Discography » Frank Black – Teenager of the Year

Frank Black
Teenager of the Year

Michael Urbano, Bourgeois Tagg’s drummer turned me on to the first Frank Black solo record. The self titled “Frank Black” was in frequent rotation at home and in the car. I was raving about it to my good friend and guitar builder Jol Dantzig. He had moved from Chicago to Marin County where I was living, and shared that Frank would be in our town recording a song for a compilation tribute record, to be produced by his friend Jon Tiven. Seeing a potential “in”, I asked if I could visit the session with the intent of meeting Frank and offering my guitar duties. Jon gave the go ahead and on that fateful day, I met Frank Black. I was asked to help with background vocals, and as we stood together in the vocal booth, Frank asked me about my work, having heard a little about me from Jon previously. After giving Frank a thumbnail sketch and then at the appropriate moment, offering him my guitar services, he asked if I was going to be in LA within the next few months. I had no plans on being there, but when he asked “What are you doing in September?” I replied with a deadpan “playing with you”. He asked me to call him when in LA, to and jam on some of his new material.

After the session, I had to determine where in LA I would go while pursuing this gig, and called my drummer friend, Toss Panos, who I had recently played with on a Jude Cole tour. Toss was hospitable and offered his couch.

After arriving in LA, I left a voice message for Frank. A few days passed, then finally got the return call and drove to Frank’s house. We made our way to his music room and got straight to playing guitars. He had chord progressions written via the worlds largest Sharpie in on huge sheets of paper perched on an artist’s easel, so that the entire band could read from one huge chart in rehearsals. Frank was responding well to my playing, and after our jam session said he’d call after his band finished recorded basic tracks in a few weeks time, then bring me in for some overdubs. I left his house elated thinking that I was going to play and record with someone whose music I’d loved.

I drove home and shortly afterwards, Frank called and invited me to record for initial basic tracking too, in addition to the plan of overdubbing. Good news! I loaded up the car and made my way back down to LA, arriving at the rehearsal studio where Frank and company had been practicing. There were only two days of rehearsal left before moving into the recording studio, so I was cramming to learn as many songs as possible, writing chord charts as we were moving through songs at a rapid pace. With over twenty songs slated for recording, there were several we didn’t have time to go over.

After settling into the recording studio, with five days set aside for basic tracking, I was directed to play along as much as I wanted to – The purpose of basic tracking was primarily about getting drums, Frank’s rhythm guitar, bass and some of Joey Santiago’s parts (Joey had been with rehearsing them before I arrived in LA). What was expected from me was icing due to my limited time with the material, especially since Frank planned to have me back for a few weeks of overdubs where the focus would then be my contributions.

During those five days, I played along to everything. I had heard roughly half of the material previously in the rehearsal studio. For the remaining, Frank ran them down once or twice on guitar while I jotted down a chart. When we listened to playbacks of takes in the control room, my guitar was turned nearly off, again with the focus on the rhythm elements. It’s possible I may have been turned down very low or even off completely in the headphones of Frank and company, as there was no creative feedback on what I was playing. But it was a good thing; The situation freed me up to try things out and experiment with no pressure, I was in no holds barred mode and going for it, not playing it safe because I knew I had a few weeks of overdubs ahead as a safety net.

it’s interesting to note that for the most part, Frank wasn’t singing. if he had melodies they were in his head. On the good side, not hearing vocal melodies provided a clean slate to add parts to. On the down side, I was missing a good part of the song – melody and lyric. Added to the many left turns in his music, it was hard to get a complete overview of the songs. At that stage I would describe what we were playing, not so much as songs, but as “unique chord progressions with cool riffs, interesting meters and breaks”.

After five days of basic tracking I returned home, planning to return to LA soon for a few weeks for the “proper” recording of my parts. In that meantime Frank sang and added keys from bassist/co-producer Eric Drew Feldman.

A few weeks had passed and I received an incredible phone call from Frank, saying they turned up my guitar tracks and heard so many nice bits suitable as keeper. He figured just a few days of overdubs should do the trick, instead of two weeks. He was very enthusiastic and that was a great feeling. I went back for a few days of overdubs, which went very smoothly, then drove back home reeling over my participation in something very cool and creatively rewarding.

Shortly after, Frank sent me rough mixes of the tracks, twenty-two of them, and for the first time I heard how his melodies and lyrics transformed the “chord progressions” into incredible songs. It was wonderfully surprising to hear how they had evolved, so satisfying hearing my contribution of off the cuff, newly born ideas, finally in context of complete songs. I was listening in the car, smiling from ear to ear, whooping and laughing, just knocked out by it all. What a sweet reveal and the most rewarding experience having the first listen of the final masterpiece.


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