Black Francis, Frank Black, Charles Thompson: no matter what you call him there’s no denying that he’s an affable alt-rock legend. Jude Clarke spoke with him on his recent promotional visit to the UK, and found herself discussing sex, love, ghosts and holiday homes with the the Pixies front man and solo hero while he sipped a pre-prandial glass or two of wine in a London hotel room.
The first thing I was going to ask you was – has it been a long day? Have you been doing press stuff all day?
Yeah, since about 11am.
And is it okay? Do you enjoy it, or is it a necessary evil?
All depends on who I’m talking to. And what is it – is it the questions? No, it isn’t the questions, because I can tell you: the most delightful interviews I’ve ever had is when I’ve been talking to some journalist who’s asked me the ten most basic, general questions you can possibly imagine, because maybe they’re old people and they’re writing for a real magazine or newspaper, and they’ve been doing it for forever, y’know, and that’s what they have to ask. But it’s not about the questions, it’s about the connection, it’s about whether or not they can have a conversation, it’s about my ego and whether I have to fence or not, that the journalist is actually listening to what I’m saying or trying to understand whatever I’m saying, even if it’s just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. It’s about a connection thing, so when you have a good connection you’re kinda, like, “wow, that’s great man, I love being a musician” y’know? – and when you have a bad connection with someone it can feel like shit, it sucks.
Oh no! No pressure for me there then… I’ll try and make it a good one. How long are you over here in the UK – just a few days? Are you doing any dates or is it just the promotional round?
It’s just a press junket, I mean, I’m not doing any performing other than radio gigs.
Do you know the UK well, you must have been over here a lot, I guess?
Yeah, this is, like, my 22nd or 23rd year of coming over here and doing this sort of thing.
I’m interested in hearing more about The Golem. Could you tell us a bit more about the project? It looks incredible in terms both of the concept and the whole packaging thing…
Well, the San Francisco Film Festival has a programme where they ask a music artist to do a so-called score for a silent movie, and then they have the artist come in during the festival and perform the score at a screening of the film. So I did that a couple of years ago. How I wrote the score was I basically booked a recording studio and hired a band and made a record, and performed this record while the movie was playing. Now there’s this kind of release that I’m doing from my website that is sort of a box set with various recordings: live and in the studio and the film with the synched soundtrack to it.
Writing something to accompany a film must be very different – the timings, making it absolutely fit in with the moving images etc?
Yeah, I would say so… But it’s a silent film. It all depends on what your perspective is about film-making. Much as I love film, I came from the naïve position initially, that would be, like, “oh, yeah, it’s a film, so you’ve got to serve the film and be precious about it, y’know: you’ve got to have a score like you would see in a contemporary film. And whatever criticism I have read thus so far of my particular score (and it’s not the first time there’s been a score for the film: there’s been lots of scores for this film) is coming from that naïve place, that you can’t distract from the film, that you have to serve the film. That is not how the Film Festival approached it. They came to me with a more historically accurate proposition. They said “look, back in the day, when some movie would be performing” (and I knew this, actually, but I’d forgotten, cos I’d read books about Fats Waller, you know…) “.. the movie would be playing and a local musician, or a local band would just perform. They would perform their repertoire.” Maybe they would serve a film somewhat, but it wasn’t like they were sitting there creating music for every moment in the film, and trying to play music that was appropriate for the film. They were just playing their repertoire.
So it would be like a gig, with a film projected behind it?
Exactly. And going to a movie back in the day was a much more raucous affair. So when I learned that I was, like “ah, okay – so I can just do my own thing, I can have a raucous affair, right?” and they said “yeah, just do what you do”. And that’s what I did! I do what I do. I’ve seen a few people comment on it, going, like “Well, I don’t know if it’s really serves the film, it’s a little bit distracting, blah blah blah blah” but they don’t understand. The whole purpose of the music being created was to perform it at a screening. I had been given licence to be – not anachronistic, or to try to come up with some precious, keyboard-heavy maudlin kind of manipulative score that we see so often in a modern film. My job was to be who I am and provide some sound in the room.
Did you choose the film, or did the film festival people pick it because they thought it would suit you?
I don’t know. They gave me the choice of two films and so I chose The Golem because I think I had heard of it, or I had at least heard of German Expressionism, so I thought that would appeal to me.
Obviously, what you’re mainly over here to talk about is the new album, NonStopErotik.
Yes but there’s no pressure! I’m mean, that is what I’m doing but I’m more neutral about “the campaign” and the concept of “the campaign”. I have given up on that and I’m much happier just being a musician, or an artist or whatever. This is my life. You wanna talk about the present? Great. You wanna talk about the past? No problem. You wanna talk about the future? No problem. It’s not even the case that keeping everything focussed on “the campaign” is the best way to sell more records. You know what? You’re not going to sell more records, especially in the case of a cult-ish artist. All you’re going to do is get them in the paper, and that’s alright, but it’s got nothing to do with numbers. I’m taking more the long view.
And also, I guess, unless you’re a brand-new artist, which clearly you’re not, you don’t produce one piece of work in a vacuum. It’s all about the context of what’s been before and hopefully what’s coming after, etc?
Photograph by Wendy Lynch
So, the new album. I’ve just had a couple of listens to it, on a stream, so forgive me if I’ve not got a very detailed grasp of it yet. What I loved about it, though, was the combination of the really erotic with the really romantic. Particularly “When I Go Down On You” and the title track (“NonStopErotik”). They’re both at the same time blunt and to-the-point lyrically, and still sounded like hugely romantic songs.
Yeah well I think that I’m kind of a romantic person. I’m also a very kind of sexual person. I guess we all are in one way or another. Even people that are so-called “asexual” people then their asexuality is kind of sexual. I think it would be doing the whole subject of sexuality a disservice if I just said “okay, I’m going to do this record called NonStopErotik and I’m just gonna sing about penises and vaginas” and that’d be it, like that’s all there is. I think that’s just cheap or something, it’s not really the whole story, is it, it’s more complex than that. It’s more poignant than that. So um… To me, the biggest, grandest songs are those two that you mentioned, “When I Go Down On You” and “NonStopErotik” so I think out of deference to romantic love I made those two songs on the one hand very sexual and graphic but also, on the other hand, that’s not really the point of the songs. The punchline is, sort of, love. Or taking solace or haven in the comfort-zone of lovemaking, and romantic love being, like “well, I can’t figure out the universe, and I can’t figure out life, but I have this, and that’s what’s important”.
Well, that song’s going on a romantic mix-tape for my husband…
[laughs]. Well thanks!
Can you tell us the story of how the album was recorded? The press release talks of ghostly goings-on in the studio.
I think that most musicians would agree with me that when you go to old recording studios especially, there is an element of legacy. There’s all these great records that have been made there before you, before your time. That already puts it into this kind of museum-slash-mausoleum-slash-romantic, if you will (I know a mausoleum isn’t very romantic, but…)… do you know what I mean? It’s like the life, and the death and the echo and everything is all there, and so you’re kind of moved by that. And then also, I think musicians would agree that those old buildings, with all that energy going on are kinda haunted places. If you talk to the engineers and the people that clean the building, they’ve got some creepy stories to tell you, or they can’t stand being in there late at night. Musicians would also agree with me that we all have our own personal experiences of that. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been in the studio late at night, just me and one engineer, or I’m all alone in some big giant room with the microphone and the lights are low and it’s late at night and you’re tired and suddenly you just feel, like, “wow, I just wanna get the hell out of here”. It’s creepy as hell. Or scary or at least just otherworldly. You start to feel the “other side” or something, and you just want to get out of there. You get to feel like the place is haunted, and then if you go to some of these older studios also there will be the actual anecdotal material: “oh yeah, if you’re here by yourself you’re going to hear these kinds of noises… or things will move around…” or whatever. Or, in the case of one of the studios I was at on this record, if the session’s going good and you’re making good music basically they leave you alone, but if you’re doing shit, that’s when all the light shenanigans start.
It’s a religious atmosphere too, when you go to these old studios. If you go into a studio, and that’s where Nat King Cole recorded it kind of humbles you. It humbles you on the one hand, but also it emboldens you, you’re like “you know what, I’m here because I’m fucking cool, just like Nat King Cole, and I’m going to do a good job, just like Nat King Cole”.
So it inspires, as well as humbles?
I’m inspired and validated.
This is all interesting and particularly relevant too in the light of the current campaign to save Abbey Road studios. Have you heard about that?
Yeah sure, I’ve been following it. We tried to get in to Abbey Road on this record actually. I think initially they were already booked and then, um, my finances changed, they got more complicated because I involved some other people, but it was our first choice. I was at Ocean Way in L.A., so when I get to London where should I go? Well, Abbey Road: that’s the top of the heap, right? We didn’t end up going there, but we went to another wonderful place, with history and legacy and ghosts.
You also get a similar kind of vibe in some venues too, I think.
Yeah, for sure. I think the only time I’ve ever really experienced a ghost was in a pub that had music. I was there very late, with a bunch of other people and I didn’t actually want to get out of there, but let’s just say that my friend that was there with me had to accompany me to the toilet every time I went, because of the ghost that was there. I just couldn’t be by myself.
Thinking specifically about the release you are putting out at the moment, and more generally about your hefty back catalogue, how do you feel generally about reviews? Do you read them? Do you care about them? Do you dismiss them?
Oh, kinda all of the above, to be perfectly honest with you. I’ll pontificate a bit more, but can you just hold for 30 seconds?
[Charles takes a comfort break]
Sorry – I was having a glass of wine, and I had to “use the facilities”.
That’s alright, as long as a ghost didn’t get you…
So anyway, sorry, where were we? Reviews. Sometimes I’ll ignore ‘em, sometimes I’ll read every word, sometimes I get angry about them, sometimes I don’t give a hoot. I try to subscribe to that opinion “Whatever gets you in the paper”, you know? Really, who cares what they say, as long as they put your name and your picture in there, you’re ahead of the game. That’s what I tell myself, and I guess I think that there’s a lot of truth in that.
Generally do you read much music stuff on the internet, are you a big web-head?
Not really. I go to the BBC News website, including the entertainment section, and I hang out a bit on the Facebook and there’s this folk music website that I go to and not much else. I enjoy Wikipedia if I want to quickly learn about some historical thing or person. I’m like “Oh, I never heard about that” and then I’ll go check it out and give myself a crash course on something. I enjoy the research aspect of it. For a songwriter like me who’s into esoteric information it’s wonderful, cos it doesn’t matter what time of day it is, I can just kinda go “Well, I’m going in this direction but I need to find out something.. I need some titbits, I need something…” I don’t know what it is I’m looking for but I’ll just go onto the internet, Wikipedia or Google searching. It’s just the random nature of that kind of searching too [that’s interesting].
So how do you keep up with current music, and hear about new bands? Do you listen to much new music, or what sort of things are you listening to at the moment?
Nothing really new, or at least, not by new artists. I don’t do very well on the new artists category. Part of that is a function of my age, and part of it is a function of how much time I have to devote to that, and part of it is a function of how many wonderful artists there are who aren’t new artists, that maybe their reputation precedes them. I feel a certain amount of pressure or curiosity to check out that thing I haven’t checked out yet, that famous thing that everyone’s always talking about, when I haven’t actually heard it yet. So you end up checking out a lot more of that stuff than the “new hot thing”. There’s a lot to sift through.
What are your thoughts on the changing formats in which music is consumed – from vinyl thru CDs, MP3s and now streaming things like Spotify? What’s your take on that as a musician – has it had any impact in how you create, or think about your music, or is it more something that’s relevant for the end consumer?
I think it is more a matter of consumption. I think artists always survive a format change, and they happen from time to time. They don’t happen, like, every day, but they’ve happened in the past and people will go on listening to music, and people will go on and continue to make music. I guess I’m not that concerned about it. I mean, does it affect my life in some kind of way, maybe sometimes even in a financial way? Sure, but when isn’t something affecting you financially? There’s always some factor that you’re fighting against if you’re dealing with art versus commerce professionally, if that’s your gig (and it’s mine). You’re always grappling with these kinds of things, internet or no internet. On some level it doesn’t really feel any different to me, it just feels like I’m always having to scrap somebody about my art, because they represent the business side and I have to fight with them, or make compromise because ultimately I need to have my own freedom, and I need to make money. You’re always kinda battling that.
That’s a constant thing, isn’t it, not just for musicians – for all kinds of artists.
Right. It’d be interesting for someone to write an article about the internet and how it is affecting different forms of art – how it affects the artists. Recorded music versus paintings versus writing versus film making.
So we’ve spoken a bit about the promotional and recording aspects of what you do. How about touring – do you enjoy recording or playing live more?
Um… I don’t know, it’s pretty much right down the middle for me. Both have their less-than-glamorous aspects I suppose, but yeah, I really enjoy both.
Okay, so the obligatory Pixies question, then… What’s coming next for the band? Are you planning on doing an album this year?
No, we haven’t formally decided to do anything…
So it’s “wait and see” is it?
What do you think about the legacy of the band, and what (and how) they influenced in their wake? How does it feel having been so influential?
I get asked this a lot, and I always kinda grapple with the question. I think it so hypothetical, or such an abstraction. Do I feel glad that other people liked me or whatever? Yeah, of course. I’m validated. I’m happy because I have validation: I have received a pat on the head! But what do I do with that? Well, I can’t do anything with that, except sort of “be in a good mood”. It doesn’t really give you licence to do anything different. Maybe it gets me in the door at a few parties or something: I’m a somebody, let me in! But otherwise, for me, there’s not a lot to say about it really. That’s just part of being an artist. If you’re a real artist then chances are, if you have an audience, then chances are that some of those people in the audience are artists, or want to be artists, so they take a few cues from you. That’s how I got into it. No surprises there. I always feel a bit awkward about making a statement about my greatness.
If you hadn’t been a musician, what do you think you would have been, or do you think you would always have ended up doing music in some capacity?
I think that was decided upon either by the Powers That Be or at a very very very very young age – something sort of clicked. From my point of view I have always been that; that’s who I am. Even before I was technically doing it, that’s who I was. I wasn’t going to maybe be a fireman or a teacher or be a train engineer.
So you recently produced the Art Brut album (Art Brut vs Satan). How was that for you – have you done much other producing?
Yeah, a couple of times. I thoroughly enjoy it because I’m hanging out in a studio while they’re making a record. It’s not something that I pursue: I’m not a “producer” in that sense of the word where that’s all I do. I’m an artist: that’s what I pursue. The band approached me and asked me to be their producer.
I’m nearly done now, so you’ll be able to get back to your wine.
It’s gone now. I think I should probably drink some water and freshen up for dinner with the record company this evening, and not be, like [shouts] “Hey, I’ve been drinking all day!”.
So what’s next for you? Are you going back home after this?
I’m going to go do some research in France – potentially a new town to live in for my happy little family. Directly in the centre. I have a meeting with an immigration lawyer, and so that’s what I’ll be doing for the next four or five days.
Well have a good evening, and a great trip. Thank you very much for speaking with me.
The pleasure was all mine. Thank you.