Big toe kicks bad habit

The Pixies are gone forever. But screaming Frank Black's back, followed closely by the end of the world. By Ryan Gilbey
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The Independent Online
Padding across the landing with an armful of clean shirts and a head full of Burt Bacharach, the suburban mother passes her teenager's door, bolted shut on the inside as usual, and hears something which makes the blood stand still in her veins. It is a bestial roar so wracked with anguish that it could be the howl of condemned souls roasting in Hell. Only it isn't. It's the sound of a man who shares a record label with Celine Dion. That man is Frank Black. And his voice is a breath - all right, a force-10 gale - of fresh air for anyone who ever got steamed up by the sound of the Pixies, the meanest American band of the Eighties. But your mother doesn't like him.

The Frank Black scream has been with us now for nearly a decade, though you wouldn't have thought it could have lasted that long. (Try hollering the way he does on the first Pixies album and you'll be on throat lozenges for life.) His voice is part Johnny Rotten whinge, part Concorde in a wind tunnel. But it might have all turned out differently were it not for three people: his English teacher, his next-door neighbour and Iggy Pop.

As he approached his teens, Frank (who was then plain old Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, prior to his Pixies pseudonym Black Francis) was an obsessive lad. He was such a promising writer, knocking off short stories while other kids were picking scabs from their knees, that his teacher excused him from the curriculum so he had more time to let his wild imagination roam on foolscap.

"I wrote science-fiction and abstract poetry," he recalls. "It's very liberating to realise that you can use any damn word you want and it's poetry. It formed me. There's some good artists out there, and they're not necessarily tortured and suicidal. That's not a prerequisite for art. In fact, it's a little limiting for those of us who don't want to self- destruct."

His love for writers like Ray Bradbury, after whom his new album The Cult of Ray is named, was matched only by his lust for rock'n'roll. Every spare cent went to the local second-hand record shop, in exchange for Lennon, John Mayall, the Kinks. At 12, he got a guitar and wrote an epic ballad about The Beatles. Perhaps most importantly, he started hanging out with his next-door neighbour.

"He was from Thailand," Frank remembers, picking through a lunch of crisps and mineral water. "He played in these Thai covers' bands in LA and he invited me over one day. We sang 'Oh Darling' and he taught me how to shout."

His eyes widen at the memory. "He was like, 'Come on, sing it like you hate that bitch, come on!' And I'm going, 'Wooaarrgghh darling', screaming at this guy. It was like he was teaching me martial arts."

Then Iggy appeared.

"The first time I heard him, I thought, 'This is shouting that I like.' It excited me. That's why Pixies records had this whiny, nasal dude trying to shout. It wasn't that I necessarily had the ability to shout; I just didn't know what else to do. And people applauded and said 'Bravo! Do more of that shouting!' So I would scream just as loud as I could."

When the Boston four-piece emerged in 1987, their vicious, Latino-flavoured punk was like being jump-started awake. The wiry guitars and Frank's libidinous lyrics gave the music a pungent taste; slapping a Pixies record on the turntable always felt like an act of vandalism. And that was before they had released their pair of masterpieces - Surfer Rosa (1988) and Doolittle (1989), albums which bashed the American independent scene into shape. Another two albums later, the band split. Frank sought solace in a low- key solo career.

Now, as the likes of Green Day and Pearl Jam continue their resistible rise, American music is once more in need of a bloody good seeing-to. So thank heavens Frank Black is back, with his peach-fuzz crop and his face like an enormous big toe. What's more, he has finally laid the Pixies to rest.

"When I released my first solo album [1993's Frank Black], all people wanted to talk about was this legendary band," he complains, spitting out the word "legendary" as though it were gristle. "I was trying to escape that. The Pixies were my first band. You talk to most people and they've gone through five or six bands before they've made it. I just didn't want to be trapped in the Pixies forever."

"And you know," he muses, "I'm not so sure the Pixies were as tough-sounding as everyone said. I heard 'Here Comes Your Man' on the radio and, man, it sounded so sweet my teeth hurt."

But it wasn't saccharine pop that tore the band apart in 1991. "I wasn't happy being with those people. It wasn't healthy. I should have split the band sooner than I did but I compromised. People convinced me that we should stay together, and I ended up wrecking my personal life. So to salvage what I had left, I had to start over from scratch."

Frank is currently starting over again. He has left 4AD, his home since the birth of the Pixies, and moved to the mighty Epic. His first release for the label, The Cult of Ray, is a back-to-basics rock album which goes for the jugular. There are ugly, prickly songs like "Kicked in the Taco" and "The Marsist". There is the clamourous "Men in Black" and the Who- esque title track, inspired by Ray Bradbury.

Best of all, there are the two most poignant things that he has written since the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?". The first is a fumbling love song called "I Don't Want to Hurt You (Every Single Time)". It has a time signature which suggests that the band are trying to run with their shoelaces tied together, and boasts the gorgeous line, "I wish you were what's-her-name/ And I could be King Kong".

The album closes with "The Last Stand of Shazeb Andleeb", a lament which matches Bob Dylan's "Hurricane" for quiet, solemn rage. "Shazeb was a Pakistani kid murdered in LA a year ago, at the same school I went to," Frank explains. "These guys stomped on his throat, killed him. He was a bright kid who had come to America looking for something better. Man oh man, there's some evil flying around. Everything just seems to be moving toward a negative end, into some kind of apocalypse."

So where does music fit into the end of the world?

"I like to think I'm getting somebody through the day," he smiles, "the way pop records get me through the day. I put Buzzcocks on, and somehow, it's all a little better. It's an obsessive hobby. It doesn't matter if I'm perceived as valid or not. It doesn't make any difference. I'm not gonna politely give this up. It's not like, 'Oh, I've done my bit; I'm gonna pass the flame.' Hell, no! I'm burning. I am the flame."

With that, we are interrupted. It's time for the flame to toddle off and do his bit for MTV. Carry on screaming.

n 'The Cult of Ray' is released on Monday. A nation-wide tour begins on 27 January