Siren Festival 2009: Q&A With Grand Duchy's Frank Black
"I'm more of a freak show kind of a guy."
Whether it's through his alter-ego Black Francis, his seminal band the Pixies, or under his own name, Frank Black has become iconic in terms of not only indie rock, but pop culture as a whole. His new project is Grand Duchy, which he formed with his wife Violet Clark. And while Black may still be best known as "the guy from the Pixies," the couple don't want their band to be a "husband-wifey side project," even though they have a grandma with them on the road. She will not be onstage when Grand Duchy play the Siren Festival Main Stage at 5pm.
When's the last time you were at Coney Island?
The only time I was at Coney Island, I was filming an Electronic Press Kit. Remember those?
The record companies used to spend a few bucks on those. They hired a film director and everything. They had already begun to buy into the myth-well, it's not really a myth- it's the truth of my driving around in large automobiles. They rented us a van to drive around Coney Island. And that was my introduction. I don't think I've been back since.
When was this?
That would've been around 1993 or 1994.
Do you have a favorite carnival game?
I'm more of a freak show kind of a guy. I haven't been to a real carnival in a long time. They were just starting to die out when I was kid. But there was one in Long Beach called Pikes. It was a real amusement park, the one that sailors used to go get tattoos at. Kind of scary and rough. But that place is gone, I think. After that, I guess everything got all clean.
Tell me about the origins of the Grand Duchy project. I know it was born out of the song "Fort Wayne."
That was the creative moment that sparked the flow to matriculate. It was even at that moment when we cut that first song, where [we decided] we were going to continue and make a record. [Originally] We were just going to have some fun and do a couple of songs. I guess subconsciously, there must've been some ambition.
What were your thoughts on Violet's earlier stabs at music?
It was very dancey and pop-synth-oriented. It wasn't my cup of tea. It took me a while to absorb it; the first time I heard it, I couldn't relate. But the more I heard it over the first couple years of our relationship, I realized, "Oh, these are really good songs. They have good hooks." I started to respect her musical talent and then started to use her on different sessions as a background vocal. Just for fun, we did a couple of those, and that went well.
And I was making Bluefinger-she's my wife-and I was really obsessed with the subject matter. It's kind of hard for me to talk about anything else other than what I'm working on. I tend to just stare and not really listen to people talking to me. She'd already been around me for a couple of records, and she was familiar with that disconnect. And she got the whole concept [of Bluefinger]: there's this whole female presence to the backdrop of Herman Brood and a lot of it is straight up sexual. She suggested, "There is this female thing you need to address with your record. It's a presence that would be nice if it was there." So she started to come in and do background vocals. And a lot of times, she already had an idea-she didn't just do it on any song-and she graduated to the next level in gaining my trust.
So we started to work on this thing together and do everything ourselves. It was this mixture of me drumming-I just took this Velvet Underground approach. We did a lot of digital editing, but there was this naïve. "We're not real drummers, but we're going to play everything on the record ourselves." In our most excited moments, we told ourselves that there was an actual sound developing. And I think it has.
Her songwriting at the moment-I can tell, as sort of the old timer-she's kind of hot. Everything is twice as good as the last thing. I'm excited for us to get back home and start our next record because I think she's finding her voice, you know what I mean? I even suggested that she produce the next record. She's a lot more obsessive and more finicky. She has a more perfectionist mentality.
Our calling card right now, is "Oh, I'm the guy from the Pixies." And that's okay and it's certainly got us in a few doors which is wonderful. But it's not really the calling card we want to have. We want the band to stand on its own and not be a husband-wifey side project, you know? So we're trying to avoid doing things that end up being perceived that way. We discuss our marriage rarely and focus our energy away from that. Even though it's a human angle, it's not really an angle that we care about. I don't really sense I can just say, "Hey Mick Jones, want to do the next Grand Duchy record?" He's going to be, "Grand Who?" And I don't want to say, "Oh, I know you haven't really heard of the band, but remember me? I'm from the Pixies, man!" That's not the card we want to play.
It must be nice to work with someone who's growing in their songwriting.
She would write something and then look at me because I'm the experienced, verbose songwriter guy. But less and less, she would come to me for approval. Violet's contribution is stellar. That's not to say we don't hash things out. It's exciting for me to see her voice started to emerge. Her voice was good but there was something about it that people struggled with-it wasn't quite genuine enough.
Years ago, I read for a part for a pretty big movie. It was a serial killer that they were trying to portray. I read for the part, and the night before, I tried to get some sort of game plan. As I uttered those words from the scene, I sounded like wolf boy who was raised by wolves who was uttering his first words of language. I just felt so ill-equipped to say what they wanted me to say. It's hard to find a voice that's authentic.
It's the same thing for people starting out with music. They're like "Frank, what do we do, how do we make it?" I don't know. I just tell people they need to just go and play. Forget about your Web site, forget about the record business, forget about your MySpace page, just go and play for people and find your voice. That's what it's all about. It isn't just about talent; it's that person that people connect with, whether it's Michael Jackson of Lou Reed or whoever. When people are good-it's not only talent. You have to be a little bit naked or they're not going to buy it. They can see right through it. People love real.