With his high-profile Pixies reunion tours in the bank and the inevitable new Pixies LP talk hovering as it always seems to, just over the horizon, you might believe Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV has finally consented to do a little laurel-resting. Hell, Thompson's even ditched "Frank Black" and returned to his Pixies-era nom de guerre, Black Francis — if ever there was a sign, right?
Wrong. Thompson, who appears solo May 11 at the Visulite Theatre, has never stood still despite — or maybe because of — being feted for his leading role with the Pixies in anticipating the '90s alt-rock movement. (An argument as specious as the genre, but it's one that's gained traction over the years when musicians from Kurt Cobain to Thom Yorke professed their Pixies love.) But after fighting against the riptide for so long, Thompson, now 48, has finally embraced his Pixies past. And he's found that effort freeing and inspiring to the degree that he's turned in some of his most ambitious efforts — and some say strongest since his early solo era — in recent years.
"So I'm the 'Where Is My Mind' guy, the Pixies guy,'" Black says of one of the band's more popular songs. "If that's what most people are going to know me for, for whatever reasons, then so be it. It's not a bad thing. It doesn't mean that I can't make new music or other records, it's nothing personal if there are more people on the planet who love Pixies records than love the solo records — you gotta get over that."
But getting past that took awhile. And as the years rolled on, the Pixies legacy only loomed larger — an iconic band preserved in presellout, no-reunions amber. Thompson and his fellow U-Mass students and Boston pals — guitarist Joey Santiago, drummer David Lovering and bassist Kim Deal — first turned heads in the mid-'80s with an eclectic attack of coruscating surf and punk guitars, Thompson's creepy falsetto and ferocious yowls, and loudQUIETloud (the title of a Pixies documentary) dynamics built atop enormous pop melodies. Combined with cryptic lyrics (sometimes sung in cryptic Spanish) and some of rock history's coolest album art, the Pixies became synonymous with the post-classic rock, post-modern aesthetic many independent-minded bands strove for under the "college rock" umbrella in the '80s.
What made the Pixies so refreshing was their willingness to pull from any influence and toss it in the blender — the "bassist-wanted" advertisement Deal answered asked for someone who was into both Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul & Mary, and Thompson was as comfortable writing about Luis Buñuel films or David and Bathsheba as he was about sea monkeys and earth-visiting Martians. But that volatile sonic mix and creative restlessness, along with the spiraling tension between Thompson and Deal over the band's direction, pulled the plug on the Pixies just as the world was catching on to what they were doing.
After the band's split in 1992, Thompson — switching his handle to Frank Black — turned out two excellent solo LPs that made clear he was the driving force behind the Pixies' sound while declaring his freedom from it. He added The Catholics, a crack band of mostly L.A. musicians, to the brand a couple of years later and released five records under that name. Some of those had a sunburned, Western-rock tinge, while others veered more toward country songwriter fare. That's the direction which Thompson — now without the Catholics again — turned to with 2005's Honeycomb and 2006's double-disc, Fastman/Raiderman, this time enlisting top Nashville sessions players like Spooner Oldham, Reggie Young, Steve Cropper and Anton Fig.
But after the Pixies reunited in 2004, maintaining distance between all these different sides of his musical self became, if not actually counterproductive, then just kind of pointless. Thompson says it made more sense to embrace it than fight it — "I can't cop the same stupid-ass attitude I had when I was 28," he says with a laugh — and that openness fit better with being more creative and less cranky in general.
"I was on a certain kind of path with the Frank Black thing, a rejection of my Pixies days and trying to do some things that were not necessarily super artsy or super angular, and I was comfortable with that for a really long time," he says, adding that after some personal crises and the reunions, "suddenly I was becoming a different guy again and I felt like, 'Oh, yeah, there was something I was tapping into earlier on that I'm not tapping into now, and I think I want to tap into it again.' It was a symbolic gesture to go back to who I was originally."
It's rare to hear an artist, once so dismissive of his past, re-embrace it like the prodigal career. But that doesn't mean Thompson is trundling out the oldies. The first Black Francis LP, 2007's Bluefinger, may have rekindled the hopes of fans longing for the good ol' Pixies days — the track "Threshold Companion" even copped an unrecorded riff leftover from the Surfer Rosa sessions, Thompson says. But channeling the life of Dutch punk rocker/painter/suicide Herman Brood, Thompson speculates, might've also been an act where "I had to kill off Frank Black and approach this new threshold out of my comfort zone."
The mini-LP SVN FNGRS followed in 2008, similarly built around a theme — this time the Irish mythological figure Cúchulainn and his seven-fingered hands. In 2010, Thompson tapped into more popular themes — sex and cinema — with NonStopErotik and a five-disc, limited-edition version of his music for the 1920 German Expressionist silent film masterpiece, The Golem. Condensing the fully fleshed-out songs onto a single disc, Thompson has expanded his palette considerably here and drawn comparisons to Tom Waits — though with Weimar Germany as the backdrop, and Waits' horn fixture Ralph Carney on board, that might've been inevitable.
But it's always indisputably Charles Thompson, too, bouncing from topic to topic and sound to sound, wherever his obsessions lead him. And in the end, all these different sonic personalities and narrative interests are what define him.
"In the past, my songs could barely keep up with my brain, or vice-versa, so I probably have some weak moments — but that's how you get to where you're going sometimes," Thompson candidly says, citing the artist's prerogative to do what they want, when they want. "I'm just kind of hyper, kind of busy-bee hyper, I want to make a lot of records, I want to write a lot of songs — whatever it is I'm doing, I want to do a bunch of it because it's fun! I'm not doing it because I'm trying to make some big fucking artistic statement so I can give everyone goose-bumps and tears. That's great, I get goose-bumps and tears over people's art, too, but I can't say that's what drives me.
"Sometimes stuff gets too bogged down in, 'Is this what I really want to be saying right now to the world? Is this what the audience wants to hear right now?' That's not where I come from, and it just kind of sounds like bullshit to me."