The stop start legacy of the Pixies

© Doug Coombes

Words by:

No band has dragged the lake of weirdness, dysfunction and the human condition’s relation to fiction like the Pixies.

No band has captured such unknowable glimpses of imagined worlds, all in three minute splinters of Lynchian Surrealism, Old Testament brutalism and glassy-eyed ruminations on extraterrestrial life. No one else has forced a mass of voices to howl along to lyrics about slicing up eyeballs, or the environmentalist dread of millions of pounds of sludge enveloping the oceans. No one has even come close.

“There was a guy…”

Joey Santiago remembers like glue the first time he laid eyes on Charles Thompson IV. They were 18, freshmen at UMass college just outside Boston, sharing digs (along with a certain J.Mascis). It was a couple of years before Charles would reconstruct himself as Black Francis, irrepressible vocalist and central songwriter of the Pixies.

“There was a guy across the hall playing guitar”, Joey recalls. “I’d always wanted to be in an original band, but I didn’t bring my guitar for the first semester, I wanted to study hard and get good grades. He was this cool, jolly guy, and he wrote original songs. He was jamming his acoustic along with another guy, and he was spitting on a mirror. It was cathartic for him, I guess.” From such disarming first impressions, Joey soon retrieved his guitar and took the place of Charles’s jamming partner, finding his role weaving skewed top-lines over those jerky acoustic numbers. One of the first things they wrote together would become a classic: The Holiday Song.

Pixies drummer – and part-time magician – David Lovering is equally forthcoming on the first meeting with his future bandmates. After Charles had returned from a couple of months in Puerto Rico, he and Joey had decided to make a go of it, and by serendipity had recruited a girl who’d recently moved from Dayton, Ohio called Kim – a guitarist by trade – to play bass via an ad in the Boston Phoenix. “I was in college and I got a call from John Murphy, Kim Deal’s husband at the time who I worked with at Radio Shack, saying they were looking for a drummer” David relays. “I went to John and Kim’s apartment and there were Kim, Charles and Joey. Charles had an acoustic guitar and he started playing. I’ve got to say, it really didn’t do anything for me!” he laughs. “I’m a guy who listens to Rush and Steely Dan, so it didn’t hit me at first. It wasn’t until we started doing gigs that I started to really understand Charles’s songs, and soon it became an obsession.”

Charles Thompson, Black Francis, third but first in this oddball triumvirate, sticks fast when quizzed on first encounters. “No. It was so long ago. I don’t have some kind of anecdote like, ‘I remember when he walked into the room’. Memory doesn’t work like that.”

We’re speaking to the Pixies via three separate phone calls to a Vancouver hotel on the morning of a sell-out show, zigzagging our way through the building en route to an astronomical phone bill. We’d shot them on location at The Fillmore, Detroit, a couple of days previously. Another sell-out. The trio posed for photographs together, and only together, presenting a resolute, staunchly united front.

Down the phone, Joey chuckles in his chugging tone. Our conversation ambles past its allotted time because he insists on leaving the hotel and walking the streets of the city to loosen himself up, though it also means we both have to repeat ourselves constantly over the bustling jazz of traffic. Later, Charles speaks specifically and with diction. Dave just sounds elated.

Cut to three after the loss of Kim Deal in startling fashion last summer, the remaining members’ relationship has become galvanised. “The dynamic of the foursome isn’t there”, confirms Charles. “It’s the dynamic of the three dudes. Frankly, in the past, especially because I broke up the band the first time, and I was the frontman so to speak, I probably bumped heads a lot more with Kim than I did the other two guys. But I think there was a natural dynamic that developed in certain situations of me on the one side and the three of them on the other. Now that Kim isn’t in the band, it’s much more about the three of us.” Earlier, David had treaded a similar line. “We all got a little more onboard with our goals. We’re all on the same page now.”

There’s a theory about the Pixies’ well-documented past failures to forge personal relationships as potent as those heard on record: that it stems from the lack of the bonding process which occurs in any band’s upward struggle. The shared experience of those early trials is a key aspect of a band’s mutual growth. Yet with the Pixies, that simply didn’t exist. Having formed in 1986, their early demos were remixed, repackaged and released by British indie institution 4AD as ’87’s mini-LP Come On Pilgrim. Their first show in England came in ’88 at the Mean Fiddler (previously the Astoria 2, now a whole load of nothing). They were supporting fellow Bostonites Throwing Muses, but received an unprecedented reception. One of the first songs they ever wrote was The Holiday Song, for fuck’s sake. And other than Joey and Charles, these people barely knew each other when the journey began.

Of course, the four got to know each other over years of touring, for better or for worse. Joey and Charles remained close. The 2006 documentary loudQUIETloud, which tracks the band’s tumultuous reunion trajectory, shows a particular moment of tenderness between the two when scuffling quietly through the wonderfully yearning Doolittle cut Hey in their practice space. Charles gazes at his guitarist as he noodles away and, smiling, says “that’s a classic solo, Joe”. “Sure, there’s a bond with Joey”, insists Charles. “There are even bonds and tenderness between Kim Deal and I, there are bonds between all of us. We’ve known each other for the best part of 30 years, Joey and I even longer, since we were about 18.” But vitally, these bonds were formed as the band were achieving greatness, not before.

Those internal tensions didn’t half make for a thrilling cacophony of sound. Just like the on-off switch from Charles Thompson to Black Francis (and to Frank Black for his later efforts sans-Pixies), the songwriter would switch frequently between characters, voices, modes of performance; from benevolent sweetheart to malevolent sociopath in the blink of an eye. “Hey! Been trying to meet you!” he grins flirtatiously to usher in Hey. Then, instantly: “Must be a devil between us, or whores in my head. Whores at the door, whore in my bed.”

Such a lust for progression and diversity is symptomatic of a band whose key formative influences straddle pious folk, unhinged punk and technicolour art rock: Christian singer Larry Norman, who Charles was exposed to as a boy by his religious parents, Iggy (to this day Thompson will still tell you that Lust For Life is the greatest rock ‘n’ roll album ever), and Joey informs us one of the main reasons for the band’s desire to acquire a female bassist was because “we thought Talking Heads were charming”. In fact, the advert which attracted Kim (and only Kim) to audition requested a fan of Hüsker Du and Peter, Paul and Mary of Puff The Magic Dragon fame.

Kim always stood out; slightly older, vastly cooler. She was never officially offered the job of Pixies bassist. As she recounts in Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz’s oral history Fool The World, ‘That wasn’t an audition, believe me. Fuck it, it’s Joe and Charles? They’re not going to audition me. I heard Charles play The Holiday Song, I said cool, and I was in. There was not even a “You’re in”.’

Between 1987 and 1991, across four albums proper, Black Francis was on a hot streak of biblical proportions – some might argue one of the hottest streaks in rock history. The standard of records released and the seemingly profound spontaneity of it all is still difficult to get your head around. From the first he and Joey sat side by side nursing guitars, it seemed as if nothing could stop the Pixies; an unprecedented force of nature.

But the squabbling, the breakneck creative pace, the surge to prominence at such a young age; it was unsustainable. In 1992, with their reputation swelling, the band’s tendency towards self-immolation came to a dramatic head. In part, Black Francis had become frustrated at the attention being garnered by his wingwoman Kim; it was, after all, his band. Their debut studio album Surfer Rosa dribbled with notes of affection amidst Deal and Francis’s interplay, in the between-track banter and even within the songs. You can hear Kim smiling through the verses of Gigantic. But that connection had already begun to wane by the band’s 1989 masterpiece Doolittle. By their swansong Trompe Le Monde the four rarely came to the studio at the same time. The story goes that after a period of inactivity, Charles sent a fax to manager Ken Goes informing him that the band was done. He later declared it public via a solo interview on Mark Radcliffe’s Radio 5 show.

While seemingly dead, the Pixies name began to be uttered in tones of reverence. Doolittle continued to sell solidly for 20 years, creeping its way towards a million sales. They became recognised as, yeah, pretty much one of the best bands ever. As Ben Sisario, author of the Doolittle installment of the 33 1/3 classic album series, puts it: ‘They became gods in absentia’. So their reunion stunned everyone, including the band themselves.

The royalties had waned, and David was particularly hard-up, both personally and financially, when the call came in 2003. It had always been Charles’s decision. As he’s said: it was a band, but it was never a democracy – at least back then. Kim and Charles hadn’t spoken in 12 years, so she took a little extra persuasion, but the band gradually rekindled. When quizzed on the financial element to the reunion, of finally getting his dues, Charles becomes defensive. “Sure, there was a financial aspect, but there’s a financial aspect to being a musician” he barks. “As soon as you don’t have the finances to be a musician you’re back at your fuckin’ day job.”

Reformed, finally making money, and seemingly refreshed, Pixies embarked on a series of tours; from an initial greatest hits affair, all the way through to a 2011 tour celebrating 20 years since the release of Doolittle. A blink, and the Pixies had been back together for pushing a decade. They’d released a single song in that time, 2004’s Deal-penned Bam Thwok, intended (weirdly) for the Shrek 2 soundtrack, and (weirdly) rejected. But around the Doolittle tour the question of entering the studio began to raise its head. “We said ‘enough is enough’”, explains Joey. “We wanted to be a band, and what does a band do besides tour? They make new music.”

This Pixies material was destined to be unlike any other. In June last year it was announced Kim Deal was no longer in the band. It would have seemed unimaginable, at one time, for Boston’s alt rock heroes to exist without the girl at stage left who you spent the whole set staring at. But with little mourning period, a new track was released. It was called Bagboy, and it was fucking great. It defied all logic – particularly as the glittering female chorus vocal sounded eerily Deal-esque – but the Pixies were back making music, and they’d pulled it off.

The band had quietly slinked off to a studio in South Walian town Monmouth, believe it or not. It seems incredible that they could so effortlessly slip back into ‘Pixies’ mode. But all three are unanimous that the process came totally naturally. “It felt right, just like old times” claims Joey. “Everything was the same, it was like riding a bike” chips in David. And Charles confirms, “We’d been playing live together for nine years. It’s not like we felt like we were on the moon, just cause we were in a recording studio.”

Being reunited with Liverpool-born super-producer Gil Norton, who so impressed the band with his work on 1989’s Doolittle that he subsequently manned the boards for all subsequent albums, was key in recreating the Pixies spirit as they retired for seven weeks at Rockfield Studios. “I think Gil probably guided me along certain lines to come up with material that would be more suited to the band” Charles thinks aloud. “But y’know, what is more suited to the band? I could write a country and western song and it would sound like the Pixies playing a country and western song.”

Charles has unintentionally posed an unanswerable question: what makes a Pixies song? What is it that comes so naturally to Charles when he becomes Black Francis, and that his once three, now two bandmates act as such perfect conduits for? And how do you harness the spirit that has lain dormant for a couple of decades; how do you grasp the faint wisps of dwindling silver from the smoking gun of that late 80s/early 90s period?

© Doug Coombes

The producer of the band’s vicious first album proper, 1998’s Surfer Rosa, Steve Albini (who, in true Albini fashion, went on to say very mean things about the band, then in less Albini fashion later retracted them) talks about Pixies songs having ‘a degree of density and a degree of complexity … a kind of a loping verse and then the shouting part’. The aforementioned Ben Sisario offers ‘bitingly melodic miniatures, little spasms barbed with noise and Surrealistic lyrics”. Charles himself is more modest. “It sounds like I’m being self-deprecating, but I’d say we sort of specialise in ‘ditties’. It’s just that some of those ditties end up becoming powerful, and some of those ditties remain their small, quirky selves. What is a ditty? Well, I’d say a ditty is kind of a whimsical, brief piece of music, that’s what I would define a ditty as. I think that pretty well sums up most of the material.”

Lean, strange, innately loveable, and always worth a whole lot more than the sum of their parts, we might suggest another identifying factor: Pixies make massive little songs, written for four; no less, no more. Because for all the darts of definition that can be thrown at the ‘Pixies Sound’, perhaps most pertinent is the impeccable interplay between those four members; pure alchemy.

Lovering’s playing is total machismo, careering his way through the first eight bars of Bone Machine and colliding with Deal’s tough-meets-feminine smarts. Francis’s off-beat, off-wall holler ‘n hum often comes underpinned by a wash of acoustic strums which betray these titanic rock songs’ humble acoustic beginnings. He is nothing and everything, a devoted weirdo to the end, a chubby silhouette morphing from preacher to wretch to clown, while Santiago’s roving, bent leads are a third voice, carrying equal melodic burden. So when Deal announced she no longer wanted to be a Pixie at the Monmouth branch of Caffe Nero (at once both a criminally anticlimactic and fittingly surreal setting for the severing of this seemingly inseverable cord), how was that Pixies amalgam, that Planet Of Sound, expected to survive?

Symptomatic of their united front, Joey is somewhat dismissive of Kim’s contribution, or what it would’ve been. “The three of us still had a style, and the guitar is an important part of that, and Charles does his thing, and David does his thing”. He sounds confident. “So with Kim, what we really missed were her vocals. She would have had input, sure, but at the end of the day, a bass part is kind of like a bass part, y’know?” In fact, Kim’s initial touring replacement, Kim Shattuck of The Muffs, has already seen herself ousted after just three months, her place taken by Paz Lenchantin.

The songs kept coming. “We weren’t gonna work on four fuckin’ songs for seven weeks!” announces Joey, “that’d just beat the shit out of the songs”. At the time of our conversation, these songs had been released in two EP sets, and when we push for confirmation of a third, none of the band are forthcoming, Dave purring “I’m a magician, I like to keep an element of surprise.” And, predictable in their unpredictability, a couple of weeks after our interview it’s revealed that not only will EP3 come to pass, but that the three EPs will merge to form a de facto full-length, their first since 1991: the modestly-named Indie Cindy.

Hearing the tracks properly sequenced affords them space to breathe that the EPs couldn’t, which begs the question why they couldn’t wait it out in the first place. The album lunges typically between extremes, the rockin’ sections – the metallic crunch of What Goes Boom through the cowbell-heavy slasher Blue Eyed Hexe with its decadent feedback hum – more up- front than ever, the emotive gasps cleaner, with Greens and Blues and Magdalena shimmering with vulnerability. And good old Bagboy, which matches jagged guitar flails to hip-hop swagger, of all things. Many of the elemental factors remain, but it feels very, very different.

Joey Santiago digs that. “We’ve taken a little bit of criticism from some people” he says. “Some people will slap us with ‘ah, this sounds different’, and all I can say to that is: ‘thank you.’” And as David puts it “Trompe Le Monde never sounded like Come On Pilgrim, and Surfer Rosa never sounded like Bossanova, and Doolittle doesn’t sound like EP1 or EP2, so it’s a natural progression”. The band could never – and would never – attempt to capture the carefree, barrier-free, expectation-free wilderness of those early records.

But Charles has a way of going close, and it’s tied into rediscovering the thrill of performing new material live. “We’re playing a lot of shows and I would say at least half of the audience isn’t aware of the new songs. But I get just as much of a charge from playing a song that is yet to be released. I like the intensity of demanding attention when doing a song the crowd have no reference to at all. It’s the closest thing we have to going back to the beginning. You can’t be naive again, you can’t be unknown again, but I can go out to my audience and play a song they’ve never heard before. There’s a certain kind of awkwardness and tension. I’m not soft- serving them, I’m not holding their hand through it. I rather enjoy that awkward tension.” It’s also refreshing that these tensions are being exorcised onstage, rather than back on the bus. As a live entity, the Pixies juggernaut continues to weave its way around the world much as it has since ’04, selling out and enrapturing arenas with rapid-fire 30 plus song sets without a word uttered to the audience. Playing live is Pixies’ go-to setting.

And what a 30 plus songs it is; powerful enough to draw thousands of people to gather at Field Day this summer, to howl along to lyrics about slicing up eyeballs – many of whom weren’t even born when these songs were written. Impeccable, untouchable, a collection of ditties that changed music forever. Pixies remain the ultimate indie rock band. It’s the 30 years, the 30 songs, the fire and brimstone and the worlds beyond worlds; the winding, knotted yarns of mythology, and the simple story of the three dudes.

Indie Cindy is out now via Pixiesmusic

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