Grand Duchy’s King And Queen Talk To Pollstar

Rock legend Black Francis or Frank Black or as his wife Violet Clark simply calls him, Charles, is a busy man these days.

In between juggling tours with the Pixies, his solo work as Black Francis and his new band Grand Duchy – which he co-founded with Violet – he and his wife balance performing with raising five kids ages 11, 9, 4, 3 and 1.

The husband and wife team recently took some time to talk to Pollstar about Grand Duchy, a band that has been compared to Pixies bassist Kim Deal’s The Breeders mixed with a good dose of spacey, synth pop. Grand Duchy’s debut album, Petits Fours, which was released in April, features Charles and Violet on “99.9 percent” of the instruments. On tour the duo take turns on vocals with Charles on guitar (naturally) and Violet on bass, along with a keyboardist and drummer.

Pollstar: I actually caught you guys back in May in Visalia, Calif. Your show was a lot of fun.

Black Francis: Oh my gosh, Visalia. Yeah.
Violet Clark: Oh great, Thanks.

Pollstar: Tell me a bit about how the band formed. Did you guys always know that you wanted to make music together, right off the bat?

BF: No. I mean, I think that Violet, I think that she …

VC: I always knew that I wanted to make music and I was making music by myself, prior to meeting Charles.

BF: But we didn’t get married or get together and say ‘And now we will make the music.’ It wasn’t really like that. We made music together, don’t get me wrong.

Pollstar: I read in a past interview that Violet, you’d played bass for Charles on songs that he was doing before the band actually formed.

VC: Sure, well I actually played bass on an entire record before the band formed. On Black Francis’ Sevenfingers.

Pollstar: His most recent release.

VC: Yes ma’am.

BF: Well, technically I think we had already started Grand Duchy at that point.

VC: Oh we had? Oh, OK.

BF: But yeah, we were headed that way. You know. We started [working together] as far back as six years ago.

VC: On Fast Man Raider Man.

BF: Fast Man Raider Man and a compilation record.

Photo: Annabelle Phillips

Pollstar: So, what’s it like working together? Is it kind of hard to switch between the band mode and regular life? And if you could talk a little bit about who has more creative control in the band.

VC: I have more creative control in the band. Only because I have more youthful enthusiasm so I fight a lot harder for things. Whereas he’s been doing this for so long, he’s not as uptight or doesn’t have as many convictions about … You know, he’s much more go with the flow.

Pollstar: And so if you get a certain idea that you think would work well you fight for it.

VC: Yeah, I get excited.

BF: I get excited too but I recognize that Violet needs to … How do I put this. Because I don’t want to make it sound like she doesn’t know what she’s doing. But she has to go through certain kind of growth … I’m not saying I’ll never grow again, but whatever growing I’m doing right now is on a very subtle level that’s hard to measure or participate in, in a conscious way.

Let me give you a cliché – you have your whole life to write your first record but you have six months to write your second record. So Violet is very much in the earlier part of her writing and recording experience. There’s just a lot more going on in her head. And she’s just reaching for a lot more things that she needs to reach for. It’s something that just naturally happens when you’re a musician. Whereas I’ve already scratched a lot of itches and done a lot of reaching and done a lot of thinking. And now is a time for me to do what I do, do what comes naturally. But I don’t get wound up in the same way.

Pollstar: What’s the songwriting process like for you? Is it more of a collaborative process or is it something where Violet, you take more control?

BF: It depends on the song. There are some songs where I’m definitely in the driver seat and there are other songs where she’s in the driver seat. It’s just sort of like, whoever’s feeling the strongest about a particular song will control more aspects than the other person.

VC: Whoever can get in the studio first that day maybe starts laying down a framework and then the ideas start to build. And even though the other person may come in and have something to contribute, they’re not going to be shaping the song to the extent that the original person that began the song will shape it. It really depends who walks through the studio door first.

BF: We frequently don’t walk in the studio together at the same time because we’re involved with raising our family. Sometimes one of us will be with some of the children or all of the children and that’s a big part of how our time is organized.

Pollstar: Do the kids ever want to join in and make music with mom and dad?

BF: I don’t know if they’re really there yet. I think they have their own interests and they’re aware of what we’re doing.

VC: I think that the older two are inspired by us. They both sang in the talent show with the school this year. They take the idea of singing, not just take it seriously, but they just take it for granted that it’s something a person can aspire to do because we’re out there doing it. So it doesn’t seem untouchable to them. I think that’s really awesome when I’m observing that in one of the kids that they just assume if they wanted to be a famous singer that they could. That it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. They feel like they could really reach for that.

Photo: Greg Allen
NYC’s Hammerstein Ballroom. The band sold out a six-concert series December 11-16.

Pollstar: That’s neat they look up to you like that. Is it difficult having the kids on tour with you?

BF and VC: Yes.

Pollstar: But I bet they enjoy going to see different places on the road and everything.

BF: No, especially not the younger ones. They don’t really care about international travel. They like consistency.

VC: The older two, they’re a little more adventurous. But our four-year-old, he’s a homebody. He just wants routine. It’s almost heartbreaking sometimes to see him get out of his comfort zone. It’s hard.

Pollstar: Yeah, I can see how that would be really tough. Your debut album Petits Fours came out in April. I read that you two played all the instruments on the album.

BF: Yeah or 99.9 percent. There’s a guitar solo and there’s a bass performance on one song that was played by someone else but yeah, we do everything.

Pollstar: And on tour you tour with a drummer and a keyboardist.

BF: Jason Carter and Silver Sorensen.

VC: That was the full band that was with us in Visalia.

Pollstar: You guys had a really great dynamic on stage. I think it worked really well. Tell me about the meaning behind the band name you came up with, Grand Duchy. What does it represent?

VC: Freedom! … Honey, go ahead.

BF: It represents a microstate as in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, a small nation. We feel like our band or our music is its own little nation. And we’re trying to develop that tiny, baby nation. And so, you know, there’s kind of a royalty thing to it. I guess we feel like we’re kind of the king and queen of Grand Duchy planet.

Pollstar: And you have your five kids in the kingdom too.

VC: It sounds pretty grandiose, doesn’t it, when we start to talk about it. But it’s all in good fun.

Pollstar: What is the live show like for you?

BF: It’s a relief, to finally get through the day and get up on stage.

Pollstar: That’s the fun part.

VC: Oh, it’s wonderful, yeah.

BF: You don’t get paid for the hour you’re up on stage. You get paid for the other 23 hours.

Pollstar: I have a question for you, Charles. Do you think you’d ever get back with the Catholics or consider returning to doing some of your alt-country material again?

BF: I have no idea. I hadn’t even given it a thought. I’ll just have to cross that bridge when I come to it. I don’t really plan ahead like that.

Pollstar: So it could be a possibility down the road at some point.

BF: Maybe.

VC: Would you even ever consider yourself alt-country?

BF: Not really.

VC: I don’t think that label applies to you. It just doesn’t ring true to me that that’s even what’s going on there. It’s more bluegrass. And Charles certainly never, ever would think in terms of ‘This is my country phase and this is my rock phase and this is my quirky phase.’

Pollstar: I also got the chance to see you perform a solo show in San Luis Opisbo, Calif., in fall 2007. And that was a lot of fun too. When you were doing new material from Bluefinger.

BF: Thank you.

VC: Was that the tour that I dropped out of?

BF: Did you see us on the West Coast?

Pollstar: Yeah, it was at the Downtown Brewing Company, this bar in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

BF: Yeah, OK. I remember. Yeah, Violet was supposed to have been there but I think that, I don’t remember what happened.

VC: I got pregnant.

Pollstar: Yes, I remember Charles mentioned that.

VC: I started having all this nausea. And I was crying and I was nauseous and I was like ‘Oh my god, what’s wrong with me.’ And he was like ‘Honey, I’m buying you a pregnancy test. I’ll be back in 15 mins.’ And that was the last show that I played that night.

Pollstar: Probably not a good combination for going on stage.

VC: Yeah, it wasn’t worth it.

Photo: Rod Tanaka /
The Pixies continue to reap the rewards of a decade of fan devotion at Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

Pollstar: Charles, I know in a recent interview with NME you mentioned that it was a possibility that the Pixies might want to record new material by working with a film director.

BF: Well, I plant those kinds of seeds to see if they take root. I don’t know if anything will ever come of that but that’s just me talking shit. And hoping that something comes of it. So it’s my own little PR campaign, putting the feelers out there. Maybe Scorsese reads that and says hey, I would love to do that with you guys.

Pollstar: That wouldn’t be half-bad. Do you think there would be any chance of doing a more conventional album?

BF: I don’t know. I have no idea. It’s not really up to me.

Pollstar: Well, you’ve answered all my questions. Thanks so much for your time today. It was really nice talking with both of you. And good luck with the rest of your tour!

BF: Thank you. Appreciate it. Take care.

Grand Duchy performs Thursday at Black Cat in Washington D.C., followed by a Friday show at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, N.J. and a Saturday performance at Siren Music Festival at Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Coney Island. Sunday the band heads to Cambridge, M.A. for a gig at Middle East Downstairs followed by two dates in Chicago, July 24 and 25. In September Charles and Violet play their hometown of Portland, Ore., with a show at Dante’s, Sept. 19.

You can catch Black Francis tonight at Club Café in Pittsburgh and Wednesday at the Avalon Theatre in Easton, Md. He’s also playing Wellfleet, Mass., Cleveland Heights, Ohio; Denver; Seattle and Portland, Ore.

The Pixies are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the band’s second full-length album, 1989’s Doolittle, by performing the release in its entirety during an 11-date European tour. The tour kicks off with two shows at Olympia in Dublin, Ireland, Oct. 1-2 and concludes Oct. 15 with a gig at Zenith in Paris.

Click here for Grand Duchy’s MySpace page.