Black on Black
It's been three years since Frank Black last participated in a round of interviews intended to publicize his music, yet he already seems ready for another breather. "I'm sick of it," he confirms. "Writers are always looking for some stupid, lame-ass angle.
"Sometimes I have interviews when I'm in a grouchy mood and sometimes I have interviews when I'm in a fabulous mood," he continues in a martyred tone that leaves little doubt about his attitude on this day. "Sometimes I've had a few drinks and sometimes I've had a few cups of coffee. I can't imagine the kind of range of moods I've been in."
Black seemed somewhat less embittered during the Eighties and early Nineties, when he and Kim Deal, Joey Santiago and David Lovering worked together as the Pixies. The band's three albums (Surfer Rosa, Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde) were big influences on practically every performer operating in the burgeoning field of alternative music, as was Black Francis, as Black was then known. The Boston-based quartet also enjoyed popular acclaim, moving from small clubs to an opening slot on a U2 arena tour over the course of only five years.
But just when the act seemed ready to break through, it broke up as a result of internal friction between Black and the outspoken Deal. Shortly thereafter, the newly monikered Black issued a self-titled solo debut that got lost amid coverage of the Pixies' demise and the rise of the Breeders, a Deal-led project whose album went platinum. Disgruntled, Black took a no-publicity stance following the appearance of 1994's Teenager of the Year, a 22-song opus that garnered positive reviews and precious little airplay. Black believes part of the reason for Teenager's poor performance was its eclecticism. "It was kind of all over the map," he notes. "That was the vibe."
On The Cult of Ray, his latest, Black takes a less ambitious, eminently more accessible approach by crafting simple bass, drum and guitar parts onto solid pop numbers. Some of the new tunes--especially a pair of instrumentals and the facetious "Kicked in the Taco," which features the profound lines "Hey, I got kicked in the taco/There's a brewing sirocco"--have the feel of trashy filler. However, "I Don't Want to Hurt You (Every Single Time)" serves as a quick reminder that Black can be a nearly unparalleled songwriter if he puts his mind to it.
When it comes to elaborating on the creation of pieces like this one, Black is not exactly forthcoming. "I got a drummer, a bass player and a lead guitar player together, and we rock out," he explains to those unfamiliar with the workings of a standard rock-and-roll outfit. "Is that different from our last album? Well, I suppose. But there was that element on every album I've ever made. At the core, there's your basic rock-band setup. How's it different from the last one? Well, this time we didn't have any keyboards."
As for the lyrics on Ray, Black reveals, "I'm a Ray Bradbury fan who happens to have written some science-fiction material. I respect him, and I like what he has to say. I like the feelings and the opinions I've picked up through him, through his books and through his speeches. In celebration of that, I have called my new album The Cult of Ray." Ask for elaboration, though, and you're treading on thin ice. "Not much of a history," he snaps. "The Cult of Ray, named after Ray Bradbury, author."
Any mention of Elektra, the company that released Black's first two albums, receives a similarly terse response. "They suck. They were shafting me," he claims. His new deal with American Records, with whom he signed after buying his way free of Elektra's clutches, is much more to his liking, though he implies that his situation as a musician hasn't changed much. "I'm playing the same clubs I've always played in and the same towns," he explains. "I guess there are differences, but when you really look at it, I'm still traveling around with a band playing songs."
Then why bother with the hassle of sitting for interviews?
"I want to sell some records!" a suddenly enlivened Black announces. "I've got a new record company and a new album. I worked damned hard on it and spent my money on the record. It cuts into your business if you don't do interviews. I definitely took a cut when I didn't do publicity."
Given his Dennis Rodman-like approach to public relations, Black may not be striking it rich anytime soon. Still, he says he's trying to remain positive. "I'm not frustrated right now," he maintains, without much conviction. "I'm just reducing it to basically what the hell's going on.
"I do these interviews all the time," he adds. "I almost feel like, you know, 'So what?'"
Frank Black, with Jonny Polonsky. 8 p.m. Thursday, April 18, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $12.50, 830-2525 or 1-800-444-
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