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'I used to have a band, and now I don't'

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From The Guardian...


The artist formerly known as Black Francis answers the phone and explains that he can't talk; he is in crisis. He's in Pennsylvania but can't say where, exactly, because he has switched hotels twice in the past few hours. He has four children and they are very hungry. He has lost his charger and reckons there is maybe 40 seconds of life left in the mobile. "You could say that I'm facing a lot of challenges in my life right now," he bellows. Charles Thompson (aka Frank Black, aka Black Francis) is currently tripping eastwards on a solo tour of the US. It sounds nearly as fraught as on his last outing with the Pixies.


I have been chasing Thompson for several days now, eager to gauge his reaction to loudQUIETloud, a rambunctious little documentary about the Pixies's 2004 reunion tour, which debuts today at the Edinburgh film festival. Directed by Steven Cantor and Matthew Galkin, the film is a bit like a Pixies song itself. It is film where simmering tensions erupt into primal storms, where high tragedy goes cheek-by-jowl with low comedy, and where the drummer goes mad and won't finish his solo. "We knew the band had an acrimonious break-up so we knew it wouldn't be plain sailing," Cantor tells me. "That said, there were still some surprises along the way."


The Pixies were the great should-have-beens of American music, an impish, ill-starred quartet who indirectly kick-started the grunge movement and then imploded too soon to reap the rewards. They recorded songs that flared red hot and ice cold in the space of a heartbeat, that played the Old Testament as sexed-up soap opera ("You crazy babe, Bathsheba"), and led Kurt Cobain to write Smells Like Teen Spirit in a vain attempt to, in his words, "basically try to rip off the Pixies".

Once upon a time this band meant something. But by the time of their reunion they have been defunct for 12 years and the royalties have dried to a trickle. Thompson (rechristened Frank Black) is struggling to sustain a solo career. Guitarist Joey Santiago is "eking out" a living writing TV soundtracks, and drummer Dave Lovering has lost his home and needs the cash to support his new job as a conjurer. As for Kim Deal, the Pixies' iconic bassist, she is fresh out of rehab and living at home with her folks. The tour was wonderful news for Kim, her mother explains "She needs something to do besides writing poetry and, er, sleeping all day."


If the aim was to boost the band's bank balance, the Pixies comeback was a huge success (tickets sold out within minutes). But, behind the scenes, matters were more torrid. Initially conceived as a celebration, loudQUIETloud quickly veers into train-wreck territory. Lovering is the first to crash. Devastated by his father's death, he hits the bottle, guzzles valium and suffers a public breakdown on stage in Chicago. His behaviour appears to impact on Deal. Having initially stipulated that the tour should be alcohol free, she is shown surreptitiously nursing a bottle of beer during a stopover in Reykjavik. "Hey, it's only 5% proof," she insists. "Pretty much all beer is 5% proof," retorts her sister, Kelley.


Actually there was plenty more in this vein, Cantor says. It's just that the band ordered him to take it out. "Kim, in particular, felt there were too many scenes that showed her trying to stay sober," he explains. "She felt that there was more to her than just being, like, rehab woman. So yes, we had to tone it down." At times the band's intervention was more forceful. In one scene, during a protracted drugs debate between Deal and Lovering, Thompson seizes the camera and pushes it to the floor.


Was the band happy with the final version? "Oh yes," the director assures me. "They think it's really truthful. They recognise themselves in the movie." Yet he sounds slightly doubtful.


Rumour has it that the Pixies remain unimpressed with loudQUIETloud. Perhaps this is why Thompson is proving so elusive. Exasperated, the film's distributors suggest that I try a new tactic. I should approach his management company, tell them I want to discuss Frank Black's solo tour, and don't mention the film at all. I should pretend, in fact, to be unaware that there even is a film.


The day after our aborted conversation in Pennsylvania, I trackThompson to a hotel in Washington DC. It's eight in the morning and I get him out of bed. "Hold the line for a moment," he croaks. "I must pass my urine or I won't be able to think." He is gone so long I start to wonder if he's slipped away again.


On stage, Thompson is an electrifying presence: big, bald and bawling; a furious baby grown to the size of a barn. But he emerges from the documentary as an oddly distant figure. For some reason, the film features numerous shots of him lolling, semi-naked in bed, lovingly patting his belly, or stroking at his scalp. He looks like a cross between Leigh Bowery and Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.


Thompson flushes the loo and returns to the phone. I ask him what he thinks of the documentary and he hums and haws.


"Look," he says, "I've got nothing against the film or the film-makers, but they manipulated the whole thing. They wanted a story, and that story became this tension within the band, how awful we got along, and Dave's downward spiral. Whereas Dave was actually the one who was holding us together. His breakdown only came at the end of the tour when he was upset about his dad's death. Then he became this kind of Jekyll and Hyde figure, dulling the pain with red wine and pills."


Deal's portrayal proved the other sticking point. "Kim wasn't happy with the film at all," he admits. "It made her look like she was hardly there, clutching her beer and chain-smoking cigarettes. It made it look as if we had just scooped her out of the gutter." So they asked for some scenes to be removed? "Well, yeah. We told them we didn't care for the original cut. We ended up putting a lot of stuff back in."


The problem, Thompson suspects, is that the film-makers never really understood their subject matter. "They were naive, like a lot of people who don't understand how rock bands are when they go on tour. They'd roll into the hotel every morning and say, 'So what are you guys going to do today? Ooh, are you going to go buy some ice cream?' I guess they expected us to be like the Monkees, always up to mischief. But we're boring, you know. And touring is boring. You just sit around not talking to each other."


This, at least, is something that the film was able to pinpoint. "The movie as it stands is basically truthful, even though it's exaggerated," Thompson says. "But it does suggest something that is correct: the awful lack of communication within the band. That silly dysfunctional quality. Sometimes we don't speak enough."


Thompson famously broke up the Pixies by fax back in 1992. At the time he thought this was the classy way to call it quits. He says now that he regrets the decision, and that the band still hate him for it. Recently he has been angling for a longer-term collaboration: he wants to corral the Pixies into a studio and test-run some new material. "But there is some reluctance, let's put it that way. They don't trust me." He sighs. "They used to trust me."


I had been hoping to wring a quick quote or two out of Thompson. But we have now been on the phone for more than 40 minutes. He keeps beating back into the past; unpicking old grievances and festering rivalries; discussing who's still mad at who, and why; spotlighting all the waste and loss that lurks in the wings of loudQUIETloud.


"I used to have a band," he laments. "And now I don't have a band anymore. That's why I'm off doing my little solo tour. That's why I'm sitting in a hotel room telling you all about it".


Rockumentaries that went wrong


Cocksucker Blues (1972)


The genre's seedy antecedent trails the Rolling Stones on their 1972 American tour. But the group was so incensed by the portrayal of them as narcissistic, drug-guzzling hedonists that they sued to prevent its release. It remains under a court order to this day.


Ramones: End of the Century (2003)


Johnny steals Joey's girlfriend, Dee Dee is a junkie and Tommy struggles to keep time and make peace. The Ramones might not have been real brothers, but the fraternal tension is palpable.


Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)


There is a decided whiff of Spinal Tap about this portrait of a band bedevilled by death, drugs and galloping self-absorption - particularly when their management hires a costly therapist to sort them out.


Dig! (2004)


The Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre start out as allies with a mission to get "a full-scale revolution going on". One band ends up on a Vodafone advert; the other goes down in a hail of rotten fruit.


New York Doll (2005)


In which bassist Arthur Kane quits the Dolls and becomes a Mormon, but finally rejoins the band at the Meltdown festival. Meanwhile, three other band-mates have long since died and gone.

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that Docu is great, saw it last Wed


shows a ton of footage from their first show back here in Mpls, backstage, rehearsal, walking around Mpls, etc.


the footage of Kim & Frank arriving to the club in a white caddy... my friend and i saw them pull up and were totally in the alley listening to them rehearse then ;)

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