Millions of people know who the Pixies are. Since the '80s, the band has found its songs incorporated into some of the most significant moments within pop culture's most beloved films and shows -- but only within the past 15 years or so. (Think Fight Club's buildings tumbling, Zack and Miri Make a Porno's main character love story, or one of the most important episodes of Lost. And, of course, actor Paul Rudd's deep infatuation with the band.)
But how many people, especially who were born in the '80s and '90s, actually know the Pixies? It's a damn shame, but many don't -- at least not in the United States -- even though the band had a huge influence on the alt-rock boom of the 1990s.
The band was much more successful in the UK and Europe. But to give a rundown of this band that combines indie and surf rock , as well as psychedelia, it would be damn near impossible to not bore the reader with the length of the band's history and accolades.
Plus, you can't pigeonhole the Pixies. To me, certain tracks are like stoner stripper rock, while others border on punk, and even others are like sunshine reincarnated into a person on acid and cocaine. Not to say that they are a drug band. They just appeal to the subconscious of your persona, discussing surrealism, biblical violence, relationships, and other issues that mainstream society doesn't like to hear about. The music peels back your layers and leaves your vulnerable without even knowing what happened in the first place.
Embodying soft harmonies and wailing choruses, the Pixies have extreme dynamic shifts and restrained verses, coupled with whispered guitar rhythms and controlled drums -- and, of course, the stop-start timing that would become widespread in alt rock later on. The group has influenced everybody from David Bowie and Radiohead to Nirvana and U2. Bono even once called the Pixies "one of America's greatest bands ever." Kurt Cobain said that Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a conscious attempt to co-opt the Pixies' style.
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And that "peeling back" is in part to the band shedding layers as well. The group disbanded in 1993 and reunited in 2004. Founders Black Francis (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Joey Santiago (lead guitar) and David Lovering (drums) are still around, but co-founder Kim Deal (bass, backing vocals) left in 2013 shortly after the band released a new track "Bagboy" (their first new material in almost 10 years) and was replaced by Kim Shattuck as the live bass player for some months. However, last December she was replaced by Paz Lenchantin for the band's 2014 world tour -- again, just as a touring bassist, no one permanent. At least among the critics, that's the word on the street.
But then again, in the interview below, Joey Santiago isn't so sure.
Throughout these changes, the Pixies released the new EP1 (September 2013) and EP2 (January 2014), which join the ranks of the band's four studio albums and five compilations. The most recent release, EP2, has a fresh atmospheric feeling, with songs like "Blue-Eyed Hexe," described by Francis as a tale from the northwestern part of the UK with a witch-woman, and the guitar solo is to sound like you're about to have sex with her. Then there's "Magdalena," a smooth atmospheric ride. "Greens and Blues" (my personal favorite) is the band's "better 'Gigantic'," according to Francis, and "Snakes" is pretty much a jam session where Santiago did a sliding guitar to emulate a snake.
Up on the Sun spoke with Joey Santiago about how the Pixies' sound has evolved, replacing Kim Deal, and the new-found anxiety he gets on stage now.
Congratulations on the release of EP 2. I really loved "Greens and Blues." What is one of your favorite tracks on the record?
I gotta look it up. That may sound funny but . . . okay, I think it's "Snakes." No -- actually it's "Magdalena."
That was the one you guys just released the video for, correct?
Yes. Um, yeah . . . I will tell you that when "Snakes" video comes out, it's going to blow people's lid, it's so good. Yeah, "Magdalena" is just so atmospheric, and I'm going to be selfish and say I do like my guitar parts on there. And it's attention getting too; I think live -- or I know live -- there's a great response to it whether they heard it or not. They go gaga over it, know what I mean? It reminds me of the old days when no one actually knew our stuff. We just had a buzz about town and were selling out based on word-of-mouth. We hadn't been signed yet and didn't have an album yet, but were selling places out. So this song gives me the feeling of those old days.
How do you feel that EP 1 and 2 elevate the Pixies, compared to the band's past works?
From the past work we've done?
Well . . . elevates . . . hmm.
It's something different and fresh for you guys, but it's also still very much the Pixies. So did you feel it brought you to another level?
Sorry, I'm so spacey right now. It's definitely brought us to the next level, because we explored new sounds on it, so that's just a natural thing. It was more thought-processed, too, in terms of us thinking about how we were going to sound. And the song's vibe dictates that. The atmospheric thing, we were excited about it. When we're in the studio we do stuff we like, you know? We never know what the end result is going to sound like, really.
[Long pause, sigh.]
Actually [Black Francis] and I were just having coffee and doing laundry and we were talking about and riffing around with how the next sound was gonna feel like. And we knew it just needed to be raw. We're one of those bands that are lucky they can go from Bossanova to Surfer Rosa. We can do that because we have a sound and it's intangible. And we're hungry to do it. When we go to the studio, it's really our turn to entertain ourselves.
Like you've said in the past, the band writes for each other to impress each other, and not so much the fans.
Yeah, you know, and in the studio, you just . . . you don't think about the critics. You're thinking about how it sounds when your guitar parts are aligned. You're working; you got your head down. [Laughs] I don't even know what I'm saying right now.
In an interview, Lovering said that it was much easier to write music back in the day, when you guys were younger, as opposed to now. Do you agree with that?
Uh, I do not. Yes, kind of, not. No. It's hard to say because, back in the day, we were rehearsing more because we lived in the same town. Now that we're spread apart -- I mean, David and I live in L.A. But it doesn't matter that the rest are spread apart because we're "that band" now. So maybe that's part of the reason. And technology works for us, too. Charles will send the chord progressions via e-mail or whatever, and I'll retrieve it, and then work on the guitar parts. Like when I'd go to his apartment and record it with my tape recorder, then go to my apartment and work.
So this tour you guys brought Paz Lenchantin on board. How have you found working with her in terms of being part of the rhythm section? Such a joy. She fits in with us very well, you know. She has a good time with us, and a big interest in bikram yoga, and her and [Black Francis] will do that together. She's funny and obviously she's got chops. She's one of the best bass players out there, female bass players. Without a doubt.
How does the style differ from Kim Deal or Kim Shattuck? You're obviously working well, but there has to be some transition issues.
Well, there's no style that's going to change. It's just a matter of chops and personality. And behavior. Also, what we think a human being should be like that suits our taste. That's all I can say; they're all great players. And Paz's bass parts are exactly like the music we recorded. And that's the whole point; we worked hard on those points. She's also really good at eighth notes and that's one of the hardest grooves to do and keep.
Has the band decided to permanently replace Kim Deal at any point?
[Laughs] Well, you know, I mean . . . yeah, if the stars align themselves right that might happen. But if it doesn't, it doesn't. You never know. The door is ajar, but it is on the closing side with Kim Deal. And with Paz, it's ajar, on the opening side.
In writing music, you said that you latch on to a word or a vocal pattern to guide the guitar stuff you come up with to accompany the rest of the music. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
It's a way for me to organize my thoughts, otherwise I'm just flailing around out there you know? It's just more challenging. I'm not a feely guy. I'm not a "classically trained musician." I like not being one because I have to find the mood. I'm about the mood, not about the theory. I'm all about how is it going to feel -- that's the bottom line. When musicians talked in the technical terms, I get what they are saying, but it's boring. I'd rather write and play off of a word rather than notes. It's about emotion and not painting by numbers.
In terms of what you want to bring to the world of music, what has changed in the past 20 years?
That's not even on the forefront of my, or our, minds. When we get together, it is what it is. It just happens and is organic. We have a fingerprint. We're one of those bands that's lucky enough to have a fingerprint. How lucky can you get?
How are you going about picking the set list for this tour?
It's a mish-mosh. We try to play most of the new stuff, and then it's a matter and strategy of where to put them on the set list. But having said that, we don't even have a set list. We react more to the crowd response.
Are you personally working on any side projects besides the Pixies right now?
No time! Now, there's no time.
Some guitarists only take their instrument out of the case when it's time to tour, while others seem like they never put it down. Where do you fall?
Right in the middle! I'll have the guitar in my hotel room, and it'll arrive at the venue and I'll play it for a half hour; which is enough, really. I end up goofing around on it with country licks and other stuff. I'll play since I'm always a little nervous about playing, and I just want to make sure it feels right. Is there a song on this tour that you've been more anxious about playing?
Well some of the songs are, like I said, more theory-based. I have to know the spot work to start and then I'm jogging my memory. I want it to be second nature, so it's just me going on stage and having a good time and not thinking.
Describe the Pixies in three words.
[Long pause; breathing noises] Loud quiet loud. [Laughs]
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That actually makes sense for you guys.
And if you could take three albums to a deserted island, what would they be?
That's a tough one. Changes from day to day. The White Album. Well . . . I need to go through different genres. Probably some kind of Art Blakey record, because I love jazz. And then, uh, there's one Vivaldi recording with this creepy instrument that Benjamin Franklin invented. I can't remember the name of the song . . . but it's basically modeled after the sound a wine glass makes when you trail your finger around the lip. Hang on, let me find the album for you. I love the cover it's very pastoral. Okay, it's called . . . L'Estro Armonico.