“I always like the idea of borders changing,” Frank Black says, though now he’s talking about Los Angeles city divisions, not the time when his songs were the little-known masterpieces pillaged by bands from Aberdeen and Seattle that initiated a musical revolution and dislodged Michael Jackson from the top of the charts.
Black’s legacy as the Pixies’ dynamic front man and alt-rock pioneer often hampers public reaction to his now lengthy and established solo career, continuing last month with the simultaneous release of two new records, Black Letter Days and Devil’s Workshop. “After someone has had a success story,” Black explains, “and then they go on and do other artistic endeavors and because they don’t fit in with that ‘Magic of the Moment’ kind of thing anymore, people tend to be very jaded about it and kind of write it off. I think a lot of them, I don’t know if they really listen to it.”
But Black’s not complaining about going from underground superstardom to relative anonymity, “It’s just as nice to be obscure,” claims Black. In fact, he hardly seems aware of his own legacy, “basically, you know, I write songs, I make records, it’s no big deal.” But a big deal has been made about the way the most recent of those records are being made. Instead of the multiple-take, multiple-track approach usually taken in modern audio recoding, the last five Frank Black albums have employed a live-in-the-studio recording method.
It’s not that Black feels like he can just pump out records without regard for their quality, as some reviewers have so accused him, but he is perhaps a little less concerned than most with polishing every note. “It’s like, Black and Blue, people talk about what a shitty Stones’ record that is and I understand their criticism, especially aimed at a couple particular songs, but the fact of the matter is that there are a couple songs on that record that are excellent. That’s like – that’s how I view rock, that’s how I view other bands,” says Black.
Always willing to give other artists leeway in their pursuits, Black expects at least a little of that understanding in return. He says he will never make another “normal” studio album again – Frank Black records will be all live-to-two-track for the rest of his career. Black shrugs off the shocked fans and reviewers, “It’s all a little too serious sometimes … I feel like I’m just making music and people are kind of coming off like, ‘How dare he make that kind of statement right now!’ Like we’re talking about foreign policy … it’s just like, ‘hey man, we’re just making records.'”
On the first of those records, 1993’s solo debut Frank Black, the maestro proclaims, “I’m just trying to be a guy / Who’s hailing from Ann Arbor.” The line references Black’s musical hero: James Osterberg, or as he’s more famously known – Iggy Pop. Though this may have summed up Black’s creative ambition in those days, lately an old time radio revival-style show appeals to him. “I want to do something a little different … I want it to be the power of the broadcast,” Black says. But don’t expect a weekly solo acoustic set, “My wife is a comedienne and she hangs out with a lot of comedy actors and writer-types, so I’m trying to rope some of those guys into it.” Black hopes that the group will improvise the show, with the stipulation that he, “be the butt of a lot of the jokes.”
Such a desire might seem odd, even contradictory, coming from a man who claims to “just want to make music, make records” and who half of the time doesn’t bother to have his T-shirts for sale at his shows, but Frank Black knows dichotomy. While he disdains most fans’ ever present Pixies reunion dreams, Black authorizes and contributes liner notes to an expanding discography of Pixies greatest hits and rarities releases. He feels an “obligation as the publisher of (the Pixies’) catalog to see to it that the catalog is properly managed.” And as Black marches further into Rock and Roll senior statesmanship, his audience remains nicely mixed, young even. “That’s a good thing,” remarks Black, who seems genuinely interested in not just making a buck on what some might see as an act that could easily mimic the feel of a Paul McCartney concert – most people aren’t there to hear the new stuff. Black often includes a Pixies’ song or two in his current live sets, with “Where Is My Mind?” (the Pixies song featured in “Fight Club”) topping the list. “We play it a lot. It’s sort of one of the ‘golden oldies’ that people seem to be especially grateful for, you know, people get a little teary-eyed … I may have even seen a few cigarette lighters and cell phones going up in the air. It’s very beautiful,” quips Black.
With this tempered perspective on his past successes, a genuine enthusiasm for his current musical incarnation and plans for the radio show and many more albums, Frank Black keeps thinking about his borders and which ones to expand next. Not bad for a guy just trying to be from Ann Arbor.