In late 1990, I met up with Black Francis of the Pixies at a Cuban restaurant in Manhattan. The band had just released its third full-length album, Bossanova, and Black Francis treated me to a fine meal of rice and beans. He talked about his singing, screaming, and songwriting, and told me a cool anecdote about David Bowie. And then, about three quarters of the way through our dinner, he said something that I knew, right then and there, would ultimately spell the end of the Pixies: “It kind of pisses me off when people ask me, ‘Why aren’t there more Kim [Deal] songs on the record?’ It’s like, I write the songs — it’s always been that way, and why shouldn’t it be? … This band has never been a democracy … And if anybody has a problem with that, they can leave, y’know? I’m the president, Joey’s the vice-president. That’s the way it is.” The Pixies would release one more record, Trompe le Monde, before breaking up, and Kim Deal would go on to even bigger success with the Breeders. In August, 4AD Records will commemorate the 30th anniversary of Bossanova‘s release with a limited-edition red-vinyl reissue that includes the original 16-page booklet that was previously only available in the UK.
Black Francis meets a Spider From Mars
By Mark Kemp, Option, January 1991
“OH, DON’T PRINT THIS,” Black Francis says, in a gentle voice, catching himself midway through a tell-all about a one-time Spider From Mars. “What if he reads it? I’ll feel really stupid if he reads it and thinks I’m going around saying terrible things about him.”
It frankly isn’t so terrible. One day last fall, Black Francis, frontman for Boston’s Pixies, was at a private get-together in David Bowie’s dressing room. It actually wasn’t a dressing room proper, but a small trailer set up as a temporary dressing room outside the Schuttorf Festival in Germany, where 50,000 screaming Europeans got to see the Pixies play on a bill with the granddaddy of glam.
An avid Pixies fan, Bowie had invited Black Francis and guitarist Joey Santiago to the trailer for drinks and small talk. Only no one was talking. They were too intent on watching Bowie, who was down on all fours, crawling across the carpet toward a tiny speck in the middle of the floor. No one knew at the time that the speck was just a piece of a peanut; in their collective, slightly fuzzy mental state, they had elevated it into a sort of spiritual presence. And Bowie, fearless rocker that he is, had taken it upon himself to investigate it.
When he smiles, 26-year-old Black Francis, known to his parents as Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV, looks more like a 16-year-old fanboy than the latest darling of the rock intelligentsia. Somehow I get the feeling he likes it better that way. “I’m just the guy on the street who wants to hear the hits,” he had told me earlier; and although at the time he was speaking about a Van Morrison concert he’d seen, in which Morrison spent more of the show spiritualizing than playing the tunes Black Francis had come to hear, the comment generally conveys the Pixies singer’s rather ordinary offstage attitude about pop music.
Still smiling, Black Francis leans forward in his chair, takes a sip of tequila, and concludes his full-scale disarmament of the most famous rock star ever to … er, crawl the earth: “So there he is – Ziggy! – down on his hands and knees, trying to figure out what this thing is; creeping up to it exploratively, checking it out, and – PING! – he flicks it across the room. It was hysterical!”
MAKE NO MISTAKE about it, Black Francis was positively thrilled to meet on common ground with Ziggy Stardust, to find that the embodiment of ’70s rock god-ism was one of his biggest fans. But events like the Great Peanut Escapade tend to water down myths, if you know what I mean; as Joey Santiago puts it, after a few such meetings, the legend “went straight from Ziggy to David Bowie to David Jones in a hurry.”
The Pixies, in a sense, are as grandiose as David Bowie’s own wildest fantasies about himself. When Black Francis screams, “I wanna grow up to be a debaser” or hisses, “Hold my hand, we’ll trampoline…to somewhere near, and far in time,” he is as regal and thespian a pop star as Ziggy Stardust or the Diamond Dog or the goon from Serious Moonlight ever was. But the Pixies seem to be on a parallel journey to obliterate the whole notion of regal or thespian tendencies in rock. And in that sense, as spokesmen (and spokeswoman) for their own beaten generation, the Pixies are as ideal as anyone on the current independent or mainstream rock blocks.
But they won’t do it with slogans. Like Bowie, the Pixies have no grand political or social agenda to cling to; also like Bowie, Black Francis’s whispers and whines and shrieks and coos communicate more through melodrama and pure gut emotion than mere words could ever communicate. But unlike Bowie, the Pixies’ singer keeps a safe distance from his tormented characters. And his characters, unlike those of Bowie, aren’t bathed in gushy sentimentality; had Black Francis invented Major Tom, the ill-fated hero of “Space Oddity” would have wound up pulling out his brains and spinning spoo on planet Gorg.
“If the Pixies had a Ziggy Stardust ploy, we’d do it,” says Black Francis, suddenly delighted with the notion. This from a man who, on the one hand, wears denim and flannel onstage, and on the other, sings, with an affected snarl, “Is she weird, is she white, is she promise to the night, and her head has no room.” He continues: “Personally, I’m totally into that whole Ziggy thing, but it’s been done. We can’t look like Bowie, we can’t look like the Jesus and Mary Chain, we can’t look like the Ramones — we can’t do this and we can’t do that.” Black Francis tongue sometimes gets stuck in his cheek, and he’ll assume a somewhat insincere, self-effacing tone which seems perhaps to be his standard defense mechanism: “We just don’t have any good ideas, y’know?”
AT VICTOR’S CAFE, a swanky Cuban restaurant on 52nd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue in Manhattan, Black Francis is having his favorite meal: rice and beans. He’s here ostensibly to talk about the Pixies’ third and latest album, Bossanova, but right now, food is on is mind. While on tour a couple of Thanksgivings ago, the Pixies found themselves in New York. Rather than travel the 200 miles back up to Boston for home-cooked turkey and dressing, they stayed here and had their Thanksgiving dinner at Victor’s. “It’s totally great food,” Black Francis says, as the maitre d’ leads us to a mid-section terrace area next to a shiny black baby grand piano. On the walls are photos of the proud owner, Victor del Corral, standing beside such Latin luminaries as Julio Iglesias, Gloria Estefan, and … well, Mario Cuomo. Everything is magnificent — the wall-size wine shelves around the corner, in another room; the columns decorated with artificial banana trees; the shiny brass railing — everything, that is, except for a cheesy painting of a generic Cuban boxer with bandages on his hands, which hangs on the wall beside the front door.
Black Francis is fascinated with Hispanic culture. Before he formed the Pixies in 1986, he studied anthropology and Spanish in Puerto Rico under a University of Massachusetts exchange program. “I’ve been spoiled on black beans and rice,” he says. “There was this Cuban restaurant in San Juan that had three different locations. I ate rice and beans there for six months straight.” (This infatuation with Cuban food is honest and consistent; he named his publishing company Rice ‘n’ Beans Music.)
“I’ve always been interested in Cuba,” he says. “My grandmother used to go there back in the ’50s before it was Communist. She’d ride around in the rumble seats of the cars, along with a full mariachi band.” He pauses and laughs. “Y’know what I mean? Like, ‘Paaarrrttteee!‘ I think she must have had a thing for Cuban men. Anyway, for some reason, when I was in the sixth grade and we had to pick a country to do a report on, I picked Cuba.”
Wearing an olive-green sweater over an Oxford shirt, a charcoal-gray sport coat, and blue jeans neatly cuffed at the bottom, Black Francis is downright courtly tonight, hardly looking like the wild, maniacal singer for a beat combo. He’s a little overweight, and has a round babyish face and fine hair which is thinning into a widow’s peak.
In San Juan, Black Francis remembers, the weather was great and the food – as he’s wont to say – “was totally excellent.” But the pre-Black Francis Charles Thompson was tired of academics, of gouging for antiquated ideas in classes with names like the Archaeology of Philosophy. “It was interesting,” he says. “Y’know what I mean? But I wanted to be in a band. I just saw all of these other bands doing this shit and figured if they could do it, I could do it, too.” So he dropped out, moved back home to Boston, and phoned his old roommate Joey Santiago.
“I just saw all of these other bands doing this shit and figured if they could do it, I could do it, too.”
Santiago couldn’t play the guitar too well, but he agreed to give it a shot. The two worked for hours and days and weeks until they had a handful of tunes. Then they placed an ad in the Boston Phoenix seeking a female bassist/vocalist into Husker Dü and Peter, Paul & Mary. “I thought it was cute,” says Kim Deal, who turned out to be the only woman to respond to the ad. Deal had recently married and moved from her native Ohio to be with her new husband in Boston. In Ohio, she had played in bands with her twin sister, Kelly, and liked the idea of doing it again here. “The most interesting thing I had done before — at least, musically — was this disco band with my sister. We played, like, Bill Withers, the Doobie Brothers” – disco? – “and ‘Car Wash.'” Oh.
Deal joined the Pixies and decided to perform under her married name, Mrs. John Murphy. She told Black Francis and Santiago that her husband knew a drummer, a guy named David Lovering. Though Deal’s marriage eventually fell apart (“No, it didn’t have anything to do with the Pixies”), and she reclaimed her maiden name, she got Lovering in the settlement. A former Rush fan who counts Zeppelin drummer John Bonham among his biggest influences, Lovering, like the others, had only jammed around casually with bands in high school, and was never in any group of importance. “When I met Charles and Joe, they already had, like, four or five songs they’d been working on,” Lovering says. “I came in and just offered some ideas, and we started playing and rehearsing.”
IN EARLY 1987, after barely six months of playing and rehearsing tunes like the hooky “Levitate Me” and the nightmarish “Nimrod’s Son,” the Pixies sent their demo tape to the smart British indie label 4AD, which counts among its acts the Cocteau Twins, Throwing Muses and Ultra Vivid Scene. The label saw brilliance in the Pixies’ slashing guitars, pounding rhythm section, and Black Francis’ brutal shrieks and lyrical psychosis. They immediately signed the band and released the eight-song demo tape in all its ragged glory as the EP Come On Pilgrim.
The record had all the core elements of what would become the Pixies’ signature sound: an underlying salsa feel, surf riffs, ferocious grunge guitar, howling screams and razor-sharp lyrics. “Nimrod’s Son,” for instance, is an allegorical motorcycle crash wherein the song’s dying protagonist whines: “My sister held me close and whispered to my bleeding head, ‘You are the son of a motherfucker…you are the son of incestuous union’.” This flirtation with the topic of incest crops up in other tunes, and Black Francis’s cruelest lyric, “losing my penis to a whore with disease,” reverberates across the EP’s grooves, warning of what will come from the band. Stylistically on Come On Pilgrim, the Pixies drew from the rock’n’roll palette they’d stick with; there were hues of Neil Young, Big Black, Violent Femmes, and Television.
As Come On Pilgrim made its splash across the British Isles and on American college radio, the Pixies went quickly into a real studio to work on their first full-length album, Surfer Rosa. 4AD brought in Steve Albini, the former Big Black commander-in-chief, to twist the knobs and help clarify the Pixies’ ideas. Black Francis claims he wasn’t all that familiar with Albini’s studio work at the time. “I’d heard it, but I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the details,” he says. At first, he was wary of Albini’s jaded attitude about generally everything. “But he had good ideas,” Black Francis says. “He helped us a lot.”
Albini’s dense, crunchy production style forges sounds for the groups he works with that transcend the restricting “industrial” tag. On Surfer Rosa, he turned the relatively harmless post-core rocker “Something Against You” into mostly squawk and echo, giving it an extra-human quality that makes it positively sizzle. Albini also preserved lots of raw, between-song chatter, such as the time Black Francis repeatedly screams, “I said, ‘Just fucking die!'” to Kim Deal. And he prevented the more hippieish tunes, such as “Where Is My Mind?,” from being what he called too “pussy” by keeping them sparse and raw.
“The thing about Steve,” says Deal in a telephone conversation from Connecticut, where the Pixies were rehearsing for the U.S. leg of their Bossanova tour, “is that he would tell us that it was either pussy or non-pussy; if it was non-pussy, it was good, and if it was pussy, it was bad. I guess that’s just the way he referred to it at the time.” Lyrically, Surfer Rosa, with its edge, its blunt honesty, and its all-out obsession with sexual depravity and graphic violence, is the most beguiling Pixies record to date.
Then came Doolittle, the Pixies’ major-label debut, produced by Gil Norton. The production on that record was, as Black Francis told Rolling Stone, an attempt by Elektra to make the band sound “more commercial, and us fighting to remain somewhat grungy.” The record was a watershed. It had both Black Francis’s most resolute shrieks and wails (“Debaser”), and his finest pop melodies yet (“Wave of Mutilation” and “Here Comes Your Man”). The yin-yang approach made complete sense; after all, Black Francis had sought out a bassist into both Husker Dü and Peter, Paul and Mary. And for Black Francis, before the Sex Pistols changed the course of rock’n’roll, there were the Beach Boys and garage rock. “The Beach Boys were one of the first bands I got really into,” he says. “The Beach Boys and, of course, the Beatles. Oh yeah, and surf music – I love surf music.”
His love of surf music reveals itself right away on the Pixies’ fourth outing, Bossanova, which kicks off with a monster version of the obscure Surftones number “Cecilia Ann,” a wholly groovy jump-start rocker with a whammy-bar refrain. However, overall Bossanova found Norton and the Pixies sanding down the edges even more than on Doolittle — too much so, in some cases. (During a cab ride down to the Lower East Side, however, Black Francis assures me that the next record will be a double-set collection in the vein of Husker Dü’s Zen Arcade and the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, in which all songs will be done in only one or two takes. “I just have to convince Gil of the advantages of doing it that way,” he says.)
“The Beach Boys were one of the first bands I got really into. The Beach Boys and, of course, the Beatles. Oh yeah, and surf music — I love surf music”
Fluffy as much of the Bossanova material is, the good tunes — like “Cecilia Ann,” “Valouria,” the hard-corish “Rock Song,” and “Allison” — are magnificent. Black Francis has cashed in his violent images and blood-curdling screams on this record for spaced-out UFO themes and real singing. “I started to find my screaming annoying,” he says. “I had been listening to some tapes of live shows from a couple of years ago, and you know when you get hyper and everything’s too fast and every song is like…” — he does a muffled version of his scream — “Ahhaaarreeeeeehhhh! All of ’em had that whiny, nasally quality. It was, like, ‘Come on, shut that guy up!’ I also wanted to do more singing; I wanted to see if I could increase my octave a little bit and really sing. This isn’t to say that I think singing is better than screaming, it’s just that I’ve done plenty of screaming and I’m not… uh… y’know what I mean? Henry Rollins I’m not. But I’m getting there. And when I do scream on the new album, it’s more like, ‘AAARRRGGGGHHHH!’; it’s stronger, more guttural, got more umph behind it. So I think I’m actually getting better at screaming.”
If there is any theme to Bossanova, it is space — though much of it is sheer gibberish. “Yeah, some of my songs are just nonsense. Or actually they verge on nonsense — or, rather, they’re nonsense mixed in with a little bit of… er, sense. Take the chorus of ‘Is She Weird’ — it’s nonsense, but the verses are less nonsensical. Y’know what I mean? It’s, like, when you’re writing a song and you’ve only got eight syllables to deal with and you’ve got all this stuff to say, how are you going to get it all across? Unless you’re writing ‘American Pie’ or something, and you’ve got plenty of room to say everything you want to say…” he trails off. “I think that’s part of the reason why so many pop songs sound so bad; people just want to cram too much into the format and it doesn’t work. Unless you’re fucking brilliant.”
Black Francis leaves blanks in his songs, to be filled in by his listeners. “I have this one song called ‘Allison’, and it’s about Mose Allison, but you’d never know it. It’s based on a stoned conversation I had with this L.A. Times guy who was talking to me about Mose Allison. He tried to fit the essence of Mose Allison into a nutshell for the purpose of our conversation. It really clicked with me. I don’t remember exactly what it was he said because I was so stoned, but I had just seen Mose Allison play that very week and we were talking about him and he had sort of summed him up philosophically in a nutshell, as it were. I went, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ Y’know what I mean?
“So I wrote ‘Allison’, and it turns out that it’s this song where I try to elevate Mose Allison into a science fiction character who moves through time and space, from one galaxy to the next, bringing his message of blues and music to the people. But the song’s a minute and twenty seconds long. I don’t know if anyone could ever figure out what it’s about, but to me it works.” Black Francis puts his fork on the table and starts singing the words: “From distant star/To this here bar/The me, the you/Where are we now/Hooray the blues/Of everyone…Allison…’ How anybody could possibly figure that out, I don’t know.”
“I think that’s part of the reason why so many pop songs sound so bad; people just want to cram too much into the format and it doesn’t work. Unless you’re fucking brilliant.”
Black Francis’ mother took ‘Allison’-the-song to Allison-the-man. “She went to see him play in Rhode Island,” says Black Francis. “During the break she took a copy of a magazine article, in which they talk about the song, and showed it to him.” But Mom Francis was a bit too late. “He told her that his 30-year-old son had already played ‘Allison’ to him! Can you believe that? He already knew of us, knew of the song. That made me so happy. He’s really the only one who matters in terms of hearing what it’s about. Who knows whether or not he got it or understood it or anything else; I’m just happy that he knew about it.”
Black Francis lifted the melodies for some of the songs on Bossanova from the past. One time, he didn’t even know that he’d done it until he took a break from writing and went out for some take-out Mexican food. “You know that Lovin’ Spoonful song, ‘Summer In The City’? There was something from that tune in ‘Valouria’ and I hadn’t even noticed until I went out one day to pick up something to eat. I had been working on the middle eight section of ‘Valouria’ all day; you know” – he sings the words – “‘We will wade – in the shine – of the ever/We will wade – in the tides – of the summer – every summer’. So I go pick up the food after I finish writing it, and the radio is on and I heard this, like, ‘in the summer – in the city – in the summer – in the city.’ It was the same sort of delivery, even some of the same lyrics. I was, like, ah, man. It had been a subconscious riff.”
“Valouria” is not the only place where that happened. Says Black Francis: “‘Here Comes My Man’ on Doolittle was probably influenced by [Them’s] ‘Here Comes The Night’, right? I mean, not to say it was deliberate, but those things just kind of happen. And there’s also this drum part in that song by Them – you know, ‘Lonely Sad Eyes’ – that we liked a whole lot. We tried to do a similar pattern for ‘Havalina’, but the problem was that ‘Havalina’ is in 4/4 timing, and David was playing in 6/8, and we really needed 4/4 feel for the song. So we just made up this stupid bozo song on the spot in 4/4 timing. We mainly wanted the feel of the ‘Lonely Sad Eyes’ pattern.” According to Lovering, that feel came across. “We had written the piece out,” he says. “I played the pattern over and over while everyone else played something different. I think we got that same feel, the way the changes are and everything. It worked out pretty well.”
“Part of the reason why so many pop songs sound so bad; people just want to cram too much into the format and it doesn’t work. Unless you’re fucking brilliant.”
“Havalina,” with its soft vocals and ambient melody, symbolizes the Pixies’ shift in direction on Bossanova, a shift which involves much more than just sanded-down edges and lyrical content. Santiago’s guitar playing is cleaner, more fluid; the licks are less Neil Youngy and more like… “I’ve been getting into Hendrix and Roger Waters a lot lately,” Santiago says, pausing to reflect for a moment. “Yeah, I’ve rediscovered the Floyd.” There’s also a noticeable lack of Kim Deal’s voice on Bossanova. Whereas on Doolittle her background vocals provide a sort of cushion for Black Francis’ chaos, and on Surfer Rosa, her “Gigantic” turned out to be a favorite among fans, she hardly sings at all on Bossanova.
The subject is a sore spot for Black Francis, who suggests that because the Pixies is “his” band, he decides whose songs appear on the albums. When I raise the issue, Black Francis becomes genuinely perturbed for the first time all evening. “It kind of pisses me off when people ask me, ‘Why aren’t there more Kim songs on the record?’ It’s like, I write the songs — it’s always been that way, and why shouldn’t it be? Back when we weren’t making any money I wrote the songs, and then we got fairly successful doing things that way. Why should that change? I’m really stubborn and kind of arrogant about this stuff.
“People have this notion that a band has to be this democratic unit, like it’s some kind of a rule or something,” Black Francis goes on. “Some people think it’s bad if you aren’t democratic about this stuff. That doesn’t make sense. Bands aren’t necessarily democracies. This band was never a democracy. I mean, if we’d all been buddies for years and hung out with each other, then maybe. But it wasn’t like that. I called them up and said, ‘Wanna be in my band?’ Of course, Joey and I were always friends, and then the other two joined up. That’s the way it happened. And if anybody has a problem with that, they can leave, y’know?” He finds a corporate analogy: “I’m the president, Joey’s the vice-president. That’s the way it is. With ‘Gigantic,’ Kim had a good idea. I said why don’t you write it — ‘Gigantic’ would be a cool title.”
Deal gets tongue-tied when faced with the question. Her response reminds me of Barbara Streisand in a movie like What’s Up, Doc?, trying to diplomatically explain her way out of a delicate situation. Why didn’t you sing more on Bossanova, Kim? “I know — I know — I know… I dunno,’ she says. “I mean, I could have sung more if I’d had more good parts to sing, but I just didn’t have any good” — she starts giggling — “parts to sing. I mean, the good parts that anybody thought of, I would sing, but we didn’t think of any good parts… so I couldn’t sing… ’cause there were no good parts” — the giggling gets more intense — “for me to sing. It’s like, I got some good parts and those were the parts that I sang — y’know, the good parts… I sang. That’s the reason that you hear me singing the parts that I did sing… because they were good parts. You know what I mean?” No, Kim. “Oh, I could never repeat all that again.”
According to Santiago, the Pixies are as democratic as any band. He snickers when I tell him Black Francis has named himself president and Santiago vice president. “I don’t see it that way at all,” he says. “I guess when we first started, we had this thing with not too many people at the wheel, and he and I handled it so we could keep it moving. But now we all have basically the same philosophy. Sometimes we don’t, but that’s natural. Everyone asks for help — Kim, me, Charles — and everybody offers suggestions.”
BLACK FRANCIS PAYS the $60 check for our rice and beans dinner and reflects on the state of rock’n’roll in 1991. “You know, I decided to form the Pixies because I was just in such awe that so many bands could make it and sound so bad,” he says. “They do, you know. And it seems to me that if you’re a real fan of rock’n’roll music, you could get it. It seems like you could tell that this is bad, this is good, this is right, this is wrong. Whatever that means. I really don’t understand how so many bands can… I mean, aren’t they embarrassed? Don’t they realize they ain’t gonna be around in ten years? Don’t they know that you ain’t going to be seeing their records on the shelves for much longer? Sure, you’re making a lot of money now, and good for you — but it sucks! And it’s almost like everybody knows it, even the people who are out there buying it. Right now, they’re… what, 14? 15? When they hit 20, they’ll be like, ‘OK, time to get rid of these records.'”
While Poison sends 28,000 copies of “those records” over to American troops in Iraq (the soldiers are thrilled, I’m sure), Black Francis contemplates their worth. “There’s just no cool rock bonds anymore,” he laments. “And I mean big rock bands that my little brother has heard about. Who’s out there? Poison? Is that the best we can do? Maybe Metallica. And I don’t even know much about them, but I hear they’re pretty cool. I just don’t know what’s out there in terms of cool rock’n’roll anymore.”
Maybe the Pixies?
© Mark Kemp, 1991