To say that the band was ubiquitous would be an understatement. Before the underground/college/alternative/what-have-you rock bubble burst open into pop-trend frothy grunge, Pixies ruled the realm.
Never mind Nevermind: Along with bands like REM, Sonic Youth, The Replacements and Jane's Addiction, the Boston-based four-piece were transitioning from college rock radio darlings to bona fide rock stars-albeit rock stars who still baffled most music fans.
The original line-up-Black Francis (vocals/guitar), Kim Deal (vocals/bass), Joey Santiago (lead guitar) and David Lovering (drums)-created a demented hybrid of angular art-punk, surf and flat-out melodic songs that were gales of fresh air in the suffocating belch of '80s cock-rock and pastel-slathered MTV dreck. Pixies rose to deity status in the UK; back home, Gen Xers kept albums like Surfer Rosa and Doolittle in constant rotation.
Fellow musicians including Nirvana, David Bowie and Radiohead praised the band's ingenuity and savvy in creating strong, dynamic song structures, fueled by a furious and then languid emotional approach, infused by bandleader Black Francis' surreal and mostly menacing lyricism.
Four albums in three years and Pixies went kaput, departing a scene they helped create.
Deal found much acclaim with her band, The Breeders; Black Francis began a solo career as Frank Black; Santiago focused on his band The Martinis and Lovering played with Nitzer Ebb and Cracker. When the soundtrack of '99 flick Fight Club featured their anthem, "Where Is My Mind?" a new generation dug the Pixies' sound.
In 2004, the band reunited; nine years on, Deal bowed out. Bassist/vocalist Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle, RTX) stepped in and Pixies have now released two full-length albums.
It's one among only a few solo gigs during the tour with Weezer, when Pixies play this week at The Florida Theatre. It'll be the first local gig since the semi-mythical/notorious '91 The Milk Bar debacle, when they fled the venue, seemingly unnerved by the sold-out crowd's surge to the stage.
Joey Santiago talked to Folio Weekly from his SoCal home, dishing on the tour, the band's songsmith editing skills and his recollection of the night the Pixie gig went haywire in Downtown Jax in pre-grunge days.
Folio Weekly: The Pixies are about to embark on a summer co-headlining tour with Weezer-about 40 dates, with very few days off. In July alone, you're doing eight shows in a row. Is this a kind of purification ritual masked as a tour?
Joey Santiago: [Laughs.] Yeah, the "swan tour." No, we know how to deal with it. We keep to ourselves and we do that, instinctually, anyway. So that keeps things fresh in the tour bus, you know? "Where the hell have you been?" And then we talk about where we've been and the shenanigans we've been in. It's a proven method.
How did the Weezer tour happen? Did you pick them or did they pick you?
We got an offer from the people who actually get offers for us [laughs] and we said, "Yeah! Sounds good." It's an early show; we probably don't go on later than nine and still have time to do other things that night.
It seems like a logical fit, since Pixies were in an earlier wave of bands that influenced many subsequent groups like Weezer. It seems like they borrowed your blueprint and tried to add their own room on.
I highly regard their music and I like how they push the boundaries. We have a mutual admiration. In fact, Rivers Cuomo and I played golf a couple weeks ago. Just to pal around before the tour.
I bet that 25 years ago you'd never imagine talking about playing golf with another rock musician.
[Laughs.] Yeah, oh, yeah! Everything I say now I can't imagine would have ever come out of my mouth.
Since your most recent album Head Carrier (2016) was released, have you gotten a good response from fans when you perform those tunes live?
Oh, my god, yeah. Head Carrier is really a blast to play. Just like the other songs, it has a life of its own. Some nights, the versions really surprise us. I enjoy playing them; probably because they're new, you know? But I look forward to playing them a lot.
Weirdly enough, you've actually ramped up a metallic heaviness to the songs. "Um Chagga Lagga" (Head Carrier) sounds like a Circle Jerks chord progression. Are Pixies aging loudly?
Well, we've always been able to channel anger. [Laughs.] It's always there. You know, look at the chart: "How are you feeling today?" There's the stupid drawing of the happy face, sad, angry ... sometimes I say, "Every fucking face is how I feel today! I'm trying to decide, goddammit!"
In 2014, Indie Cindy was the first full-length in more than a decade; it was really an EP collection. Did you stagger the releases to see how they would be received?
The idea was just to trickle them out. Part marketing scheme, partly something different to do; I have no idea if EPs are dead but I think they [relegate] themselves to vinyl and a 7-inch or maybe a 12-inch played at 45 rpm. That was really the birth of the EP; it doesn't make sense when it's just dropping out of a cloud now.
It was like the old Peel Sessions. You'd buy Joy Division or The Fall on vinyl and in four songs and maybe 15 minutes-boom!
Yeah, totally. And I think the EP, too, lets us say, "We're gonna go kind of old school on you." That artwork, too, [on the EPs] on those records is good enough to really lend itself to a vinyl format.
Some negative reviews I read of Indie Cindy say it sounds too different from earlier work; then positive reviews of Head Carrier say something like "a strong return to form." It's like a trap; you're allowed to change only so much. Is the music press' response to the releases arbitrary?
When we released the first album after the reunion [Indie Cindy], I'd bet the critics already had their reviews halfway written; they'd just fill in the blanks. That's how I feel, anyway. Have I done that to other artists? Guilty. Critics are no different and we knew that. Our job is to create and not give a shit.
Pixies are so iconic; do you feel like fans and critics have put an unrealistic expectation on the band, so you're prisoners of their personal nostalgia?
Well, luckily, this still all comes naturally to us. It's almost embarrassing when people ask, "How do you do that?" I don't know. Who knows? Am I walking funny to you? It's just natural; we're just walking around.
Head Carrier and Indie Cindy were both released by the Belgian label, PIAS Recordings. You surely continue to enjoy popularity here, but from the band's inception, there was strong overseas support. Those two recent albums hit the charts throughout Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Why do you think you've always had such a warm, if not fanatical, overseas following?
Well, there are probably a couple factors involved in that. One would be our former label, 4AD, which is London-based, so we did a lot of press there. We probably did more shows in Europe than in the States. We preferred it because it was new to us; we're very adventurous. And the other one is we got vetted by one of the heralded DJs of the UK-John Peel. And we did at least two Peel Sessions and I heard he came to one of our shows. So I think the combination of all of that was pretty cool, you know?
Unlike many guitar soloists, your style leans more toward accompaniment than shredding. The solo on "Here Comes Your Man" is more akin to George Harrison on an early Beatles cut than a flurry of scales and modes. Were you already playing with that kind of restraint even before the Pixies?
Yeah, definitely. I feel like that style is more memorable. I wasn't into watching people doing data entry on guitar. [Laughs.] "Look how many words I can do!" Slow down, I can't read the fucking words! The Beatles were a big influence, when every note counted. In the '80s, people were just counting the notes. There was too much shredding going on and I couldn't do it! I just worked with what I knew and what I was capable of doing.
Your approach to the guitar ties into Pixies' well-documented "soft/loud" dynamic. There's a certain economy of sound, which I think is hard for a lot of rock bands to pull off .
Yep. We're more prone to "take away" than add to the process. It's more of our language: "Do we need that? No, we don't need that." And if we add something, it's gotta count, you know? More or less, we're trying to get to the bare bones of things.
Pixies are the sole headliner for The Florida Theatre show. Did you opt to play there because The Allman Brothers Band began here-or was there an open date to fill in?
The Allman Brothers began there? Nice. [Laughs.] Most likely because we needed to flesh out the tour; the nostalgia comes after!
Speaking of nostalgia, I'm obliged to ask this since it's such a big part of local underground rock history: In 1991, Pixies played here at The Milk Bar; after a couple of songs, y'all left the stage. The show was over. There were lots of bummed-out, angry Pixies fans roaming the streets that night. The event has taken on a Seven Samurai proportion. Do you remember this? What really went on at that show?
Oh, my God! Of course I remember that show! Well, back then I don't think clubs had the kind of stage barriers that we have now and those were like planks of wood. We pretty much knew the barriers were going to break; it [would] have been the fourth or fifth barrier that had already broken on that particular tour. We looked and, much to our youthful bravado, we were, like, "All right-we bet this barrier will break in two songs." And I think that's what happened! Snap! We were right. And we'd warned them [the club] saying, "This isn't going to hold this up." It was sold out, the crowd surged, and it just snapped.