Songwriter Interviews

Frank Black

by Greg Prato

Share this post

Frank Black is one of the greatest songwriters in rock history. Beg to differ? Well, you can't argue with the fact that both David Bowie and Kurt Cobain have listed him as a favorite and/or influence, now can you? Good. Now that we've got that out of the way, here are the facts...

Born Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, Black has also gone by the name Black Francis at various points in his career. Co-founding the Pixies in 1986, Black handled the majority of the songwriting for the band (plus supplying vocals and guitar), while the group quickly became one of the top college rock acts of all-time, on the strength of such classic albums as 1988's Surfer Rosa and 1989's Doolittle. But in 1993, the band went kaput despite a hail of accolades from the many alt-rock acts that cited Pixies as an influence. The group reunited in 2004 and have remained active ever since.

Between his Pixies stints, Black also issued solo albums and was the leader of his own band, Frank Black and the Catholics, the latter of which was the subject of a limited edition, seven-CD box set in 2014, The Complete Recordings. Mr. Black was kind enough to answer some questions via email, giving insight into the meanings of some of the classic tunes he created.
Pixies: Black, David Lovering, Joey Santiago
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How did the idea come up to do a Frank Black and the Catholics box set?

Frank Black: I suppose that as Cooking Vinyl's distributor in the US went out of business some years ago, I realized many of my records were going out of print, especially from the Catholics era. A box set is a way to revitalize a body of work, and to usher in new distribution.

Songfacts: From a songwriting perspective, what is your favorite album that you've released in your career, and why?

Black: SVN FNGRS, and I don't know why exactly; it sounds very "free."

Songfacts: Do you approach songwriting for Frank Black and the Catholics any different to when you write for the Pixies?

Black: Not at the writing stage so much, that's too restrictive. I do make certain considerations after writing, mostly to save other people the chore.

Songfacts: I've always admired your stream-of-consciousness-esque lyric writing style, but has there ever been songs you've penned that contained traditional lyrics that told a story?

Black: Sure. There are lots. In fact probably most have story lines, or whatever, it just depends on how loose or surreal you get with the plot.

Songfacts: What was the inspiration behind the lyrics to the song "Los Angeles"?

Black: Well, mostly I had to get it done as someone from 4AD was flying in the next day to listen. It's loosely a sci-fi poem with a kind of Blade Runner outlook, i.e., futuristic Los Angeles.

Songfacts: What was the inspiration behind the lyrics to the song "Bone Machine"?

Black: Girlfriend. Unfaithfulness. Creepy pastor whose intentions I later questioned. In that order.

Songfacts: What was the inspiration behind the lyrics to the song "Here Comes Your Man"?

Black: It's a hobo tale with a dark ending. Hobo film noir.

Songfacts: What was the inspiration behind the lyrics to the song "Velouria"?

Black: It's folklore based; the Rosicrucians of 1920's San Jose California had some pretty interesting ideas.

Songfacts: Do you feel that the Pixies truly benefited by the rise of grunge and alternative rock in the early '90s?

Black: I have no idea, but we tend to think that everything we have done, success and failure both, are all sourced back to us. We see ourselves as a very independent entity.

Nirvana's Kurt Cobain will probably go down as the most recognizable artist linked to the grunge and alt rock movement of the early '90s, and he was never ashamed to praise the Pixies. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1994 (published shortly before his death), when asked about the writing of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," he responded:

"I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it [smiles]. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band - or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard."
Songfacts: Who are your favorite songwriters and why?

Black: Well, that list is long. Bobby Dylan seems to do a lot for me...

Songfacts: Who are your favorite singers and why?

Black: Oh, gosh. Iggy, Mick Jones, Dylan, Neil Young, Paulo Conte; cuz they don't give a fuck about other people's expectations. They are true to themselves.

Songfacts: At last count, there have been seven tribute albums for the Pixies. Which have been some of your favorite renditions of Pixies tunes by other artists?

Black: "Velouria" by Weezer.

March 11, 2015.
For more Pixies, visit pixiesmusic.com.
Photos: 1) Andy Keilen, 2) Michael Halsband

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 2

  • Sharon T. from Amherst, MaFinally! Some information on Velouria besides the mention of soft fabrics like velveteen (I think of the "Furry Wall" in Get Him To the Greek". I still don't get how Velouria comes from the Rosicrucians, but who cares? It's a fantastic song!
  • No Need from MuricaSo that's what "here comes.." was all about...
see more comments

The Evolution of "Ophelia"Song Writing

How four songs portray Shakespeare's character Ophelia.

Scott StappSongwriter Interviews

The Creed lead singer reveals the "ego and self-fulfillment" he now sees in one of the band's biggest hits.

Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet SprocketSongwriter Interviews

The "All I Want" singer went through a long depression, playing some shows when he didn't want to be alive.

Petula ClarkSongwriter Interviews

Petula talks about her hits "Downtown" and "Don't Sleep In The Subway," and explains her Michael Jackson connection.

Phil Hurtt ("I'll Be Around")Songwriter Interviews

Phil was a songwriter, producer and voice behind many Philadelphia soul classics. When disco hit, he got an interesting project: The Village People.

The 10 Bands Most Like Spinal TapSong Writing

Based on criteria like girlfriend tension, stage mishaps and drummer turnover, these are the 10 bands most like Spinal Tap.