He's an alt-rock and indie legend: Charles Thompson, aka Frank Black, aka Black Francis, the bald-headed and snarling frontman for The Pixies, who has had a respectable solo career under the aforementioned nicknames, and also recently started producing albums for artists ranging from Art Brut to Pete Yorn.
His latest project is the electro-tinged Let The People Speak (out April 10), the upcoming second album from Grand Duchy, his band with his wife Violet Clark. I recently called up the couple in Boston, where they moved after years living in Oregon, to chat about the sound and artistic vision for their follow-up to 2009's debut Petits Fours, balancing music with their relationship and children and more.
Hey guys! So, what defines this new Grand Duchy album for you?
Violet: It’s just art making art.
Frank: That’s a good way to describe it for me too. It’s about seeing the band as an art project as opposed to just rock n' roll numbers.
Violet: We’re not going to be the next Strokes or the Killers. We’re this whole other thing. We’re in our heads a lot, intellectualizing the process. We really want to get more out of it than just laying down some guitar licks.
Frank: And occasionally making it more of a collective deal, like inviting people to remix our stuff.
Musically, what’s the biggest difference between this album and the Grand Duchy debut?
Violet: You tell me…
Well, this album sounds really fun!
Violet: We certainly had a lot more fun making it.
Frank: The first time around we had never made a record together before, so we were more tentative.
Violet: We were stressed out.
Frank: It was a complicated time in our life. We were still figuring stuff out. I really like our first record, but on this one Violet has more voice. She’s more grounded in what she has to say.
What’s your songwriting process for this album?
Violet: It became clear that in order to make this record happen, I would have to take charge. He was so preoccupied with The Pixies’ Doolittle anniversary tour, and I really wanted a second record to happen, and not 10 years after the first one. So I climbed on the horse! I found a new studio and it turns out that having absolute freedom was good for me. When he came back between tours I tried to give him the same freedom, so there was less direct overlap of ideas. There was so much more freedom, so the other person could come in and add brush strokes without a tug of war.
Frank: I’d go to the bathroom and write a song [laughs]. Violet was able to keep ideas and songs in her head too, which I’m unable to do. She always has a whole bunch of stuff in her head.
Violet: I come from an art history background. I studied at a master's degree level; I chose to dork out on art for much of my adult life. A lot of my heroes are artists and a lot of my musical heroes have an artistic side, like David Byrne and David Bowie. So I’m really inspired by the interplay of visual art and music, a total artistic environment where there’s sound and visuals. When I think about that I get stimulated and excited. It’s a feeling that you can’t label with words. It’s a feeling that wells up inside of you, and if you start your songwriting process with that feeling it’s far more electrified.
Did that inspire the album’s title then?
Violet: The album title’s meaning has morphed. We were watching this interview with [Brit singer-songwriter] Baxter Dury, where he was talking about the title of his new record, Happy Soup. He was like, “I really like the words ‘happy’ and ‘soup,’ so that’s the title of my album, Happy Soup.” Sometimes you come up with certain words and as you live your life they take on shades of meaning. The meaning of Let the People Speak has changed many times from something really benevolent to something like Marie Antoinette saying, ‘Let them eat cake!’ It’s saying ‘Fuck off.’ I like that it’s open-ended for the listener and open-ended for us.
And you’re working with other artists on remixes and other aspects of the album, so that definitely represents that aspect, too.
Violet: That definitely came up consciously in our minds. We just gave so many people the license to work on this album. Like the Gloom Prophet remix album that just came out called Let the Prophet Speak. He’s one of the people that we gave a long leash too. We just let him “speak” and manipulate the songs. He was suggested to us by an associate and because we were feeling very experimental, we just gave him a couple songs. We don’t really know him; he’s very mysterious. But what we got back was mind-blowing. We just kept giving him songs two at a time. It became its own thing, sort of like an addiction, waiting for what he’d send back.
Is it difficult to give someone creative license over art that you've worked so hard to create?
Violet: No, because the art that we created hasn’t been destroyed. It’s just a new interpretation of it, which is always exciting. And even with our name, you know, this royal thing, or the royal connotation…
Frank: Obviously, [the band name] is very tongue and cheek. But from when we first started the band, we constantly referred to our little world in those terms. Like, we run a little country and we’re the big bosses and this is how we do things. But we’re trying to live up to the name Grand Duchy, whatever that means [laughs].
Violet: We have subjects. We have actual citizens on Facebook. So Let The People Speak sounds like a royal proclamation.
Tell me about your Andy Warhol-inspired video for your new track “Silver Boys.” It's great!
Violet: It’s an incredibly blatant, right-on-the-nose representation of where we're coming from, being inspired by art and wanting to make art and be a part of that legacy in the art world. We just allowed the director to take it to absurdly literal conclusions.
Frank: I didn’t come up with that name [“Silver Boys”], but that’s what [Andy Warhol and his Factory crew] called themselves. It’s because of the mirrors and aluminum foil they used to post in their loft while they were making art or shooting film in the factory.
That said, have you thought of doing something more artsy with your live show?
Violet: Yeah. We’d like it to be in line with the art happenings of the ‘60s, and have a more total experience instead of just some sweaty concert.
Frank: I have a really good idea for an art show. We had some photographs taken by a friend of ours recently...
Violet: He does the art layout for our records...
Frank: He took some pictures and we were unprepared to be sexy rock stars. When these pictures were taken, Violet had just given birth. I thought she looked great. but from a women’s point of view she felt like her boobs were too big. I was looking chunky. We stopped at the mall with our kids, and I got this little black hat. It was too small, so it looked like this comic costume. I looked ridiculous. For some reason Violet had a black ace bandage around her knee—we just had this stupid get-up. The photographer was concerned with the lighting, but not at all concerned with what we looked like or what poses or expression our faces were making. He hadn’t photographed a lot of people. So we’re in this college classroom taking pictures with all our kids. The pictures are so bad and there are so many of them—they look like community theater pictures [laughs]. It’s so jazz hands. They're really just revolting.
Maybe you can wear those outfits when you play live.
Frank: It isn’t just the outfits. It’s the whole package. I want a gallery show where we blow up the pictures to about 50 feet tall and pick the worst pictures. It’s like, 'This is who we are. Look how wonderful we are.' Every time we get out the pictures and look at them, we try not to vomit from having laughed so long. We were literally crying because they’re so funny.
Violet: And that’s where we’re coming from. We’re getting off on being ridiculous.
How has being parents influenced your music or art?
Frank: We have a Berlin Wall between our band and the children. The children can come in the studio and hang out with us. We’ve taken them on tour. But the idea that our children are going to heavily influence our songwriting is just … No Way Jose.
Violet: I get enough of that interplay in my downtime. There’s no way I’m bringing that into art or rock n’ roll.
Is writing music together ever hard on your relationship?
Frank: No, not really. We have enough that might negatively affect our relationship. So we don’t even worry about songwriting.
Violet: We never worried about it. But it does negatively affect a relationship.
Frank: When you’re a creative person and you create art with other people, whether you’re married to them or not, you’re going to run into creative conflicts. If you’re a couple, certain inhibitions and barriers are gone. I have those barriers with other people, but I don’t have them with Violet.
What was the hardest part of recording this album?
Violet: With Charles gone so much on tour, I felt a little desperate. To have had him around more, so we could make progress more quickly, would have helped. But in hindsight that breathing room made the record better. I’m not the most patient person, so having him come and go is frustrating. Your band member is going off every five seconds to do something with another band for weeks at a time, so it left me in the lurch a little bit. But it gave me a lot of time to live with the songs. In the end it's probably a better record for it.