Into the Black
Charles Thompson is on his way to see a man about an ax.
"I'm on my way to see Toru," he intones in a stylized, Peter Lorre-esque cadence, "Japanese guitar repairman . . . to the stars."
Thompson, better known as Frank Black, trusts his guitars to L.A. legend Toru Nittono exclusively. "It's probably just my whole misunderstanding of Japanese culture," says Black in his own familiar voice, "but the guy takes such a careful approach to the work he does, it's like it's almost reverent. His shop is a shrine. You go into his workshop, and he's got classical music playing, which I like. It's obvious he doesn't want to hear this loud, guitar-heavy stuff all day; he repairs guitars for a living. But not only does he have classical music going, he has it on at almost an imperceptible level."
Black bursts forth with hearty laughter, a habit he indulges frequently. "I just think that's so awesome, man. The same radio station, all the time. And it's so quiet, it's just unbelievable. It says something about his precision. It just states, 'Yeah, I'm a meticulous person and I have a really great ear.' You just know he's not going to be sitting there drinking a Bud while he's working; Toru wouldn't do that. I hate to use the word 'honor,' but yeah, that's what it is." He pauses, then bursts forth again: "He's got a code, man! Toru's got a code!"
He winds down, then apologizes. "Sorry. D'you ever see that movie Ghost Dog? About that hit man who follows the samurai code of honor? I just saw it."
Frank Black punctuates his observations on American life, his latest album, the state of the music industry, and the possible colonization of Mars with frequent and boisterous laughter. He guffaws so heartily, in fact, that it's easy to ignore the long and convoluted path that brought him here, mixing guitar repair trivia with indie film references, and having a grand old time doing it.
First there was the Pixies, a brilliant and measurelessly influential band, whose tense breakup was one of rock music's most discordant since Young told Stills to eat a peach. Then there was Frank Black, all by himself, who weathered contract problems throughout a string of inconsistent solo albums. His 1993 self-titled debut and the following year's outstanding Teenager of the Year received critical hosannas, but his mid-'90s output -- The Cult of Ray, Frank Black and the Catholics and Pistolero -- didn't fare as well, either critically or commercially.
Concurrent with those critical blows, Black endured a difficult process of rotating labels for his solo albums, beginning with the Pixies' old home 4AD, continuing with American (in the U.S.) and Sony (in Europe), and finally settling with SpinArt. Black's association with SpinArt freed him to release Frank Black and the Catholics, which he'd been unable to do while under contract with American Recordings (American had been undergoing financial trouble, and Black had gotten lost in the shuffle). Still, even after he'd been released from his tangled contracts on both shores, the direction Black was headed in seemed unclear even to him.
For all these reasons, his third release with the Catholics -- this year's Dog in the Sand -- seemed to come from nowhere. Consistent and hard-rocking throughout, Dog in the Sand found Black reborn, not so much in his old image as in a wiser, more literate incarnation of his younger self. Black emerged at the dawn of the new millennium with an album far edgier and more confident than anything he'd done since Teenager of the Year, and he did so on yet another label, Denver-based What Are? Records.
Black's prognosis is fairly positive: "So far so good, with these guys," he reports carefully, keeping his previous troubles firmly in mind. "The number one thing you look for with a label is good accounting -- do they keep an accurate record of how many of your records they've sold? -- and the second thing is, do you get paid on time? Those are the biggest questions. Beyond that, you can say a lot of things, like, 'Big labels are really good at promoting your record,' or, 'Little labels are really good at giving you correct information without a lot of bullshit.' I can't say that one is better than the other.
"But right now, in the current industry climate, which is really corporate, being on a big label is a bad place to be. It's not so bad if you're a one-hit wonder, or if you've got big boobs or something -- actually, my boobs are pretty big -- but it's not a good place to be. The place to be right now is small labels, because they're taking up the slack. You're only ever gonna hear like 10 songs on the radio. So the smaller labels right now are providing a home for people who've been around for a while, who aren't just going to replicate the current big thing in pop music: people who aren't just going to sing the other nine songs.
"Now it may be," he continues quickly, "that the pendulum will swing the other way, that things will become so boring in the mainstream that even your lowest-common-denominator Joe is going to look around him and say, 'Wow. This is shitty'; it's going to be shitty even for him. And the weird stuff will start getting popular again, and the big corporate companies will go, 'Oh, shit, we lost touch,' and they'll start thinning out the ranks a little bit and start offering some decent deals. And then that'll be the place to be. Your record will be in every single store, it'll be on the radio, you'll get paid on time.
"And then it'll get real corporate again and you'll get dropped," he concludes. "I just wish I could predict when the pendulum was going to switch."
What Black's describing, he admits, is a vicious and ugly circle. But throughout the crests and troughs of his post-Pixies career, a few calm elements have sustained him. With Dog in the Sand, for example, his recorded association with the Catholics now matches his total recorded work in the Pixies almost one-for-one. And it's to those musicians that his kindly thoughts turn, when he's asked how he feels about Dog in the Sand nearly six months after its ecstatic reception.
"It's a big pleasure for me to play with all those guys, obviously. Even with the guys who aren't full-on members of the band, there's a long association. I've worked with Eric Drew Feldman [Pere Ubu, the Magic Band] now for about 10 years. And Moris Tepper [the Magic Band, Tom Waits] for about as long. Yeah, there's a lot of history there with everyone involved.
"[Dog in the Sand] still sounds good to me. But records are like snapshots, really. Things change daily when you play them live. Certain songs I wish we wouldn't have recorded until now, because playing them on tour they've gone somewhere else. Other songs sound naive to me now, but in a good way, and I'm glad we recorded them when we did; they probably sound better [on the record] than they do now, where we've kind of stretched them out, but we haven't really done anything good with them."
Asked to provide an example of a song that sounds naive-in-a-good-way to him now, Black offers one immediately, the most fragile and whispering tune on an otherwise highly energetic album.
"Like 'I'll Be Blue,' that song is just about as timid as we could record it. But we've played it out and now it's become a very known thing, as opposed to something that we were really tiptoeing around. We're more accustomed to it now. It's not like we've developed bad habits, really, but we've gotten very familiar with it."
Perhaps the most welcome element of Black's latest is its high quotient of character-driven narratives, always one of his greatest strengths as a songwriter. There are characters on Dog in the Sand whose peculiar outlooks rival those of other Black creations like Crackety Jones, the infamous Mr. Grieves, and that weird bastard who wouldn't stop screaming about being an Andalusian dog in "Debaser."
But Black is reticent to dig too deeply into this aspect of the record: "Lyrics are driven by so many different factors. I can say that a song like 'Robert Onion' is about a character, but the main point of that song is that it's an anagram; the first letter of each line gives a clue to what the song is about. But I can't really say that, um . . . I just write songs, and the way they come out is the way they come out.
"I don't really have any kind of vision before I start a song. I might have a subject matter or a topic. For example, for 'Robert Onion' I had a person in mind, but more than that I had a poetic method that I needed to pursue. So I don't really know what to say about that. They're more like pictures, pretty little pictures, and some are prettier than others. Sometimes you luck out, and one is a real doozie. And sometimes your picture is, in retrospect, not so great. I do scrap some of those songs, but it's hard to have ultimate perspective."
Speaking of ultimate perspective, Black is also mum on the topic of a rumored Pixies reunion attendant upon a newly released import collection of B-sides, though the personal conflicts that imploded the band in '93 have long since faded into history. Fellow ex-Pixie Joey Santiago contributed guitar to Black's first two solo albums, and does so again, heavily, on Dog in the Sand. And at a recent and widely reported London gig, the big man himself whipped out, for the first time since going solo, old Pixies standards like "Monkey Gone to Heaven" and "Nimrod's Son," closing with a powerhouse rendition of "Where Is My Mind?" (Other, decidedly unsubstantiated rumors report Kim Deal doing the same, in a series of solo shows on this continent.) Approached by Mojo magazine after the London gig, Black would say nothing except, "It seems cooler to not have the Pixies get back together," which isn't saying very much at all.
But for the immediate future, at least, Black and guitarist Dave Phillips are gearing up for a set of acoustic shows on their way to Denver.
"Me and Dave are officially on a little break right now, but we're doing a little run through the Southwest. We're going to Colorado for some label business, and we're going to play a few shows on the way. We haven't been through New Mexico and Arizona in a while."
So putting aside the scurrilous rumors and the ugly history, Frank Black seems slowly to be coming to a more confident place in his solo work, boosted by a pragmatic awareness of what it takes to get it out of his head, and into the world.
"Like what I said about the corporate labels being a bad place to be? A really cynical place? I'm not a political person, but I just assume that there is a lot of evil in the idea of corporate management. I read a lot of this guy named Kim Stanley Robinson, who writes a lot about the colonization of Mars and the idea of national sovereignty. His whole idea of the future is this prospect of not only the world, but the universe being eventually controlled by multinationals. And I see it in the music industry, but I sometimes wonder if that's the direction the whole world's heading towards. But, you know, obviously the idea of national sovereignty has changed in the last several years. There aren't as many dark corners to hide in anymore, and I think a lot of countries don't get away with the things they might have gotten away with, maybe 15, 20 years ago. The world is smaller.
"You get happy, sometimes, when you hear stories of companies going under. I was just reading about how Tower Records had to scale back in their operations, because they'd gotten too big for their britches, and I felt so satisfied because I thought, hey, they don't have ultimate control, they can't just take over everything. And I actually like Tower Records, kind of.
"But it's satisfying to know that corporate ownership's not a flawless machine. That it can't just run over everything."
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