When it comes to rock music over the past 25 years, few are as influential to both today’s bands as well as late-’80s and early-’90s contemporaries as the Massachusetts-born Pixies.
Whether it’s Kurt Cobain giving them credit for inspiring Nirvana’s Gen-X anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the trademark loud-quiet-loud song structure that so many acts have gone on to emulate, or their two landmark albums Surfer Rosa and Doolittle, Pixies have had a huge impact on modern rock, and the tremors are still felt today in bands like Krill and Cloud Nothings.
This weekend serves as a sort-of homecoming for the band, as Pixies will be concluding Boston Calling Music Festival on Sunday. When the festival’s full May 2015 lineup was announced back in January, minds immediately raced toward feelings of “Where Is My Mind” and “Debaser” ringing out in the City Hall Plaza air on a cool spring night. Now that we’re at that sensation’s doorstep, Vanyaland caught up with Pixies ringleader Black Francis (a.k.a Frank Black, a.k.a. Charles Thompson) about his upbringing in a Christian household, starting out with the band in Boston during the mid-’80s, and his other various music projects.
Rob Duguay: Compared to a lot of your contemporaries from the ’80s and ’90s you had a unique upbringing growing up with a lot of Christian music in your life, and in turn you’ve incorporated a lot of biblical elements into the lyrics of songs you’ve written with Pixies. Do you consider yourself a religious person or do you just use stories from the Bible as a reference when it comes to writing songs?
Black Francis: It’s just fodder for the artform, I just use it as a source for material. I’m not a religious person, I have used stories that I like that I’ve heard in that context. Perhaps I’ve incorporated them into some songs but this is all a very traditional kind of thing with a lot of folk music obviously. A lot of folk music draws upon those religious bodies of work. I’m not the first person to ever write a song about Samson & Delilah.
Whenever you hear about a new up-and-coming band, you often hear how their music somehow or someway is influenced by The Pixies’ work. Do you ever think about the influence the band has had on younger musicians?
I only think about it when I get asked by journalists, if I ever do think about it.
That must be a good way to handle it so you can keep yourself grounded and not let it get to your head.
Well, I have a plenty of things in my life that can go to my head. I’m not a particularly modest or humble person, I have plenty of ego. Other bands liking me is a small source of satisfaction but the music speaks for itself and I don’t need to think about that. There’s other things I’d rather be thinking about than pondering on what people think of the songs I’ve written. Musicians usually like other musicians, it’s just how it works.
When the Pixies were starting out in Boston in 1986, was it ever difficult trying to break into the music scene there? Were there any strenuous times where you couldn’t get a show, no one would take you seriously, or did you have a lot of connections going into it?
We didn’t have any connections going into it. It didn’t seem to be particularly difficult for us to get gigs, we started out at the bottom like everybody else and you just worked your way through it. I would say the only gig we couldn’t get, even though we didn’t really try very hard, was the Rock And Roll Rumble that was sponsored by WBCN at the time. We weren’t really interested in being part of some local yokel event, we mostly wanted to get the hell out of Boston and be playing on the stages of the world.
We did have to bug people, we had to stick up posters, we had to invite lots of friends and girlfriends to come and see our shows so if the venue would sell enough beer and they would ask us to come back but that’s what every band has to do. Fortunately people liked us so the room was fuller during the next time we played. When the room gets fuller and fuller with each time you play, you don’t have that much difficulty getting into gigs because you’re doing the business. We moved through that scene pretty quickly and I would say after about a year it had served its purpose for us and we moved on to touring around internationally. I have good memories of the Boston scene but… I considered it my apprenticeship.
It’s great that the band got to do it the old-fashioned way with a lot of networking and doing stuff from the ground up. Do you think if the band was starting out in 2015 that it would be as big as a success?
Yeah. There are different tools available to people now, culturally the landscape is different so people’s attention span has changed. I suppose there are a lot of challenges nowadays that I didn’t face but I think it all kind of balances out and it’s either you’re good or you’re not good. If you put on a good show and people like your stuff then they’re going to go to your show again and they’ll bring their friends with them the next time.
I don’t know if we would have sold as many records but if we were starting out right now we would probably sell a lot more concert tickets. It’s not like people have less money to spend on entertainment now, it’s just that they don’t buy records or whatever. I’d like to think that people who are good will have some kind of success. I suppose there are some exceptions to the rule but in general if your music is good then people will notice.
Along with your work with The Pixies, you’ve also put out solo releases, music with Frank Black & The Catholics and a duo with your wife Violet Clark called Grand Duchy. Can we expect any releases of your solo material or any of those two other projects in the near future?
I’m not sure, it’s still a way’s away. I just worry about writing the music and getting it recorded so I can’t really predict when anything will be formally released, it’s just too early to tell.