Back in the depth of the Eighties dog days, round about Iran Contra time, 1986-87, this lil’ ole band out of Boston appeared outta nowhere and basically demolished the world of independent rock. The Pixies and their frontman, Black Francis, made music as abrasive and intriguing as their obvious influences (Violent Femmes, Husker Du, a smattering of Boston garage bands like the Five), but were clearly un-novelty like. Their inherent weirdness wasn’t shoved out front in terms of obvious baiting in the lyrics, like Gordon Gano’s, or in rave-up like the Huskers, it was in the just off-center enough take on good old rock & roll as to be completely subversive. Not unlike the band who followed in their footsteps all the way to the bank, Nirvana.
Five moderately successful discs, stardom in Europe and theater-sized fan base in the States meant nothing to the restless head Pixie, who re-named himself “Frank Black” and embarked on a solo career. Four record labels later (two major, two indie), Black is back to his roots, playing clubs as solo and with band and promoting Dog in the Sand, his best record since 1995’s Teenager of the Year. Nothing but quality tuneage, but this time augmented by steel guitars, dobros, banjos and acoustic piano, Black is, as he puts it, “hearing from journalists in Europe that there’s a buzz about me again.” As well there should be.
How’s the new one doing?
No idea. Like so many records like it, the new one is sorta on a limited availability basis, not in every store. Dunno how it’s doing, but if word of mouth is good, it’ll be everywhere, I assume. Vendors like records that sell, wherever they’re from.
Are you and the band still on the road doing it completely free-style? No roadies, no crew, are you doing all the humping of gear?
We do have a soundman now, crew or one. Lots of bands are doing it this way now. Three years have gone by since we lost the crew. There was a crew-change coming then and we figured, why rehire? The bottom line became less important, no salaries and less hotel rooms that way, if you have a so-so night, it doesn’t put you in the hole.
And no tour support?
For Europe we will, yes. Here, no.
Well, that’s still pretty much back to the bone indie. The new disc is impressive, great variety of songs, all good material, and no filler. How long did it take to write?
Well, it wasn’t a case where I sat down and wrote a lot of songs from scratch. In fact the title song comes from back in the Pixies days, the Doolittle era. The idea just popped back up in my head and I had it on an old demo. Some songs only go back a month before recording, though.
Does this make Dog in the Sand your version of Tattoo You? I mean, what with combing through the archives, coming up with unused gems?
It was like that in a way. Keith Richards supposedly rifled through old stuff for that disc, so I’ve read. I mean, there were ideas left over from the past, things that were never finished for me — for them, I think it was more like they finally got good takes of songs that had been around for a while.
And Dog is completely live and unfettered by Pro Tools and the like?
Yes, live to two-track, no edits or splices. It isn’t that peculiar for the older guys in bands to have come up that way, I never did — I started multi-tracking, punching in and the like. Now, I go for the faster and cheaper and more live sounding thing-the whole disc, all the sessions, rehearsals, mixing, everything, came to around $50K. I had to pay the players, the auxiliary guys, even though they may have done it as a favor. It’s funny-most people start out minimal, I started out at the other end. I prefer it now, though.
Some of the songs are stylized and sung that way, like “Stupid Me” is clearly a Fifties take, a Del Shannon ballad sung like Del would have.
I was always aware of the feel of that song, but it took Joey Santiago (ex-Pixies guitar) to point it out as we demoed the song. That’s the way Joey heard it, Eric Feldman as well, with those little piano things he did on the disc.
Or the very Stones-like “Hermaphroditos” — sung in your best Jagger, true?
Yeah, maybe with a few more chords and that thing I always do, the abbreviated measure in the chorus. The Stones would have been more straight ahead than I was, 4/4 all the way.
Do you consciously do that? That’s your signature, the cut off last measure, like in [the Pixies’] “Wave of Mutilation”, the way the chorus turns around two beats early.
Well, the weirder the time signature is, the less conscious I am of it, actually. Like the odd time at the beginning of the new song “Blast Off.” Maybe it’s because I really don’t know what I’m doing is wrong or right, it’s the way I hear it. The advantage of being untrained as a musician, I guess.
What’s your take on the world you helped create, the planet of indie/alt rock?
There’s still alternative stuff out there, of course. But what is referred to as “alternative” is just a useless catchphrase it doesn’t mean Creed to me — it means Clawhammer. Creed may be guitar rock, but it may as well be Whitesnake, really. Too much compromise there. I think that there are lots and lots of anonymous folks struggling who make great music and they keep doing it anyway, so, yes, it’s alive.
Does that piss you off?
No, I’m not cynical or angry. I don’t have to struggle to earn a living. I’m basically a liquor and beer salesman, you know, selling drinks in bars to patrons. The next step up is to be a ticket salesman for theater owners, making money for them and the unions, and me, of course.
Are you doing any Pixies tunes these days? You were dead set against it for a long time.
Yeah, we do “Monkey Gone to Heaven”, “Gouge Away”, “Where Is My Mind”, “Nimrod’s Son” and a B-side, “Dance the Manta Ray” that I love to sing. People love those songs, you know. I have good memories of that band, not hard feelings now, singing those songs is cool.
This being the era of reunions, you must have had a few to reunite a band that hasn’t gigged in nine years?
Sure, the agent calls once a year or so to tell me that they have offers for reunions. But I’m not interested. Not just for the personal reasons, but because I think that aesthetically it might not be as good as it was. It may be, but it seems to be impossible to recreate that whole thing, from that time.
Unlike the Sex Pistols, you wouldn’t just tell people, “Hey, we are doing this for cash, so screw you?”
I like their logic, but the money we’d make, after taxes, agents, overhead and the like isn’t that great — it isn’t like the Eagles, asking $250 a ticket. If I were penniless or a family member needed a kidney transplant, sure. But I’m really glad to be doing what I’m doing now, so why go back?