Discovering the person you want to spend the rest of your life with is pretty monumental. Having the chutzpah to procreate and raise other little people together is arguably bigger than that. So what do two people do for an encore after love, marriage and the pitter-patter of little feet are squared away? They start a band, of course.
The two colorful personalities that are Frank Black (a.k.a Charles Thompson) and Violet Clark appear to share the best of all worlds. After closing the books on their respective unlucky-in-love stories, they decided to tie the knot, make some babies and then finally marry their musical prowess by forming Grand Duchy. Closer perhaps to the Pixies than their sleek sound today, the couple’s 2009 debut, Petits Fours, was lauded by some and panned by others; inevitably drawing its fair share of comparisons to Charles’ previous works. A few years later – on April 10, 2012 to be exact – Violet and Charles brought their sophomore release into the world, naming it (in part to the critical melee spawned by the first?), Let the People Speak.
When I placed my call to Violet to discuss their newest creative offspring, I had every intention of discussing the songs – but rock fans, beware: boys, babies, parenting and destiny also worked their way into the conversation. At the end of our 40-minute chat, feeling slightly silly for perhaps sharing too much and giggling too often with someone I’d kill to be best friends with, Violet coolly (and grandly) assured me with this: ‘Girls can get ta talkin’.’
How did the two of you meet? Were you in music at the time?
I was but that’s not how we met. He used to come through Eugene, Oregon around the same time every year – where I was studying for my Masters Degree on Art History, noodling with music and raising two kids – with The Catholics. Having already lived through the whole Pixies era and seeing them live, I kept current with The Catholics and my Mom was a big fan, too. During a heady time in my life where my relationship was falling apart and things just didn’t seem to be moving like I wanted them to, I reluctantly went with my Mom to this particular show. It was near her birthday and she’d bought tickets, and I met her at the venue. We stood very close to the stage and I don’t know if I just had on the right outfit and was looking a little extra cute – or maybe because I didn’t really want to be there I was giving off some sort of desirable vibe – but Charles noticed me early on in the show.
Ohhh, I see…
Yeah. His relationship was also falling apart and so for the first time he was allowing his eyes to wander and it was all very new and scary and weird for him. Somehow we ended up running into each other in the parking lot and he chatted me up and found out my name and looked me up on the internet afterward. The rest, as they say, is history.
Wow! Well, I have to confess to you, Charles sort of factors into how my boyfriend and I got together.
Oh, really? How?
Well, we’d been co-workers at a record label then reconnected almost 10 years later. We discovered we’d both recently ended long-term relationships and when he came to visit me for the first time, we were both kind of nervous. I had just moved and when I told him to go ahead and choose some music to play I apologized because I only had a handful of discs unpacked. He immediately spotted my Pixies box set and was like, ‘I can’t believe you have this – Pixies are my favorite band of all time!’ and we proceeding to discuss Pixies. It was an instant, bonding moment that broke the ice quite nicely.
No way! (laughs) That’s great.
And in honor of that night and our shared love of the band, one of the first trips we took together was to New York to see them play their Doolittle reunion tour.
Oh, so this is pretty recent! Wow, I love it.
So I have to ask, as a woman married to a ‘famous rock star,’ is your credibility as a musician placed under threat at all? Does it ever feel frustrating or unfair to have him be the focus all the time?
No; not at all. We’re a young band in the early stages of our career and if he’s made the focus then I think that’s as it should be. It just makes me hungrier because I’m pretty competitive to begin with. It makes me want to work really hard and stick my neck out as much as I can because I don’t want to come off as a Yoko, you know? I mean, yes, maybe I do have to prove my artistic integrity but I find it stimulating and fun and it’s never a bummer to me.
Did either of you have reservations or have to talk the other into it?
To be honest, it was really very natural and organic. I’d already had a history of making music prior to meeting Charles and when he left L.A. and moved to Eugene to be with me, he lost a lot of his musical resources and had to find new ones. One of the new resources he called upon was me – as a bass player and as a back-up singer. When it became apparent to him that he could throw me into the mix of any kind of crazy, last-minute situation and I could stay afloat, I think he was delighted because, you know, who woulda thunk?
What was it you worked on with him?
An EP called Seven Fingers. There’s only guitar, bass on drums on it – so him, me and a drummer – and went I went into the studio to lay down my tracks, I only had to hear things once before I could do it. It ended up being one of the most special things he’s ever done – and I feel like my bass work was very inspired. It was just clear that we had the capacity to be spontaneous and creative under pressure.
How great to only have to look as far as each other.
Yeah! As parents with a growing family, we knew that we could get our rocks off, so to speak, with very little prep and in very little time, by working together. It was such a relief to realize that we could give that to each other and to ourselves.
I read a quote by Charles where he said about you: ‘She digs the 80’s; I spent the latter part of the 80’s trying to destroy the 80’s.’
(frustrated sigh) You know, I wish he’d never said that. That’s the worst thing he could have ever said…
He makes it sound like you both have very different tastes in music.
But we don’t though! We both totally geek out over much of the same music, and maybe the only place where we part ways is at…like, Depeche Mode.
So what are the distinctive marks that you each make on Grand Duchy then?
I come primarily from a synthetic background. I’ve always made music on synthesizers, keyboards and bass. He’s obviously coming from a rock ‘n’ roll background that’s more organic – a Folk and Blues or American tradition – but he has an historic appreciation of all kinds of music including that with synthesizers: Brian Eno, Bowie, Talking Heads, Roxy Music, The Cure – there are synthesizers running through all of that. I don’t think he’d really ever thought that out until maybe the first Frank Black record; synthesizers are all over that and they sound so great. I guess what’s the most obvious distinction between us is that we have completely different voices.
And is that difference in delivery indicative of your personalities?
Oh, no…I yell way more than him around the house. Actually, on this new record, he doesn’t scream at all. Whatever loudness there is, it’s coming from me. I don’t know…People, myself included, want to label stuff so badly and they want to pin it down neatly so they can figure it all out, but this is very loose and that’s why it’s so fun to work with him. He’s flexible and not hung up.
And is he just as flexible at home?
Which makes you the hard-ass of the household, right? (laughs)
I am so the hard-ass!(laughs)
Well, you’re a Mom so you’re probably always in the ‘taking care of business’ mode.
Yeah, or maybe it’s just the blind leading the blind…The buck does stops with me in the household though, and it stops with me in the studio, too. Charles just isn’t as detail-oriented and I worry about that because it’s our names on this thing. I think it was more relaxing for him to just allow me to worry about the details so that he could simply contribute and let it go. We didn’t have that system in place on the last record and although I find it really charming and rustic, it wasn’t ultimately up to my standards. Finally with this one, he relinquished control to me I could implement some quality control. I’m very happy with the results.
It sounds like a testament to your husband-wife relationship because from a fan’s perspective, Charles doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’s willing to relinquish control.
No, he’s not, but I don’t think he’s ever been involved with anyone who is a natural born leader in the same way that he is. He’s only worked with people who were happy to have a leader and be part of a team. I’m an only child if you throw psychology at it. I’m a leader that respects details and is aware that we don’t have a million dollars to throw a juggernaut of production people and resources at this. It comes down to us to decide how we want this to sound before releasing it into the world.
Anyone who puts a record out, which is a deeply personal and exposing thing, has to have a fair amount of confidence and a tough skin to deal with the judgments that come after. Do you feel because you’re a husband and wife releasing this record that you might also be putting your personal relationship out there for potential judgment?
No. It’s really about the band; it doesn’t have anything to do with the marriage or the children. I mean, you know what? I just turned 39; I’m going to be 40 next February, so I have to do this. My biological musical clock is ticking. I don’t have a choice. People reactions to it are so low on my list of priorities. I just don’t care. It’s time to work.
I went on maternity leave at 39 after having my daughter and thought, ‘Okay, now’s the time to dive into this music writing thing.’ I’ve written for many of my day jobs, I’ve been involved with music in some shape or form for pretty much my entire adult life, and it just felt like a now or never thing to start doing these interviews and to go on record as a music writer. Also, I think I wanted my daughter to know that it’s important to make time for doing the things you love whether you get paid for them or not.
I think offering that template of being passionate and having a good time and not simply clocking in and clocking out – and not just as a Mom to her daughter but as a parent to a child – is so important and so special. So many people are unhappy and hate their jobs and hate their life and the only thing they look forward to is getting wasted on a Friday night. What kind of message is that sending to your kids? I think it’s great that you did that. They have to know that there is something to look forward to.
Do your kids have opinions about what Mommy and Daddy do for a living?
They generally think it’s pretty great. My eldest two knew that I was making music and they remember me meeting Charles. They remember the ‘before’ times and the transition to having this ‘famous’ stepfather who essentially became their dad for all intents and purposes, so they have a little more room to compare and contrast what life was like before and now what it’s like after. They get an extra kick out of it because they woke up one day and their dad was the lead singer of Pixies (laughs)!
That’s got to be a trip to try and wrap your head that.
I think they’re really happy about it. They get to absorb some of that grooviness and they absorb hope; the world seems suddenly more interesting and so much more full of options than it did before. I think they feel like they can do whatever they want and be creative and potentially have their dreams work out for them. The little ones just know things to be ‘how it is.’ Daddy and Mommy sing songs. They have their favorite Grand Duchy songs; their daddy plays the guitar for them while they’re in the bathtub…
It’s funny; our son Jack is suddenly aware of Michael Jackson and so already knowing that Mommy and Daddy perform and have made videos together and stuff, he’s like, “Well, that’s really great, but have you ever thought about being as famous as Michael Jackson? I am thinking about that and I am working on my moves…” (laughs)
Can I assume that music plays a big role in your day to day in the house?
Yeah, it does. Not to the extent that we have bongos and African gourds and stuff hanging everywhere – we don’t do drum circles or anything like that – but at night we turn the lights out and the kids are in bed and we recite the lyrics of songs as poetry from our iTunes…50’s stuff and Springsteen and all kinds of different genres. Now we’re reading Michael Jackson’s songs.
That’s great; I might have to steal that!
It is great. We also have a jukebox and we constantly rotate 45s from the 40’s and 50’s. They’re even conversant on the finer points of Jazz because we talk about this sort of thing all the time.
Well, I love the lyrics as poetry idea. Once ours is a little older, we’d like to play a different song every night at bedtime and then talk about it with her. Her dad plays guitar for her almost every night and she’s already trying to strum it, too.
The appreciation piece is so key.
I think so. I think that whether she learns to play anything or not, I would love for her to have as many good memories associated to music as I do.
Have you ever met somebody who was like, ‘I don’t really listen to music…’?
Yes! ‘I don’t really have a favorite band; I just like whatever they play on the radio.’ I don’t know how people can be so complacent when it comes to music.
Maybe an appreciation for it is just wired into your brain or it’s not. I don’t want to criticize, but it must have to do with the brain.
So are your kids showing musical inclinations at this point? Have they begun picking up instruments?
Yeah; Charles and I are both self-taught so it’s hard for us to wrap our minds around lessons, but I think at some point, we’ll consider that. Lucy, our five year old, she seems like she could do the weekly lesson thing with daily practice and be okay with it. She naturally makes such beautiful sounds – ever since she was one year old – on a piano. There is never anything ugly that comes out of what she does, so she might be the one to do well with lessons. The other kids mainly want to dance or sing and perform.
Do you think one of them will follow in your footsteps?
Someone’s bound too, yeah. Our oldest, Julian, is a fabulous dancer but I don’t think its his future to just go around break dancing. He’s a big computer guy. The others are just so into performing so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they got into acting or something…
Final question, do you feel like Grand Duchy is what you were meant to be doing all this time or are you still on the road to ‘self-discovery’, so to speak?
Do you want the dorky, cheesy answer?
Well, I want whatever answer is the truthful one.
The dorky, honest answer is yes. I’ve woken up to myself with this band. I’ve caught up to my future destiny and it’s happening now…and I’m so happy about it.