As an interview subject, he is rumored to be affable yet reserved. But his reputation as a bandmate (at least during the Pixies' first run) is a little pricklier. After all, Black is the man who, according to legend, sent a fax to management in 1993 that effectively called off the whole band.
We talked to him about songwriting and his decision to bring his whole family along on a string of solo acoustic dates in August. Some possible (but unlikely) parallels arise: the Partridge Family, the Von Trapp Family Singers.
"Maybe the Osbournes," Black says with a laugh. "We're just going to give it a shot, you know, to see if we're a showbiz family. I don't know how to do anything else."
So far, so good. But when Black is asked whether he harbors hopes of writing songs while sharing a tour bus with his wife, four children, a nanny, a tour manager, and a driver, he proceeds to expound on the possibility of a new Pixies record.
The suggestion is astounding.
"There's some gentle talk among the Pixies," Black says, "and when I say 'gentle,' I mean it's like even via other people and stuff -- it's kind of crazy -- but, you know, about getting together to jam."
That a four-member group must depend upon the "gentle talk" of go-betweens to schedule a rehearsal is odd. That the same quartet -- despite sharing a stage for well over 100 shows in the last two years alone -- has not yet transitioned into a complete band is odder still. Until you remember that you're talking about the Pixies. Towering tales of personality conflicts, professional disagreements, and general animosity abound.
Following his infamous fax, Black Francis became Frank Black, embarked on a solo career, and released an annual album, more or less, for the next dozen years. Much excellent work was overlooked because it wasn't from the Pixies; some not-so-excellent work was passed over for the same reason.
And yet on the eve of the Pixies' most unlikely convergence -- with his profile as elevated as it had been in a decade -- Black made the first of two sojourns in Nashville. Marathon recording stints there with southern studio vets such as Steve Cropper, Spooner Oldham, and David Hood produced more than two hours of material: Black's initial Americana foray, 2005's Honeycomb, as well as this year's double-disc Fast Man Raider Man. The sessions, Black says, were "a long-standing whim."
"I had over the years become a very huge fan of [Bob Dylan's] Blonde on Blonde," he says. "I started talking about this with [producer] John Tiven like 10 years ago, when he was in New York. And he would very gently call me every six months or so -- and sometimes he would bring it up, and sometimes he wouldn't, but he occasionally would say, 'Hey, Charles -- you ready to make Black on Blonde?'
"I guess you could say both records represent the sort of Black on Blonde scenario, where the artiste heads to Nashville and works with musicians that got a lot of mojo. I mean, I wasn't necessarily trying to sound like Blonde on Blonde or anything like that; it was just to kind of go through that experience. 'Hey, I want to go to Nashville. I want to play with those guys.'"
Fair enough. But both Honeycomb and Fast Man Raider Man have once again been overshadowed by the specter of a band unsure of its next move. So what exactly do Frank Black fans want?
"They want Surfer Rosa or Doolittle," Black says. "Those are the records which I have gold discs for. Those are the most popular records -- and so just the sheer numbers of that audience, the audience that likes those records, it's like sort of dealing with, like, China or something.
"What do people want? Well, what people? Which people, you know? Even among my most ardent fans, I can kind of suss that there's a variety of opinions there, but for me, people are the Chinese. They're this other vast audience, which bought a bunch of copies of Doolittle and a bunch of copies of Surfer Rosa, so they're like the army of people, and yeah, what they want is they want some more of that."
And so maybe, finally, once more, Black is ready to give it to them. But will it be as a solo artist? Or as a member of a group?
"I remember performing recently [with the Pixies] in Zagreb, Croatia," Black says. "We were playing at a little outdoor sports arena, and it was full. There were four and a half thousand people, so that's pretty good for a band that, you know, is in Croatia and hasn't put out a record for 12 years.
"And I was standing on the stage and I had this little inspired epiphany, enjoying myself there in the summer evening, in the big massive Pixies sing-along there with the Croatians. I said, 'You know, if I can't get the Pixies to record another record, screw it. Maybe I won't be able to come back to Croatia and deliver the Pixies, but maybe I can come up with something that will, you know, be an approximation of that.'"