BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
For a moment, I thought it was a joke.
"Hi, Thomas, it's Frank Black," said the voice on the
phone that morning. "I'm at my manager's house, and I'm
making some calls this morning, and I saw you on the list
for interview requests, and I just thought I'd call and see
if you wanted to set something up."
An artist doing his own schlepping? Sounded fishy, to
me. Sounded like my friend Robert, too, who also happens to
be a fairly rabid Frank Black fan. I nearly laughed aloud.
As the conversation trickled on, though — this
actually was Frank Black, former lead singer of the Pixies
and now slightly less manic solo artist. We arranged our
interview for the following week, and I voiced my surprise
at his grassroots service.
"Well, I'm just a regular guy," he said.
"As a fan of your crazy music for the last 10 years, I
somehow doubt that, but we'll talk more later," I said.
On the appointed day, I called him at 8 a.m. Not exactly
a rock star hour. Maybe he's a regular guy, after all.
"My mornings are pretty regular guy-ish," Black said. "I
get up, give various animals a treat. If I'm in a coffee
streak, I'll make coffee. If we have nice foodstuffs in the
house, I might prepare myself a gourmet breakfast or skip
it altogether. Then I make phone calls."
The Pixies re-established the chaos at rock's core,
laying the foundations for '90s modern rock with their
serrated guitars, sloppy playing and Black's alternating
mischievous irony and brain-curdling shouts. Listening to
them rage through such visceral, subversive rants like
"Gouge Away," "Debaser" and "Bone Machine," sunny mornings with
breakfast and puppies are not exactly how I had envisioned
Black greeting each new day.
The years have mellowed Black, though — not to mention
the distance from the Pixies' former glory. The group
disbanded in 1993, and Black took off on a solo career
portraying himself as an average suburban nobody with
unexplained obsessions. The sales have shrunk ever since,
and so have Black's notions of how to conduct business.
"I was calling you because it's just easier for me to get
things done when I have the chance," Black said. "The band
has decided to do this next leg of the tour without a crew,
without even a tour manager. It's my job to advance the
shows. We've been in constant downscaling mode for the last
couple of years ... We're enjoying becoming more
self-sufficient. The more we do it, the less we need. I
don't freak out if we show up to a gig and the monitors
sound horrible. We booked the gig, and people are there.
The only thing that really bugs me is a messy, dirty
backstage men's room."
Black's latest record illustrates the new stripped-down
approach, as well. "Frank Black and the Catholics," Blacks'
fourth solo release and the first to bill his new backing
band, was recorded directly to two-track digital tape. No
multitracking. No overdubbing. No studio trickery or
polishing. In fact, the album they released was intended to
be a mere series of demonstration recordings.
"We were really just making an expensive demo," Black
said. "We had booked four days in a studio that was a
thousand dollars a day. Time itself said to forget the
multitracking and play live, which we'd never done ... I've
been in a pattern of writing in the studio, of building a
backing track and worrying about the lyrical content later.
We couldn't do that here. After the second day in the
studio, we realized it sounded good, familiar, like we knew
we sounded in a club."
The Catholics include bassist David MacCaffrey and
drummer Scott Boutier, formerly the rhythm section for
Conneticut's Miracle Legion. The eponymous new album
features former Bourgeois-Tagg guitarist Lyle Workman; on
tour, though, Rich Gilbert, from Human Sexual Response
among others, handles the guitars.
Black's first couple of solo records were largely
collaborations with Eric Drew Feldman, a one-time veteran
of both Pere Ubu and Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. Though
Feldman still contributes on occasion, he backed away from
the projects as a tighter band began to gel around Black.
Black said Feldman still may join the Catholics as a
keyboard player, but he's busy producing PJ Harvey at the
The return to the band construct has streamlined his
sound, Black said, and he's glad to be a member of a posse
"It's hard to miss the Pixies when we've got another band
dynamic going," Black said. "It feels more band-like now. The
choice of bandmates is more mature, too. You sort of fall
into a situation with a bunch of people when you're
younger. That had no experience behind it. This has 10 to
12 years of experience behind it. Now it's more possible to
be the Rolling Stones when before we were more like the
Monkees. There's something to be said for experience. It
creates a groove of its own, which I think is heavier."
Heavy grooves are certainly what Black enjoys. The new
album is fairly typical and full of them, though the live
recording keeps things moving briskly. The groove is the
easy part, Black said. It's the lyric writing he dreads,
which may explain a good deal of his, um, bent verses ("My
Fu Manchu / Is a hard-earned way / Occidentally tic-tac").
"The easy part is strumming the guitar and getting that
first lump of clay that looks like a song. You shape it,
figure out the chord progression, and the melody comes out
of that. The next part is pushing myself to write the
lyric. I have to push," Black said. "It's like an algebra
assignment. I'm not looking forward to it, and I put it
off. Once I get into it, I enjoy it, but there's a mental
block to that point. It's the scholarly side of
songwriting. It's about having words rhyme together and
having the song make sense, even if it's just to yourself.
It's puzzle solving.
"At this point, I'm not worried about what the song's
about yet. You can write a song about anything. It's about
putting words together. I get out dictionaries and
reference books, geographical dictionaries, rhyming
dictionaries. There's language in these books, and that's
what it's all about. I'll get to three notes in the melody,
and I'll think, 'Here, I want to go wah-wo-wah.' What word
sounds like that? I'll stumble on a word for it. It might
be obscure, but it will set off a flurry of activity. Then
it's, `Oh, this will be a song about that.' "
One thing Black does not write about much, though, is
himself. No confessional singer-songwriter stuff here.
"I don't get too caught up in that whole diary rock
thing, when you have to write something from the heart.
That's icky," he said. "You will write from the heart,
whatever you write. There's a lot of fake stuff from the
heart. People get caught up in striking a certain kind of
pose, and it makes for some lame songs."
Frank Black and the Catholics
When 8 p.m. Saturday
Where Cain's Ballroom, 423 N. Main St.
available at The Ticket Office at Expo Square, Mohawk
Music, Starship Records and Tapes and the Mark-It Shirt
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.