If Pixies have done anything consistently over their 19 years as a band, it’s provoke contrasting emotions. During their first incarnation, from 1986 to 1993, they enthralled artists as diverse as Radiohead, Nirvana, and David Bowie with their noisy, eccentric slosh and cryptic, offbeat lyrics, and garnered a mountain of critical acclaim. But they could be maddingly inconsistent; moving to LA, the boiling friction between Black Francis and Kim Deal, and the pressures of trying to replicate the majestic twin pillars of Surfer Rosa and Doolittle led to a slow-motion implosion marked by guitar-throwing and, most infamously, Francis sacking the others by fax in early 1993. And that, it seemed, was that, another cult band trailed by laments that they were just too far ahead of the curve for their own good.
In the early aughts, the idea of reformations and touring classic albums had yet to really take hold. Pixies, fittingly, and not for the first time, played the role of pioneers. I can still the recall the excitement, in 2004, watching video of the band's official comeback at Coachella, and opening their set at Madrid’s Festimad Festival with ‘Where Is My Mind?’; it was, of course, majestic, the kind of moment that gives you goose bumps. The band hit the road hard, popping up at festivals and stadiums the world over…and didn’t stop.
Undoubtedly the cash was great – Francis deadpanning that he’d toyed with the idea of calling one particularly extensive leg ‘The Pension Tour’ – but as the years passed, the clamor for new material grew. Hints and whispers swirled, and fans debated whether reaching the heights of their early years was possible, or even something they’d want; ‘Bam Thwok’, a song originally written for the Shrek 2 soundtrack, didn’t augur well. So it wasn’t entirely unsurprising that the material that made up 2013's EP1, EP2, and EP3 was, to put it kindly, something of a mixed bag. It probably didn’t help that in the midst of recording, in true Pixies style, Deal had finally walked out for good, her vocal resistance to recording new material proving too much of an obstacle. That the band soldiered on was understandable, but without Deal standing stage right, stock-still and defiantly puffing away, many thought that the final curtain was nigh; surely they couldn’t survive this.
And yet, somehow, they have. “We had no real intentions of stopping the band,” guitarist Joey Santiago tells me from his LA home. “We thought about it for a little while. Then we went: ‘Nope.’” Even more unlikely is that their new album, Head Carrier, might just put to bed the notion that the band are spent as a creative force. While first single ‘Um Chagga Lagga’, a typically boisterous slice of surf punk that threatens to collapse into chaos, doesn’t seem like an auspicious start, there’s plenty that stands up to repeated listens and reminds you of the power they possessed in their heyday. ‘Baals Back’, boasting a particularly incendiary vocal from Francis, captures the anger and fizz of their youth, while the ominous foreboding of ‘Oona’ riffs on the loud-quiet-loud template they’ve so often employed. Elsewhere, the music ranges from sweet strumming to furious power-pop to fanciful anthems, all the time displaying the sort of lyrical dexterity and oddness – to pick one from many, many examples, who else but Pixies would open a song with “You look like a praying mantis”? – that’s long been a Francis signature.
There’s even a song that might, just might, earn a place alongside classics like ‘Here Comes Your Man’ and ‘Gigantic’, the sumptuous ‘All I Think About Now’. A co-write between Francis and bassist Paz Lenchantin – now considered a permanent Pixie by the other three – the story goes that after writing the music, Francis urged her to sing it on. She agreed, with the caveat that he pen the lyrics, to which he replied: “Tell me what to write”. The result, a thank you letter to Kim Deal, is one of the sweetest, most heartfelt songs in their canon. Behind an opening riff that recalls ‘Where Is My Mind?”, Lenchantin sings wistfully how “If I could go to the beginning, I would be another way / Make it better for today.” Bittersweet nostalgia has never been a fertile topic in Francis’ work, but it’s hard not to think that it’s his attempt at making peace with Deal, and her contribution to the band; “I remember we were happy / That’s all I think about now” Lenchantin sings at the last, ”I want to thank you anyhow” a fittingly simple coda.
However Head Carrier ends up adding to Pixies’ narrative, it’s strong enough to stand on its own, not that the band themselves are concerned. “We’re never precious about what we’re about,” says Santiago, “none of that saying: 'Oh, we’re gonna ruin blah blah blah' or whatever.” In a way, such nonchalance sums up the band’s career perfectly. They’re just doing what they’ve always done; be themselves, to the bitter end, and wherever that may lead.
DiS: Pixies were one of the first, classic indie rock bands to reform and tour. When you first got back together, did you think you’d be sitting here 12 years later, with two new albums to your name?
Joey Santiago: No, but it would have been one of my guesses!
Did you have a gut feeling that it would last?
Has it really been 12 years? Wow. But truthfully, I had no idea [back then]. I thought it was gonna be a three or five year deal.
It took you nine years after your reformation to release and record new material, and now we have another album just two years later. How come this one was so quick?
Because right after we recorded Indie Cindy we were already making plans in our heads to record the next one.
And it came together quickly?
Yeah. After that tour had finished, we’d set aside time for us to write, demo and then record. So that’s what we did. Altogether, it was about a six-week process.
Compared to Indie Cindy, you sound a lot more sure-footed and confident as a band again. Is that because you’re just more comfortable being creative and in a studio again, as opposed to just endlessly touring?
Yes. Partly that’s it. But also, we rehearsed these [new] songs; we were in the same room, bashing them out together for about six weeks before we went into the studio; we were having fun! We were able to do the songs over and over again, getting them right, and the whole process was pretty light and creative – there was a very creative vibe going on during those sessions.
What’s the internal band dynamic like for a classic band when it comes to new material? Part of you must want to protect your legacy, but part must also want to be creative again after so many years touring the hits.
Well, we’re never precious about what we’re about. Once you’ve booked the studio time, and go through the process of writing songs and putting stuff together, you’re so in the moment that’s all you’re thinking about. And there’s no pressure at all – none of that saying: “Oh, we’re gonna ruin blah blah blah,” or whatever. We were just like: “You know what? We’re gonna make another record!” And that was it.
Do you feel the external pressure for that though, from fans?
Any pressure…I always feel it from myself, to come up with the right parts and so on. Everybody has this pressure, but it’s the same as any other album – there’s an element of risk making every record, and every song. There’s just that – and it’s the same as any other album that any other band would make.
This is the first Pixies album proper without Kim Deal. Does it feel weird that she’s not there anymore?
Well, we’ve had some time to adjust – it’s been about what? Four years now? Five? [Deal’s departure was officially announced on 14 June 2013] And we’ve had three years of Paz [Lenchantin]…but the answer is no. Not really. There’s no time for that. We could say we miss her, but once again, we’re too much in the moment of it, and we love Paz. Of course, we do miss Kim in a way, but we’ve embraced this new feeling we’ve got for this next record – it’s just a different feel, and a different person. This one [the record] feels a little lighter.
Like Pixies v2.0?
Yeah, in terms of…whatever you want to call it. There’s a new member, but we’re also still the Pixies.
More than most bands, it felt like you really were the sum of your parts, and that if someone wasn’t there, it could never be the same. Was there any point after Kim left where the three of you seriously considered stopping again?
We thought about for a little while. Then we went: “Nope.” It was just a fleeting thought. Because she had left midway through recording, so we persevered with the seven weeks that were left of the sessions, and we made the record. We made the record as the Pixies, and Kim left, but we were still recording as the Pixies, you know? We love it too much. She gave her blessing for us to keep going, and we gave her our blessing to keep going, and we parted ways in a very amicable way. And we had no real intentions – at least I had no real intentions – of stopping the band.
Now that you have all these new songs, how easy is it gonna be to choose what to put into sets, and perhaps more importantly, what to leave out?
Yeah, we’ve got a lot of songs! Sometime Charles would choose the songs, in his microphone – cos we all have these “in-ears” – and he’d call out the next couple of songs. Sometimes we’d have a setlist, a masterlist, and every night we’d put them down on paper. We’re conscious of having to try to be different, but there are some songs that we have to play, that people expect us to play. ‘Where Is My Mind?’ being one of them.
There are some that if I came to a gig and you didn’t play them, I’d be devastated.
Yes! We forgot to do ‘Where Is My Mind?’ once, I think. You gotta give people what they like, you’ve got to pretend you’re them – a band comes to your town, you’re expecting that song, and if they don’t play it, you are gonna be very disappointed.
A lot of early Pixies songs sounded fuelled by anger and discontent, and even the friction between the four of you seemed to spur it on, and spark something special. Are you all a lot mellower these days, or do the fires still burn?
Yeah, we’re mellower, and chilled out, and fortunately the sound when the four of us get together, it’s just natural for it to sound like that. Or the three of us now…although Paz is part of the D.N.A now, we’re really “Pixies” now. When the four of us get together it’s magical, and we just come up with something; we don’t have to feel anything, or be in a certain mood, it will just immediately be there. But yes, everyone has frustrations. Do we channel through it? I don’t know. I’m divorced, recently divorced…but we end up sounding like the Pixies, so emotions aside, and what you bring to the studio, it doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter.
There’s a lot to be angry at in the world, and a lot of alienation. Maybe even more now than in your heyday.
Oh we talk about it when we’re having our tea, like how Trump is such a douchebag, can’t believe he’s even made it this far and so on, but when we go back to the studio it’s like: “OK, what’s this song about? What are we doing?” But yeah, the world’s going mad. Pretty usual.
I read in one interview you said that, as individuals, you were all “shitty communicators”. So how do things get done or organized now, in the studio and on tour? What’s the vibe like?
Now we’re more open, and have more open communication. There was always four of us in the room [when we recorded], and that’s how we communicate; because there are four of us, and there’s none of: “Hey, you have to tell him this,” or “Tell him that.” Before, we were like that, we were the crappiest communicators around – just fragile egos not wanting to get hurt. But there’s none of that feeling anymore, now that we’re older.
Older and wiser?
Older and wiser, yeah. The older you get, the faster you hit the “send” button. You’re just like: “Oh, fuck it, just send this thing.”
You’ve been around longer now, and are certainly more commercially successful, than your first era as a group. Is the plan just to keep riding the Pixies bandwagon as long as you can and as far as it’ll take you?
Well, maybe as far as people want us to go. And also, I plan on doing this for as long as it’ll last – of course! I don’t want to go back and work delivering auto parts; I’d rather do this. Even though I liked that job – I was young – but this is the best job. No way I’d ever give this job up.
I imagine there’s a pretty big tour coming up, and you’ll be on the road for a while, but have the four of you had any thoughts about what will happen beyond that, and what you might want the next album to be?
Not yet, no. That’ll be a discussion for the bus in the wee hours. We have been talking about the next one, but just a teeny weeny bit. It’s already known that we’re gonna do it, but we probably won’t start seriously talking about it for another six months. Or tomorrow! You never know with us.
Pixies Head Carrier is out on the 30 September on PLAY IT AGAIN SAM. For more information on the band, visit their official website.