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Interview: Black Francis

May 17, 2013

Black Francis, the man behind the most important indie rock band of all time the Pixies, doesn’t need a reason to tour.

Since his initial departure from that band in early 1993, his schedule has been pretty non-stop, releasing an album at an average of one per year, even in the height of the Pixies triumphant mid-00s reunion tour which sparked nearly a decade of fevered speculation of a new record from the quartet. While still officially an institution, the Pixies haven’t played a show since 2011 after the conclusion of their never-ending “Doolittle” tour which commemorated the landmark album’s 20th year.

Since then though, Francis (formerly Frank Black) has kept himself busy, cutting a collaborative album with songwriter Reid Paley as well as making another record with Grand Duchy, the synth-pop band he started with his wife Violet Clark. Now hitting the road again solo, he’s playing shows encompassing favorites from his entire career. All those years of churning out records and tours however hasn’t hardened the man at all. Our recent phone interview which took place while he sat shotgun in a car travelling to his next gig in Florida, was filled with laughs and lighthearted banter—further confirmation that the man is not at all the anti-socialite he’s sometimes thought to be. He opened our discussion asking in a jestingly straightforward manner, shouting “What do you wanna know?!” I answered that question with some more questions.

Can you tell me about this tour you’re doing?
Well I play a bunch of songs. I’ve got an electric guitar and an amplifier and I play songs from most of my records. I don’t have a set list or anything and I play for about an hour and a half. I’m not trying to downplay it too much but I’m just saying, in nutshell that’s what it is. I’m not promoting some particular thing or whatever…I’m not like “I’m on the Blue Shark Tour! This is my new music app, promoting the Blue Shark Project! It’s all about sharks!” I’m just out here doing it.

[to driver] Where’s my credit card? I’m just looking for the correct credit card. You know what I’m not going to worry about it. I know where it is…It’s in my pants. The pants that I’m not wearing.

Are you driving without pants?
No no no, my driver’s license and my credit card went into a little pocket last night so I wouldn’t have to carry my big fucking wallet. The problem is there’s just too much shit to keep track of. I mean you’ve got your driver’s license and your passport and your car keys and your AAA card.

Maybe both women and men should just start carrying bags.
Either way, I digress.

All right so you’re not promoting anything but you’ve typically always got something up your sleeve. What have you been up to lately recording-wise? Your last record was a collaboration with Reid Paley. Have you made a follow-up?
No but we are working on one. I can’t say what it is right now but I made another record last Fall.

What do you mean you can’t say what it is?
I mean it isn’t a record. I don’t know what it is yet, I mean the whole format is breaking down which is kind of cool.

Yeah, I mean it’s an understatement when anyone says that the system has completely changed in terms of how music gets delivered.
I mean I’m fine with all that stuff. I’m not really a whiner when it comes to that, you know like “Oh that song is from my record and it’s on the Internet!” Some people go there and it’s fine and I get it, I just don’t really care. You know I just think about the reason I got into this and what my ambitions were and, I mean, everyone wants to be successful but I didn’t start off trying to be a big pop star — I’m an indie rock guy. That’s who I am. I think sometimes people in a similar circuit to myself that make music — I think they kind of forget their roots, as hokey as that sounds.

They forget where they come from because you get hung up on a lot of things. You’re trying to do your taxes right, you’re trying to make money as opposed to lose money. You’re trying to do an interview or promote something. You’re trying to make a record company happy or the fans happy and you get caught up in all these logistics. I feel like people that are real artists — you just kind of need to remember that you got into this to play music.

Have you read “How Music Works” by David Byrne? He touches on a lot of what you just said there.
You know what, I have not. I bought that for my wife and it’s sitting on a shelf in our bedroom. I love the cover. It’s so classic David Byrne.

Are you still putting out a Catholics box set?
Yeah, we are. We’re trying to work it out and how to print it up.

For the entire career of the Catholics, David McCaffrey and Scott Boutier from the band Miracle Legion and later Polaris served as your rhythm section. How did you end up getting hooked up with those guys?
I met them on a TV show and I needed a band real last minute and Mark Mulcahy from Miracle Legion said “Hey, use my band.” And that’s how we met.

And you knew Mark before? I remember seeing you play at his benefit show back in 2009.
Yeah we had shared some road crew people before that.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of your solo debut. Had you tried to do something for that or were you indifferent to the concept of anniversaries?
No, I thought about it but it’s hard. You can’t always do something because you have to hire people, you have to figure out where you’re going to play, what’s the salary and what’s all the financial stuff. And whoever will get involved, they have to stop whatever else they have going on in their life to do your thing, so unfortunately [there was] that and also just the logistics of the schedules. I mean I play in the Pixies, I’ve got my kids, and then it’s sort of like “Yeah we’ll do that,” and then it’s five years later and you’re like, “Wow, we still haven’t done that thing we were talking about.” But yeah we talked about it. We almost did a show that was a precursor to that sort of thing with just the three-piece but I couldn’t work it out logistically.

“I just think about the reason I got into this and what my ambitions were and, I mean, everyone wants to be successful but I didn’t start off trying to be a big pop star.”

Were you planning on doing that show with the “Frank Black” lineup of you, Eric Drew Feldman and Nick Vincent?
Right, right.

Speaking of that record and “Teenager of the Year,” I feel like your whole shtick since those two records has been your penchant for live, in-studio recording whereas those earlier albums were much more produced. What is it about live recording that’s intrigued you so much to the extent where you’ve never looked back again?
Well I definitely had that phase but I did go back. The last live record I did was “Show Me Your Tears.” I may have put out a lot of recordings that sound simple since then but they weren’t recorded live from scratch. You know recording from analog tape is kind of an elitist way to do it now. A lot of people prefer it but it’s not really cost-effective or easy to pull off. The biggest problem is not even the tape. You can get it but it’s the maintenance of the tape machine and the recording studios. Some of the younger guys don’t even know how to work a tape machine, it’s kind of like “This is not part of my job!”

Once in a VH1 Classic interview you described how you would like to make a new Pixies record where you would hire a producer to drag you through their own vision as opposed to trying to replicate the magic of “Surfer Rosa” or “Doolittle.” Was that ever discussed with your band mates and did the record ever get as far as that?
Lots of things have been discussed with the band yeah and I mean if we were to ever do that that, my manager or publicist would be the first to let you know but they all get pissed off if I talk about that shit.

On that show you also told a story about having tea with Morrissey…
Yeah, he rescued a bird that was being watched very closely by a cat…then Morrissey pounced on the cat… beat the shit out of him!

Were there any songs that ended up on your Black Francis records that were potentially going to be Pixies songs?
Oh, sure, lots. Man, I don’t even know where to begin. Any song that I put out in the last seven years.

Your music taste is always an interesting mix, what have you been listening to lately old or new?
Well there’s of course the old standbys. It must be the tenth time I’ve purchased this record – Chet Baker and Crew. That’s one of the jazz standbys. Oh yeah, I heard some song somewhere and I Shazammed that shit! That’s why I’m a good guy — I hear a song in a frozen yogurt place and I’m like “what’s this?” and I download the whole album. I’m not like one of these kids that download the one song — hey I’ll download the whole record! But yeah it was Deerhunter – I downloaded the EP. It’s a five-song EP called “Rainwater Cassette Exchange.”

Oh cool, that record is awesome. They actually just came out with a great new album called “Monomania.” Their last one “Halcyon Digest” might be their best.
Oh really? Well I enjoyed it and I will download something else of theirs.

I’m sure they’ll be very pleased to know that you’re listening to them.
Yeah I saw they were playing at the same club I was playing at last night. Well, it was nice talking to you but I have to go because I have an iPhone which means I have a lot of work to do…and I am a filmmaker now – as in on the Vine – you know Vine?

Yes, I love Vine.
I’m still finding my voice, but I’m getting a little better at it. And I’ve got a long drive ahead of me today but I’m definitely going to bring it to a new level.

Excellent. I feel like everyone’s still getting used to it and by the end of the year someone’s really going to nail it with something amazing.
Well maybe someone will do a piece of art in a six-second loop on their iPhone but I always think of what John Flansburgh from They Might Be Giants once said to me — “Good, fast, and cheap. I can give you two, but I can’t give you all three.”

Black Francis will be playing May 17 at the Symphony Space in the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre.

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