Black Francis, from Pixies to porn: "The commercialization of filmed sexuality. Which continues unabated!"

The Pixies frontman discusses his new graphic novel, rare Pixies demos and why he can't catch up with "Mad Men"

Published May 3, 2014 8:00PM (EDT)

Black Francis      (Reuters/Hugo Correia)
Black Francis (Reuters/Hugo Correia)

Charles Thompson doesn’t read a lot of books or watch a lot of movies, but the man who goes by Black Francis as lead singer and songwriter for the alt-rock band the Pixies just published “The Good Inn,” an “illustrated novel” he’s working on bringing to the screen.

What became “The Good Inn” started as a cache of demo songs that Black Francis wrote about a nonexistent movie for what he hoped would become a Pixies album. Instead, the singer teamed with author and filmmaker Josh Frank and illustrator Steven Appleby to turn the movie idea into hybrid narrative/screenplay with drawings, and the Pixies went a different direction on the newly released “Indie Cindy,” their first new LP in 23 years.

Set in Paris in the early 20th century, “The Good Inn” is a surrealist story that draws connections between the 1907 explosion of the French battleship Iéna and the creation the following year of “La Bonne Auberge” (French for “The Good Inn”), regarded as the first narrative pornographic film, which is said to have presented the story of a soldier happening upon an inn and having sex with the innkeeper’s daughter.

A version of that soldier is a central character in “The Good Inn,” which flits between parallel universes and storylines. In Black Francis’ imagining, the character, Soldier Boy, survived the Iéna explosion and was sent on leave to become an unwitting participant in the creation of early pornography in one universe while his doppelganger, a trained actor named George, is rather more aware of what’s happening in another.

Lounging on a couch in the Brooklyn bookstore Powerhouse before a recent signing with Frank and Appleby, Black Francis talked about the project, with occasional interjections from Josh Frank.

What are you reading right now?

I’m sort of reading this sci-fi book called “The Martian.” I only have another 10 pages to go or something. I sort of stopped reading it, even though I don’t know how it’s going to end. I sort of can guess how it’s going to end. I don’t read a lot of books, although I do like to read The New York Times book reviews section. I like reading about books, I think, more than I like reading books. For example, I read an article in the last New York Times Sunday section about this John Updike biography, and I walked in and there it is sitting on the counter, so I’ll probably buy that and who knows? I enjoy biographies, so maybe after I read that I’ll read John Updike.

Reading the biography first seems like jumping ahead.

But that’s how it’s been with a lot of music that I don’t necessarily gravitate toward. There was a time in my life when I probably didn’t listen to a lot of jazz records, or classical music records. I probably pretended that I did. “Oh, yeah, Miles Davis is awesome,” but did I really sit around and listen to Miles Davis records? Now, sure, but when I was younger, no. But as I read biographies about people and the music that they made and everything, that’s how I was able to really listen to John Coltrane records, was reading a book about John Coltrane about how he made those records and what he was going through when he wrote certain pieces of music or was developing his style or whatever, and it really gave me an in to the music. It made me more open to it or something.

Are you more of a movie guy?

Not necessarily. I’ve gone through phases in my life where I’ve had the time or the luxury to sit around and watch movies. I think now, like a lot of people when you get older or have kids, you don’t really have time to do certain things. People are always like, “Have you see the new blah blah blah TV show,” and I’m like, I haven’t seen a TV show in years. I don’t know what’s going on on TV. I don’t have a TV. I’ve got five kids, man, I don’t have time to — like, “Mad Men?” Like, “The new ‘Mad Men’ is out,” and it’s like, what the fuck, I haven’t seen the first one, never mind the last one. You have to prioritize. So I don’t watch a lot of movies unless I’m on the road or something. If I’m on an airplane, maybe I’ll watch a new Hollywood movie or I’ll have a little bit of time to see a movie. And I love film, but when I finally get home — my wife and I, we’ll watch a lot of British comedy. We’ll find some British comedy and decide that’s what we’ll watch. We’ll go through a little phase. A couple of nights a week, we’ll watch a couple of episodes of that particular comedy. But that’s about as deep as I get into TV culture.

The reason I ask is because the book feels very cinematic.

Right. The greater agenda here is to make a movie. We’re working on the script, and this illustrated novel is sort of based on the treatment for this film idea that we put together a few years ago, and the film treatment was based on a song cycle that I was writing, or trying to write, for what was hopefully going to be a Pixies record. The agitator, or instigator, for those songs, that song cycle, was artificially even a movie idea. Not necessarily for the purposes of making a movie: I needed to write a bunch of songs quickly. What do I do? Unifying subject. What’s the unifying subject? It’s a movie narrative, it’s an idea. A movie idea. Does the script exist, does the movie exist? No, but I’ve got this idea in my head, this is how I think the movie would go, and now I’m going to write some songs. I can start to plug in songs to the movie.

Were you thinking of it as a soundtrack, or just as narrative devices?

A soundtrack, I suppose, but really the songs from this time period reflect the narrative in a very literal kind of way. If I were to do the songs now for the film I think I probably wouldn’t — I don’t need the narrative of those songs, I don’t need all that information. Now we’ve got the movie, we’ve got this script, we’ve got the illustrated novel here, we’ve got this treatment, we’ve got the arc of the story, I don’t need a bunch of songs to create that arc. But I did when I was in a hotel room writing a bunch of songs for a demo session. That time has come and gone, and what’s left? Oh, this movie idea. And it was like, let’s write the script, let’s make the movie. Maybe your band could do the soundtrack.

What’s become of those songs? One made it onto the new Pixies album?

Just the music, really. Nothing has become of them, really. I think Josh has them on his computer. I did have them on my computer, but I gave my computer to my daughter, so I don’t even have them anymore. The lyrics have been repurposed, at least for the illustrated novel portion of the program. And it’s funny, because I was kind of embarrassed by some of the lyrics. Like, this needs to be rewritten, this isn’t good enough or whatever.

Josh Frank: They work in the context of the book, though, really well, because part of what the book is, I think, is sort of a homage to all different aspects of movies. One of my thoughts in finding the linear threads of how all of Charles’ different dimensions of this world could work together was the idea that using all different aspects of movie moments, the silent moment where the words come up on the screen on title cards, using screenplay format to tell part of the story, but then also, in movies, people break into song, so why not use some of the lyrics in that way, so the characters can actually be singing them?

Black Francis: I think what we’re really working on here is an opera; we just don’t know it yet.

So the lyrics the characters are singing in the book are from the demos?

Frank: Yeah, those are pulled directly and either used as lyrics in the book for a song number, or the lyrics were repurposed into very specific themes in the book.

Why set it when you did? Could you have set it in modern Hollywood?

Black Francis: I suppose, but I didn’t feel comfortable with that, because we’re talking about something being, for example, the first. So I think that out of deference to that, the first happened in 1907 or 1908. So that’s one idea, but what about this idea of this soldier guy? Why was he a soldier? What was going on at that time when they were making the first pornographic film? Well, there was a ship explosion in France in 1907. I think he survived the ship explosion and they sent him off because it was a big scandal. He was a low-ranking soldier: Get out of here. You’re on leave. Indefinite leave. We don’t want you around here when people are asking questions. So he’s sent on a mission to nowhere, really. It was important for me. When was the first porn filmed? 1908. What was going on militarily speaking in France in 1907-1908? Ah, ship explosion. Perfect. From that moment, it became very important: it has to be connected to this ship that blew up, it has to be connected to this film that was being made, presumably in Paris, around the same time.

Did you just happen to know that 1908 was the first pornographic film, or did that require research?

Black Francis: Yeah, Google research. That’s how it all started. The research had to take us outside the realms of the Internet to actually find the real hard information, of which there isn’t really a lot. But we’ve been able to find some.

Frank: There just wasn’t a lot about it online. When you looked up the birth of pornography, or the birth of erotic cinema, all it said was the first narrative pornographic film was called “La Bonne Auberge.” That was really it. For everything else on the Internet, there’s websites devoted to it, or there’s articles, and that’s one of the things that always gets me excited, is when I find a piece of lost history that people haven’t really figured out, and that’s what Charles had found there. It was a really interesting puzzle to solve.

Black Francis: And it’s still really sort of unsolved. It’s a little more solved, but not totally.

Once people figured out how to capture moving images, porn was probably inevitable.

Black Francis: Right, and presumably these types of films were being made before 1907-1908, but there’s this notion that this was the first official one — that is to say, sanctioned by some people in society. It was this kind of commerce, really, is what we’re talking about. The commercialization of filmed sexuality. Which continues unabated, which is I guess what begged the question in the first place: How did this all begin? I’m sitting here in my hotel room in the San Fernando Valley, California, which has been the seat of pornographic filmmaking for some time, and certainly the most commercialized side of that. Here I am in my quote-unquote family-friendly hotel, and if I want to, I could watch “Cum on My Face Part 2.”

I hear it’s only good if you’ve seen the first one.

Black Francis: [Laughs] Right! So, where did this start, really? How did we get here? I get why it exists and everything, that’s no mystery, but when did it start? It started somewhere. It didn’t necessarily start the first day they had a camera and made the first film, or maybe it did. I don’t know. The best that I can come up with is “La Bonne Auberge.”

How actively are you able to work on the movie part of this project? Is this something that’s constantly on, maybe not a back burner, but a burner, while you’re doing other things?

Black Francis: Exactly. We’re not funded or anything at this point, so we work on it when we each have time.

So you will have time after this tour cycle?

Black Francis: Yeah. I’m working on two movies right now. This one, and another one that isn’t as far along, but I never have time to work with these people. I’m always like, “I’m going to be in Toronto for three days, can you meet me at a hotel?” And I’ll have a few hours every day to shoot the shit, and that’s basically how we get it done. And everyone’s got their day jobs. Josh has got his day jobs, I’ve got my day jobs, and we just try to fit it in. It’s kind of cool. When you’re a struggling artist, of course, you do literally have a day job, and in your off time after work or whatever, on weekends, you can really put some time and energy into your thing that you really want to do. “I’m not really a waitress, I’m an actress,” you know what I mean? You can really work on it. It’s so funny, all these years later now, you become a professional artist and then it’s like, “OK, so I have all these ideas I want to work on,” but it’s like, well, you can, but you’ve got to do the stuff you get paid for first, actually, and then you’ll have time on the weekend, you can dabble with your movie-making or whatever it is you want to do.

It’s funny, because you are doing what you want to do, but then there’s this other stuff.

Black Francis: Right, my music has become my new day job, and other endeavors, it’s like, I’m not really a rock musician, I’m really a painter. I’m just working on this thing.

What’s this other movie you’re working on?

Black Francis: It’s called “Prisoners of the Peage,” and it’s related to the French toll road system, the peage. It’s a little more thinly disguised, mockumentary kind of base, where the lead character is a middle-aged rock musician who’s obsessed with the French toll road system and much funniness ensues.

By Eric R. Danton

MORE FROM Eric R. Danton

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Black Francis Books Charles Thompson Indie Cindy John Updike Mad Men Music Pixies Seven Appleby The Good Inn