PIXIES GONE TO HEAVEN
Stop/start songs, screechy vocals, howling surfcore guitar, broody bass... it all started with the magnificent Pixies, now celebrating their, uh, 12th anniversary with the release of a fine compilation elpee. TGM tackles guitarist Joey Santiago for the truth on the birth, life and demise of Boston's finest...
"I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off The Pixies." This is how Kurt Cobain explained to Rolling Stone the inspiration behind the all-conquering Smells Like Teen Spirit. Yep, you could safely file the Pixies under'influential'.
You'd be hard pushed to stick them into any other convenient pigeonhole, though. The quartet may have consisted of vocals, guitars, bass and drums but Charles Thompson, Joey Santiago, Kim Deal and Dave Lovering took the standard rock'n'roll format and sent it into an inverted interstellar dimension that indelibly corrupted anyone fortunate enough to establish contact with their planet of sound.
'I knew all along that the Pixies were not like other bands,' guitarist Joey Santiago agrees. 'There were some great bands around at the time we were around - but no one else really went in our particular direction.'
Death To The Pixies is an ample demonstration of the band's unique trajectory. Culling tracks from the quintet of albums the band made between '87-'91 - from the gothic flamenco thrash of opening opus Nimrod's Son from Come On Pilgrim, to the sordid grunge template of U-Mass from their final album Trompe Le Monde - if this collection was an original release, it would be album of the year by as many miles as you could count. Is Santiago happy to see his former band get the Best Of.. treatment?
'I suppose not everyone gets to have a compilation,' he ponders. 'It's definitely geared to kids with not much money. That goes for the musicians concerned as well!
'I dunno, really... I mean, I bought The Beatles' Red and Blue albums. It's a good way of finding out about a band, particularly if it's a cool compilation that's got the band's best songs on it. I suppose it's cooler to have the original albums, though. Everyone likes to be a hardcore fan after the fact.'
Pixies facts begin in 1985. Santiago and his college roommate Charles Thompson decided they were going to drop out and form a band. The name came as result of Santiago's desire to expand his vocabulary; born and raised in the Philippines until the age of seven, Joey Santiago had developed a habit of consulting a dictionary whenever he discovered new English words he liked the sound of. So when the pair needed a band name, he headed straight for the Oxford English. His original suggestion - Pixies In Panoply - was quickly shortened.
Santiago was to be the lead guitarist; rhythm guitar duties were taken up by Thompson, who renamed himself Black Francis and set about songwriting. The duo relocated to Boston and placed a now fabled ad in a local paper requesting a bass player for a band into 'Husker Du and Peter, Paul and Mary'. Bassist Kim Deal (then known as Mrs John Murphy) came aboard, and the drum stool was filled by Dave Lovering, whom Deal had met shortly before at a wedding reception. 'Although we were all cool and everyone got along, we didn't set out to be best friends,' Santiago recalls. 'We came together to make good music.'
Good music is exactly what happened; the band's second demo was picked up by 4AD and released without any re-recording or remixing. Santiago himself is still unsure as to whether the eight songs on Come On Pilgrim could have benefited from a bit of touching up: 'I sometimes think we should have worked on them some more. But, in a way, it's better as a snapshot. The thing was that we didn't think we were making an album when we recorded the songs - we were just trying our best.'
Along with Nimrod's Son, the other two songs - Caribou and Holiday Song - that make up the Come On Pilgrim contingent on Death To The Pixies demonstrate many of the characteristics that became Pixies' staples, including Black Francis alternating the delivery of his sinister lyrics (on such cuddly subjects as car crashes and incest) between a demonic yell and strangled harmonies, plus Santiago's jagged but precise lead playing.
Throughout the band's lifetime, Francis' songs would be peppered with a dazzling array of pristine licks and feedback that sounded more as if they'd been fired than plucked from Santiago's guitar. 'Charles would come up with the chords and at times I would follow his parts,'Joey explains, 'but I didn't want to be playing the same thing as him all the time - although I probably should have done so more times than I did! I wasn't a doormat, though, so I came up with other stuff. I usually came up with the general sound and put some kinks in it.'
But the Pixies man is reluctant to face up to the challenge of describing his own playing. 'If I have any style.... probably the cause of my demise was that I learned how to work out stuff on paper, without even playing it.'
So you could read music, then? 'No. I learned this system off a guy that I met when I first started college - he was one of those perpetual students, going for like his fifth Ph.D. We got talking, and it turned out that he played guitar too. He showed me this way of writing down shapes and notes that wasn't like normal tablature. After a while, I eventually got the hang of it.'
To this day Santiago doesn't know whether this mysterious system has an official name; he calls it 'the Amish way' in honour of the puritanical appearance of his student friend. 'It's also appropriate 'cos with writing it down instead of playing it you don't make any noise or use any electricity!' he jokes. 'I used it when I was stumped, which was a lot of the time. I was also timid and shy, and didn't want people to see me messing up. Sometimes I would go into the studio without playing a part beforehand, but because I'd worked it out and written it down I knew it would sound good.'
When it came to recording their next album, Surfer Rosa, with renowned hardline producer/engineer Steve Albini at the helm, Santiago was grateful for the opportunity to sort his schtick out beforehand. 'An extreme guy,' he judges. 'Everything was deemed "pussy" or "non-pussy" - that was the studio jargon. He let me use my amp though, which was cool. It was this country-jazz amp which engineers don't like, 'cos it's really whiney.'
Reportedly recorded with all the available microphones stuffed inside the drum kit and everything else turned up to compensate, songs such as Bone Machine are definitely devoid of any feline presence. In fact, the album's standout track Gigantic - penned and sung by Kim Deal - shows how the Pixies had patent pending on the 'quiet bass bit verse/guitar avalanche shouty chorus' song structure that was to shape '90s alternative rock.
The release of their first proper full-length album in '88 was hailed as a definite improvement; the follow-up a year later, Doolittle, saw the band make their real break into the charts and is still regarded by many as their finest; indeed Death To The Pixies contains six Doolittle tracks, at least twice as many as any of the other band's albums. Debaser has come to be regarded as the Pixies song, featuring Francis' vein-busting exaltations to un chien andalusia and Santiago surpassing himself with a sumptuous melody that slices up your entrails as soon as it gets to the chorus. Genius!
Santiago feels he benefited greatly from working with Doolittle producer Gil Norton, later mix-king to Belly and Foo Fighters.'Gil was the king of overdubbing,' he claims. 'That was a new experience for me, particularly as Steve Albini didn't like overdubs too much. Before Doolittle I'd mostly just lay down a main guitar part. But Gil was very picky; he wouldn't just stick on a bunch of guitars just to get a wall of sound. On Here Comes Your Man he made me do five overdubs, with all different types of guitars - Mustangs, Teles and Les Pauls, if I remember right. And they weren't all going at the same time; they were dropped in very carefully at the precise moment. It wasn't easy, but it sounded cool.'
The commercial success of Doolittle meant the band toured extensively. A set highlight was invariably when Francis repeated his on-record request to 'rock me, Joe!' during Monkey Gone To Heaven. The audience were then treated to the sight of Santiago playing the guitar with his teeth, drumsticks and microphones - 'just to entertain myself', he now says.
Buy the limited edition version of the new compilation and you'll snag a bonus 21-track live CD - so does Santiago think the band were stronger in the studio or onstage? 'About the same,' he shrugs, 'although I suppose in the studio we had more of an idea what we were after.'Which was? A live performance!'he gurgles. The epic space-surf instrumental Cecilia Ann and the theremin madness of Velouria reveal the band's goals for their fourth album Bossanova - Black Francis' wish to explore his increasing sci-fi obsession and the band's desire to pursue a more melodic direction - but Santiago proclaims that, for him at least, these priorities changed when they recorded their fifth and final album, Trompe Le Monde, in '91.
'I came in with every heavy metal trick in the book,' he snorts. 'I "drilled", I did bend-ups, hammer-ons... it was funny. I'm glad that our final record was a hard rock'n'roll album.'
Santiago is surprised to learn how Foo Fighter Dave Grohl told TGM that Trompe Le Monde is his favourite album of all time... but not half as surprised as he was when Black Francis told him he was splitting up the band.
'He told me after the tour with U2 to promote the album. Charles just didn't want to go on, and if someone's that unhappy you can't force them to...
'It was probably the right time. I dunno,' he sighs. 'I got mixed feelings about how we did it. I wished he'd told us before the tour started, but in a way I'm glad that we didn't know what was going to happen before we recorded Trompe Le Monde. I wouldn't have wanted it to sound like Let It Be.'
Although keeping a decidedly lower profile since the band split, Santiago has kept himself busy: lending a hand on Frank Black (Black Francis as was) solo albums as well as turning his hand to producing, sort of. 'I produced an album by a band called Pyjama Slave Dancers,' Santiago elaborates. 'They're a punk band, though, so my job mostly entailed choosing the toppings on their pizzas.'
He's currently ploughing his energies into his new band, The Martinis. 'Very melodic pop,' he says. 'I'm playing guitar, so obviously it sounds a bit like stuff that I've done before, It's got an Amish sound!'
Does Santiago view the continuing interest in his former band as a help or a hindrance?
'It's a double-edged sword,' he concludes. 'It's good for dealing with record execs and getting people to initially check out The Martinis... let me tell you something, though. One time someone came up to our singer, who is also my wife, after a show and told her how great the band were. My wife points to me and says: "Don't you know who this guy is?" The person shakes their head, and my wife tells them, "He was in the Pixies!" They just look at me and go: "Who are the Pixies?"
'To me, that's the biggest compliment; people liking The Martinis without knowing who the hell I am.'
Looks like everyone wishes for Death To The Pixies.
Last Updated 11-30-98