Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, a.k.a. Black Francis, a.k.a. Frank Black, a.k.a. the frontman for one of alternative rock music’s most revered bands, the Pixies, has always been known as a workhorse. He is constantly releasing new music, whether solo or with various bands; he never seems to rest for a minute between projects. His newest project, though, proves that he’s not only a workhorse, but a renaissance man: HarperCollins is publishing a graphic novel he co-wrote with friend Josh Frank called The Good Inn. And the book is only the beginning. It is, as they say in the introduction, “a book based on a soundtrack score that has not yet been composed about the first narrative pornographic movie for a feature film that did not yet exist.” He is fully committed to seeing the project through, and hopes to one day sip some champagne in Cannes when his film The Good Inn lands on that festival’s screening program.
I spoke with him on the phone, just before he and fellow Pixies David Lovering, Joey Santiago, and new member Paz Lenchantin set off on a tour of Australia.
Tyler Malone: Why don’t you start by talking about how the project came about — or, as you say in the book, “how a book based on a soundtrack score that had not yet been composed about the first narrative pornographic movie for a feature film that did not yet exist came to be”?
Black Francis: Well, it started off as a song cycle. I was trying to write some songs for what I hoped would end up being a Pixies record about four years ago. So I was looking for a unifying subject, and I thought of the narrative arc of a movie. I let that inform the lyrics and the music that I was composing at the time. I was never actually able to get the band to go into the studio to make a soundtrack to the movie, but at the time I had thought that that would be a clever way to get the band back in the studio. But it just wasn’t going to happen at the time.
Then I was meeting with a friend who is a writer, Josh Frank, about a year later. He said to me, “Well, you’ve got all these songs related to a movie idea, why don’t we just write the movie? Once we have the world built, maybe they will come? Maybe we can get the Pixies to do the soundtrack? And regardless we’ll just get a movie made?” That sounded like a fun idea. We began to write a treatment and involved an illustrator in the treatment because sometimes when we explained it to anyone on the outside they would get confused since it’s a little abstract, a little bit of a Twilight Zone plot. We thought visual imagery in our treatment would give it some clarity. Since Josh is in the book world, and has connections there, suddenly the idea came to turn the treatment we were working on into a graphic novel now that we had all these delightful drawings from Steven Appleby.
How did those drawings affect the work you had been doing with Josh?
I really thought Steven’s drawings injected a new kind of tone into our movie idea because he’s a humorous illustrator. He didn’t change the narrative of the idea, but it did change the tone. He made it a bit whimsical, and I liked that.
How much involvement did you and Josh have with Steven Appleby and his drawings? Were you overseeing that constantly or did you just sort of let him run with it?
We just let him run with it. From the very beginning, he just got the idea. And we’ve always been delighted by everything he’s given us. With someone like that — a designer or a visual artist — I’ve always thought that if you like what they do, it’s best to just stay out of it. Let them do what they do best.
What initially interested you about La Bonne Auberge, the actual original pornographic film, and made you think that you could build an interesting story around it?
There’s a certain randomness, I suppose. Or maybe it’s not randomness? You come up with a color, or you come up with a word, or you come up with a chord, which maybe seems random, and then you just sort of decide, well, random or not, this is the door that I am going to enter. So for me, I was in a hotel room, thinking about the history of pornography — specifically cinematic pornography. I asked a question to myself: What was the first porn film? My research led me to a little film called La Bonne Auberge. I’ve never seen the film, just a couple of images, stills. I haven’t been able to find a copy of it. I was able to ascertain from those stills and from film articles that reference the film that though this is basically a fuck film, there’s a narrative. You’ve got a soldier who has a uniform on; you’ve got an innkeeper; you’ve got the innkeeper’s daughter. It’s basically the “farmer’s daughter” kind of plot. I accepted that as the plot of my movie — that’s where I started.
It wasn’t about retelling those five minutes that became the first official pornographic film, but about telling the full arc of those characters. Who is Soldier Boy? Where was he born? How did he become a soldier? How did he happen upon the inn? What happens to him after the inn? That’s one arc. Then there’s the other side of the coin, of course. We’re talking about a fictional narrative created. I began to think about the arc of the lives of the people who actually made the film. Who is the person who played Soldier Boy? Who was the girl who played the innkeeper’s daughter? Who was the guy filming this sex scene? Where was it filmed? Do these people have straight jobs also? Was the woman a prostitute? Was she not a prostitute? Was the man a prostitute? Was he a straight actor maybe who did a little something on the side? So I imagined these two different worlds: the world of the fictional narrative and the world of the people who made it. What I ended up with was two sets of characters — or one set of characters and their doppelgängers. Both of these stories are intertwined in a parallel universe sort of way.
The whole concept of telling stories, and wondering why it is that we are drawn to telling stories, is definitely part of the text and subtext of the project. The innkeeper’s daughter at one point says: “It is by telling our stories that we can, for a short time anyway, not be alone.” Do you find this to be true? And is that the reason you think we tell stories: to combat loneliness?
I don’t know actually, but certainly telling stories is something that we do and something that we’ve always done. I think people do it naturally. I tell my children stories; they tell me stories. Telling stories is as ancient as putting pigment on your cave wall. It’s not quite in the realm of breathing and eating, but . . . almost.
Tell me a little about the writing process. How did you and Josh work together on writing this?
I have my general ideas and my aesthetic and my gut feelings. Josh has a lot more experience of actually writing books and screenplays. He’s a man at his typewriter. I’m more of a man who’s had a double espresso and has an idea. I don’t even make it to the stage of writing things down on a cocktail napkin. I store everything up in my head, rarely writing things down. Perhaps out of laziness.
I don’t think you can call yourself lazy. You’ve released an album almost every year, for how many years now?
Well, yeah, I mean, I do stuff. But with Josh I saw an opportunity for a real writer to take my ideas for sort of raw fodder and flesh it out, add some research, connect a few dots that I left unconnected. So he would go away and write for a while. Then we would get together at a cafe or a restaurant or a hotel lobby and he’d literally be sitting there reading to me. I’ve gotten accustomed to this way of doing it. I enjoy listening to him read, and I enjoy having the story told to me as I close my eyes and imagine what’s being described and what would appear on screen. If I like something, I let him know that I like it. If I don’t like something, then I tell him I don’t like it, and we debate it. Mostly it’s if anything sounds too straight to me or too Hollywood or too mainstream, I basically nix it or at least raise my concerns. We’re making an artsy fartsy film here, and I don’t want to hold the audience’s hand. The graphic novel explains a lot of things that probably won’t be explained in the film. I’d like it to be, not necessarily open-ended, but I want the cinematic experience to be more perplexing. There will be differences between the graphic novel and the film. The graphic novel is more of a snapshot of where the script was six months ago.
How is writing a graphic novel or a film different than, say, writing a song? Is the process at all similar?
I guess I’d say it’s completely different. To me, writing a song is much more automatic. It’s like a painting or a drawing. It just happens. You just do it. Although occasionally you do go down the road of research when writing a song because you want some sort of backdrop to influence the final result. In that sense, I guess it’s similar. There can be in songwriting the same maybe research and development phase, but there doesn’t have to be with songwriting. So there is some overlap, I suppose, but they feel to me like different experiences.
In the introduction to the book, Josh says that you would love it if a filmmaker would come along and ask your band to do a soundtrack to a cool movie. In your ideal world, what filmmaker’s film would you love to write the soundtrack to?
That’s a good question. I’m always very charmed by anything that Werner Herzog does. But it would still be difficult to do anything where the music is not the main emphasis. In our film, a portion of it is going to be silent. The main reason for that is to provide a lot of space for music to occur. I did a soundtrack for an old German expressionist film called The Golem for a film festival a few years ago. That’s a completely different deal than a modern movie, which would have audio. I think that your typical mainstream film has lots of dialogue and other stuff and the music is basically just background. I’m less interested in that kind of work, even though I recognize its value. I am more interested in songs that would appear in their full form even though there’s a movie going on. I found that Golem soundtrack interesting because there was no audio; I was the audio. There were the stars of screen from yesteryear doing their thing and then there was my music.
The idea of someone saying, “Hey, Wes Anderson wants you to do the music for the new movie he made!” I mean, oh my gosh, Mr. Wes Anderson, wouldn’t that be wonderful? And I mean, it would in some sense, but at the same time he’s got a lot of fish to fry in that movie. I can’t just waltz in and just do what I want. For a full sound film, there are just so many other considerations. I don’t know if I would be suited to it. I’m more into the idea of making the music for this kind of a project, for this movie, my movie.
So the graphic novel is just a step then for you? You are definitely planning on making this into a movie?
Yes. I mean, I’m glad Josh was able to find a publisher for the graphic novel, but I’m not going to pretend I don’t have another agenda. The agenda is: I want to be drinking a glass of champagne in Cannes, to put it crassly. I want to take a stab at the whole film thing, which isn’t such a stretch for me because I think a lot of artsy fartsy film that I was exposed to in college really did inform the tone of my first band, the Pixies.
So if you do make this film with this song cycle you created, would it be Pixies music?
I don’t know. I’ve talked to some other singer-songwriters. I’ve talked to the Pixies. In general, people seem interested. If I were to venture a guess, I would say that the final soundtrack would probably be a combination of myself and other people, including the Pixies. I can’t guarantee anyone’s involvement except my own, but I hope that they participate — especially since the whole germ of this project started with me trying to write songs for a Pixies session, so it would seem appropriate for them to be involved.
What is the dynamic like in the Pixies now without Kim Deal? How is it different than it was, say, a year ago, when she was still a part of the potential new material?
Frankly, Joey, David, and I are sort of enjoying where it’s at because we’re in full agreement about doing new material. In recent years that was the issue that we couldn’t always agree upon. In the recent past, having Kim involved made making new music slower. There was a lot of hesitation. That’s not to say that her reticence was invalid. Her feelings are valid for her, but they just weren’t valid for me. So we did all embark on it together as a foursome. But then, for whatever reason, she decided that she couldn’t be a part of it any more. She went on to do other things. We continued with the project.
I know you’ve said she’s always invited back. Do you think there’s ever a likelihood that she would ever come back and be a part of it again? Or do you think that era of the Pixies is over?
I don’t really know. It doesn’t seem like it would happen at the moment. Never say never though. I just have nothing to go on right now other than a hypothetical concept.
I know you initially received some harsh reviews for EP1 — famously getting a 1 out of 10 on Pitchfork — mostly because you have such mega-fans and their expectations of you are now so incredibly unattainably high that it almost sets you up for failure. Was there ever a moment where you reconsidered making new material as the Pixies?
Sure. It’s easy to momentarily buy into that kind of thinking, but ultimately we’re just not those kind of people. We are truly independent artists. No one is going to tell us what to do: not our record company, not a record producer, not the audience, nobody. It’s not that we’re not interested in what people think, but I think people’s opinions can’t really help you make good decisions about your art. You can’t really take into consideration other people’s opinions. It just doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel true.
As far as the new material goes, you released EP1 last year and then EP2 early this year. Are there plans to continually release these four song EPs or are you thinking of a full album? What’s the future for new Pixies music?
Well, there’s more music to be released, and I’m sure that someone will cleverly compile them into some sort of release. This is a digital world we live in. It really is just a case of moving some files around on a screen: “There we go, it’s an album now!”
Tyler Malone is a writer and teacher. He has contributed articles, reviews, and interviews to various literary magazines including The Millions, Full Stop, Tottenville Review, and Literary Traveler. He was once known as “the Reading Markson Reading guy.”