Joey Santiago on the Pixies' Past, Present, and Future
The Pixies play at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston last January.
Joey Santiago, the guitarist of the greatest American rock band there ever was and probably ever will be, is out running errands. While fans of the Doors and the Beach Boys might take umbrage to that title, no band from North America has ever matched the fury, the beauty, the ridiculous, and the sublime quite like the Pixies. And right now, the engine responsible for the Pixies' throbs of energy is driving around Southern California enroute to pick up his 12-year-old daughter.
The Pixies were birthed in the mid-’80s in a Massachusetts dorm room when Charles Thompson (AKA Black Francis, AKA Frank Black) played Santiago some songs he wrote. “Pretty much we both went to university to start a band,” Santiago remembers. “I didn’t want to do covers like my classmates. When I heard Charles’ music, I knew it was good. Right when I met him, I knew we’d do music together.”
The pair dropped out and became roommates in Boston. Santiago was from a family of college graduates, and the decision to leave school left an immense pressure to succeed on his shoulders. So Santiago and Thompson worked and worked on songs that would become Pixies classics. “Sometimes Charles would have the lyrics all written out; sometimes he’d just have a catch phrase like for ‘Here Comes Your Man,'" Santiago says. "All I cared about was the chords. We listened to a lot of surf music, and that’s what influenced me a lot.”
After placing an ad that read, "Band seeks bassist into Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul & Mary. Please — no chops," they found Kim Deal, whose harmonies and occasional lead vocals brought a feminine yin to Charles’ raucous hollering yang. They then added drummer David Lovering to the mix and the quartet got busy. In the span of four years, they recorded and released five albums. 1987 brought the debut mini-LP, Come on Pilgrim. That was followed by 1988's Surfer Rosa, 1989's Doolittle, 1990's Bossanova, and 1991's Trompe le Monde. But it wasn’t the quantity as much as the quality of that five-year burst that was so impressive. Decades later, those albums sound just as unique and explosive as they did when first released, with lyrics that could leave you debating their meanings with your friends and lovers for many a night.
“I never asked Charles what the songs were about.” Santiago admits. “It’s personal, and I always felt that was his business. He made them surreal so people can interpret them in any way.”
The Pixies play at the El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles, in 2013.
Still, you figure there must be some inside information Santiago could share, like why were there so many science-fiction-themed songs on Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde? “We all got abducted by aliens. The tour bus got swallowed up in New Mexico. I knew we got probed because my asshole was killing me,” Santiago says before adding a less-thrilling explanation. “I don’t know," he says. "Maybe Charles was reading sci-fi.”
After that sci-fi period, the Pixies disbanded in 1993. Deal found success with the Breeders, and Thompson put out albums as Frank Black (occasionally with Santiago on guitar). But a funny thing happened when the Pixies disappeared. They became gigantic.
Although they were occasionally played on MTV and opened for U2 on the Zoo TV Tour, the Pixies were a cult band, one you had to seek out. But, oddly, as the band vanished, its audience grew. Santiago has a few guesses about why the Pixies' popularity blossomed. “It’s probably because we stopped when we were hot. Fight Club definitely helped. We can’t leave a venue without playing 'Where Is My Mind' without there being riots," Santiago says. "Where Is My Mind," a track from 1988's Surfer Rosa, played in the closing scene of the Brad Pitt cult classic, leading many of its viewers on a path to the Pixies' music. Today, even if you don't know that song, you've almost certainly heard it.
"There was also the famous quote from Kurt Cobain,” Santiago remembers.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, the Nirvana frontman discussed his influence for the smash hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Cobain told Rolling Stone, "I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it [smiles]. 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."
To these ears, that song sounds nothing like the Pixies. In fact there’s no band out there that can quite match the Pixies' sound. “I guess 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' sounds influenced by us but doesn’t sound like us. Our job was to not sound like anybody else. If I hear a guitar player I like — like Jimi Hendrix — I can’t go there. That’s his territory. That’s his job. So we sound like the Pixies," Santiago says.
In 2004, the demand for a band that sounded like the Pixies grew so large, the band finally reunited. The Pixies graced magazine covers and headlined venues the band would have never played during its first run. After nearly a decade of playing the hits from yesteryear, three quarters of the Pixies wanted to record new material. Deal, according to reports, did not. The remaining original members went through with it anyway, releasing three EPs in 2013 that were compiled as the 2014 album Indie Cindy. “We had some trepidation to record. If it didn’t sound like the Pixies, people would say we didn’t grow up. If it was different from our old stuff, they’d say it wasn’t the Pixies. We’d rather grow up than live in the past.”
Indie Cindy has since been greeted with indifference. Part of that is because no rock band, no matter how iconic — not David Bowie or Pink Floyd or anyone else — can live up to the ghosts of its songs past. But its biggest barrier to finding an audience is that without Deal, it’s hard for many to consider the Pixies, well, the Pixies. For a band that always felt like a sum of the four original members, it must be weird to play without Kim. Right? “That’s not a fair question," Santiago says. "I can’t answer that because there’s not a right answer."
Fair or not, the three original members along with a rotating set of female bassists are not only touring; they are continuing to record. “We are working on new music. We don’t know if we’ll release it or if it’s a piece of shit. We’re going to test the new songs on the road. I think that’s the proper way to work on them before we record. That’s what we did in the beginning. We’d play them and get reactions from the crowd, and we'd subconsciously know if the song goes on too long.”
Santiago has another audience now, his two kids. “When they got interested in what I did, I played them ‘Where Is My Mind.’ My son said, ‘Take it off!’ We’re thinking of putting him up for adoption.”
His daughter, though, is one of his bigger fans. When she was asked which of her father’s band’s songs was her favorite, she didn’t name one of the classics like “Debaser” or “Havalina." Instead, she said her favorite was “Silver Snail," a track on the Pixies' newest album.
“Did you get that?” Santiago asks like a proud papa. Her favorite was a new one, and that gives the guitarist of the greatest American rock band hope for the band's future — hope that the Pixies can add to their legend.
Pixies with Fall Out Boy, Boston, and others. 2:15 p.m. Sunday, May 3, at SunFest, 100 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Call 561-659-5980, or visit sunfest.com. Ticket prices vary. A five-day pass is $80 at the gate, $70 in advance. A one-day ticket is $32 in advance and $40 at the gate. Kids under 5 are admitted free courtesy of Wells Fargo; kids 6 to 12 cost $10 in advance and $12 at the gate.
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