Jan 28, 2001
The Sunday Times

Paint it Black

Kurt Cobain famously described Nirvana's breakthrough single, Smells Like Teen Spirit, as his attempt to write a Pixies song, going on to claim that there would have been no Nirvana without the seminal 1980s Boston four-piece that blazed the trail for the Seattle grungers.

Walking unnoticed through Soho Square in London, Frank Black - the artist formerly known, when he was singer-songwriter with the Pixies, as Black Francis - has his own tribute to pay. Striding up to an imposing office building, the 34-year-old presses his bulky frame against the glass door. After a pause for private communion, he intones: "This is it, this is the place."

The building in question is the London HQ of Paul McCartney's empire. When one of his companions questions his choice of homage with the predictable assertion that, hey, McCartney sucks and anyway Lennon wrote all the Beatles' good songs, Black's riposte is swift and emphatic. "Lennon did some sugary shit. It was Helter Skelter that started it all."

The "it" Black refers to is not, of course, Charles Manson's notorious Californian killing spree, which was said to have been inspired by McCartney's White Album song, but the urge felt by Black and many others to replicate and develop the track's frenetic, furious burst of pell-mell cacophony, which so shocked Beatles fans used to Macca's more measured, melodious offerings. The Pixies drew on this raw energy as much as they did on the work of Iggy & the Stooges, the MC5, Lou Reed, the Beach Boys and the Ramones - who all, of course, themselves owed debts to the Fab Four.

Black, whose real name, Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, makes him sound more like a character from The Philadelphia Story (appropriately enough for a member of a well-to-do East Coast family) than the frontman of an ear-piercing rock band, is in Britain to prepare for a series of shows to promote his latest album with his band the Catholics. Like its predecessors, Dog in the Sand was recorded live to two-track, a device that has in the past resulted in a sound both refreshingly spontaneous and aurally imbalanced. Cheap to produce and quick to record, the Catholics' albums are fine-tuned prior to entering the studio with a touring schedule that would exhaust most bands.

"We're toning our muscles really," is Black's description of a routine that sees the group criss-crossing America in a van, often without roadies. "We just call up the agents and say, 'We're leaving Providence and driving to New Orleans,' and they book us a gig. Nothing fancy, though. Sometimes we play places that are so small, you get a waitress saying, 'Can you guys stop off from that noise, some people are still eating here.'"

It is nearly 10 years since Black disbanded the Pixies, after differences within the band about the sound they should be aiming for. Dog in the Sand marks the return to the Black fold of Joey Santiago, the Pixies' guitarist. His presence - and the simultaneous return of a previous Pixies collaborator, the keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman, formerly of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band and now with PJ Harvey - has inevitably given rise to a fresh bout of reunion stories. Black is dismissive.

"Look, I was in a band once," he says, with the weary, exaggerated courtesy of one who has been here before, "a so-called genius band, and we ended up hating each other. It wasn't like the Monkees, you know - we didn't live in some mansion on Pixie Island." As he called a Best Of compilation Death to the Pixies, there seems no reason to disbelieve him.

Feldman's involvement with Dog in the Sand has resulted in a fuller, more balanced sound and Black's best solo work in years. The singer's trademark blood-curdling scream has softened, so that, on the new track Stupid Me, he can turn in a tender, cracked vocal that is - dare one say it - almost Lennonesque. As for that scream, its roots lie in an encounter he had as a child with his next-door neighbour in Los Angeles, where Black moved to from the East Coast during high school. The neighbour was a Thai man with the unlikely name of Bob.

"He'd been a pop singer back in his own country," Black explains. "He'd long since gone bald and had this kind of Beatles wig, and he was running a flower shop. He called me one day and said, 'Come on over, bring your Beatles songbook.' I started singing Oh Darling and he stopped me and said, 'Come on, Chuck, sing it like you really hate the bitch.' It was difficult for me, I was from this deeply religious family. But I guess that's when I first started to scream and shout."

Commercially, Black left behind long ago the sold-out stadiums and hit singles of the Pixies at their peak, a fact he is admirably sanguine about. When we meet, he is just back from a session with various marketing men from European record labels. Far from being riled by the bean-counters, Black seems delighted by the absurdity of it all.

"Some of these people drive me nuts, but what the hell?" he says, laughing. "They go, 'Gee, we love your new record, but we may have a difficult time getting it on the radio.' Really? No kidding? No shit, Sherlock!

You know, okay, it's not Chicago, it's not Supertramp, but I'm not the weirdest guy who's ever come down the pipe. It's just a little arty-farty, what's the big deal?"

Black has no plans to stop, describing himself as a "lifer - one of those people who just need to play rock music and they'll always do it". When he was forming the Pixies, he put an ad in the paper describing the sound he wanted as combining alt-rockers Hüsker Dü with the Mamas and Papas, and, it has to be said, he's come about as close as any to achieving this exotic synthesis.

At heart he is an enthusiast, a compulsive reader who can litter his lyrics with almost wilfully obscure words such as cinnabar, pelagic and zugzwang; a sci-fi nut who once called a solo album after Ray Bradbury; and someone who still feels that old Helter Skelter urge, all these years after the bug first bit him.

The comparatively svelte figure of the Pixies era has given way to the serene Buddha now sitting opposite me, a once hugely influential songwriter who is now content just to go on plugging in and performing his songs, radio play or not. "Anyway," Black says with a smile, "I'm a cult kind of guy."

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