Frank Black is known by many names and designs. He’s the former Pixies frontman who left the band to establish a solo career as Black Francis before launching Frank Black and the Catholics, eventually returning to his original solo project moniker on his own terms. Whichever he chooses to go by, Black’s is a big name in music and has already made an impact of the largest caliber on the musicians who came up behind him. Although only three years his junior, Radiohead‘s Thom Yorke famously proclaimed, “When I was in college, The Pixies changed my life” during a performance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2004.
Realizing that not all – in fact very few – lead singers have been able to pull off successful solo recording careers, it’s nice to see that years later Black continues to make good records – and tour religiously. He travels humbly; in a van with his assistant. When we spoke, Black was driving down Highway 5 from his home in Oregon to Los Angeles. His Santa Barbara show this Saturday night at Velvet Jones will be a stop made on his way home.
“Santa Barbara is the place for me,” Black joked as he headed south. “I’ll go down to La Super Rica and get some guacamole tacos. It’s always a pleasure to stop there.” And lucky for Santa Barbara, Black isn’t showing up empty handing. He’s just finished up a European tour to support his 2008 album, Svn Fngrs, and is in the middle of the North American leg.
Making this record, named for the mythical demigod and hero from Irish folklore, C°chulainn , who is believed to have had seven fingers on each hand and seven toes on each foot, was for good reason. The album is Black’s most recent in a string of releases spanning over a 30-plus-year period. It’s almost laughable to discover in conversation with Black that he attributes his songwriting method (and matching success) to his Chinese astrological sign. “I learned a few years ago I was born in the year of the snake,” he explained. “When I realized it I became at peace with myself. Snakes, they slide around on their bellies, you know? They feel themselves around and they live in the moment. This is how I find my best ideas. I feel most comfortable when I react in the moment, like a snake.”
Despite his undeniable influence on an entire genre of music (mostly alternative and indie rock), and his likeness to his Chinese sign, Black’s ever-present humility forces one to drop all ideas of pretension at the door. “I’m not saying I have it all figured out,” Black admitted. “The snake often thinks he’s more clever than he really is. Not everything I do is perfect.”
It’s pretty remarkable he’s so modest. Black named his newest record after a lesser-known Irish hero (most commonly written about by W.B. Yeats); and his touring has generated feelings in him that have been discussed by some of the world’s most famous modernist philosophers and writers (think Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf). Black confessed, “Europe is always wonderful. I love Europe. I could live there, or I think I could. I love the cafe society: watching the world go by. When I’m in Berlin with my guitar and I have a show that night, I’m most happy. I’m not overly Euro.” He interrupted his own thought, saying, “I recognize I am culturally American, but there’s an old-world relaxation there which is refreshing. And if you’re an urban fellow like I am, this is the way it’s supposed to be, it’s civilized. I’ve had similar kinds of feelings on evenings in Greece and Sweden, where I think ‘Wowy, why can’t it be this good when I’m in Cleveland?’ In the States, there’s this urban industrial bla-ness or ennui-this existential reality of bleak, ongoing hallways and lonely hotel bars.”
Further along his southbound drive on Highway 5, Black (who “prefers to stay on 101”) confessed that he looks forward to more than the occasional bathroom stop at Starbucks. “Modern radio doesn’t sound that cool to me,” he confessed. “It’s overt and full of itself. There’s not a lot of soul, it’s not very fun. People refer to Tom Waits‘s later records as dark and haunting, intense and theatrical. But his recordings are so playful; I think they’re a delight. I don’t hear that on modern radio.” But that’s not to say that Black rejects all radio. “Soon I’ll tune into my favorite station between San Francisco and Los Angeles,” he continued. “It comes in better on [the] 5 than on [the] 101. It’s King of County Radio. It’s around 100 and they play early 50s music. There aren’t a lot of commercials and they make interesting playlists that are off the top 50.”