Frank Black's New Soul

Pixies frontman follows Dylan to Nashville

A week before launching the Pixies reunion tour last spring, frontman Frank Black headed into the studio to record his eleventh solo effort, Honeycomb. Out July 19th, the album fulfills Black's decade-long fantasy of making a Nashville record with serious Southern soul talent, with producer Jon Tiven wrangling veterans of legendary studios Muscle Shoals, American Studios and Stax Records.

Honeycomb is Americana-tinged, recorded with Tiven (Wilson Pickett, B.B. King) in only four days at Nashville's Better Songs and Gardens, owned by songwriter Dan Penn (Aretha Franklin, Solomon Burke). In addition to Steve Cropper (Booker T. and the MG's) and Spooner Oldham (Neil Young, Janis Joplin), Black played with guitarist Buddy Miller (Steve Earle, Dixie Chicks) and bassist David Hood (Traffic). As if to match the genre, the often-cryptic Black penned lyrics that are surprisingly frank, drawing on a recent breakup, his new love and fatherhood.

As the Pixies prepare to kick off another seventeen U.S. dates next Wednesday -- in his new hometown of Portland, Oregon -- Black talks to Rolling Stone about recording with people who haven't heard of the Pixies, performing at prom and how much he loves his ukelele.

So why did you decide to make a Nashville record?
I suppose it was to follow in the footsteps of Bob Dylan's 1966 record, Blonde on Blonde. That happens to be one of my favorites, and it's his first Nashville record. He goes down there and plays with some cats. And I thought, "Gee, I want to do that." So I played with these total cats and felt pretty cool. It was good to be the kid -- and to play with people who didn't know exactly who you were, but knew you were somebody. And, certainly, I knew they were somebody.

Had they even heard of the Pixies?
I don't know. More than likely, they hadn't -- but they didn't let on.

I heard that Steve Cropper wrote the first song you ever sang live . . .

Yeah, that was in high school. It was the Spring Concert, or something. The guidance counselor was the keyboard player, and he was like, "Let's do this song called 'In the Midnight Hour.'" Obviously, it was something from his youth, you know, but I didn't even know it. I sang it at my prom, too -- it sort of became my shtick, once everyone figured out that I could sing.

Was it a challenge for you, writing in this style?

Perhaps I was keeping those musicians in mind -- you know, I wasn't going to give them a bunch of esoteric bullshit. I wanted to write some songs that had some meat on them, that were not necessarily straight-ahead but at least clear-headed.

Have you written esoteric bullshit?

Well, sure! I mean, esoteric bullshit is my forte! On the one hand, I was thinking, "I have to be true to who I am." They don't want me to be fake and just start writing country songs or soul music that I don't know how to write. But at the same time, I was like, "I've got to dig deeper. I've got to try to give them something that they can relate to a little bit." Something that isn't just this cuddly, from-left-field, what's-this-crazy-shit, quirky music. I mean, these guys played with Dylan and Neil Young and Elvis!

Did they have the attitude of "Here's this kid coming in and trying to get all Nashville on us?"

There was a little bit of that both ways. Because my songs were, from their point of view, still a little odd, musically. When you're not musically trained and you just write from a random place, a raw place, like myself, people that play a lot of square music tend to go, "Wow." And still, they could play just looking at the charts, completely unrehearsed, without having heard the song!

Listening to the record over the past year, I noticed that sometimes, after I would sing a line, one of the guitarists would comment in the space afterwards. Not in a super-hokey way -- not like [makes over-the-top electric guitar sounds] -- but by playing something sexy because I just sang something sexy. That's pretty cool.

On the album you cover "Dark End of the Street." It seems like a good fit -- were you thinking about that for a while?

I had talked about it with the producer. Then, coincidentally, it turns out that the engineer whose studio we were at wrote the song! Dan Penn. I didn't know the soul version -- I knew the country-rock white-guy version, which was Gram Parsons'. And when the producer said, "OK, do you want to do it?" I was too intimidated. So Dan said, "Aw, come on! I'll just sing it with these guys, and you can sing it later." And he sang this wonderful, really soulful, heavy version of the song. And I thought, "Whoa. How do I follow that?" We left it for the next day, and I practiced all night in my hotel room and came up with the delivery, the character, based on how they'd played it.

What do you mean by "character?"

When you do a cover song, you don't know what you're going to do, you just want to successfully pull it off somehow. Unfortunately for me, they started off from some other place that I wasn't familiar with, and I wasn't sure I could get all that soulful with it. Maybe it ended up sounding a little bit like Aaron Neville -- but I actually took my cues from another fragile-voiced singer, Freddy Fender.

You get a little relationship-y on this album . . .

Well, yeah. The record is coming at a major crossroads in my life -- major explosions and drama! The ending of a very longterm relationship and then the start of a new one -- and one that came with kids and everything. Totally a whole new ballgame. And I was in the middle of getting ready for the Pixies tour, which was kind of the mending of another relationship. So it was all very dramatic and poignant.

And is this the first time you've named a song after a lady? ["Violet" is titled after Black's girlfriend.]

No. Well, the actual name and not some code? Then, yes. It was straight-up [laughs].

That's kind of bold, and un-guy-like.

Yeah, I think so. It's one of those things you do at three o'clock in the morning when you're tired and maybe also kind of hyper and inspired and wanting to write something. I think that was the real icebreaker on the record -- I hadn't really gotten any songs going yet, you know. And I just started to play and go with it: "There's this woman named Violet, and here's a song about her!" And it's in 3/4 -- it's a waltz! I just thought, "OK, this is very tender -- screw it! Why shouldn't it be?"

You're the head of a brood now. Has that changed the way you write music, your whole process?

Yeah, actually: I don't really write songs or play guitar anymore [laughs]. I sort of do that when I go on tour now -- which I've never been able to do before: I've always felt too tired. But now when I go home I've got other stuff to do or other stuff I wanna do. I'm not saying I won't work out some other way to write songs, but so far I just haven't.

Wait, I take that back! I started to write here, before I went on the road. On ukelele, actually. I've been graduating to writing on four-string instruments the last few years. And I didn't do it in private, or say, "OK, guys, I'm going up to my music room now to do my thing." I just hung around the house while everyone was running around me -- you know, chaos, with me just kind of sitting there with my ukelele.

When you tour, do you write sitting at the back of the bus?

Sure, wherever. Hotel rooms.

So you're generally good at ignoring people. That's a gift.

Um, yeah. I guess it's a gift.

How did the reunion tour leave you feeling? I saw you in New York, and it seemed overwhelming.

Especially at those shows, I suppose: that was our big crescendo, our big New York run. Seven sold-out shows. I don't know which night you were there, but we even had a little meltdown onstage and had to walk off, and I got all pissed off at somebody in the band -- it was a musical thing. So, yeah, it was kind of dramatic and intense for us.

What's the vibe like between all of you now?

It's fine. Kind of normal.

Do you hang out after the shows?

Not really. That's the misunderstanding that people have about bands. There's not really a need to hang out when there's free time, because there's so much time when you do hang out together, traveling, waiting around for a show to start, winding down after a show, waiting in hotel lobbies or taking cabs together, taking fifteen-hour bus rides together. It's rife with hanging out.

Are you thinking of recording a new Pixies album?

We kick the idea around, but we haven't arrived at any conclusion. We're either too busy going on tour or going back home and doing whatever our lives are full of. You know, we're not twenty-two years old anymore, sitting around in our rehearsal space being like, "So, how we going to make it in this music business?"

Did you have that conversation before?

Sure! But now those days are gone. Everything has to be just right for us to make a new album. Even if it gets talked about, it's still like, "Well, anyway, I've got to go pick up my wife at the airport now. See you, guys." We do phone calls once in a while, but we're not meeting at the Bat Cave on Tuesday night at seven for our weekly poker game where we work it all out.

Why did you decide to play another round of dates after the whole reunion shebang?

We were offered some more gigs, and we decided to take them. So, is the reunion tour over? I suppose it is, and this is something else. The way that we see it is: we're professional musicians, and we occasionally get calls to do the thing that we do. It's just who we are. It's what we do. We're getting appreciated for something that we did ten, fifteen years ago -- but while that's an interesting angle, it's not unheard of, and it's not out of the realm of what a musician does. We're musicians, we make music and people pay to hear us play.