"This Is Our Sophomore Attempt": An Interview with Pixies

Speaking to PopMatters, Pixies detail every step towards Indie Cindy's creation, reception, and what's next for the group...


Indie Cindy

Label: Pixies Music
US Release Date: 2014-04-29
UK Release Date: 2014-04-28

"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.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

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