[19 May 2014]
“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.
Another element that didn’t exist in the band’s initial run was the responsibility to family. Santiago describes another attempt to resume songwriting—one that would eventually prove successful—as involving the need to separate from family (temporarily). “I went to Charles’—where he lives in Northampton—from Los Angeles. When I came in there it was like an [excuse] for the family to accept the fact that he has to start working—Joey’s here from Los Angeles and he’s not going to wait around for Charles to, you know, get some milk, drop off the kids at school, and all that. I kind of had to tear him apart from that.”
The two finally got to work in a decidedly non-domestic setting. “I recorded him in my hotel room. And he stayed somewhere where, um, a pretty low-down motel, you know, where people plan their murders.”
Lovering says that after that period of secluded productivity, “Charles flew to England and met with Gil Norton, whom we decided would be our producer, continuing on with what we had done with him in the past. And they worked on pre-production of all the songs, which we all were finally able to work on and then go into the studio.”
In between recording the songs in 2012 and beginning their months-long rollout (which took place from fall 2013 to spring 2014), Deal’s leaving the band became public knowledge. Her absence is a development that Lovering admits is doubtless “a loss. With Kim lost, it’s something else.” Yet he spends little time dwelling on the negative effects of that transformation, instead saying, “We’re forging on ahead and I think we’re playing better than we ever have, so I count my lucky stars because of that.”
Santiago sees this moving ahead as (among other things) a sign of ownership of the band, and its name and history: “We’ve earned the name, for sure. There are still three of us, for crying out loud.” When I ask if he thinks coverage of Deal’s departure seems to have eclipsed other news about the group, he begins by praising her and then details all that remains the same.
“Kim has a charm, for sure. And she also has this very recognizable voice that really resonates. It has a special character to it. But we forge on ahead. There’s Charles’ signature scream, and his rhythm, and my guitar parts are still there. And the bass parts are really still there. The drums—they’re always there. So yeah, it’s not really that fair. But then again, we’re being accepted a lot. People want to really hear the songs. You just have to assume that the audience is blind. You do listen to music. You don’t look at it.”
Yet for an audience that is interested in the people behind the music, myths about band members and their interpersonal interactions have the potential to affect the overall perception (both the looking and the listening). I ask Santiago what he thinks about the characterization of his band as dysfunctional, which was a defining impression created by loudQUIETloud, as well as other portraits in the media. He says he believes it is not uncommon for musicians to be more cohesive on stage than off.
“There are a lot of bands out there that have that same dynamic. Thom Yorke said loudQUIETloud is an accurate portrayal of what bands are like. Maybe that’s the way they are, or maybe they know a lot of bands like that. You know, we’re individuals, and off stage, we are individuals. And on stage,” he continues, “we are a union, because we have to be. We can’t be individuals on stage. But off stage there is more individuality. That is important because you can’t lose yourself within the group mentality.”
So as the years apart created the right conditions for a revival, a certain amount of independence strengthens the reunited group while on the road. Where most jobs are concerned, co-workers don’t spend their off-hours together, and this band is no exception. Santiago says, “Everybody likes to explore cities in their different ways and with different interests. I like to go to certain parts of town that maybe someone’s not interested in. It makes for a more interesting conversation when we meet at the bus. It’s like, ‘What did you do?’ Or whatever, sometimes we don’t talk about it.”
For Lovering, the attention to the inner-workings of the band is overblown. “So people say that we’re supposedly legends, and this mystique has grown over the years, and stuff like that. In people’s minds, that may have something to do with it. To myself, I’m just in a band and this is what we do. Not really a big deal, but I think it’s great that people like it.” He reiterates, “One key thing you’ve got to remember—this a job. And you have to provide for your family. So that’s the main thought that I have. I can’t renege on anything because I am providing for my family. It is a line of work.”
He says that the live show probably seems like the high point of the Pixies experience because it is what the band members “enjoy doing the most.” He adds, “I think that’s where the most emotion and the best of us is, when we do play live. On record, that’s just a capture of one moment that we did there, or something. Live, I wouldn’t say it’s worked out more, but a live situation is just a different element to add to it.”
As for what to do with those “captured moments,” the band’s approach to releasing new songs combines a classic commitment to independence with modern distribution techniques. When comparing the contemporary options for distribution to those that existed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Santiago says, “Everything is brighter than back then. Obviously, there’s social media. We have those loyal fans. I forgot what we have. We have at least a million of them.
“And we can just release it that way. It’s just exposure right away. You can just say something, and it spreads like fire. Back then, that could happen, too, but there’s the digital aspect of it, where you could just drop the bomb on them, and they can just enjoy [the songs] right away.”
Everyone in the group seems to like the ability to surprise fans with fresh content, which is only possible through maintaining a certain level of secrecy in advance. According to Santiago, this, too, is consistent with the band’s history. “You kind of have to keep it a secret. Well we do, because it’s fun for our band, I think. Not I think—I know it is. We’ve always done that—we’ve never announced that we were about to go into the studio, ever.
“So that was always a secretive part of it. Also, the label we had back then (4AD), it was probably the best label for us, because they understood the indie aspect of it. And also, they were from Europe, and we loved touring Europe. We were more accepted there. And they left us alone in the studio. They were never, ever in the studio.” He admits that in the past they did make use of major labels for one purpose: “We did have quote-unquote big labels. They were distributors. We needed their bigger trucks.”
More independent than ever before, Pixies have been able to experiment with a variety of formats, from singles, to EPs, to a series of music videos, in order to build awareness for what would become Indie Cindy. I ask if this release strategy is an attempt to cater to shorter attention spans in a time when the full-length album format has less meaning for many listeners. “Yeah,” Santiago says, “subconsciously we’ve thought about that. Like releasing the EPs. We didn’t want the whole album, twelve songs, to be wasted on short attention spans. Some fans do (have short attention spans), but I think our fans are a little more intelligent than that. We’re trying this new observation that most don’t give an album that much of a chance.”
I remark that the music videos have received mostly favorable responses on YouTube. Santiago responds, “I also like that aspect of the way we’re doing it. I don’t think we would have—we would not have been able to do that. Once again, these things are spur-of-the-moment ideas where, had we done the album I don’t think we would have all of these videos coming out. Like four songs, we could have four directors do the videos for us. And also for us, we’re giving those directors a good outlet, a good place for them to show their portfolio. It’s nice to help other people, budding directors, too.”
But satisfying fans with a multitude of releases has a flipside, and that is the critical reception that meets each release. In a few publications, the EPs received scathing reviews—extremely atypical for a band whose reputation has been bolstered by some of the very same establishment critics who were now crying foul.
Yet Santiago is unbothered: “That information that we would gather from that one individual will not change us one bit. It doesn’t affect us. And we ignore critics, because we have to. Not have to, but once again if you’re in this business of art you can’t take criticism to heart. You can’t let it break you down. We’re certainly not going to change because one reviewer said that.
“The funny thing is, I can just tell, the older reviewers stick to their guns. And then when I do an interview with a fanzine, or smaller media, and they’re kids, they love it. They’re agog with it.
“You can kind of tell that we already didn’t have a chance with those [establishment] guys. They only had to listen to it once, and they would just go, ‘aAright, this isn’t—I don’t like it.’ Whereas fans would have a go at it three times. Like jazz records, the first listen is like, ‘ugh.’ Not ‘ugh,’ but ‘huh? I kind of don’t get it,’ and then you listen to it again, and go, ‘Oh, I get it! I get what they’re doing.’”
As for whether the new songs live up to the standard of older ones, Lovering is candid in his assessment. “I can’t say it [possesses] a certain song structure or song type as older, maybe more popular Pixies songs. As Charles is saying, what we’re all saying right now, we’re working on it. We don’t know what will come next. We’re just doing what we think is good right now, but we’re not trying to use a recipe in order to make it sound like the old stuff.”
And in the end, neither songs, nor reviews, nor time, nor tours entirely defines what Pixies are capable of doing. There is another, unquantifiable attribute that powers the group, and to hear Santiago tell it, bands either have it or they don’t. “There’s a weird thing about making music. Other than music, you can feel if the artist is being authentic. They’re not faking it.
“You can just tell that they embrace who they are. And if you can portray that, you have a better chance of being relevant. Of people hearing the truth. You know, people always seek out the truth. And they can feel that we’re true. They could feel that we were disenfranchised kids at the time. Because we don’t fraternize with other musicians, and we don’t look cool, and that transfers to the music that we’re playing. We never went along with the crowd. The truth always matters.”