Frank Black

By Kevin Rothbauer

Where does one begin when interviewing Frank Black? The man is a musical icon. He’s been releasing albums and touring since 1987. He is responsible, if you trace it back far enough, for the surge in popularity of underground music in the early 1990s. He’s been the lead creative force behind the Pixies, one of the most influential bands of the last 15 years, and he’s been a neglected solo artist.

So where does one begin? As with any artist, you open with a question about the new album. Or in Frank Black’s case, albums.

Black Letter Days/Devil’s Workshop

It’s hard to know why anyone was really all that surprised. In the summer of 2002, Frank Black and the Catholics released two albums–Black Letter Days and Devil’s Workshop–simultaneously. Some saw it as a bold move, and others thought it downright foolish. To Black, however, it seemed pretty logical. He had two albums in the can, so why not release them both?

“We made two records,” Black states, matter-of-factly. “We had two to release and I couldn’t think of any other way to do it, other than to stagger the releases. The record company seemed to be less uncomfortable with the idea of releasing them at the same time.”

None of Black’s recordings, either with the Pixies or as a solo artist or with the Catholics, have met tremendous commercial success in North America. Black recognizes this, and acknowledges that his following, dedicated though it may be, comes from a select demographic.

“I suppose, like a lot of my records, [the reception has been] mixed,” Black sighs. “Some people love ’em, some people hate ’em. I occupy a pretty cultish niche. [My fans are] arty music fans, I suppose, between the ages of 20 and 50. It’s just my guess. Maybe two-thirds male, one-third female, I’m just guessing, but that’s my impression.”

With each new album, Black figures he picks up a few new fans, but he admits that most of them are “repeat customers.” As a former member of such a renowned group, Black has become comfortable with the knowledge that he’ll never outgrow the Pixies, despite a solo career that has lasted nearly twice as long as the band was together, and a discography notably larger than that of his previous band.

“That was a culty band, the Pixies, but they were certainly more well-known than Frank Black,” he shrugs. “That’s just the way that it’s played out. It’s no one’s fault really. It’s not a negative thing necessarily. I suppose some part of my ego would rather be king of the heap rather than knocked halfway down the heap, but I’m certainly not angry or something like that.”

I won’t say it’s country music

Each of Frank Black’s solo albums has had a slightly different feel to it. In the case of Black Letter Days and Devil’s Workshop, both feature something of a country-rock sound, with the former being somewhat lighter than the latter. Black feels that, as a rock and roll musician, it’s only natural to experiment with country.

“I think if you play rock music, you probably have some familiarity with country music and blues music and folk music and jazz music. You can’t grow up listening to rock and roll music and not have heard those other genres of popular music. I think that’s probably always there in the music, and when you start adding pedal steel guitar or something like that, it comes out.”

While other genres may share elements with rock music, Black doesn’t see himself incorporating them all into further albums.

“Doing country rock–I won’t say it’s country music–is probably more natural for me than doing blues music or blues-rock or reggae or something jazz-influenced. Country is closer to rock. That’s not to say that I couldn’t pursue any of those other genres, which I like. I like reggae, for example, very much, especially of the late ’60s, but there’s a lot of other things involved in that, in terms of technique and style and everything that I haven’t had the guts to pursue. Doing something that sounds like Johnny Cash or whatever, I have the guts to pursue something like that and not feel like a fool.”

A very teenage kind of activity

A lot of artists get tired of touring, recording and performing after spending a few years in the business, let alone after 16 years. But Black is still having fun living out everyone’s dream of being a rock star, and feels that he’s getting better all the time.

“It’s fun to get good. My harshest critics wouldn’t say that I’m getting better necessarily, but from my point of view, I’m getting better. It’s fun to build up those kinds of muscles and to be able to use them. After all, this is what I’ve dreamed about since I was a little boy–performing in front of people and hanging out in studios and recording music.”

Black downplays his career and compares it to the pastimes of his youth.

“It’s a very teenage kind of activity, or even pre-teenage. It’s very childlike. It’s simple. You load boxes into a van, you unload them. Plug things in, you turn them on, you turn them off. You make a lot of noise. It’s like blocks with noise.”

It’s a good thing Black is still enjoying the music business. If he were to stop performing, he’s not sure what he would do with himself. He doesn’t see himself calling it quits any time soon.

“I suppose [I’ll continue] either as long as I’m interested or as long as the patrons are interested. I suppose as long as they’re interested, I’ll remain interested. That could change if I were to have kids or something, or if I were to actually become interested in some other art form. But it’s a big commitment to learn how to become a filmmaker or an actor or a painter or something. I’m not a renaissance guy.”

As far as music is concerned, Black plans to keep trying new things until his well of ideas runs completely dry, surprised as he is that he keeps coming up with new things to do.

“As long as you love what you do–whether you’re being inspired by records that you’ve heard long ago or they’re new records that you’re discovering, if you still love it, all those things that you listen to are going to affect what you do. It’s amazing that every season there’s a whole new pile of songs. I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced writer’s block, but I’ve certainly had moments of ‘how could I write any more songs?’ It’s not just me–it’s not that I’ve written so many songs, but I’ve written some songs and there’s all these other millions of songs that other people have written. You get over those moments and suddenly you have a song and it’s all new and fresh again. It’s like ‘oh yeah, songwriting; this is exciting.’ It just doesn’t stop if you enjoy it. If you stop enjoying it, then probably the creativity stops.”

The new hot whatever

Frank Black claims to have never been too connected with the current music situation. For any number of reasons, Black has been more interested in the music of the recent past than that of the present. While there are a few modern artists Black appreciates, including Radiohead, the Strokes and Beck, he remains more deeply rooted in the past.

“I don’t know a lot of my contemporaries. When I first started making records and touring, I had a lot of rock records and listened to a lot of loud rock music. But then after some point, you get tired of listening to loud music because you play loud music every night. Or you start listening to older rock music from the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, and that’s where I’m at. That’s sort of always been where my taste runs. As soon as you start getting into punk rock and hardcore of the early 1980s, that’s where I start to kind of tune out–right where I started making my own records,” Black laughs.

“I didn’t start out listening to records like that; I couldn’t afford to. As a young teenager I was buying records for 50 cents at the used record store or borrowing them from the library, getting music wherever I could. In those kinds of places, you’re not going to hear the new hot whatever.”

Black is not convinced that the next big, truly talented, innovative rock artist or band is waiting in the wings.

“Do you think that in the year 2003, the next Jimi Hendrix is out there? Is the next Clash out there? Is the next Bob Dylan out there? Do you think so? I don’t think so. I haven’t really done my research, but I’m just assuming that if the next Jimi Hendrix is out there, I probably would have heard about him. I haven’t heard anything about those kinds of people. I haven’t heard any rumours about a really great heavy hitter that will give you goosebumps. I’m not saying that I’m that guy, I’m just saying that I haven’t heard it.”

As with anyone who’s been in the music industry for a long period of time, and who has established himself as a fixture and not just some fly-by-night piece of pop fluff, Black is more than a little cynical about the state of the music industry. He’s willing to acknowledge, though, that the less-substantial stuff is what reaches platinum status, while he’s selling in the tens of thousands.

“There’s a lot of crappy stuff out there. I don’t know if there’s more than there was 25 years ago, there probably is, but probably just because there’s more releases. It’s more fractured. Popular music is like a big glass window, and it’s like someone threw a big rock at it and it just splintered into a million pieces, and now there’s all this stuff. Mainstream music is pretty shit-poor, whether you’re talking about country music or soul music or whatever. What do people hear in this? I mean, it sucks, but what do I know? These people are laughing all the way to the bank. They’re selling millions of records. What do I know? I sell 30,000 when I put out a record. Maybe I’m wrong.”

Backpedalling slightly, Black is careful not to insult those who aren’t committed to music enough to seek out better records.

“The masses in general are passive music listeners, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And there are people that are active music listeners and they’re more into music and the history of it and how it all is connected and they get obsessive over certain artists. They buy records their whole life. They don’t just stop buying records when they move out of the house at age 20, like a lot of people. There are more passive music listeners and I don’t think there’s anything evil in that. I don’t think Dixie Chick fans are evil, it’s just what they’re into. Whatever. Enjoy! There’s nothing wrong with that. I just am not into it.”

An aesthetic point of view

Over the course of Black’s career, he has played in venues of every conceivable size, from the tiny clubs every band has to slog through, to the arenas the Pixies played in on their final tour, opening for U2. Of them all, he prefers venues designed for artistic performances, although he confesses that it’s not easy to put on the right show to make a theatre worthwhile.

“If I were to be ambitious in my dreaming, I would prefer to sell as many records and/or concert tickets so as to put my tours primarily in theatres as opposed to nightclubs. I like playing theatres. I’ve played places that are bigger than theatres, I’ve played places obviously much smaller than theatres. To me the theatre, architecturally, is sort of the ultimate. It’s a building that’s designed for performance. They’re large enough that it’s still a spectacle to see that show. There’s a lot of people there: you have the feeling of a lot of people gathering for an event, but it’s still small enough that you don’t need opera glasses to see what’s going on.”

According to Black, there are a few obstacles to overcome in putting on a theatre show. Theatrical performances aren’t as lucrative as club shows or arena shows. As well, with higher ticket prices and no bar, audience expectations change.

“When you move from big clubs into theatres, you’re not necessarily changing the size of the audience, at least not that much, but your production costs go way up. When I say theatres, it truly is from an aesthetic point of view, not from a financial point of view.”

Not that Black is that much of a snob. He doesn’t mind playing in lousy surroundings, as long as the crowd is into it.

“I like playing in bad rooms too. You know, the show must go on. People are accustomed to going to see shows wherever they see shows. It’s fun to make it happen even if it’s laughable, even if it’s just a big tin roof with cement floors and it just sounds like hell. It’s fun to make it happen and everyone has a good time, hopefully.”

With any luck, MacEwan Hall won’t sound like hell when Frank Black hits the University of Calgary on April 7.

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