It’s the kind of thing that gets a guy a nickname around town: The Birdman, say. Charles Thompson IV – aka Frank Black, aka Black Francis, the lead singer of Pixies – is standing before two life-sized statues of Michael Keaton in winged superhero garb, which are clogging up the hallway of his house in Amherst, Massachusetts. They’re from the London premiere of Alejandro G Inarritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman (2014) – Thompson’s ex-wife drunk-bought them one night, then couldn’t fit them in her new place when she moved out.
“It takes six months to get acclimatised,” he says. “For six months you get startled every time you walk into the room where they are. Everyone gets freaked out – mailman gets freaked out, like kids in the neighbourhood. They see it through the window and they’re always like, ‘What is that?’ Eventually they can’t not ask any more and they very gingerly ask, ‘What is in your house?’ And I say, ‘Oh, come in and take a look.’”
If they knew who Thompson really was, they’d run for their lives. As Black Francis, Pixies’ lycanthropic howler, crooner, growler and yelper, he’s the alt-rock legend who set the quiet/loud blueprint for grunge while summoning his own inimitable world, part Sophocles, part Lovecraft.
Over two distinct phases (their initial incarnation from 1986-93, producing seminal indie rock milestones including Surfer Rosa and Doolittle, and their ongoing reunion since 2003), Pixies have found magic deep in the murk. Their dark and delirious songs deal in Biblical violence, mythical monsters, incest, witchcraft, alien encounters, jail-bound bloodlust, sex-droids, creatures from the deep, plagues of snakes, heaven-bound monkeys. Yet cutting through it all, like razor blade across eyeball, is a flashing pop edge, lightening their music with frantic and frivolous moments about surfing senoritas, superheroes, sci-fi love affairs and, in the case of fan favourite “Where Is My Mind?”, surreal scuba diving excursions. It’s no exaggeration to call them one of the most intoxicating, exhilarating and influential bands of the past half century.
One of the hardest working, too. Pixies have barely been off the road for a decade or more, yet Thompson has been “totally fine” with bunkering down for the pandemic. Having been chased around the globe by Covid early in 2020 – Japanese dates were cancelled when the infected Diamond Princess cruise ship docked near the venue in Yokohama, the first New Zealand case was treated in the hospital next door to the band’s hotel and they fled Australia before flights shut down – he had more serious things to worry about.
“It was so dramatic to be thinking about, ‘Do I know how to grow anything? Can I cook? What would I have to do to feed a bunch of kids? Do I need to buy a bunch of canned food?’” he says, prowling around his house over Zoom, motor-mouthing like he’s just out of solitary. “The idea of like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna not be able to go play gigs, that’s a real style cramper.’ I was on another whole level of like, ‘Maybe this is it, maybe this is the end of life as we know it.’”
Did any of the Covid conspiracy theories take his fancy? “If we could go back in time a little bit you could argue that conspiracy theories can be kind of enjoyable, right? Fun things to think about. Right? The Bermuda Triangle or whatever… But let’s duly note that they can be very bad things.
“When you get people that don’t understand how things work and then you get other people going in and manipulating the s*** out of it, then you get f***ing mobs running down the street trying to kill someone because they think that he’s a witch or something and ‘he’s kidnapping our babies and he’s eating their entrails’ … That’s how you end up with a f***ing genocide or something, because people just believe crazy s*** that other people told them.”
Consequently, Thompson has no time for rock stars casting doubt on vaccine safety or refusing to play shows with Covid restrictions. “People aren’t tuned into their primal self,” he argues. “Going, ‘OK, so there’s this thing going on, what’s your best move? Is your best move to take the secret magic medicine, is your best move to put on a mask, is your best move to avoid certain situations? There’s all these survival things that you would think would kick in with a lot of people. But it’s amazing that they don’t … On the basic level, like, there’s a fire over there – that’s what it feels like, you guys want to keep talking about all this f***ing abstraction but there’s a f***ing fire right there so all the discussion seems really moot … A lot of people just shouldn’t be talking. They just need to breathe, count to 10, take a look at the landscape and figure out what is their best f***in’ move.”
Back in 1993, Thompson took a look at the landscape and figured out his best f***in’ move, amid intense internal friction, was to split the Pixies. “I was wanting to free myself of the stress of being in a band context,” he says. “The cliché, every band gets five years and it all kind of blows up, and basically that was our schedule. There was just a lot of unhappy people and I can’t say that I didn’t contribute to that atmosphere, I think everyone did. Even the last couple of Pixies records, the producer [Gil Norton] had to deal with a young, stoned, obstinate person that wanted to scratch a whole lot of itches about the stuff he was learning about the recording process. I don’t know if the band loved that necessarily, that suddenly I was burning the candle at both ends, wanting to write songs in the moment, spontaneously, doing things that were maybe even ill prepared.
“When you get into a band situation, and especially a band with a producer situation, there is a lot more agenda. There’s a bunch of cooks in the kitchen now, going, ‘Well, is it soup yet?’ You’ve got 10 people asking if it’s soup yet.”
Keen to season his own soup, Thompson renamed himself Frank Black and launched himself into an oft-overlooked solo journey stretching two decades and 17 albums, every bit as wild and imaginative as his Pixies work. This week, he releases the nine-CD 07-11 box set, collecting his five most recent solo albums alongside rarities and two live albums. Recorded in styles both traditional and experimental, sometimes in haunted studios or on “evil” guitars, these largely concept records were themed on topics such as infamous Dutch art hero Herman Brood (2007’s Bluefinger), demigods (2008’s Svn Fngrs), ancient clay beasts (2010’s silent movie soundtrack The Golem) and the psychology of sex (NonStopErotik, 2010).
“There’s about five or six records that I was able to go OK, if I write a rock opera, if I dedicate the libretto to some sort of feeling or subject then I could write a lot faster,” he says, “because all the dots are connected.” Early in his solo career, however, the sci-fi obsession that dominated his writing from Pixies’ Bossanova in 1990 through to 1996’s The Cult of Ray (named after Ray Bradbury and including the single “Men in Black”) didn’t have quite the same wheel-oiling effect. He recalls scrambling to write much of his 1993 solo debut Frank Black in a couple of caffeine-fuelled all-nighters, having “already run the meter up to about a hundred grand or something like that”, because his 4AD label boss Ivo Watts-Russell was flying into LA to check on his progress.
“Thank God we weren’t a bigger success before that,” he grins. “If the Pixies had been a big smashing success – which we were not but people kind of thought we were – and I could really rest on those laurels, I would have gone down a total rabbit hole, like five years in some studio somewhere, maybe developed a drug problem. I definitely would have disappeared.”
His Nineties sci-fi fixation can be traced back to a UFO sighting in his backyard as a child. “A big silver rocket, silent, slow, no marking, low to the ground not very high up,” he’s said. “It was moving very slowly over the house.” “Like a lot of people, I have my own catalogue of experiences that I had that you could categorise as supernatural or otherworldly or maybe involving UFOs,” he says today. “I’ve actually had a few of them, mostly when I was younger, a couple of them are fairly dramatic. That gave me a little bit of licence. The culture of all of that in the 1980s and the Nineties, was still all pre-internet. You had to go to really strange AM radio programmes that were on very late at night out of Las Vegas. I used to go to so-called UFO conventions, these free-form gatherings of very oddball people that were very caught up in whatever it was that they were caught up in, with outfits and songs and guitars sometimes – some of them were snake oil people that were selling s*** but a lot of them believed in whatever they were believing in, and there are definitely people that were really off, maybe mentally imbalanced even – all gathered together in a convention centre in an airport. I really enjoyed dabbling in that culture a little bit.
“I did try to elevate it to something that wasn’t just kitsch, something that maybe meant something,” he continues. “I probably presumed it would remain a much more abstracted kind of place. I was using that subject matter to achieve a kind of abstraction of words, of imagery. It was just a colour palette that I enjoyed. I veer away from that now because now it’s not just some obscure kind of thing. Now we’re talking about f***ing Donald Trump and crazy s*** that people believe that isn’t true.”
In 1998, Frank Black fell to earth. Thompson recruited a backing band, The Catholics, from his regular pool of musicians and, over five years, set about recording quickfire albums of alt-country, blues, grunge and Stones-flecked rock’n’roll, often thrown down live in a couple of days to two-track in honour of the jazz greats. “With all of the Frank Black records that I made, I relaxed a little bit and said, ‘You know what, I’m not going to worry about if something is too pop or too country, or too traditional,’” he says. “You hear a really great Roy Orbison song and you go, how the hell are they getting away with ‘groovy-groovy-doobie-I-love-you’, and that is the most amazing f***ing song I’ve ever heard in my life…? How can I do this? Because I do want to say, ‘I love you, I feel so blue.’ I want to be that good, I want to be that great.”
Over time, The Catholics turned into something of an unconscious confessional. When his first wife heard 2003’s troubled Show Me Your Tears, with its songs of emptiness, desolation and “imminent divorce”, she suggested they needed to talk. “I had no idea,” he says. “I was like, ‘Huh? I’m just trying to write songs, man, I’m just trying to be universal, you’re misreading everything.’ But now I listen to that record, I’m like, ‘Holy f***ing s***, the whole thing’s a f***ing goddamn letter, practically.’ At the time I didn’t know it because I was too caught up in it, I was too stoned, whatever. I was just like, ‘Wooo! Making music!’ You don’t really think about maybe that you are commenting on your own paradigm… I use this word very lightly, but you end up being prophetic about your own life.”
Divorce, therapy and the demise of The Catholics ensued: “[They] were totally burned out on me and burned out on my methodology,” following, he’s previously asserted, “10 years of hard touring and loading our own gear and not making a lotta money out of it”. It’s a period Thompson looks back on with the serenity of a hardened survivor. “It was hard, but at least I feel like I earned it,” he says. “If I go back to almost 20 years ago and sing those songs, now I can wear the hat. Maybe I didn’t quite earn it when I wrote the song, but now I f***ing earned it and I can sing that song with authority.”
Consequence be damned, he still extols such filter-free creativity. “The best way to be validated and accepted,” he argues, “is just shut the f*** up, no filters, just f***ing take all your clothes off and stand there naked in front of everybody and everyone goes, ‘Yeah! Yeah! Yes! He’s just like me, I totally get it.’ And that’s what you want. That’s pure art.”
Against this backdrop, the 2004 Pixies reunion – and with it the resurrection of Black Francis – might smack of mid-career crisis. But as the band wrangled over whether to record new material (bassist Kim Deal refused and left the band ahead of the recording of 2014’s comeback album Indie Cindy), Thompson’s solo career seemed rejuvenated by the prospect, sparking with fresh ideas. Following a Nashville period that produced two albums (2005’s Honeycomb and 2006’s double Fast Man Raider Man) he found himself caught up in a series of obsessions, each explored on its own 07-11 album.
For Bluefinger, he was drawn to the story of Herman Brood by the nature of the hedonistic musician and artist’s suicide: in 2001, Holland’s much-loved “national cuddle junkie, part Frank Sinatra, part Keith Richards” threw himself from the roof of the Amsterdam Hilton. “Now it’s not known as the place where John and Yoko did their bed-in,” says Thompson. “He reclaimed it for the Dutch.” While researching Brood’s life, Thompson felt “almost as if I was being haunted by him, literally”; warring Brood associates would contact him randomly and a visit to the artist’s Amsterdam atelier threw up several curious coincidences.
“This guy called Coach runs his estate,” he explains. “Coach took me around the atelier, ‘Smell the speed, Charles, smell the speed!’ He’s still got all the f***in’ drugs laid out from the day he died, ‘This is where he f***ed the whores and this is where he was doing his heroin’… Then of course the piles of records everywhere, all the music he was into, including my records. And the same f***in’ cologne too, that drove me a little f***in’ wild. I wore cologne at that time, a very specific cologne. When I went into his private bathroom where he did all of his shooting up, I could see right there with all the syringes and everything, ‘Holy s***, same cologne?’ It was very magical, and creepy at the same time.”
Come the Svn Fngrs mini-album in 2008, Thompson’s obsession had shifted to the concept of demigods, from classical legends such as Theseus and Ireland’s seven-fingered Cu Chulainn to modern day incarnations: sex robots and the atom bomb. “That’s still our ultimate expression,” Thompson says, speaking warily of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “The complete annihilation of an entire city in one moment. That’s the most dramatic thing we’ve been able to accomplish. It’s also the worst thing, it’s awful and frightening, [but] it’s the closest thing we have to actually being a demigod, harnessing that s*** and destroying a bunch of people.”
Sometimes his fixations found physical manifestation. When talk turns to 2010’s marvellous NonStopErotik, his sexual psychology record, Thompson wanders into his sitting room, finds a beautiful, beaten-up black guitar and props it up on his porch for us to admire. A guitar with strange mojo. It was left for him as a gift at a San Francisco gig, so he thought, by an “annoying as hell” cocaine addict from LA. Not wanting to become embroiled with the guy, Thompson “forgot” to take it home, but it chased him down like Covid, passed between friends until it turned up at his house. So, to “honour his gesture” and “make things right in the universe”, Thompson patched up the instrument, cleaned it with his favourite wine, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, bought some cowboy shirts and had his friend Todd drive him around the back hills of California in a Cadillac while he sat in the back seat drinking wine, singing Gram Parsons’s “Wheels” and writing the songs for NonStopErotik.
“I’m in the backseat with my death guitar and Todd’s up in the front, man, I hope we don’t get in a head-on collision and die just like f***ing Hank Williams or somebody. It was all very romantic, between the black guitar and the old Cadillac and the brown California hills and all of these ghost of Gram Parsons… I was going to do everything I can to really touch this place that I’m trying to touch.” In the end, it turned out the guitar was a gift from some other fan, but “through a misunderstanding we were able to get to a little bit of a spiritual place for five minutes.”
As Thompson says in the box set sleeve-notes, it’s all part of the artist’s “hope for the mystic”, the real reason (rather than some imagined hardcore Christian upbringing) that he’s so fascinated by myths, Biblical tales and “the old stories that we’ve kind of forgotten” that “connect us back to whatever our so-called ‘humble’ beginnings are”. And also why he’s occasionally found himself trying to summon the spirit of Del Shannon.
“There is a song by Del Shannon that I have been obsessed with for many years called ‘Sister Isabel’,” he explains. “After failing to do it properly many times, I’ve ended up playing it all by myself on an organ with candles and incense, stoned or drunk or whatever at five o’clock in the morning, trying to convince myself that the studio is haunted with the ghost of Del Shannon, s*** falling off the wall and scaring the s*** out of myself. That’s just a part of a process, I think, of obsession. Art is about an obsession. I want to get obsessed with stuff. That’s where I start to feel normal.”
Because heaven knows the world doesn’t. Thompson’s only release during the pandemic was a guest spot on The Residents’ single “Die! Die! Die!”, bawling “I want you to die like a rat” in what’s been taken as a comment on Trump’s presidency. “At the end of the day I just think of him as a sleazy f***ing slumlord guy from New York,” Thompson says. “You go back and forth between talking about the evil that is Donald Trump to ‘Well, actually, the evil that we’re talking about doesn’t really have anything to do with him: he’s just an allowed mascot’. It’s this other thing, it’s other groups of people, it’s other agendas that’s bigger than all of this, and he’s just a moment.”
Has Pandora’s Box been opened on America’s alt-right uprising? “It just sort of feels like it’s here… The box gets opened and then suddenly you’re dealing with a lot of people in pickup trucks with their f***ing flags or whatever… Whether you’re talking about guerrilla terrorism in the Middle East or whatever, it’s f***ing dudes in pickup trucks. It’s a naive statement but you want to have world peace, you take all the guns and you basically take them out of the hands of the men and you hand them over to the women, and all the s***’s gonna go away. I know that there’s some very bad people of all genders, but I subscribe to the belief that men are f***ing everything up here. Men plus guns, not good.”
After restlessly roaming his house for over two hours, Thompson – Amherst’s very own Birdman – settles on his porch and greets a new dawn. In a few months Pixies reconvene for new recordings, followed by festival shows next summer. (Are relations with Deal still good? “I suppose so; none of us have spoken to her since the last time that we saw her.”) His negativity over his second divorce a few years ago has dissipated over lockdown: “You end up putting aside a lot of things that are truly superfluous,” he argues. “It’s been good for that. All my friends said, ‘It’s gonna take you a year or two but then you’re gonna wake up one day and a big weight is gonna be off your shoulders’ and that’s exactly what happened. I just woke up one day and went, ‘I feel a lot better today.’”
Wisdom, time and experience, it seems, has led Thompson at least part-way out of the black. “You don’t need to hang on to that hatred, that anger or that nonsense,” he muses. “You start to let go of s*** and find yourself again.” You know what, maybe he’ll keep one of those damn statues after all.
‘07-11’, a new collection of recordings by Black Francis, is out on 5 November, pre-order here
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies