Exclusive: How Rock Legend Frank Black Fell in Love With an MTV Girl

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Charles Michael Kittredge Thompson IV, aka Black Francis, aka Frank Black, has a reputation as one tough band leader, whether in the TNT-volatile Pixies of the late ’80s and early ’90s or the hardworking roots rockers known as the Catholics. We’ve seen him seriously tear into a hapless drummer on one occasion, and berate a would-be stage diver on another. We’ve heard the firing-by-fax story. He scares us a little.

Still, his latest musical collaborator, Violet Clarke, cannot be pushed around so easily — she is also his love, his wife, and the mother of his five children. And, indeed, she seems to bring out the best in him, eliciting a playful, relaxed side, not to mention a surprisingly pop-oriented musical style. Together they wrote all the songs, played all the instruments, and recorded all the tracks for Petits Fours, the debut album credited to their joint Grand Duchy project.

First, let us meditate on the strangeness of hearing Frank Black’s inimitable punk roar joined to the early ’90s dark synths and plastic drum machine beats of, say, Depeche Mode. How did the man who spent much of the early 00s cultivating the super organic sounds of Stax and Memphis end up in a new wave project?

Simply, he fell in love with an MTV girl. Violet Clarke says she got her first synthesizer at the age of about six and discovered the all-music-video channel only a couple of years later: “MTV came out when I was eight. Prior to that I would have been listening to the Kinks and the Beatles and classical music. Whatever my mom was listening to. The Who.”

“Ozark Mountain Daredevils,” Black interposes.

“No,” she says calmly. “But when MTV came out, I suddenly was exposed to whatever was happening in 1981. Joe Jackson, the Human League, but also, like Prince.”

But wasn’t Joe Jackson antithetical to what Frank Black ended up doing with the Pixies? Didn’t Frank Black hate the Human League?

“Oh no. I didn’t really hate anything. I went and saw Flock of Seagulls twice,” says Black. “I’ll tell you what I hated — and It would not have been anything from the British/new wave end of things, because that is too much in alliance with punk rock and independent music. Bands like Mass, Winger and Warrant… everything that Spinal Tap is based on. The sort of male-dominated, very… usually American but not always, kind of cock rock, all of that really stupid, dorky kind of pondering that is still as common today as it was then.”

But not the Human League.

Still, wasn’t it hard to combine Clarke’s new wave-y, even dance-y pop with Black’s tendencies toward surrealist, punk-explosive rock?

“I take to heart what Iggy Pop says. ‘It’s all disco.’ And, to a certain extent, it is,” Black explains. “When you think about how classical music, over the decades and centuries has changed… when you think about how much rock and roll has changed in 50 years, and really, you and I perceive all kinds of changes happening all the time. But from another perspective, things haven’t changed that much. We’re talking about a back beat. We’re talking about a three-minute pop song. Verses and choruses. There’s a lot more similarity in all these so-called genres than there are differences, I think.”

Black and Clarke were a couple long before they were a band, though it wasn’t long before Black discovered that Clarke was a musician, too. “I learned that Violet had made a record on her own and began to listen to it, and kind of spent some time, early in our relationship absorbing that,” says Black. “And then, gradually, we would be hanging out together as we were recording in the studio, and she would start to contribute some background vocals spontaneously. That sort of matriculated into doing more extensive work on sessions.”

Their musical partnership gelled when Black was recording Bluefinger, a record inspired by and in tribute to the Dutch musician/artist Herman Brood, who committed suicide in 2001.

“There is an aspect to Herman Brood’s life, which I think Violet was tuned into, and that would have been a feminine side of his life, whether it would have been his true love or one of the girls down at the brothel or girl singers or whatever… there’s kind of a female element, a yin and yang thing to his macho sexiness,” he says. “Violet kind of took on that role. She presented herself as part lover, part background singer, part floozy, whatever it was she was tuned into, to kind of provide this female echo to the Herman Brood thing that I was trying to channel. Anyway, that was our first real collaboration, that she was really tuned into the art that I was making and trying to contribute to it.”

Clarke began contributing regularly to Black’s projects. “You know what, it was really fun… The stuff that I did to contribute on the last few of his records was really, really fun, and then suddenly, it got a little bit trickier when we started writing together,” says Clarke. “Because obviously, there are a lot of new factors like people getting their feelings hurt by a criticism, even if it’s just a helpful criticism. Or just healthy competition. There were new things to traverse. We got through it. And I think it was a really great exercise. Because now when we go into the studio, if one person is a little more dominant that way, the other person kind of steps back. We can modulate our two energies.”

Clarke says that Black had a great deal to do with making the partnership work. “We just had to work through it. And I credit Charles with a lot of the success of the project. It was really him who stepped back, really gracefully, to let my energy in.”

It’s tempting to parse the songs on Petit Fours for clues about the couple’s relationship. In “Lovesick,” for instance, Black repeatedly asks, “What are you wearing?” Later, on “Volcano” Clarke calls someone “muscle bear” (though Black says that “muscle bear” is someone else). Is it weird to put a husband and wife’s personal relationship on disc? Do Black and Clarke ever feel a little too exposed?

Black initially dismisses the idea, saying that his songwriting style has never been confessional enough to cross personal boundaries: “Even when it sounds like I’m doing that, you’ll find out that things don’t always appear to be what they are. What you think is a rock is really a cloud and what you think is a cloud is really a rock.” And regardless, it’s nothing compared to the exposure of playing live: “When you’re singing and you’re playing on stage, you’re already kind of naked. It’s kind of hard to be too embarrassed about anything.”

Clarke ventures that even songs inspired by specific people, relationships and events can expand to become more universal. “For me, also, you can take a specific relationship and you can put it through… you can filter a song through that to get the emotion, but then by the end of it, it can be a universal thing. It can be about a person you never met. Or a person you were in a past life. You can take your current relationship and use it to your advantage, but the end result isn’t necessarily going to be about that. It’s just the feeling propels the process.”

When asked if he and Clarke plan to make more records together, Black asks, “Well, I don’t know. I haven’t been tuned into the music business the last couple of days, does it all still exist? But yeah, we’re making more records. It’s all kind of interesting. The question mark is not so much with the artists, but with all the other aspects of distributing records.” And anyway, he adds, “It’s either that or back to shipping and receiving.”

If you’re in Chicago, Grand Duchy play Wicker Park Fest this weekend; download an MP3 of “Lovesick” via Pop Tarts Suck Toasted.