SURFING WITH THE ALIENS
The kids at England's annual Reading festival are a scruffy lot. A nineties hybrid of hippie and punk, they wear tie-dyed T-shirts, asymmetrical hairdos, jeans ripped due to poverty rather than fashion, love beads, psychedelic face paint and peasant dresses. They fill the sidewalks outside pubs near the festival site, swilling pints of beer. By the third day of the festival, the 150-acre site, bounded by scraps of rusted corrugated metal, is a sea of litter, and everywhere people are lying in their own garbage; they make bonfires out of Styrofoam cups and plates, juice cartons, handbills anything they can find. The entire town of Reading is fumigated by the fires.
Backstage, the Pixies are sweating bullets. In the band's cramped trailer, lead guitarist Joey Santiago and singer-guitarist Black Francis are getting ready to play before 50,000 people, their conversation sounding like something out of A Star Is Born.
" I guess this is the big one, huh? " says Santiago, " Well, I guess they're all big. But we gotta do good this time, I'm kinda nervous. " " Well, don't sweat it man - I'm nervous too, " says Black Francis, " I've got the butterflies. We'll do good. "
The other two Pixies have their own ways of dealing with the tension. Bassist Kim Deal warms up with some hog calls: " Soooo-eeee! Soooo-eeee! " Suddenly realizing the gravity of the situation, she begins pacing, looking down at the floor and talking to herself - " Oh boy...oh boy " - then announces desperately, " I gotta pee! " and dashes out. Wearing nothing below his shirt but a pair of skimpy black undershorts and sneakers, drummer David Lovering takes a quick jog around the trailers.
The band producer, Gil Norton (Echo and the Bunnymen, the Blue Aeroplanes), spent the previous week with the Pixies at a Manchester rehearsal hall, taking time out of a hectic schedule to coach them through their ninety-minute, thirty-two-song set, the longest they've ever done. On the eve of the Reading show, he said the unspoken: " Tomorrow's a big day for them, a very big day. We'll see how that goes. If that goes well, then I think yes, they'll be with us a long time. "
Perhaps because the English sense this is no trendy, fly-by-night outfit, the Pixies are huge here - their new album, Bossanova, hit Number Three in only two weeks - which explains why Living Colour is one of the Pixies' opening bands. At home, the Pixies' intense, serrated pop has made them college-radio kings and critical favorites - they were ROLLING STONE's Best New American Band of 1989 - but armed with a brilliant new album, the band is eager to move beyond Next Big Thing status. " Let's skip the 'next', okay? ", says Kim Deal.
Night falls as veteran BBC DJ John Peel announces the band and the lights go down. In the darkness, the crowd begins to swirl in large eddies, a deafening roar issuing from an ocean of clapping hands.
The Pixies walk onstage amid a constellation of flashbulbs and butane lighters filtered through clouds of choking smoke. The opening surf instrumental, " Cecilia Ann ", rocks, and the rest of the set, the band is ferocious: The guitars roar and whistle and buzz; Black Francis howls as if into some unseen hurricane; the rhythm section slams. Deal is beaming, and even the normally stationary Black Francis pulls a few rockist moves.
The rabid fans recognize virtually every song from the first couple of bars - even the new Bossanova material - and their voices are almost as loud as Black Francis' as they turn " Where Is My Mind? " into a soccer chant. There's a song whose lyrics is " It is time for stormy weather, " repeated over and over again - hearing it during the Persian gulf crisis is eerie; hearing it played to 50,000 kids with no future is downright chilling. The sheer size of the crowd hints that the band has what it takes to reach the masses, and the Pixies prove it all night.
Afterwards, champagne bottles are popped, and the band's growing retinue of managers, minders and accountants are all smiles. Black Francis is pleased too. " I felt like Bon Jovi out there! " he says.
Not bad for a band that was playing Tuesday nights at the Rat in Boston a scant three years ago.
The Pixies began in 1986, when Charles Michael Kitridge Thompson IV, in Puerto Rico studying Spanish under a University of Massachusetts exchange program, decided to drop out and start a band. He persuaded his buddy Joey Santiago to drop out and move to Boston. Neither knew how to play guitar, but figuring " there was minimalism in rock music and we could capitalize on that, " says Thompson, they went at it, timing other bands' sets so they'd know how much material they needed. They knew they were on something when Thompson's building super stopped by one day to say he liked the music.
A newspaper ad placed by the band called for a bassist " into Husker Du and Peter, Paul and Mary " (" They're both melodious, " Thompson says). The duo hired the only person who responded: Kim Deal, a former high-school cheerleader from Ohio who knew a drummer David Lovering.
One day Thompson's father joked about naming his next child Black Francis, and Thompson claimed the name as his own. Santiago chose the band's name by riffling through a dictionary. Although Santiago says the band is more like " a bunch of evil elves, " Thompson says, " It's a pretty great name. It becomes more and more meaningless as time goes on. "
In 1987 the band sent out a demo tape, and the hip, independent British label 4AD liked it so much that it released the eight-song tape as an album, Come On Pilgrim. A roiling amalgam of X, Neil Young and primal-scream therapist Arthur Janov, the grinding, shrieking slab of guitar hell topped the British indie charts. " When 4AD said they'd give us an album contract, it was totally, like, victory, " says Thompson. " It was like 'Man, this is my JOB.' We used to say that a lot at first - 'This is my fuckin' JOB.' We haven't said it in a while - we SHOULD say it because it IS a pretty awesome job. "
The band's second album, Surfer Rosa, was produced by Steve Albini, a master of nasty guitar sounds and a darling of the indie-label scene. Raw, scary and compelling, the album features titles such as " Broken Face " and " Break My Body ". Black Francis's abstract yet evocative lyrics began to fit David Lynch's (a hero of Thompson's) recent description of birth: " Just pure meat and blood and hair. " A single, Kim Deal's erotically charged " Gigantic ", won a lot of new fans.
The Pixies made their major-label debut last year, with the outstanding Doolittle. Producer Gil Norton tightened up the band's sound while preserving its abrasiveness and emphasized Black Francis's nascent melodies without sacrificing the band's formidable power. The majestic " Monkey Gone To Heaven " and " Here Comes Your Man " - a song so " pop " that the band refused to play it on its previous tour - got the Pixies on MTV. They also toured with the Cure, playing their set perversely enough, in alphabetical order.
After the lengthy Doolittle tour, Santiago and Lovering took vacations; Deal found an outlet for her singing and songwriting by forming an all-female band called the Breeders, which recorded an excellent album, Pod; Thompson bought a canary-yellow Cadillac and drove across the country with his girlfriend, playing occasional solo gigs for gas money. Rather than doing sensitive acoustic readings of his songs, he'd simply plug in an electric guitar and flail and scream as if the three other Pixies were backing him up.
Several people close to the Pixies' cite their volatility as the only obstacle to the band's greater success. Frictions reportedly developed within the band toward the end of Doolittle tour and the beginning of Bossanova sessions, but everyone around the band closes ranks on the subject. Thompson simply says: " From what I hear about other bands, I think we argue among ourselves very little. We tend to get along just fine. We're all sort of pleasantly mismatched. And it's kind of nice. "
With his roundish face and close-cropped hair, Thompson, 25, bears a resemblance to Charlie Brown. In fact, there's a striking contrast between this affable fellow and his abrasive, aggressive music. " I always liked the image of the moon being freezing cold on one side and blistering hot on the other, " Thompson says; he's referring to an image from Bossanova, but it's an apt metaphor for a seemingly split personality. In the hotel lobby the day of the show, one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet is wearing a black T-shirt featuring a machine-gun-toting ghoul and the legend I WAS KILLING WHEN KILLING WASN'T COOL.
Most bands have a leader, but they also have someone who embodies what the band is all about: the Stones have Keith Richards, the Who had Keith Moon and the Pixies have Joey Santiago. Santiago is a man of few words, most of them rather puzzling. " You flip a coin and you lie in bed and that's a long goodbye - you know? " he'll say, or " Hey - how can I find a head of wild lettuce? Where does it grow? " Besides being present at the band's creation, Santiago is the lifeblood of the Pixies' sound, as well as their unhinged spirit. As someone close to the band only half-joking puts it: " Joey is completely psycho. He's a dangerous character. "
The amiable David Lovering is the steadiest of the bunch, and the earthy Kim Deal, with her Midwestern good looks and ultrasultry voice, attracts a coterie of male admirers, but it's Black Francis who gets fan letters telling him he's cute and even receives the occasional marriage proposal. " I don't get too much weird mail, " he says. " You have to be pretty big to start getting the real cranks. Maybe with this album, they'll come out. "
Gil Norton had such a hand in the arrangements and melodies of Bossanova that he's now acknowledged as " the fifth Pixie ". Under his guidance, the album took nine weeks to record, more than twice the band had ever spent on an album. The Pixies sound as fierce as ever, but the whores, mutilators and debasers of previous albums are gone now. They've been replaced by aliens.
Several songs on Bossanova are about extraterrestrials: "The Happening " is about aliens landing in Las Vegas; " Velouria " is about a velveteen alien; " Ana " is about an otherworldly surfer. Thompson tells of a lifelong obsession with aliens, beginning with the story of how when he was an infant, a UFO hovered over his cousin's house in Nebraska. His research has uncovered allegations of things like a lost sister continent to Atlantis that survives inside Mount Shasta, and Area 51, a secret government installation in Nevada where crashed UFOs and the bodies of aliens are allegedly stored.
Thompson's other obsession is surf music. Bossanova opens with a cover of " Cecilia Ann ", an early-Sixties obscurity by the Surftones, and the twangy sounds of the genre snake throughout the record. Norton says they decided to record Bossanova in Los Angeles partly " to get the feeling of the surf - not that we ever got near to the beach while we were there, of course! "
A couple of songs on Bossanova could almost qualify as easy listening; " Havalina " is a downright sweet song about encountering a wild boar in the Arizona desert. But Thompson says the Pixies haven't mellowed - it's just that better musicianship has allowed them to be more subtle, and besides, surf ain't for wimps. " With the ultimate surf track, " he says, " the words you use to describe it in your own head aren't MELLOW - it's more like 'Whoa, what a cool fuckin' tune! To us that's SO ballsy. It's EASY being noisy. But try coming up with a song like 'Walk Don't Run'. "
Despite the band's originality, pop history had a strong influence on Bossanova: " Allison " isn't about a woman - it's about Moose Allison, the jazz-blues pianist; " Velouria " was going to be called "Victoria ", but Thompson felt intimidated by the Kinks song. In conversation, Thompson invokes artists such as the Ramones, Slim Whitman and Van Morrison when explaining what the band does. On one hand, Thompson is quite the rock scholar, but on the other hand, he could almost care less.
Black Francis's violent psychic cartoons and transcendent images seem to funnel all the free-floating dread of his generation directly from his subconscious and out a stereo speaker. But ask him if his music crystallizes something that's in the air, and he replies: " I think it's the same old stink in the air as there always was. Nothing's different. I certainly believe that someone a thousand years from now could listen to thirty years of rock & roll records and come up with a picture of life as we know it today. But whether or not I CRYSTALLIZE that, I don't know. I'm just trying to come up with a bunch of cool tunes. "
Wittingly or not, the Pixies have a knack for pressing all the right buttons, using a standard vocabulary of screams, croons, twangs and thumps familiar to anyone who grew up on rock music - " I've got a little machine in my head that can play any Beatles song, " says Thompson - and somehow constructing meaning without actually saying anything. Thompson compares what he does with lyrics to Lewis Caroll's famous nonsense poem, " Jabberwocky " - something that sounds great and says nothing. How else to explain the chorus of " Is She Weird ": " Is she weird/ Is she white/Is she promised to the night/And her head has no room "?
The resulting musical deja vu is immediately palpable and at the same time utterly elusive. Thus Black Francis's indecipherable lyrics on Bossanova track titled " Rock Music " turn out to be what he calls "just a bunch of shit ". The generic title was chosen for lack of a better name - the song isn't some grand statement about rock. And yet it's an ideal caricature of the ultimate rock track; the incoherent raving, the screaming guitars and the trashing backbeat are all apparently calculated to shred the nerves of anyone over forty.
Basically, Thompson is determined to stop making sense - " because there IS this atmosphere of making sense, as if it's a rule or something, " he says. " A lot of bands - in an innocent way - come off sounding really important in their interviews because there's people constantly pushing microphones in their face, asking: 'What are you all about? I just think half the bands out there aren't about ANYTHING except being a band. They've got thoughts flying through their head just like everybody else. WE JUST DON'T HAVE ANYTHING TO SAY. "
In the Tracy Chapman Era, it's really saying something to say you have nothing to say. " Because we don't! " insists Thompson. " Ever talk to Joey? He REALLY doesn't have anything to say. It's like we have an inability to communicate. It's just like we're at odds with everything, so we just make records. "
" I have nothing to say to anybody, except 'Enter our own little world.' It doesn't necessarily bear any relevance to the real one. "
Last Updated 05-11-96