The Pixies – 2009


Viva La Pixies!

The 2006 documentary loudQUIETloud offered an unusually candid window into the internal dynamics of an iconic but heretofore mysterious band. Trailing the Pixies as they embarked on their first reunion shows in 2004 and progressed to a full-fledged touring juggernaut, the film provides new layers of insight into one of the true musical touchstones of the late ’80s. loudQUIETloud invests little energy in mythmaking, instead letting personal foibles (and the physical effects of time) shine through unvarnished.

It’s hard not to root for onetime indie rock darling Kim Deal as she struggles to maintain her hard-won sobriety, just as it’s painful to watch drummer David Lovering run off the rails. Frontman Black Francis (aka Frank Black, or Charles Thompson to his mother) comes off as cordial but distant. Meanwhile, lead guitarist Joey Santiago is portrayed as the Regular Joe of the crew, the one most firmly footed in the real world (after all, he was an Economics major) and the one member at least nominally capable of bridge-building among this band of “the worst communicators I’ve ever met,” as a bystander in the film puts it. Oh yeah – and as the concert footage demonstrates, the Pixies’ legendary music has lost little if any of its visceral power.

Since that 2004 reunion, the Pixies have cemented their rep as a touring machine, sticking entirely to their back catalog. This year’s model finds the quartet delivering a front-to-back rendition of its 1989 breakthrough Doolittle, complete with contemporaneous b-sides (fret not, “Where Is My Mind” fans; the encores leave room for non-Doolittle favorites).

In anticipation of the band’s return to Atlanta’s Fox Theatre on Monday, Sept. 13th, we managed to catch up with two of its members. Glen Sarvady chatted briefly with Santiago, while New York musician Peg Simone, whose album Secrets From the Storm came out on Table of the Elements’ Radium division earlier this year, got in touch with her pal Black Francis for a more in-depth discussion. Enjoy…

Black Francis Interviewed by Peg Simone

Back in 1988 I dropped the needle on a record called Surfer Rosa by a relatively new band called the Pixies and was immediately filled with such a surge of electricity and excitement that I knew there was something special and real going on here. That album remained glued to my turntable pretty much continuously for months. My band at the time had the fortunate opportunity to open for the Pixies right about the time that album came out and now, 20+ years later that same album, those same songs, among the countless others that have been written since, remain timeless, inspirational and still deliver that same surge of electricity. I didn’t meet Black Francis then, it was many years later, so after all these years I feel fortunate to still be inspired by an amazing band, a prolific songwriter and one of the nicest people on earth.

Peg Simone: Who knows where something will lead when it begins, but did you ever feel or think the Pixies would be such an inspiration and be as far-reaching as they’ve become?

Black Francis: Yes and no. I don’t think about being “influential” so much while making a record or after the fact. You follow your feelings and with little regard for the invisible audience. Having said that, for me, making a record or writing a song has a far-reaching ambition built in to the process; you want people to be listening to you today and tomorrow, just like you listen to your favorite records over and over. It’s validation. It’s important for me to be in print just like the Beatles. I want my audience, but I wanted that audience even before I wrote my first song. I think, too, back when the Pixies played our first ever gig, we got a lot of validation from that small crowd in Jack’s Lounge in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That was enough for me to continue.  I received my approval and I have never questioned it since. I was crowned king of something that night. And I really appreciate it.

I think about this a lot in terms of songs and artists who have become so symbolic. Take some of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs that define not only a certain time period but sometimes also a cultural consciousness. Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” Neil Young’s “Ohio” just to name a few. So much of what you have written and done with the Pixies has that very same impact. Do you think an artist ever knows subconsciously or not if they’ve hit upon something they know will resonate with people on a very deep level and larger scale?

I think that I do. Not so much because I have special powers, but like any ardent music fan, I have taste and strong feelings about music. When you make your own music you rely on that same sense of wonder about music that anyone else has, except that you are feeling ecstatic about something that you created. So I think if you can give yourself the goosebumps then YOU KNOW there are probably others in the world who will feel the same. Because both they and me are fans of the same kind of music. The “happy accident” that happens when writing and recording should not be overlooked. Things happen that you didn’t plan and sometimes they are just the best aspect of the evolution. I feel very in touch with this concept, and I don’t know if it even involves talent; maybe just the talent to know when it happens. For sure, making music is a combination of being a control freak and being really open to another force outside of you.

You’re a very prolific songwriter. What is the percentage of stuff you keep vs. what you throw away during the writing process? Or do you just try to record as much as you can and see what sticks?

I don’t throw too much away. I will try to make something work even for the sake of being quirky, because it’s fun for me. Sometimes I regret having let something out that was not ready, but I don’t bum out about it too much. It’s just music, and as cliched as this sounds, it is all about having fun.

I think it can be hard to go back to old material, not only in terms of playing it but also listening to it. Like snapshots in time, sometimes it’s nice to go back and visit those places, and other times you’re tearing up those snaps and burning them. And sometimes, you simply can’t go back and recreate that particular vibe or energy. How do you feel about revisiting old material? Is there some stuff you can’t go back to or don’t want to go back to? How has it been to play all of these songs again over the past several years?

I suppose the Pixies have an “A” list and a “B” list, but to be honest I wish I had all the songs at the ready regardless of their status. It’s just a lot of work to keep so many songs in your head, at least it is for me. The Pixies are slowly working through the 70 or 80 songs we have to see how they hit us. It’s nice to be pleasantly surprised; we used to hate doing “Here Comes Your Man,” and now we love doing it.

Who or what have you been listening to now?

I just downloaded the new Lightspeed Champion record. I was in a bar, saw this video, and started to Google him immediately. This morning I was listening to Charles Mingus. It’s kinda hard for me to stay on top of new music based only on the fact that it’s a new release. There are so many records to listen to. I will listen to new music, but it usually comes to me in a random way, like the Lightspeed Champion record. I guess I could read music magazines to figure some stuff out; no offense to music magazines, but I simply don’t read that many magazines, and if I do, they are just different subject matter.

Come On Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa were hugely inspirational to me when they came out and I think I modeled much of what I was writing back then from those records. You’ve heard many times about how much of an impact you’ve had on other artists and bands. What musically do you feel affected you so strongly that continues to give you inspiration, whether you’re aware of it or not?

Well, certainly stuff like Husker Du and Violent Femmes and Iggy Pop and Angst, the SST band, and stuff that I was getting into when I started to make my own music; I am not familiar with every Sonic Youth record, but I remember having a copy of EVOL and thinking it was pretty cool. There were so many records that came out in the time right before we put out our first record that I stumbled onto and kind of became my beacon into the world of indie rock. Certainly records that I listened to as a boy still are a huge part of my musical outlook; Jimi Hendrix, John Mayall, Leon Russell, David Bowie, Peter Paul & Mary, Neil Young, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters, the Kinks, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Larry Norman and so many others all are a part of my vocabulary and attitude. Not to mention all the radio hits that I heard as a kid on a jukebox at my dad’s bar or in a car. I’m not saying I sound like any of these artists, but they all inspire me. I suppose today the stuff that really inspires me are jazz records.

The first song I have a really vivid memory of hearing when I was a kid, around age 7, was “Walk On The Wild Side.” I was in my mom’s red Pontiac LeMans with red vinyl seats, the ones that get real hot in the summer, in the parking lot of the dentist’s office when I heard “…shaved her legs and then he was a she…” come across the airwaves, and thinking, “Wow! What was that?! I want more!” What do you remember as being the first song you heard as a kid that you recall having a similarly strong affect on you?

A Donovan record that I found in this house that we were renting. I used to play drums along to it.

Surrealism and the avant garde seem to be very evident in the imagery of your songs. What has been turning you on recently in terms of imagery, art, or just general observation?

Hmmm. Believe it or not I get a lot of my kicks from comedy. Recently it’s been a heavy meditation on a lot of Brit guys like Richard Ayoade, Matt Berry, Chris O’Dowd, Noel Fielding, Julian Barratt, Michael Fielding, Rich Fulcher (who is American I believe), and Matthew Holness.

You wrote a score for the 1920s film
The Golem. Is that something you hope to do more of in terms of scoring or soundtracking in general?

Well, that was certainly in the context of an art project sponsored by a film festival as opposed to scoring for current productions. It was really a wonderful experience, but I would hesitate to get involved in working for the man that is Hollywood as a film score writer. That seems like a lot of people to please and probably I ain’t cut out for that. I know some people are very good at working in that environment, but it’s a whole other world for me.

I feel to a certain extent we’re all somewhat governed by our environment in terms of creative output. Do you feel your songwriting is affected by location in terms of aesthetics; where you happen to be located at a certain time? Kind of like the Beach Boys vs. the Velvet Underground…two completely different environments, climates, etc. I’m not saying the Beach Boys were all sunny and the VU were all dark, they each had a bit of both going on in their songs, just speaking to how environment shapes the creation of that and interprets it.

I hear what you are saying, but I also hear overlap in certain artists who are supposedly cut of different cloth; like the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead. Yes, they are coming from a different place, but they are the same generation, and were probably listening to lot of the same records when they were growing up, and as a result I hear an overlap in their music, in the best sort of way. I think environment does influence, but there are so many other factors and personality mysteries that affect so much more; at least, that’s the way that I see it.

If you could gather five musicians in a room, living or dead, who would they be?

I wouldn’t mind a personal concert performed by Roxy Music, with Brian Eno if that’s not too much to ask.

What are the Pixies working on now?

Joey and I have been working on some demos. I don’t know if anything will come of it.  We’re so lucky that our five records have done so well, and we certainly don’t want to ruin that; if we were to do anything we are aware that it should excite us as much as it did the first time.

Do you have a favorite Pixies album?

Not really, only ‘cuz it is all one record to me.

Joey Santiago Interviewed by Glen Sarvady

Though still generally considered a Boston band, all of the Pixies decamped some time ago. All but Deal now reside on the West Coast, yet have minimal interaction with one another beyond touring. Guitarist Joey Santiago has lived in Los Angeles for fifteen years; the toddler daughter and newborn son he is seen Skyping in loudQUIETloud are now 8 and 6, respectively and yes, he did eventually complete the movie soundtrack project he was straining to finish throughout the film.

In a recent phone conversation, Joey caught us up on the State of the Pixies.

Glen Sarvady: It seems you’ve put in nearly as much time on the road with these tours as you did back in your heyday.

Joey Santiago: Wow – I hadn’t thought of it in those terms. It’s almost getting to the same amount of time – it’ll be seven years soon, which is weird. A year did go by during that stretch when we didn’t get together. It’s getting pretty close, although back then I think we played more actual dates.

So, what happens after a long tour? Do you just say “See ya” and head in separate directions?

Yeah, basically that, but this time around we know we’re going to see each other again, so there’ll be some sort of plan, for the next rehearsals or whatever. I’m pretty busy catching up with my family when we’re off the road. Plus I’ve got a new hobby – bicycling. I enjoy the quietness of it. When you go out with a group you feel so serene. I ride both on and off road, but I can’t be that adventurous off road because I can’t afford to break anything.

Doolittle is a clear choice for the full set treatment, but does it coincide with your fondest memories of the band? Does this approach make the process easier?

Well, Doolittle is certainly one of the most revered albums, and a year ago was its 20th anniversary so we put a whole show together around it, with a film for every song, latching onto a lyric or theme. We do put in additional songs at the end, but it does mean there are less titles to rehearse.

When they first reunited, Mission of Burma (another Boston band) told me they discovered they were playing their old material a bit slower, making it sound heavier. Do you hear yourselves playing the songs differently, intentionally or not?

No, nothing like that. But we are aware of the tempos of some songs that depend on the venue – at a big outdoor show we’ll kind of lay into the tempo a bit more and make it sound bigger. That’s cool that Burma would notice that – that’s the mark of a good band. Generally we’re looking to be faithful to the original songs, although it’s not like we’re rehearsing to a click track or anything.

Back in the day, you had a larger and more rabid following in Europe than the US – is that still the case?

The gap is closing, but it’s still crazy over there. We only played one festival this year – we kinda did that on purpose. Recently, people in Europe always had to see us in a field. We decided no more beach balls, let’s just get into a theater and play for the people who deserve it, who don’t want to spend a day in a field.

What was your impression of loudQUIETloud?

I was the one that tried to stay away from that process, the editing. But generally I was pleased with it, yeah. And I do think our band communication is probably a little better now.

Back when you made Doolittle and Surfer Rosa in the late ’80s, did you picture this being your legacy? Did you ever think you’d still be touring?

There’s a lot of things I didn’t expect – I mean we’re making these “pop lists” now. There was a list in Boston that had us in the top bands ever to come out of Boston – I don’t know the details, all I know is the name had “pop” in it. And there we were at number two, between Aerosmith and James Taylor. I mean, who would have thought? To be labeled pop, and in that company? It’s just silly. Back then, people thought London Calling was a punk record. Great record, obviously, but it’s super pop now.

Is Dave still doing his magic act?

Oh yeah, he loves doing that. Occasionally if we’re out at a pub after a show he’ll do an impromptu one.

Pixies photo by Chris Glass.