Frank Black – Eugene skyline
At this late date in pop music history, it’s probably unrealistic to expect that a respected, prolific indie-rocker would travel to Nashville and enter into the world of the southern baroque. Sure, Bob Dylan did it with Blonde On Blonde 40 years ago, and made something new out of the interaction between session men and leader. But in Dylan’s case, the Nashville players he employed were as energized and engaged as the songwriter, and what emerged wasn’t so much baroque pop as humanist guff turned sexy and absurdly expansive, the deep sense of America’s bounty pushed to its limits.
And anyway, Nashville has never exactly been the place for deep investigations of the baroque, the untamed. For that, you would have had to travel 200 miles southwest, down to Memphis, where 30 years ago producers and performers such as Dan Penn, Jim Dickinson and Alex Chilton tore apart rock ‘n’ roll and their own pop heritage — which was, in its own way, as studio-bound and obsessive as anything to emerge from Music Row — and presaged popular music’s mutation into new wave and indie-rock.
Nashville has always provided a safe spot to observe the action, a gentleman’s vantage point. So it makes sense that Frank Black’s time in Music City didn’t involve much in the way of old-fashioned dissipation. “I made a record there, which means I rode in a rental car from my hotel to a recording studio, worked all day, rode back, sat downtown in my rental car late at night watching the cops go by,” he says. “There was a Thai food restaurant next to the hotel, and every night I got the catfish.”
For Black, who has now released well over two hours of new music in the span of one calendar year — most of it recorded in Nashville with an assortment of storied soul session players, rock musicians, and honky-tonk singers — it’s all about the work itself, the process, as it has been throughout his career. On last July’s Honeycomb and his new two-disc set Fastman Raiderman, released June 27 on Back Porch, he takes a deeply bent, essentially sane, workaholic approach to making pop songs. The baroque makes its presence known, but in Black’s case it only lightly touches down in the south. Respectful of the region’s musical heritage, he brings his own set of tricks to the proceedings.
As he’s done on recordings with the Pixies and with his turn-of-the-century band the Catholics, Black puts the geography of the country, and of his capacious mind, into motion, takes what he needs, makes friends, adopts a bit of the lingo (maybe even a drawl), and keeps working. His songs get exemplary treatment from some of the world’s finest musicians — among them Steve Cropper and Carol Kaye — even as their unpredictable structures challenge that cornerstone of Music City’s recording scene, the Nashville Number System. On his new recordings, you can definitely hear the catfish swimming, but this is the postmodern south, where the bottom-feeder appears on the plate nicely dressed in some new flavors, wearing a bowler, or maybe a Thai straw-basket hat.
Remarried, to Violet Clark (his first marriage, to Jean Black, ended a couple of years ago), Black currently enjoys the life of a family man in Eugene, Oregon. My phone conversations with him are interspersed with domestic sounds: babies (he and Violet celebrated in April the birth of their daughter, Lucy, who joins son Jack and two children from Violet’s previous marriage), breakfast-making, the ding of car doors opening. He sounds happy, a bit reflective. “Taking care of children, I don’t know how people do it, because I don’t have a full-time job, although I occasionally work,” he says. “When I’m not out on the road, I’m here all day. Months go by, and I look up and say, ‘What happened?'”
This doesn’t mean that Black, who was born Charles Thompson 41 years ago in Boston, has lost his sense of humor in some suburban nowhere. He says with a laugh, “We’re at the crossroads of deciding whether we should make the family a showbiz family, do like country people and get the bus.” That’s a funny image, but Black has been plenty busy, what with recording in Nashville and Los Angeles, touring with the re-formed Pixies, and, of course, debating the relative merits of fake-bacon brands with interviewers like me.
Talking to Black, you get the sense of a cagey, highly intelligent human being with low tolerance for bullshit. Some questions that apparently strike him as too broad get a request for rephrasing. He waves away my questions about the breakup of the Pixies, his relationship with fellow Pixie Kim Deal, and the band’s recent re-formation. “It was perfectly amusing,” he says. “I don’t wax all nostalgic about this shit. We had a great time, we made a bunch of money, buried a few hatchets, and that’s it.”
Like many musicians whose style is based upon idiosyncrasies that require the ministrations of other participants, he likes to talk about his work as an expression of impulses that thrive in a relatively unexamined state. Still, he’s a gracious, fascinating conversationalist.
Honeycomb was recorded in spring 2004, and since Black was set to go out on tour with the Pixies, had to be done more quickly than originally planned. Sessions took place at Dan Penn’s studio, with Jon Tiven producing. (Four songs from those sessions found their way onto Fastman Raiderman.)
Black liked the sound he got at Penn’s, describing it as a “warm, dry sound I’ve always wanted to hear in a regular recording studio.” Penn’s contribution to Honeycomb seems to have been limited to the occasional suggestion. “He may have interceded one time, when Jon and I had an argument about a song,” Black says. “He was the senior of all of us, in terms of experience and everything else. And he was working as an engineer, so he didn’t attempt to get involved in our art project.”