Frank Black, a roots rocker? Frank Black, the Pixies front man who menacingly called himself Black Francis? Frank Black, born Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, the man who helped create the quiet-verse/loud-chorus dynamic that laid the template for the Grunge Revolution of the early ’90s?
That Frank Black?
Well, yes. On his last two albums — Honeycomb (2005) and Fastman Raiderman (released in June) — Black has shucked the dissonant, lurching alt-rock chords that defined the Pixies and pervaded his earlier solo work for a rootsier, more Americana sound. And he did it with the help of his elders – side men like guitarist Steve Cropper (Booker T. & the MGs), keyboardist Al Kooper (Bob Dylan, Blood Sweat & Tears) drummer Levon Helm of The Band and honky-tonk hero Marty Brown.
“When it all started, I was just basically looking to do my own Blonde on Blonde,” says Black, referring to the iconic 1966 Bob Dylan album — which, like Black’s discs, was cut in Nashville. “I was into that whole trip, like, ‘Okay, I’m the star, I’m coming into town, you book the studio and the musicians, you see who’s in town, get ’em into the studio, I don’t want to be too involved in that process, I’ll just show up with the songs and we’ll lay ’em down.”
The “you” in this case was Black’s producer and friend Jon Tiven. For years, Tiven had known that Black was a Blonde on Blonde freak, and every now and then, he’d prod Black with quips like “Well, is it time to do ‘Black on Blonde’?”
Black’s first foray into the Nashville studio yielded his acclaimed 2005 album, Honeycomb, which bore a distinct Memphis-soul sound. “Yeah, when I first told Jon to just book some of the Nashville musicians, I was figuring I was gonna get some country-music cats, like Dylan had on Blonde on Blonde. But when I showed up, I realized that a lot of these guys were more from the Memphis school, they’d played on a lot of the Muscle Shoals stuff,” says Black.
Six months after recording Honeycomb, Black was in the mood for part peux. So on an off day from that year’s Pixies reunion tour, he booked an impromptu Nashville session, called Tiven and had him put the word out. Helm actually drove down to Nashville from his home in Woodstock to play on a few tracks. They were joined for the marathon session by some unlikely classic-rock graybeards — bassist Tom Petersson from Cheap Trick and drummer Simon Kirke from Free.
One more creative burst later, Black had a sprawling, two-CD set that also included the contributions of all-world classic-rock drummer Jim Keltner, Motown guitarist Bob Babbitt, Memphis-soul keyboardist Spooner Oldham and country picker Reggie Young.
“I felt like I’d already established a sound with some of these guys on Honeycomb, so when I wrote this second batch of songs, I wasn’t gonna show up with quirky punk-rock songs,” says Black during a phone interview from his home near Eugene, Ore.
The music that emerged from the sessions definitely has a pre-punk, roots-rock feel — you can hear traces of Dylan, Van Morrison, The Band, Neil Young, alt-country and even honky tonk weaving in and out of the mix. And, befitting that vintage-music sound, Black’s vocals are huskier, rangier and more melodic than the adrenaline-fueled yelps and screams that burst from his throat on groundbreaking late-’80s Pixies albums like Doolittle and Surfer Rosa.
Naturally, longtime Pixies fans were puzzled when they heard their hero ditch that band’s subversive proto-grunge in favor of something warmer.
“Yeah, those folks were surprised when Honeycomb came out, but probably even more surprised when I pursued a similar sound a second time — on a two-disc set, no less,” says Black with a laugh. “But, you know, I’ve been listening to music all my life. I heard Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan way before I heard punk rock, and I was always into that stuff. It’s just that, when we formed the Pixies, it was a different time — punk had happened, hardcore was happening, and we got into that.”
Although the Pixies have long been credited by some with “inventing” the sound in the late-’80s that Nirvana and other early Gen X grungers served up to the masses in the ’90s, Black says he doesn’t feel especially influential. “No, none of those guys ever came up to me and told me that — not that I would have run into any of them. By that time, I was too busy, driving all over the country in a van, trying to maintain a solo career [the Pixies split up in 1992]. But I have heard people drop my name now and then, which is nice.”
As for the Pixies reunion tours of the past few years, Black reports they were practically love fests compared to some of the psychodramas and highly charged personality clashes that erupted during their first go-round.
“Yeah, those tours were definitely more fun than not fun,” says Black. “There was a lot less stress and tension. Everyone’s older, and more easygoing, and everyone isn’t fueled by drugs and alcohol and youth, like we were in the ’80s and ’90s. There were a few small dramas, but it was more kisses and hugs.
“What was really amazing to me, though, is that it didn’t feel at all like a nostalgia tour. In that sense, it was really surreal. It didn’t feel like 12 years had passed. It felt more like we’d taken six months off and just gone back out on the road again.”
And Black says he wasn’t tempted to draw on his subsequent musical experiences to take any of the classic Pixies tunes in new directions. “Nah, we played ’em exactly the same way we did 12 or 14 or years ago. I don’t think any of the others would have signed on if I’d said, ‘Okay, this time out, we’re gonna ‘vamp.’ We’re just not that kind of a band.”
Frank Black plays The Orange Peel on Tuesday, Oct. 17. 9 p.m. $22. 225-5851.