Story: Brian Heater / Photo: Annabelle Phillips
"We were talking about misogyny," Frank Black smiles, as the PR woman enters the makeshift bungalow back behind the Siren Music Festival main stage, toward the end of our interview.
It's true. It was hardly my intention at the outset, but it's true. There was no great plan to tackle the difficult social issues when I first set out to interview Frank Black/Black Francis and his wife Violet Clark, the two driving forces behind Grand Duchy, but these things just sort of happen sometimes. It's a beautiful July day for an outdoor rock show at Coney Island. We're sitting in front of an electric fan, in the fenced-off backstage area adjacent to the ancient Cyclone wooden rollercoaster, a stone's throw from the ocean. And yeah, somehow the conversation has come to this. Sometimes, I suppose, these things can't be helped.
I want to retrace my steps.
"We haven't polled people," Black had told me, cheekily, when I tossed him some softball question about crowd reaction. "They're there, we played for them, and they seemed like they're having a good time. A bunch of people slapped us on the back and gave us kisses, so, I think everything's all right."
Clark, who, for the record, hasn't spent the last 20-odd years touring with rock and roll bands, was a touch more engaged with the process. "A lot of guys come up to me and say, 'great show!'"
"Oh, I wonder what they're thinking!" Black smiled at his bass player wife.
"I - well, maybe," she answers. "But I think they're mostly impressed that I can actually play my instrument. Because I'm his girlfriend." And, just for emphasis, she added, "Women can rock too!"
Fair enough. Personally, I didn't think the subject was up for debate. In fact, if I'd had any doubt on the subject, it would have almost certainly been put to rest two decades ago, when the bass player in that other band of Black's sang "Gigantic."
Not that Black Francis ever considered himself a great crusader for women's rights, of course. "I haven't been trying to prove anything," he tells me. "No one ever told me that when I was a kid growing up. I didn't grow up in some PC household, but it's not like my mom sat me down and said, 'That's women's work and that's men's work.'"
But, at least from the outside, one often had the distinct impression that Pixies was, on a whole, Black's vision. After settling in with Grand Duchy's debut Petits Fours (Cooking Vinyl, 2009), however, one gets the distinct impression that the group is not so much a band as a comprise - that is, a meeting point between two distinct music sensibilities, who, as it so happens, are also married with three kids.
Clark, too, has a musical past, albeit one steeped far more in dance grooves than the tortured rock of Black's. In the lead up to Siren, The Village Voice asked Black for his impressions of said music early on. "It was very dancey and pop-synth-oriented," he told the weekly. "It wasn't my cup of tea. It took me a while to absorb it; the first time I heard it, I couldn't relate."
Asked the same question by myself with Clark herself present, Black toned it down a touch, "Well, it was very dance oriented. If I hear a great dance track, I might like it in the moment, but it's not something I seek out. Whereas she would actually sit down and listen to the new LCD Soundsystem record. But I was not necessarily into that. I didn't mind it when I heard it, but, you know..."
But sometimes people get married, and sometimes married people start bands together. Said music children have the tendency to resemble both parents. "I was doing all synthesized music," Clark tells me. "It's definitely trickled in and informed that, but I'm happy with this direction, having it be a little more organic, in terms of the sounds, the textures, real instruments. I think it's a nice balance." It's a balance born of being, as Clark puts it, "in the right place at the right time."
"He's always making music, and I had been making music," Clark says of Grand Duchy's origins. "But I was doing other things and just being in the supportive role for a couple of years. At some point, I would just be in the studio and someone - maybe a producer - would say, 'A girl's voice would sound great here. Who could we call?' It's just me, and he's like... a god, a legend, the real deal. It was intimidating, but at some point it started to happen."
Grand Duchy thus far exists as a nine-track album and a handful of live shows. Perhaps some day it will become more, but there are responsibilities and kids and, Black lovingly puts it, "Sometimes the high paying gig takes the priority." Like, say, a Doolittle tour with the Pixies. "It's being treated as a special occasion," says Clark of her husband's November 2009 U.S. tour. "I was a little dubious at first. This is all about that album, all being presented..." He quickly interrupts, "All in a reggae style."
Genre choice aside, I ask whether Black is looking forward to focusing on one brief window of musical time, rather than cherry-picking from a 22-year-long back catalog. "I don't know if I really experience time and space like that," he smiles.
"He's like an ant," Clark adds quickly. "Whatever's straight ahead is what's happening." For a brief moment in mid-2009, Grand Duchy was what was happening. Then in the fall, it was Pixies. Now, in spring 2010, Black is back with another solo album, NonStopErotik (Cooking Vinyl). As for the future, well, Black and Clark will pick up that breadcrumb when they come to it.