by David Kushner
Frankly we don't care what Charles Thompson calls himself. He used to be Black Francis, lead singer and songwriter for the fiendish postpunk pop group, the Pixies, the most gloriously odd quartet of the pomo era. His stage presence was a cross between a grown-up Spanky and the "Poodle with a Mohawk" poster--"He's back, he's bigger, and HE'S MAD AS HELL!!!"
Despite listener's attempts to project high weirdness or extraterrestrial origins onto him, Charles Thompson is, by his own admission, merely "A Humble Guy With Healthy Desires". His former band was labeled everything from wiggy airheads to the house band for "Late Night with David Lynch". Pigeonholing the Pixies remains a futile endeavor. Though they wore some of their influences on their lapels, they warped them to such a degree that rockcrit intellectuals like Simon Frith went running for their Kristeva texts. The classified ad that Charles placed in a Boston music paper back in '87 in search of a bassist says more about the roots of the Pixies than a library full of rock criticism: "Bassist wanted for rock band. Influences: Husker Du and Peter Paul & Mary." That an Ohio-born cheerleader with a sweet face and a helium voice would answer that ad says even more.
Emerging in 1987, their albums "Come on Pilgrim", "Surfer Rosa", "Doolittle" and "Bossanova" plowed through a few of Charlie's favorite things: S&M, Mexican hardcore, serial killers, space travel, surf utopias, "Un Chien Andalou", incest, deformed and mutilated bodies, animal transubstantiation, vampire women, and the U.S. government's notorious Area 51. These themes and more were delivered wit the tense vocal interplay of Black's hair- raising holler and Kim Deal's airhead harmony, and backed by punkpopmetal lifted from some Martian surf records. Now that's sassy.
All good monkeys eventually go to heaven. Following 1991's "Trompe Le Monde" and an unflattering arena tour with U2 (under the ignominious rubric "Support Act"), the band abruptly went on "vacation". This January, the vacation became officially permanent.
During the respite, Thompson, with the help of Pere Ubu's Eric Drew Feldman, clicked on to a Macintosh and started writing new tunes. The result was a solo flight into what he considers his first recordings in cyberspace.
Under the guise of Frank Black, this "eponymous debut" bears the mark of a man who's traveled the galaxies. Instead of a Neptune Surf Club t-shirt, Thompson brought back a big sonic valise stuffed with UFOs, SynchroEnergizers, more Mexarcana, and John Denver. Back are the bratty hooks and acid lyrics Pixies' fans adored, tempered by a certain, well... wisdom.
I met him high atop the Time Warner building in Elektra's unnervingly hip corporate meeting room. With his stomach busting out from under his black button-down shirt, and his hair shaved to an enviable fuzz, Thompson fidgeted, rolled back and forth in his chair, and ultimately settled down to earth for an hour's talk about cosmic things.
Oh...as he suggests in the press kit he wrote, please call him Frank.
The original idea for this album was cover songs. Who did you
want to cover?
FRANK BLACK: Husker Du, Jimi Hendrix, The Kinks, My Dad Is Dead, Angst. A combination of mainstream bands and obscure little punk bands. But that didn't happen, so ...
So you ended up writing "I Heard Ramona Sing", about the Ramones and
"Czar" about John Denver. Were they also on your list?
FB: No, it would have been difficult to do a Ramones song and do it justice. The Ramones deserve to have a song written about them and lo and behold, I've written two. I didn't realize it until I was three weeks into my press tour: "Oh yeah, I've got two songs about other artists here." In a musical and romantic kind of way, there's a song about the Ramones. There's a song about John Denver for reasons that have nothing to do with music.
FB: No, his quest for space.
Does this mean we should look for future collaboration with John Denver?
FB: No. [laughs] Although, I'd be honored.
What kind of a song would you write with him?
FB: A song about space, I suppose. He must obsess over it if he's willing to offer NASA and the then Soviet Space Agency ten million for a ticket.
To the moon?
FB: To anywhere...just out of the atmosphere, out of gravity's hold. That's what the song "Czar" is about.
You've had outer space imagery in your songs before, but it's quite
prevalent on your new album. Does this reflect your life?
FB: Yeah. Actually it reflects what's *not* happening in my life and what's *not* happening to most people on the planet. With the advancement of technology through electricity and artificial light, human culture has lost its connection with the cosmos. It's always been connected religiously, scientifically, through navigation even. Only in the past ninety years or so has that connection been severed.
FB: Well, specifically by artificial light. When the sun goes down, an artificial sort of sun rises in people's homes. For this reason alone, people don't look up into the sky anymore. This is not a new idea, but it's an idea that I'm warming up to. Fortunately, through scientific journals and even lighter mags like OMNI, people are becoming familiar with the cosmos, but in an indirect kind of way. I guess I'm trying to get back to it. I don't have a home in the desert and I don't have any telescopes, but I'm thinking about the sky and I'm looking up into it. I read "Sky and Telescope" now. I think the cosmos is important. I don't know why ... but it is.
Do you think that through technology you can create a link to the
FB: Absolutely. This is the potential, where everything's headed. If not directly into space, then through this computer simulation thing everyone's seen on their local news. Now we can explore Olympus Mons on Mars, and become familiar with those places.
Virtual space travel?
FB: As detailed as virtual reality gets, I don't think that it can ever replace what once was. In the end, people are just going to have to put down whatever it is they're doing--like watching fucking "Nick at Nite" like I do, or sitting at their computer terminal, or reading books, not by candle light, but by artificial light. Eventually people are going to want to have that old connection. To just walk out there and look up. Hopefully, there won't be so much light pollution that they won't be able to. Of course, you *can't* do this in most urban centers. I just think the solar system is awesome! As awesome as what your magazine might discuss. To me that's more awesome, that something that has been part of human culture for thousands and thousands of years is just gone like that! [snaps fingers]
Your song "Old Black Dawning" is about Biosphere 2 in Arizona. Did
you go there?
FB: Yeah, like a typical tourist. I took my drive out with my co-producer Eric Feldman. It's worth the ten bucks to take the little tour. I don't know if Biosphere 2 is a good thing or a bad thing. Obviously, it has very strong critics. Some are Green political thinkers, and some are regular Joe Blows living in Tucson who are like, "What the fuck are those guys doing in the middle of the desert with a damn greenhouse?"
I've heard more sinister suggestions. Like maybe a dress rehearsal
for some post-apocalyptic internment camp.
FB: It's interesting--whatever--whether it works or not. Even if it's some evil plan for billionaires to be protected from pollution or bombs. That may be only one element, though, as it obviously has connections to space technology.
In "Parry The Wind, High, Low", you go to a UFO convention and use
some "electric glasses with light"
FB: Yeah, you mean the glasses with the pulsating' light and stuff? I tried those at this UFO convention. I always wanted to buy one. This guy was charging ten bucks or something ridiculous for ten minutes, and he had this whole collection of CDs. It was the worst! I don't know if he had the wrong program or was afraid to get sued by someone who went into heart palpitations but he was a rip-off.
There's a place like that in Soho, where you're listening to
waterfalls and whale farts and stuff while the lights are flashing.
FB: Then I went to this other guy who was charging three bucks for five minutes. You just sat down in a chair and he was like, "How hot do you want it?" "Yeah, all the way!" VVVVVVRRRRRRMMMMM! I was, like, "Oh Yeah, here we go!" In the song, it gets a little fictional at that point. You know, the "electric glasses with light" become a kind of doorway,a gateway to a kind of cyberspace where he can communicate with things from beyond, from out in the cosmos. Other planets, basically. I didn't experience that, though. The song jumps back and forth between some lonely desert road where some poor fucker in a Buick is getting abducted by aliens, to the real UFO convention where they only *talk* about that stuff. I go back and forth through the electric glasses.
Have you ever seen a UFO?
FB: No. I've been *exposed* to one. I was told by my family, at a young age. Broad daylight, 1965. Nebraska. Over the house, a big saucer. Everyone in the front yard thought it was the end of the world. Called the state police. Followed it for awhile. Big incident. But I was an infant, so if I do have any memory, it's subconscious.
So what's your answer to the classic stoner question: if you could
board a UFO and check out another planet, but there's no way of getting
back, would you go?
FB: The catch is I couldn't come back? I'd consider it, if I could bring my girlfriend.
She'll be happy to read that.
FB: [Laughs] Well, a better question to ask is: given the choice of travelling to your typical Martian colony of the future or travelling through the space/time continuum to another time on Earth, which would you pick? Would you pick a celestial body, or move in time on your own planet? That for me is a tough choice, 'cause I'm thinking, "Well, I could definitely get into going to Mars, but I could definitely get into going backward or forward a few years as well."
Would you go backward or forward?
FB: [Long, ponderous pause] I think, backward. But that might be just some paranoid vision of the future. You know, if you go too far, you don't want to end up ...
Right when the bomb's going off!
FB: [Laughs] Yeah.
How about the sound of the new album? When I first listened to it,
it had some similarity to your other work, but there's some new
FB: well, I should mention--especially since you're from MONDO 2000--that the music wasn't rehearsed in a rehearsal space with musicians, but in cyberspace, on a Macintosh computer.
You hadn't done that before?
FB: No. In fact, even this time, I wasn't that connected to it. I would show the arrangements to my colleague, Eric Feldman, and he would rehearse the music on the computer, using artificial sounds. That's how we laid out the map for the whole record. We then added a lot of real instruments to it--like real drums, real guitars. And we kept some other things.
Did you like the way the computer affected your work?
FB: Oh, it was wonderful! It was a little scary at first, kind of like Kraftwerk or something, but I got over it. It was just a map, just a guide to where we would eventually end up. I thought it was a wonderful way to work. I'll probably work that way again. I mean, it's nice to get four musicians together in a room and jam and rock out, but there's something about using computers that gives you a chance to ponder a bit. Not necessarily over-fiddling or crawling up your own ass and taking forever ... It was just good to be less emotional, be more cold. [laughs] It was just nice working with computers. I loved it.
How do you see computers impacting the evolution of pop music?
FB: Well, the perfect example is the metronome-- totally part of pop culture. From little kids to old ladies, people are really [knocks on the table] used to hearing things knocking out precisely there on the beat. You start throwing off that time meter and you're in a different world. You're not in the world of radio or even TV advertising.
Has MTV affected your songwriting?
FB: It's affected how much money is spent on the record, because record sleeves have sort of disappeared. You've got this *other* thing representing you--if they actually fucking broadcast the thing. And if they don't, it's money down the tubes. So, no--it doesn't affect my songwriting, it just makes me spend more money. But, I'm interested in videos. It's too bad that it really hasn't become the art it pretends to be. But this might change with interactive video. As soon as they get a combination of interactive video and transmitted music over the phone lines, then Music Television can happen. Right now, it's just a very faint echo of its potential. I mean they've had MTV, technically, since 1958. And people have been lip synching for years. I look forward to the day when karaoke stars will emerge in 2-dimensional form. They won't give concerts--they might give broadcasts, but they won't appear like you and I in this room--they'll exist only in cyberspace!
FB: That's Music Television! But the formats have to change. The interesting thing about visual information from a commercial perspective is that it has to be so great that you want to rewind it and watch it again. But you're not going to get kids to do that. This might change if you can incorporate gaming or inter- action with the visual information.
"Distance Equals Rate Times Time"
"Trompe Le Monde",
you "had a
vision/there wasn't any television from looking into the sun". Is the
vision still there?
FB: [Pauses] Yeah--I mean I love TV and I hate it. I love it 'cause I get to watch "Dragnet" every night at ten o'clock. I mean, I like it even when I'm fucking watching early 70's cop shows dubbed into German and I'm sitting in my hotel room going, "There's nothing on except this shit." I'm addicted to it like anybody else. [pauses] But when they finally get fiberoptics going and it becomes like CB radio, where everyone can fucking set up a video camera in their house and broadcast ... Try driving around in the city and listen to CB radio. Out in the open highway, it's just some truckers giving halfway useful information. But back in the city, it's some crazy guy sitting up in his room with masking tape on the CB, going, [yells] "RRRRGHHHH RRRRGGGHHH RRRRGGHHHH!!!" And there I am listening to the guy! He's working. The guy is broadcasting, and I'm fucking tuning in! When the phone's hooked up with TV, you're going to see a lot of bad things too--a lot of exploitation.
FB: Pornography and all that kind of stuff, but there will be good things too. Your TV Guide is going to be like the phone book.
Let's flip on the TV and see what Mrs. Smith is up to.
FB: [Laughs] Obviously, not everybody's going to be dancing around in front of the video camera. But, there's going to be plenty of people who will spend some of their leisure time broadcasting. Maybe a few people will see broadcast for what it is--power. The power of broadcast is very special.
You wrote a nice bit of social criticism in your song
What do you think about MTV's mass marketing of
FB: Well, if it sells the shit, more power to them. I don't care, I don't really watch MTV myself. There's nothing really worthwhile. It's *not* some karaoke star existing in cyberspace with a 2-dimensional character creating Music Television. It's just guitar players like me lip syncing and prancing around, and not doing a very good job of it. If I'm going to watch video programming, I watch country music television. I don't relate to it as much, so it's kind of entertaining.
So you're not encouraged by the increasing popularity of alternative
FB: It might be blowing a little hot air into the scene, but as far as I'm concerned, most scenes are a bunch of hot air anyway. The only thing that really matters is quality. Between alternative and corporate there's a very thin line.]
What happened to the Pixies?
FB: What happened? They broke up. What led to the breakup? My boredom. [laughs] There you go. There's nothing else to say. I wish...well, I don't wish there was anything else to say. It's sort of like, [lifts up a copy of MONDO 2OOO] maybe you're quite happy writing for MONDO. Well, let's say it develops into a full-time thing and they pay you pretty well. That would be nice, wouldn't it? Well, let's say after four or five years, they said, "This is what you have to do for the next ten years." I mean, that might not be such a good proposition. It's like always making cowboy movies. After a while you might want to get into a detective movie or a comedy. It's like, "Not another cowboy movie, come on!"
So are you free as a solo artist?
FB: Yeah, there's freedom, in that there's less people to ask for opinions. There's just me and the engineer. But, heck, I've got to go on tour this summer and I've got to pay these guys. I've got to get hired guns!
It's still a job.
FB: I mean, you got your Beatles and you got your Bowies. It's just two different ways to do the same old thing.
Now that you can officially look back, what do you think were your
best Pixies songs or albums?
FB: Well, i thought that "Bossanova" was probably the best record. I don't really listen to them, though. Once you make 'em, man, you've heard them from every possible angle. I've heard them more than the most ardent fan will ever hear them. I don't have a lot of nostalgia for them, not just yet. If someone wants to hear me wax nostalgic about my records, talk to me in ten years. [laughs] At the moment, I'm just fucking sick of them.
What about the range of subjects in all your songs? You've written
about Sea Monkeys, caribou, about the Eiffel Tower. What makes you think
"I've just got to write a song about Sea Monkeys?"
FB: Subjects are just there, like so many memories. Or daydreams. Or daydreams, which aren't memories, but a memory of a non-existent future, I guess. I don't need subjects, 'cause they're already there. What I need is a good song for the subject to occupy. I just work on the little space that the word is going to finally occupy, and then I go and try to find some words. There's so many. [flourishes a MONDO, fanning through the pages] I mean, look at all the words in here. Thousands of them! So many words, so many ideas. You can sing about anything.