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Here comes your man, Frank Black

The Pixies frontman ponders life, success and his band's reunion as the group prepares a 'Doolittle'-themed trio of shows at the Hollywood Palladium.

November 04, 2009|Geoff Boucher

The man they called Black Francis sipped his morning coffee, munched on chopped fruit and chuckled at the strange odyssey of this thing called life. In the past, the singer for the Pixies was famous for sounding crazed, possessed or sinister onstage, but at this particular breakfast moment he seemed positively . . . sunny.

"I guess I have this different perspective because we're in this funny place now," said the 44-year-old musician. "I have the benefit of age, the clarity of perspective and enjoyable things like success now. We play in venues that are, for the most part, sold out, we stay in nice hotels and we're applauded nightly for our greatness."

Francis, whose band starts a three-show stand tonight at the Hollywood Palladium, said that last bit with a self-mocking flourish, but there is something to this notion that the Pixies now play to audiences that arrive at the venue with a mix of reverence and, among younger fans, something akin to archival curiosity.

That's because of their curious fame trajectory; the Pixies were a force to be reckoned with before their 1993 breakup, certainly, but they actually became bigger after the split thanks to the praise of their famous fans, not least among them the late Kurt Cobain.

The pent-up interest in the quartet -- which is Francis, singer and bass player Kim Deal, guitar alchemist Joey Santiago and drummer Dave Lovering -- led to a scorching success when the band reunited in 2004. Here in Southern California, their performance that year on the main stage of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is considered one of the signature moments in the decade-long history of that franchise.

It was a time of triumph for a band that had gone through a nasty breakup, and the good feelings have endured.

The three Palladium shows are the start of a lightning-fast U.S. tour -- 21 announced dates in the next 26 days -- with an intriguing approach they just tried out in Europe: To celebrate the 20th anniversary of their major-label debut, the brilliant "Doolittle," the group will perform that album in its entirety along with related B-sides to fill out the bulk of the show.

The album has many of the Pixies' key works -- "Debaser," "Monkey Gone to Heaven," "Wave of Mutilation," "Tame" and the buoyant "Here Comes Your Man" -- but the show format also means performing the song "Silver" live for the first time ever and dusting off (and completely relearning) a track like "There Goes My Gun."

Playing a complete album in concert has become a popular approach for veteran artists looking for a new type of energy. Bruce SpringsteenBruce Springsteen, Brian Wilson and Nine Inch NailsNine Inch NailsNine Inch NailsNine Inch Nails are just a few of the acts that have sought a different sort of freedom through a locked-in set list. The Pixies singer said the approach demands that band members find special moments in the way they play, in addition to what they play.

"You have a kind of script there but you find yourself seeking the way things change within it," said the singer, whose birth certificate back in Boston reads Charles Thompson IV. "The attention to detail becomes intensified. The show becomes more theatrical in a way too. You note the positions of the voices and the quality of them at specific spots. If Kim and I are singing, are we on the beat, or is she just ahead of it and I'm just behind it? How nasal is my tone supposed to be in that intro? There's a deference to the material and the results can be amazing."

The Pixies formed in 1986 after Francis and Santiago became roommates at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and found a shared passion for music. Francis would become the songwriter and frontman for the Pixies, and their reputation spread as a band that created a weird and riveting sonic maelstrom. Still, the group never had major commercial success in the U.S. with their loud-quiet-loud approach, though that would become huge with Nirvana.

Only two albums followed "Doolittle" as Francis and Deal became bickering rivals in a power play for control of the band's sound. Francis went solo under the name Frank Black and Deal went on to form the Breeders. Lovering split time between drumming and pursuing a career in magic, of all things, while Santiago continued playing guitar, sometimes with Black.

There has been talk of recording an album of new material next year. This month, the band's long-awaited career retrospective "Minotaur" finally arrives and the lavish attention to detail speaks to the stature of the band: The $230 deluxe version weighs in at six pounds with 17 discs of music and video, a 54-page book, all the studio albums, a "lost" 1991 live performance and plenty of eye candy for devotees and students of the band.

Francis sounded giddy about "Minotaur" and what it represents but seemed more interested in looking around than looking backward. "As four, it's a different magical event -- we each can play onstage separately, but it's not the same power, and when I hear it now I recognize that," he said. "These four people together with these songs, there's a power there that's special. It's nice that we have this chance to understand that now.

"Everyone likes things like success but there are times when you receive it better than other times -- when you're 25, your life is chaotic in a different way and you're more full of yourself and your anger and things are just rockier," he added. "Maybe it's impossible to know how good things can be unless they've been bad. Maybe you need something to compare it to."

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geoff.boucher@latimes.com

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The Pixies

Where: Hollywood Palladium, 6215 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Tonight-Friday, 8 p.m.

Price: $50.50 to $56

Contact: (323) 962-7600

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