“Death to the Pixies” has often been proclaimed. The phrase was the very title of a best-of compilation released by label 4AD in 1997 to commemorate the ten years since their debut EP Come on Pilgrim. The group itself had perished four years earlier, an event that has become one of the foremost fables of “passive-aggressive” behavior in rock and roll history. That the details of the breakup story (public proclamations, managers, fax machines, etc.) don’t necessarily hold up to scrutiny has never prevented the tale’s power to characterize the band members as mighty to behold onstage, but hopelessly taciturn off stage.
loudQUIETloud, a 2006 documentary about the band’s unlikely reunion in 2004, did little to challenge that perception, with filmmakers Steven Cantor and Matthew Galkin concluding that although the band members “rarely spoke to one another ... they communicate through their music.” Whatever the arrangement, the group has operated for the past decade as a revived unit, commanding large audiences and attracting a new generation of listeners, despite not recording or releasing new music. Many in the press characterized the June 2013 departure of founding member Kim Deal as a deathblow for the band. The inordinate amount of attention paid to her replacements and their treatment has to some degree overshadowed the remaining Pixies’ persistence and its results.
In any other context, the real headline would be that a new album has finally arrived. 1991’s Trompe le Monde has long been considered the endpoint of Pixies’ studio recordings, bringing a conclusion to a superb four-album run whose popularity and influence have grown across the decades. In a bold example of re-taking control of the narrative, the new, official (PR-assisted) “timeline/stats” for the band begin on June 14, 2013, with the event of Deal leaving the band. The subsequent events in the timeline are an impressive flurry of activity consisting of recording new songs, playing shows, releasing EPs and music videos, and yes, hiring talent on the bass guitar to replace Deal. That the recent history of the band is presented this way sends a clear message: Present-day Pixies didn’t die when Deal left. To the contrary, they were just getting started.
Now, nearing a year into this latest timeline, the release of LP Indie Cindy provides an opportunity to explore recent history in the context of Pixies’ long career. For guitarist Joey Santiago, persistence has always played a role in their success. “Well, most people that come into this business to engage in music and play out, that’s the ultimate goal: to play around the world, and not play with your family and friends. [laughs]
“Having said that, we’re very goal-oriented. And I dropped out of college, same thing with Charles [Thompson aka Black Francis]. We didn’t have a safety net. So we knew we had to do it, we had to just do it. The effort was always there. All of this effort and hard work, it just had to pay off. Especially, I knew we had the good stuff. We had the good songs. We’re special.”
One common observation about Pixies is that the band broke up and then became increasingly popular. Any reminiscing about how special the band was exists within a larger conversation about the vagaries and effects of time and timing. Drummer David Lovering says, “Back in the day, when we first started, I enjoyed it so much. And I appreciated it for what we were doing. I mean I love playing drums and I loved that I could have a job and do what I loved doing. It was a fun job and I appreciated it dearly.
“Then when we broke up, it was a long time coming. I never thought the Pixies would get back together. It was the furthest in mind ... when I look back on it in hindsight I’m glad, actually, that we broke up. I mean, if we stayed together as a band, I don’t know what would have happened. We wouldn’t have been given this opportunity if we didn’t break up—to be where we are now.”
At first, Lovering’s observation seems to state the obvious. After all, no band that stayed together has the need to reunite. But his comments describe the position of a band whose prominence grew during (and partially as a result of) a period of dormancy. There is much evidence that the time away allowed Pixies to increase in significance within a popular culture in which other, more famous figures like Kurt Cobain and Thom Yorke cited the group as an influence. The long absence from the stage and the studio helped to maintain reverence for the past catalogue as well as create anticipation for new activity.
The result, Santiago points out, is that the band has been able to stay “relevant, with the fact that we have a younger audience. We have the 20-somethings, still, that are embracing it. That relevancy is always going to be there. We’ll always be relevant. Our records will be selling. They’ll always be there. It feels good.” Lovering agrees, saying, “We’re a very fortunate band in that in our audience now are kids that weren’t even born when we were first a band. We’re all new to them, I guess because of all of the influence and the build-up. And then there’s the other contingent of the audience, which are people my age that are just older.”
Accompanying this escalation of acclaim is the predicament of how to preserve/protect it. In loudQUIETloud Thompson tells a music journalist, “We should really just start over with a different name. That’s the only way we can keep it honest, I think.” Presently, Lovering says the commitment to release new music under the Pixies name “was a tough decision for ourselves, to get to that point. Because I suppose we have a legacy—what are we going to do to uphold this, if we’re releasing new stuff? So it was very frustrating, knowing the fact that what we had to do, we wanted to be good.”
I share with Santiago a quotation from Billy Corgan, who said to Fuse in 2012 that “the past becomes the constant narrative” for artists who have achieved past success but continue to try new things decades later. Santiago says that perspective is “right, absolutely right ... it’s always been that way.”
He continues, “You understand the concept of the anticipation of the second album … the sophomore slump, as they say. If anything, they’re anticipating the second record. They’re ready to either love it—they either have to embrace the formula they had, and that would satisfy some fans—and the other element of that is to grow and to once again lure some fans. But then again, disappoint the audience that holds onto the past.
“And that happens to us. This is our sophomore attempt. It’s been more than 20 years, and there’s the same thing that would happen to us. It’s that we would either disappoint the people that hold us to the past, or people would embrace us because we’ve taken another path, another path into the future, as well. Any artist has a choice between rehashing the past or going into the future. Certainly, we’d rather go into the future. Picasso wouldn’t have discovered cubism had he stuck with his classical training.”
Lovering has already observed the different sorts of reception among the crowd at live shows. Perhaps not surprisingly, he sees the enthusiasm for old versus new material breaking along generational lines. “It’s interesting,” he says, “my aspect that I watch from the drums—I can watch everyone—and when we do the new songs, you can see that a lot more of the younger kids are singing along with it. Everyone’s singing the old songs, young and old. But more of the younger kids are singing along to the newest songs.
“I guess a lot of these songs for the older people, they were a lot of part of their lives when they were younger. So I know that they’re near and dear to these things, and they hold a special interest. But the newer ones, they’re at that age as well, so ... that’s why they’re singing along more so than the older people.” As a music fan, Lovering says he understands the reaction. For him, it’s “the same thing, with bands that I grew up with that change and it is years later, I may be a little hesitant to listen to them.”
Coming to terms with these expectations and pressures was only one stage in the path to a new album. After they decided to return to writing and recording, other challenges emerged.
Though Thompson is sometimes characterized as a reluctant frontman, Lovering recalls that where songwriting was concerned, he was more determined than anyone else in the group. “We had toured for a while with the reunion, about seven years—which was longer than we were initially a band—and that was quite surprising to us. But at that point we kind of realized, well, we’re still viable. We did want to do new material. Charles especially, because that’s what he does, is writing.”
But “it took a while to get everyone on board. It was tough. First of all, we hadn’t done new stuff in 20 years—we hadn’t been in a room and tried to work things out in 20 years. It was all kind of alien, as well as just constantly touring. And when you did have a break, you know, you wanted to take a break. So, it took a long time coming, and we finally put time aside. We got everyone on board because some of the music that we had, or Charles had been working on, we were very happy with. And that just made everything click at that point. We went forward from there.
“It was a variety of things that we did. Charles had written songs, as he usually does, on guitar. And we thought at one point maybe a year before we went into the studio, ‘why don’t we just do what we did when we were younger?’ When we were younger, we just had a rehearsal studio and we would just work on stuff ourselves. So we did that. We rented a place in Somerville, Massachusetts, and we all went there, and it didn’t work. Nothing worked. It wasn’t like the old times, the formula, or the magic that would happen. And it really wasn’t that productive. So that got canned.” That these sessions came to an end without producing new songs was another variation on a recurring theme of Pixies’ history: time was finally available, yet the moment had passed.