Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV is bored. Mr. Thompson, better known by his stage name "Black Francis," is submitting to an interview about his band, the Pixies. But the singer-guitarist sounds like he'd much rather be doing something else.
"I'm not comfortable making a big deal out of things," he says by telephone from the L.A. offices of Elektra Records. Pausing for what sounds very much like a yawn, Thompson adds, "I just don't feel the need to make all-encompassing statements about my `art.'" Thompson pauses again, this time for a rare moment of reflection. "It's probably a fear of pretense," he muses. "Which is pretentious in itself, I guess."
Thompson and his Pixie pals--bassist-backup singer Kim Deal, guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering--have always had a touch-and-go relationship with pretension. Indeed, much of the Pixies' initial attraction was based on a pseudo-snob appeal to stalwarts of the "alternative" scene.
The hoo-ha began with the Pixies' debut EP, Come on Pilgrim, released to critical kudos in 1987. A follow-up album, Surfer Rosa, was subsequently let loose to a roaring buzz from the alternative elite--writers, deejays--many of whom were likely as impressed by the young band's credentials as by its music. The Pixies, after all, were based in Boston--very cool at the time--where they aligned themselves musically and socially with the critically adored Throwing Muses. Also, Surfer Rosa was produced and engineered by noted scene-setter Steve Albini of way-trendy Chicago band Big Black and both Come on Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa were released by Britain's stylish, independent label 4AD.
It helped, too, that the Pixies' music had a definite edge. Come on Pilgrim featured off-balanced song structures dealing with off-balanced topics--incest, religion and the like--and Surfer Rosa included a splattering of killer cuts as well, most notably "Bone Machine" and the engaging "Gigantic." But the rest of the Pixies' canon was loaded with loud, hard, postpunk songs typical of a lot of anxious mid-Eighties bands stationed near college campuses. Musically, it was hard to figure the raw sound of the Pixies creating a fuss.
But the bandwagon was in high gear. And in 1989, the momentum surged into cruise control with the release of Doolittle, the Pixies' first effort for Elektra. There was, to be sure, the inevitable backlash by hardened independent types who decided the Pixies had sold out by joining a major label. But even that bit of bumpy road evened out with the help of MTV, which pushed the album's single, "Here Comes Your Man," on the network's increasingly influential alternative show 120 Minutes.
Similar success with another Doolittle tune, the evocative "Monkey Gone to Heaven," pinned the Pixies next to every college deejay's heart. The band was huge. Doolittle sold hundreds of thousands of copies, more than a quarter-million in the U.S. alone. The Pixies were tops not only with the movers and shakers of the alternative crowd, but with the crowd itself.
A good example of the Pixies' popularity occurred a couple of years ago at San Francisco's venerable Fillmore Auditorium. The show had been sold out for weeks but sizable crowds gathered outside the venue anyway. Inside, the Pixies received numerous encores from a wildly appreciative audience. The applause was still deafening 30 minutes after the theatre lights had come up and the band's equipment was all but gone from the stage. The next day the San Francisco Examiner proclaimed the Pixies the first major rock band of the Nineties.
But then the Pixies' promise took a hit. Last year's release, Bossanova, was a disappointment. It was out of focus in some spots and uninspired in others. But they were still the Pixies, and critics who couldn't seem to figure out why the album was so lame gave it good reviews anyway. Fans were no doubt baffled as well, but they nonetheless shoved sales figures up equal to those for Doolittle.
The Pixies' newest album, Trompe Le Monde, should do better on all fronts.
Trompe Le Monde ("Fool the World") marks a return to the sharpness of Doolittle and even the aggressive urges of the Surfer Rosa days. It's the band's best effort to date. As such, the Pixies again look like one of the last great bands of the 20th century. Arena-rock status may still be ahead.
Thompson, of course, says he doesn't really care.
minimum on the new album, but the level of emotion throughout Trompe Le Monde is consistently high and the overall energy is up. Thompson wrote 14 of the 15 new songs, the exception being a spirited cover of Jesus and Mary Chain's "Head On." "I'd say if there's a contemporary band that's influenced our records in any way, it's them," Thompson says of JAMC's melodic drone.
Trompe Le Monde also seems to be influenced by the American Southwest. Songs such as "Motorway to Roswell" and "The Navajo Know" may not wear the Western imagery of "Javelina," the lone redeeming cut on Bossanova, or even "Cactus" off Surfer Rosa, but the newer tunes make for an obvious reference to this corner of the country. Which makes sense. Thompson grew up in Southern California. He left home for academic sojourns at the University of Puerto Rico and the University of Massachusetts, where he formed the Pixies with roommate Joey Santiago. Now that he's back out West, Thompson says he visits Arizona quite a bit. He knows the area well, having once participated in an archaeological dig in a desolate stretch of Arizona desert. He now says he likes to frequent hangouts in the Payson and Globe-Miami areas.
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You'd think birthing and nurturing a band on one side of the country and further developing its music on the other would make for a limitless font of inspiration for Thompson's "art."
But Thompson, of course, doesn't think so.
"I'd like to think geographical location doesn't affect music," he says. "Too much credit goes to things like that. It's too romantic in a faddy kind of way to say things like the New Jersey boardwalk is the reason someone's music sounds a certain way. And to think that because I moved to sunny California my music's going to sound more sunny--I just don't buy it.
"It's another way of overanalyzing music. To me, it all comes down to songs, guitars and electrical power. You plug in and play. And that's it."
The Pixies will perform at Hayden Square Amphitheatre on Friday, November 1. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.