In the Black
Alt-rock pace car Frank Black simultaneously released his seventh and eighth solo albums this summer, proving to Pixies lovers, two-track-recording aficionados and those partial to bizarre flights of surreal lyrical fancy that you should never underestimate a man who's changed his name at least two times in his life. The discs are called Black Letter Days and Devil's Workshop, and they're probably the fourth-best simultaneously released albums since Use Your Illusion I and II. We called him at a hotel in South Carolina, and he answered some questions about the albums, albeit a little grumpily. Then again, we called at 9:30 in the morning.
Dallas Observer: So, two new albums. What's up with that?
Frank Black: Just a lot of enthusiasm, I suppose, for recording.
DO: Tell me a bit about this two-track recording you've been doing. Has it made you miss the process of assembling music in the studio?
FB: No, not really, because whenever we want to have a more sophisticated production, now we just bring in more musicians if we get bored of being entirely representative of what the band sounds like.
DO: You've made a handful of records like this. Have you begun to tire of using the same process over and over again?
FB: Well, the sameyness of it is the same sameyness that happens when people make multitrack records, you know what I mean? You're in a studio, making a record; just because you go multitrack it's not like, "Oh, there's this whole world!" You're still basically playing around with instruments and tape recorders.
DO: Do you find that you're getting better at doing it?
FB: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Doing it over and over again does make us better players, I think.
DO: In the Pixies, you guys really crammed a lot of different styles of music into your songs. You've sort of done that even more with your solo records, with a lot of surf and roots stuff.
FB: Yeah, it's just as you've described it. It's always been a little bit of a hodgepodge, but perhaps now even more of a hodgepodge.
DO: What drew you to those Americana elements?
FB: I have no idea. I guess just the willingness to do it--"Let's go down that road," that kind of attitude.
DO: You think it has anything to do with living in L.A., which is certainly a place where that kind of music has flourished in different ways for a long time?
FB: I gotta say not, because pretty soon after I entered into the music business, where I lived didn't really matter. It was more that the experience of being in lots of places is what mattered, not where your hometown was. I mean, the Pixies may have been a Boston band, but our first goal was to get the hell out of Boston.
DO: Your two new records remind me of Paul Westerberg's two recent ones. You guys both used to front bands that sort of tapped into--
FB: We were young.
DO: True, but what sort of went along with that was the idea that your bands, the music you were making, was part of a larger youth culture that was happening at the time.
FB: Yes, I'm familiar with that line of thinking. I don't know if I agree with it.
DO: Regardless, the Pixies and the Replacements still existed as a part of something that your guys' new records don't, right?
FB: Well, we're not hot. We're not hot and we're not as young, and we're not new. Those are all very important factors--being hot, being young, being new. They're very important factors in the way the audience perceives you.
DO: Important to you, too?
FB: No, I don't think it's important to us. I'm just saying that's what happens: A band appears on the scene and everyone likes them, and the fact that they're young and that they're new makes everyone go, "Wow, this is different, this is a whole new thing going on here, this is exciting." And once you've been around for a while, you can't really have that impact on people anymore; you can never be new again, you can never be that way again. There's a possibility you could be hot again, but it doesn't happen too often.
DO: Is there a pressure involved in being hot? A pressure to remain hot?
FB: Yeah, sure, a little bit of pressure, but eventually it sort of runs out of steam on its own. There's nothing you can do. You think that you're keeping it going, but what's going on is it's going through its natural life.
DO: Once that's over, do you feel a freedom to do whatever you want?
FB: Yeah, but I've never felt restricted in being creative or whatever.
DO: What about in terms of being a member of a band and being on your own?
FB: It's not that different. Again, the differences are really in the way that the audiences perceive you. When you're young and you're hot and you're a band, that becomes the magic formula, the magic of people. That particular lineup is precious, as in a sports team. But it all depends on who you are when you start and when you become popular--if you're a solo guy when you're hot and you're popular, that's what people perceive about you, that's who you are.
DO: You've sort of got it both ways--you play with a band, yet it's definitely your show.
FB: Yeah, there's a band thing there. We're a band.
DO: But it's gotta be somewhat different than with the Pixies, yeah?
FB: I don't know. It becomes more and more bandlike the longer that we do it and the more records that we put out.
DO: How about label stuff? Do you prefer working with spinART to the major label situation?
FB: It's always nice to be distributed by a major record label distributor, but it's not always easy to pull that off, and I don't really have the patience to try to secure a deal like that. I think a lot of artists don't really bother with major record labels. Number one, they probably don't want to do it with you anyway these days, unless you're really hot. And even if you could get them interested, you have to put yourself in such a compromising position, taking three years to put out a record. It's a pain in the ass.
DO: Can you compare your situation now with the Pixies' early days, when you were just outside the mainstream?
FB: No, because I think most musicians who do it for a long time, they do it for a long time because they're satisfied that they're in. They're satisfied that they hang out in studios and make records and have nightclub engagements. The fact that they're a cult item or super-popular is not important. It's fun to be super-popular because you get to play nicer venues and you get to spend more money making a record and you get to make more money, but that isn't really the goal of a lot of musicians--to be popular or to have an even bigger pile of money. We just want to be musicians; we don't want to work our last job.
DO: Were you happy to see spinART's recent reissue of the first Pixies demos?
FB: Yeah, from a purely business point of view. I'm always happy to see more catalog items added to my catalog. But I don't have any emotional feelings about it; it just isn't that kind of thing for me. It's not that I'm cold or anything; it's just sort of like, "Yeah, some songs I wrote and they have eventually seen the light of day." I mean, I've written--what?--250 songs. You can't get all choked up about every single damn one of them; I'd be a mess, I wouldn't be able to function. So you have to have a little bit of an aloof attitude about your own music. It isn't because you're detached; it's just that at the end of the day it's just rock-and-roll songs. You can't make a mountain out of a molehill.
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