BLACK FRANCIS' NAME GAME
ATTENTION, PIXIES FANS: A singer-songwriter whose name you're not likely to recognize is about to release an album you'll quite likely want to check out. The artist describes FRANK BLACK, due in March on Elektra, as his "eponymous debut" - but that's just the punch line. The setup is that Frank Black is the new alter ego of Pixies frontman Black Francis, who is himself the alter ego of a fellow named Charles Thompson. Nonetheless, he seems happily preoccupied with the prospect of nurturing a new persona - again.
"I've always liked stage names," Thompson says, "but I think that in the case of Black Francis, it never really worked. I was constantly referred to by journalists and record-company people and even other musicians by various combinations of the stage name and Charles Thompson: Black Thompson, Francis Thompson, Charles Francis Thompson, Black Angel - I just got sick of it. I wanted something a little more swift, a little more to the point, a little more workingman."
Avoiding pomp and excess, he adds, was equally important in the studio. Pixies producer Gil Norton (1990's Bossanova, 1991's Trompe Le Monde) suggested that Thompson work with Pere Ubu's Eric Drew Feldman, who agreed to coproduce the album. "There was this joke that Eric and I would come back to over and over again," Thompson says. "Whenever we heard bad GRAND music - you know, really cheesy music - one of us would turn to the other and say, 'Like that, like that!' I'd tell him: 'I want it GRAND, Feldman! BIG!'"
He and Feldman actually kept things quite simple, with a little help from modern technology. "I have to say that seventy-five to eighty percent of the record was done through the computer," Thompson says. "I would write basic songs with basic arrangements and show them to Mr. Feldman, who would then input the music in his computer and elaborate on the arrangements."
Once that had been done, several well-connected musicians were called on to flesh out Thompson's guitar playing and Feldman's multi-instrumental work. "The drummer, Nick Vincent, is this hotshot session guy who spent a lot of time with Donny and Marie," says Thompson. "I think Eric grew up with his sister." Other guests include guitarists Morris Tepper and David Sardy and They Might Be Giants' John Linnell, "and Joey Santiago plays guitar on some tracks," says Thompson. "I took him from the Pixies, of course."
In general, Thompson tried to take as little as possible from the Pixies, the band he had started in 1986 with Santiago, bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering. "I openly said to Eric that I wanted to make this as far away from a Pixies record as we could make it," Thompson says. "But certain connections couldn't be avoided, because I write the music for the Pixies, and I wrote the music for this new record."
To be sure, on FRANK BLACK, Thompson shows the same knack for writing savvy pop melodies and quirky, often oblique lyrics that he does on the Pixies' records. One of the album's catchiest songs, "I Heard Ramona Sing," pays homage to a certain legendary New York punk band with poignant sentiments like "I hope if someone retires/They pull another Menudo." Then there's a track called "Los Angeles", of which Thompson says, "In these times, I'm glad I have a song with that title on the record - and I'm especially proud to say it has absolutely nothing to do with recent events in these parts."
The subject of the last year's riots is, in fact, a rather touchy one for the L.A. denizen, who relocated there from the Pixies' native Boston two years ago. "I'm so sick of reading interviews with musicians talking about how happy they were to see people marching out of department stores with TV sets, "Thompson says. "I think this whole politically hip thing is just way out of control, and there are all these musicians who can't accept the fact that it's not the Sixties anymore. They keep wanting to be a part of some revolution, and so any time there's some turmoil, they slap the word REVOLUTION on it and claim that they've got something to do with it."
Indeed, Thompson continues to be wary of mixing politics with his own pop music, favoring "vague, sort of metaphysical concepts" over didactic statements. "I've got nothing agains tpeople who sing about politics: if that's their bag, fine", he says. "But I don't think those people have any real effect politically. The effect that musicians have is in providing music, which is a source of inspiration for millions. I think that that's where the music can be, for lack of a better word, 'political'. But the bottom line is, people buy records and buy concert tickets to be entertained - and everyone knows that."
Thompson is a little more evasive regarding the current status of the Pixies. " The band is officially on vacation, " he says. " Unofficially, you know, I suppose people might be wondering what's going on. But at the moment, there's nothing going on."
The Pixies were last sighted in America last spring, when the group played to sellout audiences on the U.S. arena leg of U2's Zoo TV Tour. While Thompson acknowledges that the Pixies accepted the opening slot as a career move, he was hardly crushed when it didn't yield a platinum album.
"I hate to say it, but it's all up to the kids," Thompson says. "Some artists try to blame record companies and MTV for the fact that they're not selling enough records. But in the end, if kids wanna go out and buy 5 million Nirvana records or whatever it was, they're gonna do it. "
"Lots of people have an idea about what success is," Thompson says. "And there are a million guys out there that are all GOAL: they've got the look, the hait, the connections, the right people in the band, you know what I mean? So I think you just have to be inspired and to try and make inspirational music on your own. That's all that really matters."
Last Updated 05-13-97