Progress Report: Frank Black
Name: Grand Duchy
Progress Report: Frank Black chats about the new Grand Duchy album, Let the People Speak.
Let the People Speak is the second full-length album from the husband/wife duo of Pixies frontman Frank Black and his wife, musician Violet Clark. The album is an electronica-tinged collection of pop songs in which Clark takes the leading role. Released earlier this month, the album has proven divisive among critics and fans, prompting a surprising online response from Black himself. (“It seems to be a sticking point for some reviewers, that Grand Duchy is not the Pixies … We could have told you that.”) It’s true, Grand Duchy is not the Pixies (for better or worse, it’s up for you to decide), but they ARE a band in their own right, and Let The People Speak is further evidence that the duo seems to be having a good time making music and art and, it would seem, not trying to take themselves too seriously. I spoke with Frank Black about how the new record came to be and why sometimes it’s not necessary to be in the driver’s seat.
STEREOGUM: It’s been a little over three years since the last Grand Duchy record. Kind of a long time.
FRANK BLACK: Yeah, I guess so. Some days it doesn’t seem that long. Some days if feels much longer.
STEREOGUM: How did this record come together? Did you work in fits and starts in between pursuing other projects? How do the two of you usually work?
FRANK BLACK: I don’t know if we have a usual way of working. But, the way we were working before on Grand Duchy was … well, we had kids sort of coming out of the womb at the time. So, we had to juggle all that kind of stuff. But, I think that the first record we did was that we just sort of set up to have fun. The more we did it, I think frankly, if I can say so, I think Violet became more ambitious. It didn’t turn into just like having fun at the one-off or something or just an occasional thing. When we were finished with the first record, it was like, OK, so let’s do this next record. Come on, Charles! Unfortunately, I was busy with the Pixies on tour all of the time. She was kind of going coo-coo, waiting on me to get home from tour. Then, at some point, one of us figured out, well — Why don’t you just start working on the record? I don’t have to be there. I think at some point I said to her, “You know what? You’ve got a lot of opinions about stuff. And I’m gone a lot right now. Why don’t you just produce the record? And just manhandle it to the end?” At that point, I think it became of great relief to her because she could actually really express herself without bouncing it off of me or whatever. And it became a great relief for me … because I wasn’t the “co-chair person” so much, and I could just be the in deferential person -– and just let her have the vision. Ya know, I’ve been at the helm for many a record, so It was nice to not be the captain.
STEREOGUM: How did that feel for you? Was it a weird thing to work on a project in which you don’t have to necessarily be in the driver’s seat?
FRANK BLACK: Well, it wouldn’t be that fun if I didn’t like the results or the person who was working on the stuff. I really like all of Violet’s ideas. Like any person that I like, usually the mark of that – liking it –- starts out from a place of not liking it that much. And you think you don’t like it, or you think this isn’t my cup of tea, and then what happens is that you keep exposing yourself to it. And then you end up getting it. I really enjoyed not being so much the frontman. And not always vying with a different person.
STEREOGUM: I have always been super fascinated by creative collaborations by people who are also romantically involved. It’s complicated enough to be in a band with people that you’re also not married to. How is it making music with someone who is also your wife?
FRANK BLACK: I’ll say that yeah, maybe there is an extra layer of weirdness. But, neither of us are willing to focus our minds on that. We’d rather focus on the actual art. If there is some interesting psychological nuance that a person like you picks up on, or that a listener can pick up on, then so be it. But we’re not going to focus on that right now. We already spend a lot of time in our personal lives on that. This whole thing of being able to make music is kind of like –- ah, now we get to do the things we really want to do. As far as putting our relationship on a pedestal, we don’t really need to do that in this instance, and we’re not.
STEREOGUM: Where was most of this record actually made? At home or at a studio somewhere?
FRANK BLACK: Definitely in a studio. Not to talk a lot about home life, but we have a large family, and making our record in our house is probably not the best scenario.
STEREOGUM: I can see how that would be complicated. The first track I got to hear from the record initially was “Silver Boys,” which is sort of a paean to Warhol. Where did the fascination come from?
FRANK BLACK: Obviously, I dig Andy Warhol, too. But, really his inclusion on this record, one of the touchstones, came from Violet. I was picking her brain on the way to the studio, about an hour and a half away from where we live. She would drive, and I would ask her about things in her life or in her mind. I would ask her about sex or what she thought about art. Or unrealized film scripts that were floating around in her head. Kind of like cherry-picking all of her thoughts, and then I would contribute lyrics. That became my directive. She determined what the songs cycle was going to be about. You know what I mean? I tried to be true to that. Really, her background is in art history and Warhol is kind of a heroic figure for her. So, she is the one who started talking about Andy Warhol.
So, I got into researching about The Factory and Andy Warhol and I had read some about the stuff before, but now I’m kind of presented with the whole song cycle direction from Violet. So, I took it a little more seriously. It was nice, and soon I discovered the phrase Silver Boys -– what they used to call themselves and why they called themselves that. You know, it was a wonderful visual image that I, of course, could not resist. And then musically, it’s very different than what you are hearing on the record. We had gone into asking people to do remixes for us, there was an acquaintance of Violets out in LA that she put us in contact with, and he did a remix and we were so impressed with it, and I believe I was the one who said – look, his new backing track with our vocals is way more pop and more interesting than what I, you know, did on my guitar before. That is the new version of the song. Musically it took a way different direction, because we just allowed the remix to be the official mix. So, I barely remember the original song. Whenever we play that, it sounds okay, but it was a lot darker and slower and more intense.
STEREOGUM: Who is he?
FRANK BLACK: His name is Justin Warfield, from She Wants Revenge. I thought he did a really stellar job.
STEREOGUM: How did the Gloom Prophet thing happen?
FRANK BLACK: Again, via this whole remix process. I thought it would be nice to do the remixes, because you know, I have gradually, through my relationship with Violet, become a little more tuned into dance music and electronic music. Anyway, I knew there was a chance that the record companies or whomever would ask us, “Could you give us a bonus track? Could you give us a web site track? Could you give us this or that?” And you know, that would involve having to write more material. The problem with writing material for the B-sides is that you still care a lot about the song, but you don’t have near as much time or money. So, it ends up being this really lame compromise that you ultimately end up being embarrassed about in the long run. I was not looking forward to going through that again, and I knew Violet wasn’t interested in going through that again. So, I said, “Hey, let’s just do a bunch of remixes.” We cast a pretty wide net around the world and we got different kinds of people — some people in that world — electronic artists–and some people not in that world. And that is how we came up with the Gloom Prophet. When she heard his remixing style, she really loved it. This is really great. It’s not necessarily appropriate to put on our actual record, but it’s excellent. I think she kinda got addicted to his remixes. So he basically remixed the entire record and that became it’s own separate thing.
STEREOGUM: I actually heard the remix record first, which is an interesting way to come to it. Even if I didn’t know about the connection and history between that record and the Grand Duchy album, it would still make for an interesting listen.
FRANK BLACK: For me personally, it’s very satisfying from an ego point of view because your work is being sort of reintroduced in a new way — your voice and your name and your image or whatever as part of this cultural landscape –- hearing your voice being cut up in a few pieces, and then your wife’s voice cut up in a few pieces … married with this whole other sound. Knowing that people are listening to that in a whole other part of the world, having a totally different experience than they would if listening to the actual record. It’s cool becoming part of a whole cultural landscape. If you are going to be an artist, especially in the musical world, I think more often than not, it tarnishes one’s ego. Hearing your work reinterpreted in new ways, it actually a nice ego boost.
STEREOGUM: Well, do you guys have plans to play shows for this record?
FRANK BLACK: We do, but we are still sort of working out details. We want the shows to be happenings, not just let’s get in the van and do a nightclub tour. We want them to have some artistic value. Because we are not working on the level of say, Lady Gaga, right now, you can’t just start renting out halls around the world. We’re not Bjork yet. They have to be planned events. So they’re going to be special things. I don’t know when and where we are going to have them, but Violet has been talking to people in New York what those shows might take place In more of a gallery setting or something. We’re not sure yet. Want them to be visually interesting and visually arresting shows.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, that seems fitting. Speaking of visuals, are there plans to create visuals to go along with this record?
FRANK BLACK: There are. We just started with a local filmmaker here where we live. We have an art space here in a big industrial building so we’ve been working with this filmmaker, and we’ll start presenting some of these visuals soon. We’re going to try to do that on a weekly basis. And some of them will be a sort of video blog sort of nature. Some of the stuff of the more bloggy nature will be further edited into so-called music videos. Maybe from the record or from some of the remixes. You’re gonna see a lot of visual material. You’ll just have to judge for yourself. We enjoy doing it, and we enjoy the process of filming and editing. What’s not to like about all that?
STEREOGUM: You always seem to be juggling a million projects. In addition to this, do you have any other records coming out this year? Do you have a sense of what the rest of your year is going to be like, work-wise?
FRANK BLACK: I don’t think I have any other records coming up this year that I’m aware of – certainly not any new material. Right now, I’m just sort of focusing on writing the songs for whatever project that they’ll end up in. Working with Violet on the Grand Duchy release. And all those art films, and trying to create some performance happenings. That kind of thing.
Grand Duchy’s Let the People Speak is out now on Sonic Unyon. Let The Prophet Speak is a 12” limited edition LP of remixes by the Gloom Prophet, also out on Sonic Unyon.