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flag US - Massachusetts - Full Moon 54 - 03/09/01

Frank Black
- an interview with the man in black

Paint It Black

The career of Charles Thompson, better known as Frank Black, has seen many highs and a few lows as well. Black, as you will remember, used to front the seminal Pixies back in the 80s, a band who just couldn't do wrong. His first few solo albums in the early 90s were critically acclaimed, but sold considerably worse than the records by his former band. Signing his first major contract for The Cult Of Ray, his third solo outing, almost ruined his career and for his subsequent records with his new band The Catholics, he had to go on a long hunt for a record deal. He's on a new label now for his sixth solo record, called Dog In The Sand, and he has re-defined his sound as well. While he has been recording live to 2-track for the last five years, the basic approach to his music is now evident in the music as well, which draws a lot more inspiration from 70s band like the Rolling Stones than Black's previous efforts. After doing some solo acoustic gigs in Europe last November, the full band hit the USA in January and February and they will tour Europe for six weeks in February and March, after a tour last fall had to be cancelled because Black's wife had to undergo surgery. I met Charles (like to call him Charles) recently in Cologne, Germany and here are some excerpts from our interview.

Carsten: You seemed to have a trade mark sound for the best part of a decade, but now with your new album that changed.
Black: I think even in the time of the Pixies there were times when I tried to do songs that we a bit more traditional sounding, or Americana-sounding. A good example for that is the song Blown Away from the Bossanova album, which I know many don't consider to be the best Pixies album, but anyway... That's a very straightforward 60s song and there's nothing strange about it, it doesn't move around in a funny kind of way. Now, so many years later, I've become more and more confident of songwriting and musicianship. When you're young you try to break all the traditions and all the formulas and it feels right and it probably is, but when you get older you realize that you probably didn't hate the formula, just someone's version of it. It's like: You hate Celine Dion, but you like Roy Orbison. I'm not putting rthem in the same category, but they are both doing something very formulaic. So these days I'm like: Hey, let's be a little more stones-y, not always be against everything. The instrumentation on this album is very different than on the last few records as well, with Pedal Steel guitars and stuff.

Carsten: How did these changes come about? Is it more like: Okay, Rich [Gilbert, The Catholics' guitarist] just happens to have a pedal steel, let's use it or is it like: We need a change, what could it be?
Frank Black: It's very natural... We knew that he is playing pedal steel so we wanted to use it for a couple of years now. I don't think that there are any songs on the record that you could call country, at least not any more country than other records I made, so using the pedal steel is just something that happened. Bringing Eric Feldman back made a big difference to the sound I think and using additional musicians in the studio to fill it out as well. We were going live to 2-track and we didn't want to have a bigger production, so in order to make a big sound, we needed up to seven people playing. I also listented to a lot of music by people like Doug Sahm and the Texas Tornadoes, the TexMex kinda thing, I listened to that a lot especially during the last two years and that's starting to influence my music as well.

Carsten: You mentioned the Rolling Stones and to my ears that probably the biggest influence on the new album. Is that a band you listened to all along, even in, say 1985?
Black: Maybe not so much in 1985, but it's something I listen to a lot now, we definitely listened to a lot of Rolling Stones before we recorded this record, when we were on tour... Exile On Main Street - every morning! We're usually not that kind of band where we would listen to a particular record, but it was fun for a change to become a little bit obsessive with a couple of records and listen to them over and over again.

Carsten: So what is that that you want to get from an album like that? Just the feeling? I assume you don't listen to it to copy certain production techniques?
Black: Absolutely, sometimes you do that, in general it's more about the feel. Just this morning I thought I had a chorus for this new verse I'd wrtitten, but then I realized it was from a song by Love. I got obsessed with one of their songs a few years ago and now I realized my new chorus is theirs.

Carsten: So I guess you'd have to credit Arthur Lee or start over again, eh?
Black: I guess I would have to credit a few people if I would really analyze my songs and try to find the linkages, but then usually it's not that exact, and if you can't think of the song you might have copied, it's most definitely not the same.

Carsten: Do you actually find it easier now that you've been writing songs for so long to come up with new songs/chord structures/melodies?
Black: I'd say it's the same. And when I say that I mean it's just as easy and just as hard. Sometimes a song just appears...voilà, there it is. And somethimes you play around with an idea for five years, jam it with the band, play it at soundchecks, the song doesn't make it on an album, doesn't make it on another album and then finally it makes it. There's a few of those on this record. The opening song Blast Off has been around for years, The Swimmer is well. Dog In The Sand even since the times of The Pixies.

Carsten: Do you think in terms of albums when it comes to songwriting?
Black: It's become the pattern to write a group of songs because you know you're gonna make an album. I do know instictively, that I'm gonna need 15 or 20 songs. I have all these bits and pieces floating in my head and at some point I say: Okay, I gotta get serious now, I have two months before I start rehearsing the band. Then I just go into my room where I practice, say goodbye to my wife and go into this thing where I don't talk very much and she knows that. We'll go out for dinner and she'll be talking and she just has to look at me to notice that I'm writing songs in my head. Then it's like: Ah, you're writing songs, I'll ignore you just as you ignore me.

Carsten: Is there a particualr moment during the songwriting process, when you say: Alright the song is finished and perfect now?
Black: I'm getting better at determining when that moment happens. When I listen to my earlier records... and without wanting to pick on the Pixies... but some songs on those records I would never declare finished now. It was hard in the Pixies because there was really a lot of demand for the records and we couldn't really do any wrong. In the beginning at least. It was like: You're great, you're wonderful, give us more! - Oh, okay! And you're young and every idea that ops into yourhead ends up on your record or as a b-side. I had to do liner notes for a b-sides compilation of the Pixies and I was listening to them going "oh my god, how could we do this?" Can't believe that I wrote this song and we released it.

Carsten: Talking of B-sides, you did a very good job recording Changing Of The Guard by Bob Dylan for the first singles with the Catholics a few years ago...
Black: I don't think the version was very good, at least not my singing. That was a song I was obsessed over for a while... Bob Dylan is such a great singer. When I had to learn this song, I tried to learn exactly how he was singing it and the melody is very, very complicated. It's not just la-la-la-la-la, there are very subtle changes here and there and it has a lot of words as well! I still don't have it memorized. The band is waiting for me still, because we like to play it live.

Carsten: I know a lot of Dylan fans who like your version more than you seem to do.
Black: Oh, good! We tried to cut it again for Pistolero [Black's 1998 album], not more polished, just with better vocals actually, but it wasn't quite good enough. We're gonna try it again on our next session. I wanted to have sax on an album of mine for a long time and I finally met this singer/guitarist from L.A. and it turns out he plays saxophone too, so I'm gonna invite him to our next session and we might use him on that tune to give it the 70s Bruce Springsteen And The E-Street Band feel... I don't know. I have a lot of respect for musicians who do good cover versions, like Bryan Ferry, because I discovered how difficult it is, even if you have a really simple song. We attempt to learn a few cover songs for every album, but usually they don't make it.

Carsten: You're also on a new label, What Are Records in the States and Cooking Vinyl in Europe...
Black: Well, that's no new story. I get a new record company for every record [laughs]. I think I fit the catgory of a certain kind of artis that in general you'll see on different labels. A) because they are a bit of the culty side of things as far as sales are concerned and that's why you'll see them bounce around and B) maybe they are a bit independent in some way, those kinds of artists who run into conflicts with record labels.

Carsten: When I first read that you signed to Cooking Vinyl I was kinda surprised, because you didn't seem to fit it too well musically, but now that I heard the album it makes more sense, I guess.
Black: Well, I didn't make the music to fit and I don't think they signed me because they thought I'd sound different or more Cooking Vinyl. I didn't sign to the label because I liked the music they put out, even though I respect a lot of the artists in their back catalogue and I know some of them, but the decision was more about business and how easy it is to strike a deal with someone. And they were very motivated and have been for a very long time. I really like to work with people that wanna talk to you. My manager doesn't call up record labels and send out tapes, we don't that.

Carsten: Well, I guess you're in a position where you don't have to do that, you have a name already...
Black: Yeah, but that doesn't mean anything. It helps you initially, because they answer your phonecall, whereas if you don't have a name they wouldn't. But at the end of the day they can love your record and respect you and everything and it doesn't mean anything. I talked to the guy at Epitaph, because I was looking for a new label in the States and I met him in the studio, he was producing some band and he was like: 'Hey man, I'd love to sign you, love your new album blablabla' So he send my businessguyto talk to my business guy, my manager and they last for 10 minutes on the phone and then the guy never calls back. Because we have a certain philosophy and they do too and it just wasn't gonna work.

Carsten: Last question: If you could, please name five underrated records.
Frank Black says:

1. Angst's Mending Wall 2. The Doors' The Doors & Waiting For The Sun 3. Iggy Pop's New Values 4. Leon Russel's Leon Russel 5. Bob Dylan's Good As I Been To You

Copyright © 2001 Carsten Wohlfeld e-mail address

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