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The hotly anticipated Pixies box set, Minotaur, doesn’t mean Black Francis is resting on his laurels. Far from it. He recently produced Art Brut’s third album and has just unveiled Grand Duchy, a collaboration with his wife, Violet Clark.
Grand Duchy’s punchy, nine-song debut, Petits Fours, came out on Cooking Vinyl last month, casting Black Francis’ blurting guitar and cutting growl in a totally different light. While there’s a definite Pixies vibe to the coed vocals and dominant bass lines, some tunes recall Blondie and the Cars, and the band recently covered “A Strange Day” for a tribute to the Cure.
Thank Clark for that; a fan of glossy ’80s pop, she brings zippy synths and an appealing coyness to the equation, making for some thrilling tension between retro and modern, not to mention adorable and angry.
“We’re aware of some kind of tension, which is probably a good thing,” says Francis (“Frank Black” in his solo career) by phone. “But we’re not seeking it out. We just do our thing. It’s very difficult to define exactly what happens when you’re writing songs or making records. There’s a lot of unspoken things that go on.”
Clark adds, “We do have different sensibilities. If you look at my iPod and his, there’s not a lot of overlap. I think that contributed to whatever schizophrenic quality the record has, which, to me, is a cool aspect. For somebody else, it might be confusing or perplexing, but we’re really relishing [it]. Whatever [we’re] bringing to the table, it forces it in a new direction.”
Chiming in together as readily on record as they do on the phone, Francis and Clark—who live with their five children in Portland—gel incredibly well on Petits Fours, whether on the Dandy Warhols-recalling single “Lovesick,” the adrift duet “Seeing Stars,” or the plinking, slow-burn closer “Volcano!” Longtime fans may be surprised to hear Francis’ acidic sneer lathered in ’80s-style echo on “Black Suit,” or take on an almost-twee lilt on “Fort Wayne,” but that’s the whole point of collaboration. Grand Duchy’s bittersweet sound is equally split between the spouses.
“It’s all decided in the moment,” explains Francis. “Sometimes, she’ll start a song; sometimes, I’ll start a song. Sometimes, I’ll write all the music; sometimes, she’ll write all the music. Sometimes, I’ll write eight bars and say, ‘Okay, honey, I’ll take over the kids now,’ and she writes the next eight bars. There’s not any one set way we do it.”
Befitting a project that’s named for Francis’ obsession with microstates and self-ruled principalities, Grand Duchy features Clark and Francis playing and singing everything. That was half the charm of this outing for them. “Yeah,” agrees Clark, “we didn’t have to bounce anything off five other people. We could just answer to ourselves.”
With that said, they’ve recruited the album’s co-producer, Jason Carter, to play drums on their upcoming tour dates. “He’s trying not to step all over the naivete of the drums on the record,” Clark says. “He’s sensitive to that vibe that ended up emanating from the drums because neither of us are drummers. We came up with something kind of rustic.”
The decision to collaborate in the first place was simple. “I knew Violet could sing,” says Francis, “so I started asking her to sing on this or that. Finally, we said, ‘Let’s just go do a session as a new project.’”
As for the writing process, the duo had no expectations about how quickly or slowly songs would come together. “The actual song structures tend to come about quickly,” says Clark, “because we don’t have any shortage of ideas.”
Grand Duchy’s hyper-catchy Petits Fours is wiry and unpredictable instead of lazy and lovey-dovey, as one imagines a husband-and-wife team-up might sound. “We’re not those people,” Clark says bluntly.
“We’re into music,” says Francis. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, I had children. I’m gonna just paint pictures of my little babies playing with their toys. That’s so sweet.’ I may feel those things, but that doesn’t mean that’s what I want my rock music to reflect. There’s an element of love or whatever mixed in, but that’s not our grand statement: ‘We love each other! We want to tell the world!’”