While introducing this on-stage interview event, host Dave Haslam makes a surprise announcement. Tonight’s guest Black Francis – Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV to his mum – will finish the evening by performing a few songs. The audience hasn’t been led to expect this at all. But then, that’s a theme running right through Charles’ career. Delivering the unexpected has become his stock-in-trade. After all, who could have predicted that, in the mid 80s, rock music would be reinvigorated by a big guy from Boston with a thing for Spanish, sexual taboo and Biblical allusions? Then, in 1993, with alternative rock going overground, he split the Pixies, to pursue a highly idiosyncratic solo career. In 2004, pretty much out of the blue, he reformed the band, and most surprisingly of all, they were still breathtaking. Now iconic bass player Kim Deal has left – and they’ve started releasing new material. It’s been a career constructed entirely of unlikely surprises.
But if one were to picture Thompson going about his daily business, it would probably involve him standing on stage, guitar in hand, and possibly screaming. He’s not known as a raconteur. The Pixies have never gone in much for between-song patter – and whenever they did, it would usually be Deal deal doing it. So it’s hard to know what to expect from the man himself, unadorned, in conversation.
It’s a pleasure to report that he comes across very well: genuine, level-headed, unpretentious and hugely smart. And yet at the same time, he manages not to give a whole lot away. This is, remember, a man with not one but two pseudonyms – Black Francis for the Pixies, Frank Black for his solo work. He’s an elusive chap, and here he elevates the deflection of analysis into something like an art form. Understandably, Haslam tries to get under his skin a bit, but Thompson starts his reply to virtually every probing question with, “No, not really…”. Asked to explain his assorted monikers, he shrugs that it’s “just a showbiz thing”. Pressed further on the true nature of Charles Thompson himself, he explains a big chunk of his family history but keeps anything too personal to himself. On the issue of his famously cryptic lyrics, he insists that it’s usually just a matter of solving problems like “What rhymes with ‘monkey’?”
He and Haslam are dressed up in black, as dictated by Pixies lore. Subjects covered range from the band’s early days and their barnstorming comeback to a particular fondness for Manchester. He discusses the departure of Deal with candour and apparently little rancour. He’s hilariously nonplussed about Kurt Cobain having professed himself to be a Pixies fan, and the accidental discovery of a cassette of Donovan’s Greatest Hits turns out to have been an unlikely early musical touchstone. He’ll digress at the drop of a hat, though: as young folk would say, he’s soooo random. Probably he’d require a more steely grilling to reveal anything genuinely intimate. He tends to intellectualise questions rather than bare his raw soul. He’s never less than disarmingly honest, but only seems to let slip what he’s completely comfortable with. A request for the all-time most debauched Pixies’ moment produces a rather sweet tale about guitarist Joey Santiago misplacing his passport and a bike courier being dispatched to find it. This ain’t Hammer of the Gods.
Speaking of the artists who first fired his imagination – Iggy Pop, the Violent Femmes – Thompson confesses, “I thought, OK, I don’t need to hold anything back. You want music to be real, to be authentic.” And just possibly his caution tonight, however entertaining he is, just goes to prove that it’s when he’s performing, strumming and screaming that he’s at his most articulate, rather than in formal conversation.
After fielding a few questions from the audience, ranging from the classic “Who are your main influences?” and “What advice would you give to a young musician?” to an awkward drunken query about his circumcision status, Thompson finally steps up to perform. He doesn’t use the proffered mic or amp, not even his guitar. Instead he delivers a five minute acapella-cum-spoken word medley of songs from throughout his career, while smearing burnt cork over his face. True to form, even his surprises come with their own surprises. So maybe he’s most comfortable when allowing his innermost thoughts to spill forth from behind the mask of a persona. But in the flesh tonight he’s been terrific company: clever, thoughtful, dryly funny and artlessly charming.
Review by Andy Murray
What: Close Up – Black Francis in conversation
Where: Albert Hall, Peter Street, Manchester
When: November 20, 2013