After several years as Black Francis, leader of alternative rock icons the Pixies, musician Charles Thompson underwent another name change. Choosing the relatively spare Frank Black as his new moniker, he embarked on a solo career that allows him to indulge his eclectic pop sensibility unhindered by a band format. Having received mixed reviews and only minor airplay for his 1993 debut effort, he returned the next year with a solid collection that reflected a “rigorously inventive swirl” of styles, according to the Los Angeles Times.
While his fascination with surrealism and science fiction and his penchant for psychotic noisemaking—a mainstay of his work with the Pixies—remained very much in place, the emphasis on these elements in the 1994 release Teenager of the Vearwas augmented by greater attention to songerait and tunefulness, not to mention new concerns, like the future history of Southern California. “To me music is artificial,” he mused in a Details interview. “It’s a thing we stick in a machine and use electricity to run at a certain speed. It’s an artificial experience.”
Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV was born in 1965 in Long Beach, California, and raised in Boston. He was heavily influenced by the music of the ’60s, 70s, and ’80s. “I was a member of the Boston Folk Song Society,” he admitted in Details. “I traveled from school to school in the area with my song teacher, playing guitar, leading other children in [American folk legend] Woody Guthrie songs. That’s the kind of child I was.” He grew up infatuated with Cuba—thanks to his grandmother’s recollections of the place—and pop music. “The Beach Boys were one of the first bands I really got into,” he told Option. Among his other wholesome musical interests were “of course, the Beatles. Oh yeah, and surf music—I love surf music.”
In his teens, however, as he noted in Musician, “the most influential band on me was [new-wave pop hitmakers] the Cars. And I didn’t even know it! I don’t own the Cars’ albums, but remember how their first hit singles had that muffled guitar riff? Dun-dun-dun-dun … all of a sudden it was okay to muffle your hands on the strings and just pluck some stupid guitar riff. I learned how to do that and it was like, ’Oh my God, I sound like the Cars!’ You can’t imagine how many [Cars leader] Rie Ocasek impersonations I wrote when I was 16!” Though it would seem a long way from Cars hits like “Just What I Needed” and upbeat beach music to the scorching absurdism of the Pixies, Thompson’s tunefulness shines through on even their harshest work.
For the Record…
Born Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV, 1965, in Boston, MA. Education: Attended University of Massachusetts, c. 1980s.
Recording and performing artist, 1986—. Formed group the Pixies with Joey Santiago, Kim Deal, and Davis Lovering, using stage name Black Francis, beginning 1986; signed with 4AD Records and released EP Come On Pilgrim, 1987; released Elektra debut Doolittle, 1989; contributed to Leonard Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan, 1991; composed score for television special America Laughs, 1992; group dissolved, 1992. Adopted stage name Frank Black and released solo debut Frank Black, 4AD/Elektra, 1993; released limited-edition EP through Hello Recording Club, 1993.
Addresses: Record company —Elektra Entertainment, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019; or 345 North Maple Dr., Suite 123, Beverly Hills, CA 90210.
But Thompson didn’t form his band right away. In fact, he first immersed himself in academic pursuits, attending the University of Massachusetts and even spending a term studying anthropology and Spanish in Puerto Rico through an exchange program. Ultimately, though, he grew tired of the academic world. “It was interesting,” he explained to Option’s Mark Kemp. “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.” This was the spirit of punk rock. In Musician he claimed, Tart of the beauty of the guitar is that it’s somewhat easy, accessible. Everyone knows a couple chords, and if you don’t, you can learn a couple chords quickly.”
Soon he was out of school, living in Boston, and forming his group. He first recruited friend and novice guitarist Joey Santiago; then, through an ad, they found bassist Kim Deal, who in turn brought in drummer David Lovering. Formed in 1986, the Pixies had a deal with adventuresome British independent label 4AD and a release—the EP Come On Pilgrim—by 1987. Thompson had adopted the cryptic stage name Black Francis. “I always liked sort of funny, corny, pompous stage names, like Iggy Pop and Billy Idol,” he told Chris Mundy of Rolling Stone, “so I wanted one. My father suggested Black Francis; it’s an old family name. “Francis noted in Musician that his mysterious lyrics—evident in the Pixies’ first release—”start out as gibberish and sometimes I add meaning. For the most part, though, they’re from the [early 1970s glam-rock sensations] T. Rex school of poetry. You know, just baloney. I’m trying to come up with something that sounds good, rather than content.”
Meanwhile, the Pixies gained an underground following that worshipped Black Francis as a genius. In a Musician dialogue with fellow post-punk songwriter Bob Mould, he admitted to the peculiarity of standing onstage before the genuflecting mosh-pit crowd: “I think, ’I’m just a fat dude with a guitar and I don’t want to be here.’” For their first full-length recording, the band worked with producer Steve Albini, an underground icon who gave their chaotic sound an appropriate sonic heft. The result, Surfer Rosa, was, as Kemp opined nearly four years after its release, “the most beguiling Pixies record.”
The band’s breakthrough came with Doolittle, their debut release for major label Elektra, which by then distributed 4AD. Celebrated mainstream producer Gil Norton helmed the project; Black Francis told Mundy that the album “is him trying to make us, shall I say commercial, and us fighting to remain somewhat grungy.” It was a productive tension, however, as Doolittle yielded the college radio hits “This Monkey’s Gone to Heaven” and—arguably the Pixies’ most melodic, radio-friendly song—”Here Comes Your Man.” The group was firmly established on the alternative-rock scene, though it soon had competition from Deal’s side project, the Breeders.
The Pixies honed their distinctive fusion of punk rock, power pop, surf, and salsa music on their albums Bossanova and Trompe le Monde, but the spark and group spirit that animated them in the early days was gone; Black Francis had moved to Los Angeles with his girlfriend, and only touring and recording brought the band together. In 1993, after months of rumors on the underground grapevine, they officially announced their breakup. “I was hoping I could keep it a simple sabbatical or vacation, which is how we left it at the end of our last tour,” he confessed in Details. “O.K., not’we’; I admit I just sort of said, ’We’re gonna take a year off, O.K.?’ Just dropped the bomb like that. You get sick of it. You really love it while you’re doing it, but I’ve heard those songs more times than our biggest fan. I don’t need to hear them anymore.” He had, in the meanwhile, begun hatching plans for a solo project and was at work on a television score.
Partly to clear away the Pixies associations for his new solo project—and partly due to his aforementioned fondness for stage names—Black Francis became Frank Black. “I think that in the case of Black Francis, it never really worked,” he stated in an interview with Rolling Stone’s Elysa Gardner. “I was constantly referred to by journalists and record-company people by various combinations of the stage name and Charles Thompson: Black Thompson, Francis Thompson, Charles Francis Thompson, Black Angel—I just got sick of it. I wanted something a little more swift, a little more to the point, a little more workingman.”
Collaborating with Eric Drew Feldman, a former member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, he set about recording Frank Black. “I have to say that seventy-five to eighty percent of that record was done through the computer,” he informed Gardner. “I would write basic songs with basic arrangements and show them to Mr. Feldman, who would then input the music in his computer and elaborate on the arrangements.”
The album’s leadoff single, “Los Angeles”—pronounced with a hard “g,” as in days of old—and a cover version of the Beach Boys’ “Hang Onto Your Ego” received some modest rotation, but critics found the album uneven. Entertainment Weekly complained about the production and fervently hoped for a Pixies reunion once “Black gets this fling out of his system. “Rolling Stone, meanwhile, admired its dissimilarities from his old band’s work: “It’s funnier, more musically whimsical and varied, looser in spirit.” Ultimately, noted reviewer Christian Wright, “it sounds like Frank Black’s having a good time. “Spin, meanwhile, sniffed that “it takes more than a new name to redefine yourself.”
“I can’t attach much nostalgia to my music,” Frank Black insisted in an interview with Ann Powers of Musician. “If it becomes precious, making it gets weird. I’ll start thinking about what the lyrics mean and how they connect to my soul and ah… forget it. I don’t want music to be that serious.” He elaborated on his “goal” in the Detroit Free Press, stating that he aims “to fill up 35-45 minutes of blank tape with pure entertainment and call it an album.” Yet the small audience that heard his limited-edition EP for the Hello Recording Club—established by friend and They Might Be Giants member John Flansburgh—found a new seriousness, not to mention gentleness, in Frank Black. The CD’s four minimalist songs—including blueprints of tunes he would flesh out on his next record and a tender rendition of the romantic 1950s classic “Duke of Earl”—suggested a refined sense of purpose and an even more focused melodicism. This emphasis was confirmed with the release of 1994’s Teenager of the Year, an album allegedly named for a title Thompson once held. According to Musician’s Chuck Crisafulli, “The big difference this time is in the songs,” an eclectic batch held together by “off-the-cuff wit and warmth”; the album, Crisafulli concluded, “would have sounded great back in 78 blasting out of a Dodge Dart’s FM radio, but it happens to sound great this year, too. “Rolling Stone reviewer Al Weisel called it “an epic collection of… powerful songs that often equals—if not surpasses—[Black’s] best work with the Pixies. “Teenager earned an “A-” from Entertainment Weekly and began making its way up the college and alternative charts thanks to the infectious single “Headache.”
Frank Black and his band joined punk idols the Ramones—whom he’d saluted on the first solo album’s “I Heard Ramona Sing”—on tour. He also penned the publicity bio accompanying Teenager, as he had done for the previous record. “I declare to all of you,” he wrote at the end of a fancifully cryptic narrative uniting the themes of the album’s songs, “to look up and behold that pie in the sky. Hope you enjoy the record.”
With the Pixies
Come On Pilgrim, 4AD, 1987.
Surfer Rosa, 4AD, 1988.
Doolittle (includes “Here Comes Your Man” and “This Monkey’s Gone to Heaven”), 4AD/Elektra, 1989.
Bossanova, 4AD/Elektra, 1990.
Trompe le Monde, 4AD/Elektra, 1991.
(Contributors) I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (appear on “I Can’t Forget”), Atlantic, 1991.
Solo; as Frank Black
Frank Black (includes “Los Angeles,” “Hang On to Your Ego,” and “I Heard Ramona Sing”), 4AD/Elektra, 1993.
Frank Black (limited edition EP; includes “Duke of Earl”), Hello Recording Club, November 1993.
Teenager of the Year (includes “Headache”), 4AD/Elektra, 1994.
Details, April 1993.
Detroit Free Press, June 11, 1993.
Entertainment Weekly, March 19, 1993; June 3, 1994.
Guitar Player, April 1991; October 1993.
Los Angeles Times, June 5, 1994.
Melody Maker, March 19, 1988; April 1, 1989.
Musician, April 1988; December 1990; February 1992; June
Option, January 1991.
Pulse!, April 1993.
Rolling Stone, March 23, 1989; February 4, 1993; March 18, 1993; April 1, 1993; August 25, 1994; November 17, 1994. Spin, December 1991; January 1992; November 1992; April 1993; May 1993; July 1994.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Elektra Entertainment publicity materials, 1994.
"Black, Frank." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/black-frank
"Black, Frank." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved March 24, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/black-frank
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