Frank Black is releasing only one record this year. But it's a really big one, with a large cast of characters to match.
As leader of the Pixies, Black Francis headed up construction of one of the most compact bodies of work in all of alternative rock: five albums in about five years, each tightly packed with jagged yet tuneful noise-pop that earned far more acclaim after the Boston band's breakup in 1992 than during its lifetime. With the Pixies finished - at least until 2004, when the quartet reunited for a series of rapturously received live shows - Francis changed his name to Frank Black and began a solo career in which he's produced one of alternative rock's most sprawling bodies of work: 11 albums so far, spanning the stylistic gamut from futuristic surf music to Tex-Mex roots rock to live-in-the-studio garage pop.
Black's latest is a double-disc set called Fastman Raiderman (Back Porch/EMI). Like last year's Honeycomb, it's a country-fried effort recorded primarily in Nashville with a large cast of legendary sidemen, including Cheap Trick's Tom Petersson and Levon Helm of the Band. "You can take a pile of songs this size and you can make an A list and a B list," Black says on the phone from his home in Oregon. "And while the A-list stuff that ends up on the record may be good, you're always kind of disappointed that three or four things from the top of the B list aren't on there. You're like, 'Well, I still like it. How's it ever gonna see the light of day?' " One answer: Release it all.
You've been tremendously prolific in the 14 years since the Pixies broke up. I'm sure that there are people out there who are way more prolific than me. One of the guys that plays on my new record used to play with Van Morrison, and it came up in conversation that apparently Van always has about 12 albums' worth of material on the back burner. He's constantly recording, and whenever he needs a record he just culls from this pile of 15 hours of music - "Okay, let's make an album out of this."
Do you have stuff on the back burner? Not really, no. If I could put out two or three records a year, I'd be perfectly happy doing that.
You did release two in 2002: Black Letter Days and Devil's Workshop. But the record industry doesn't really encourage that today. So releasing Fastman Raiderman as a double album is a surreptitious way to put out two albums in one year. It's also an aesthetic thing, I think. A lot of people have this notion of the good, solid album - that's a certain take on one's music. And then the other take is, "Hey, let it all hang out, man!" Where your manager or your producer is saying, "Why don't you whittle it down to the best 35 minutes," and you're going, "No, man - just put it all out there."
Tell me about recording with the old-school guys you got to play on Honeycomb and the new one. Cool experience? Oh, yeah, it's great. It sort of legitimizes you - it makes you feel good about your own stuff. These guys, they've sat around with some of the biggest names in the business, and now they're sitting around the table with you, discussing your arrangement and playing your stuff. And seemingly approving, you know? It's not like they're saying, "Gee, we're really scraping the bottom of the barrel here." They're working to make it as good as they can. That feels good.
Did it feel like working with a bunch of pros? Or was it similar to playing in a band? They seem like rock musicians to me. A lot of them probably have led much wilder lives than I ever have. They're all veterans of the 1960s; they've all got these war stories. They're older, but they're almost like a bunch of old bikers. They've seen it all, as far as what the music business has to offer.
Has the process increased how much you focus on the technical aspects of your playing? Yeah, a little bit. My breaking of a lot of rules - which, when I started out, came from an innocent, naive place - have become certain stylistic things. And I think the Nashville guys have made me aware of things that I do that they don't run across every day. They just kind of go, "Here he comes again with his weird chord progression." And that's good. I've been doing it long enough that it comes off naturally and with a lot of confidence.