By Benjamin Leatherman
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By Glenn BurnSilver
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By Roger Calamaio
By Mark Deming
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By Brian Palmer
Club Congress in Tucson is an intimate room with good acoustics that books important bands on a regular basis. For example, the Congress was one of the few places in the U.S. last year where Frank Black played before he went into the studio to record his new album, The Cult of Ray.
Black's show at the Congress was an intense, sweaty affair in which his bassist appeared to perform flawlessly--a minor yet critical observation because of what happened to said bassist after the show.
Here's the scene: Black calmly leaves the stage with band in tow, makes his way around the bar, walks through the door to the club's small, bright greenroom, then whirls around and verbally flays his bass player alive for mistakes so subtle it's unlikely anyone on the dance floor caught them.
Now, Black is a big guy with piercing blue eyes, and when he gets mad, it's scary. Watching him chew up his hapless bandmate and spit him out again was not a pleasant sight, but it also wasn't out of character. After all, Frank Black has a long history with bass players.
If you caught that allusion, you can go ahead to the interview portion of the program. Otherwise, here's the crash course: As Black Francis, our subject led a band called the Pixies through four gloriously noisy albums that several top modern rock bands today have cited as primary influences.
Throughout Come On Pilgrim (1987); Surfer Rosa (1988); Doolittle (1989); the underrated Bossanova (1990); and Trompe le Monde (1991), loud, snarling guitars collided with Black's screaming (and often screamingly funny) lyrics about UFOs, reefer, the architect responsible for the Eiffel Tower, and "Losing my penis to awhore with disease." Among other things.
Despite the Pixies' huge European following, however, commercial success in America eluded them until 1991, when a feud between Black and bass player Kim Deal caused the band to self-destruct. "I wasn't happy being with those people," Black says in a recent interview. "I wasn't happy with that band, those songs, and that part of my life. It was just time to end it."
Deal went on to form the Breeders, and Black Francis (whose real name isthe unassuming Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV) became Frank Black.
New Times: Just for the record, why the name change?
Frank Black: Even though I had that Black Francis name for a good four albums, I wanted a new start, and I didn't want to use my real name. It just seemed obvious to me to flip it around and give myself a more normal-sounding name. People didn't know what to call me--it was kind of like calling yourself 'Captain Nemo,' or something ridiculous like that. So I came up with something that was a little more direct.
NT: Your "little more direct" mindset also led to a trio of solo albums: Frank Black, Teenager of the Year and The Cult of Ray. Between the last two, you jumped ship from Elektra Records to American [Recordings]. Why the label change?
FB: In the States, I was on Elektra, and I felt like they really didn't get me, and that they weren't promoting me as much as I felt they should. There was no tour planned for Teenager of the Year--I was just the weird guy from the Pixies, giving them some street credibility. And American had been asking about my availability for some time, so it just made sense to me to go where I was wanted.
Where Black's first two solo albums were comparatively lush recordings that showcased ex-Pere Ubu keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman, The Cult of Ray is a stripped-down set, produced by Black, that focuses on the joys of distortion and high weirdness. As usual, science-fiction themes abound on songs like "The Men in Black" (a reference to evil alien "visitors" with the great question, "...are they gray?/Or is it my own nation?") and the title track, a tribute to sci-fi author Ray Bradbury.
While Black cheerfully admits that he and his brother did see "something" in the sky when he was 5, he feels that his rep as a UFO nut is undeserved, or at least misconstrued.
Says Black: "I don't just write songs about UFOs. I think that's a recent kind of misunderstanding. It's a concept that I feed, and I admit that. But, at the same time, that's not all there is. And I think that people have a tendency to misinterpret songs I wrote that deal with other subjects, and lump it into thatcategory, and itdoesn't make sense. I mean, people have been singing about the sky, and the sun, and the moon, and the stars, since people have been writing songs. So to get tagged as a UFO guy is kind of misleading."
Case in point: The Cult of Ray has two of the tenderest songs Black has written since the early days of the Pixies--"I Don't Want to Hurt You (Every Single Time)," a heart-rending admission of blame in a relationship, and "The Last Stand of Shazeb Andleeb," a lament for a Pakistani student killed by skinheads last year in Los Angeles. Both songs are wrenching, and there's nary a spaceship in sight.