A man who wrote songs about incest and outer space, peppering them with askew rhythms, pidgin Spanish proclamations and that blood-curdling howl, Black Francis is a legend who, with the four albums he wrote for Pixies in the late ’80s and early ’90s, redefined alternative rock, thrilled David Bowie and effectively invented Radiohead and Nirvana in the process.
Seeing a guy any Pixies fan knows only as the singular, crazed freak screaming on ‘Surfer Rosa’ sit down to a genteel drink on the swish rooftop bar of a central London hotel was always going to be weird. However, what was really strange was that the man formerly known as Frank Black seemed keen to avoid the questions any fan would want him to answer and preferred to talk about business models, mobile phones and bakeries…
New album ‘NonStopErotik’ – his 14th solo album proper by our reckoning – is a messy, rugged selection of craggily performed paeans to, unsurprisingly, sex. While it’s nowhere near the sublime treasures of his older work – the less said about the stomach-churning ‘When I Go Down On You’ the better – it boasts some strong, fiery songs and strangely is perhaps one of his most Pixies-sounding solo albums. We decided to start with the obvious enquiries…
L&Q: So your new album ‘NonStopErotik’ has obviously got a very sexual theme to it?
Black Francis: “Yeah, all the songs on it relate to that general theme, but there’s a complexity if you get into it on an arty level or whatever. I wanted to approach it from the point of view of psychiatry or sociology. [Sex] is ‘it’, it’s the thing; it’s the baton of life. [Waiter brings over hot chocolate] I stopped drinking coffee a couple of weeks ago.”
I’ve never seen hot chocolate in a teapot like that.
“This place has class up the ass.”
And I’ve heard the album was all written on a kind of magical guitar?
“You know, I could tell you the tale or whatever, but the short of it is there was a guitar I was given, it was unwanted by myself, and somehow ended up back in my possession a couple of years later, and it went from being unwanted to suddenly being [long pause] given a certain kind of special status, as in, ‘You’re magic, you’ll be the catalyst to make something happen, something great’, and that’s when it all happened, a few days in LA then maybe two weeks in London.”
Is that the quickest you’ve ever written and recorded?
“No. For a record, the fastest I ever did it was two days. It feels good if you can pull it off, something quickly, it suggests prowess or something, or suggests magic, it suggests being in the right place at the right time, all those sort of feelings or thoughts. You always have a few months to have perspective, because there’s no business model that people are doing on a regular basis where you’re going from the creation of stuff you’re working on to its formal release.”
And there’s a film by Judy Jacobs to go with the album too?
“Yeah. I might do a screening of the film and a Q&A and a band performance and then it gets simulcast to other arts cinemas around the country, or in different countries. But the source screening would be here in London. I’m kind of excited about that, about being able to be in more than one place at once. At the end of the day, with people becoming less connected as they get electronic devices, I think the truth of it is that people like to go out and mingle with other people. The live concert scene’s actually pretty healthy, as people just want to get out of their day. And they’ll still have their iPhone with them at the gig, ha! I can see the lights from all the phones when I’m playing a gig.”
You approve of iPhones then?
“Sure, but I’m very disappointed in it internationally. All the stuff is great but they have extremely high premiums to use any of the data on it abroad, not just expensive, but crazy – like they warn you don’t check your email ’cause you might get charged $4000 to get a few emails. Literally, people are getting a $60,000 bill downloading a movie while on holiday in Portugal. The phone works fine and I still do some texting, but all the cool shit that you normally do with it you can’t do. Unless I was like Elton John…”
Talking of money – while most reunions are money-oriented, it’s hard to shake the idea that Pixies’ is more than most – perhaps they’re entitled to milk all the profits they missed out on in the bad old days? Speaking to Black Francis, though, it makes us suspect even more that the band are perhaps just a convenient gravy train to keep their various solo projects solvent. After all, as drummer-turned-magician David Lovering knows, those white rabbits don’t come cheap…
L&Q: You’ve been reformed for about six years now with no new material – are you planning to continue playing?
Black Francis: “Yeah, the phone keeps ringing, so… We’re not soliciting but, like I said, the offers keep coming so we keep saying yes.”
Any talk about new material?
“There’s always talk about that.”
What are you saying about it, though?
“My theory is that the more I talk about it in the press, the less likely it is to happen. It gives the impression that I have a very strong personal agenda that others are not informed of so it creates strain on the band relationship; see what I’m saying? If I’m spouting about, ‘see, we’re gonna do this and we’re gonna do that’ the others are like ‘what the…? I didn’t hear about this’. More than ever, there’s nothing to say, and even if there was, if I say it, it’s misunderstood by other people and it just inhibits rather than promotes.”
Well, obviously, I don’t want to cause band friction…
“I know you’re not trying to, but I’m just explaining what’s going on. Some people just think I’m being reticent or something, or whatever, but that’s the honest answer.”
People often talk about Pixies as legends, kind of behemoths of alt-rock – do you ever think you shouldn’t have reformed, to keep some of the mystery there?
“You’re only legends in other people’s minds. From my perspective, you know, you’re just in the band and you didn’t play for a while and now you’re playing again. I don’t personally have a lot of poignant thoughts about, ‘what if this?’ or ‘do I regret this?’, or hypothesising or reflecting. It’s not that there’s no magic in it or anything, but the magic is the playing, the being on stage or in a studio.”
So you don’t think about your ‘legacy’ either?
“You don’t think about it, it stands, either you’re gonna be good or you’re gonna be shitty, that’s the thing about legacy. The only thing I think about in terms of legacy is since I have children I think that they might at some point in their life gain something out of who their father is. Just like if you owned a bakery you’d work really hard in your bakery and you’d say, ‘one day, this is all going to be theirs’…”
Do you see yourself as two separate parts – one as a family man, you know, looking after kids, and the other half writing these weird songs?
“Yeah, it is separate. I create art or rock-art or whatever you want to call it, so it doesn’t have anything to do with my children. Back to the baker analogy, ‘Now that you’ve had children Mr Baker, how are your breads changing? Are you having more confectionary items because of the children?’ Really? You really think I’m going to switch from my black leather rock’n’roll avant-garde, arty-farty kind of scene, that I’m going to somehow let that be affected? I’m too proud.”
Ok, could you signal out a couple of albums that you see as high points in your work?
“The ones that sold the most.”
So ‘Doolittle’ then?
“That’s the best-selling. [So] that’s the best one.”
Really? There must be one that sold nothing that you really like too?
“Yeah, and I like that one too, the one that sold the least.”
But if you really thought like that you wouldn’t make the kind of music you do, you’d try and tailor your stuff to the masses?
“Like I said, it’s all one big album.”
Do you have a handful of favourite songs you’ve written?
“Sure, I have an A list and a B list.”
What’s at the top of the A list?
“It depends on what side of the bed I got up on.”
What about today?
“Today? I haven’t thought about it today until just now. I don’t know. Throw a dart at one, that’s the one.”
‘Alec Eiffel’ just came into my head…
“[Sarcastically] Love it. That’s my favourite one… I’m not very good at hypothetical questions, my personality rejects that. It isn’t that I’m a grump… Some people’s personalities are lighter, they can flow – it’s just some hypothetical scenario that I have to discuss in order to get interesting insights from me. I’m too animal-like, I’m like a snake.”
Let me ask you a more snake-ish question, then. It’s been 50 years since the creation of SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), do you think there’s still life out there?
“I think what people, myself included, forget that is equally fascinating, equally haunting, equally interesting, is what if there isn’t? If this is the only thing going on, it really puts it into perspective, that this is the centre; this is an important place, at least for us. I’m not saying that’s the way it is, I’m just saying in theory. There’s distance and there’s space, but it doesn’t mean it’s insignificant; it might be very significant, what’s going on here. And maybe one day the whole place will be flooded with life forms.”
Would you like to see the place flooded with different life forms?
“Of course I would, everyone does. That’s why we go to the movies.”
What if they’re evil, though?
You think they’ll be nice then, the aliens? Because I’d be worried they might enslave the human race or something.
“There’s a fine line between our discussion right now and, ‘oh, let’s write a science fiction script’, do you see what I’m saying? You can only carry that kind of chit-chat so far, then you’re like, ‘What’s the purpose of this?’”
Well, I’m only asking because I think people are interested in what you think.
“That’s what I’m saying – I don’t think [about aliens]. Maybe occasionally, but it’s not like it’s a primary motivator. ‘Tell us more about these aliens that you don’t seem to think about much’, it’s like, ‘Wait a minute…’”
But a lot of your lyrics in the early ’90s suggest you did think about that a lot.
Well, on ‘Bossanova’, there’s…
“Yeah, but you can simplify that and say, ‘He’s singing about aliens’, but it’s also singing about human culture, Las Vegas, it’s moviemaking, I’m just mirroring back popular culture at that time. The fact that I did a few songs doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m obsessed with the topic – it doesn’t mean I don’t have thoughts about it either.”
They’re just some songs you wrote then?
“They’re just some songs I wrote. I can’t say, ‘yes, this is the world of thought and forethought and vision and everything that’s behind this song’. No, it doesn’t work like that. Maybe it represents all this stuff, maybe it doesn’t, I just do it. Everyone has an agenda, everyone in this room. That’s not something aggressive, you know? Sometimes when you’re writing a song that’s your agenda, but it doesn’t mean that’s your agenda 18 years later – it’s hard when so much time has passed, you can’t even remember. I can’t remember. ‘Was there even an agenda?’”
When someone is denying they were really interested in UFOs when they’ve written at least this many songs on the topic (‘Allison’, ‘Lovely Day’, ‘The Happening’, ‘Old Black Dawning’, ‘Planet Of Sound’, ‘Motorway To Roswell’, ‘Bird Dream Of The Olympus Mons’, ‘Space (I Believe In)’, ‘Distance Equals Rate Times Time’, etc. etc.) it’s clear something’s wrong. Perhaps Black Francis had a problem with talking about Pixies rather than his solo work, perhaps he’d had enough of hypothetical questions after over twenty years of interviews, or maybe he really is as animalistic in his personality as he says he is? Whatever. What is clear is that Black Francis is as difficult and infuriating as geniuses are supposed to be.