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Pixies' "Doolittle" Turns 20: Frank Black on tour, reunion

Frontman on Kim Deal's quality control and flying first class

September 3, 2009 12:13 PM ET

For a band that went 11 years between live performances, the Pixies are feeling awfully nostalgic this fall. The gargantuan box set Minotaur (which collects all their albums, plus extras like a concert DVD, art work and other fan bait) is out next month, and in November they're be celebrating the 20th anniversary of their iconic Doolittle album by playing the entire album all the way through on tour. We checked in with Black Francis — or Frank Black, as he's also known — about why the band is looking back.

When did the Pixies start thinking about a Doolittle tour?
There was some talk about doing it in London, but we thought, "When you do that, it's sort of like signifying you're officially retired." So we kind of avoided that. We weren't even planning on doing it this year. We got a call to open for Neil Young at the Isle of Wight, and as soon as we said yes to that gig, the phone wouldn't stop ringing. We wanted to do some more shows, and it was a coincidence that it was the 20th anniversary of Doolittle and also that Minotaur was coming out. Someone said, "Hey, let's do a Doolittle show!" We were kinda hesitant. We're a little sensitive about milking the reunion thing to death. We don't want to be seen as taking advantage of all the good will. At the same time, we are in show business and it is our right to go play — at county fairs if we want to.

How much rehearsal will go into preparing for the show?
The only songs we haven't played ever is "Silver," which was done in the studio during the mixing period of the album. And we haven't played "There Goes My Gun" in, like 14 years. But everything else we've been more or less playing during the reunion period. To flesh out the show, we're going to do all the related B sides, five or six songs.

How difficult is it to recreate that music 20 years later?
Well, fortunately, even at our most produced, say, Bossanova or Trompe Le Monde, we kept the arrangements simple enough that we could recreate them live. There are a few overdubs on Doolittle, like strings on one song, and I don't know what we're going to do about that, but I don't think it's required. It's not Sgt. Pepper. Two guitars, bass and drums will suffice. Kim is the quality control. She goes, "No, no, no — you don't strum it like that, you strum it like this." She's very persnickety. Which is a delight. It relieves the rest of us from having to do that.

Can you still do those screams "Debaser" and "Tame"?
Oh yeah. It's actually easier.

Why is Doolittle your biggest album?
For people who wanted raw and primal, it fit the bill. And for people who wanted it to be sonically full and not haphazard sounding but sounding like it had real vision, it satisfied those people. So it was twice as many people. Before we recorded with Gil Norton, we made a little demo and I remember lying on Joey Santiago's living room floor in his apartment, going, "Wow, we really did something special." And we hadn't even made the record yet.

Do those kinds of memories come back when you're playing the songs again?
That's a nice, romantic notion that might apply to other people in the world, but it doesn't apply to me. I could be thinking about anything. Mostly I'm tapping into muscle memory. You're swinging your arm and holding your finger in a certain position and putting your voice in a certain position and you're trying to emulate a recording you made a long time ago. You're trying to find the right kind of nasal position so your voice sounds right. You're trying to look like you care. I'm not saying we don't care. We don't do a lot of pandering. But we want to be respectful.

Why are so many bands doing these "album concerts" now?
The music business is in flux so apparently lots of people are out on the road now. Like my old man used to say — he was in the bar business, and he said the essence of what he did was to separate the customer from as much of their money as he possibly could. What's going to keep that customer sitting in my bar for one more beer? That's what an artist's job is at one point, beside the art part: How do I connect with my patron? The obvious place is the concert venue.

A lot of bands, from Steely Dan to Pixies, are charging more for these shows than their regular tours. What do you say to those kinds of grumbles?
People say, "Oh it's a money grab." But those opinions are coming from people who aren't working musicians. Musicians work really hard to get wherever you can get. And for every time you get paid a boatful of money, there's a hundred times you were paid virtually nothing. It's like someone saying, "You don't have the right to go up there on a stage and sing your songs." My response would, be, "Go fuck yourself." Are we making more money? Yeah. But it's not because we're demanding more money. It's because the patrons have converted other patrons. We're going to fly first class and stay in a nice hotel and people are gonna carry my guitars for me. Maybe someone's who's really uptight and has as lot of revolution in their soul might have a problem with that. But I'm in fuckin' show business, man; I don't work for the Peace Corps. I don't have anything against people who work in the Peace Corps; God bless 'em. But that's not what I do or who I am. It has everything to do with entertainment and art and show business.

How do you feel to have Doolittle considered on the same level as Springsteen's Born to Run or Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, which are both being played resurrected in their entirety in concert?
What more does a musician want than to be in the ranks of a certain club? We already are in a club to some extent. But to be in a club of people who made a record that was important? That's the whole reason I'm doing this — because other people's records were special to ME. Because Lust for Life or the White Album or London Calling was important to me. So, mission accomplished.

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