. I would hope that people abandon that shit when they come see me. Check it at the door. Bring your soul with you. That's the cool thing about live music. »I've got you now, and it's not necessarily going to be entertaining. It's going to change again, get away from visuals, and there are going to be a lot of casualties. »



Last Updated 05-28-97