Black Francis (born Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV on April 6, 1965) is an American singer, songwriter and guitarist. He is best known as the frontman of the influential alternative rock band Pixies, where he performed under the stage name Black Francis. Following the band's breakup in 1993, he embarked on a solo career under the name Frank Black. After releasing two albums with 4AD, he left the label and formed a backing band, Frank Black and the Catholics. He reformed the Pixies in 2004, and continues to release solo records and tour as a solo artist, having re-adopted his current stage name in 2007.
His vocal style has varied from a screaming, yowling delivery as lead vocalist of the Pixies to a more measured and melodical style in his solo career. His cryptic lyrics mostly explore unconventional subjects, such as surrealism, incest and Biblical violence, along with dam collapses, science fiction and surf culture. His use of atypical meter signatures, loud-quiet dynamics and distinct preference for live-to-two-track recording in his career as a solo artist give him a unique style in alternative rock.
As frontman of the Pixies, his songs (such as "Where Is My Mind?" and "Debaser") received praise and citations from contemporaries, including Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Nirvana's Kurt Cobain. Cobain once said that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was his attempt at trying to "rip off the Pixies". However, in his solo work and records with the Catholics, he received fewer popular and critical accolades.
Thompson's family moved around, first with his father, and then his stepfather, a religious man who "pursued real estate on both coasts"; his parents had separated twice by the time he was in first grade. When Thompson was 12, his mother and stepfather joined a church that was tied to the evangelical Assemblies of God, a move that influenced many of his songs written with the Pixies, which often refer to the Bible. He discovered the music of Christian rock singer-songwriter Larry Norman at 13 when Norman played at a religious summer camp that Thompson attended. Norman's music influenced Thompson to the extent that he named the Pixies' first EP and a lyric in the band's song "Levitate Me" after one of Norman's catchphrases, "come on, pilgrim!" Thompson later described the music he listened to during his youth:
I used to hang out with some misfits. [...] We were the 'we listen to odd-ball music' kids. I wasn't hanging out at all-ages shows or trying to get into clubs to see bands, and I was buying records at used records stores and borrowing them from the library. You just saw Emerson, Lake & Palmer records. So I didn't know [punk] music but I started to hear about it in high school. But it was probably a good thing that I didn't know it, that I instead listened to a lot of '60s records and this religious music.
Just before Thompson's senior year, his family moved to , where he received a Teenager of the Year award — the title of a later solo album. During this time, Thompson composed several songs that appeared in his later career, including "Here Comes Your Man" from Doolittle, and "Velvety Instrumental Version".
After graduating from high school in 1983, he studied in the University of Massachusetts Amherst, majoring in anthropology. Thompson shared a room with another roommate for a semester before moving in with future Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago. The two shared an interest in rock music, and Santiago introduced Thompson to 1970s punk and the music of David Bowie; they began to jam together. It was at this time that Thompson discovered The Cars, a band he described as "very influential on me and the Pixies".
In his second year of college, Thompson embarked on a trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico as part of an exchange program. He spent six months in an apartment with a "weird, psycho, gay roommate", who later served as a direct inspiration for the Pixies' song "Crackity Jones"; many of the band's early songs refer to Thompson's experiences in Puerto Rico. Thompson failed to grasp the Spanish language, and left his studies after debating whether he would go to New Zealand to view Halley's Comet (he later said it "seemed like the cool romantic thing to do at the time"), or start a rock band. He wrote a letter urging Santiago, with the words "we gotta do it, now is the time Joe", to join him in a band upon his return to Boston.
In 1988, the Pixies recorded their debut album Surfer Rosa. Thompson wrote and sang on all the tracks, with the exception of the single "Gigantic", which was co-written and sung by Deal. To support the album, the band undertook a European tour, during which Thompson met Eric Drew Feldman, a later collaborator on Pixies and solo albums. Doolittle, with Thompson-penned songs such as "Debaser" and "Monkey Gone To Heaven", was released the following year to widespread critical acclaim. However, by this time, tensions between Thompson and Deal combined with exhaustion, and led the band to announce a hiatus. Thompson has an aversion to flying, and spent this time driving across America with his girlfriend, Jean Walsh (whom he had met in the band's early days), performing solo shows in order to raise funds to buy furniture for his new Los Angeles apartment.
The band reconvened in 1990, and recorded two further albums: 1990s Bossanova and 1991's Trompe le Monde; the latter was Thompson's first collaboration with Feldman. The later Pixies albums were characterized by Thompson's increasing influence on the band's output, as well as a focus on science fiction themes, including aliens and UFOs. These themes would continue to be explored throughout his early solo work. Trompe le Monde includes the song "U-Mass", which was written about the university he attended as a youth, and due to the keyboard part played by Feldman, signified a move away from the band's alternative rock sound. Although Deal had contributed on the songs "Gigantic" (from Surfer Rosa) and "Silver" (from Doolittle), from Bossanova on, Thompson wrote all the band's original material. This contributed to the increasing tension between him and Deal, and the Pixies broke up in 1992; this was not publicly announced until early 1993.
While the Pixies' 1991 album Trompe le Monde was being recorded, Thompson had discussions with the album's producer, Gil Norton, about a possible solo record. He told Norton he was keen to record again, even though he had no new material; as a result, the two decided on a cover album. However, by the time Thompson visited a recording studio again in 1992, he had "plenty of tunes and musical scraps".
He collaborated with Feldman to record new material; they began by trimming down the number of covers to one, The Beach Boys' "Hang On to Your Ego". Feldman became the album's producer, and played keyboard and bass guitar on several songs, with Santiago featuring on lead guitar and Nick Vincent on drums. Francis recorded the album during the hiatus and breakup of the Pixies in late 1992 and early 1993. He then adopted the stage name "Frank Black" (inverting his old persona "Black Francis") and released the results as Frank Black in March 1993. Frank Black was characterized by a focus on UFOs and science fiction, although he explored other eclectic subjects, such as in "I Heard Ramona Sing", a song about the Ramones. The album was similar in style, both musically and lyrically, to the Pixies' albums Bossanova and Trompe le Monde. Feldman later said that the first record connected his solo career with Trompe le Monde, "but at the same time it is an island, like nothing else he [Black] did".
The following year, Black released his second solo record, a 22-song double album entitled Teenager of the Year. Teenager included the song "Headache" a moderate success on alternative rock playlists; critics described the song as "irresistible pop". The production of Teenager of the Year was markedly different from Frank Black; in the previous album, MIDI templates were used when writing songs, but in Teenager, Black showed individual parts to band members, the core of which included drummer Vincent and Lyle Workman on lead guitar. Feldman noted that Thompson's songwriting became "a lot more spontaneous" while recording the album. Thompson had begun to stray from his style with the Pixies, writing songs that covered a variety of genres and topics, and his new-found method of recording was closer to later albums than that of Frank Black and Trompe le Monde.
Both Frank Black and Teenager of the Year were critically well-received and remain fan favorites, although they enjoyed little commercial success. In 1995, Thompson left his long-time labels 4AD and Elektra. He continued to write new material: In 1996, he released The Cult of Ray on Rick Rubin's American Recordings; the album marked a turn away from the elaborate production of his first solo works and was recorded primarily live with few overdubs. His band for this album featured sole Teenager holdover Lyle Workman on lead guitar, along with bassist David McCaffrey and Scott Boutier on drums. Though the album was neither critically nor commercially successful, its stripped-down approach would increasingly define Thompson's working methods for the next several years.
Frank Black and the Catholics became the first album to be posted to the eMusic service; they claim it is "the first album ever made legally available for commercial download". Critical reception to the album was mixed, with some writers noting Thompson's seemingly deliberate turn away from the "quirkiness" of the Pixies and his early solo work for a self-consciously straightforward approach, and the "disappointingly straightforward punk-pop" musical style present on the album.
He would continue to eschew multi-track recording for the live-to-two-track technique for all subsequent releases under the group name. Live-to-two-track recording precludes the use of overdubs to correct errors or add texture; all takes are recorded continuously, and mixing is done "on the fly". On later albums, he incorporated more musicians into the sessions to allow for more varied instrumental textures. Explaining his rationale behind the method, he commented:
Well, it's real. It's a recording of a performance, of a real performance between a group of people, an entourage, a band, as opposed to a facsimile of that, which is frequently what people do with multi-track recording. [...] I prefer it. It's a little more real. It's got a little more heart.
Workman left the Catholics in 1998 to pursue session and sideman work; Rich Gilbert was added to the band to replace him. Frank Black and the Catholics released Pistolero in 1999, which critics cited as a return to Thompson's earlier form, and Dog in the Sand in 2001, considered a high point in his solo career. Dog in the Sand added Dave Philips on pedal steel guitar and lead guitar, and Santiago and Feldman began making occasional appearances with the group live and on record. Both Pistolero and Dog in the Sand were produced by Nick Vincent.
By this time, while dismissing the possibility of a Pixies reunion, Thompson had begun to incorporate an increasing number of the band's songs into Catholics concerts, as well as including Santiago in his solo work again. Black and the Catholics continued to release records; two separate albums, Black Letter Days and Devil's Workshop, were released simultaneously in 2002. Devil's Workshop included the song "Velvety" a version of the Pixies' song "Velvety Instrumental Version" (written by Black as a teenager) with lyrics. The song was one of the first signs that he had acknowledged his past work with the Pixies in his solo output. A sixth album with the Catholics, Show Me Your Tears, was released in 2003. Show Me Your Tears' title and many of the songs in it were inspired by Thompson's recent divorce and entry into therapy.
Also in 2004, Thompson began to collaborate with a group of Nashville session men, including Steve Cropper, Spooner Oldham, Reggie Young, and Anton Fig, as well as producer Jon Tiven. In July 2005, the collective released Honeycomb under the Frank Black name, to generally favorable reviews. Entertainment Weekly described the album as "spare, graceful, [and] in the pocket", while Billboard noted it as "One of [Thompson's] finest hours". A second volume of Nashville sessions, a double album entitled Fast Man Raider Man, was released in June 2006. Thompson appeared at a concert by Christian rock pioneer Larry Norman in June 2005 in Salem, Oregon. Norman and Thompson performed a duet on "Watch What You're Doing", which later appeared on Norman's album, Live at The Elsinore.
Thompson continued to tour with the Pixies through 2005 and 2006. Though the Catholics were effectively defunct, they released two separate albums of B-sides and rarities, Snake Oil and One More Road for the Hit, on iTunes, with an eye towards a future CD release. Thompson was also working on more new solo material with Feldman in the first part of 2006, some of which they performed live. In the fall of 2006, Thompson began his first solo tour since 2003, taking Feldman, Billy Block, and Duane Jarvis along as his backing band. In October 2006, Thompson announced plans for the Pixies to start rehearsing and recording a new album in January 2007, but it is believed that no recording took place because of the reluctance of another member of the Pixies to commit to the project. In December 2006, he released the compilation Christmass album; a collection of new studio tracks, hotel room sessions, and live acoustic recordings from a solo tour the previous summer.
A Frank Black "best of" compilation, Frank Black 93-03, was released in June 2007. Concurrently with that release, Thompson undertook a European tour with a new band, featuring Salem's Guards of Metropolis members Jason Carter and Charles Normal, as well as bassist Ding Archer. For this tour, Thompson eschewed his usual rhythm guitar role and performed solely as a frontman and singer. In September 2007, a new album entitled Bluefinger was released under his former stage name of Black Francis. For this album, he was inspired by the life and works of Herman Brood, a Dutch musician and artist. He also released a new 'mini-album' entitled Svn Fngrs as Black Francis in March 2008.
In February 2008, Thompson was taken away by Gardai in Dublin, Ireland after staging an impromptu 'precore' acoustic solo gig at St. Stephen's Green. He was later released and performed that night in Vicar Street as planned. However, a similar event planned for London was prevented by police and had to be re-arranged for a small indoor venue.
Thompson currently lives in Eugene, Oregon, and is married to Violet Clark, his second wife, with whom he has three children, along with her two children from previous relationships.
Over the course of his career, Thompson's musical style has grown to encompass a large number of genres; however, he is considered to produce rock or alternative rock compositions. Whereas songs such as "Here Comes Your Man" (Doolittle), "Velvety" (Devil's Workshop) and "Headache" (Teenager of the Year) expose a more light rock side, others such as "Something Against You" (Surfer Rosa) and "Thalassocracy" (Teenager of the Year) hint to a more heavy rock influence in his material. A strong country music influence is also increasingly evident in his style, most notably in his Nashville albums, Honeycomb and Fast Man Raider Man.
Thompson has said that he acquired his vocal style as a teenager, when a Thai neighbor asked him to sing "Oh! Darling" by The Beatles (from their album Abbey Road) and to "Scream it like you hate that bitch! Thompson's powerful screams were a signature of Pixies albums, along with the band's typical song structure of quietly paced verses followed by thundering chorus lines and repetitive guitar staccato.
Thompson's lyrics have also featured references to the Bible, especially in his career with the Pixies, appear in his work; most notably in the incestuous tale of "Nimrod's Son", the stories of Uriah and Bathsheba in "Dead", Samson in "Gouge Away" and references to the The Tower of Babel in songs such as "Build High" and "Old Black Dawning". He cited surrealist films Eraserhead and Un Chien Andalou (as mentioned in "Debaser") as major influences on his work with the Pixies; however, surrealism was less of an influence in his solo career. He commented on these influences (which he paid tribute to most in the Pixies' Doolittle), saying he "didn't have the patience to sit around reading Surrealist novels", but found it easier to watch 20-minute films.
Thompson's lyrics are noted for their obscure references to off-beat topics such as outer space, UFOs, and The Three Stooges — the last of these being the subject of "Two Reelers", a song from Teenager of the Year. Lyrics with a focus on science fiction were particularly prominent on the later Pixies records, as well as his early solo albums. With the Catholics, his lyrics have tended towards historical topics; for example, the song "St. Francis Dam Disaster" (from Dog in the Sand) details the catastrophic collapse of the St. Francis Dam near Los Angeles in March 1928, and the All My Ghosts EP featured an account of the "Humboldt County Massacre" of Wiyot Indians in 1860 near Eureka, California.
As part of the Pixies, he was reluctant to film music videos for singles. Elektra Records' Peter Lubin commented that "to get videos out of them was a major [...] undertaking and it only got worse over time", citing the fact that Thompson refused to lip-sync; the video for "Here Comes Your Man" features Thompson and Deal opening their mouths as the vocals are being heard, mocking the practice.
In his early solo career as Frank Black, his videos were more professional; he became more willing to take part in them. "Los Angeles" is an example; the video features Thompson riding across a desert on a hovercraft. They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh, who directed the "Los Angeles" video, later commented on the change in Black's attitude to music videos:
I think the Pixies had made enough anti-videos that Charles was ready to do things that were more visually hopped up. The 'Los Angeles' video that we did, the last minute and a half of the song is this open field of grey over which hovercrafts are floating. It's about as tripped up as any video I've ever been involved in, and it was also realizing a dream of Charles', getting him in a hovercraft.
Thompson has released few music videos since leaving 4AD, one being a low-budget video in Germany for Dog in the Sand's "Robert Onion". The last widely-released video produced for his solo material was for "Men in Black", from Cult of Ray.