Articles: Gods of Almost Pop

By Joe Gore
Photos: Bill Reitzel
Guitar Player, April 1991
Transcribed by Erich Hartmann for Alec Eiffel

Gods of Almost Pop

"What do you do when you can't play guitar very well?" ponders Black Francis, principal Pixie. "What if you don't want to be total pop formula or goofy fake- underground avant-garde baloney?"

If you were very, very lucky, you might find yourself in Francis' shoes, fronting a wildly successful alternative rock band. The Boston-based Pixies (guitarist/singer/songwriter Francis, lead guitarist Joey Santiago, bassist Kim Deal, and drummer David Lovering) have beguiled critics, European fans, and American college radio with their unlikely blend of hyperventilated punk angst and heavenly pop tunefullness.

"We're not good enough to be a Captain Beefheart-type band, and we don't want to be Poison," explains Francis (real name: Charles Thompson). "This is my first band, though I'd been fantasizing about them since the third grade - you know, 'You play saxaphone, I'll play violin, and we'll call it White Stag.' We had no reference point, no idea how to do it."

Ignorance hasn't hindered the Pixies. Shortly after U. of Mass. pals Thompson and Santiago began jamming in 1986, Deal answered their ad in a local music paper. "It said 'Wanted: Female bassist influenced by Husker Du and Peter, Paul & Mary," she recalls. "I took up bass when I joined them. I'd played guitar before, so I figured, 'Four strings - no problem' I've been playing guitar for 10 years, since I was - ahem -11." Pause. "Wait," she lies, "I'm 44."

Soon after, the band's first demos were picked up by England's chic 4 A.D. label and released as the Come on Pilgrim EP, while Surfer Rosa, their first LP, landed them a major-label deal. Doolittle, their Elektra debut, boasted lusher production that highlighted the warped infectiousness of Francis' songs without de-fanging the band's grungy intensity, though there were fewer frantic guitar rave-ups like Surfer Rosa's "Vamos." But that didn't bother Philippine-born Santiago, 25. "I consciously moved away from that, wanting to be more melodic," he says. "I realized I didn't have to jam out a million notes to be good. It's not my style anymore - when we do it, it's cornball."

The streamlining process continues on the latest album, Bossanova. The music is louder, simpler, more brutal. "the grooves are very dumb in the head," points out Kim, "but in a cool way, I hope. This was the first time we did the rhythm tracks with no guitar or vocals - not even any lyrics or song titles. It was just us and a chord progression."

At times, the music takes on a pronounced neo-'60s vibe; the album even opens with an amped-up remake of the Surftones' "Ceclia Ann." But Charles, 25, insists that the band is not deliberately turning back the clock: "We never try to be intentionally retro-sounding - it just comes out that way. For 'Cecilia Ann' we threw out the old-fashioned drum beat and cranked the guitars as loud as we could get them.

Like the '60s surf bands, the Pixies invoke heavy attitude and atmosphere with only a limited technical vocabulary. "I've never put the time in to become an actual 'guitarist,'" insists Charles. "I'm a sort of guitarist in the modern post-punk mode. There are enough real guitarists already." And while Santiago occasionally regrets his lack of chops ("It bums me out sometimes how limited my technical skill are," he moans), Deal says she doesn't envy more technically oriented players: "Those incredibly trained musicians will play a scale as fast as shit, and it still sounds stupid and boring."

But however musically inept the Pixies clam to be, their guitar sounds are spectacular. They're loud and harmonically saturated, the conventional lead and rhythm gestures (standard barre chords, steady eighth-note bass lines) reinvigorated by quirky, left-of-center stylings. "Maybe these are tried-and- true formulas to most people," says Deal, "but to us, we invented them. We're not very educated."

Virtually every Pixie song is spiked with deviant songwriting and arranging kinks. Softly lilting melodies are exorcised by rancid major/minor clashes; vocal sections are rudely interrupted by frantic guitar squawks; sometimes the band drifts from one idea to another like a tribe of zonked-out acid casualties.

It's not willful wierdness, according to Kim: "We don't say, 'This song's too pretty - let's add a dissonant lead.' It's more automatic - if it sounds too sweet or too dissonant, we just don't like it. Just because something is normal doesn't mean it has to be boring, but when normalcy does get boring, we mess around with it."

Charles writes most of the material, and much of the Pixies' musical perversity is built into the proto-songs he brings to rehearsal. "he usually has a strong idea of what he wants," explains Joey. "He comes in with a chord progression and a vocal melody, and that, by band law, is a song." While Charles deals in straightforward rock and roll chord voicings, his strange, right-brain progressions and odd-length phrases make for mutant harmonic skeletons. The conventional sweetness of Bossanova's 'Anna,' for example, is offset by trippy enharmonic sequences and lurching chromatic modulations.

"'Anna' is so pretty," enthuses Deal. "I love that first shift - it leans into the new key, and I'm a sucker for leaning stuff. His chord progressions sound cool just like they are, not with the bass bouncing around in the middle of it. If I played something more complicated, you wouldn't have that lean anymore, would you?

Thompson sees song-writing in a decidedly non-romantic light: "You got verses, choruses, and bridges; you can sing or not sing; you have x amount of time. It's all mathematical. One thing you can use to your advantage are the ol' rhyme schemes - they have impact. Beyond that, it's a crossword puzzle. You have, say, three lines to say what you're going to say. It's not cerebral - it's like trying to get your homework in on time."

Packed with funny, violent, and just plain weird imagery, Thompson's offbeat lyrics are a cornerstone of his band's appeal. But unlike many singer/songwriter projects where the music exists solely to frame the text, the Pixies' words and music are inseparable. Not only do the band's jarring twists and turns mirror the snaky anti-logic of Charles' lyrics, but the words themselves often seem to have been chosen for purely musical value. "Velouria" and "Havalina" [both from Bossanova] are based on nonsense words that sound wonderful. Same with the biblically inspired lyrics to "Gouge Away" [Doolittle]: "I'm glad I got to do a song about Bathsheba," says Charles, "because she had a great-sounding name. And on 'Debaser' [Doolittle] I sing "Chien Andalucia,' after the Luis Bunuel movie. Originally it was "Shed, Apollonia' - for some reason, we were singing about Apollonia 6. 'Shed,' like take your clothes off - it was a good word to shout. The movie is actually called Un Chien Andalou - 'An Andalusian Dog' - but that sounded too French. Sometimes I only have one word for the whole song, and Gil Norton, our producer, is in the studio saying, 'Where's your damn lyrics?'"

Many Pixies tunes are constructed from three- and six-bar phrases, which imparts a disorienting, three-legged feel without interrupting the slammin' duple meter groove. You can be well into a new phrase before you realize the previous one has ended. (Or as Kim puts it, "the phrases revolve and trip over each other.")

"Sometimes those rhythms groove naturally for us," observes Charles. "Other times it's like, 'We'll make it groove damn it!' We like throwing in extra units of two, like 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2. It's really groovy, and the 2/4 is like a little skip. But we're suckers for a disco beat - if we can keep the regular old kick and snare going, we're happy. 'Havalina' was the most difficult of those songs to record. It's in 6/4. We wanted David to do fills in 4/4, but he couldn't because he was listening to us. We ended up playing a bunch of chords in 4, had David do the fills, and then we recorded our real parts in 6."

And what of the band's penchant for overstated contrasts, whisper-or-scream dynamics? "Those are the two basic components of rock music," notes Charles, "the dreamy side and the rockin' side. It's always been either sweaty or laid back and cool. We do try to be dynamic, but it's dumbo dynamics, because we don't know how to do anything else. We can play loud or quiet - that's it." Adds Deal: "It always sounds god when guitars come in real loud after quiet bass and drums - it's an easy trick."

"Live," says Joey, "we play everything like the record. If we improvise, everyone gets messed up." Charles insists he wouldn't have it any other way: "I hate it when bands play their best song too fast or too slow, or turn it into some stupid long thing, some dumb melody. We're proud of the fact that we can play pretty close to the record."

Ignorance may be bliss, but it's a fragile thing: play long enough and you risk becoming knowledgeable. "I keep wondering," muses Charles, "how far can I take this standard-tuning barre chord thing. You can stall with little things, like using whammy. But listening to surf music makes us feel better about just being basic. And the Ramones are still my steady guitar inspiration. Yep, the barre chord! Just pure, solid meat.

"I read how some artist - Man Ray, I think - did a photographic portrait of a famous actress. They went out to the countryside, but he forgot to bring his lenses. He took the lenses out of his glasses and got the best portrait ever. I like that kind of thinking. Like "All Over The World" [Bossanova]: It's total spontaneity, just screaming and jumping around, and the end section goes into a whole other song. Our producer was really pissed because he didn't know what was going on. But I didn't either! I said, 'Look. I'm a surrealist, plus I'm lazy and full of shit, so let's just see how this comes out, all right?' And in the end, it was his favorite song."

"Pixie Gear" (technical addendum)

Black Francis (photo by Bill Reitzel) CHARLES: "I usually play a white Japanese-made Fender Tele with a whammy. I took the locking nut and bar off - I just push and pull on the bridge. I have a real '68 Tele, which is nice for recording but doesn't sound as good through the big, loud Marshalls, and an old Fender Jaguar, all original. Besides Marshalls, I use Vox amps. My only pedal is a T.C. electronic line driver/booster, which is great because it has a built-in noise gate. We all use those orange Dunlop picks, though Kim sometimes uses a green one. Joey and I bot use GHS Boomers."  
  JOEY: "I have three Gibson Les Pauls, all new reissues, and I use them for almost everything. I also have a '65 Gibson ES-335. I recently got a Pearce amp; before that I used Marshall, Vox or Peavey. My only effect is a little boost pedal. I recently got a Roland GP16, but I need to mess around with it, because all the programs sound too processed, too unreal." Joey Santiago (photo by Bill Reitzel)
Kim Deal (photo by Bill Reitzel) KIM: "I have a new Music Man bas and a reissue '62 Fener Precision. The Music Man is great - sound men and engineers love it. But it's not right for some things; 'Dig For Fire' [Bossanova] started to sound too much like a dance song, so I used my Fender for the lazier, growlier sound. It's not as boingy- boingy-sproingy. I always play with a pick.
"I use a compressor live, but only because sound guys seem to like it when I have one onstage, even it it's on bypass. I don't know what kind - it's blackwith red lights. I use SWR or Marshall heads. I hate my cabinets - a Gallien-Krueger 4x10 and another one that says 'Joe's Light' on it, which has an 18. In the studio I beg them to let me use my amp. They say, 'Okay, Kim, here's your channel right here.' Then it's always, 'Let's try just the D.I. alone for a minute, Kim. Hey, sounds great!"



Last Updated 05-24-2004