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The Return of Charles Thompson

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What a difference two years makes: one of the first things we did at Blogcritics was an email interview with Frank Black, formerly Black Francis, formerly and now once-againly Charles Thompson. Now that the Pixies have quite successfully reunited, a look at that interview is entertaining:

    Eric Olsen: You have used changes in time signature throughout your songwriting career, often in the form of foreshortening at the end of a phrase. The effect for me is to propel the song forward – what is your intended effect or affect?

    Frank Black: I have no intention. The weirder the time signature is generally speaking, the least self-conscious I’ve been about it. I find that 4/4 just gets in
    my way sometimes.

    Amber Nussbaum: If you could ban one musical instrument from existence, what would it be and why?

    FB: Hmmm. Kind of an evil question, but I’ll try. Double-necked guitars for sure.

    AN: If you could decry any band that’s playing music today, who would it be and why?

    FB: Oh, gee. You want me to be mean? I just can’t. Maybe in a private conversation, but not here. I’ve made casual but negative comments before about other artists, and have always regretted it. Let it sufffice to say that there are oh so many bands that are decried behind closed doors.

    AN: Hey, what can I say. I figure you guys have got “Who are your biggest influences?” covered.

    FB: Did I mention Leon Russell?

    Shawn: I know you’ve been asked about Pixies reunions in every interview since 1992 and you general response is “I don’t think so” but how about a David Lovering (sans magic), Joey Santiago, Frank Black tour? You can call yourselves “Pixie”

    FB: Oh the reviewers will love that. I prefer to let the Pixies live where they are in the past.

    Shawn: Or how about a Mike Watt, Frank Black, J. Mascis ubergroup?

    FB: More like an uberunderdog group. Do I qualify for uber?I was just asked about joining an ubergroup. It’s a secret for now.

    David: Why release two albums concurrently this year rather than merging two very good albums’ content into one great, unforgettable album?

    FB: What are you saying? Which songs don’t you like?

    Scott Rosenberg: “The St. Francis Dam Disaster” (from Dog in the Sand) is elemental and moving. It feels like a folk song that was written 100 years ago, and I know it’s based on a real-life event — the bursting of a dam north of L.A. in the early years of the 20th century. Can you tell us how you came to write the song?

    FB: It was a grey and windy day…. Scott and Dave had been trying to get me to put lyrics on that one for years. Lyrics are, you know, about stuff.

    SR: You’ve been recording for several years now with a stripped down, live-to-4-track (or is it 2 track?) technique. How does that work? Why do you like it?

    FB: We record live to stereo or mono (2 or 1 track). I like many things about live recording, but I suppose the challenge of capturing performance is more pleasurable that constructing a facsimile of live performance.

    Shannon: I just attended a wedding over the weekend where the jukebox was filled with Frank Black and Pixies CDs. I perform what I like to call “Pixies primal scream therapy” in my car when I’m stressed. Why do you think your music strikes such a chord with those of us who were complete music junkies from a very early age? Do you see your music as cathartic, too?

    FB: Well, I’m glad you got your money’s worth. Lots of music has cathartic qualities, of course.

    Dawn Olsen: Some of the Pixies songs have violent imagery that are both comforting and frightening. For example “Gouge Away.” Do you think of angry things when you write your songs? Is it cathartic to do so?

    FB: “Gouge Away” is a telling of Samson and Delilah. It’s a story that has anger. Do I purge via a song? I don’t know. I suppose it’s possible.

    DO: Also – what if any chance is there of a reunion tour with new Pixies material? P.S. I love Teenager of the Year

    FB: Sure there’s a chance. Know any promoters that want to do a show on the moon? P.S. Thanks.

    Matt Welch: I was lucky enough to run into Frank Black once, and I asked him this one over beers, but it might be interesting to see how he responds in a public forum: So, uh, how do & did you feel about the whole Nirvana-biting-the-Pixies’-rhymes deal? What do you think they did different with the “Pixies concept” of song construction?

    FB: I guess I’m not sure what you’re talking about.

    Ken Layne: All those UFO references … are the UFOs still a factor?

    FB: What UFO references? There may be a couple, but far fewer than rock journalists have led you to believe.

    KL: Llano. Did you get that from Mike Davis’ “City of Quartz” or find it driving around? Either way, that’s a great goddamned song.

    FB: Yeah, I read about it in the Davis book. But the fact is I’d been driving through Llano for years and not realized the significance until I read the book.

    KL: You made one of the best-produced, best-sounding records in rock history (Doolittle). Was moving to live recording a way to keep people from demanding another Doolittle?

    FB: No not at all. Doolittle is Doolittle. There will never be another Doolittle.

    KL: How does it work out, releasing stuff on the Internet? Does it make the crowds bigger when you play live with the Catholics, or help sales of CDs at clubs?

    FB: I’m not sure. It may be in the future that the internet really affects the business. I think right now the reality is that it does help a little but not a lot.

    KL: The conventional wisdom says everybody who bought a Pixies record started a band. If so, why are there so many crappy bands making records today? (Usual exceptions excepted: Strokes, Hives, White Stripes, all that stuff heralded today.)

    FB: Well, I think that it’s just not that simple.

    KL: I love the rootsy stuff you’ve done in the last couple of years. But some snarky critics say rootsy music is a bad way to go. How dumb are they? And how would you put your recording arc next to, say, Bob Dylan’s?

    FB: They are very dumb. Boy that felt good. But the truth is that critics are by definition critical. That’s their job. If people don’t like rootsy music, or if they feel that only certain people should make rootsy music, well, then I can’t deny someone an opinion. Bob Dylan is quite a songwriter, and a great singer and musician. I won’t bother with comparing myself to him, but I will say that I heard his records at a very young age and I still listen to all his records.

    KL: I’m typing these goofy questions because my pal Eric is doing a great thing with this Blogcritics site. How useless is it to have a songwriter/musician talk about his/her work?

    FB: I’m not sure I quite understand your position. Would you rather be skateboarding or something?

    KL: I had a column about crazy UFO stuff in the San Francisco Chronicle last week, and a reader caught me describing Montana cattle killings as a “wave of mutilation.” Yet I didn’t realize I was quoting a song at the time. Can I sue you for subliminal attacks?

    FB: You have a very odd way of connecting things. I don’t understand why you feel there needs to be litigation.

    Guy Nolan: I remember reading an interview recently where you said jokingly that you might ressurect The Pixies if it was just you and Joey Santiago. Everyone knows you have ‘mixed’ feelings towards Kim Deal, but what if it was just you, Joe and David Lovering with a new bass guitarist? It wouldn’t be perfect but I’m sure the patrons would be willing to compromise, and David’s opened for you before. So any chance?

    FB: You have no idea what my feelings are towards Kim Deal, or anybody else for that matter. You should never rely on interviews with musicians as being factual. Most of them are mangled and even have made up stuff in them, that is to say, made up stuff by the writer or editor. I wonder how mangled this one is going to turn out… [none, Frank, none]

    GN: You gave up the Black Francis trademark scream when you gave up the Pixies. No disrespect, but a few years have passed. Can you still scream it like you hate that bitch?

    FB: Does it matter?

    GN: You used the bridge section from the original version of “Subbacultcha” to make a whole new song on Trompe Le Monde. That kinda strikes me as cheating, were you running out of ideas towards the end?

    FB: Why is that cheating? I can do whatever I want with my own songs for corn’s sake. The “original” version as you say is the one that got published on Trompe Le Monde. What you hear on the purple tape (released this past July) is a previously unpublished version of the song. If you feel cheated beause you purchased two songs of mine that happen to feature an overlapped chorus (not a bridge) then feel free to patronize another artist. As far as running out if ideas is concerned, that’s for you, my darling critic, to decide on your own.

The interest in the Pixies from our writers proved prophetic, although Thompson’s demurral did not. He was just interviewed by AP:

    “The record business is really bad right now,” Thompson, aka Black Francis, said in an interview with The Associated Press after performing recently at the Fuji Rock Festival. “That’s not where the money is. The business is with the real customers, the fans. They’re the ones who say, `OK, we’ll come and see you perform. That’s who we’re trying to connect with.”

    So far, the Pixies seem to be connecting pretty well.

    Their first 13 reunion shows this spring sold out quickly and their 18-country tour of the United Kingdom and Europe was well received by the fans and critics. On Sept. 4, the four-member band — Thompson, bassist Kim Deal, guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering — will embark on a three-month tour of the United States and Canada.

    As part of their new approach, live CD recordings have been produced at the performances, and most have been briskly snapped up by the fans.

    “It’s a revenue stream,” Thompson said. “I’m not saying we could sell lots of records if we sold them out of our garage or the Internet, but you know what? We might. It’s a crazy time.”

    While the band hasn’t been completely averse to recording, they are doing it on their own terms.

    Called “Bam Thwok,” their first new song in 13 years was arranged and rehearsed at Santiago’s home studio and recorded in March at Stagg Street Studios in Los Angeles. Instead of going with a more traditional label, they opted to make the song available on Apple’s iTunes Music Store. Price: 99 cents a pop.

    “I never really was much of a believer in the album anyway,” Thompson said. “Singles are what people relate to.”

    ….”In terms of getting a relationship with a company going, we don’t have any need, because we don’t have anything for them to sell,” he said. “If and when we do have something, we’re probably going to proceed a little cautiously. They’re all trying to figure out what they’re next move is. Between the Internet and record stores going out of business, it just seems better to stay away until things settle down a bit.”

    ….”At the end of the day, the record company always needs content. They need artists. Right now, they need artists more than we need them,” he said. “We’re in a situation where we don’t have to make records anymore to be asked to go into a studio and make music. Because of all the cross-marketing that goes on these days, it’s like everyone’s getting called to make songs for a movie, or for a web site, or a commercial.”

    ….he said that, despite some rough spots during their live performances, closing the gap after more than a decade has been easier than he expected.

    “As a band, our reunion has been remarkably uneventful,” Thompson said. “There was some awkwardness in the first rehearsals. But once you’re over that, we’re all the same. The same personalities. Maybe now we play better.”

    He said he has no idea what will happen to the Pixies down the road.

    “We don’t have any vision or plan,” he said. “We didn’t have any vision or plan the first time around. You may think three, six months, maybe a year ahead. But you don’t plan it all out.”

I think where the Pixies end up vis-a-vis the record industry will be quite revealing about the direction o the industry as a whole – the iTunes-only route for the new single was interesting.

Anyone out there see the reunited Pixies yet?

Audio interview with Thompson and Kim Deal with Jon Pareles of the NY Times here – a few excerpts:

    “I got exposed to some Surrealist films of the 1920’s and 30’s and 40’s or whatever in college, read a couple of articles, attended a couple of lectures,” Mr. Thompson said in an interview between shows in London. “And I applied all of that in a really fumbly kind of way to having a rock band. It was going to be quirky but in a really simple, brief, swift fashion. It was like, `Oh yeah, I’m going to add something or I’m going to take something away so that it’s a little bit lopsided or whatever.’ Because when it’s just a foursquare thing, it at least stands a 50-50 chance of being boring, cliché-ridden, heard-it-before. When you lop off one corner of it, well, I don’t know if it’s boring or not. But it’s definitely something that you’ve not heard before.

    “Now people pursue rock music, and they go, `I have something important to say, and here’s what it is, and ooh, I’m singing it from my heart, too.’ And it’s all too serious. And people totally miss out. They totally miss the fun, Jabberwocky, fun-with-language, fun-with-poetry.”

    ….The grind of traveling gradually frayed the band. “It’s intense being on tour,” Mr. Thompson said. “You’re cooped up in a bus with a bunch of different personalities — people you know, people you don’t know. You’re on a weird time schedule. Sometimes there’s a lot of drinking and drugs and all, sleep deprivation. It’s kind of a weird situation.”

    By the end of a final tour, opening for U2 and facing audiences that barely knew them, Mr. Thompson was no longer speaking to Ms. Deal. In 1992, he dissolved the Pixies via faxes sent from his manager’s office. “If I would have called a meeting or something, then it would have just kind of devolved into this big discussion,” he said ” `Oh, come on, Charles. Don’t do this right now.’ And I just wasn’t up for that. I was just, like, I’m done. I’m done. Goodbye. There’s no discussion, you know what I mean?”

    ….”There’s surprisingly little déjà vu on this tour,” Mr. Thompson said. “It’s more like just a continuation. It’s like there’s a bunch of songs. We played them to death in the late 80’s and early 90’s for a period of about five years. So, a bit of a long sabbatical. Now we’re playing them again. And there really isn’t any mystery.”

I remember the first time I heard the Pixies very vividly: I was in the car heading out of Los Angeles into the desert on the way to Ohio to visit family when “Bone Machine” came on KROQ. I thought it was the weirdest, most disjointed, clumpy mess of greatness I had ever heard – I was right, usually am.

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