There’s a relatively short list of bands who have achieved a level of cross-generational relevancy. Far fewer are still rocking to max capacity crowds at the level of the Pixies.
Formed in the western Massachusetts college town of Amherst back in 1986, the group blazed a trail of melodically dissonant, surf-tinged psychedelic rock that helped give birth not only to the “indie” and “alternative” genres, but also laid the groundwork for bands from Radiohead and Modest Mouse to Sonic Youth and, infamously, Nirvana.
Kurt Cobain, after all, once told Rolling Stone that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was an attempt to “rip off the Pixies.” It was meant in every way as a compliment.
After a turbulent break up in 1993, the band took an 11-year hiatus, finally returning to much fanfare and a sold out tour in 2004. In 2013, as the Pixies were working on their first new album since 1991’s Trompe Le Monde, the band announced via Twitter that founding bassist Kim Deal had quit, a hole that has since been filled, at least temporarily, by Paz Lenchantin.
At their core, the Pixies have always been the creative brainchild of singer/guitarist Black Francis (formerly Frank Black), and any argument against that was quashed by the eventually released trio of EPs, where the band’s sonic architecture stayed the course. When the three EPs were released as a full length, Indie Cindy, in 2014, rather than sounding like a band that has aged 20 years, it fit neatly beside the rest of their catalog.
Equal parts gruff New Englander and wizened rock and roll sage, Black Francis, a pseudonym, now lives in the same town in which his band was created, married now and with five children. Currently on a series of tours playing festivals, headlining, or supporting Robert Plant, we caught up with him for a long conversation on a potential new album, the band’s status with Kim Deal, the secret to the band’s longevity, and quitting caring about Spotify long enough to play good music.
How’s things going?
We’ve been rehearsing with our new bass player, trying out some new material. We were doing that out in LA last month. So I guess we’re working towards our next recording session, whenever that is. Later in the year. We haven’t booked it yet.
So we might see a new Pixies album next year?
Yeah. Or EPs. Yeah.
You’ve been doing this for quite a while, how has the way you make records changed?
Yeah, but I would say only temporarily. The way we did the last record was a little bit different. We hadn’t made a record in so long, plus we lost Kim Deal in the middle of the session… There were a few things that kind of made it more about—I don’t know how to put this—but making the record according to the blueprint of the demo, you know what I mean? As opposed to something that grew out of performing or a lot of rehearsing. It wasn’t written in the studio, but it wasn’t really rehearsed outside of the studio either. I would say that was just an adaptation that we enlisted at the time because of the circumstances. Now we’re back in our older mode of jamming out, rehearsing, and playing some stuff live as a part of the process.
Do you think that the bassist that you have now will stick?
It feels like it. I can’t say that she is officially permanent, but you know… She’s pretty permanent to me. I hope she’s permanent, ‘cause I like her a lot.
Have you talked to Kim Deal at all?
Well, you know we don’t really talk, but that isn’t necessarily weird or anything. It’s just—you know.
Do you think she’ll ever come back?
I don’t really know how to answer that. Probably not. She left… Because she left. Because, whatever. She wasn’t really interested in being in the band anymore. She didn’t leave because she broke her ankle, she left because she wanted to do other things. You know as good as me.
Listening to Indie Cindy, your sound has really stayed the course after a long break between new material. Was that intentional? What is the focus when getting together to write new material?
We have, over time, become aware of a certain kind of sound. I don’t know that we’re obsessed with it. Our list of priorities is very short: Basically, we just aim to be good. Whether it sounds like the old band, or whether it’s going outside of our comfort zone and creating a new aspect to our repertoire—at the end of the day, we just want to be good and entertaining. It’s not about adhering to some kind of particular sound. Having said that, you know, there’s a lot of sound that naturally happens that without any sort of discussion. It just sort of happens.
Your band has inspired a lot of other bands that sound very similar, and has certainly defined a sound and an era. Where do you see yourselves fitting in in the current day?
I don’t know. I don’t really think about it in terms of “How do I fit in?” I think about things like “How full is the house tonight?” “Are we sold out?” “Are we playing a bigger place or a smaller place or the same place as the last time we drove through this town?” “Are we getting a lot of good reviews for our new music, or are we getting a lot of bad reviews?” Those kinds of barometers. The big picture is what it is, we can’t really control what our station is. It’s not that we’re uninterested in our position in the cultural landscape, but it doesn’t really do any good to try to control it in any kind of uptight way. We just fucking play, you know?
With services like Spotify and Tidal, the landscape has changed a lot since you started almost 30 years ago. What are your thoughts on streaming?
I’m fine with streaming. That’s all I listen to now. iTunes is too much of a pain in the ass. I have an iTunes account, but I mean, Jesus, between the Cloud and the iTunes Match and “did I buy this?” and “did I not buy it?” and “did I lose it?” and all that shit, it’s kind of annoying. That was the best setup a few years ago, but now that there’s streaming—which can be annoying too, because it’s all just accounts and passwords—it’s a little bit of an annoyance, like a lot of technology. But in general it seems to work.
What about from a financial aspect?
I can’t worry about that. It’s like, how many things can I fucking worry about, you know? I’ve got a lawyer, I’ve got an agent, I’ve got a publisher. They can worry about that stuff. I don’t have time to fucking take a stance on everything. There’s an opportunity for my music to be heard and potentially paid for? Great, do it. Is it the best that I can be paid? Is it the worst that I can be paid? I don’t know. I don’t really have a lot of options. All you can do is play your cards, and hopefully it all works out. Right now all I can really focus on is making music and trying to make sure whatever is owed to me from a financial point of view is collected by those agents who are authorized to collect it for me.
But don’t bands make exponentially less money than they used to?
I can get all involved and take a stance and develop an opinion, but at the end of the day, I’ve got too much to do. I’ve got five kids. I just want to fucking play music and make art. I’m not criticizing other people who have highly developed opinions about all this, but I just don’t have time for it. I don’t have any interest in it. I just want to play music, and fortunately I’ve got my t-shirt money, I’ve got my concert ticket money, I’ve got my commercial usage money. It’s no different than when I started out. Technology changes and formats change, but it’s basically you generate creative content, you try to get it heard, you try to get it paid for, you try to collect what is due to you, and, you know, file for your taxes (laughs). What else can I do?
Is touring as much fun as it used to be? With a family at home, is it harder, or is it an escape?
Sure, there’s that aspect of it, the escape back into the bubble of touring. Fortunately we tour on a level that’s comfortable. Its not ludicrously comfortable, but it’s a nice hotel, we’ve got a road crew, we play shows, we go out to eat wherever we want to go out to eat (laughs), we blow off sound check ‘cause we don’t need to do it, and “where’s the yoga class?” We should probably get back into doing yoga (laughs). I would say that touring is probably better than it was when we were starting out, because we know more about it and we’re more confident in our skills and we’re not all caught up in the minutiae.
What do you mean by minutiae?
Trying to control every aspect of your career. It’s not that I don’t care it’s just that… The best thing I can do is hire good people to work with, make good business associations, and make good music. And that keeps me grounded in the music part of it. If I’m fucking trying to figure out how to do websites and all that shit then it’s more stuff I can do to keep me away from music. I just want to write chords, you know?
That simplified outlook is probably a large part of your longevity.
Yeah, I think it’s a challenge for people that are younger, ‘cause even if they’re not musicians, they’re checking their alerts, checking their likes, and checking their social media platforms. Everyone’s always doing that all the time anyway, and then if you try to incorporate the music, utilizing all that stuff, I imagine it’s probably a little exhausting. So I guess that would be my criticism about it. “What about this is actually valuable? What about this is just a time suck?”
It does seem like it would be overwhelming.
I don’t think it’s worth it, ‘cause you know what? It’s is all a bunch of baloney. Just play music. One thing that’s never changed is the importance for artists to perform. It predates electricity. That is really the heart and soul of it. Going out and performing in front of people, and having them respond to it and talk about it so that you become part of the cultural vocabulary, the cultural landscape. Also, that experience of performing in front of live people informs your art, because there’s a feedback there. There’s a response. People clap or they don’t clap, or they buy tickets, or they don’t buy tickets. It’s really basic.
Do you find the interaction between yourself and the audience has changed?
I don’t want to use the expression it’s the same old shit, because it sounds like I’m being derogatory about it. What’s a better way to put it? It’s just like an ancient pattern. You get up there, you do your thing.
Is it hard to keep it focused on just the music, though? There are thousands of screaming fans, night after night. It must start to mess with your perception of self.
Years ago we opened up for U2 on St. Patrick’s Day in Boston and thought, “Oh yeah, we’re gonna be fucking heroes.” We’re from Boston, they’re from Ireland. Boston, of course, is full of Irish people. “Oh my God! It’s gonna be this big party!”
And you know what? It didn’t mean shit. We were the opener, and a bunch of people came to see U2. And it wasn’t anybody’s fault but our own. As long as you don’t get caught up in unrealistic expectations, you wont get disappointed, you know?
If you get too caught up in all the nostalgia; it’s not really about music, is it? That’s all about other stuff. And we’re really about music. We’re really about concerts. We’re really about making records. We’re really about connecting with the audience, whoever the fuck they are. Whether they’re cool, whether they’re uncool, whether they’re young, whether they’re old, whether they’re hipsters, whether they’re not hipsters, whatever. We want to connect with the people that paid the money to go see the show. They’re the ones that have made the sacrifice.
They paid 50 bucks for this ticket, and they’re the ones that should have expectations, not me. I just want to go and do the show.