By Christian Schaeffer
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When Charles Thompson, a student at the University of Massachusetts, formed the Pixies in 1986, he was inspired by artists such as Hüsker Dü and Iggy Pop -- castouts whose music was abrasive, violent and unpredictable. Thompson christened himself Black Francis, and, on the basis of a demo tape and a subsequent EP (1987's Come on Pilgrim), he and his bandmates were soon opening for Throwing Muses and recording with Big Black guitarist Steve Albini (who produced the group's full-length debut, Surfer Rosa).
The Pixies released five albums before playing their last show in Vancouver in 1991, and in doing so created a platform that groups such as Nirvana, Radiohead and PJ Harvey would all build upon. That these acts would go on to be more successful and define a lucrative genre called "alternative rock" is something that still agitates Thompson, who now goes by the pseudonym Frank Black; he's nostalgic for the days when rock's alternative club was an exclusive one.
"You know what I can't stand? When musicians say, 'You know, I'm just in a rock band to meet chicks,'" he says in a telephone conversation. "I fucking hate that. That's just the worst sentiment ever. I'm not against the sentiment 'I want to meet women.' But I hate the whole thing of being in a band so I can meet women. [You're in a band] because you're obsessed with this mysterious thing called rock. That's the right reason. It's inexplicable. It's mysterious. It's strange. It's wonderful. And you know what? It's a special club. You either get it or you don't get it, you know what I mean?"
Black started his solo career even before the Pixies officially disbanded. In 1990, when the group was technically on hiatus after its breakthrough album, Doolittle, and subsequent tour, he went on a solo tour. Meanwhile, bassist Kim Deal formed the Breeders with Throwing Muses guitarist Tanya Donelly and Josephine Wiggs. The Pixies reconvened to record two more albums, Bossanova and Trompe le Monde, before calling it quits in 1992. Shortly afterward, Black released his first solo album, Frank Black; he has recorded at a steady pace since then, appealing to an audience that is a small fraction of the Pixies' fanbase.
Dog in the Sand, Black's third album with his backing band the Catholics, is his best work since his 1993 debut. Yet, as good as Dog is, it's a stretch to compare it to the work of such musical giants as the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, as Black does.
"To be honest, Stones, Dylanesque -- yeah, I drop those names in my bio, and it wasn't completely untrue or anything, but the fact of the matter is, my new album is just like all my other albums," Black says. "It's a somewhat eclectic, somewhat diverse bunch of songs. Some are rockin', some are mellow. They're not mainstream pop music. Even my most poppy moments from every record I've ever made, whether it's with the Pixies or a Frank Black and the Catholics record, are so far from whatever is going on in the pop mainstream."
The album, recorded in just 10 days, is the third on which Black and his Catholics cohorts have used live two-track recording techniques, but this time they did it without a single edit. "It's our new style. It just feels tough, you know," Black explains, adding that because he was looking for a bigger sound, he recruited pianist Eric Drew Feldman (Pere Ubu, Captain Beefheart, PJ Harvey) and, notably, former Pixies lead guitarist Joey Santiago.
"People are going to talk about him a lot in interviews and reviews, and I'm glad he's getting a little bit of notice," Black says of Santiago, who was Black's college roommate and co-founder of the Pixies. "I mean, they didn't give a shit when he played on my first two solo records, because it wasn't interesting then. For whatever reason, it's interesting now. Now he plays on three songs, and, to his credit, because there were so many people playing in the room, on two of the songs what he did was very textural, very out of the way, very minimal, very reserved -- which was great, because that's exactly what you need when you've already got six people playing in the room. You just don't need a big elephant to step into the room."
With Santiago playing at his side, Black is more inclined to revisit the Pixies' material. He says he's planning to play a few Pixies tunes on this tour for the first time, assuming he's in the mood. Yet he's still cryptic about what exactly went wrong with the group.
"I've never been uncomfortable dealing with it or talking about the [Pixies] at all. I have a problem with the completely asinine questions I've been asked," Black says. "But I don't guarantee that I'm going to play those songs. I don't tour with posters saying, 'Featuring ex-Pixies Mr. Frank 'Monkey Gone to Heaven' Black.' I don't do that. I think [my songs] are a little deeper, a little more muscular. They're a little less shallow. I'm not saying that all my Pixies stuff I wrote was shallow or bad or anything like that. But in general, I think my songs today have a little more weight to them."