A long time ago, in a town not that far away — Boston to be exact — there was a great band. Led by a prolific songwriter who called himself Black Francis, they called themselves the Pixies and single-handedly carved the musical niche we now call Alternative. That was in 1986.
Now, Black Francis goes by Frank Black, and he’s busy earning critical acclaim for his solo career. On Sunday, Nov. 10, he will perform at Toad’s with his current band, the Catholics, in support of two new albums, “Devil’s Workshop” and “Black Letter Days.” Black spoke to scene music critic Joseph Price about jazz, Creed and Doritos.
scene: Basically between the two albums, you’ve got 29 new songs out. How long did it take to write for the albums?
Frank Black: Well, generally speaking, I started writing songs in October, and I was done recording them all by the end of the second sessions in March sometime.
scene: What’s up with the Tom Waits cover?
FB: I heard the song once, I liked it, and we were getting ready to go on tour and one of the guys in the band, I think it was Rich Gilbert, figured out how to play it or something, and we just started playing at our shows and so it just ended up in our repertoire. We like playing that song; it’s a good song. There’s no special reason behind playing it, I know it sounds kind of boring, but I’m not good at lying in interviews.
scene: Did you always have the separation between the albums planned out?
FB: Well, I don’t know about that, that’s the way they turned out. One record was planned out and the other record was not planned out. One was demoed and was written before it was recorded, the other was written on the fly. Black Letter Days was the sort of planned out effort. Devil’s Workshop was more spontaneous. Although there’s a couple of older, back burner songs on it that had been around for a couple of years.
scene: Which ones were those?
FB: “His Kingly Cave” and “Modern Age.” Oh, and the music for “The Scene” has been around for years as well.
scene: What about the advantages of two track recording?
FB: Well, there’s a lot of heart, a lot of spirit in live recordings. It’s the way that people used to record until the early 60s. You know, it’s the way a lot of great jazz records were made, and a lot of great rock ‘n’ roll records. It’s just something about it that’s — it’s representative.
A lot of modern rock music does not necessarily get surreal in the way that maybe a classic example of that would be the Beatles doing a multi-track recording like Sgt. Pepper’s, when people were beginning to experiment with multi-track recording and it allowed them to do a lot of impossible things. I mean, well hip hop does a lot of surreal hip hop things. But rock ‘n’ roll, they don’t use the multi-track situation in a surreal way. I mean I’m sure there are bands that do that, but generally speaking.
scene: Generally speaking, how do they use it?
FB: Well, their songs are facsimiles of live performances. In other words, they stack and correct and adjust and edit, they build this thing that is a facsimile of a band playing a song. The overall picture is of this perfect band playing this perfect song with everything on 10.
scene: And that leads to concerts where fans want the performance to sound just like the record.
FB: Yeah, that can definitely happen. And in terms of the records themselves, I just think that they lack a little soul. Sometimes they lack a lot of soul. It’s more processed, just like food that is more processed tends to be crappier.
I use the food analogy a lot. There’s nothing wrong with it, there’s nothing wrong with crappy food. I eat crappy food on occasion, there’s nothing wrong with Doritos. But what can I say? A handmade piece of cheese from some little town in the middle of France tastes a hell of a lot better than a bag of Doritos. Let’s face it, there’s no comparison in the quality. I’m not saying that my records are that little artisan cheese compared to, you know, the Doritos that is Creed. I’m making the argument, generally speaking,
scene: So then you must not be to happy with the current trends in the alternative scene, something you helped start with your first band.
FB: I’m not familiar with the alternative scene. I don’t really know what it is — where it is — I assume there is one. But I don’t follow it.
scene: Then what about what people are calling alternative? Like Creed?
FB: Well, I don’t really consider that to be alternative. To me that’s extremely, you know, mainstream kind of music. It’s kind of like, I don’t know, heavy metal with baseball hats. I don’t really follow contemporary releases. There’s a few things I’ve heard here and there, but I kind of listen to records that are older because — well, because I’m older and grouchier. I don’t have time for the youngsters and their dabbling.
scene: I’ve read that you still kick around some old Pixies tunes in your live shows. Still doing that?
FB: We do perform usually a few Pixies numbers, yeah.
scene: When the Stones were on the Voodoo Lounge tour, they talked about their older songs as “ancient.” Any feelings like that? Like you’d rather play the new stuff?
FB: Well, songs fall in and out of favor from your past, you don’t always want to play certain songs because maybe you played already a lot a couple years ago. You kind of put ’em on vacation and dust off other songs, it kind of changes around.
But obviously newer songs don’t require dusting off. They’re not dusty yet. So you tend to want to play a lot of that stuff instead of the golden oldies.
scene: Doing any dusting off on this tour?
FB: Yeah, we’ve dusted off some that we haven’t done for a few years. Stuff off Teenager of the Year, a couple Pixies songs I haven’t done for awhile.
scene: Which ones?
FB: Ah, well, you’ll have to see. I don’t want to give it away.