ROAD TO GNOMEWHERE
"I was reading an article recently in a science magazine that says one way to solve the climate problems on earth would be to blow up a bit of themoon. Then everything would be balanced again." Nice idea, but the trouble with a balanced world is that there would be no place in it for someone as off-axis as CMKT IV, or Black Francis as he's known to his fans.
Charles looks like your regular guy, slightly plump, slightly bald, but you can rest assured he's completely bonkers. He's also the brains behind the band whose three albums and one mini-album to date have provided the most insane perspective on surf, sci-fi and the whole turkey shoot known as rock'n'roll. Out in Los Angeles the band have just released a new EP, and will finish an LP as soon as producer Gil Norton gets it. According to Charles, its all nice and "Sgt Peppery". If you thought rock had died on its feet through a lack of characters, prepare to meet this man.
Popular mythology has it that the Pixies are a Boston band, but the reality is different these days. They were certainly formed in that town five years ago, when Charles and guitarist Joey Santiago dropped out of college and placed a now-fabled ad for prospective members of a Husker Du/Peter, Paul and Mary band. But in recent years they've been so busy on the road that there has been little need for them to live in the same town.
Bassist Kim Deal currently lives with her sister in Ohio, guitarist Joey Santiago can't get round to settling down anywhere and drummer Dave Lovering has settled in Los Angeles since he fell in love there during a recording session for the next album. Charles, meanwhile, who was brought up in LA ("Scumville", he calls it) has now rented an apartment here with his girlfriend Jean - "my babe".
While the rest of the Pixies stay in the studio putting spit and polish onto their next album, Charles has arranged to meet outside the Holiday Inn. We're going for a pin in his car and while waiting, I'm wondering what kind of vehicle it'll be. Maybe a polite little Datsun, the motorised equivalent of the band's most subtle song to date - last year's single 'Here Comes Your Man.' Or perhaps it'll be a chromium-plated Nissan-eating chuck wagon ready to lift off for Mars like the lead track on the current EP Planet Of Sound.
In fact, as you'd expect from the leader of a most unpredictable American rock band, the car is nothing of the sort. Gliding up to the hotel entrance is a sort of off-white custardy-coloured pimpmobile, a 1986 Cadilac Fleetwood Blonde. A door the size of Croydon opens up and I slide in, expecting to find old,Superfly, Huggy Bear or at least laid-back LA lurrvechild Lenny Kravitz sitting inside. Instead it's Charles, aka Black Francis, dressed in lumber shirt and Levi's. The car's custardy inside too, but it's Charles' pride and joy. "It's the first car I've owned since I was sixteen, when I shared a coffin on wheels with my brother. And y'know, it was the same colour as this."
The car may look like a nightmare but it puffs like a good dream along the multi-lane main drag of Sunset Boulevard. Although the Caddy might stick out like a sore thumb to an English VW driver, Charles explains that out here, his wheels are remarkably socially mobile. "It's funny with this car. I can be driving around at three in the morning smoking a joint looking at the big houses, and the cops just assume I live in the neighbourhood. If I go to a heavy duty black area the locals don't even look inside the car, 'cos it's just some dude with his big yellow auto. it works both ways'.
Charles doesn't know much about cars but he loves driving. Last year he rented a Ford Escort and drove around Europe, and this year he's thinking of doing it again in real style. "I want the French promoter to pay for a cool Citroen or something. It's kind of romantic." More than most rock monsters, Charles seems to know how to put his money to good use. He doesn't squander it on gadgets, gizmos and new guitars, or invest in health food stores or football teams. Last year he played some solo gigs at London's Borderline Club and he spent the money in style.
"I asked my agent how much I could get for a solo show and even with the bad rate of exchange I made out like a bandit. I enjoyed it and I don't think the others minded. I spent the money on a trip back on the QE2 with my babe. It was worth every fucking penny, a real surreal experience. Life is very real, only rarely is it surreal. We dined every night with Colonel Macklin and his wife who told us about China and banana-boating around Africa. We wore tuxedos and had this suite with a wall that was all window. All you could see for five days was the Atlantic, except when Concorde broke the sound barrier above. I thought of entering their talent competition but it was all old ladies singing arias."
Charles pauses for breath. "The trouble with touring is it's all rush rush rush rush rush rush rush; do your laundry and get outta town. I wanted to travel like our ancestors did."
Last night a thunderstorm eased the five-year drought and the perennial smog, so Charles decided to drive out of town to Topanga Canyon. "I only learned about it the other day from Eric Feldman out of Pere Ubu, who plays keyboards on our album. It goes right down to Malibu; it was a hippy canyon in the '60s. Joni Mitchell and everyone was out there. It's stunning.'
The same word could be applied to a drive like this. Hairpin bends are taken at considerable speed, the driver has a joint in one hand and with the other is thrusting tapes of the next (at this rate posthumous) Pixies album into the cassette deck. The speed limit is 65 mph out of town, but with the help of his trusty CB radio Charles can tune into the truckers who are ready to warn fellow drivers of any smokies on the horizon.
"I got this CB radio in Memphis. It becomes addictive after a while. You keep hearing some of these old Southern guys who have this reverb switch on their sets. I've got to get one to record with: you flick the switch and it's just like rockabilly, ahicahicahicahica, like 'Helllooooo Baaaaaaybee!' I was thinking of using it on this album. I was going to park behind the studio, run headphones out to the car and record the album through the CB."
Our route involves taking a labyrinthine detour up into the Hollywood Hills, past the heavy metal wannabees who came to LA to be the new Guns N'Roses. Now, the same chaps are flogging their gear in yard sales to raise the fare back to Miami and Kansas. Now away from suburbia, it's onto the freeway and out past Ventura into the Wild Blue Yonder, just a few miles away from the desert.
Charles bangs some mixes of the next album into the tape deck. It was going to be an eight-track punk album, but they've settled for a conventional-length release. At full pelt with the windows down, the extra tracks are well-worth the wait. It will probably be called Trompe Le Monde, meaning "fool the world", and sees the band throwing themselves headfirst into what Joey Santiago later describes accurately as "guitar hell".
There's still a strong surf element to their music, but new tracks include a hard-core version of the Jesus And Mary Chain's 'Head On', suggesting that while Charles has been out with his babe, the rest of the band have been letting ZZ Top and Black Flag do some sessions for the new album. It's not for nothing that some of the working titles for the songs were Zep, Zep 2 and Power Ballad. Charles might be the brains behind the music and the most vocal in interviews, but the others are more than just drone Pixies. Joey Santiago's guitar from Hell, Dave Lovering's pendulous skins and Kim Deal's groove thang bass are all essential to the Pixies' sound. When the new LP finally emerges prepare to be stunned as well as deafened.
After hearing the work-in-progress, the current EP comes as something of a surprise. While 'Planet Of Sound' flows in a similarly grungey vein to the album, and continues Charles' lyrical love affair with sci-fi, the rest of the EP has a much softer, more commercial feel.
'Theme From Narc' is a short, zippy instrumental that sounds like a Ventures cover - the same as 'Cecilia Ann', the opening salvo of 1990's Bossanova LP. In fact, the song comes from a pocket Nintendo game that the band have become obsessed with during the year. Charles, however, has managed to kick the habit, and his adaptation of the song is his tribute to the portable pastime. "It's a very modern song, probably written by a Japanese computer programmer in a 12-bar blues style. Narc is a narcotics officer, and in the game you basically run around blowing away drug dealers. It's very funny."
As an instrumental, 'Theme From Narc' is going to frustrate a lot of Pixies fans, because a major draw for many Pixies fans is the Charles/Francis latticework of lyrical imagery. Who, for example, could forget words such as "I am un chien Andalusia" ('Debaser', from the 1989 album Doolittle), or those of 'Wave Of Mutilation'(from the same album), a song about Japanese businessmen who commit suicide when made redundant.
It comes as a surprise, then, to discover that the writer is disarmingly disparaging about his scribings, "They are just bullshit. I write when I get into the studio and Gil says 'Write some lyrics.' Then he asks me what they mean and I say 'Oh, don't worry Gil: they mean nothing.' Obscurity is part of pop - even famous stuff.
Dylan and the Beatles - they are catchy, but are they linear? You've got three minutes and they've gotta rhyme. It isn't easy. I never knew what "10, 000 boles in Blackburn, Lancashire" meant. I didn't even know what "Blackburn, Lancashire" meant. Journalists say I write all these songs about sci-fi - 'Planet Of Sound', 'Monkey Gone To Heaven' - as if it is a concept of mine. People who write films and books have concepts, but these are just sounds on blank tape, just typical abstract baloney." 'Monkey Gone To Heaven' is a particular bete noire for Charles, because all that oblique talk about evolution and death got the song picked out as his first ecological tract. "It didn't hurt me, but that wasn't the idea. I was just talking about the ocean and space: "There was a guy lived under the sea killed by ten millions tons of sludge. " If some Neptune figure killed by sludge is political then I'm a green guy. But if I wanted to move people politically I wouldn't do it like that."
As if by magic, all this talk of the sea coincides with the end of the road. It's Topanga Beach, which also happens to be the place where one of his heroes, one-time Phil Spector cohort Jack Nitzsche lives. "He wrote this song 'The Lonely Surfer' in the '60s, all about this noble figure striding along the sand.
"There's a song I've written, 'The Sad Punk', which is a bit like that: a kid walking along and thinking about the dinosaur bones beneath his feet. I guess because it's about extinction, people are gonna say that's ecological too."
The third track on the current EP, 'Build High', breaks the rock tradition of the Pixies. An uncharacteristically accessible mantra, it could almost be They Might Be Giants gone hard-core.
The fourth track on Planet Of Sound is even more weird. It's a version of the Yardbirds' 'Evil Hearted You' sung in Spanish by Charles, who picked up the language when he spent six months in Puerto Rico. "It was gonna be a b-side last year, but the publisher heard it and he spoke Spanish. It turned out there was a big mistake in it. I've re-done it and checked it out with a couple of cooks at my local burrito bar, and they gave it the okay."
The 1991 Pixies campaign gets under way properly this month, with the band's tour of Europe and their biggest headlining gig to date, at Crystal Palace on June 8th. The real action, however, should come in America, when the LP finally comes out. So far the band have yet to "work" America, and while they won't spend ten years slogging from Poughkeepsie to Portland to turn into the next R.E.M., they want to effect the transistion from cult to mainstream status.
"Ultimately I'd like to release a single once a month, every now and then have a hit and every couple of years put them together as a compilation album. And then retire and run a coffee shop in Rotterdam and play reggae and classic punk records all day.
Meanwhile, back at Topanga Beach, there are clouds gathering on the horizon. The five-year drought seems to be taking a well-earned break. The all-pervading LA smog-haze makes everything look unreal, and you can understand how a childhood spent here could lead to an adult interest in UFOs. These days that's behind Mr Kitteridge Thompson, however. In fact, he'd rather see a movie with John Candy or by Jean Cocteau, and preferably a collaboration between the two. Meanwhile, it's time to pick up some fresh glacier water from a beach-side store, slam on a pair of cheap sunglasses, swing the car round and head back to the studio. There's serious music to attend to.
Last Updated 11-30-98