If Frank Black's solo work isn't as beloved as that of his former band, the Pixies, it might just be because there's so much of it. Pixies' output is easy to think of in terms of five convenient studio packages, but since the band's 1993 breakup, Black has released an unwieldy sprawl of 11 solo albums. (He's currently touring behind 2006's 27-song double album Fast Man Raider Man, much of which he recorded on a day off during one of Pixies' recent reunion tours.) For that album and 2005's Honeycomb, Black traveled to Nashville to record with a cast of veteran session players that included Steve Cropper, Spooner Oldham, and Al Kooper–which sounds like a recipe for an all-star genre exercise, but actually yielded some of Black's most distinctive songs. Black recently spoke with The A.V. Club about rock nostalgia, why he hates Subway and Cracker Barrel, and why that rumor about a Pixies reunion album kept changing.
The A.V. Club: You're touring with a four-piece rock band right now–without any of the horns or slide guitar of your last two albums. Are you trying to replicate those album's sounds in concert at all?
Frank Black: I wish I could, but I haven't checked my Billboard today, but I don't think I've made it into the top four yet, or even the top 100. Or even the top 500, probably. I'm not complaining. I just could not afford to tour with an entourage like that. No, we're just trying to find our own sound, whatever this band is. I think we're starting to do that.
AVC: What's it like?
FB: Kind of loud. Songs that are slow, we play them even slower. It's loud and muscular. We're not going to try and sound like a Nashville record that had 10 guys playing on it, including pedal steel and Hammond organ and everything else. So it didn't seem worth it to go there. I don't think the audiences that I'm playing to right now are expecting that. I'm still playing the same nightclubs to the same crowd. It's not like I have the alt-country crowd coming out to see us now.
AVC: You didn't expect any crossover interest from alt-country fans?
FB: I didn't know. Like I said, I have a sense of how many records I'm selling out there, so no. [Laughs.] I don't have a whole new audience. I've got a small, loyal audience, which is great. And I appreciate that. They're there for me every time.
AVC: How do you feel about people who show up to your solo shows expecting to hear Pixies songs?
FB: I was a fool once or twice in my life and went to a show thinking, "Hey, when's he going to play those songs?" [Laughs.] I think I went to a Van Morrison show, just ignorantly. Knowing less about him than I do now, feeling a small sense of, not disappointment, but why I did I think he was going to roll into "Brown Eyed Girl?" [Laughs.] Am I a fool? It's fucking Van Morrison. I mean, he's going to do exactly what the hell he wants. So I'm sure there are people who are like, "When is he going to play 'Monkey Gone To Heaven' or 'Here Comes Your Man'? I love that song."
AVC: Do you play those songs on solo dates?
FB: Depends on the situation. Right now we're not doing any.
AVC: Writers often use Pixies as a point of reference for your new albums, instead of discussing them in terms of your other solo work, which seems strange. How do you react to that?
FB: It's not weird, because Pixies are a big reference point, and writers assume they have a stupid audience that isn't going to understand the article unless there's some catchphrase they're going to recognize. And that's okay. It's something I'll probably never escape unless I have a hit record. Until I write my "Walk On The Wild Side," I'm not really going to escape "Here Comes Your Man" or "Monkey Gone To Heaven."
AVC: Do you consciously try to escape those songs in your solo work?
FB: I don't make records that way, where I'm trying to please the marketplace or anything. Not because I have anything against that, it's just never been a part of my aesthetic, even when I was with the Pixies. When you're starting out, you might have some fresh new ideas that no one's ever heard before. It can be an exciting time for everybody. But after you've been around for a while, it's kind of hard to get that back, no matter how hard you try. Some of it is because audiences don't really care anymore, or sometimes it's because your own perspective is off. You think you've made something really great, but there's a reason why it's not resonating the way some previous work did. But it's not that easy to just replicate. Some people think, "Oh, just go do that thing you used to do before." But it just doesn't work like that. It's a lot more mysterious or slippery. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you think your songwriting has grown more personal over the years?
FB: No, but it seems more personal to an outsider, to a listener. My most cryptic, strange songs might be my most personal, but that isn't how people are going to receive them, because they don't know the code. To rephrase the question, I would say I decode a lot more.
AVC: Some of the musicians you've worked with say your song structures puzzled them at first. Do you like the idea that you were able to write songs that challenged them as musicians?
FB: I'm an untrained musician. Untrained musicians don't really have any music theory, they don't have a lot of rules. We break the rules, but it's mostly because we don't know what the rules are. It's easy for us to go to certain places, so I'm not surprised that a lot of people were amused by my songwriting style. That's just the difference between two different kinds of writers or players. The Pixies were composed entirely of people like that. Except for the drummer, David Lovering, but I think that's kind of what gives us our sound too. He doesn't have a lot of quirk in his drumming style, which is great, because there's already enough quirk going on. [Laughs.] So that made it lock in a lot better. If we had a quirky drummer, it might have been blurrier, a lot messier, even more difficult to digest.
AVC: Fast Man Raider Man has a very understated feel–it doesn't really show off the fact that all these people are playing on it.
FB: You just let musicians do what they do. As soon as you start telling them what to do–some guys will go along with that gladly, "Sure, you want me to play more like that? No problem. I know how to do that." But, then their personalities aren't as strong. They're just kind of giving you a facsimile of something. It's better to just say, "That dude plays like that." Just let him do what he wants. If you say, "Hey, I love what you're trying to do, but could you be a little more like this?" that's when musicians either just won't do it, or they'll say, "Yeah, sure," but they'll still just do what they do. [Laughs.] Or it rubs them the wrong way and that kind of messes them up, or they can't really pull it off, or they end up sounding generic.
AVC: Are there other musicians you'd like to work with?
FB: Do you know any nice guys? Introduce me to a nice guy, and he'll probably end up on my next record.
AVC: You've said that while you were in Nashville, you worked at the studio all day, had dinner, and went back to your hotel room. So you weren't seeking a nostalgia trip?
FB: No. Nor did I have the time. Or the energy to hang out at the bar all night and ride the mechanical bull, or whatever they do down there. Getting too much into the history, it's cool and everything, but forget about that. It ain't about that. It's about music and it's about what's inside your soul, what's inside your brain. But I understand. There's a human need sometimes to pay respects to holy places or whatever. "It happened here, man, right here! He was standing right here!" [Laughs.] I remember a few years ago, John Lydon from the Sex Pistols had his own show on VH1, and I saw this one episode, he had his producer go to some auction to bid on some rock 'n' roll memorabilia. I think he got, like, a personal John Lennon letter or something like that. They spend $50,000 on it, and then he nailed it to a tree or a signpost in the middle of a field, and they put an explosive under it and just blew it up. "Fuck this, fuck this stupid nostalgia shit." And it was great. He was totally right. I think John Lennon himself would have totally loved that.
AVC: You worked with a lot of the same musicians for Honeycomb and Fast Man Raider Man. After you made Honeycomb, was there anything you wanted to do differently for Fast Man?
FB: We made Honeycomb in four days. We tried to make Fast Man Raider Man in one night. We sort of accomplished that, but there ended up being so many players on that first session for Fast Man Raider Man, then the producer even put more overdubs with other guys, so when it came time to mix some of the stuff, we had to make sense of it. Literally, there'd be some legendary Hammond organ performance on track 22, and I'd be sitting there telling the engineer, "Lose the Al Kooper. Yeah, forget the Steve Cropper on this song. There's already two other guys playing guitar, and they make more sense with the song than him." You couldn't leave it all on there just because of who they were.
AVC: What was the most you were able to get done in one day or night?
FB: That first session [for Fast Man Raider Man], we cut 12 or 15 songs, and I think we probably kept 11 or 12 of them, so we did get a lot of bang for our buck on that first night.
AVC: There are a few interesting cover songs on these albums, especially "Dark End Of The Street" and "Dirty Old Town." What are your favorite versions of those songs?
FB: Are they interesting cover choices? To me, they're just covers. They're just songs that I happen to like, and I know other people like them because they're notable. But I suppose the aspect that's interesting about "Dark End Of The Street" is the version that they know is James Carr's. People associate it with a couple of different R&B versions. And here I am, mister white college-dropout dude from Massachusetts. Who the hell do I think I am? [Laughs.] How dare I touch that? To be fair, my reference point is another white guy with probably more country-rock credibility than I have: Gram Parsons. That's the one I know, is [The Flying Burrito Brothers'] version. When I heard the song, it really moved me. I didn't know who wrote it, I didn't know the history of the song or anything, but I remember being obsessed with it. That's why you cover sometimes. I've been trying to recover this Del Shannon song for years, and I still haven't done a decent version of it, and I've finally given up and stopped trying. It's called "Sister Isabelle." Sometimes you just can't do it.
"Dirty Old Town," I just needed a song to do, 'cause it was the last day of the session and I didn't have any more songs, and I happened to know that song. For me, the definitive version is the Pogues'. Some people are a little more forgiving of that one, because the Pogues did it, and maybe that's a little more in my world than some '60s R&B version. But of course, a lot of people think, "He's doing the Pogues song." Well, it's not a Pogues song, it's by Ewan MacColl, who wrote the song back in the '50s, and it's not even an Irish song. I think ethnically he was Scottish, but he's from England. Hey, Rod Stewart recorded it. I don't know that version, but I bet there's a hell of a lot more people who know the Rod Stewart version, of a certain generation anyway, than the Pogues' version.
People are always saying, "No, no, you can't do that. You're gonna be like this. You were in Pixies. You're alternative-rock music. Don't do anything else." And I don't believe that. I realize that if you're not a reggae dude, you might make some shitty reggae if you try to do it. But you know what? Go for it. Who cares? It's all good. It's just music, man.
AVC: What do you think of covers of your songs, like David Bowie's version of "Cactus," or TV On The Radio's version of "Mr. Grieves"?
FB: TV On The Radio, I played a couple gigs with them a couple of years ago. I was like, "Oh my God, that's a good band." Love that band. I'm pleased when people cover my music, obviously. It's a thrill. I don't know that I can quite get as thrilled as someone might want me to be. If I was just a songwriter, for example, and I only wrote songs, I didn't perform them, and other people did my music if they liked it, I think I could get a little more excited. I could be like, "Oh my God! David Bowie's doing my song! This is great! Man, I've finally made it as a songwriter!" But I'm in this to make music and to sing and be a performer myself, so while I'm pleased that David Bowie would be doing my song–yeah, I feel validated, I feel cool, I'm happy when I get the check, but I can only run with that so far, and then it's "Yeah, that's what people do." He likes music. I make music, he likes my songs, he did one of my songs. That's the way it works.
I understand that. "Frank, Kurt Cobain said that 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' was a rip-off of a Pixies song. How does that make you feel?" I've been asked that question so many friggin' times that I don't even know what to say anymore. Why is this so important? I guess it's because Nirvana sold a boatload of records. "So Frank, the Pixies are getting back together. I heard that you said in an interview that you guys are just doing it for the money. What's that all about?" So on the one hand, my morality is always being questioned by someone because of my frank attitudes about the music business, and on the other hand, they're like, "So, Kurt Cobain said he liked you! Woo-hoo! Come on, Frank, did you get an erection?" I just can't bring myself to say some sort of People magazine kind of comment. People were trying to call me to do interviews on the anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death. They want me to say some poignant shit about some poor guy who blew his head off. It's just like, "Give me a fuckin' break, man." I don't want to do that. Just say the guy made some good records, and let's get on with it. Don't make me get all poignant and say, "You know what I'd like to say? He spoke for a generation, blah blah blah blah blah." I'm just so sick of all that. The whole culture is like that. The whole sense of nostalgia is crazy.
Outside my window here, I can see a Subway sandwich shop, probably one of the worst fucking sandwich shops in the universe. I've eaten there many times. In a pinch, I'll go get a tuna half-a-foot, or whatever they call it. They have this wallpaper. You go to a Subway in a truck stop in Wyoming or the Subway in Barcelona, and they've got the same antique yellow wallpaper with old-timey trolley cars or something. It's the ugliest fuckin' look you ever saw. I don't even get why it's connected. Maybe it has to do with subways? It's just so laughable. I had breakfast the other morning at Cracker Barrel. Ugh! "Country, just like momma used to make." Number one, it ain't like my mom used to make. Yours sucks. Yours tastes like it was boiled in a fuckin' plastic bag. [Laughs.] But they're just catering to this aesthetic. Number one, the aesthetic is kind of lame, and number two, it's done lamely. It's just hilarious sometimes. Anyway, I digress.
AVC: Are there any specific plans for future work with the Pixies?
FB: Not that specific, no. When we've got something to say to the world, we will. I'm really happy that people are interested. "So, what's up with the Pixies record? So, what's up with the Pixies record?" One guy just kept asking me and asking me in an interview, and I kept saying, "I just got done telling you no, there's nothing to report." Finally, he brought it up in some other way, and I was like, "Yeah, actually, June 15 of next year, it's coming out." So sure enough, I started seeing publications: "June 15, the new Pixies record's coming out!" I told him 10 times, "We've got nothing on the books, and I've got nothing to say," and I finally just was being obviously flippant with him. I'm not complaining, that's just the way it is.