Songwriter Interviews

Black Francis of Pixies

by Greg Prato

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Pixies: Joey Santiago (lead guitar), Paz Lenchantin (bass), David Lovering (drums), Black Francis (lead vocals, rhythm guitar)

As the principal songwriter for the Pixies from the get-go, Black Francis (who also goes by the name of Frank Black) has certainly penned his share of alt-rock classics, including "Nimrod's Son," "Bone Machine," "Here Comes Your Man," "Monkey Gone to Heaven" and "Velouria."

In September 2019, the group issued their seventh studio effort, Beneath The Eyrie, which sees the band continuing to specialize in jarring, melodic alt-rock.

Mr. Francis was up for discussing songwriting, deep cuts, and the lyrical inspiration behind one of the standout tracks from Eyrie.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Kurt Cobain cited the Pixies as an influence on "Smells Like Teen Spirit." What are your thoughts on that song?

Black Francis: It certainly was very popular. It was catchy. I don't really get involved in so-called discussion or whatever, because from my point of view, it's just band stuff. Some musicians or some bands say, "They were influential on me." Sometimes you can hear it, sometimes you can't, but that's just the way it works.

It's not a big mystery. At the end of the day, everyone is just a musician. We're all just working musicians. We all play different styles. That's who we are: We're just a bunch of music geeks. Or proactive music listeners that are so proactive we actually feel the need to do it ourselves.

Songfacts: What's the best deep cut in the Pixies catalog?

Francis: There is a song on Indie Cindy [2014] called "Snakes." It wasn't marked at the time as, "Oh, this is going to be a big track," and it wasn't planned. It came off at the last minute in the recording session.

I can't say that people have mentioned it in particular, but I like the song. I like to play it, and I do notice that when we play it, it gets a really good reaction. So, it has some quality to it that seems to maintain over time. I'm just aware that every time we play it, there is a response. That one we don't play every show, but we play it every third show or something like that, and it never fails to get a big response.

Songfacts: What song by another artist did you spend the most time deconstructing when you were learning the craft?

Francis: There's a Neil Young song called "Winterlong" that we had recorded many years ago. I can't say that we did a really amazing job or anything like that, but we recorded it and continue to play the song live to this day.

I wouldn't say it's a big Neil Young song - I think it was originally a B-side for Neil Young. But I can't say that we did a killer job when we recorded it. We did the best we could at the time. But I really, really like the song. I thought about it a lot.

It gradually changes... there's some kind of commitment to trying to find the ultimate performance of it. I certainly love the arrangement of the song. There's not really a chorus in the song, but it sounds like a really chorus-y song. It has very classic/traditional kind of chord shapes in it, like '50s rock, but it has a much more nuanced arrangement than you would think, kind of like a Roy Orbison song or something like that.

Or I can think of songs that have trickier arrangements, like "Baba O'Riley" by the Who. It's not just straight up verse/chorus/verse/chorus. I would say that I shy away from those kind of structures - verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/verse/chorus or whatever. I always like it when a song is like, Oh, there's not really a chorus. Or there is, but it only happens at the end, where it really is just a collection of verses and a sort of catchy refrain, then a verse. I really like songs like that, that are not just a layered sandwich like peanut butter and jelly.

I was always impressed by that song, the way that it changes, the way the end of the song sort of becomes the chorus by eliminating one of the chords. It removes the minor chord, and it's an outro, I guess, but it feels like, Oh, here we are in the chorus again, even though it's not again - it's totally different than anything that came before it. So I really like that song. Songs like that I tend to deconstruct a little bit and try to understand what it is that I'm hearing.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind the song "Catfish Kate," from Beneath the Eyrie?

Francis: When I was a kid, our father used to tell stories to my brother and me. Some of them were made up on the spot, some of them were stories that he may have heard when he was younger, but they were all around this character called Black Jack Hooligan. He was from Scotland, sort of lived a ruffian lifestyle, traveled around the world, probably in the 1800s, a lot of times in the American West - the mountains of modern day South Dakota - sailing a ship somewhere. And he had a girlfriend - her name is Catfish Kate. There is one story about Catfish Kate which sort of tells how she got her nickname. That was where I took the lyric from - it's from that story. I just kind of retold the story, basically.

Songfacts: What about "Where Is My Mind"?

Francis: That happened 25 years ago... I really don't know at this point. It's not about inspiration, it's just about doing the work. The inspiration was like, "Yeah, I heard the Beatles when I was eight years old and I really liked them a lot. I want to do that, too."

It's the inspiration that has carried me to this day. I don't need more inspiration, I just need to do the thing. I need to write the songs, I need to have the band, I need to record the record, I need to play some shows. This is what it's about. It's not like I'm sitting around going, "Hmmm, what's going to inspire me today?"

I already got the inspiration. I heard "Why Don't We Do It in the Road." I heard "Sexy Sadie." I still get goosebumps if I listen to "Sexy Sadie." It has to do with the desire more than the inspiration, really.

And then in terms of the content, you don't know where that's going to come. It's such a ricochet, "pinball wizard" kind of thing - these things bouncing into each other: words, concepts, manic thinking. Half the songs I've written, I had no idea what I was talking about. Certainly, anything that appears into the abstract, I don't know.

August 22, 2019
Here's our 2015 interview with Frank Black, where he talks about "Velouria" and "Bone Machine."

Get tour dates and streaming info at pixiesmusic.com

Further reading:
Evan Dando
Scott Lucas
Lee Ranaldo
David Yow
Chad Channing
Curt Kirkwood
Matt Pinfield On 10 Of The Greatest Alt-Rock Videos of the '90s

photos: Travis Shinn (1), Simon Foster (2), Dana Yarvin (3)

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  • Zhivko from BurgasAwesome reading!!
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