"I JUST LAUGH all the way to bank," says Charles Thompson, being frank on the phone from his Chicago hotel room. Or perhaps he's being Frank. Frank Black that is, aka Black Francis. Those are both aliases of Thompson's when he's fronting the Pixies, one of the best and most influential rock bands of the past 20 years.
The thing that's got him laughing and making those bank deposits is the success of the newly reunited Pixies, a band that from 1987 to 1992 made records that were deliberately surreal, wondrously abstract and rocked like crazy, but never charged up the charts. And while Pixies tunes often had subversively catchy hooks, none was ever a top 10 hit.
Together again: The Pixies, from left, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago, David Lovering and Charles Thompson aka Frank Black.
But during a year in which concert ticket sales have been lackluster nearly everywhere for nearly every band, the Pixies reunion tour has sparked something extraordinary in the concert-going public: almost a year's worth of sold-out shows in the United States, Canada and Europe. The band is performing for audiences several times larger than those they used to play for. When the Pixies end this tour Dec. 18 (the final night of seven at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom), they will have played to about 415,000 fans and grossed more than $14 million on the road this year. (Their Washington dates are Tuesday and Wednesday at DAR Constitution Hall.) "Do you know how much money we're making on this tour?" Thompson cries. "We're pigs in [expletive]!"
Well, all right, Charles! So, does that mean the band is getting along well, after the bad blood of nearly a decade ago when Thompson famously dismissed his fellow Pixies by fax? "Oh my, yes," he says. "Everyone's very happy." He even goes a step further: "It's all kisses and hugs. It has been this whole tour, even though it wasn't always then, something I'm sure was cause for much concern among the good people out there."
He clearly doesn't give a fig about our concerns, and frankly (as long as we're all being so frank), that's pretty refreshing in a media age when stars are so desperate to please and not fall below pop culture's radar. "We never sold millions of records," Thompson says, "and we're not about to, but there was definitely something special, something cool that seemed to linger after we stopped playing." That "something special" didn't just linger, it kept growing, slow and steady, boosted by things such as Nirvana's Kurt Cobain's proclaiming that all he was ever trying to do was write a song like the Pixies', and David Bowie covering the band's song "Cactus," and all kinds of publications and Web sites putting Pixies albums (usually 1988's "Surfer Rosa" or 1989's "Doolittle") on some sort of "all-time greatest" list.
Thompson isn't sure how to explain the band's newfound success. At concerts, the crowds have been nearly evenly divided between their old fans ("the ones standing in the back," he says) and new young ones ("the 16- to 20-year-olds, the ones who heard about the band through their big brother's record collection"). And reports from the road have the Pixies roaring through some 25 tunes at their concerts, smiling a lot and apparently having a good time being back together on stage.
The question of a reunion was always on fans' (and interviewers') lips over the past decade, as Thompson forged an impressive solo career as Frank Black, bassist Kim Deal had some success with the Breeders, guitarist Joey Santiago made records with his band the Martinis, and drummer Dave Lovering built a career as a magician. The query was always brushed aside until July 2003, when Thompson was interviewed on a London radio station. He joked that the band was talking all the time, jamming a lot and working on new stuff. The news zipped around the Internet, and the idea developed legs. Thompson decided to talk to Santiago, who talked to Deal. Lovering was called. Managers and agents got in on the discussions. Finally, early this year in Deal's Los Angeles rehearsal studio, the four Pixies tested their muscle memory and found they still made very beautiful music together.
That music began in 1986, when Thompson dropped out of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst to form a band with Santiago, a former roommate. Santiago wanted to call the band Pixies in Panoply, but Thompson edited that down, and the two of them put an ad in a Boston paper looking for a bassist who was up on both Husker Du and Peter, Paul & Mary. Deal was the only person to call, and she brought along Lovering to play drums. On the strength of a quickly made demo tape, the Pixies signed with the independent British label 4AD. Those demos were released on vinyl in England and became No. 1 on the indie charts there. The band's four subsequent albums ("Surfer Rosa," "Doolittle," "Bossanova" and "Trompe le Monde") make up an astonishing body of work, one that marries the art-school tendencies of early new-wavers like Talking Heads to the punk ferocity of the Ramones and Husker Du. Thompson's agitated vocals delivered obtuse lyrics about aliens, the Bible, government officials and the atomic bomb. While their material might have put off many listeners, to their loyal college-radio-listening fans, Thompson's (and to a lesser extent Deal's) lyrics were ripe for the decoding. In fact, several Web sites are dedicated to unraveling the Pixies' words.
"Yeah, I've looked at some of those sites," Thompson says. "It's amazing what some people do in their spare time." And how about some of the interpretations he's read? "They never get it. Nobody gets it." That doesn't seem to bother Thompson. Has he always been willfully obtuse? "Maybe a little early on," he admits, "but now it's just how I write."
Some of those Pixie fan Web sites began tracking each band member's move, looking for signs of a reunion. When the rehearsals began in earnest, people would stand in the alley outside the studio, Thompson says, and send text messages announcing which songs were being worked on. The first gig was a barely publicized affair in a Minneapolis club in April. It sold out in four minutes. Then two weeks in Canada honed the quartet's chops, followed by a few California dates leading up to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in the desert near Indio, Calif. There, in front of 50,000 people the band's return was really announced to the world.
Since then, they've played a grueling schedule, with no agenda other than to not embarrass the memory of their own music, and -- not incidentally -- to make money. "I have two step-kids," Thompson says, "and one of my own on the way. That's three college funds." The band has also entered an agreement with DiscLive to sell a limited number (generally more than a thousand) instant CDs of a given night's concert, and so far those have been selling out. On top of that, SpinArt Records has just released a double CD, "frankblackfrancis." One disc is made up of the earliest Pixies demos, with "Black Francis" singing along to his acoustic guitar. The other disc is "Frank Black" reworking a dozen Pixies songs with the Two Pale Boys production team, gorgeously updating songs that didn't need to be updated. Why? "To make money," Thompson says. It seems there's a theme here. "Well, not for the sake of making money, but to feel okay about selling the record. When I was approached about releasing the early stuff, I thought, well, it's just a time capsule demonstration tape, not even that. It was a reference tape for the producer, just before we went into the studio to make our first demo tape. So I felt I needed something to accompany that, to make the product palatable."
Thompson has also recently finished recording two CDs' worth of what he calls "mellow" music in Nashville, with such renowned players as Steve Cropper, Levon Helm, Spooner Oldham, Duane Jarvis and Dan Penn. The first batch of those songs is slated for early 2005 release, to be called "Honeycomb." You can also look for a Pixies DVD next year, filmed during the current tour. And though Thompson has been cagey about a new Pixies CD the past few months, on the phone from Chicago he is unequivocal: "We are talking three college funds! There is going to be another Pixies album. I'm going to have to find the songs somewhere. I guess I'll have to write them." One new Pixies song has already been recorded, a Deal composition entitled "Bam Thwok," written for the "Shrek 2" soundtrack. Rejected for being "too edgy" and replaced by a Counting Crows number, "Bam Thwok" ended up being used to launch the European iTunes service.
"Don't talk to me about selling out," Thompson says defensively. "The world is a different place now than it was when we broke up before. That's just one more opportunity to get your music out there."
THE PIXIES -- Appearing Tuesday and Wednesday at DAR Constitution Hall. To hear a free Sound Bite from the Pixies, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8121. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)