Frank Black

Back in black

With the Pixies, Frank Black (then known as Black Francis) created some vastly influential music, the impact of which can still be heard today. But when the Pixies, whose influence always outweighed its commercial success, broke up in 1992, Black found himself just another solo artist forced to carve out a second career for himself. 1993's Frank Black, a mix of Pixies-ish riffs, complex song arrangements, and surf noise, helped. The more experimental follow-ups, Teenager Of The Year (1994) and The Cult Of Ray (1996), saw returns diminish, however, and Black found himself without a label for the second time after the chaotic shakeup of American Recordings in 1997. Now Black is back with his newly christened band The Catholics and a new album (titled Frank Black And The Catholics) recorded in a mere three days. Black recently spoke to The Onion.

The Onion: How are things going with the album so far?

Frank Black: Good, I guess. It just came out in this country. It did okay in Europe. I don't think it was considered a success by anybody, but I made my money back, so I'm pleased. I don't really have any high expectations in terms of its sales, or whatever. It's not a really commercial-sounding record, and I don't have any giant corporation behind me trying to push all the buttons. I think it's going to be a nice, obscure little record. Which is fine. On one level, it makes it superior, somehow, to be a kind of cultish record.

O: It's got to be kind of liberating, too, to have a lot of the pressure off, to not have to deal with all the corporate stuff.

FB: Yeah, I guess so. Yeah. I certainly have gotten caught up in the music business at various times in my life, mostly because you want to get along with whatever record company you're dealing with. I don't want to be flaky. I don't want to be some temperamental, hard-to-work-with musician. I've made my records and I've done all the interviews. I've done lots of long tours. I've made stupid videos. I've done all that stuff and learned all the lingo and gone to radio stations and shmoozed with DJs on the air and met retail people. It's not really like that right now, so, yeah, it is nice to not have all that pressure.

O: You made this album in three days. How did that affect your songwriting approach? Did you come in with most of your songs already?

FB: Yeah, sure. There wasn't really an opportunity to write in the studio, unless I wanted to be insanely spontaneous and just go, "Whaaaoo!" It was making a demo. It's essentially a demo, so I had to be prepared. I haven't made a demo since 1988, or whatever. I was slated to work with a producer who likes to hear demos and work things out traditionally, be all prepared before you go into the studio. So I was kind of playing along, and it was kind of different; I had good results, and we just wanted to stop the process before we made a big, slick, produced record. It was nice to have songs written and not write in the studio.

O: I remember listening to an interview with you and Dave Thomas [of Pere Ubu] from 1993, and one of the most interesting moments on there was when the two of you decided that most women shouldn't bother with rock. Has anything changed your mind since then? Because it wasn't clear if the comment was tongue-in-cheek or not.

FB: I guess that's a pretty nasty thing to say. We may have been reacting in part to the phenomenon of diary-rock, or whatever: really shitty female vocalists who can't write songs, who are basically skating by on the fact that they have breasts and they sing like babies. [Makes sing-song noise.] There's definitely a large percentage of... The dumber half of the audience—whether they're male or female, and a lot of them are male—for some reason responds very quickly to the feminine voice. How can I put it? They kind of instantly react to the female voice in a positive way quicker than they would the male voice. It's almost like a lot of female singers in the rock world get away with a hell of a lot more. I hate to divide things along male and female lines. A lot of it has to do with sexuality as it is portrayed in pop culture. Just go to the movies or turn on the TV for five seconds, and you're going to see a male-dominated world pushing female sexuality in this really kind of cheesy way, and that affects rock music. In that interview, and I've probably said something similar to that in other interviews, it's probably just a reaction to, you know, "Women In Rock!" And I don't mean good women in rock. I don't mean Chrissie Hynde, or Dinah Washington, or Joan Armatrading, or whatever. But since the rise of MTV, there's been this whole flock of shitty female vocalists. There are plenty more male vocalists who are just as shitty. But this particular group of shitty singers has been given a certain distinction mostly because they're female. You know, "Hey wow! Women in rock! They're back, they're here, they're going to get theirs, too!" It's just cheesy marketing. There are plenty of women who can rock out, too.

O: You've used a lot of UFO lore in your lyrics, although you don't really in this one. Would you characterize yourself as a believer, or is it just imagery?

FB: I guess you could say I'm a believer. It's a little more confusing than, "Are you a believer? Are you not a believer?" It's hard to say. I have had UFO experiences, and yet, at the same time, I can easily be convinced that none of it is true. It's hard to say whether or not you're a believer. I've been interested in that subject matter, like lots of people. Perhaps foolishly, I've allowed some of that stuff to creep into my music. It's kind of rubbed some people the wrong way, but it's rubbed other people the right way. I've avoided a lot of that in my more recent songwriting because I began to earn a kind of tag. I started seeing cartoon drawings of myself with an astronaut's helmet on my head, or flying around in a spaceship, and just corny shit like that.

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