Cross Yourself: Frank Black and the Catholics

Frank Black and the Catholics try to put some heart back in rock & roll

He may be an indie-legend who dabbles in surrealism, UFO-proselytizing, name changing and singing like a scurvy-stricken dog, but Frank Black has a rock & roll heart. While the records he made with the Pixies, a band destined to grow in importance as years go by, are quirky and sublime, Black's latest outing (his fourth solo record and debut for indie SpinArt Records) is a flat-out four-four barn burner. He's just wrapped up a string of dates opening for Pearl Jam, for chrissakes, and he laments, with good reason, the spit-shine on today's pop culture. The gritty, untamed Frank Black and the Catholics hits stores September 8, and Black is ready to face the music once again.

I hear this record was recorded live to two-track? Was that really the deal?

Yeah, it was live. You're hearing the demo. The record was never made.

What's the story behind that?

We were making a demo for Rick Rubin, and, you know, wanted to do a good job. He's a hot shot producer and all that. I haven't done demos for ten years. Anyway, we were down in the studio, we were pretty well-rehearsed, we went to a good studio, probably too good a studio for a demo recording. But anyway, the second day of making this demo, we all just were kind of in agreement that it sounded really good and we were really pleased with it. Felt proud of the live performances, and you know, in a certain argument, it's really the way that rock music should be. And it certainly never has been that way for me; I come from the multi-track overdub recordings. I mean, it's been that way since whenever.

And Rubin didn't like them?

He liked them as demos; he didn't want them to be on the record. And then it just kind of worked out that way. American was having its own problems in the media business, so it wouldn't have worked out anyway.

So then you just shopped your wares elsewhere?

We didn't really shop that much. We just kind of waited around for people to call us and wait for information to get out there that I was available. You name it, man, they passed on it. Most of the record labels out there. SpinArt is the one label that kind of managed to stick it through the end of a negotiation. Finally, they're gonna put it out.

What can people expect from this new material? Sounds to me definitely more raw, without the UFO references and stuff like that.

Yeah, there's not any UFO references. I'd say that the lyrics -- I don't want to say they're real middle of the road -- but certainly there are some personal end or universal themes. There are no universal UFO's to be found.

You've been witness to a lot of stylistic changes. What do you think of the rise of ska and swing, this kind of weird melding that's going on right now?

Well, I guess, to me those kinds of hybrid forms -- and I participate in hybridization, hybrid music, myself -- I guess that stuff looks better on paper than it sounds. I don't know. I'm not into modern ska music. I love the Specials. Maybe it's because I'm old. Is it because I'm thirty-three, and I'm not twenty-three? Why is that? I don't know. I really don't want to diss anyone. I really don't like to do that. I don't know, does it seem to you that a lot of modern music is really souless? Whether it be country, or so-called country, or R&B or pop music, whatever, there's a lot of emphasis on technique, especially among vocalists. Doing all these vocal gymnastics. Whether LeeAnn Rimes, or Hanson, or any of that stuff. There's so much technique going on. Maybe it has something to do with MTV. There's a lot of, like, almost impersonating or something going on with the super young singers. Everyone seems really impressed by it. I don't actually blame the youngsters, the real young ones. They're just doing what they do. But the ones that are over twenty-one, that have their vocal technique down -- it's really empty sounding. It just doesn't give me goose bumps, you know what I mean?

I keep thinking it's about economics. The fact that we're in better times, so there's just no power behind the music or something.

Last night we had the television briefly stopped on the Maury Povich show, and there was this kid doing this (growls and screams), kind of like this bluesy Ella Fitzgerald or something mixed in with, like, Whitney Houston and Hanson and all these ... she was this little white girl and she was on this song about her man, and "I love you man, and you're my man!" And she's like this eleven-year-old kid. It was so hard to hear the melody because there was so much dive-bombing going on. It wasn't good, it was awful. I mean they just went nuts. The audience, they loved it because it was this little kid. It just seemed really lame. And I just feel like I see that everywhere now. I see it in modern rock music in the buzz bin. You just see a lot of technique. Yeah, they're hitting the note, and yeah, they're slick, but it's so empty. I don't know.

Where's the guts or grit?

That always spells it out for me in terms of my career. It's like, why has it taken over a year for me to get my record released? "Hey, Mr. record company guy, got my new record? We recorded live to two-track." That's the last thing they want to hear. And it's like, "Okay, see ya." You know what I mean? They don't even want to hear it. It's "What's the angle," "What's the story," "How are we gonna market this?" Everything is just so marketed to death. Not just music, but everything.

Seems like somebody would have wanted it ...

I don't know. I think a lot of indie rock -- maybe I'm just paranoid or worried or something -- but I think I might bug a lot of people. A certain type of taste, I don't mean bad taste, I mean good taste. I just think certain types of people, they don't get me, or they think I'm something that I'm not.

What do you think when you look back on this Pixies? Is what the band meant coming into focus, or does it seem like it was just yesterday?

Not quite yesterday, but the day before yesterday. What the band meant, I don't know. It's really other people talking about it. I don't know, I'm not saying it didn't mean anything. I mean, it's hard to really think of it that way. It just is. [People say], "How do you feel about the fact that you've influenced all of these bands today?" And I just sort of don't believe it. I'm like, "Huh?" I don't get it. It just doesn't ring true. I'm not saying it isn't. But it didn't seem that obvious. People seemed to like it. And certainly business people kept persuading me to do another record, do another tour, "Keep going, man. You guys are gonna go all the way. You guys are massive." They seemed to like it. Seem to like it now.