Frank Black on Songwriting, The Catholics and Revisiting Old Material

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Charles Thompson—aka Black Francis, aka Frank Black—has been somewhat active in recent years with the Pixies, sans Kim Deal, of course. Whether he’s adding to or damaging the band’s legacy depends on whom you ask.

But there’s another body of work with his former band the Catholics that hasn’t been talked about for a while. They called it a day in 2003 when Black reformed the Pixies, leaving six records. The Catholics kept it straighter than Black’s better-known band on records like Pistolero and Black Letter Days, digging into Americana and classic rock, while retaining some of Black’s notable quirks.

He just released Frank Black and the Catholics: The Complete Recordings on Cooking Vinyl, and that’s literally what it is—seven discs, featuring every song ever recorded by the band (plus demos and B-sides) all arranged alphabetically as they have been known to do with albums and setlists. It’s a body of work worth revisiting. And that’s exactly what we did, spending a solid 45 minutes talking with Black about what makes his songwriting tick, doing things alphabetically and scratching his Tom Petty itch.

Paste : In your eyes or, I guess, your ears, what makes the Catholics different from the Pixies or your solo material?
 Frank Black: I guess the main thing, and this is from a technical aspect, is that it’s all recorded live. I would say in general that the Catholics material—not all of it, but a lot of it—tends to be rooted in this American rock and roll kind of aesthetic. Sort of reared in lots of ’70s music. It’s less arty, I would say. It’s not trying to be mainstream music or anything like that, but it’s sort of more like a Rolling Stones record, or Bob Dylan. A Tom Petty. But I don’t want to be black and white about this, because the Pixies have their Tom Petty moments, too.

Paste : A lot of it probably has to do with the people you’re playing with.
Black: Some of it has to do with the people, because all of the guitarist players that played in the Catholics—and there were three—were all sort of, you know, kind of chops, hot-rod kind of guitarists. And a couple of them could play pedal-steel guitar. So when you have people like that playing with you, you can scratch a lot of itches. You can go like, “Well I wanna play something that sounds like Johnny Cash, or I wanna do something that sounds like Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.” I mean, sure, you want to be creative, you want to be original, you want to write songs that are good regardless of whatever itches you’re trying to scratch, but sometimes, you know, I consider it a treat to be able to be recording, and do something that is in a certain genre or certain feel. It’s not about, “Oooh, how can I impress the indie rock music business world?” Don’t get me wrong I don’t go through that kind of thought process when I’ve done artier records with the Pixies, either. You don’t sit around and calculate—you do what feels good to you, or what feels natural. It’s not really about that, you know. It’s just fucking music.

Paste : How hands-on were you in putting this collection together?
Black: Well, I was literally hands-on to gain access to the material, because it was boxes of tape in my possession.

Paste : How was it revisiting these songs?
Black: We had our A-list, which was from the original records. Then we had our B-list, which would’ve been other things that would’ve been bonus tracks or B-sides—stuff that was out there, but not on the records. Then there was the C-list, material that had never been released—so ultimately songs that would’ve been rejected for some reason [laughs]. It was these little rejects—and there weren’t a lot of them—that really were the only ones that required contemplation, know what I mean? Is there a reason why we didn’t release it the first time? Like, “OK, I can hear that. Are these best left unreleased, or can I forgive whatever aspects hindered them from being released the first time?” It was more about compiling everything as opposed to, “What should I put on there?” It’s box set—put everything on there!

Paste : When you release a retrospective like this, you’re asked to reflect on the past. Are you interested in that sort of thing?
Black: I’m very accustomed to the routine of being interviewed by somebody, and inevitably that person is going to ask me to reflect on some point in time because, whatever, that’s your legacy, that’s what you’re dragging around with you. I’m very frank with people, and tell them, “You know I don’t usually think about that.” I’m really happy to have it released, but it’s not like I need to have some sort of magical, fuzzy reconnection with my past to coincide with the box set [laughs]. I’m sure there are people that are like that, and I’m not mocking someone that might have those tendencies, but I’m not going to sit around… those moments in my life will happen whenever they happen, but I can’t plan on them. And releasing a box set is a planned event, you know what I mean?

Paste : Well, here’s another question that will ask you to reflect a little bit. If you were to assess your songwriting from your very early days to now, what would be your take on that?
Black: I guess as far as my songwriting, I’m sort of a quirky songwriter. I don’t want to use the phrase “I’m a hit or miss songwriter,” because it’s just all about creating a recorded document that is not boring. So, what is not boring to you in terms of your record collection? I’m sure it’s quite varied. Same with me. And same with all the records that I’ve been associated with. It’s not like I’m trying to do a certain kind of song. Anything is fine. You know, I gotta say that not every song that I’ve ever written, years later ends up being, “Oh yeah, what a magical song that I wrote.” You know, it’s like, “No, it wasn’t that magical.” At the time it felt magical. At the time it felt important. Certain songs just sound like the quirky ditties that they are. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In terms of the audience, when I talk to people and they say, “Oh, I love your stuff; I really love such-and-such song.” And it’ll be that weird little ditty. So that kind of blows everything out of the water. If that’s his favorite song, who’s to say that he’s wrong? It gives you license to just do a bunch of stuff; and some of it will sound really catchy, and some of it will sound weird, some of it will sound kind of mainstream, and some of it will sound like I have no business touching that genre. But I’m going to do it anyway. And part of being an artist is being willing to fail.

Paste : The songs on the box set are arranged alphabetically, which, without a particular track order, shows how strong they are. It’s just a sea of songs.
Black: I think that’s the cockiness of doing something in alphabetical order, whether it’s a setlist, a record, or in this case an entire box set. It’s just a kind of cocky bravado. I know that every song is not amazing—I get it. But here I am asking someone to buy it—I’m releasing it. I’m saying, “Hey this is good enough to eat. You can buy this; you can eat this donut.” It’s kind of a way to show loyalty to the material. It’s like, “You know what? It’s all good. It’s all valid.” That’s my personality.

Paste : With that said, is there a particular Catholics record that stands out to your ears?
Black: No, they all have their own little background story. And that background story has an impact on the sound.

Paste : I’m a fan of Pistolero myself.
Black: Pistolero is songs that were written very quickly, because of the excitement of having this band. I was supposed to be patiently working out some songs with the producer, and it turned into more a situation of me calling the producer and saying, “Hey, I wrote like 10 new songs and I really love them; let’s start recording tomorrow.” [laughs] It’s impatience. But it’s not impatience for a bad reason; it’s the impatience of being really excited about making music. I think there’s a lot of energy in that. Would I have written better songs if I would’ve given it a few months? Well maybe, I don’t know. Again, it’s kind of bravado. It’s like, “I’ve got some songs! Let’s record them now! These sound fucking awesome! Let’s release them right now!”

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