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Prime Pixies

After a series of break-ups and subsequent make-ups, a new album shows the Pixies are back in good form.
Pixies, L-R: Paz Lenchantin, David Lovering, Joey Santiago, Black Francis Photo credit: Travis Shinn

Pixies, L-R: Paz Lenchantin, David Lovering, Joey Santiago, Black FrancisPhoto credit: Travis Shinn

By Lee Zimmerman

There are plenty of other bands far less intimidating than the Pixies. After all, this is a group that helped define the indie ethos in the post-punk world of the early ‘80s. They set a high bar, and though they only released seven albums in 30 years — including their latest opus, "Head Carrier" — they earned the kind of reputation that legends are built upon. Part of that stems from the aggression, edge and angst that’s been inherent in their sound since their first two albums, "Surfer Rosa" and the magnificent "Doolittle," but it’s also due in part to the tenuous relationships within the band itself. The group disbanded in 1993, reformed 10 years later, and then, just as they were in the full flush of their second wind, founding bassist Kim Deal left the fold in 2014. The three remaining members — vocalist, guitarist Black Francis (also known as Frank Black, or his given name, Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV), guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering — hired Kim Shattuck as the band's touring bassist.

Then the group turned to Paz Lenchantin, not only a terrific bassist, but a multi-instrumentalist whose previous efforts have included contributions to "A Perfect Circle," Silver Jews, Zwan and Queens of the Stone Age. She’s now spent three years in the Pixies’ employ, touring and contributing to the aforementioned "Head Carrier." She seems to have fit in well, making such a smooth segue way in fact that the new album actually succeeds in capturing the essence of the classic Pixies sound, "Doolittle" in particular.

Goldmine recently had the opportunity to speak with Joey Santiago about the group’s current status, and we found him both forthcoming, straight forward and matter of fact as far as where the band has been and where it now finds itself at this current place and time.

The Pixies are inducted into the Goldmine Hall of Fame

GOLDMINE: Your new album sounds like seminal Pixies, "Doolittle" in particular. Was that a deliberate attempt on your part?

JOEY SANTIAGO: I suppose so. We definitely just embraced it by a natural means. We had a lot of pre-production time, and we’d just smile because we were just realizing that the sound had come back. That was especially true on my end when I’d do something that was just Pixie-ish and I’d get these nods of approval and these comments like, “Well there he goes again, godammit!” It was kind of like that, so I just embraced it. I just did my thing and Tom, the producer, said, “You’re allowed to do that, Joey.” Of course, I’m allowed to do this! I had told Charles earlier that we maybe should go acoustic. He’d play acoustic guitar and I’d play my usual guitar so maybe we could just go back to those roots. To Charles’ credit, he does put on a different hat on when he’s writing for the Pixies. He’s mentioned that. So in terms of trying to recapture the past, yeah, we deliberately tried to go there.

GM: Yours is a signature sound, and one that sounds so unique — a mix of light and dark, the melodic and yet the very intense. How did that sound come about in the first place?

JS: It came about naturally, and I think we got lucky. We were disappointed with the heavy metal scene. Those guys were like tapping on their guitars — like tap, tap, tap. It was like, “Hey, look, I can play!” Well, who gives a shit really? If that’s the contest, I’m out. I lose. I don’t want to be part of that. I like a cleaner sound. For instance, I think the Cars did it right and other bands did it right that I like, and that the band liked too. Charles and I really like the Cars. That’s where we got our chugging sound. People would say, “What the fuck are they doing?” We’d be chugging along and go “Yay! This is fun!” So for me it was a combination of that and embracing my limitations on guitar.

GM: But the music still had that intensity to it, that dynamic sweep. And yet, it also had that melodic quality to it which made it a very unique combination. Not a lot of bands have emulated that sound as successfully.

JS: We got lucky. What can I say? It was kismet. I met Charles, we were roommates, we both wanted to start a band. We both wanted to drop out of college because it got tedious. And then we went to Boston. We timed it out perfectly. We’d sit there and actually time other bands. After half an hour, that’s it if you’re the opening act. That’s all people want. After that, who gives a shit? After that they’re just buying beer.

GM: Your first album was on 4AD, a very underground, progressive record label. Then you got picked up by Elektra.

JS: I was hanging out in this record store, Newberry Music, and somebody returned a copy of our record. (chuckles) They expected a certain vibe I suppose. I liked when they returned it. I went, “Yay! We are kind of unique in a way.

GM: When you became associated with Elektra, it must have given you a higher profile, a greater degree of recognition. Your music was suddenly available to a lot more people. Were you aware of that at the time? Did you see it as an opportunity?

JS: Oh yeah. That definitely helped. Elektra was a name back then. When we raided their album closets at their headquarters, they had Television and a lot of really interesting stuff. But then we’d go out there and we’d see posters of hair metal bands again. Oh man! Really?

GM: The Pixies always seemed to be in their own universe. You never seemed to conform to the style of the day, or the haircut of the day, or anything else for that matter. Did you get any pressure to conform for commercial considerations?

JS: No! However we played the David Letterman show and after we played, he supposedly told somebody, “I have one word of advice for that band. Outfits!

GM: Really?

JS: Honest! We were always true to ourselves. It was like, this is the music we play. This is the only thing we’re good at. This kind of style. And this is the way I dress up. I actually got kicked out of a club because I had an Alligator shirt on! On the sign, it actually said, “No Alligator shirts. No blah blah. No blah blah!” You call yourselves a fucking alternative whatever? You guys aren’t even openminded for chrissakes! Meanwhile, all these people wearing nose rings and all this shit are just passing me by. Why are the club owners looking at me, not them?

GM: That’s ironic. Your music always had this sort of insurgent, take no prisoners attitude that defined you as rebellious in your own right.

JS: When 4AD first met us, they thought we’d be all leather clad and rock ‘n’ roll looking. But we just looked the way we looked. I think they found that kind of endearing. We cut the fat out. That’s why the songs are so short. We don’t need that lick again. We don’t need to say that again. The thing that influenced that was Buddy Holly songs, and the Boxtops’ “The Letter,” which clocked in at under two minutes. I told Charles that was only a two minute song, and he went “Really?” That song took you on a journey in two minutes!

GM: Some of the best pop songs are only two minutes long. That’s all it takes.

JS: Yup!

GM: Have you been able to see the influence you’ve had on other bands that have followed in your wake? Maybe the Foo Fighters for example? Has anyone acknowledged your influence?

JS: I’ve had people come up and say, “You’re the main reason why I play guitar. They may not have even sounded anything like us. But there are bands out there that have mimicked our style. I would feel a bit proud, and at the same time a bit disappointed, because they’re taking over our turf.

GM: Nobody’s going to take over the Pixies’ turf except the Pixies.

JS: I leave other guitar players alone. Jimmy Page has his thing. Everyone else has their thing...Why even bother going there? Except for surf music. I always thought surf music was funny. That’s how I came to identify what Charles is saying, with what I play.

GM: The Pixies have had a restless trajectory over the years. There have been break-ups, reunions, personnel shifts in the bassist department. So how do things look now as far as your ongoing stability? Does the present line-up look like it’s going to remain intact for awhile?

JS: Absolutely. We’re going to record again in fact. It’s been such a joyful experience, more so than we’ve ever felt. Paz fits right in. Let’s face it. It’s hard to find someone as weird as us. When you find someone who has the chops, then what the f*ck, it’s like where the hell have you been?

GM: So what exactly led to the initial break-up?

JS: Oh, we were assholes. We were punks and we didn’t appreciate what we had. Whenever I hear bands whining like that nowadays, I feel like saying, shut up and get over yourselves. Go paint a bridge, or do something else other than what you had aspired to do. There’s also that human element where we weren’t being honest with our music anymore. We were just going through the motions. So we wanted to end on a high note.

GM: Ultimately, in the end, did you look back and realize that the problems weren’t greater than the good parts of it all?

JS: Uh... the problems were the problem. That was the main problem. Am I answering this right?

GM: I suppose...

JS: The problems took precedent over how blessed we were. And you know what, in all honesty, we’re an honest band as far as the music’s concerned. All we can do is this. This is what you’re going to get. We’re just trying to be honest, and you’re not going to get anything other than us making songs, so for us to keep going at that time, we would have been miserable. I had some of my friends telling me “You guys don’t look happy. When are you going to quit?” And that’s when I knew, shit they can tell.

GM: So what did it take to reconvene? Does somebody call somebody and say, what the heck, why don’t we give it a try?

JS: Charles did a radio interview and just kind of joked about it. Used some kind of Beatles reference like, “Oh yeah, we practice all the time...and the rumors started to spread. And then the agent said, “You could do Coachella if you want.” I didn’t even know what Coachella was. Friends told me it was a big, big deal, so I went, okay. So Kim, David and I practiced and we had a deal, that if it sounded sucky, we would just shake hands and part ways. Kim was laughing and said, “I can’t believe we sound exactly the same.”

GM: Meanwhile, Kim parted ways with the band since then. Is your new recruit, Paz, adapting to the music and to the personalities?

JS: Yeah... the personalities, the attitude...She was a fan. She revered us, so she tried out. She was in France and took a flight right away to be at the try-outs. She jetted over and did it. That says a lot for someone who really wanted to try out for this band.

GM: Now you have some overseas dates coming up...

JS: Yeah, we have some festivals... a big mishmash. We’re going back there.

GM: It must be a great feeling that after 30 years you still have that kind of excitement, both within the band and from your longtime fans who are still clamoring for the music.

JS: Yeah. Let’s face it. This job, being in this band is awesome. I figured that out real quickly. In between, I was doing some film composing, and that was work! I wasn’t in control of what I could do. The producers would ask for something, and I was like “uhhhh...” I wasn’t used to that. It was good work, but it was work! So when the Pixies reconvened, I thought, I’d rather do this!

GM: And how about Charles? He did a number of solo projects. Do you get the feeling that those will be put on the back burner and all his efforts will be devoted to the Pixies now?

JS: That’s what he says. He just likes being in the Pixies. This is his thing. He told us that one day. This is it. “This is what I like to do, being in this band...”