The term “genius” is thrown around a lot by music writers, but few would argue that Charles Thompson, a.k.a. Black Francis, has the bona fides. After providing a good part of the soundtrack to alternative music’s dawning, he was granted sainthood by Kurt Cobain, who famously noted that his game-changing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was his best attempt to rip off Thompson’s Pixies. That band imploded after 1992’s Trompe Le Monde, and Thompson unveiled a new persona, Frank Black; a couple of new bands; and quite a few nearly opaque albums. He reemerged as Black Francis in 2007, but he continued down the rabbit hole with concept albums about Dutch impressionist Herman Brood and Irish mythological hero Cu Chulainn. For NonStopErotik, Thompson listened to a guitar given to him at a concert, assembled an entirely new band, and was compelled to once again explore driving, sex, and the inescapable urge to create.
The making of this album sounds like the premise for a Stephen King novel.
I’m not sure I follow you, really.
You accepted a possessed guitar, right? It talked to you?
It didn’t really articulate in words. It was a feeling. Eric [Drew Feldman] told me that it looked cool because it was black, and that I should keep it. As soon as I started to play it, I realized that there were some songs inside it.
You cleaned it with wine. Is that some sort of secret guitar god trick?
Not at all. It’s potentially very bad for the guitar. It was all I had at the time, other than some water. I figured that at least the wine would have some astringent qualities.
You pick up the guitar in San Francisco, play a show in San Luis Obispo, and then bomb down to L.A. to record. What was the ride like?
Since it was after the show, most of the ride was spent primarily just trying to stay awake. There was a little writing going on, but most of the concept of the album was sketched out on the way to the show. It was a wonderful afternoon, sitting in the back of my Cadillac in a big straw hat and this guitar, sketching out the beginnings of NonStopErotik.
Black Francis owns Cadillac?
It’s a yellow 1986 Fleetwood Brougham. I bought it 1989 when I first made a little bit of money. I went with my father; he thought that’s what you did to mark success. It had actually been off the road for a while, but I’m pretty sentimental about it. I’ve written a lot of songs in it, been a lot of places, so I got it back in running condition to take on tours around California.
You tell your tour manager that you need to have a rhythm session waiting for you. When you arrive at the studio, and who is waiting there?
One guy was called Todd. One guy was called Holmes. They’re professional musicians, and they weren’t fanboys or anything. I’m sure they’ve worked with quite a few talented musicians. They were both really cool guys, and the sessions went off without a hitch. I’ve actually done another session with them since then, but we haven’t had a chance to hang out. We’ve had lunch once and they gave me a ride to Visalia, but that’s about it.
Then you moved on to England. What did the album pick up from the change in venue?
There are lots of ways to divide up the songs on the album, but I don’t think that geography would be the way to do it. In Los Angeles, I was laying down the musical basis for the album, laying out the chords. When I was in London, I was in more of a lyric-writing mode.
Even though the band changed, you couldn’t get away from Eric Drew Feldman. Do you consider him your greatest enabler?
After we cut the basic tracks, I thought they would benefit from his musical sense. I had the tapes sent to him, and he brought his point of view to the project. I don’t feel like I have to work with him exclusively, but I would be perfectly happy working with him every time I record an album. Of course, we’re both adults and have lives; that’s not going to happen. Working with Eric is definitely comfortable. I’ll do it whenever possible.
How do you feel about this record now that it’s complete?
I really like it, but I’ve also moved on from it. When I make a record it’s kind of a blur, so I don’t take time to think much about the process. I’m always a little surprised by my records when they’re done, because they seem to come from a place that’s so very different than my daily existence.
How did you arrive at the album’s title?
I’ve been kicking it around for a long time. The idea of NonStopErotik has been in the back of my mind for a couple of years, and it leapt out as the perfect name for this album. I think there’s a definite thematic connection.
In addition to the title track, there’s also the very direct “When I Go Down On You.” Was there ever a moment of pause about being so open on this record?
I don’t know that there was a moment of pause. Making a record is a moment of not stopping. When the muse decides on something, you basically just follow. You don’t know why it takes you to a certain place. It just sort of happens. I can’t offer any answers about why it happens that way. I don’t work like that. Other people have more artistic vision; I just follow my instincts. If I would try to plan everything out, something very important would be lost from the record.
What makes this a Black Francis record? Why not release it as Frank Black?
Again, I don’t mean to be dodging the question, but there isn’t an answer that’s going to be satisfying. What is my motivator? What is my catalyst? What is the difference between BF and FB? I don’t have a user’s manual. It has the potential to sound aloof or artistic, but it’s just the opposite. When things get more analyzed and broken down, I find myself getting lost. Everybody has his or her own path, and mine is not to analyze. I found a great degree of comfort in reading about the Chinese zodiac recently, and finding out that I’m a snake. I’m very intuitive like a snake, how he feels his way along on his belly. I’m very much in the moment. My fear is that when I’m out being my snake self, people think I’m being difficult. It’s perfectly normal for a journalist like yourself to ask why I’ve gone in one direction or another, what’s motivating me today. But in reality I’m more on a level of “Do I need to bite you? Do I need to scurry off into the bush?” I do think a lot about things. I absorb life like a sponge. That’s probably the best way to describe my artistic aesthetic, but the activity of a sponge is not the activity of Lewis and Clark.
Can you see how your reluctance to discuss the larger meanings in your work is frustrating to the people who have spent the better part of their lives following it?
I do see some meaning, but it’s just on a much more molecular level. I can’t say why I go in a certain direction. I pick out a certain couplet from a song and say what I was thinking about when I wrote it and what it’s doing in that particular song. I can get into the associative stuff, but don’t ask me why the muse required a full album of songs about Herman Brood. Other people can make generalizations, but I find that tedious. People want me to put everything in a nutshell. I can make certain nutshell pronouncements. I like music. I like to make rock records. I like hanging out in recording studios and working with talented musicians to make them.
You make it sound so simple. Why does your music resonate with so many people, then?
The music that I’m involved in reflects my personality, and that’s what resonates with people. I’m not saying that I’m the most resonant or that there’s something special about the way I make music, but people can kind of tell when things are fake. If an artist is pitching too much and trying to sell a product, the performance is going to come off as fake. If the balance of art versus commerce is off, nobody’s going to care about the product. And it doesn’t have anything to do with music being commercial, either. Some people make great commercial music. It’s also not about prowess. Some prowess is vapid. Some is beautiful. An artist may have a terrible voice and play an instrument in the most ham-fisted fashion, but there’s just a certain je ne sais quoi. It’s when people are fake avant-garde or top forty that people can smell it. It’s not about trying to get my attention doing my thing, but how much can I sell you. It’s like bagels.
Think about an actual bagel. It’s basically a round thing, easy, a bagel, but a real bagel is so much more. Now think about one of those textureless, flavorless, bullshit supermarket bagels. That ain’t a fucking bagel. It’s caught up in the surface look, the ease of getting it, the cheapness. It is a bagel, but it has nothing in common with a real bagel.
Then how, I guess, is NonStopErotik a real bagel?
I don’t even know that it is; I’m hoping that it is. I did put some effort into the manufacture. Some care went into the production, particularly the sonic aspect, more so than on some other records that I’ve recorded. I would say that it was put together in two of the best studios in Los Angeles and London. I guess if it’s got enough else going on, the result would be a pretty happy marriage.