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Pixies' Black Francis and TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe interview each other

We bring together two indie-rock heroes for a candid, killer conversation that touches on NYC and life on the road

Written by
Marc Hogan

Listening to Black Francis and Tunde Adebimpe chat over the phone, I feel like I’m working for the NSA—if the NSA’s goal were eavesdropping on endearingly offbeat rock moments. As singer and guitarist for the Pixies in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Francis (solo name Frank Black, given name Charles Thompson) pioneered a certain strain of left-field rock that Adebimpe’s Brooklyn-born band, TV on the Radio, has cited as a major influence. It even covered a Pixies song, “Mr. Grieves,” on its 2003 debut EP. After an 11-year breakup, the Pixies reunited in 2004, their eight-concert New York engagement occurring during a boom time in NYC’s indie-music scene. Naturally, TV on the Radio was the opener.

Now, more than a decade later, the groups are both set to play big gigs in NYC—two of the city's best summer concerts by a mile, in fact. Phoning from New Orleans, Francis is affable, loquacious and prone to untranscribable yelps and groans, while Adebimpe, in his newfound California home, is soft-spoken and more careful with his words, clearly geeking out at speaking with one of his heroes. (Even after all this time and success, when Francis refers to TV on the Radio’s a cappella take on the Pixies’ “Mr. Grieves” as “awesome,” Adebimpe can be heard to murmur, humbly and shyly, “Yeah, we made that.”) The dynamic is, to use a not-very-rock-star word, cute. As the discussion goes on, Adebimpe gradually begins to find ways to talk over the boundlessly energetic Francis rather than vice versa. It’s clear the pupil has (long since) become one of the masters—and the lovefest is mutual.

Tunde Adebimpe: It’s good to hear your voice.
Black Francis: It’s good to hear yours! Whereabouts are you in the world?
Adebimpe: I’m in L.A. right now. I moved seven months ago, so I’m just kind of acclimating.
Francis: Ah, well, I spent half my life in L.A. But I haven’t lived there in over 10 years.
Adebimpe: It’s really strange, because when we were on our way out here I actually did think about you quite a bit. Years ago, being in New York, it was just kind of a joke to move to L.A. But I feel like you and David Lynch formed my opinions about the mythology of L.A., or the parts of L.A. that I was interested in before I moved here.
Francis: [Laughs] Oh, thanks, man. I was living there for like the umpteenth time in my life [in the late ’80s]. My girlfriend wanted to move there. I already went to most of high school there. I was like, “Oh, man, I don’t want to move to L.A. again. All right, I’ll move to L.A.” I’m in New Orleans now. I just got here a couple hours ago.
Adebimpe: Do you like New Orleans?
Francis: I do. We just rolled out of the bus, and I saw Joey [Santiago, the Pixies’ lead guitarist] was headed out for lunch, so I went with him. We went to some ancient old place that has the real deal or whatever. You feel culturally obligated. “Well, I’m here in blah bitty blah blah, so I have to sample the blah blah.”
Adebimpe: I’m a little fussy about getting out on the road. Kyp [Malone, TV on the Radio’s multi-instrumentalist and singer] and I will get out of the bus and say, “Okay, we need a good place to drink coffee that’s not too fancy, and we need a comic store or an art store and a record store.”
Francis: So you’re the gentleman in the band that is seeking out the comic-book store?
Adebimpe: That’s me, yeah. It’s what I did for a long time. I worked as a comic artist and cartoonist and still do it every once in a while.
Francis: Oh, wow. That’s amazing. I didn’t grow up loving comics or anything like that, but as I started touring, in my twenties, I discovered things like R. Crumb or whatever.
Adebimpe: Sure.
Francis: I had my phase where every time I went to a big town that had a comic-book shop I’d buy a bunch of comics-—really dark or really nasty stuff. I wanted to break them out recently, but my kids aren’t really old enough for some of the material. It’s just too adult and too over-the-top. I even thought, Well, I think my 10-year-old could deal with Reid Fleming, World’s Toughest Milkman.
Adebimpe: Oh, man. Right on.
Francis: So I dug them out and I was reading through it, and I thought, I don’t know, maybe this is too intense for him. [Laughs] A little too aggro.

Adebimpe: So I first heard the Pixies when I was—I must’ve been 17. A friend had given me a mixtape that had Pixies on it, Violent Femmes, Mazzy Star and the Dead Milkmen. And I just remember really, really being hooked immediately, to the point where, not to dork out too much, but it hasn’t died down that much since then. But like, really [you were my] favorite, favorite band.
Francis: Oh, thanks, man. You mentioned those mixtapes. I guess some people still do it, probably, but I don’t know. I guess I’m kind of middle-aged, and my life is busy, and I’m just like, “Ahh, Spotify.” It’s just where I’m at. I’m not a record collector. I don’t have time for it. I’m not organized enough.
Adebimpe: Yeah.
Francis: My most memorable moment hearing TV on the Radio was when we were playing a show together somewhere. When you’re on tour, at a certain point, at least for me, you don’t watch the other acts on the bill.
Adebimpe: Sure.
Francis: You’re warming up your voice, or you’re trying to eat dinner, or you’re a having a fight with your wife on the phone or whatever you’re doing. Or it’s just too much rock to see two or three bands. But I remember, I was in the dressing room, and you took the stage, and it’s one of those things that’s only happened to me, like, once or twice in my life, where you literally stand up and go, “Holy shit! What’s going on? Wow. Oh, my God, it sounds so good.”
Adebimpe: [Laughs] Oh, man.
Francis: Most of the time, there’s music going on in another part of the building, but it’s just boom boom boom boom. Obviously there’s more than just boom boom boom boom, but you tune it out. But when something really exceptional happens, even through the wall, you can totally tell. There was something really amazing going on onstage, and I could hear it. I’ll never forget it.
Adebimpe: Thank you. Thank you. That means…a ton to me. The crazy thing is I wanted to see you around 1993, and that’s when the band had stopped. So I just thought, I missed it. I’m never gonna see them, and that’s it. And then the first time I did see you was when we were playing those shows together [in 2004], which was crazy for me. It was one of those times when I wish that time machines actually did exist so I could go back to my 17-year-old self, like: “You’re nearsighted, you don’t have that many friends, you’re a little awkward, but dude, it’s gonna be fine. It’s totally gonna be fine. Don’t worry about it.”
Francis: I feel bad. I’m sorry for breaking up the band in the first place. Joey tries to assure me it’s okay. But it’s sort of like, you’re in a band and you can’t deal with it anymore. You just go, “Argh, I’m outta here.”
Adebimpe: Every two years, I feel exactly like that.
Francis: Do you guys have a lovey-dovey relationship or…
Adebimpe: Right now, it’s really cool. I just think bands are a bizarre social experiment, because I don’t think there’s any other kind of group where you make this work, ostensibly with your friends, who are also your coworkers. Once you go on tour, you wake up with your coworkers. You try to find a bathroom with your coworkers. You find food with your coworkers. And then you have maybe an hour of the day where you do your actual work, and then maybe 30 minutes after that you have to get back on a bus, and repeat and repeat. I don’t think people are supposed to do that, unless you’re a nomadic tribe. And even then you probably have more space.
Francis: It’s like being submariners together.
Adebimpe: Submariners, or on a space shuttle.

Adebimpe: I remember the song at the end of Fight Club [the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?”] that for me actually made the movie. Had you seen the film before they asked you?
Francis: No, no, not at all. I got to see it the way everybody else saw it, just at a theater. And I didn’t know when it was showing up in the film or anything like that. Obviously the [final scene] was dramatic. So I’m pleased that the song got to be in such a grand moment of the movie.
Adebimpe: Oh, yeah, absolutely. That kind of happened to us with “DLZ”; that was in Breaking Bad. It was cool to roll up on it and not really know what it was gonna be attached to, because it kind of takes your idea of the song out of your head a little bit.

Adebimpe: How do you think the music climate has changed?
Francis: Nothing has changed, really. I know people don’t sell that many records anymore, but people go to concerts, just like they always have. People have been going to concerts since before there was rock music. All those ancient mechanisms are still there.
Adebimpe: I agree with you to a large extent. I was talking to two friends of mine who are also in bands. One of them is in Interpol, and the other is in Yeah Yeah Yeahs. We were talking about how when we were in high school you make a demo tape, and if you’re lucky, like, seven people are gonna hear those tapes. But now, let’s say you’re 15 and you put your first album up on YouTube or SoundCloud. There are so many opportunities for people to talk shit about what you’re doing. We all said we don’t know if we would be doing what we’re doing now, if that was the case. When we were starting off, I could count the number of bands who were in our group or whatever, who were our peers. I could break it down to maybe 20 bands. And now it’s hard to find things, new music especially, because there’s so much of it. Maybe there aren’t as many opportunities to fail in some cases?
Francis: Yeah.
Adebimpe: I was thinking the other day how Bruce Springsteen was on a record label and would have, like, five shitty records, and they wouldn’t drop him. Now if you have one bad thing, they kind of knock you out of the way and try to find the hot new thing.

Francis: How has NYC changed?
Adebimpe: It’s always flipping over for me. But I just feel like, especially Brooklyn or the area we were in, it’s just not as affordable over there for people. But it’s gonna be different in five years. It’s gonna be different in 10. New York has changed the way it was meant to change.
Francis: My first experiences of New York were just playing in some shitty club, driving there and then driving back all night to Boston to get to work in the morning. So I barely experienced it. And then as I became a working musician, it was more a showbiz kind of thing. Like, Oh, yeah, I’m in town, and I’m staying in Manhattan, and I have all these interviews today, and I’m being taken out to dinner, and I got a show and, oh, we’re gonna do a TV show. It’s literally being in limousines and being driven around. About four years ago, I moved back to western Massachusetts, about a three-hour drive to New York. I have a couple friends in Brooklyn, one of them I write songs with sometimes. So when I’m there, I’m just kind of sucking it all up, like, [Falsetto] “Whooo! This is awesome!” I’m not looking at it from a financial point of view. I’m just kind of in and out. But obviously it’s a totally different perspective than living there and being part of a community or having your trials and tribulations of having to pay rent. My perspective is completely warped. It’s like a drug when I go there.
Adebimpe: Since we left, we’ve been back two or three times. Just being there for a few days—that’s when I miss it. I think in tiny doses it’s a real wonderland.

Adebimpe: How would you define your legacy?
Francis: Oh, we’re just a rock band. We’ve got guitar, we’ve got the bass, we’ve got drums.
Adebimpe: You’ve got the rhythm section, you’ve got the—
Francis: Both of our bands, for lack of a better word, we’re “indie rock” bands. We’re left-of-center, we’re from a certain kind of oeuvre, we’re—
Adebimpe: We’re weird.
Francis: Yeah, we’re weird! Even the whole notion of “legacy.” If I were to meet a legend on the street here in New Orleans, I would tip my hat to the legacy of that person. There’s a work ethic about it, but there’s also just the artsy-fartsy work ethic about it. I can never say things like [TV announcer voice], “What do you think about your station in the world of art and music?” It’s hard for me to go there. We’re just making art, man. We can’t do anything else! We’re artists.
Adebimpe: From my end of things, unless you’re some kind of maniac, it’s really hard for you to gauge your place in other people’s pantheon. But I would say, Charles, you guys basically inspired.… When I hear about the Velvet Underground—people saying that when they started they weren’t a mainstream band, but then the 40 bands who heard them and started a band because of them became a whole wave—I really feel like that about the Pixies.
Francis: Well, thank you. I don’t know how we got to do it or how we’re still doing it. But I like it. I really like playing music. I don’t have that many friends in the world, but most of my friends, they’re all musicians. That’s my world. So I’m always pleased when people from my world are like, “Hey, good one.”

TV on the Radio plays Kings Theatre May 20. Pixies play Beacon Theatre May 26, 27 and Kings Theatre May 28.

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