Pixies' Black Francis Talks New Album, 'Doolittle' Turning 30 & His 'Soft Leadership' of the Band
Sept. 13 will mark the release of the Pixies’ seventh full-length studio effort, Beneath the Eyrie, an album that sees the highly influential alt-rock group -- Black Francis (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Joey Santiago (lead guitar), Paz Lenchantin (bass), and David Lovering (drums) -- team up once again with producer Tom Dalgety (who worked on their previous album, 2016’s Head Carrier).
It's been six years since original bassist Kim Deal exited the group (to continue work as a solo artist and with her other band, the Breeders), but the Pixies have refused to get sidetracked -- in addition to the aforementioned release, they offered up another studio full-length, 2014’s Indie Cindy, which became their highest-ever charting album in the U.S., peaking at No. 23 on the Billboard 200.
Billboard spoke to Francis (aka Frank Black/Charles Thompson) shortly after the release of the album’s debut single, “On Graveyard Hill," about the new music, the 30-year anniversary of one of their classic records and more.
What is the meaning behind the album title, Beneath the Eyrie?
I guess it’s a reference to an eagle’s nest that was outside the studio. I believe it was in the church steeple. They converted an old church into a studio. I believe David the drummer, being a wildlife observer, spotted this. And the producer, Tom Dalgety, suggested it as an album title. We usually pick album titles from a lyric or a song title. This time, I had been thinking it would be good to break out of that tradition. It was starting to feel too much like a rule, or something.
How does the album compare to its predecessor, Head Carrier, since both were produced by Tom Dalgety?
Gosh, I really don’t know. It’s a different batch of songs, different moods, different paradigms in people’s personal lives. They’re different. Same band, same lineup, same producer, different songs, different record. If I start to analyze it too much, then I begin to deconstruct the whole concept of an album, and it comes down to the popular song format -- three minutes, verse/chorus/verse/chorus. You start analyzing it in terms of that, that becomes the ruling entity. If I analyze the so-called entity of the album, then it gets too conceptual.
Then let’s discuss the album’s lead-off single, “On Graveyard Hill.”
It’s a gothic-y kind of a lyric. I wrote it with Paz. I suppose the surface arch of the narrative has to do with this classic mythical tale of Belladonna the Witch. But the song went through different mutations before it became that, so I suppose there was a lot of personal, psychological kind of stuff in the lyric from earlier versions of the song that remained.
European tour dates have been announced for August-October. Are there U.S. tour plans after?
I’m not aware of any U.S. tour plans after that, because we toured the U.S. a lot the last couple of years. It’s kind of Europe’s turn. They plan these things in advance, but personally, I can only think about it maybe six months in advance.
How would you compare touring now to say, back in the late ‘80s?
There’s better fire codes -- that’s for sure. That’s a big one, actually. And better security. It’s a little less “punk rock” now, I guess. But ultimately, that’s good, because it’s a safer environment for people to enjoy a concert. But the dynamic is the same as it’s always been -- you make a personal appearance. “I’m coming to your town, here I am, we’re going to do our thing, we’re going to play our songs, we’re going to try and entertain the customers.” We play buildings that have clubs or theaters in them - they’re the same clubs and theaters that have been there since before we started playing. Obviously, there are newer venues, but it’s a very old circuit. So, I can’t say that things have changed so much. I guess from a financial point of view, you could argue it’s a different world in the 1980s in terms of the fact that people consume a lot of their music from streaming services. So, as a result, people don’t buy as many records as they used to. And that I think has stimulated the concert circuit. I feel like a lot more concert tickets are more expensive, and some people criticize that. But really, the people who are charging a lot of money are people who have been doing it a lot longer, and frankly, have earned it. If people don’t want to pay the price for your concert ticket, they won’t. People aren’t stupid. They’re just like, “Yeah, your show is too expensive...I’m not going.” It’s still the same patronage and people are overall being asked to pay more money. But frankly, the music business with the CDs and the vinyl LPs, they were far too expensive for too long - it was kind of a bubble that burst, and it evened out in a different kind of way. Yeah, if you want to go see the Eagles, you’re going to pay a few bucks. And if you’re going to go see the Pixies, you’re not going to pay as much as you would for an Eagles concert, but we’ve been around for a while and we’ve earned it. We try to be fair, we try to look at what kind of market it is, we try to do concerts at different ticket prices - depending on the venue and the market.
This year marks the 30 year anniversary of the release of Doolittle. Did you have any idea when you were writing/recording it that it was special?
When we made the demos, I remember sitting with Joey Santiago in his apartment, and listening to the demos of the record - which was basically the whole record, minus maybe one or two songs. I remember we were kind of grinning at each other, like, “Oh yeah, we did something. We’re going to make a good record.”
Listening back to the album today, it’s impressive how consistent it is from beginning to end.
That was the result of us playing in clubs and having a couple of other recording sessions before that, so it instilled a certain kind of a vibe. And then our producer, Gil Norton, made things a little clearer, without changing us too much. There are certain fans that tend to think of, “The Pixies...they used to be a super-aggro band or a punky band or a sloppier band or whatever.” Certainly, there are a lot of those elements, but we also have this kind of pop-y thing, and we didn’t shy away from it. Certainly, a producer could come tease that out, so we never felt uncomfortable teasing those more poppier moments. Doolittle was the first time we really were able to tease that out. I would say that every record since then, we have tried to tease that out -- without being too pushy about it.
How much of a band is the Pixies really at this point, or would you say you’re the undisputed leader?
I mean, I guess as a leader of the band, there are lots of real bands that have a leader in the band. There’s just so many different ways to organize a band. I’m a leader in the sense that I’m a singer and kind of the principal songwriter, so obviously, there is some sort of direction or cues that the other musicians are following. But it’s not like I walk in and go, “OK everybody, this is what we’re going to do.” It’s a little more, “What do we all think of this? Do we think this is good? Do we think this is boring? What do we do now?” I’m the leader of the band, but it’s kind of like a soft leadership. Somebody else might tell you differently...I don’t know. But I felt like it’s pretty collaborative.
Are you or any of the other band members still in touch with Kim Deal?
I don’t think so. Not that I’m aware of.