In his Pixies days, Frank Black was known for letting his voice shift from a puckish, conversational rumble to a full-on scream. And while he doesn’t exactly scream in interviews, he does shift easily from amiable chatter to general peevishness, especially when he starts talking about people who question his reasons for recording his last two albums in Nashville, with the help of legendary musicians like Spooner Oldham and Steve Cropper.
“A lot of rock ’n’ roll people think, ‘Oh, here’s Frank, going country,’ which is just this gross oversimplification,” Black says. “It’s like the reviewers aren’t really following my career. And I’m not saying they should. But if they just follow the highlights, they’re like, ‘This sure doesn’t sound like the Pixies! I haven’t listened to him since 1989, but here he is, going to Nashville!’ Well, number one, it’s 2006. Give me a little bit of credit. If you don’t want to refer to my obscure solo career, fine, but don’t act like I’ve just been in a vacuum, sealed, waiting for 2005 to roll around so that I could go make a Nashville record.”
In fact, since the Pixies broke up in 1993, Black—born Charles Thompson, and sometimes known as Black Francis—has been slowly progressing toward the sort of rootsy shuffle-rock that fills up the two discs of his latest album, Fastman Raiderman. His early solo albums were stylistically wild, with a lot of the surf-punk and “flying saucer rock ’n’ roll” that marked the last couple of Pixies efforts. Then the music got darker and tighter, and Black became one of those edgy troubadours with a store of musical knowledge and a fascination with how the collapse of the American dream affects people on a personal level. Last year, he recorded Honeycomb in Nashville with producer Jon Tiven and a stellar guest list that included Oldham, Cropper, Dan Penn and Anton Fig. Fastman Raiderman features the same cast, plus Levon Helm, Bobby Bare Jr. and Duane Jarvis, among others.
According to Black, working with legends of American folk felt perfectly natural. “When I think of the records I listened to when I was a kid, I listened to folk music, Flatt & Scruggs, Ry Cooder, Dylan, Johnny Cash. I used to be a member of the Boston Folksong Society. And if you listen close to early Pixies songs, some of those have a certain kind of cow punk thing going on. And I’m from the United States, for crying out loud. So I feel a little offended when some reviewers kind of act like I’m being fakey, you know? That I’m just sort of puttin’ on a cowboy hat, you know? That’s not really fair.”
Already worked up, Black continues: “First of all, there’s no rules. I can play any kind of damn music I want. To good effect or bad effect, whatever. That’s my problem. But I feel like I have plenty of credentials in my lifetime, as a music listener and as a performer and a player, going right back to my youth, that gives me the right, so to speak, to play music that is now being called ‘Americana.’ I feel well within my rights. Unfortunately, if you have any kind of success in anything, you get pigeonholed by that success. So I’ve been pigeonholed by the sound of a couple of Pixies records, and unfortunately, some people are like, ‘Who in the hell does he think he is?’ ”
The rant goes on: “Who the hell does Steve Cropper think he is, playing with Frank Black? I guess he ought to have just stuck with Wilson Pickett. And God forbid that Spooner Oldham would hang out with me. He ought to just stay with Neil Young and Dan Penn and those other old guys. You know what I mean? That’s almost the attitude I pick up. But it’s just rock music, and they’re just guys, and I’m just a guy, and we’re just doin’ what we do. It just so happens that a certain set of circumstances has brought us together, and we’re doing the best we can. But … they seemed to like the music. I like the music. We like the result. We’re enjoying ourselves.
“Everyone’s very uptight about, ‘You guys are from different genres, different worlds. This is very artificial.’ And I just think that’s craziness. Even if we were from completely different worlds, like if they were indigenous musicians from the Amazon, and I was playing with them like, you know, Paul Simon or something, well, first of all, there’s nothing wrong with that. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing. But second of all, the first rock ’n’ roll song I ever sang in front of an audience was ‘In the Midnight Hour.’ By Steve Cropper! So, I don’t really feel it’s like, whoa, what a jump! It’s just rock music. It’s all rock music. Sure, [the Pixies’] ‘Hey’ doesn’t sound like ‘Mustang Sally,’ but it’s still two guitars, bass and a drum. And we’re doin’ it to the same kinds of crowds in the same rooms. Literally the same rooms. If you really look at the big picture, how much has changed?”
All that being said, Black acknowledges that coming to Nashville to record wasn’t just a matter of convenience, because his friend and producer Tiven had moved here. Actually, he was inspired by the romantic idea of following in the steps of Bob Dylan and his Nashville sessions for Blonde on Blonde. “My understanding was that here was this hotshot from the rock ’n’ roll and folk world who went down to Nashville in ’65 and ’66, and the guys who were playing with him didn’t necessarily know who he was, so they played cards while he scribbled couplets.”
As for the all-star lineup of session men, Black says, “It seemed pretty much a done deal that if I went to Nashville and hired the best that I could get, then the music side of things, the playing, would be really great. Like the Dylan record, I wasn’t going necessarily to get country players, because the goal wasn’t to make ‘my country album,’ but to make a rock ’n’ roll record with people who can play country.”
Still, a lot of the mystique of Frank Black is that he’s kind of a loner. Even the Pixies weren’t exactly collegial with their alt-rock contemporaries. But if Black’s recent interest in collaboration goes one step further to killing his myth, it doesn’t seem to bother him. He shrugs: “I don’t think it’s unusual for a musician to collaborate, especially one who goes under the moniker of his own name, as a solo dude.”
Black is also arguably demystifying himself by putting out so much product. The Pixies left behind four good-to-great LPs and an EP out of a seven-year run. Since he went solo, Black’s been much more prolific. The double-disc Fastman Raiderman comes a year after his last album, and just four years after he simultaneously released Black Letter Days and Devil’s Workshop (with two other albums and a couple of online-only rarities collections in between).
“My greatest critics would say that I can’t shut up,” he says, laughing. “I have no problem writing songs. I don’t know how many of them are great, or how many of them could be classified as ‘ditties’ or whatever. Certainly it would be wonderful if every song I wrote was an epic. But whatever. That isn’t how my creativity works. Some people wish I would edit down a bit, but again, that’s not how I work. I write a bunch of songs, and in general, the variety is enough that it feels legitimate to me to put out a lot of records. It’s not like I only do love ballads. It’s quirkier. A hodgepodge. I like to put out a record every year, and sometimes the record is very inward, and to serve myself, so to speak, and then other times I think I’m trying harder to project, and reach an audience. I don’t know necessarily which is which until I look back.”
He adds, “I can tell you my manager doesn’t want to hear another record right now from me.”
Black also likes to work fast in the studio. The Nashville sessions for Fastman Raiderman were conducted in a 24-hour marathon, with musicians filing in and out to lay down their parts. Given the talent amassed in that room and the unusual circumstances, it’s too bad no one brought a video camera in to document the event, though Black says the idea was floated and nixed because it would’ve added too much pressure.
He doesn’t regret the decision, but Black does regret that he didn’t spend more time hanging around Nashville. “When you’re making a record it’s kind of like: coffee, work, food, sleep. I did spend some time listening to the mixes while parked downtown, watching the drunks roll by. But I love Nashville. If I had my way I’d move there. Buy a house next to Jack White.”