In the last two years, Frank Black has given James Brown serious competition for the title of hardest working man in show business. 2004 saw his much-beloved rock band the Pixies reuniting on tour, followed by the 2005 release of Honeycomb, a critically lauded country album recorded in Nashville with old-school session heavyweights Steve Cropper, Buddy Miller, Reggie Young and Chester Thompson. Earlier this summer he released Honeycomb's follow-up, the ambitious double-disc Fast Man Raider Man, for which he returned to Nashville to re-team with his Honeycomb players and a few impressive additions: Levon Helm, Al Kooper, Cheap Trick's Tom Petersson, honky-tonk player Marty Brown, Los Angeles songwriter P.F. Sloan, and Simon Kirke from Bad Company and Free.
"You know what they have in Nashville?" asks current Portland resident Black of his decision to record in Music City. "A really high standard of musicianship. That's what I discovered as an insider -- you can just call up three or four guys and they're going to kick your butt with any instrument in their hands. You can get all uptight as an indie rocker like myself, like 'Wait a minute, these guys aren't involved in college rock!' But they all know about rock and roll music -- hell, half of them used to be in Little Richard's band!"
As on Honeycomb, Raider Man finds the self-described "quirky alternative guy" once again plumbing the depths of his early musical influences.
"The first time I sang music in public as a kid, I sang a Woody Guthrie song," he says. "I grew up listening to gospel and Leon Russell and blues. This is who I am."
Despite Raider Man's formidable sonic departure from Black's Pixies material -- not to mention a much more straightforward lyrical style -- the singer confides that his unusual Pixies-era approach to songwriting has remained intact. "I definitely don't decide to write a song about any particular thing, ever. The whole Dada thing, I still do that. I sit down and try to make words rhyme and the subject comes from that," he says, likening the process as a series of linguistic games.
One minor exception is Raider Man's rhythm-and-blues-tinged ballad "My Terrible Ways," which Black says was inspired by a news story he saw on CNN in the Denver airport during the onset of Hurricane Katrina. "It was this poignant story about this inmate during the hurricane and what happened to him and his family. It was really heavy," he says. "I'm not the kind of songwriter who said, 'I got to get me one of those hurricane songs!' I didn't plan it, but I just heard his story like anybody else that day and I was in songwriting mood and I went in my hotel room at three in the morning. And that's that."
Fans still holding out for the Pixies to cut a new album may be disappointed. "I just recently tried to write some songs that I was hoping the Pixies were going to record, but it seems that they're not interested," he reveals. "It's really a tough challenge. People keep wanting you to re-do your big glorious moment. Sometimes I try to accommodate them. I think, 'OK, I'll give them "Monkey Gone to Heaven Two," but artistically once you do that, it starts to feel really icky really fast. It's cool because we're getting paid for work we did a long time ago, but it's not vital in the sense of creativity. The Pixies isn't that anymore. I wish it could be."
Currently wrapping up a string of solo acoustic dates opening for the Foo Fighters, Black will join Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on the road before mounting his own tour with a full band to support Raider Man in September.