Friday, September 19, 2008
Being obsessed with Dutch madmen, bringing your kids to work and having a back catalogue most musicians would kill for, it's another day at the office for BLACK FRANCIS as ANDY HAZEL discovers.
Throughout his various monikers and music projects there has been a constant sense of unlikely success and a well-constructed fervour about Black Francis, a man for whom integrity is hardwired and any sense of selling out laughable, at least, when you're not playing with The Pixies.
Recent years have seen priorities shift and kids, a constant source of bucolic burbling in the background of our conversation, are a factor he must consider in his life as a musician. "It's totally challenging," Francis confesses of the balance he now aims to strike. "You just fucking do it. Just do whatever you got to do. We walk into a studio with a whole bunch of kids with us and well…we do what we can. This includes subjecting them to cruelty," he adds with an audibly Nicholson-esque smile. "The older ones we'll bring in on the act: 'Just hit that snare drum until we tell you to stop hitting that snare drum.' They get it. They want to be in show biz. They want their own TV show and yeah, I'm totally OK about that. I mean, what else do I have to offer them? I can teach them to be their own boss or do what they want to do, but what can I actually teach them about? I can teach them about how to make a record and to be in a band."
That he can, and of course they'd be learning from one of the finest. A veteran of The Pixies as well as several of his own eponymous projects, Francis is his own man in a way few other musicians can be. In stark contrast to his domestic life, he recently completed Bluefinger, an album about legendary Dutch iconoclast Herman Brood. Renown for his overt hard-drug use as much as his painting, acting, singing and songwriting before his suicide in 2001, Brood was, interestingly enough, a Pixies fan.
"I'd heard about him in the background of my life," explains Francis. "I knew enough about him to do a Youtube search and there he was, there began my obsession. I'd never been inspired about a single subject matter before and he's a charismatic guy; an all-out sex-crazed drug addict and alcoholic, hooked on speed, totally obsessed with sex, drinking and drugging all the time, hanging out in whorehouses - on some level that looks like fun. I'm not saying that's what I want to do or the way I want to live my life but I'm not judgemental about it. I have a very clear idea in my own mind of what he was about and what he was dealing with. I wasn't trying to put myself in his shoes when I was writing songs, I don't feel like I could literally be in his shoes and I don't have a background of being a heroin addict, but it isn't all about that either. It's about his charisma and unapologetic attitude - even his drug-related songs are cautionary tales; drugs are great and they're bad also."
His recent EP Svn Fngrs sees Francis warming to the idea of writing about single subjects, this one exploring the legend of Ulster hero Cúchulainn.
Despite having few lifestyle habits in common with Brood or heroes from Ancient Gaelic literature, it's not hard to see the appeal of the raw confidence and honesty fans see as synonymous with Francis as a performer and a songwriter. Fitting in with an approach to music writing, recording and performance he describes as 'more of the Neil Young and Bob Dylan way– a snapshot of where I was at on that particular day,' Francis is clearly far from precious about how he comes across, a quality you can imagine Brood could identify with. "It's fucking rock music man. If you get too fussy about it it's too much for me. I'm not fussy. If you look at The Pixies records or shows or any recording you'll see I'm not that fussy. I can get tedious, I can really get into it but at the same time it runs the gamut. Sometimes it's real loose, sometimes it's real tight, sometimes I've got a cold, sometimes I'm pretty like a little angel, that's just way it is. I don't feel like I've got to be what the image dictates, I realise there are some actors and artists who will proceed with rules and certain sets of parameters; 'if I can't present myself like this I won't be presented'. I'm not going to say 'I'm overweight so I'm not going to be in the video', or 'I'm sick so I'm not going to sing'. I'm not going to cancel the fucking show because I've got a cold." He says before narrating in detail a bad case of sinusitis remedied with a neti pot and naturopathy.
As reassuring as that sentiment is, some fans were a little bemused at a recent offering that saw Francis team up with Nashville music legends Steve Cropper and Spooner Oldham for 2005's Honeycomb, a well-reviewed album despite the rumblings of some fans. "I always consider the response, and to be fair to the criticism I do listen back to those sessions and…you know, some of them were recorded straight after a gig, but I stand by them. I was really tired at that time so I guess if it seems a little lacklustre to a fan of mine I can understand why they may feel that way. In general I really like the recordings, but would I change certain things about them? Of course, but I got to experience something different and different levels of playing and I really appreciated it. A few people appreciated the direction, but most of my fans didn't and that's OK, that's fine. I learned a lot and I'd do it again. Hanging out with people like Steve Cropper etcetera you're hanging out with people with a lot of mojo, they have as much mojo as a Rolling Stone – a band many of them have played with! From a musician's point of view, stuff like the criticism doesn't matter: 'you know what? You're not a musician, you don't understand what it's like sitting down with Levon Helm, sorry, you don't get it.' I don't care if we sit down and sing Happy Birthday we're going to do this fucking thing. These people are legendary and these recording sessions are going to outlive both of us."
Perhaps one day it will be his life we'll hear recounted on an album. As long as that artist captures a belligerent will, a fearsome level of creativity and unequivocal candour, it should be worth a listen.