Music News

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.

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Eric Waggoner