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BLACK MAGIC : Former Pixies Leader Is Going It Alone, but He Isn't Leaving the Cosmos Behind

July 08, 1993|RICHARD CROMELIN | Richard Cromelin is a free-lance writer who regularly writes about pop music for The Times.

Frank Black's first solo album is full of homages to contemporary pop-music heroes, from Iggy Pop to John Denver, the Ramones to the Beach Boys. But the musician he identified with the most when he abruptly ended the prosperous career of his band the Pixies a few months ago was from a different era altogether.

" A la Glenn Miller, on New Year's Eve I broke up the band," he said.

Black relishes the connection as he tells the story over a martini in the bar of an old Burbank restaurant.

Black and his girlfriend were driving to one of their favorite destinations, a remote copper mining area in Arizona, a couple of days after he had notified the three other Pixies that the band was no more.

"We bought some swing tapes, because she's really into the big-band stuff," Black recalls. "And so we picked up some Glenn Miller tapes at the record store, and then we're reading the liner notes as we're driving. Oh yeah--on New Year's Eve he broke up his band. This is exactly what I had just done 24 hours before or whatever. It was kind of funny.

"Fortunately," he adds, alluding to the bandleader's death in World War II while flying to France to entertain the troops, "I'm not much into the military, 'cause I'd be really freakin' out."

Black's jocularity doesn't allow much sentiment for the past or sympathy for his former band-mates, whom he dumped by fax. But after six-plus years, the personal and musical dynamics had simply gone stale, he said.

"Five albums and as many tours. I mean it's sort of like, 'Aw, let's finally do this.' Everyone's wondering if I was gonna do it anyway, so let's just do it."

Black, whose real name is Charles Thompson and who was known as Black Francis during the Pixies era, is off to a promising if unspectacular start in his solo career. His album, "Frank Black," came out in April and has sold more than 100,000 copies. While it hasn't made him a mainstream force, he has connected with his natural constituency--the record has been near the top of the college radio airplay charts since its release, and the reviews have been enthusiastic.

Black's maiden solo tour brings him to the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Sunday, preceding shows at the Palace in Hollywood on Wednesday and the Ventura Theatre in Ventura on Thursday. His band is a sort of avant-alternative super-group, combining former Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago with Pere Ubu members Tony Maimone (bass) and Eric Drew Feldman (synthesizers). Feldman, whose credits include work with Captain Beefheart, the titan of rock visionaries, co-produced the album with Black and was a key shaper of its sound.

For Black, the biggest difference is freedom .

"It isn't so much I'm out of the Pixies. That's part of it, but the other thing is, you know, you learn how to play the guitar better, and you learn how to make a record, and you meet other musicians, and you hear more records, and you just want to do more kinds of stuff.

"You don't want to only do your one trick that you started out with. You want to go beyond that. Or else do something out of music. It's one or the other. It's move ahead and learn from other people or go back to school and learn to do something else."


Black orders another drink from the waitress. He looks more like a guy who'd be hunched over a beer at a blue-collar bar, but he seems to be enjoying his martinis in this slightly incongruous setting of dark wood and Naugahyde.

"I don't know how to make 'em really," the roly-poly singer volunteers. "I know sort of what goes in 'em. I should know. My dad owns a bar in Massachusetts, and I've worked there. But you never get someone comin' in there askin' for a martini. The most complicated it gets is a Cape Codder, which is like cranberry juice and vodka."

As a child, Black moved back and forth between the Los Angeles area and Boston, spending most of his adolescence in Torrance. He formed the Pixies in Boston after briefly attending the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the University of Puerto Rico. The quartet immediately secured an underground following with its distinctive music--visceral as punk, but oddly haunting and disturbing in an arty, David Lynch sort of way.

Though born too soon to partake of alternative rock's current commercial boom, the Pixies anticipated it, building their audience until they could headline large theaters. They dented the national pop album charts with 1989's "Doolittle" and got further exposure when U2 invited them to open a leg of last year's arena tour.

Even with that boost, the Pixies' future looked doubtful. In an interview after the U2 tour, Black considered the prospects and said "it may be a long road ahead for me playing in bands and stuff, but I don't see the Pixies making records for 12 years or something. . . . To be honest, I'm hoping for other things."

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