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Where is his mind? Black Francis of the Pixies on his enigmatic image and their latest album

  • Clockwise from top: Black Francis, Joey Santiago, David Lovering, Paz Lenchantin. Photo by Travis Shinn

  • Pixies onstage production. Left to right: Joey Santiago, Black Francis, David Lovering, Paz Lenchantin. Photo by Simon Foster

  • Cover for Pixies’ new album, “Head Carrier.”

  • Left to right: Paz Lenchantin, Black Francis, Joey Santiago, David Lovering. Photo by Travis Shinn



For the Gazette
Thursday, September 14, 2017

In 1988, the Pixies released their debut album, “Surfer Rosa,” featuring the haunting track “Where is My Mind?” But a more pressing question for many fans is: What’s going on in the mind of Pixies singer-songwriter, Black Francis, aka Frank Black, aka Charles Thompson? He has been called a “trickster” by the New York Times and been the subject of no shortage of think pieces, including a recent one by Psychology Today, about “the power of creativity to develop self-concept.”

Last year, the Pioneer Valley-based father of five added another piece to the puzzle with “Head Carrier,” the seventh album by the Pixies, the hugely influential band (with UMass roots) that formed in Boston 30 years ago, inspiring the likes of Nirvana and Radiohead. The band’s latest album features a new bassist/vocalist, Paz Lenchantin, along with longtime bandmates, guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering. Lenchantin sings “All I Think About Now,” a track she co-wrote with Francis in tribute to the original Pixies bass player, Kim Deal, who quit the band in 2013. Lenchantin joined the band in 2014, after the completion of that year’s “Indie Cindy,” which marked almost 23 years since the Pixies’ previous album, 1991’s “Trompe Le Monde.” They broke up in 1993, and again following Deal’s exit from the group.

All to say: Fans are beside themselves that the band is back together. And they’re also back on tour, making a highly anticipated stop in Black Francis’ backyard: On Wednesday Sept. 20, at 8 p.m., they’ll play John M. Greene Hall, at Smith College, 60 Elm Street. Doors open at 7.

We recently caught up with Francis to talk about “Head Carrier,” hearing loss and how he handles awkward dad-fans around town.

 

You recently got back from Europe. How was that part of the tour? Any favorite spots that you visited?

“Well, I had a vacation at the end of it, so that’s where my mind is right now. I went to Brittany, France. It’s all kind of a blur for me because of the nature of summer touring. It’s festival sites, primarily … most festival sites are not that memorable. Memorable shows: One of them was in Israel in a town called Caesarea and the other was in Carcassonne, France. The Israeli venue is a Roman amphitheater. They’re both very old, open-air places that are formed by architecture. Performance, whether it’s music or theater or anything, is most memorable from my point of view as a performer, but also as an attendee, when the architecture is designed for performance.”

And now you’re playing John M. Greene at Smith. Are you excited about coming back to Northampton? What are you hoping to get out of this show?

“I don’t know if I’ve ever performed at Smith College before. Certainly I’ve performed at places in Northampton. We performed a couple of times at the Academy downtown. I was given two options: the venue at Smith College or some other venue outside of Northampton. Because I live in the area, I was like, ‘Oh well, no, I’d rather play in downtown Northampton where friends and family can come see me.’ I have five kids, and we all live in the Pioneer Valley. The youngest is in the fourth grade, and they were actually with me all summer, with my wife, on a tour bus going to shows. I don’t know if they’ll be at the Northampton show — they’ve seen a lot of Pixies concerts — I think it depends on whether or not it’s a school night.”

And how’s that going for you guys? Are you in back-to-school mode as well as in tour mode?

“Yes, back-to-school mode and figuring out all that stuff. I mean, I’m in California right now, so I’m missing out on what’s happening this week, but I’ll be back home next week, and then I’ll be back on the road again … I do miss a lot of fall stuff because fall is a popular time to tour. So I have missed the first day of school many times, but I didn’t miss it this year.”

Do you go to any of the seasonal festivals around here, like the Ashfield Fall Festival? Or Mutton & Mead?

“I’ve been to that one … there’s this thing that John Hodgman sometimes takes us to, that he likes to go to out in one of the hilltowns. I forget what the name of it is — it’s a county fair kind of a deal. There’s a little renaissance one that I go to over at UMass once in a while. I enjoy all those kinds of things. I tend to not go to  the music ones. I don’t know, I guess it seems too loud [laughs].”

Have you suffered any hearing loss?

“Yeah, sure. Absolutely. My hearing loss has come primarily from being onstage. My observation of the music industry is, it seems like it might have been a little more reckless when  I started out 30 years ago. But my impression is that the decibel level at most concert venues these days seems to be pretty well regulated. That’s my impression anyway. If you’re going to be in a band, basically you’re going to be one of those people who’s very careful not to suffer hearing damage, or you’re going to be one of those people who’s not very careful. And I guess in my life, I’ve not been very careful.”

A friend wanted to know: Is it annoying when dads accost you around town with awkwardness and adoration? I’m sure you’re approached by moms, too. I once made you take a picture with my baby at Woodstar. You were very nice about it and also clearly comfortable holding a baby.

“Oh yeah, sure, I remember that … Yeah, it doesn’t happen that often. Less than you’d think. Occasionally I’ll get a little perk: like, where one would normally go to collect their coffee at the counter with everybody else, sometimes the barista will, I suspect, know who I am and bring the coffee over to my table, and I’ll be like, ‘Wait a minute, I thought I was supposed to … Oh, I get what’s going on, I’ve been spotted!’ I’m getting a little sort of quiet star service or treatment. I appreciate that; it’s nice. I don’t expect it, but occasionally it’s happening, and I don’t even realize it until afterwards.”

What do you miss about home or your town when you’re on tour? 

“I enjoy traveling, even to places I don’t particularly love — I love to hate them, I get a kick out of them. The only thing I really miss is my family. And certainly a lot of things about the Pioneer Valley, I appreciate them when I come back. When I travel around the world, and I think, ‘Oh wow, this is so great here or this is so great there, what an interesting place, what an interesting country, cuisine, geography, whatever … , ’ I enjoy all of that, and it’s only when I return home that I usually have the realization, ‘Oh wow, I actually live in a pretty great area. I have ended up in a pretty cool place.’ I do appreciate the lifestyle and culture of the Pioneer Valley very much.”

Where does your 1991 song “U-Mass” fit into your life now?

“I don’t have any place for that song in my life other than when I feel like I need to create a certain kind of mood at a show, especially these outdoor shows you heard me complaining about. That particular song does work well in a larger, outdoor/ large-crowd kind of environment. There’s something about the hook of the chord progression… There’s just enough [in mock emcee voice] ROCK ’N’ ROLL KIND OF BEAT going on. Whatever, everyone kind of gets on board with the groove of that song pretty fast. I usually break that out when I feel like I’ve lost them in some kind of way. I’m like ‘OK,’ I look over at Joey, and I make the letter ‘U’ with my fingers so that he knows that’s what we’re going to do, so we can reground everybody, reground the band, reground the audience.”

The primal screaming of Iggy Pop and the surrealism of David Lynch are a couple of your earlier influences. You still write most of the Pixies’ lyrics. What were some of the ideas that were churning around in your brain as you worked on this album?

“You know it’s mostly esoterica: Historical esoterica, art esoterica. It’s like a lot of people: What do you get off on? We get off on little interesting stories … people from history, be they real historical characters or much exaggerated histories of people. Just all over the map. I don’t know, I don’t really think about it too much.”

Pixies have inspired so many think pieces about music … So many music critics have tried to figure you out, in particular. What do you make of that?

“I mean, I read those pieces sometimes, if they come across my path. It’s interesting to see people try to figure it out. But I guess there’s a presumption that I think is faulty — and that is that there’s something to figure out. In 20th-century art, especially visual arts, there’s a lot of cut-and-paste aspects. We have the example of Dada and Surrealism, of course.

“When I was first starting out, people would criticize pop culture, especially television or film, and now that’s mutated into the internet and smartphones. There are all these really easy ways to criticize modern culture, and even though a lot of it is worthy of criticism, I think also, in a funny way, it does support a kind of Surrealist or Dadaist or collagist viewpoint.

“I mean, it isn’t good if people don’t have a good attention span, but at the same time, I think that people are capable of changing their channel very quickly. There’s a lot of free association that we go through in our day. My music reflects that just as much as it reflects anything. So what does it all mean? You could draw a line from this little tidbit to there, and you could connect this dot to that dot. But if you start to talk about it as a whole, if you look at it in a kind of meta way, I think it starts to fall apart a little bit. That’s my feeling.”

What was the impetus behind this album? What does “Head Carrier” refer to? And I wanted to ask about the song “All I Think About Now.”

“The song ‘Head Carrier’ refers to cephalophores —  the miracle they have displayed is being able to live briefly beyond their decapitation, the most famous one being St. Denis of what is now Paris, so that song is a direct reference to that whole story. Now to prove my previous point about how there’s not really anything to make sense of, the other song that you referenced [‘All I Think About Now’] is more of an emotional song — a love letter, if you will, to the former bass player Kim Deal.

“So there I can prove to you, by mentioning those two songs and what they reference, that there is no overlying or underlying structure to my new record in terms of what it all means. I couldn’t think of two more completely different kinds of tangents to go on than those two songs, and yet there they are on the same record. So yeah, it’s definitely not a rock opera. It is playing along with the now dying format of the so-called LP: It’s got 10 or 12 songs, it’s 40 minutes long, it’s an album. The days of ‘Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band’ are over. [‘Head Carrier’] is just one of a million records on one of a million playlists on one of a million smartphones out there.”

That’s so depressing.

“But it’s the truth [laughs], it’s the truth.”

Why do you think this area has been home to so many great musicians, rockers in particular? Kim Gordon [who co-founded Sonic Youth] is just one example.

“Well, as a traveling musician, like a lot of traveling musicians, we enjoy the bubble-like atmosphere of a college town or an academic area. As much as we also enjoy the big city, let’s face it, sometimes the big city can be kind of exhausting, so it’s quite comfortable to be in a so-called college town or university town. I don’t know, that’s why I’m there. I liked it when I was in college, and I went back years later. It feels good. I suppose the Pioneer Valley, it’s close enough to New York — it doesn’t get any bigger than that — and Boston. It doesn’t feel off the map. So, yeah, it’s a location, location, location kind of a thing.”

Last thing. This lyric from the title track of “Head Carrier”: “You can’t be too chill, you can’t be too Zen.” Where did it come from? What were you thinking when you wrote it?

“Well, I was trying to be a man who was about to be beheaded [laughs]. Hope that answers your question.”