Black Francis: Interview
“A gold record would be nice.”
What more can be been said of Black Francis that isn’t already clear to anyone with a working knowledge of rock ‘n’ roll history? Francis the iconoclast, Francis the lead singer of arguably the most influential alternative group of all time, Francis the prolific solo artist who follows his muse with unabashed devotion — it’s all documented. But despite the many monikers (his God-given Charles Thompson, Frank Black, etc.), the reunions, and the constant crowd petition for another Pixies album, one topic is often overlooked: Black Francis isn’t just one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest artists, he may be one of its wisest.
At least this was the thought that repeatedly sprung to mind as several of my questions were batted down by Mr. Thompson. He did so, however, with the calmness and clear-mindedness reserved only for an artist who takes his time very seriously. And while the beating of my fanboy heart may have temporarily slowed, the man behind the music remained a grateful and amiable conversationalist as he discussed being a father, Doug Sahm, the good and bad of the Nashville factory, resisting organized album-craft, and discussing — or avoiding discussing — his newest album Nonstoperotik.
In the documentary The Band That Would Be King — about the group Half Japanese — Gerard Cosloy talks about giving a title to an artist so that they have to live up to that title or status. In this case, it was being “the greatest band ever.” For you, do you ever feel like your reputation has pushed you to become a greater artist?
Has pushed me to become a greater artist? Yeah, I can only hope and, yes, imagine that maybe that might happen sometimes — where you do something good the last time around or whatever. I would say, more often, though if you did something that [you] weren’t as proud of — that you thought was weaker — the last time out that maybe that would kick you in the butt to try and return to form or whatever. Yeah, so I guess it’s the same kind of thing where you do something good and then you do something not so good — you go, “Ah, I didn’t do something so good last time and I used to be really good. So, how can I get back to that space?”
Well, a lot of people have given you the status of being a living legendary figure. Is it ever frustrating to have to live up to the expectation people put on you with each release?
Um, no. I mean, I sometimes feel like those types of tags also just mean that I’m old or something, y’know? [Laughs]. So, I’m not sure. Hold on one second, here. [Background sounds of children and dialogue] Yeah, go ahead.
“As soon as you get into a situation where someone has too much of an agenda — the producer has too much of an agenda, the writer has too much of an agenda, the players have too much of an agenda, the engineer has too much of an agenda — then you end up with strife”
I understand you’re a family man with a sizable family — what’s it like to be a rock ‘n’ roll dad? Do your children ever listen to your music?
Sure, they listen to music. Either stuff I play them or stuff they’ve figured out on their own, y’know? But […] I’m not sure what overlap there is between being a “rock ‘n’ roll dad” and being a “dad,” y’know? I think I’m just a dad [Laughs].
I guess I was just curious about how you make it work with the touring schedule stuff that not every other dad may have to work with necessarily. But it is a job, I suppose.
Yeah, I travel just like lots of […] people would travel for their work. The bad news is that I have to kind of go away from the family and be away from them for a time period. I guess the upside is that when I am home, I’m pretty much available all the time. It’s kind of like the weekend all week long, y’know?
Your newest record, Nonstoperotik, it goes without saying that sexuality is a prominent subject throughout the album. Because you’ve done so much work, what were you hoping to accomplish with this record that you hadn’t already accomplished on previous albums?
A gold record would be nice. But I don’t really have vision or ambition in that sense where I have this thing — this is what I’m setting out to do or this is what I hope to accomplish. The only sort of laundry list I’d have is that I want to try and make it good. So, beyond that, there’s nothing I’m setting out to do. I’m setting out to make a record. The only thing that will move it along in any specific direction is if I’d have some sort of overriding theme maybe — or perhaps a parameter like when I was making live to 2-track records, that was the parameter. It was the recording method which would maybe direct me or suggest a certain direction.
I don’t have it all mapped out. Some people do. Some people work better like that. But I find that I don’t like to work like that and I resist things being too planned out or organized.
To just let it happen naturally?
I could talk about […] Sometimes I find it easier to talk about something that has occurred — “What’s your record about?” or “What’s your song about?” Maybe I’m just splitting hairs here, y’know what I mean? But the premise of any kind of question that says, “What were you planning?” or “What did you set out to do?” I automatically just reject that. I say, “No, no, no, no. I don’t work like that.” I say this a lot in interviews because I feel like it’s an easy enough assumption to make. “Hey, what was your artistic vision?” Heck, you’re talking to the artist. I’m just being honest. It’s like, “Hey, I didn’t have any artistic vision.”
Sometimes, the music should speak for itself and you don’t always have to get inside the intention behind it.
I [have] the artistic vision, it’s just ongoing.
Over the years, you’ve payed tribute to a lot of great past artists like Doug Sahm, Larry Norman, etc. Even on the new record you have a Flying Burrito Brothers cover. How much do you value tradition in music —
Wait, back up, what’s the question?
How much do you value tradition in music and —
How much do I value what?
Tradition in music.
[…] Yeah, if it’s good, I value it. I don’t know if it’s what I’m looking for when I do a cover song. It just has to do with whether or not you like a song or whether you’re obsessed with it. It’s gotta have some kinda zing. But I don’t know if it has to do with tradition. Some music that I listen to, you could call it traditional music but some of it you wouldn’t call traditional music. So, I support traditional music but I don’t hold it up as some sort of holy alter of music. Music is music — whether it’s traditional or not [laughs].
One of the reasons I brought up Doug Sahm is because I live in Mill Valley, Calif., and I know you’ve often covered the song “Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day.” Do you have a favorite Doug Sahm record or others worth checking out?
Well, I guess I sort of know him through compilation. I have records of his but they’re all kind of just smeared together. So, I can’t say a particular record. But I like his late 1960s period very much — when he would’ve been hanging out in Mill Valley and San Francisco. He had his other big hit at that time. It was “Mendocino.” So, his so-called “California period.” Like a lot of people in the late 1960s, they went to San Francisco, California, to see what all the hoopla was about. I think that, musically speaking, this was a nice a period for Doug Sahm.
Speaking of location, I also lived in Nashville for a while and I know you’ve done various sessions with musicians there. Since you’ve played with a lot of different people over the years, what’s unique about playing with those kinds of musicians and artists in Nashville?
The difference between that and who?
“Yeah, so I guess it’s the same kind of thing where you do something good and then you do something not so good — you go, “Ah, I didn’t do something so good last time and I used to be really good. So, how can I get back to that space?”
What’s the difference between playing with Nashville musicians, the Nashville vibe as opposed to your past experiences with other musicians and other vibes?
Well, people that work in that town are extremely good at what they do and they work with a wide variety of people and different genres, so they’re very, very flexible. They’re very quick, they tend to write out very quick short-hand charts for the compositions that they’re gonna record. In my experience, they don’t even rehearse the material before they do the take. They will play along to a song without knowing the song, without having heard it before, without having ever practiced it before. They’re kind of that fast. I guess, to me, that’s […] a mixed bag. You can get people in that kind of situation not playing something with a lot of soul. So, I think that your Nashville session musicians, or whatever, maybe have gotten a bad rap because they’ve played on a lot of soulless stuff too because they can work so quickly.
It’s like a factory. The factory gets some criticism, y’know, rightfully so. But the thing about that situation, which is totally pure though, is that it does just sort of have the attitude of like, “Well, let’s play music — right now.” Y’know what I mean? [Laughs] It’s a very automatic thrust. It’s kind of like they’re unafraid and they don’t necessarily want to think about it too much. They just want to do what they do. So, that kind of expression is almost kind of raw and deep. It’s real instinctive and unafraid, like I said. So, there’s something to be said for that — for having all that prowess and all that experience to be able to just play music legitimately without having it all worked out too much. Just play, y’know. They’re not afraid to play. Which is great, it’s like what Jazz is.
There’s a lot of history to that attitude of spontaneity in music.
It’s not like Jazz, but there’s something kindred with Jazz.
You’ve done a lot of production work over the years, producing other artists, etc. On the newest record, I believe you worked with a member of Captain Beefheart, is that correct?
No, I’ve never worked with him.
I must have gotten the wrong information on that — I apologize. Still, your role as producer, what are the different responsibilities than the role you’ve assumed as a songwriter? What do you enjoy about being able to sit back and produce a band?
[…] I enjoy it. I can’t say that it’s so different, y’know. Everybody in the room has the same goal and purpose — it’s to walk out of there with a good recording of something. It’s all kind of the same, whether you’re the writer, or whether you’re the player, or whether you are the producer or engineer. If everyone is doing their job right, then everyone has the same goal, and that is to walk out of there with a really good recording of something. And it’s nice when you’re working in that environment where everybody’s on that page. It’s not about anything else. Because that really is the way that it […] that’s the ideal.
As soon as you get into a situation where someone has too much of an agenda — the producer has too much of an agenda, the writer has too much of an agenda, the players have too much of an agenda, the engineer has too much of an agenda — then you end up with strife. And you end up with something that’s imbalanced. But if everyone realizes, “Hey, it’s not my particular agenda, it’s not my particular goals that are most important” — it’s not that their invalid but they’re not the most important thing — the most important thing is that a great recording happens, a great performance happens. So, when I’m working as a producer, I don’t feel so different than when I’m a musician, or writer or whatever because it’s the same goal.
I know you’ve been living in Oregon for years now. What’s been best about living there? Do you feel like being around the outdoors has been a positive influence on your family and music?
Well, the water’s clean, the air’s clean, there’s a lot of good produce and tofu and tempeh around here. So, [it’s] good for all that kind of stuff, I have to say. At heart, I guess I’m a big-city person, but it ain’t so bad out here in the country.