“I don’t know that we really changed anything”

Charles Thompson, the legendary -- and legendarily cranky -- frontman of the Pixies, talks about their sold-out return, their future, and why music journalism is so incredibly lame.

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"I don't know that we really changed anything"

I said, “I wanna be a singer like Lou Reed”
“I like Lou Reed,” she said, sticking her tongue in my ear
“Let’s go, let’s sit, let’s talk
Politics go so good with beer
And while we’re at it, baby, why don’t you tell me one of your biggest fears”
I said, “Losing my penis to a whore with disease.”
— Pixies, “I’ve Been Tired”

Tired, indeed. Charles Thompson has been a busy man, ever since he picked up a guitar and dreamed up the fantastically twisted tales that lace the Pixies catalog like so much lyrical cyanide. Not only did Thompson, whom fans know as Pixies frontman Black Francis, churn out five commanding albums with his high-impact modern rock quartet — including two efforts, 1988′s “Surfer Rosa” and 1989′s “Doolittle,” that are regarded by many as two of the finest rock albums ever — but he’s averaged around an album a year during his solo career as Frank Black, including his latest from SpinArt called “Frank Black Francis.”

That Thompson’s newest solo album riffs on his dual identities may not come as a surprise to the Pixies faithful, but you can be sure that the reinvented versions of old Pixies standards like “Caribou” and “Subbacultcha” at the hands of producers Two Pale Boys (also known as Andy Diagram and Keith Moline) will. But Thompson is a rock ‘n’ roll animal who can quickly become bored with whatever he’s doing and is apt to follow his artistic muse wherever it takes him. How else to explain why the man U2′s Bono called one of America’s most gifted songwriters of all time (in “Gouge,” a U.K. documentary about the band) would, without any real warning, break up what Bono (and many others) also called one of America’s most significant bands of all time? How else to explain how, after years of refusing to answer questions about the Pixies and trying to downplay their significance, he summarily reformed the band 12 years after they’d called it quits and set about touring the world like nothing ever happened?



Don’t look to Thompson for answers. He seems to be professionally comfortable when he’s doing one thing only: making music, in the studio or on the stage. And even that seems a recent development; dedicated Pixies fans who remember that he looked none too happy playing concerts with the band sometime after the “Doolittle” tour will notice how Thompson seems to be truly enjoying himself this time around. Back in 1992, if bassist Kim Deal messed up “Debaser” and caused the band to stop the show in midsong, as she did recently at a packed gig in Berkeley, Calif., Pixies die-hards would have cringed and waited for Thompson to chuck an instrument at her. He’s done it before. But in the Pixies’ new afterlife, Thompson merely stops and good-naturedly heckles her before starting up the whole song again. With the new kinder, gentler Pixies, it’s all good.

But one thing that hasn’t changed about Thompson is his interview style. He can be variously tangential, disengaged, ecstatic and bored. Thompson did eventually answer a few questions about what the band’s future might hold, but not before firmly placing Spin magazine, tabloid gossip, pugnacious journos, the “soulless” mainstream scene, VH1′s utter banality and much more in his cross hairs and pulling the trigger. In other words, if you’ve come for answers to big questions about the band, you’ve come to the wrong place.

How do you feel about having to sit down and do this after years of not having to talk about the Pixies?

The tour is doing very well. There are a few markets where the tickets weren’t completely sold out, so from a business point of view you could say we could do something to urge things to go all the way. Also, I suppose there are other things to do to maintain our profile somewhere, on the business side of things. So our publicist can talk us up to people like, I don’t know who, David Letterman’s booker or whoever … You know, she says, “Do these three things, and I’ll be really happy.” But with the Pixies, we’re so like, there is nothing to say — not really, not from our point of view. What is there really to say, you know? Some trite VH1 baloney … You know, there’s been a proliferation of this sort of thing, heartfelt moments presented on TV. There’s so much of that, so that when you, in a friendly way, mock it with the interviewer, they’re really surprised. It’s kind of like they don’t get it.

Most of your interviews in the ’80s and ’90s didn’t have anything to do with the albums. You seem pretty particular about what you talk about, and won’t.

Maybe, but I don’t know, it’s also the person you’re sitting down with. Sometimes I talk to journalists that ask the 10 most basic questions there are to ask, and I have a totally great interview with them. It’s just sometimes you can tell … I don’t know … you can tell if they’re smart or what their level of interest is. Even though you don’t know them, you have some sense of who they are, what their drive or commitment to their craft is … And other people? You can tell they don’t …

Know you?

No, it’s not about me, whether they get me or something like that. It’s “Why are you really here? What’s your bag, man?” Because with some people you’re just like … [heavy sigh] … You end up being snotty with them, because it drives you nuts. It’s already driving you nuts, even before they open their mouth. Because you’re just waiting for it, until you get to “Yes! I knew they were like that!” And I feel bad for them afterwards, because they’re trying to be nice — and you’re trying to be nice, but you just can’t help it. You want to say, “That’s a really stupid question.” I mean, I don’t say that, but I say that between the lines: “I don’t like your question.” And sometimes this guy’s question is the same as that guy’s question, but I can just tell the way that he asks it. Like with fucking Spin magazine — nice guy and everything, but …

What?

He wanted to do a follow-up on the whole face-to-face time he spent with us. It’s just the way he asked everything — and he might not even have intended it this way. Maybe I just had an overly knee-jerk reaction to the way he asked it. So after all this hanging out — where I took him to the laundromat, the coffee shop and everywhere else — I then have to do a 20-minute follow-up call on my cellphone during a gig. And I don’t have a lot of patience as it is at this point, especially since he’s asking so many general questions … And we’re literally in the last moments and he’s like, “So Frank, you’re having a kid.” [Laughs] You know what I mean? And it’s like, “Yeah, I’m having a kid.” I could tell what he wanted, some fucking trite comment on fatherhood, blah, blah, blah. It’s just like, goddamn it all, I’m not going to do that. I was thinking, OK, he asked that question. My girlfriend could be reading this article. We’re kind of new, so she’s not quite used to seeing me misquoted and taken out of context over and over again, or saying something that infuriates her. So I’m going, “Goddamn it, be careful what you say here.” After all, we’re talking about the being that’s in her body right now, so I do something else for this guy and it comes out in print. And I’m like, “Oh, there’s the Spin magazine, oh God. No, don’t buy it. It’s going to ruin our night.” She says, “It’s OK, Charles, whatever you want to do.” And then I thought maybe I’m being too upset about this. So I’m having fun reading it, and she starts reading it and it’s [makes an explosive noise]! She’s pregnant, know what I mean? So I was like, “I knew it! I knew you were going to read that and think that.” I made some comment, just kind of impersonal and not real …

You’re not going to bare your soul about fatherhood.

Exactly. I’m not going to give it to you. You don’t deserve it!

Someone from Spin magazine who was probably in sixth grade when the Pixies were around called my manager a year ago and was like, you know, “Spin magazine really wants to do a piece, a cover, full art, all exclusive. We’re really, really big fans of the band.” And my manager, Ken Goes, answers, “Actually you’re not really big fans.” She says, “No, no, no, we’re really big fans of Frank Black, the Breeders.” Ken’s like, “Excuse me, you don’t know of what you speak. You haven’t written about my client in fucking 11 years and you only wrote one piece about his old band, which was not that flattering. So actually you’re not fans.” I don’t know. I mean, whatever. It’s all personality exploitation. There’s nothing really about music. And that’s what’s wrong with all the VHI stuff and everything.

It’s manufactured product.

And they never ask you about your songs. They want to talk about [in a nerdy voice] “How do you write your songs? What are your songs about?” As if I had an answer to that question! What do you mean? How do I write my songs? Not to make a big deal out of it, but it’s so assuming. You’re assuming that I have this method of writing, and it’s the same one I use for every single song.

Well, the thing about Q-and-A’s is that no one can put words in your mouth.

I don’t mind Q-and-A’s. I just feel like these journalists are all struggling to be legitimate writers. They’re just in the music biz to work on their résumé. Which is fine — we all have to work on our résumés — but I feel like they’re not really into it. I just have this fantasy: I have my own damn rock band. I want to be Lou Reed and I want the writer to be Lester Bangs. Know what I mean? I want him to be so into it that he’s arguing with me about the validity of a song I wrote. I don’t care if it’s insulting. I don’t care if it’s challenging or whatever.

All of those fucking music magazines are so gossipy. None of them are really about music or songs or records or just all the stuff that’s apparently too nerdy for their audience.

What’s going to happen when this tour is over? Where do you guys go from here?

What does a band do? They go out on tour and then if they feel they have to make it or continue to make their mark, they go and write music and record it. We’re not really in that mode, because right now we’re just playing the old songs and getting paid lots of money for it. That’s all anyone is asking for, so that’s all we’re motivated to do. People haven’t come to us and said, “Warner Bros. really wants to know if you were to make your grand LP statement right now, what it would be? Just please do some kind of contract with us.” Where are those guys? They’re not interested. Business is business, and I understand how business works. Fine. But, I don’t know, if I ran a record company I’d be a little more curious about it. Actually, there’s been one label, one guy who has been very motivated to get us to record. But yeah, generally they’re not asking and, to be honest, neither is the audience. I don’t know how they would ask, but that’s not really what this is all about. This is all just about, “You guys broke up too soon and I was in high school. So please tour again.”

I don’t know. We’ve barely even talked about it or thought about it.

Really?

Well, we have, but mostly for fun. It hasn’t been blatant. A week ago, we chatted about doing this or doing that, but it’s just fun talk … I just don’t know what to say about it. Make a record because … why?

Well, the tour is lucrative, for one reason. Your band changed music. You changed music.

I don’t know about that. [Mockingly] Kurt Cobain liked us. Nothing against him — that’s great that he liked us — but we’re a quirky band and a bunch of people liked us. I don’t know that we really changed anything. I was telling my friend about this. The Pixies came out at a time when heavy metal was pretty big, and that was just at the more banal end of the spectrum. And then there were all these Eastern Seaboard-based college rock bands, which we were part of, I guess. So we were in contrast to the mainstream, and now people are saying, “Frank, you spawned a whole new generation of alternative rock music.” And I’m thinking, what alternative rock music? You mean that masculine new heavy metal — and I got nothing against heavy metal, mind you — that’s just a more macho upgrade of the glossy, hairspray, effeminate heavy metal that was in the mainstream when we were coming out? I don’t know, man. Maybe I’m just getting old, but mainstream music now seems so much more soulless than it was back in the ’80s.

It’s almost cyclical. Metal became nu-metal, the boy bands became Britney Spears, and now that you guys are reappearing at this déjà vu period in time, it seems you’re helping — along with other bands — push that cycle hopefully forward again.

[Total silence]

OK, you’re not accepting that. Let’s change gears.

No, I do accept it, but how could I have a response to that? “Yes I am?” What am I supposed to say? What’s there to say? There isn’t anything to say. If that’s what we did, then so be it. It’s out of my hands. We just go into a room, plug in a bunch of amps and come up with a repertoire. That’s how it is. In the arena of entertainment, we are trying to have fun and be entertaining via this thing called rock music, popular music or whatever. And that’s it.

I think there are probably not enough people making music that allows their personalities to be what they are, to be there as part of the art. Which is necessary, I think, for cool music. It doesn’t matter what kind of music it is; it has nothing do to with that. It’s really about saying, “Hey, I have a personality and I’m not going to keep it hidden.” Too many people are trying too hard to be something that they’re not, and no one really believes it. And that’s always the problem with something that’s very good: People are usually like, “I don’t buy this. They think they know what I want, but I don’t even know what I want.” No one knows what he or she wants. You like. That’s what it is. You don’t know. The reason you know what you want is because something struck a chord in you and you go, “Oh, I like this.” But no one knows what they want, they don’t have any preconceived notions. We’re human beings. We were born without language; we don’t know what we want. We get exposed to things and decide we like them. The problem with the people who aren’t very good is that they are trying so hard — to have a hit, have a career — that they’re not being themselves.

A lot of people have pointed to the compositional nature of the Pixies songs as a major reason the band has had such staying power.

Well, it would be far too simple to say that’s the only reason people like us. Because we have plenty of songs that are plenty square. Well, not square per se, but … well, you know. The quirkier the song is, the less it was thought about. I don’t know. People are just too aware of those things.

Scott Thill is the editor of Morphizm.com. He has written on media, politics and music for Wired, the Huffington Post, LA Weekly and other publications.

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