Interview: Frank Black
Where did the idea of going down south to record Honeycomb come from?
Well, it was my idea to go to Nashville, but that was years ago and it was just to walk in the footsteps very loosely of Blonde On Blonde: you know, go to Nashville and record an album with a bunch of guys who don’t know who I am and a great record hopefully ensues. Jon Tiven and I talked about it for ten years and subsequently he actually moved to Nashville.
You first worked with Jon on an Otis Blackwell tribute album.
Yes, Brace Yourself. It had the worst album cover ever. Anyway, Jon’s the kind of guy who maintains his contacts. He’s got his little black book and calls once or twice a year to remind you he’s available to do the Black on Blonde project. And so finally we were able to do it. I didn’t worry about who he was going to ask. I knew he’d ask all stellar people, though I had no idea it was going to be guys like Steve Cropper. I think in a certain way they were glad to be asked, probably because they do a lot of straightforward country or pop stuff. And maybe Tiven talked me up to them.
Had they done anything like this?
I don’t know. They were challenged… well, more amused than challenged. I don’t think it was hard for them, but they had to think a little bit.
What did Reggie Young play on?
A bunch. Anything that’s like laid-back and smooth, that’s him. I didn’t know who he was. I know he’s famous, but I had no idea. I was so impressed that he played with Johnny Horton, who I love. He’s so smooth and soulful. When I listen to the record now, I’m thinking, “Those motherfuckers, they’re, like, commenting on my lyrics in the way they’re playing”. I didn’t necessarily notice at the time, but I can hear it now. If I’m saying something sexy, they play something sexy in response.
How was Spooner Oldham, the Harry Dean Stanton of deep soul? I saw him play on the Muscle Shoals night during the Barbican’s “It Came From Memphis” week in April.
He was great. Tiven complimented him on his restraint with some particular lick he played, and he just said, “Comes from many years of being in the recording business”.
And was Dan Penn just floating around in the background or what?
Yeah, just chewing his toothpick. And I knew he liked a particular song if he sang background vocals on it. He sang on ‘Dark End of the Street’ and it was just so smooth, man. He put down the lead vocal first, and I was like, “How can I sing it now?” But then he said, “I’m gonna go take a nap”, meaning I was free to sing it without him in the room and not feel weird about it. When Tiven said, “So, Charles, you wanna do ‘Dark End of the Street’”, I was like, “Oooh, I dunno, man”. And then those guys were suddenly out there doing it, and of course they all wanted me to do it. Someone like Dan Penn is no dummy. He figures, “I dunno who this kid is, but hey, I wanna get half the publishing on the song”. I’m being crass, of course. When he mixed it he goes, “Okay, Charles, I putcha voice nice’n’loud like one o’ them black guys”. I think he thought I was singing it like Aaron Neville or something, but really my reference wasn’t that, it was Gram Parsons and a whole other thing. It was also from listening to Freddy Fender records, which is a similarly high kind of fragile voice, light on its feet.
In a Tex-Mex connection, what made you choose Doug Sahm’s ‘Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day’ for the album?
Just fell in love with the song when I first heard it. Obsessed on it, drove my band the Catholics insane playing it over and over and over, recording it for like four different records but never getting it right. I just really love the song and the lyrics. “You’ll be king of what you survive”.
And then Elvis’ ‘Song of the Shrimp’ has southern connotations too.
That was prompted by Townes Van Zandt’s version on his last record. He just barely plays the song, he just hits a chord and sings a line and cracks up, hits another chord, makes a joke… it’s a really deconstructed but very entertaining version, and that was my reference point. I’ve still never even heard the Elvis version. It didn’t click until I hit a minor chord once instead of a major, and I was able to free myself to do an interpretation of the song instead of being so literal with it.
Did the musicians know anything about you or the Pixies?
David Hood has a son who plays in the Drive-By Truckers, so I think he knew something. And Cropper checked in with somebody and said, “Who is this guy?” If they’d known they probably wouldn’t have said anything. In a way it made me feel more confident that I had a Pixies tour to do, like I wasn’t just a kid and these guys had played with Elvis or whatever.
How come you decided to make the record on the eve of the reunion tour?
Well, ‘cause I called Tiven and said the Pixies tour wasn’t happening: “We’re all fightin’ and everything.” And then I had just finished the Catholics, and even if we didn’t say it was the last tour it sure felt like the fuckin’ last tour. We’d been playing together a long time, ten years of hard touring and loading our own gear and not making a lotta money out of it, and we’re hittin’ the mid-life crisis. And they’re all getting mad at me ‘cause I’m forcing them to record live to two-track for the umpteenth time. So it was like, “Alright, Tiven, I don’t know what I’m doing this year, I just got divorced, the Pixies tour ain’t happening, I’m ready to do Black on Blonde.” He called back the next day, got the band. I called back the next day and said the Pixies tour was back on but I had four or five days. And that’s one thing I like about Jon, he doesn’t ever bitch about restraints or anything. He just says, “Whatever you wanna do, you’re the artist”. He’s a can-do kinda guy.
Presumably you had to do a fair amount of rehearsal with the Pixies.
No, we got together for a total of three or four days, I think. And after two days it kinda sounded like the same, so we thought, “Okay, let’s go for it”.
Were all the songs on Honeycomb written specifically for it?
All of them, with the exception of “Selkie Bride”, were written in that time period of when I called Tiven in January, so right before the sessions. So I just sat in my little loft in Portland. I had not yet moved in with this woman I had met who lived in Oregon – she had two kids and I didn’t want to move in right away or even in the same town, which is Eugene. I sat in my loft and started writing the songs. I guess I had those guys in mind after Jon had told me what the band was. Well, I didn’t try to make my writing different, it inevitably just was. For one I was intimidated, so I knew it had to be good. Also I didn’t wanna do anything too quirky. And nor was I totally prepared. “My Life Is In Storage” I wrote in the hotel room in Nashville the night before we recorded it. So it was all very quick.
Is there a prevailing emotional mood to the record for you?
Well, you get the shit kicked out of you in a divorce. I don’t mean by my ex, either, it was very friendly, but just the whole thing was kinda gut-wrenching. We had been together for, like, sixteen years, so it’s kind of a heavy time. And I’d been going to a therapist. Started out as kind of a marriage counseling thing, not even to save our marriage coz we kinda knew what we were going to do, but just to talk about what we were gonna do so it was done the right way and we weren’t just cutting a gash in our soul. That whole debris, I sort of got into it and sort of enjoyed it, so I got into a whole lot more, like, personal therapy. So combining that with the act of moving to a different state after many years, and a new relationship, I just kind of gave up whatever I was neurotic or uptight about before, like “I don’t wanna be too personal”… all that stuff just didn’t matter anymore. It felt really good to be in pain. It was horrible, but it was nice to feel human. It was like, “Oh yeah, I am human”. And in a funny sort of way, those kinds of experiences, they give you authority to write with – conviction, as opposed to just writing from an imaginary place or a projecting kind of place. You’re writing from the place that you’re at. It’s nice to be able to feel, “Oh yeah, I went deep because I could, and I couldn’t before”.
And yet as deeply personal as it is, there’s something quite calm and considered about these songs. Songs like “Another Velvet Nightmare” have a very Leonard Cohen feel.
Yeah, I think that listening to some of his records in recent years, there’s a thing, an attitude that he has going on that I really, really like. He can be dark and down but it’s very humorous and it’s very smart and witty. He’s very cool. It’s almost like a Bryan Ferry stance, with the whole wrinkled suit and the cigarette. It’s a little bit like, “I can handle myself. Yes, I was destroyed, but let me tell you about it…” For a lot of people my age, I’m Your Man was the record that got you into Leonard Cohen. I heard that record round about 1989 on a Pixies tour and became obsessed with it. It all clicked and I got who he was. Now I can go back to his earlier records and listen to them, no problem. I think my mother’s in love with him. She’s got this Austin City Limits performance by him that we always watch together when I visit her.
After writing and recording these songs, was it at all strange to be plunged back into Pixie-world?
Yeah, but I didn’t have to do it, really. It’s funny, because when I play with those guys I sing different. In rehearsals it was like, “Oh, there’s that voice again”. It’s kind of effortless, because that band was kind of au naturel, real rough. That’s what we were. It was very uncontrived. Whatever was pretentious about it was… real! The tour was great, and we’re gonna continue to do it because we can’t really think of a reason not to.
What about a new album?
I don’t know. I don’t think so. We’d have to kind of reinvent ourselves or something if we were ever going to do that. And I don’t know if the demand is there, really. It has to be about more than commerce. To take a ten- or eleven- year sabbatical and it goes well, then it feels funny to go make a record to take advantage of this situation. Whatever box we were performing or writing within before, it’s really gotta break through all that and just be upside down. Kim has to be the lead vocalist or something, or Joey has to sing. Or it has to be all waltzes.
You’ve said that Honeycomb was the most moving experience you’ve had in your musical career. Would that come as some surprise to hardcore Pixies fans, do you think?
Yeah, but that’s because making the Pixies’ records was different. That was young guys and a gal, a lot more ego involved. It’s not that it wasn’t interesting or fun or exciting, but “moving” is not the way I would describe it. “Spiritual” is not the way I would describe it. Energetic, for sure, but not poignant or whatever. We were just too young. It’s poignant looking back at it, but that’s a different kind of experience. Playing with these guys in Nashville, they’ve done it all, played with everybody, been to hell and back. They’ve just lived so much more life.
Interview by Barney Hoskyns