Content being Frank
Songwriter Frank Black rants about the music business in what may be his final interview
On the night of April 13, after a gig in Philadelphia, the solo career of rock songwriter Frank Black (aka Charles Thompson) hit something of a new low. A trailer containing $75,000 worth of musical equipment, everything from vintage ‘50s Fender guitars to Shure microphones and drum parts, was stolen from a hotel parking lot while Black and his band, the Catholics, slept inside.
Luckily, the equipment was insured and quickly replaced, allowing for only a few missed concert appearances. The tour in support of his critically acclaimed new album, Dog in the Sand—which sounds like a lost cousin of the Stones’ Exile on Main Street with its country rock flair via pedal steel—kept right on rolling toward the West Coast.
I caught up with Black one recent morning, as he was preparing to leave a Best Western motel in Lawrence, Kan. The rotund, shiny-domed LA resident is perhaps best known as the front man for the Pixies, a mid-'80s college group from Boston that experienced a meteoric rise to international stardom and became one of the most influential rock bands since the Velvet Underground. After a much-publicized break-up in the early ‘90s, Black has gone on to release nine solo albums that met with mixed reviews and lower sales than the Pixies’ albums, partly because he maintains a low profile and forgoes much radio or MTV-style exposure. He’s a blue-collar rocker, one who would prefer just to make music and tour, not talk about it.
Undaunted by his latest adversity, he says that he “couldn’t have bought better promotion [than the theft]” and that he’s “not very sentimental about instruments. … It’s not like losing a pinky finger or something.”
But this morning he doesn’t seem interested in discussing his craft at any length. Especially after I mention an Internet interview I read, wherein someone asked Black why a 1999 tour was stopped short and quoted him as replying, “Broke my toe in Chico.”
He admits that he did break his toe in this part of the country ("Chico or Eugene") but says he never stopped the tour. By his sharp tone of voice, I’m suddenly aware that the question has set off something in him about journalists. Apparently, somebody in Pennsylvania has misquoted him lately.
“Just another mangled misquote … or even worse than that, the invented quote. Those are almost enough to get me to stop doing interviews altogether. Usually they’re very banal. Nothing people would notice. … I really, really hate it. The most recent one I noticed gives the impression that I’m dumber than I am. It’s really disgusting and personally offensive. I’m at the end of my rope, I’ll tell you that. You might be it, man. This might be it [the last interview]. … The last straw came long ago. It may just be that time, you know?”
The conversation turns to the recent death of Joey Ramone, about whom Black once wrote a song called “I Heard Ramona Sing.” Of all the people he’s opened a show for over the years, he says, Joey “paid me more money than anyone by a mile. He gave me a stupid amount of money. … I’ve always appreciated that. It means a lot in this business to have someone come through for you in that way.”
And Black should know. He has toured all over the world, selling out arenas and clubs while making thousands of fans, though he describes himself as well-traveled in only a limited way.
“I know where lots of laundromats are around Europe,” he jokes.
When asked whether artists are treated poorly in America, he replies, “Not at all. … I enjoy touring everywhere. Of course, personal preferences, sure I’d rather be in Paris, but—”
So, can fans ever expect an all-acoustic solo album, something like The Campfire Songs of Frank Black?
“Unplugged, man! If MTV, or whoever does those things, ever has me, I’m going to have an electric guitar and right there, for the world to see, I’m gonna unplug the guitar. … I’m not going to have models pretending to be back-up singers or cutesies in tuxedos and cellos and all that crap. Just me and an unplugged electric.”
Black is fit to be tied this morning. He seems really distressed with music TV in particular. VH1 recently featured the Pixies as one of the top 100 hard-rocking bands of all time ("No. 75 or something,” he says).
“They probably showed the video for ‘Here Comes Your Man,’ one of our more saccharine-sweet songs, which wouldn’t make any sense at all. Those shows are so shoddy. … Maybe Behind the Music is a good title, ‘cause it’s not really about the music at all, it’s a bunch of other crap. … I don’t have a lot of respect for that whole Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame mentality. It’s pretty cheesy.”
What about critics in general?
“Critics enjoy loving me and disliking me. … They usually mention ‘the drowning career’ of Frank Black. The Pixies are usually my zenith; then it’s my ‘questionable’ solo career, is usually how it’s phrased. I can’t say that I get a lot respect, but I don’t care. I’m not asking for respect. … Whatever gets me in the paper, you know?”
Black says he hates to sound so cynical or jaded but that he is simply telling it like it is. “I used to be really upset over bad reviews, but now … I just want to sell some tickets and albums.”
The move from playing packed arenas to small-town taverns doesn’t bother him as much as some people might imagine. “It’s not like I’m sobbing backstage because I’m playing at Fuddyduddy’s or wherever. … If I was going to fuckin’ cry about it, I’d go do something else. Open up a bar or something, go back to school. [Imitates in baby voice:] I wish I could be famous and have more success. BLEH! That’s bullshit.”
But Frank, if Tom Waits can get a Grammy for best alternative act, how long can it be before you do?
“Oh, come on! It’s all money driven. The people who run those things aren’t confident in art—which is fine. I’m critical of it from an aesthetic point of view, but if I was in that business I’d be the same way. I’m just so tired of people talking about art in this bullshit kind of way, whether it’s music, film or TV.”
I can sense a growing excitement and volume in Black’s voice, kind of like I was back at the PG&E billing office around lunch hour.
“I’m so disgusted with MTV and VH1. … I mean [MTV] are getting sued now for doing a pilot for some practical joke/Jackass kind of show where they had a man surprise two 14-year-old girls by shitting on them! That’s what they’re about. Do I need to even comment!! Do I need to even, like, say just how awful that entity MTV is? That says it all. They’re the most blood sucking, evil, money making, tits-and-ass, lame programming that you could possibly have. I mean, Jerry Springer is like fucking Ken Burns compared to MTV.”
Does Frank Black have any advice for young musicians?
“First of all, forget about trying to get a record contract, forget about MTV, forget about being famous. Just try to make some music and be good. That’s all that really matters … and your career will be whatever it is. But stop trying to be in the fucking business.
“That’s the problem; so many people focus on this. Hooold on—why are you doing this? Because you want to meet chicks? You wanna go to parties? Get an agent, be in movies? You know—what the fuck? Those people aren’t in the same category as I am. They may have a guitar and write songs and be in a band, but people inspired by this shallow glory … they aren’t me.
“You know, sometimes journalists will say [imitates square whitey voice], “What do you think about Britney Spears?"—which is so fucking a different planet, you know what I mean? That’s like asking me what I think about the new McRanch burger. … There’s the music business and people who make music. Sure, get money—but if that’s why you’re doing it, forget it. You’re going to suck.
“I appreciate you letting me rant and rave. Sometimes it’s what I need to do in the morning."