Entertainment

09.20.13

The Pixies Talk About Their Reunion, New Music and a Missing Band Member

The most influential band of the late 80s, the Pixies broke up before they made it big. Now they’re back with their first new material in more than 20 years. The band tells Andrew Romano how it happened—and how they lost one member along the way.

Reunions are never easy, especially for rock bands. The Pixies—who have just released EP-1, their first collection of new material in more than 20 years—are no exception.

If you’ve never heard the Pixies, stop reading this right now. Go to iTunes or Spotify. Click on Surfer Rosa or Doolittle or the Wave of Mutilation compilation. Spend a half-hour or so letting the sound sink in. The serrated guitars. The asymmetrical melodies. The surrealist lyrics about space, sex, and religion. The loud-quiet-loud dynamics. Kim Deal’s hazy harmonies. Black Francis’s clarion wail. If the songs are not stuck in your head for the rest of the day, you’re probably some sort of alien life form.

The Pixies were the most influential rock band of the late 80s and very early 90s. Period. They only released four full-length albums—the first, Surfer Rosa, came out in 1988; the last, Trompe Le Monde, materialized three-and-a-half years later—but all of them are great.

This fact may have been lost on MTV at the time, but it wasn’t lost on other musicians. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke once said “the Pixies changed my life.” Bono called them “one of America’s greatest bands ever.” And David Bowie claimed the Pixies made “just about the most compelling music of the entire 80s.”

The group’s most famous fan, however, was Kurt Cobain, who at the height of his celebrity in the early 1990s could barely get through an interview without namedropping Black Francis & Co. In 1994, Cobain told Rolling Stone how he wrote “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” “I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies,” he said. “I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band—or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”

The Pixies had already broken up at that point—lead singer and songwriter Black Francis told a radio interviewer in early 1993 that he was quitting, then faxed his bandmates to confirm—so they couldn’t fully reap the benefits of Cobain’s endorsement. But like the Velvet Underground, their once-underappreciated, now canonical musical ancestors, the Pixies only got bigger after they disbanded. By the time Black Francis (real name: Charles Thompson IV), Kim Deal, lead guitarist Joey Santiago, and drummer David Lovering gathered in a cramped Los Angeles rehearsal space in 2003 to test the waters for a possible reunion tour, the audience awaiting them was many times larger than the one they’d left behind 10 years earlier. Their initial comeback shows in 2004 sold out within minutes. A four-night stand at London’s Brixton Academy was the fastest-selling run of concerts in the venue’s history.

Years of headlining festival gigs and nostalgic tours followed; to celebrate Doolittle’s 20th anniversary, the Pixies spent 2009 to 2011 performing the album track-for-track in Europe, America, Australia, and New Zealand.

Fans were delighted, but within the band there were signs of boredom and discord. Thompson, Lovering, and Santiago wanted to record and release new music; Deal, who had long been torn between the Pixies and her own group, the Breeders, wasn’t so sure. In 2006, Thompson wrote a batch of news songs, he later told Billboard, “in an attempt to convince one of the Pixies to make a Pixies record again,” adding “I can't say who she is.”

Thompson eventually abandoned the project. "I tried to find my Pixies muse and write a so-called Pixies number," he said, "but they just weren't any good. They sounded a little contrived or something. That's the problem with trying to repeat something you did a long time ago; if you go, 'Okay, I'm gonna try to recreate something, tap into some mood I used years ago,' even if it's the same songwriter, it's kind of fakey.”

That, of course, is the risk with any reunion, and the reason why most of them play it so safe: try to recapture the magic of the past and you will probably end up sullying the band’s reputation with new work that doesn’t measure up to your old standards.

But between 2007 and 2012, something changed. Thompson wrote more songs. At last they clicked. Deal agreed to record again. And then, suddenly, on the eve of the sessions, she bailed, leaving Thompson, Santiago, and Lovering to decide whether the Pixies were finished once again or whether they should soldier on without her.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, I met up with the remaining band members on the roof of a posh hotel in West Hollywood. We sat around a wooden table as the Southern California sun seared the umbrella overhead and guests splashed in a nearby swimming pool. Lovering wore a substantial gold necklace beneath his open-necked white shirt. Santiago kept his sunglasses on. Thompson was dressed in a T-shirt, torn denim shorts, and Birkenstocks; he was hoping to squeeze in a yoga session before the band’s show that night at the Mayan theater downtown: their fifth sold-out concert in Los Angeles that week, and their fifth date ever without Deal.

Over the course of an hour, the Pixies opened up about how hard it was to record new material, why Deal left, and why they decided to continue in her absence. They discussed the secret interstellar backstory that inspired new tracks like “Andro Queen,” “Indie Cindy,” and “Another Toe in the Ocean”; enthused about Steely Dan and The White Album; pondered the mystical art of songwriting; and revealed that they have “30 or 40” more new Pixies tunes in the can, many of which will soon appear online without warning (just like EP-1). It was the most in-depth interview so far about rock ‘n’ roll’s most fascinating reunion.

The Daily Beast: It’s 2003. The Pixies have been broken up for 10 years. Why reunite?

Thompson: I was doing an interview on a radio station, and they were asking the standard, boilerplate question: When are the Pixies going to get back together? And I was kind of kidding around, so I made a joke. Really it was a reference to an old George Harrison quote about the Beatles. I don’t think they got that, but that was what I was doing. 

What was the Harrison quote?

Thompson: In the 70s, George Harrison said something like, “We might get together and jam at each other’s houses. You’d never know. There’s stuff that goes on that you guys don’t know about.” When I made a similar comment, they decided to—and this is pre-Twitter and all of that—go with it as a story, that I’ve announced some kind of reunion. Literally, it was on CNN the next day, and I had Joey and Dave going, like, “Hey Charles, what the hell? What’s up with the reunion?” I said, “I’m really sorry, I was just kidding around”—but that opened the door, so to speak. And then we talked about it.

So you guys saw that you were going to reunite on the news. What was your reaction, Joey?

Santiago: Charles came over and said that he’d like it to happen. So I called David, who didn’t believe it. Then I called Kim. Finally, the three of us got together— Charles was touring or something—and we agreed that if we sucked we were just going to turn around and go. But we didn’t. It was just like …

Lovering: … riding a bike. 

What was it like that first time playing together again?

Thompson: The first day was kind of rough for me. They’d gone over stuff but I hadn’t yet. So I showed up sort of unprepared, and I felt like I was the lame one. But then on the second day, it was just like, “Oh yeah.” It was just some dinky little rehearsal space with little amps. Very humble. But it reminded me of when we had our first rehearsals years ago, and it just became very obvious: it sounded exactly the same. We were like, “OK, when’s the show?”

Did you expect the reunion to go on this long?

Santiago: No.

Thompson: It was a one-year plan, basically.

Lovering: And now since 2004 we’ve been back together for seven or eight years—which is longer than our first period as a band.

When did the idea of releasing new Pixies songs come about?

Thompson: 2012. But even before we got the green light, Joey and I and David had actively pursued this agenda of new music more than anything in our lives. Period.

What do you mean by “the green light?”

Thompson: The agreement among the band members that we were going to do it. Kim [Deal, the bassist] included. She was a part of that. When we got her on board, it was like, “OK, phew. Let’s go.” We’d been in the lurch.

And then Kim quit. What precipitated her leaving?

Santiago: She wanted to go.

Thompson: There was no precipitation.

Santiago: She wanted to be “happier.” You know, so … whatever that means. And that was her way to be happier. So we wished her farewell. The door’s always open for her to come back. As for playing the shows without her … IT SUCKS. [Laughs] No, no. It’s, I don’t know …

Thompson: We’re defining that right now.

Santiago: We miss her charm. Her big persona.

Did you interpret “happier” as her playing her own stuff with The Breeders?

Santiago: Yep. Being at her own helm.

Have the shows with Kim Shattuck felt different to you?

Thompson: We have a whole long list of things we’re learning that are different or new. We’re aware of the meta-question: “Is it valid [without Kim]?” or whatever. But right now it’s like, people bought tickets to a show. It sold out in five minutes. We’re focused on delivering a show that really makes those people happy.

Was it hard to write and record new material?

Santiago: We tried it a bunch of times. The third time was the charm.

What were the first two times like?

Thompson: The first time was me just me on a laptop with a guitar, writing songs real fast. Then the next attempt we had was at Joey’s studio in Los Angeles. And that was a much more intense session, over the course of a couple of weeks.

Some of those songs are still contenders, but we haven’t worked on them lately. They’re a little different because a lot of the chords are from a piano we set up at our rehearsal space. I’m not much of a piano player, so I would try to write on the piano and then go online and figure out what the hell chord I was playing. I’d have to transpose everything. One of them I really like a lot.

And then there was another time we got together that wasn’t a recording session. All four of us were involved; we worked on some pieces in a rehearsal setting in the Boston area. That was two years ago. That led to us having a direct dialogue with [producer] Gil Norton at the beginning of 2012, when we started to plan demo sessions and recording sessions.

Charles, you’ve written a lot of songs since the Pixies reunited, but only five of them have been released as Pixies songs. What’s the difference?

Thompson: Those are the good ones. Those are the best ones. 

Is that how you sort it out? I’m interested in what distinguishes a Pixies song from a Frank Black song.

Thompson: I don’t personally compartmentalize, but I had to, to a certain extent, to engage in this process. Gil Norton is an ass-kicker, so he put a lot of pressure on me to come up with the goods in a way that rang true to him. It took me awhile to even understand what that was. But I worked on it. And eventually—probably in a slightly exhausted, slightly delirious, inebriated state at 4 o’clock in the morning in a cheap motel—I finally found it. And it was very exciting when it happened. But it took awhile to get there. It took a lot of blank pages. A lot of false starts. Then I was finally like, “There it is.” [Bangs his palm on the table] “There it is!”

Can say you what IT is?

Thompson: We’re talking about something intangible.

Why were you guys so determined to record new material? The reunion script is always, “band gets back together, their fanbase is bigger, they play their greatest hits, and everyone’s happy.”

Thompson: You can’t ever really go back to the beginning and be naive and young and have that special moment in time. But having a new song that people don’t know? You can kind of come close to that a little bit. It’s a little bit of a … you’ve got to prove yourself. So I’m happy that we have new songs to play because playing only the old songs … you’ve already proven that. You can try to do it better, but you’re not really proving anything to anyone except that you can still do it.

I’ve wondered about that in the context of rock bands aging. One of the reasons they tend to get worse, I think, is because they don’t have anything left to prove. Was your decision to release new material in some way inspired by not wanting to become complacent? Is getting too comfortable a danger for bands?

Thompson: I certainly am not comfortable with the idea of, you know, we do some new songs and that’s nice and cute and we’ll do one or two of those but basically we’re all here to hear “Where Is My Mind?” or whatever. That doesn’t feel too good to me. I want to be vital to people who are actively buying music and going to shows. I want to have street cred. Period. I don’t want it to be like, “Oh that’s nice. The Pixies did a song with so-and-so…” You’re not going to see us doing our old hits as duets with different people.

Let’s talk about how the new songs fit into the Pixies canon. How are they like the old songs? And how are they different?

Lovering: When we started working with Gil, Gil’s interpretation of what the new stuff should be—or just Gil’s advice—was, “Imagine you’ve been away from the planet for 20 years.” Like we have been. “We haven’t been around. We don’t know music. We don’t know what’s going on.” And he said, “You just do your own music—the music you’re going to show the earth now.” So that was good way of thinking about it. To free us up. To free Charles up to do something new.

So it was a Rip Van Winkle mentality?

Thompson: It was a narrative. Back when we were making Bossa Nova or Trompe Le Monde, Gil would be trying to get his head around what we were on about in these songs. So sometimes when he wouldn’t get a lot of information from us he would begin to construct this whole movie in his head. That’s the way that he works.

He’s kind of building this opera. So this was the new narrative. And I remember as soon as he said it—we were hanging out with Gil in Brooklyn—Joey and I were like, “Here he goes again with the movies.” At first I was a little bit cynical. But he planted the seed, and eventually it took hold. You start to buy into it a little bit. And it starts to affect the process.

How so?

Thompson: We’d be up late at night during the sessions, so I started doing these little paintings. And I did this one painting—it was this flying bat or something, with these Eddie Van Halen guitar wings. Just some silly little painting. It looked like one of those psychedelic rock posters, advertising a show. So I turned it into a poster and I added some kind of fake Russian font to make it look alien. So then it was like, “What kind of concert—what kind of rock poster is this?” And I was like, “Oh, it’s a Pixies show.” Then I kind of bought into it. “OK, when? 1994, how about that? Where were we playing in 1994? Planet whatever.” I totally looked up some planet some place, and I imagined what language the people were speaking there. And then I translated the announcement about the gig. It was at an opera house called Panoprodomo. Pan was the place, actually. It’s a celestial body. It’s a moon somewhere. Anyway, I was totally focused on this narrative.

I’m not saying all the songs are about that, but when appropriate we’d be like, “Yeah, there’s the story.” It’s not every moment. It might be the way I was doing a lyric, or the way Joey was interpreting the guitar. The recordings suddenly got way more out there.

Where in the songs does that narrative come through?

Santiago: I have this guitar that I took into the session. A Moog guitar. It’s basically a big e-bow. That was like, the futuristic element of what I had. Using weird pedals and all that stuff.

It comes through lyrically a little bit, too.

Thompson: But really what it’s all about is the overall effect. We’ve been away, playing away, in our little space capsule somewhere, and now we’re back. So what does that sound like? It’s a kind of hypothesizing.

So what does EP-1 sound like, if you had to put it into words? I know that’s difficult—to put sounds into words, which is why most music writing is so bad.

Thompson: Hmm. Well, I think that when we were in space ... you gain a lot of perspective. You gain that big blue marble perspective. And other celestial bodies. Sort of the awesomeness of the universe. It’s a very different perspective than like being in the atmosphere of a celestial body. When you’re outside of the earth, and you’re somewhere else, what can I say? There’s no smog. There’s no sound. It’s a big spacious place. And it’s … the blackness is so black. And the white is so white. And the orange is so orange. It’s intense. It’s intense. It’s lonely. It’s very lonely. But it’s also without a lot of interference and influence from where you come from. It’s isolating.

Did you record more than the four songs that are on EP-1?

Santiago: Yep.

How many more?

Thompson: I mean, counting demos and everything, we’re talking 30 or 40 songs.

Will there be more EPs? Will there be an LP at some point? What form will all this new music take?

Thompson: You’re looking at the form right there. [Points to laptop and iPhone] That’s the form at the moment. And the only thing that’s defined about it is that it’s in the digital realm—that it’s being held on large servers around the world. As for how people experience it, that’s shifting around a lot. I don’t have an articulate vision of how people are going to hear this music. I don’t really care.

But people are going to hear the new songs that you’ve recorded.

Thompson: They are. They are. The band is active. The band is actively active right now.

 Let’s rewind for a second. I want to read you a quote from Dave Grohl of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters: "The quiet/loud dynamic that's dominated alternative radio for the last 14 years can be attributed to one and only one band, the Pixies." That’s your signature sound. Where did it come from?

Thompson: When we would go out drinking with our girlfriends or whatever, we used to go to these clubs next to Fenway Park. They were discotheques, for lack of a better word. One was called Spit. And at that time they were playing this kind of very English, goth-y, dancefloor stuff with really simple drums—boom-ba, boom-ba—and really driving, eighthy bass—jdew jdew jdew jdew jdew jdew—with just a lot of space. So I don’t know if that answers the loud part, but I feel that’s where the quiet part came from. There was a lot of that stuff in the air—that kind of big, spacious, loud, simple thing. Produced records, but records that were kind of edgy. We weren’t analyzing it. It was just around. It was just what we heard. 

You absorbed that sound into your own sound.

Santiago: I think it just happened naturally.

Lovering: It wasn’t a formula.

Santiago: But we knew what we were doing.  

Thompson: It’s like, OK, there’s the picture. Less is more. That’s the first mistake young bands make. There’s too much stuff going on. So you just start taking stuff out. 

The thing that really drew me to the Pixies in the first place was the quality of the songs: the melodies, the rhythms, the way the chords combined with the tunes. Is that something that you guys knew you were after: a perfect (if skewed) pop song?

Thompson: There’s a little bit of outside influence with the band. In the very beginning, there were a lot of very fast tempos. We were kind of small in our own way. I think that our first influence would have been this producer Gary Smith who just kind of allowed us to be … he could see that something was going on, and he didn’t try to change it. I give him a lot of credit because he said instinctively, you just do what you do, and I’m just going to try to record it best we can. And that’s what we did.

The next outside influence was our record company in London, 4AD Records, heard this and liked it. But they had the sense that if we could be bigger and louder, it could have a good effect. So they suggested that we work with Steve Albini, who was known for big, loud sounds. And that’s exactly what happened on Surfer Rosa: this kind of frantic, small thing, became this frantic, loud thing. But it was still very loose, which is nice. It had a gurgling quality to it.

Then the next suggestion that was made to us by our trusted team of insiders that we work with a guy who had more of a pop aesthetic. So in stepped Gil Norton. Gil Norton took this quirky thing that was small, then became big and frantic, and kind of brought the pop out of it. The less is more. That was Doolittle. And I think that really is, more than all of the various sounds we have, the best representation of what we all ultimately wanted to sound like. What song do I like to play the best on stage? I don’t really know. But I’ll say “Gouge Away.” Something about that song feels really good. And we wouldn’t have gone that way if we had not ended up with Gil. 

Did you know it at the time? Was there a session or a track you listened back to and said, OK, we’ve reached that sweet spot of what the Pixies should be.

Santiago: I remember listening to Doolittle while we were mixing and we just figured out how to work the tape machine—to rewind and keep playing it. And we just kept listening to it. Just being proud of it.

It sounds like it surprised you a little bit.

Thompson: That’s the goal. To be surprised. If you’re like, Oh yeah, here we go again. Then that might not be good. You want to have a little … that’s what so addictive about recording. You don’t really know what the end result is going to be. Then you get it and you’re like, We did that? Really?

I want to talk about influences. Dave, which songs or drummers have influenced you the most?

Lovering: I can say in drumming, when the Pixies began, it was (makes rapid machine-gun drum sounds). That was from listening to Rush. And it took a number of years, but that just got to be less and less and less. Less is more. Stripping it away. But it was busy as a bee at first.

Young drummers are always attracted to virtuosity.

Lovering: You always wanted the octopus drums. The big kit. And it did become a little like that: I had a lot of drums. But now I have the smallest kit I can use, because it’s great to improvise. And it’s easy to carry. And it’s better looking.

Are there drummers you look to as models of simplicity—of serving the song?

Lovering: The only drummers I can say I’m a big fan of are any drummer who drummed for Steely Dan. They’re all session guys, and they’re all the best there is. You can hear it in the songs.  

Joey? Guitar?

Santiago: I got heavily into surf music. The guitar stuff I liked was just sonics. I didn’t care about speed. If I hear a weird noise, it’s like, that’s it. That’s what I like. It’s descriptive. Play slow.

What about you Charles? What are some songs that served as models to you in terms of how songs could be put together?

Thompson: I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about how songs are put together.

 Really?

Thompson: Because I never really learned how to play other people’s songs. All I can say is, I have stuff I like. Like, last night I was walking around LA listening on my headphones to the White Album. The White Album is probably …

Santiago: The best record ever.

Thompson: … the best record ever made. I think that record has probably influenced me more than any other record. I like a lot of records. A lot of 60s stuff I like a lot. But that’s like … you see the arc of that band, and all the stuff they went through, and the changes in their styles and their productions … and then they get that one moment, and it’s the toughest and the most beautiful record at the same time.

Did you start writing songs as soon as you started playing guitar? Was songwriting instinctive for you?

Thompson: I remember when I first picked up a guitar one of the first things I plucked out was a Rolling Stones melody. “As Tears Go By.” I was just experimenting with transposing a melody that I knew in my head to the guitar. And it was a nice little rudimentary exercise to go through, but it was like, “Now what do I do?” I can’t do anything with that. So I eventually started to hit … kind of like chords. I only knew, like, a couple of chords. And then a shift started happening. I was like, ah, chords. Chords will get me to places where I can create. I can create my own chords blocks. I can create my own songs.

A lot of people can play anything they want on the guitar but it would never occur to them that they could write a song.

Thompson: I think that there are two kinds of music listeners in the world. There are passive music listeners, who are wonderful—most of our customers are passive music listeners. And then there are people who are active music listeners. Who make a certain kind of connection with the artistry of it. And that causes them to either a) want to become writers or musicians themselves or b) somehow be connected to it in some way. To become a journalist or a record producer or a roadie, or whatever it is. They just make that kind of connection and it’s the most important thing in the world.

I think all of us in the band, at some point in our younger years, somehow made some kind of connection with the artistry of music. You already instinctively know: “I don’t want to be playing other people’s songs at some party or dance or something. No. I want to be in the Beatles. I want to be Bob Dylan. I want to be Lou Reed. That’s what I want.” It’s not even like you have to think about it. It’s not even an option, necessarily. You instantly go to that next step.

Was there a moment when you realized you could do this thing that not many people can do—actually write a song?

Thompson: I took drum lessons when I was a kid. I sucked. I took piano lessons. I took guitar lessons. I did all that stuff. But I’ve always known that’s not what I was going to be able to do. But I could kind of go, “Blobbity blah blah blah.” And everyone seemed to like that. [laughs] So I just said “I’ll do that.”