Even for a frontman whose songs are often dripping with menace, Biblical violence, death and sci-fi imagery, Charles Thompson IV, aka Pixies howler-in-chief Black Francis/Frank Black is finding the world too desolate for even his fevered imagination. With the Pixies, he helped established quiet-loud blueprint for grunge, but he’s wishing current events had more quiet periods.
“Some of the events of the last few years, with the Presidential election in the United States and Donald Trump and all that other nonsense, and then the coronavirus pandemic and now worldwide recession, amid these extreme weather patterns, add together all this stuff and it starts to feel very dystopian,” he says, offering up a verbal rolling chyron of the last few years.
For someone who remains monk-like taciturn onstage, he’s a fantastic orator in conversation: he even makes a trip to Aldi sound akin to if Sodom and Gomorrah contained a mystery middle aisle. “There’s rippling tension everywhere you look,” he bristles. “There’s an economic strain on people and you see it when you go to Aldi and realise, ‘Shit, there are four security guards in this fucking discount grocery store to make I don’t run off with too many cans of tuna fish for free!’”
Backstage in a dressing room Manchester’s Band on the Wall, before Pixies are due to perform an intimate gig to 500 baying fans on a sweltering Tuesday, Francis explains that it was coffee this morning that pushed him over the edge. Stepping over vomit from the previous night, he ordered espresso with oatmeal milk, and it arrived in a beautiful ceramic cup. All was well until the barista informed him the venue was card-only, and the trap-door to despair opened. “I just thought: that’s it! That’s another sign of the dystopia! No cash! Unless you have the Mark of the Beast, you can’t get your coffee”, he laughs in mock-exasperation. “I got the 666 right here!” he mimes, banging his credit card.
“Anyway, between that and everything else – the United States banning abortion but not guns, despite the mass shootings, and oh! It’s the hottest day of the year tomorrow – it feels like we’re going to hell in a handbasket, and it’s the most grim and dystopian it’s ever been in my lifetime. I’m embarrassed in front of my children, just sheepishly apologising: ‘Sorry the world’s as corrupt as it is!’” Still, he says, “even if you have a fatalist view of life, sometimes you just have to sit back and find a way to enjoy that damn coffee!”
The irony is that during the period some felt represented the actual apocalypse, the COVID-19 shutdown, Francis had a relatively idealistic time, unshackled from the touring cycle. Indeed, if it had been left up to him, Pixies’ forthcoming album, ‘Doggerel’ (September 30) might have never arrived. After his band were forced off the road in Australia in March 2020, he hunkered down at his Massachusetts home with no desire to leave his cocoon.
“I was raising chickens and hanging out with my teenagers for a year and a half and I wasn’t necessarily excited about going back into the world, ‘cause everything finally stopped and slowed down and I was able to enjoy a few simple things in my life for the first time,” explains the 57-year-old. “The whole end-of-the-world atmosphere aside, there was a lot of it that felt really good.”
He’s amassed enough money not to be worried about financial concerns, plus he could easily rest on his laurels should he wish. Having formed Pixies in Massachusetts in 1986 with his university friend, guitarist Joey Santiago (and completed by Kim Deal on bass and drummer David Lovering) the band’s their imperial phase, lasting from 1986 to 1993, bore the indie rock milestones, 1988’s ‘Surfer Rosa’ and 1989’s ‘Doolittle’; David Bowie once anointed them as “the psychotic Beatles” due to their sweeping influence.
A quintessential ‘changed my life’ band, they acted as a lodestar for the likes of Nirvana (even the most flustered contestant on an alt-rock round of BBC game show Pointless could identify that ‘Nevermind’ was Kurt Cobain’s attempt to “rip off” Pixies), Radiohead, Wolf Alice and The Strokes. Having reunited in 2004, their personnel remains the same, minus Deal, whose volatile relationship with Francis had played a part in the band’s demise the first time round. She exited the band before recording their comeback album ‘Indie Cindy’ in 2014, and, after a few reshuffles, Paz Lenchantin filled Deal’s iconic fag ash-drenched shoes since then.
It took the label sending producer Tom Dalgety [Ghost, Royal Blood] from England who helmed Pixies’ last two albums, 2016’s ‘Head Carrier’ and 2019’s ‘Beneath the Eyrie’, to Francis’ house to “coax him into “composing a few ditties.” Even then, ‘Doggerel’ was mainly written in a prolific eleventh-hour creative scramble: Francis needed the adrenaline only a deadline could provide.
A month before Pixies were due to convene in January 2022 in an eco-friendly studio in Guildford, Vermont, he sequestered himself in his atelier – a painting space he describes as “like a monk’s quarters with art supplies. That’s Dad’s Zone and the teenagers know to leave me alone when I’m up there,” he says. “For a whole month, I went up there and smoked spliffs and wrote shitloads of songs and just sang them into my phone. And it was really fun.”
Francis emerged with over 40 songs in his chamber, and felt that he needed to raise his game. “I’ve never been that prepared for a recording session in my life. This time I felt like: ‘Jesus, it’s been two years since we last got together and this is what? Our fucking 100th album or whatever the fuck? I thought I owed it to the band and the producer to come up with some goods.”
The result is ‘Doggerel’, not quite Pixies’ 100th album, but rather the band’s eighth studio effort, and their fourth since their reunion. It’s a 12-track collection that moves from the lycanthropy-themed guitar squall of ‘There’s a Moon On’ – which details the effect of the lunar cycle on the patrons in Francis’ brother’s bar – to spaghetti-western “doom-folk” (‘Vault of Heaven’). From there, soon follows rock classicism of ‘Dregs of the Wine’ and Francis’ own favourite – ‘Who’s More Sorry Now?’, “which has a certain Tom Petty feeling,” he says.
“We’re getting better at what we do,” says Francis of the record’s sound. “Gradually over the years we’ve been building up different kinds of muscles and we have a cosmopolitan sophistication that we’re able to tap into on this record more than we’ve been able to before. We’re able to get a little more cinematic.”
Particularly Santiago, who had been influenced by the scores of Ennio Morricone. Francis also claims they sought to push the acoustic guitar centre-stage and prized minimalism. “We were putting simplicity on a pedestal for this album. As the Japanese would say, why would you want to take this perfectly good piece of fish and ruin it by cooking? We were attracted to minimalism.”
Many of Francis’s usual lyrical hallmarks are present on ‘Doggerel’ – religious iconography (‘The Lord Has Come Back Today’), sci-fi phantasmagoria (‘There’s a Moon On’) and surrealism. Highlight ‘Dregs of the Wine’, meanwhile, begins with the lyric: “While I prefer the original version of ‘You Really Got Me’, she will defer to the Van Halen version’, which takes its cue from a fabricated reason he gave for his divorce from his first wife.
“That was a song about a time in my life when I was living in LA with my first wife, there were lots of trips to Las Vegas, and lots of boozing and drugging going on,” he says. “It’s a warm reminiscence of those times. The argument about Van Halen is a reference to a fake argument that my wife and I constructed to give a reason for our break-up. ‘What shall we say to all the nice people who ask why we broke up?’ That shall be our stated reason. So it’s just a fond inside-humour between her and I.”
The music for ‘Dregs of the Wine’ was written by Santiago and, along with the lyrics to the title track ‘Doggerel’, it represents his first two Pixies songwriting credits ever. “He’d expressed some interest in doing some writing before the pandemic hit, so it was on the table anyway as something that would happen,” says Francis. “He enjoyed doing it, so he’s going to be doing more.”
It’s not just Santiago who stepped up his game: these sessions also found drummer David Lovering and, in particular, bassist Lenchantin, feeling revitalised after the relative hiatus. Eight years into replacing Deal, the recording of ‘Doggerel’ saw her come into her own. “She does have a lot of respectful deference to whatever the legacy of the band is or the shoes she has to fill and she likes the band so she never wanted to overstep her presence or whatever, so she’s probably felt a bit reticent in the past,” says Francis. “But now she’s finally feeling comfortable with the whole situation to go: ‘Here’s my idea. Let’s do it’. Which is good because she’s a very creative person.”
With any genre-defining legacy band, there’s always the question of whether new material can escape the mocking shadow of the past and how far to hew to fans’ platonic ideal of what the band should sound like. If 2014’s ‘Indie Cindy’ picked up the baton from 1991’s ‘Trompe Le Monde’ and ‘Head Carrier’ contained flickers of their seminal debut ‘Surfer Rosa’ and its follow-up ‘Doolittle’, with ‘Doggerel’, they refused to be straitjacketed by expectation. “There’s no point trying to box in it too tight, because it’s going to end up sounding like Pixies anyway, even if it’s something we’ve never done before,” shrugs Francis. “It still sounds like us, so I think we’re pretty comfortable with trying different things more than we used to be now.”
Francis also feels liberated in that he reasons streaming has diminished the cultural force of groups, even one that proved as seismic as them. “In the internet age, rock music has been knocked off its pedestal,” posits Francis. “People just don’t need it as much, do they? Compared to the way they used to – at least when I was a kid – it’s not lauded in the same way and it doesn’t have the same stature culturally, which is fine – that’s showbusiness. It has to compete with other things.”
“My kids are plugged into the Matrix of their phones and listen to whatever they want: one minute they’re listening to K-pop and the next it’s Fats Waller; they’re not pledged to just one band or one genre. When you have a digital archive on your phone, it’s: ‘great, down the rabbit hole we go!’ But it’s only when you get off-the-grid and find something in a record store that’s not available online that it feels exclusive to you and magical.”
However, outside the Matrix, at the gig six hours later, Pixies are among the diehards. “Every garage band grows up with the club in their DNA, and I wish we could play more small club gigs, but it’s not financially viable,” Francis tells NME of the date. As Francis gutturally roars with the primal force of a werewolf with toothache, through the thrilling likes of ‘Debaser’ – and their 1988 O-Zone layer-referencing environmental anthem ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’ sounds even more salient given the mercury rising outside – Pixes’ flame shines as phosphorus as ever, performing 41 songs in a setlist made up, as ever, off the hoof.
They preview a trio of songs from ‘Doggerel’ tonight (‘Who’s More Sorry Now’, ‘The Lord Has Come Back Today’, and ‘Vault of Heaven’); a picture of a band honouring their legacy while turning the page. Joyous dancing breaks out to ‘Here Comes Your Man’, and in the middle of all the chaos is Francis, not saying a word, but metaphorically enjoying his damn coffee.
Pixies’ ‘Doggerel’ is out September 30