By Bob McMahon
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As the past and present leader of the Pixies, the most influential band in your alt-rock lifetime (insert Nirvana and 157 other band names here), Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV (a.k.a. Black Francis, a.k.a. Frank Black) is the undisputed master of melodic post-punk primacy. As an interview subject he is rumored to be affable, yet reserved; amiable, yet remote. But his reputation as a bandmate (at least during the Pixies' first run) is a little pricklier. After all, Thompson is the man who, according to legend, sent a fax to management in 1993 that effectively called the whole Pixies thing off.
Knowing such, I tread lightly.
We talk about songwriting and the decision to bring his whole family along on a string of solo acoustic dates in August, because it's more than laborious to imagine this poster child for onstage catharsis leading a load-out of Big Wheels and booster seats. I offer possible (but unlikely) parallels: the Partridge Family, the Von Trapp Family Singers. Perhaps the Simpsons, who, upon entering the witness-protection program in an effort to escape arch-nemesis Sideshow Bob, actually adopt the Thompson moniker.
"Maybe the Osbournes," Thompson says with a laugh. "We're just going to give it a shot, you know, to see if we're a showbiz family. I don't know how to do anything else."
So far, so good. Life is a cordial sundae topped with a sweet (if reticent) cherry.
But when I ask Thompson whether he harbors hopes of actually writing songs while sharing a tour bus with his wife, four children, a nanny, a tour manager and a driver, he instead proceeds to expound on the possibility of a new Pixies record.
And I, for lack of a better term, am fucking astounded.
"There's some gentle talk among the Pixies," Thompson says, "and when I say 'gentle' I mean it's like even via other people and stuff it's kind of crazy but, you know, about getting together to jam.
"And when I say 'jam,' we're not like Phish or whatever. We don't jam in that sense. What you do is you almost meditate on the material. You play it over and over again. You practice, you know, and that's what we need to do as a band if we're ever going to record again."
That a four-member group must depend upon the "gentle talk" of go-betweens to schedule a rehearsal is odd. That the same quartet despite sharing a stage for well over a hundred shows in the last two years alone has not yet transitioned into a complete band is odder still. Until you remember that you're talking about the Pixies. Towering tales of personality conflicts, professional disagreements and general animosity from the group's final days resonate like a hangover. So for many, news of a Pixies reunion was on par with the loaves and the fishes, the water turning into wine.
Following his infamous fax, Charles Thompson reversed his Pixies nom de plume(Black Francis became Frank Black), embarked on a solo career and released an annual album, more or less, for the next dozen years. Much excellent work was overlooked because it wasn't the Pixies; some not-so-excellent work was passed over for the same reason.
And yet on the eve of the Pixies' most unlikely convergence with his profile as elevated as it had been in a decade Charles Thompson made the first of two sojourns to Nashville. Marathon recording stints there with Southern studio vets such as Steve Cropper, Spooner Oldham and David Hood produced over two hours of material: Black's initial Americana foray, 2005's Honeycomb, as well as this year's double-disc Fast Man Raider Man. The sessions, Thompson says, were "a longstanding whim."
"I had over the years become a very huge fan of [Bob Dylan's] Blonde on Blonde," he says. "I started talking about this with [producer] John Tiven like ten years ago when he was in New York. And he would very gently call me every six months or so and sometimes he would bring it up, and sometimes he wouldn't, but he occasionally would say, 'Hey Charles, so you ready to make Black on Blonde?'
"I guess you could say both records represent the sort of Black on Blonde scenario, where the artiste heads to Nashville and works with musicians that got a lot of mojo. I mean, I wasn't necessarily trying to sound like Blonde on Blonde or anything like that, it was just to kind of go through that experience. 'Hey, I want to go to Nashville. I want to play with those guys.'"
Fair enough. But both Honeycomb and Fast Man Raider Manhave once again been overshadowed by the specter of a band unsure of its next move. So what exactly do Frank Black fans want?
"They want Surfer Rosa or Doolittle," Thompson says. "Those are the records which I have gold discs for. Those are the most popular records and so just the sheer numbers of that audience, the audience that likes those records, it's like sort of dealing with, like, China or something.
"What do people want? Well, what people? Which people, you know? Even among my most ardent fans I can kind of suss that there's a variety of opinions there, but for me, people are the Chinese. They're this other vast audience, which bought a bunch of copies of Doolittle and a bunch of copies of Surfer Rosa, so they're like the army of people, and yeah, what they want is they want some more of that."
And so maybe, finally, once more, for the first time ever, Thompson is ready to give it to them. But will it be as a solo artist? Or as a member of a group?
"I remember performing recently [with the Pixies] in Zagreb, Croatia," Thompson says. "We were playing at a little outdoor sports arena and it was full. There were four-and-a-half-thousand people, so that's pretty good for a band that, you know, is in Croatia and hasn't put out a record for twelve years.
"And I was standing on the stage and I had this little inspired epiphany, enjoying myself there in the summer evening, in the big massive Pixies sing-along there with the Croatians. I said, 'You know, if I can't get the Pixies to record another record, screw it. Maybe I won't be able to come back to Croatia and deliver the Pixies, but maybe I can come up with something that will, you know, be an approximation of that.'"
In August Charles Thompson and family will take in the bounty of America's vistas among acoustic tour stops. But come September, somewhere within the nation's great expanse, the Pixies will get together to jam (but not like Phish).
Or they may not.
"If the Pixies are suspicious of me or if they think that they don't want to be in a band with me or if I don't have their vote of confidence then it's kind of over and I can't get there," Thompson says. "I can't get to that same space. I've never really felt the need to do it, but talking about Zagreb, Croatia, the other night, I mean, I'm thinking, 'Well, you know, maybe that's what people want, even if I can't do it with the original band.'"