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The Pixies are dead, long live the (new) Pixies

Interview with Pixies' guitarist Joey Santiago
Travis Shinn

Whether you call it fate or luck, the story of the Pixies is coated in a thick veneer of fairy dust.

The Boston-bred band was an enigma from its inception. It formed after guitarist Joey Santiago read a passionate (and long) letter by lead singer Charles Thompson while he was studying abroad. The two promptly quit college and discovered their original bass player Kim Deal after placing a simple ad in the local newspaper. When they asked drummer David Lovering to join them in 1986, he hadn’t played in years. Yet somehow, it all worked. Heck, even their first recordings were only made because a fan happened to manage a studio.

Then there’s the band’s near-mythological timeline: Following a terrific debut full-length from now-legendary Nevermind engineer Steve Albini that featured songs like the iconic Where Is My Mind, the Pixies made three more records in quick succession before eventually breaking up in 1993. They became known as a brilliant flash-in-the-pan group, and steadily amassed one of the most dedicated cult followings in history. A premature death landed the foursome near the top of music’s most-whispered-about list.

At the height of the alt-music boom of the 1990s, the Pixies had already come and gone. Golden-era bands like Radiohead, Nirvana, and Weezer cited them as a major influence to their collective sounds, as has virtually every rock group formed since.

But to the actual members of the band, the happenstances behind their formation, successes, and initial break-up tend to feel over-romanticized.

“That [letter] definitely would have been an email [today],” chuckled guitarist Joey Santiago as he recalled the multipage invitation to quit college and form a band. “Probably, it would have just been a short one. Because of the internet, we could just go back and forth right away.”

The unabashed honesty with which Santiago talks about the Pixies, which officially reformed to tour again in 2004 and has remained together ever since, is aided by his distance to its past.

Starting over, and over again

Of the three original members still performing in the band, all of them are older than 50. At this point in their careers, they’re willing to answer any question, and feel more content debunking their mythology than perpetuating it. As I chatted with Santiago on his personal phone about the band’s (second) comeback album, a 12-track record called Head Carrier (out September 30), he was sitting casually by the pool at his Los Angeles home.

When asked how Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle, Queens of the Stone Age) fared during the recording process, he was candid about the struggles of his rebooted band.

“Well, she didn’t quit,” he laughed. “That made a huge difference on what we did compared to Indie Cindy.”

At the height of the alt-music boom of the 1990s, the Pixies had already come and gone.

Lenchantin is actually the Pixies’ second replacement bassist after the band fired Kim Shattuck (The Muffs), reportedly for stage diving. The original bass player and backup singer, Kim Deal, departed while the band was in the middle of recording their first new material in 23 years, the 3-EP set that would become 2014’s Indie City.

The turmoil created by Deal’s decision to leave the band during the process of recording Indie Cindy heavily affected the final product. In their original albums, Deal anchored the Pixies’ out-there sound with clean pop hooks and added a female voice and energy that set them apart. Without it, Indie Cindy felt flat and uninspired.

“There’s a Deal-shaped hole in the Pixies,” wrote one critic of the release, which received a lukewarm reception industrywide. Popular indie music blog Pitchfork gave the first two of the three EPs a 1.0 and 2.0 out of 10, respectively. The EP collection, sold as Indie Cindy, garnered the indie rock forerunners a dismal 2.5.

A new album that honors its roots

On their new album Head Carrier, bolstered by the addition of Lenchatin, the band feels and sounds revitalized. Having weathered a rough comeback stretch, they are breaking new ground for the first time in decades.

The ragged, youthful energy which was at the forefront of seminal releases like Surfer Rosa is tempered, but not absent on Head Carrier’s 12 tracks. Distorted singles like Um Chugga Lugga recall the band’s early-90s releases, while selections like the cleanly-poppy Tenement Song offer glimpses of their more hook-driven beginnings in a decidedly higher-fidelity package. It’s an album that is vividly rooted in the present.

This is a Pixies who send emails, own smartphones, and stream music. They are not pretending to be 20 anymore.

With the considerable vocal contributions from the 42-year-old Lenchatin — and especially a gorgeous Where Is My Mind-like homage to Kim Deal called All I Think About Now — the band wears its new musical evolution on its sleeve, right where it should be.

“I try to think about tomorrow/But I always think about the past,” sings the new bass player to open up the single. “If I could go to the beginning/Then for sure I would be another way/Make it better for today.”

Head Carrier references the old Pixies catalog, but is distinctly separate from it, and as far as Santiago is concerned, the band doesn’t owe audiences anything else.

“You’ll get some curmudgeons,” he said about how old fans may view the new record. “But what really is it? Is it nostalgia? If that’s it, that automatically doesn’t count as an opinion.”

A more collaborative, longer recording process

A big reason why the group’s sound feels so fresh on the new album has to do with its a-typical production schedule. The four musicians spent six weeks demoing and preparing the album’s dozen songs before eventually putting down the polished tracks in a London recording studio. That’s the longest amount of time they have ever devoted to new sounds outside of their late-’80s debut (which doesn’t quite count, since most of those songs were honed in front of small audiences live).

This is the new Pixies. This band draws self-portraits with its own ashes.

Days spent recording were capped with dinners together, when the band would adjourn to an apartment next door.

“We stopped recording every day at 8 o’clock, and then we’d have dinner,” said Santiago. “We would listen to music and just have fun. In a way we never really stopped recording, even though we were doing that, because we were listening to each other’s musical tastes.”

Those listening sessions would sometimes last until 3 or 4 a.m., with band members diving deep into their favorite music together.

“I’d play Moondog and all this esoteric stuff and we’d just listen,” said Santiago of their post-tracking time. “We got so much more familiar with each other.”

Rekindling a sense of personal and musical discovery after so many years spent playing old songs to nostalgic audiences is an important step for the middle-aged band, and it’s vividly reflected in their final product.

Head Carrier is the new Pixies

I was almost a thousand miles from Santiago’s poolside, but I could feel his eyes light up through the phone when he talked about the fruits of their latest studio effort. He expresses surprise that the album came out so well, as though the band didn’t realize they had it in themselves to make such a fully-formed work at this point in their careers.

“We didn’t get a chance to listen to it until after the mix, and then when the mix came it was like, ‘What the fuck!? We did this?’” he related excitedly during our call. “I can listen to it in third person. I don’t listen to it and think, ‘Oh, this is the Pixies.’”

Interview with Pixies' guitarist Joey Santiago
Travis Shinn
Travis Shinn

Santiago hit the nail on the head. This isn’t the old Pixies — the same band that cheered on it’s own demise with the slogan “Death To The Pixies” throughout its entire early run. This is a Pixies that is no longer content to play old hits in perpetuity while their hair slowly grays.

This is the new Pixies. This band draws self-portraits with its own ashes.

“When you are a musician you don’t really grow old,” says Santiago towards tail end of our conversation, “It’s a very young thing this thing.”

“Maybe Pitchfork will give us one more star this time.”

Author’s note: As we moved to publish, the Pixies announced that guitarist Joey Santiago was entering a rehabilitation center for a minimum of 30 days to deal with drug and alcohol issues. This will affect some of the band’s planned promotional appearances for their new album, most notably a planned appearance on the September 26 episode of Conan. The band issued a statement which said they do not anticipate Santiago’s rehabilitation affecting any of the group’s planned winter European tour dates, including this passage: “This is the best thing that Joey could have done, and we’re very proud that he’s taken this step. We ask all of our fans to support Joey while he’s on this road to recovery.”

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