Alternative rock legend Black Francis played The Haunt Saturday night, performing songs from every stage of his 20-plus year career to a sold-out crowd. Before the show, The Sun caught up with the former Pixies frontman over the phone to discuss college crowds, traveling and the moment he realized he was a real musician
The Sun: So, I was curious, have you ever been to Ithaca before?
Black Francis: I have, I don’t remember the circumstances really. I mean, I don’t know if I was just like driving through, and I went to a radio station or something. I don’t think I’ve ever played a show there, but I might have a long time ago, I don’t know. I remember being there, you know, so I must have like done something there. Maybe I did an interview with the college radio station, or maybe I played a show. I don’t know, actually.
Sun: Well, that sort of goes into my next question. As a performer, generally, is there a way that you approach something in a college town differently than the way you would a major city or a festival?
Francis: No, not really. I mean, you know, I just do what I do. I mean, I’m aware that I’m in a college town when I’m in a college town, because … I’m pretty comfortable in college towns actually. I live in a college town, I feel like I’m still in college basically. I feel like a college kid, so that’s kind of where I’m at, mentally. So I always feel comfortable there. I don’t know if I do anything really different … maybe I do, I don’t know. But if I do it’s not a conscious thing.
Sun: On the other side, do you ever notice any differences from a college audience?
Francis: Yeah, I mean, I get where they’re at, where they’re kind of in the college bubble, you know, they’re in the 14th grade. There’s that, I suppose. But that’s not a criticism; I just mean they’re really relaxed, and kind of carefree. They haven’t necessarily taken on the burdens of having to work for a living yet, and all that. So in that sense … They can kind of be close minded to certain things, and open minded to other things, in terms of them listening to your music, I think. I think that they don’t take the event too seriously, in a good way. I think that people that are in the city, that got their day jobs or whatever, they kind of take the event more seriously, because they just got off work and they bought a ticket and they’re out on a date maybe, and its like this entertainment event and this is “well now I’m going to have my fun.” Whereas the college kids, they’re just kind of “whooooo, maaan.” So they’re not taking the event so seriously, and that’s kind of good in a way, because they’re not there to kiss my ass or anything, they’re just kind of there. So I can take liberties with that. Also, I’m a chameleon, so maybe I will reflect that. If they have kind of a lighthearted atmosphere, then I’ll be kind of lighthearted. And so it will affect my performance, I suppose. I’m very much a chameleon and very much an empath; I’m kind of reflecting what is around me.
With that “chameleon” mentality, does that go into the studio as well? Will your songwriting process change depending on who you’re around?
Sure, yeah. I suppose it will, but its not that conscious. It’s just what happens.
When you begin a project or an album, do you have an idea of what its going to sound like?
Sun: When you were working with Reid Paley, at what point did you realize what the album Paley & Francis was going to be?
Sun: You’ve worked with him as a producer as well, and I was curious how your experiences in a production booth have changed anyway that you’ve approached making your own music.
Well, it’s really the same, you know. When you’re a producer, at least the way I work as a producer, you try to join the band or kind of be part of the artist’s thing. Really what you’re doing is you’re providing them with some perspective.
Sun: You produced a couple of albums with Art Brut, and now Surfer Blood is using old Pixies amps and working with [former Pixies producer] Gil Norton. It’s been pretty well documented how much of an influence the Pixies’ music had on bands in the 1990s, but how would you describe the impact you think you’ve had on bands making music more recently?
No idea, I mean, I just wouldn’t know. I don’t follow enough current music, and even if I did, I don’t know that I follow it in an analytical way. I just listen to music and I tend to listen to music that I like. So I don’t even think about, “How have I influenced this?” I probably wouldn’t hear it. What would be obvious to you would not be obvious to me, and that’s just because of the nature of my location. I’m on the inside looking out.
Sun: As a college student, I’ve studied your music in classes and written about it for papers, and in that vein, how do you feel about your music entering academia?
Fine, I guess. I guess it potentially makes me start to feel older, but I’m fine with that. I enjoy the idea that I would be discussed in an academic context. I mean, the academic context has really had a big influence on the Pixies. That’s really what partly they were born out of; they were partly born out of me primarily being bored in college, but also, to be really getting off on an avant-garde film class or whatever. Whatever I did like about college, whatever I was able to take out of it, I promptly reintroduced into my band situation. And so it had a direct influence on it. I think that the arts, for a lot of people who can get into a college or whatever, that tends to be a place where you find … Maybe you’ve heard about art, maybe you’ve seen a little bit of art, but unless you’re really pursuing it, in a big way as a teenager, maybe in college that’s going to be, for me anyway, it was one of the first times I went to a gallery and saw paintings on a wall. That was the first time that I saw some professor pontificate and talk on and on and on about some old art film. That’s where you get a lot of exposure. And when you’re a college student too, I think you’re broke, at least I was. You don’t have a lot of money, and so I would go and see lots of free things somewhere, and go watch some classical music concert or a ballet. Like I had a friend who worked at an art gallery on campus, so there was free wine and cheese at the show openings. So I would be down there to hang out with my friend and nibble on some cheese and drink some wine and pretend that I was part of the whole art thing there. While I probably felt like I was pretending, the fact of the matter was, I wasn’t pretending, I was there. People might think that you need to be invested on some level, you must know about the art or the artist, or know a lot about art, or be an artist or be a teacher or be an art snob or whatever, to enjoy that or have a reason to be here. But of course that couldn’t be further from the truth. An art opening or an art show is really for people from the planet Earth to go and look at someone’s art. Anyway, to come full circle with the question here, you go to college and you get exposed to a bunch of stuff that maybe you are interested in. And for me, it was art. It was art and music and theater and film, and those were the things that I gravitated towards. And I soon found myself in a situation where after about two years, just being in a college wasn’t really cutting it for me. I needed to be doing the thing that I was interested in. And so if I wasn’t a filmmaker and I wasn’t a painter and I wasn’t a drama student, what was I? Well, I know about this rock music stuff, and I can’t really take a rock music class, that’s not part of the curriculum. So what do you do? You drop out and you start a band. So that’s what I did.
Sun: Would you say that’s a positive now, that those types of classes have entered the curriculum? That I can be at Cornell and taking a class on punk music, or a class on the history of rock?
Well, yeah, because we’re basically talking about music history or whatever. I feel, as a rock musician, that maybe sort of breaking it down to the point where we’re discussing, “Let’s have a class about punk music,” that seems very specific. I’m not a professor and I’m not an academic, so I don’t know. It seems to me from a music history point of view, that you need to connect it to other things, or whatever. So maybe you do, maybe that’s what happens … I don’t honestly know what I think about college and university. I guess in general, I think it’s probably a good thing. Is every class important or whatever, or is every subject matter important in the big picture? Probably not. But how do you control that. I guess you could make so that, “Well look, we’re going to strip it all down, we’re going to learn Greek and we’re going to learn mathematics and we’re going to learn about theater. That’s it. We’re going to strip it down to the basics.” That’s a valid approach too. Obviously that isn’t the history of higher education in this country or anywhere else that I can determine. So, yeah, we’re going to have a class where, “What do you think of the new Black Francis class they got over at Harvard University there? Wow, it’s really interesting.” It’s fine to elevate the subject and the sub-genre of the subject, and then the sub-genre of the sub-genre, and you keep elevating things. I’m totally fine with it, it doesn’t go against anything. It’s just discussion.
Sun: Going back to your own experiences in college, when you started making music did you see it as art or entertainment? Are the two the same?
Sun: What have you been listening to recently?
Sun: I’ll have to check it out. If someone didn’t know your music and you could play them one song to introduce them to what you do, is there a song that you think could do that?
I suppose. I don’t know, I mean any of them really. I think what you’re saying is, “Is there a song that really sums you up in a nutshell?” I don’t know, there’s lots of songs you can play, but you just have to pick one. Pick a good one, I suppose. So you can rope them in.
Sun: What would you tell someone to get them to come to one of your shows? How would you rope them in to that?
Sun: Is there anywhere at this point in your career that you haven’t played that you would like to go? Like somewhere that you think would just be a great place to go and be and perform?
Yeah, lot’s of places around the world, sure. I’ve never played in Finland or Poland for example, I really would like to go to those two places. There’s just all kinds of places around the world that I’ve never been to in a musical context. There are places I want to go to that I don’t necessarily want to perform in either. I don’t know how relevant I am, culturally speaking, to certain audiences in the world. There’s a sense I think for some Western performers, for example like if I go to Japan — and I’ve been to Japan, which I loved — but if I were to go perform in China, for example, or I were to go perform in Malaysia, or something like that, culturally am I relevant to the people that would go and see this? I think you want to be relevant in some way, you want there to be some kind of connection, even if it’s a tenuous connection. I guess one does not want to be brought in as an artifact from another part of the world. So like, “Yeah, have you checked these weird American indie rock dudes? They’re playing tonight, let’s go see them.” You want to be able to connect with them. For example, if I go perform in France, most of the audience will not speak English, but they have a feeling for what some dude from L.A. or Boston or New York or whatever, they have some sense of rock history and what it means and why we’re there, and what the connection is to other records and other performers. So there’s more cultural information there, that they can kind of latch on to. But I think if you’re just a total, like, “Hey! You’ve never seen one of me before! Come check me out!” That’s cool and everything, but I think it’s cooler for other things. I think for example, like painting or photography or film or acting, all of those things can transport better than rock and roll music. At least that’s my impression, I could be totally wrong. You don’t want to go and perform and just be sort of like this museum piece. It’s not like I’m like, “Oh, I’m really just dying to play in Korea.” I’m not dying to play in Korea. I’m dying to go to Korea, because I fucking love Korean food, and I’m totally fascinated by Korea. I would love to go to Korea. I mean, I’m totally into learning about Korea. Every time I watch something about it, I’m just like, “Ah, shit, I want to go to Korea.” But, do I think that a Black Francis show needs to happen in Korea? I don’t know. I’m willing to be convinced, but it’s my guess is it’s going to be a younger that are going to go and potentially see me. How much use am I to them? I want to be useful, I want them to get off on me. If I’m just like, “Well, that was weird,” I don’t want to have that kind of reaction. So this is more challenging. There are so many places I want to go, but there’s probably fewer places that I want to play that I haven’t been to. Most of those places tend to be countries that I’ve already been to, or areas that I’ve already been to, like Eastern Europe or something. For example I know sometimes people pay a lot of money to perform at a private event, you know the famous clichéd one is some sort of rich Arab prince wants Stevie Wonder to play his birthday party, and pays him 500,000 bucks to come, sends him his jet. You fly in, you play for the 75 people at the party, and they give you this huge pile of money, and you leave. That’s cool and everything, and who knows, if I were offered that much money I probably would do it too, but an aesthetic point of view, from an artistic point of view, it doesn’t really drive your ego that much. It’s like, “Ok, I guess there’s this one weird guy who’s like really into my records. He went to college at Ithaca College and then he went back to Yemen or whatever, now he’s this wealthy guy,” and he’s like, “I love that Frank Black guy, I just want to hear ‘Los Angeles.’ You gotta fly to my birthday party and I’ll pay you a million bucks.” It’s like, “Alright, I’ll do it man. It’s a million bucks, I can’t say no.” But it’s not the same thing as like, me going to Ithaca tomorrow, on my own, in my rental car, to play at the club. To have them come, and sit at my feet, and perform. And I’ll make a few bucks. That, from an ego point of view, is just so gratifying. That’s who I am. That’s the reason I’m doing all of this, is for that moment tomorrow night, when I walk in to some club and go, “Hey, I’m the guy who wrote this song, maybe you heard it. Da-da-dummm. Here we go.” That’s priceless. That’s the reason I do what I do.
Sun: Has there been any show or any tour throughout your career that has stood out to you as a high point of validating this?
That’s a good question. It’s hard to say, I mean, any show that’s sold out is pretty much validating. You know what was really validating was a few years ago I was getting ready to do this European tour, and I was fooling with having a website and stuff, and I was trying to come up with a viral concept, a viral idea or whatever, that was really promoted more through cell phones than it was the Internet. It started off on the Internet, but I think how it caught on was texting. And I did these things called “pre-cores.” It’s a very bad joke, I said when I came to your town, Copenhagen or Berlin or whatever, I was not going to perform an encore at the show, but I would — at 5 o’clock at a certain location in the city — arrive with my acoustic guitar and perform for free my pre-core. And I would perform for 15 or 20 minutes, sign some autographs, say hello. And so I did that in every city that I went to, I had a destination, like a rendezvous point, and I didn’t know who would show up. A lot of times it was outside somewhere, like in a park or something. Anyways, some of these events were very small attendance, like just a few people on a rainy street corner watching me play, and that’s sort of what I expected. But there was a few occasion where it totally was nuts, and I remember the most crazy one was in Dublin, Ireland. I tried to arrive at the park, but the park had closed down, they closed the gates of the park, and my rendezvous point was inside the park. So there were all these people in the park trying to get to my rendezvous point, and the police were all trying to throw these people out of the park who wouldn’t leave, because they were running around looking for Frank Black. Anyways, that crowd sort of attracted another crowd, which attracted another crowd. By the time I arrived, there were literally like 4,000 people at this intersection in Dublin. And I would say probably half the people had no clue as to who I was. But a crowd attracts a crowd, and it was like I was fucking John Lennon or something. It was absolutely mayhem. I was physically removed, the police finally came up to me and were like, “Look, you gotta get out of here. The traffic in the city is getting all stalled up, the buses can’t get through, you gotta get all these people out of here. It’s just out of control here, there’s too many people here.” And they like, put me in the back of a police car, drove me off to my nightclub engagement. They were perfectly friendly about it, they knew that I wasn’t trying to cause trouble or anything, but it was just this viral event that totally got out of control. And it was very validating. That happened a couple of other places too. That was the biggest one, but there were like two or three other places where it was like big, I had no idea this many people were going to come, and they told two friends, and they told two friends, and suddenly there’s 400 people here. You know, what the fuck is going on? I don’t have a microphone, or an amplifier. It was just like me and a little acoustic guitar. Anyway, you can Google them, they’re all on YouTube and stuff. There were a lot of those that were super validating. I remember one that I did in Copenhagen, I did the rendezvous point way the fuck out beach. This was like in February or something, so it was like bitter cold, and it was on this beach. It was really far from downtown too. I forget how I got there, I think I took like a fucking 40 dollar cab ride. I didn’t understand that it was not necessarily the most convenient location. I don’t know why I picked the location, but there were probably like 100 people who showed up, 150 people. But a bunch of them brought like six-packs of beer, and like gave me beer. It was really cold, but I did it, and architecturally it was really great. It was this big concrete kind of a space near the beach, and the acoustics were great. Anyway, we had a really great time, and even though it was really cold and outdoors, there’s all these people that found their way out there. Those viral events that I did that winter in Europe, I really felt validated. It was really interesting, I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again, but it was good memories.
Sun: Going off of that, how do you use social media now? Has that become a part of how you interact and connect with your fan base?
I mean, I do all that stuff. Sometimes I get bored and I do it a lot, I’ll tweet a lot or something, update my Facebook page, all that crap. It’s all cool and everything, I got nothing against it. At the end of the day, as my friend Reid Paley likes to say, it’s like, “Oh great, here’s more stuff we’ve got to do that has nothing to do with music or whatever.” I think a musician wants to play music, and wants to record music, and doesn’t want to have to maintain all these electronic business cards. We just want to play music, we don’t want to have to do all this crap. If you’re starting out, or you’re operating from a very obscure place, they’re tools. It’s fast, it exists, and if you can get over your bad attitude about it and just kind of work with it, it has value. I’m 47 years old, so I didn’t grow up with it. The big electronic thing we had to promote ourselves were fucking Xerox machines or something. All this other stuff, it’s kind of interesting, but at the same time, it can really start to suck up your time, and you just kind of go, “What the fuck am I doing? Am I just getting away from the real purpose of what I’m supposed to be doing here? Let everyone else fucking figure it out.” I’m supposed to be working on my music here, I’m supposed to be working on my art, I’m not supposed to be fucking cracking jokes on the largest bathroom wall in the universe. That’s what it feels like, you know. So I don’t know, I have a lot of mixed feelings obviously about it.
Sun: This is the college student in me asking this, but when did you realize that you could do music professionally? When did you realize that this is how you were going to define yourself?
Sun: Well, I think the cockiness, or however’s the best way to put it, it paid off obviously.
Yeah, I mean, I’m very fortunate, I’m very happy, and very lucky, and I’ve been very successful at what I do. So I’m happy about that. I’m very pleased that I’m able to work for myself. If there’s anything I learned from my father and from my stepfather, is that it’s very satisfying to work for yourself. They weren’t musicians, but they both worked for themselves. They weren’t even like big successes or anything, but they worked for themselves, and they got a lot of satisfaction out of that. So if there’s anything that was modeled for me by parents, it was that kind of independent work for yourself, fuck everybody else. Don’t work for somebody else, just do your own thing. That was modeled to me, I don’t even think it was deliberately modeled to me, it just what was going on. And so, that’s all I know, really. So the idea of having to work a day job or straight job — nothing against it, that’s what other people do — that wasn’t the model for me, and I don’t relate to it. And now that I’m a so-called artiste, I really don’t relate to it. So, I don’t ever want to go there, I mean if I have to I will, but I don’t want to go there man. I’d rather jump in a little car, drive up to Ithaca, New York and play some songs. That’s a good job.
Sun: It’s a great job.