Charles Thompson IV, Frontman of rock band Pixies, with whom he performs under the stage name Black Francis and as solo artist Frank Black
PhotoL: CAMERA PRESS / TOM OLDHAM
Born Charles Kitteridge Thompson IV in Boston in 1965, at an early age the future Pixies frontman moved to LA with his family. When he was 12, his mother and stepfather joined an evangelical church, influencing a lot of his later lyrics, many of which were steeped in biblical imagery.
After dropping out of his anthropology course at The University of Massachusetts Amherst, Thompson moved to Boston, renamed himself Black Francis and formed the Pixies with Joey Santiago, Kim Deal and David Lovering in 1986. They went on to become an indie rock sensation, releasing a series of acclaimed albums before splitting in 1993.
A successful solo career as Frank Black ensued, and the Pixies reformed to wild acclaim in 2004. Despite Deal’s departure in 2013, they are still together, and recently released their eighth studio album Doggerel.
In a Letter To My Younger Self Francis looks back on a life steeped in music and how, despite some family ups and downs, he was always fully supported in his desire to be an artist.
I wasn’t particularly wild when I was 16. I wasn’t into drugs or alcohol or anything like that. I was somewhat disinterested in the boring classes at school so I wasn’t a great student, but I showed up just so I could hang out. I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I went to a very large high school in Los Angeles, 6,000 kids. There were 12ft fences all around it and armed security. It was kind of heavy, kind of urban. There were these big cliques; the popular kids, the sporty kids, the kids in gangs. Then there was this little band of misfits that I was in. We weren’t particularly friends; we all listened to different records, but they were all subculture records; punk, new wave, psychedelic.
We were not passive music listeners. We were scouring the record shops for our favourite things. These are the people that I had something of a truce with and used to hang out with a little bit and have awkward conversations about music. One kid was the punk guy, who looked like he was in Motörhead, and another kid looked like a new romantic. I was kind of long-haired and folkie like Donovan, in my beret and clogs. I don’t know where I picked up on that look. I suppose it’s very traditional bohemian, a sort of very, very faint echo of the ’60s or the ’50s or whatever. I just sort of stumbled onto it.
I had one girlfriend in high school who, I guess you could say, broke my heart. Though looking back I think I always saw it coming. She was a bit older and more experienced and had a lot more going on in her life. I was just an interesting distraction probably. Actually, my fondest memories of girlfriends are from when I was a bit younger, more like 12 or 13, innocent encounters. There was a girl – we used to just walk around town together and hold hands.
I lived in an apartment complex right next to the oil fields where all the oil derricks were. And there was a big patch of grass with a few trees next to that – it wasn’t even a park, but what was nice was it was private. We could go and lie under the tree and kiss and hold hands. That’s all we did. And then one day we weren’t girlfriend and boyfriend any more, and life went on and I was hanging around some other cute girl and she was hanging out with some other boy. It was all very sweet, in the middle of this bleak Californian industrial complex.
When I was very young I listened to straight-up folk music. But then a religious conversion went through a part of my family and I was around all that, religious music and church music. Some of it was very formal and kind of… white and uptight. But some of it was more off the hook and rooted in wild rock’n’roll. Whooping it up. Harder-edged gospel music. Also, Bob Dylan was telling everybody he was a Christian for a little while, so some people were excited about that. They were like, oh yeah, Bob’s on our team now. But I moved away from it all very quickly, as soon as I was out of the family environment.
The idea of being in a band in LA, it was just too big. Too many people, I couldn’t figure it out. But then I met Joe [future Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago] in college, and together we were able to focus on what we wanted to do with our lives. We wanted to be playing music and we felt suited to the world of nightclubs, rehearsal spaces, recording studios, travelling. That all made sense to us. We were like, yeah, this fits our kind of 14-year-old mentality. And now I’m 57 years old, and it’s all about wondering, how much of that 14-year-old mentality can I still access?
I tend to be somewhat isolationist. I don’t know if I would describe myself as depressive per se, but I’m comfortable in long periods of a solo kind of existence. It doesn’t have to be every week or every month, but it happens from time to time. When you move around a lot as a kid, it affects the quality of your relationships. You tend to not bond with people to a certain level, like at school, because you’re going to be gone again soon. There are a lot of negatives to that, but you know, that’s just the deal. It wasn’t like my parents were trying to be dicks, it’s just… people get divorced, people split up, people get estranged from their families.
I think your relationship with your parents is ongoing, even after they pass away. You might go through periods of your life questioning a lot of the decisions that your parents made, and you maybe judge them, and maybe even rightfully so. But there are other things that I’m very appreciative of. If I’ve ever had an artistic impulse in my life, my entire life, I’ve never felt like there was anything to stop me. My parents fully supported me in that and that was very important, because I ended up being an artist.
When you become a parent you sometimes think, wow, I’m doing this way better than my mom and dad did it. And then, of course, other things you’re like, fuck, I’m being imperfect. So when that happens to you, you look back at your parents and you cut them a bit more slack. All right, they fucked up, but who wouldn’t have fucked up under the circumstances? If you give people their humanity it’s not just the good stuff you accept, it’s the shit that they fucked up at. So you have to make peace with it and accept it. We’re all just a bunch of imperfect humans. In the end I’m pretty pleased with what my parents did. I mean, I think I turned out OK. Do I have any regrets? Yeah, sure. I’ve got a little fucking shit list. What can I say? But they did the best they could under the circumstances. And lo and behold, here I am, in my life, doing the same shit. Doing the best I can under the circumstances.
For me, being in a band was absolutely always about doing it for a living, whether it was a humble lifestyle or a lucrative lifestyle. That didn’t matter. It was about not working a straight job. You make songs because that’s what you gotta do. Because Tuesday night, nine o’clock, you’re on. You’ve got to play for 35 minutes, right? That’s the deal. Whether it’s good or bad, whether it’s from your heart or some sort of affectation, it doesn’t matter. You could analyse it, you know, where does it come from? Blah, blah, blah, whatever, man. Just get up and do it. That’s the only thing that really matters.
If I could re-live one moment in my life it would be when the Pixies were playing our first out-of-town shows at a nightclub called The Silver Dollar in Toronto. We had driven up there in our van and I remember exactly how much money we were getting. It was $200. Enough to pay for a motel room or a couple of tanks of gas – whatever kept us afloat for the little van tour we were on. I remember we played a good show and it was an OK club and we thought we did well. And then I went upstairs and there was this big pot-bellied cigar-chomping old guy and I sat down across from him and said, “Yeah, I’m with the Pixies. We played our show and now I’m supposed to collect $200 from you.” And he handed out two crisp 100-dollar bills. One, two. “There you go kid, see you later.” And that felt good. I felt like, I worked, I did my music, and the guy just handed me 200 bucks. All right. That’s what it’s all about. I’m in, I survive. I’m alive man. I get to put food in my belly. I get to put a roof over my head tonight. I get to put some gas in my tank and go down the road. It’s a beautiful thing.