It would be easy to assume that about Charles Thompson -- the Pixies front man who shrieked and howled under the name Black Francis before launching a successful solo career as Frank Black. He is infamous for being a grouch.
And interviewing a grumpy rock star is torture. Among music journalists, word spreads fast about who the most easily irritated subjects are. When all else fails, sometimes a flaming burnout of a discussion even becomes the story itself. (Remember Terry Gross' infamous interview with Gene Simmons?)
But on this occasion, Thompson is quickly proving that rep wrong, or at least a little outdated. By 9 a.m. on Thompson's first day of media interviews for the recently reunited Pixies' North American tour, he's on the morning's third round of questioning, and he's surprisingly laid-back. Down-to-earth. Humble. And even kind of funny. Life is good for Thompson, and for now, he obviously just enjoys being in the moment as a Pixie.
Indeed, the moment isn't what it used to be. Now that guitarist Thompson, bassist Kim Deal, guitarist Joey Santiago, and drummer David Lovering are back in action, the songs are all the same but the world is different. The music industry's changed since the group got its start in Boston in 1987, and the fans have multiplied by a generation. Demand for Pixies concert tickets is so steep that new dates were recently added to the three-and-a-half month tour. And the band finally gave in and flew to Japan for the first time. It was a brief, two-nights-and-turn-around trip that the Pixies never would've considered before, Thompson explains.
"So here I am, older, maybe less arrogant, doing the same thing, you know," he says, launching into a mock-dopey voice. "'OK, sure, fine, whatever you say -- whatever I have to do to make the money. '"
Timing plays a huge part in the somewhat unlikely reunion of these alt-rock pioneers. (After all, this is the band that suddenly broke up by fax 11 years ago, when Thompson's tensions with Deal, who was struggling with drinking and drugs, were at their peak.) Thompson even admits that if the Pixies had reunited at the five-year mark, they likely wouldn't have been as successful. Now, not only is Generation X feeling nostalgic for songs like "Debaser" and "Monkey Gone to Heaven" but so is Generation Y, even though it missed out on the Pixies' heyday. These are the kids weaned on Nirvana, and Kurt Cobain had gone on record as one of the Pixies' most famous fans.
"In the United States, the interest in our tour is probably even bigger than it is in Europe. It was the other way around before," Thompson says. "I think things [in Europe] happen a lot faster with pop culture. Because it's taken that long for things to filter out here, and you add in the fact that there are two or three generations of rock kids that have grown up listening to the band. Now they're all coming out to patronize us."
What led up to this was a makeup almost as random as the band's famous breakup. Last summer, a British radio show host interviewed Thompson and asked the obvious -- and long deflected -- question about a possible Pixies reunion. "I made a joke with a DJ, and it kind of fanned out from that," Thompson says. "They just decided to turn it into a rumor. They knew that I was being sarcastic, but they decided to overlook that."
Once word got out among indie-rock fans around the world, Thompson started to take the notion seriously. "I was on the road, so I don't think that [the other former Pixies] knew how to get a hold of me, so I ended up calling them to say, 'Hey, sorry about this funny thing that ended up in the papers and stuff. I was just kidding around,'" he says. "'But anyway, on that note, do you want to take advantage of this moment, and do you want to do it?'"
In April, lucky Minneapolis fans got to see the quartet play its first show together in 12 years, and in May, the band co-headlined the opening night of the Coachella Valley Music Festival. Among the 50,000 spectators who sold out the event, the biggest buzz by far was about the Pixies, who looked happy to be together and sounded as dead-on as any long-time devotee could've hoped for.
"Everyone plays like 10 percent better," Thompson says. "Well, we still make plenty of mistakes. But yeah, there's just something about it -- just being a musician for that much longer has made everyone a little more solid. So that's kind of nice."
The Pixies are concentrating on touring for now, and the only CDs in the works are the limited-edition DiscLive recordings available at each show. Although they haven't ruled out recording another full-length, it's just as possible that they'll release more downloadable singles through iTunes, like they did with "Bam Thwok," their first new work since Trompe Le Monde came out in 1991.
"The record business is kind of in a slump right now, so maybe we shouldn't make a record," Thompson says. "It kind of puts the power in the artist's hands a little more, in that you don't need to -- especially if you already have an established career -- you don't need to run around and try to get your record together and find a record label in order to exist. You can just go, 'Hey, there's this movie that's calling up and asking for a song -- Let's do a song.' There's not the pressure to come up with a whole record and finance it and all that."
So the changing times have worked to the Pixies' advantage. That, and all the band members have so much more studio experience -- more "rock muscles," as Thompson puts it. "Everyone just kind of plugged in and played," he says. "It was amazing how quickly it all kind of fell together."