Hi, folks. More reportings from the land of Frank. This time it's an article in the latest BAM (Bay Area Music Magazine, distributed to us in SoCal, yet still called BAM-- go figure).
How Frank Got His Groove Back
by Katherine Turman
(First appeared in BAM magazine, 8/28/98)
In a working class bar in the dingy heart of the San Fernando Valley sits one of popular music's most beloved alternative heroes. Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, he's as unobtrusive as one of the after-work regulars lining the bar.
As the karaoke host tunes up in the back of the room, Charles Thompson settles into the ubiquitous red leather banquette. It's been a dozen years since, under the nom de rock Black Francis, the singer-songwriter formed--and flourished--with the critically lauded Pixies. Now, after three rockin' and eclectic jaunts under the name Frank Black, the stalwart auteur is fairly happily ensconced in LA, with another weird and wonderful record, Frank Black and the Catholics (out September 8 on Spinart) ready to go.
He's an anachronism in the most charming sense of the word: Thompson has a quaint, old-timey patina and varied interests that inform his aggressive, melodic pop music. Over a few Johnny Walkers and Seagrams (the makings of a George Thorogood song?), as the afternoon turns to evening, Thompson waxes ecstatic, nostalgic and decidedly unquixotic.
>>I understand that Frank Black and the Catholics has been completed since March, 1997.
Yeah, classic music-biz troubles. The guy who was our main supporter at the label left, and we weren't happy with Sony Music in Europe, and we wanted to get out of that deal. Then American Recordings was there, and were at first like, "We're not interested in putting this out, it's a great demo." Rick Rubin was meant to do the record. The record is basically [a demo for] Rick Rubin. I wanted to do a really great job and we were going to cut a lot of songs; if Tom Petty can cut 50 songs, we can cut 50 songs. I said, "Let's try really hard." I hadn't made demos since the Pixies did Doolittle. Demos do have good results; you edit out stuff, you work hard, all that typical stuff. I'd kind of done what I could in the realm of writing in the studio; I'd done that for a few records, including Pixies records. You can get good psychedelic results, but you do also get mediocre results that you sometimes don't necessarily notice, because it's you and you're excited about everything; you're making a record for crying out loud! It's totally fun. I do recognize that. I haven't put anything out that I'm ashamed of, but certainly, now I see the value of doing demos again. They came out good, so we decided to leave 'em. As it turned out, with American, my record really had nothing to do with our leaving that label, they had their own problems at that time. Hence the delay.
>>So this will finally be out in September, a year and a half later, on Spinart.
If my manager had said, "Why don't we sit on this record for a year?" a year ago, I would have just gone through the roof, just gone nuts. But it's been good. I relaxed, spent some time at home, got some animals. Four cats and two dogs in the course of a year and a half. It's insane. Man oh man, it's flea season right now. There are so many fleas in my practice room. I'm writing all these new songs with my feet up on the tables away from the carpet.
>>So in that year you and your management were working on new deals?
Spinart was the only one who stuck with the conversation long enough for an agreement to matriculate. Everyone else either backed off immediately, or went into it for a couple weeks and stopped calling.
>>That's very surprising to me. Was it to you?
No, not really. [The record] ain't about what's on the radio, and that's all that record companies are about, I think. It's all about money and selling records. I'm not some skinny, suave character, so they don't have that going for them. So, for me, they want to hear this slick, "Wow, he's mature now, he's really growing up" thing. A real spin. So I give them a punky record that's live to two-track--that's the last thing they want. They want to hear, "Oh, yeah, Daniel Lanois produced this." They look at record sales, and my sales have been on a downward slope. I don't know if it's going to turn around, but I still have a ways to go before I say, "I can't keep this afloat anymore." It's a little disheartening. But I mean, I do fine as far as my bank account is concerned. I don't want to come off like I'm dissing the big, bad record companies, because it is a tough business. They're juggling a lot of stuff. One minor flagship artist is not going to do it for them sometimes.
>>You speak so forthrightly.
Yeah, well, I know what the numbers are. I'm obscure--less obscure than others. I don't envision myself having big hits or anything. I never had any hits. The Pixies never had any hits.
>>Do you listen to the radio?
Maybe 570 AM, 1260 AM, whatever, "The Swinging Years." Right now, I've got 20-year-old Neil Young and Crazy Horse records, Zuma and On the Beach, playing back to back, over and over in my car for like two weeks. Or it might be Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. I heard that Radiohead album a couple times. Nothing against these young modern rock bands, but what can I say, I just can't listen to that stuff. I put on VH-1 or MTV and I can't listen to that. I hate to be such a whiner, I really do. It just seems there's so many shitty bands. Not that I'm everybody's cup of tea, I'm not. There's a lot of real soulless music out there. A lot of, to use an old punk word--and I've never been a punk, I'm very much post-punk--that old word "poseur." There's a lot of posing in terms of being soulful or spiritual or edgy or deep, not only lyrically, but delivery, this kind of fake soul, fake r&b delivery. Even in contemporary country or super-pop music there's a lot of emphasis on technique or vocal gymnastics. It's just kind of icky.
>>You do great cover songs: Brian Wilson's "Hang on to your Ego," for instance, and on your new record, "Six Sixty-Six" by [Christian rocker] Larry Norman. What's your philosophy about covering tunes?
A lot of people become obsessed with certain songs. You like a song. You say, "We got to do that song." So they might ask the smarter musician in the group to figure out what the chords are. And you do it, and in general, you don't really do it justice. Fortunately, most of the time I butcher cover songs enough so they don't really get released. With "Six Sixty-Six" it had been so long since I had been really obsessed with Larry Norman records--since I was a teenager--so there was all this distance, even though down there in my heart I really respected him and considered myself very much influenced by him, especially as a teenager. It was just a three-chord song, originally a folk-picking song, just G, C, D, and, [guitarist] Lyle [Workman] is good at country licks, and we did our rockabilly thing with his country licks on top. We had fun. A lot of people seem confused by our doing this number, maybe the subject matter. But we don't care. We think it sounds really natural.
>>When was the last time you played out?
A couple of weeks ago. We opened for Pearl Jam in the Northwest with our new guitar player [Rich Gilbert, formerly of Human Sexual Response]. He joined a few months ago; he's replacing Lyle. My agent and their agent are partners, so it might have been an inter-office kind of thing. Stone Gossard and Eddie Vedder I think are fans somewhat, and it may have come from them. I think the vibe on their whole tour has been obscure bands that they like from Seattle or wherever, or bands who were around before them.
>>How was the response?
In general, that kind of slot is a thankless slot. But because their tour was so anticipated, [the fans] got there pretty early, and Eddie would introduce us--one night they did a Pixies song. They were very gracious, so it was a better-than-usual situation. I've been in that situation on [tours by] U2 and the Cure, and it's pretty tough. People basically go to see the headline act.
>>I love "The Man Who Was Too Loud" on your new record...
That was done on a John Peel radio program a few years ago, so it's not new. But I never got a good take of it. We tried to do it on [1996's] Cult of Ray. I started playing it in 1994, I think. I wrote it in the wee hours before the John Peel session in England. I think I had certain key phrases in the song, and I had recently learned some details about the career of Jonathan Richman, so I sort of wrote the song about him. I understand he was a louder performer in the past, and at one point turned down--his reason being he didn't want to damage the ears of young people and old people. I just thought that was really interesting.
>>Did you see him in There's Something About Mary?
Yeah. He was the only thing I enjoyed about the movie. I really like those two brothers. I saw Dumb and Dumber like seven times. I absolutely loved it. But I wasn't into this movie for some reason. It was like too crass or something. Too gross. I loved all the actors in it, there were a lot of good scenes, but, as an overall film, it had plenty of holes. But I think that about most movies, and I go see them all.
>>So as a huge, true fan of rock, would you do something like visit Jim Morrison's grave site in Paris?
If I had the time. My brother and my girlfriend, we were there once, and they went over one afternoon. I freaked out at Elvis' grave, actually. I was on mushrooms at the time. Someone had given them to me and I was like, "Come on, honey, let's take these and go see Elvis' grave." This is like nine years ago. She was like, "No, that's not the thing to do." But we did it. We started to trip inside this really claustrophobic tour where all these people were sobbing their brains out; I don't know if it was the anniversary of his birth or death. Then you're in like this garage in the back--"This is where they used to shoot off guns." Then, at the end, people are really crying, and all of a sudden, [making the Psycho shower noise] there it is, at my feet, the damn grave! I forgot he was there, and his mother and his twin brother, you know? It was really morbid. So anyway, I didn't go to see Jim Morrison's grave.
>>Are you a fan?
I love the Doors. Even though people give them a lot of credit, I still think they're underrated. People rate them for the wrong reasons. Sure, Jim Morrison was a handsome guy, and he can shake his hips better than most, but that isn't why I love the Doors. Don't reduce Jim Morrison to this airhead dude. Some people try to reduce him to this pretentious, poetry guy. So what if he drew on a lot of great literature? I'm not offended by that. I don't even find that pretentious. Jim Morrison, of all the rock stars I could pick, seemed so less pretentious than some, and so much more rooted in wonderful things. There's so much going on there.
>>You used the word "underrated" for the Doors. That's been applied to you. Do you agree?
It's kinda cooler than overrated. I don't know if I'm underrated. I think I've gotten plenty of credit for things, and maybe even overrated for this and that. Or that might just be a snide comment from me, from my more-popular past!