Don't feel sorry for Charles Thompson IV, now known as Frank Black. The man Kurt Cobain called "one of the biggest musical influences in my life" isn't headlining sports arenas or amphitheaters as he did when he fronted the legendary Pixies. But he's happy now.
"When the Pixies formed in Boston, it wasn't under the best circumstances," Black says. "There was always a little bit of friction between a couple of us [in the band] when we first started playing together, and then we got pretty big in Europe. The band became very successful very fast, and suddenly, it was too late to go back [and replace certain band members]."
Soon the Pixies became an institution that overshadowed the quartet's personnel problems, and Black, then known as Black Francis, found himself very unhappy in his universally acclaimed band. "It was not fun backstage," he says of the last days of the Pixies. "I knew the band should have ended two years earlier than it did."
He also knew that the tour in support of 1991's Trompe le Monde would be the Pixies' last-only he didn't tell anyone. Right after the tour, he faxed a letter to his manager, telling him he wanted to break up the band. "I don't think it was a surprise to anyone," Black says. It wasn't. The press was already painting stories of massive fights between Black and Pixies bassist Kim Deal. It also didn't help that the frustrated bassist formed a side project, the Breeders, and released their debut, Pod, just months before Trompe le Monde hit record stores.
"It was difficult," Black says. "She wanted to write songs for [the Pixies], but we already had a songwriter-me, you know? We would try to learn her songs during rehearsals, but it just wasn't working. The rest of the band [lead guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering] would just look at each other."
Naturally, the music press turned the Pixie meltdown into a tabloid-style free-for-all. "I never understood music journalism," Black explains. "No matter what I said into a writer's cassette recorder, the story would be completely false. I noticed it during the Pixies, and it still happens. I'd do an interview with a publication, roll into town, and read the article the day of the show, and I couldn't believe what the writer was thinking-everything is always so inaccurate."
Black recalls a profile in which the writer speculated that Black's nom de Pixies was a manifestation of his feelings about his father's alcoholism. "Not only have I never said that, but my father isn't even an alcoholic," Black says. "The writer opened his story with that. Where did he come up with it?
"Sometimes I'd like to be like Bob Dylan and only do one interview every five years. But then I release an album, and I'd like it to sell."
For the past five years, Black has been a solo artist, a troubadour looking for a label he can confidently call home. You'd think he'd know his way around the music business by now: he's put out four solo LPs, and he's already gone through three record labels.
"4AD [the Pixies' record label] kept me on after the split, and that was a great relationship," Black says. "It's hard to explain, but it was just a case of things running their course. There were no hard feelings. I just left."
After Black released his self-titled debut and Teenager of the Year on 4AD, he signed to music mogul Rick Rubin's new label, American Recordings. He released The Cult of Ray to scathing reviews from critics, but he considered the release a turning point. "That album was the beginning of my return to the basic [formula of] two guitars, a bass and drums," Black says. "I still stand by my first solo releases, but I can't go back anymore. I like where I am [musically] right now."
Unfortunately, Rubin didn't. But when Black submitted the music for his second release on American, Rubin was thrilled. He called it "the best demo he'd ever heard." It was immediate and raw. But Rubin wanted to add his brand of studio hokum to make it consumer-friendly. "That's when I told Rick no," Black says. "He didn't understand that I liked it that way. It was recorded like that on purpose. Basically, he refused to release it as is, so he let me out of my contract."
The two-track "demo" that Rubin passed on is now known as Frank Black and the Catholics, which was later released by Black's new label, the ultraindie spinART. It's already being heralded as his best work since he left the Pixies. The arrangements, lyrics and hooks are vintage Black-but stripped-down. Where one might have expected layers of breezy synthesizers or echoes of reverb to seal the fills, he and the Catholics (bassist David MacCaffrey, drummer Scott Boutier and guitarist Lyle Workman) squeeze buzzing guitars and thick, simple rhythm lines into the gaps instead. In other words, it's Black's live show, sans keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman.
"I don't mind being on a really small label," Black says. "I'm the underdog, and whatever success comes from this album will be because of the music. SpinART isn't exactly throwing money at advertisers. This is word-of-mouth."