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Pixies: alternative rock legends

 INSP 11 November 2019

The Pixies are one of the most famous and respected bands in the world. Formed in America in 1986, the band tore through a new-wave dominated MTV scene with short, abrasive songs, unique for their squealing guitar noise and sexually-charged lyrics. Pixies’ guitarist Joey Santiago took time out from the band’s world tour to speak to INSP’s Callum McSorley about break-ups, reforming and new material. (2017 Words) - By Callum McSorley

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INSP_Pixies: Alternative rock legends1

Pixies Touring Band Line-up for 2013 L-R: Black Francis, Kim Shattuck, David Lovering, Joey Santiago.Photo: Michael Halsband

INSP_Pixies: Alternative rock legends2

Joey Santiago playing live with the Pixies at the El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles, California, September 2013.Photo: Andy Keilen

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Pixies Live at the El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles, California, September 2013.Photo: Andy Keilen

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Black Francis playing live with the Pixies at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles, California, September 2013.Photo: Andy Keilen

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Pixies Touring Band Line-up for 2013 L-R: Kim Shattuck, David Lovering, Black Francis, Joey Santiago.Photo: Kevin Scanlon


The Pixies have a legendary place in rock 'n' roll history. Formed in the mid 1980s, they tore through a new wave-dominated MTV scene with short, abrasive songs, unique for their squealing guitar noise and aggressive, sexually-charged lyrics laced with biblical allusions. After recording four albums in four years - from 1988-91 - the four-piece from Boston, Massachusetts, USA, disappeared into the fog after a messy break up in 1993.

After attaining near-mythical status amongst alternative music fans in the years after the split - helped, no doubt, by praise from Kurt Cobain, who told how he almost dropped Nirvana's biggest hit, Smells Like Teen Spirit, from seminal album Nevermind as he felt it was a rip-off of the Pixies - they reformed in 2004 for a sell-out world tour, playing all their classic material.

Almost a decade later and the Pixies were still travelling the world playing through their back catalogue, even doing a special tour to mark the 20th anniversary of second album Doolittle, often cited as their peak. The only new song written during a long reunion period - which has now lasted longer than their original tenure as a band - was the coolly received Bam Thwok, which was written for the film Shrek 2 but turned down. This is why it came as a surprise to fans across the world when in September 2013 brand new Pixies material was casually posted on their website, with little to no fanfare.

Guitarist, Joey Santiago, tells INSP: "Well, we'd been dabbling with it for years and we just decided to be a real band. After a while it's like, 'alright already, let's get some new material in here.'

"And the timing couldn't have been better, because we just really passionately wanted to do it. We wanted to be creative. We were ready, we had all the ducks in a row. We had Gil [Norton - who produced three of the four Pixies albums] and we had awesome songs and all that stuff so it was perfect."

The new material, which comes in the form of single, Bagboy, and a four-track EP, simply labelled EP-1, has received mixed reviews from critics but, according to Santiago, has gone down well with fans.

"Particularly they like Indie Cindy, they like them all actually, no one exactly is leaving, you know what I mean? They're not going to the bathroom or getting a beer, 'alright, time for a beer' or, 'it's time to be getting rid of this beer in my belly'. I call it the 'liquid break', and no one's doing it."

Nostalgia surrounding the band has obviously been a detrimental factor for EP-1, as the new songs are a bit of a departure from what fans would expect from a follow on to their fourth and last album, 1991's Trompe le Monde.

Further damaging the legitimacy of new material was the departure of bassist, Kim Deal, who is much beloved by fans for her personality onstage and whose simple, driving bass lines are one of the keystones of the Pixies' sound. After originally being on board for the new EP - even putting down bass lines for several tracks - Deal announced she would be quitting the Pixies midway through the EP-1 recording sessions, at a café in Wales.

About her shock departure, Santiago says: "It just came out of nowhere. I mean, it happened and that's all I can say. When she said it, actually, I was stunned and there was nothing else I could do, so I said goodbye at the café and I went on my merry way. I wasn't going to embark on 'come on, stay!' I was like, 'alright, you already decided… screw this, I've got shit to do, I've got to do overdubs, I've got to get a slide for my guitar so I can do my guitar part right…' it was just the workload. It was like, 'alright, I don't have time for this, I've got to go.'"

His response may seem cavalier to fans but Santiago explains: "We're a band. It's not like it's the first time a band member left a band. A good example I've kept using was unfortunately Bon Scott [of AC/DC] had died, and they replaced a key member, a key, signature sound, even. Even at that, that was a mind-fuck for them, and so we just put everything in perspective: our situation is not as bad as we think it is."

Santiago is obviously not perturbed about carrying on without an original member. He doesn't buy into the myth of the Pixies as some 'ideal band', nor the often spouted idea that, after their initial break-up, the Pixies became one of the most influential rock bands of all time for contemporary musicians. He attributes a lot of what made them successful to the influence of the Velvet Underground.

"I think people are more or less inspired because we were different and they want to be different. We probably sound simple like the Velvet Underground and they go, 'we can do this too.' That's what I got out of the Velvet Underground, like fuck, awesome stuff, very minimal, that's good, we can do this." A line is often drawn between the work of the late Lou Reed and the Pixies, acknowledged by the band themselves on the song, I've Been Tired, from their 1987 debut EP, Come On Pilgrim when singer Black Francis whines in his distinctive nasal tone, "I wanna be a singer like Lou Reed, I like Lou Reed!".

Now, in the midst of yet another sold out world tour, the Pixies have dropped in the release of their new material inconspicuously, without any record label backing. Asked about this, Santiago says: "I just think that the role of a record label now is to market you, but now you just need a kick-ass publicist because you've got the internet, and that's it, that's really all you need now. It's just to get your music noticed, and we already have that stature, we're lucky that we have that stature. And other bands are doing it by having, well, obviously having great music then making awesome videos on YouTube. You don't even need MTV anymore. More than ever you can be an 'indie' band in the true sense of the word."

EP-1 was recorded under a veil of secrecy in Wales with long-time Pixies producer, Gil Norton. In order to get into the right frame of mind to record new material for the first time in over twenty years, Norton concocted a sci-fi story line to go along with the sessions.

"Gil always has these signposts, these things that he has to believe in, before going into the studio," Santiago says. "So his story on this one, the plot line, was that we were on the 'Planet of Sound' - taken from a Pixies song of that name -  for 20 years and we went back to Earth, observing what's going on and then boom! Hit the Record. I guess, for me, the way I interpreted that was: how do we go about trying to change, trying to shake it up, trying to inspire people to be different? Just like we've done in the past. We didn't do it on purpose, it's what we do, just try to be different."

And the record is different, even for the Pixies. Whereas most of their old material is almost written by formula (the famous loud chorus/quiet verse dynamic coupled with staple features such as Santiago's squealing, almost off-key guitar solos and Francis' paint-stripping screams with some old testament fire and brimstone - dubbed by Santiago as the 'Pixies theory of music') the new tracks break free from this mould.

Andro Queen and Another Toe in the Ocean are much more laid back than their standard fare, with shimmering surf guitar chords and unusually soft, sweetly sung vocals from Francis. Indie Cindy is almost schizophrenic in its direction changes from verse to chorus, while single, Bagboy, sees them embrace electronic percussion and develop Francis' spoken word technique, made famous on classics Bone Machine and Monkey Gone to Heaven. (Francis is on his usual lyrical form here, sneeringly stating "So disappointed I was, that I had to make small talk with you" [Bagboy] and exclaiming "I am the burger-meister of purgatory" [Indie Cindy].) While most old tracks barely scratch the two minute mark, each new song clocks in at around four/five minutes, giving much more room for detail and development but overstaying their welcome slightly.

Santiago's guitar work, however, is still as iconic a part of the sound as ever. "Everything is just ear-candy to me," he explains. "I didn't care about the technique of what guitarists have. I do love it, but the technique and the way they play, I don't want to sound like that. I was looking for moments of sonic, like - EEEK! - feedback - 'wow, what is that? I've gotta do that shit', and develop it. You take those sonics and you're going to have to do something with it on your own."

Musical influences for Santiago's guitar playing include Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery, but he was also heavily influenced by films: "You know The Shining, the shower scene? That's how I got that riff for Dead [on Doolittle, 1989], 'eek eek eek eek eek', what the heck was that? And I always remembered it, had it in my head, and Charles [Thompson - AKA Black Francis] was writing a song called Dead and I said 'aww good' and I got to use The Shining theme, a little bit. Once again, it's just a sonic - the vibe of it."

Films would also influence Santiago's career following the break-up of the band in 1993. He went on to write musical scores for independent films and television shows, such as Undeclared and Weeds. "That's a thing that Gil Norton had me embrace. When guitar parts were about to come in [he'd say] 'why don't you just score this? Take your new passion and bring it into the Pixies', because we weren't trying to make the same recordings as our past catalogue, yet we wanted to sound like 'The Pixies', and I know we succeeded in doing that. We've always grown as a band, and that part of the growth process was to actually pretend I'm scoring it."

Onstage Santiago was famous for his sudden outbursts of aggressive guitar playing, shaking amplifiers and rattling beer cans over his guitar strings to create these unusual "sonics". He continues these antics to this day.

"I'm doing sillier stuff. I just try anything, now I'm coming across stuff by accident. The beer can… I've already done it so I try to keep that at a minimum… I don't know what the hell I do." In between times he stands stock still, shy of being onstage (during the recent live broadcast of the Pixies on BBC's Later…With Jools Holland Santiago says he was "nervous as hell").

Joining Santiago, Francis and drummer David Lovering on the current world tour is bassist Kim Shattuck, of punk band The Muffs. Santiago says the loss of Kim Deal means they will almost "have to prove themselves all over again" and confirms the current tour is "a warm up for something bigger next year", although with another North American leg added to the tour recently (starting in January) and their current schedule that will take them across the planet over the course of six months, it is hard to imagine what can possibly be bigger.

As for more new material, Santiago says: "It's called EP-1 so obviously there's going to be an EP-2, and possibly more. We just like surprises. Some people are going to be like, 'when are you going to release EP-2?' And, honestly, I don't even know. I've got other shit to worry about, and I'm sure Richard Jones, our manager, has told us, but I forget. Surprise me, Richard, surprise me!"

Needless to say, when any new material does eventually appear (even if it takes another twenty years) it will continue to push the Pixies' ethos of being different, for better or worse.

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