IT’S approaching noon one blustery grey morning in early September but inside The Grand Hotel on Eastbourne’s seafront, time stands still.
The so-called White Palace is library-quiet today, a monument to Victorian refinement with its elegant, high-ceilinged rooms and strictly traditional decor.
Black Francis, right, and the rest of the Pixies who are back with a new album, Beneath The Eyrie[/caption]
Pixies singer Black Francis (birth name Charles Thompson) has been credited with inspiring the grunge era — Kurt Cobain’s Nirvana and the rest[/caption]
Nestling in an armchair under the soft light of an old standard lamp, I spy what appears to be a stout, balding businessman, sipping hot black coffee and trawling through his smartphone messages.
Wait a second though . . .
Closer inspection reveals that he is in fact a titan of America’s rock scene for more than 30 years, Pixies singer Black Francis (birth name Charles Thompson IV, also Frank Black during his now defunct solo career).
Though people tend to greet him with a polite, “Hi Charles”, I’ve decided to keep to his stage persona.
For beneath his benign, unflashy exterior lurks a larger-than-life character.
Black Francis boasts a demonic, full-throated scream that could wake the dead and his band is credited with inspiring the grunge era — Kurt Cobain’s Nirvana and the rest.
And how did he react to losing a “monster” back tooth recently? He had it preserved in resin and embedded in his new black custom-built beast of a guitar, as you do.
Francis greets me with a firm handshake, explaining how much he likes this tranquil hotel, a far cry from hectic London establishments he often finds himself in.
With the warm-up gig for Pixies’ European tour taking place just down the coast at Bexhill’s Art Deco-styled De La Warr Pavilion, he has good reason for residing at the Grand.
I’m not trying to be falsely humble, my ego’s plenty big but when people say, ‘You invented grunge’ or ‘no Pixies, no Nirvana’, I’m like, ‘Really?’
Pixies frontman Black Francis
He loves the music of French composer Claude Debussy, who stayed here in 1905 while correcting proofs of his magnum opus La Mer. He’s also a massive fan of The Stranglers, by the way.
At 54, Francis is a devoted teetotal dad, recently divorced from the mother of his three kids, who finds hitting the road an outlet for his more extrovert tendencies.
“Arrested development has mutated into this nice break from the routine of domesticity,” says the well-spoken New Englander.
“This is our little world. No one else can come into it, no one can judge it. We’re bringing home the money so no one can question it. Everyone can f*** off and leave us alone!”
On paper, that comment sounds abrasive but it’s delivered with the knowing laugh of a seasoned campaigner.
Before we get stuck into the new Pixies album, the deliciously dark and strange Beneath The Eyrie, it’s time for a quick recap.
The original band consisting of Black Francis (vocals and guitar), Joey Santiago (guitar), Dave Lovering (drums) and Kim Deal (bass and vocals) burst out of Boston in the late Eighties. They released four strikingly original albums between 1988 and 1991, Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde, noted for their combinations of menace and beauty, of loud and quiet, of dissonance and harmony.
The yin and yang of Francis, the full-on frontman, and Deal, the cool bassist, set them apart from their peers. He delivered the primal scream of Debaser while she sang lead on the infectious power pop of Gigantic.
Thinking back to those heady days, he remains sceptical about the band’s importance and influence despite high profile endorsements from Cobain and David Bowie in particular.
“I’m not trying to be falsely humble,” he says. “My ego’s plenty big but when people say, ‘You invented grunge’ or ‘no Pixies, no Nirvana’, I’m like, ‘Really?’.
“No one starts making rock music in a vacuum. You hear records and you go, ‘Oh, I want to do that’.”
In the case of Black Francis, it was “Iggy Pop, The Jam, Violent Femmes, Elvis Costello and a lot of Sixties rock.
‘MALE/FEMALE DYNAMIC SUITS MY PERSONALITY’
“One thing that helps me as principal songwriter is that we’ve never been locked into a scene,” he continues. “We like Steely Dan, we like The Clash. We’re a bit naive!”
In 1993, the first incarnation of the Pixies imploded in a cloud of exhaustion and acrimony, and Black Francis morphed into Frank Black, the solo artist.
“There was more stress back then, though not all down to tension between band members,” he reflects.
“Probably because we were younger, we were more argumentative, always having some point to make. We didn’t necessarily choose our battles well.”
Time proved a great healer and, in 2004, Pixies were back even if Deal, who had found success with The Breeders, was reluctant to take things to the next level and make a record.
Francis says: “If you’re going to write new material, it requires emotional commitment. Kim (Deal) wasn’t up for that. She was fine playing the old stuff and doing a tour once in a while.”
As Deal departed — “no big fight” — the remaining members, Francis, Santiago and Lovering agreed on the need for a female recruit.
After a bassist also called Kim (Shattuck) didn’t work out, the band settled on the enchanting Paz Lenchantin to provide that vital gender blending chemistry.
“For about a minute, we considered hiring another male but we’re used to the sexual dynamic of male/female,” says Francis.
Guitarist Joey Santiago[/caption]
Pixies drummer Dave Lovering[/caption]
Paz Lenchantin was brought in after original bassist and vocalist Kim Deal left the band[/caption]
“We’re not particularly crass in our maleness but a woman brings politeness to the affair.
“Anyway, the band make-up just feels right. It suits my personality. Even my friends out there in the world don’t tend to be all male. I like hanging out with women!”
As for Francis’ decision to put a lid on his considerable solo career to concentrate solely on Pixies, he has a compelling explanation.
“I feel that albums like Bluefinger (2007) and Svn Fngrs (2008) could easily have been Pixies records,” he says.
“I felt a degree of frustration but they were a creative outlet and I was able to keep proving to the band that I could still write songs.
“Now with Pixies, we earn a pretty good wage, much more than during our first incarnation.
“I have family, I have kids and tours take me away from them. I couldn’t really justify one for some solo record that is probably only going to break even.”
So how’s he’s getting on with his other “family,” fellow founder members Santiago and Lovering these days?
This is our little world. No one else can come into it, no one can judge it. We’re bringing home the money so no one can question it. Everyone can f*** off and leave us alone!
Pixies frontman Black Francis
“We’re at ease with each other,” he replies. “We don’t even talk that much, just kind of exist.
“Joey and I ended up going out for dinner last night but we didn’t plan it.
“We were wandering around (Eastbourne) at the same time. I spotted Joey and we started messing around, hiding behind trees. Then one of us said, ‘What are you doing? Do you want to go to dinner?’ ”
This brings us to Beneath The Eyrie, the third album by Pixies version 2.0, following 2014’s comeback album Indie Cindy and 2016’s Head Carrier.
‘OLD CHURCH HAD A HORROR MOVIE VIBE’
It was recorded at deconsecrated, late 19th Century St. John’s Church in Woodstock, upstate New York, and comes with a distinctly Victorian Gothic atmosphere, populated by freakish, ghostly, doom-laden characters.
The album title derives from an eagle’s nest spotted by Lovering up a nearby tree and the creepy setting clearly had a bearing on the music.
Francis says: “I suppose we could have gone to the Bahamas and made the same record but when we arrived in Woodstock, it was winter.
“There was mist on the ground, lots of swamp around us and adjacent to the church, there was this big cross with one arm missing. The place had a total horror-movie vibe.”
This explains how full- throttle On Graveyard Hill began as a “personal, not necessarily dark” affair but was finished by Lenchantin with lyrics about “the witching hour”.
And why incorporate a song called Silver Bullet unless it’s to mention one of the few weapons effective against vampires, witches and werewolves?
If it hadn’t been for Francis’s Scottish forbears, the album’s formidable Catfish Kate, inspiration for Pixies artist Vaughan Oliver’s weird, surreal cover image, would not exist.
The song assumes the voice of folklore figure Black Jack Hooligan, often called Black Jack Davy and a favourite of Robert Burns, who tells of his lover locked in mortal combat at the bottom of a river with a fearsome catfish.
“My father told me the story when my brother and I were young,” says Francis. “It was just one of a whole collection he knew around this Black Jack character.
“He was always trying to push the Scottish angle of our ancestry . . . stone cutters and quasi-criminals from Aberdeen who escaped to America on the run from the law.
“I actually went to the island where they settled this summer — Vinalhaven in Maine. The quarries there are not mined any more but there’s a house for sale, The Black House, which was in my family for 100 years.”
PIXIES: BENEATH THE EYRIE
1. In the Arms of Mrs Mark Of Cain
2. On Graveyard Hill
3. Catfish Kate
4. This Is My Fate
5. Ready for Love
6. Silver Bullet
7. Long Rider
8. Los Surfers Muertos
9. St. Nazaire
10. Bird Of Prey
11. Daniel Boone
12. Death Horizon
One ancestor who made that Atlantic crossing was Nellie Black, a name of great significance to the Pixies singer.
“It was my father who suggested to me, ‘Why don’t you call yourself Black Francis?’ because of her.”
One track on Beneath The Eyrie unleashes a full Debaser-style holler, St. Nazaire, named after the French seaport town south of Brittany used as a World War Two submarine base by the Germans.
It mentions the peculiar “selkie bride”. In Scottish mythology, a selkie can change from a seal to human form by shedding its skin.
Francis says: “I needed an expression for the female in that song. She’s rough round the edges. Two characters are drinking, f***ing and living above a bar in the rusty, lonely town of Saint-Nazaire, a place I love.”
As for the cathartic vocal, he adds: “Whenever a producer or manager has suggested, ‘How about a screamer?’ I’ve always found them to fall a little flat.
“But that song definitely just took me there, although I still haven’t quite muscled it into the right spot.” Beneath The Eyrie’s final offering, Death Horizon, ranges a jaunty, acoustic tune redolent of his solo years against apocalyptic, multi-layered lyrics dwelling on “the death of a relationship, the death of civilisation and the death of the planet.”
Bearing in mind recent events in his personal life, Francis maintains: “I’m talking full supernova obliteration here . . . three levels of finite.”
But as my encounter with this intriguing soul comes to an end, I ask what he really looks forward to in life.
“Painting,” he answers emphatically. “It’s great because there are no other people involved. I even stayed up late last night painting in my room, very abstract stuff.
“I don’t have to answer to anyone. I can do it for hours and hours. I can listen to music or not listen to music. I can be alone and I can do it all day every day.
“If this music thing doesn’t pan out, or if I take a sabbatical, I would totally just do painting.”
Looks like the Pixies have a Picasso on their hands.
It’s sometimes said, ‘no Pixies, no Nirvana’[/caption]
The band are back out on the road with a European tour[/caption]