Black Francis, short of Charles Michael Kitridge Thompson IV, calls himself a cultural sponge, but the Pixies' consuming schedule is wringing him out. As the tour unfolds, so do pieces of his insanity. In England, just a few weeks into it, he's already fatigued. About a month later in Spain, he's disillusioned. Toward the final swing, in Germany, he's bored.
" I don't really have anything interesting to say about these places because I've only been to nightclubs. I can say subtle things like how different countries reacted to Bone Machine. Stupid subtle shit like that. And that's all you think about. I wish I could get up the energy to read a novel, but no way. You just want to sit there, get high and bum out. Think about really neurotic stuff. Rock music and your van. Self-absorbed. Just never being satisfied with the way it sounds or the way it's going. You just want to be James Brown and you can't do it. You're a band in the 80's and you suck. "
Charles isn't trying to defeat his own forum. It all just seems so easy compared to pioneering rockers who played something like four shows a night for 50 bucks. In three years, the Pixies spurted from Jack's in Boston, where they performed for the first time to perhaps 150 or 200 people, to the mega rock festivals in England alongside the Cure and selling out shows a month in advance across Europe. They' ve graced the covers of both major British music papers, NME and Melody Maker, and still top, or nearly head, college and commercial radio charts. At one point their '87 and '88 releases still lingered in the UK indie label top twenty while Doolittle, their major label debut (Elektra/4AD) topped the chart. Doolittle is nearing the 100,000 sold mark.
But Charles find shaking Robert Smith's hand more significant than the Pixies' festival status. " It's kind of meaningless. Everyone's there because they want to rock and roll and eat and get high, buy t-shirts, wallets. It's like playing at a flea market. "
The European club circuit even impressed Charles more than festivals. " The clubs as a whole in Europe are excellent especially in Socialist countries, I hate to say, where they have these big complexes which are donated by the government for the kids. The one in Sweden's really funny because Sweden is so fucking sterile you can't believe it. It's clean, it's great. It's like Alaska. It' like you get paid great if you work there but it's expensive as shit for everyone who goes in there. They keep everybody out. I really appreciate it. I like that sort of greedy independence to preserve a small area and a small way of life. I'm simplifying it. I know it's also the money center of the world. That's a big detail. I'm talking about Geneva. We played at one of these sort of clubs donated to the kids by the government and they' ve got so much fucking money there anyway, I don't know why the kids demanded a club on their own. I guess because there's nothing to do in Switzerland except ski. I guess they get tired of that after a while. You go to one of these big clubs and it's spray painted more than CBGB. Then you start to notice in the middle of Switzerland, man, what a counter-culture, man, it's so trashed. Except you look at the floor and you notice everything is swept, everything is clean, all the doors to other places like storage rooms or offices are locked properly. It's very organized and very clean. All this graffiti seems to come out of nowhere. The poverty, counter-culture bohemian thing does not seem to warrant the amount of graffiti that's there. They're so fucking bored they're like, 'We got to rock the club man. Let's make it like they do in London or New York - spray paint the shit out of it.'So they go down to the hardware store and get a bunch of spray paint and spray paint the shit out of it. It's so wild. It's okay - I like it when it's weird. "
Weird, like the song Weird At My School?
" That's a composite of other people's stories. For some reason all the songs I did are from different details of other people's stories. One of the most interesting stories was a couple of kids in high school, real rich kids. Their dad had a plane. They fucking flew the plane to Columbia. They loaded up the plane, they flew there and back. They were 16. I didn't go. I wish my youth was that exciting. "
Weird, like the unsettling tales of an " apin' rapin'tapin' catharsis " and vampires feeding while a mind's seceding? But as Charles has emphasized in interviews over and over, the lyrics are secondary - sounds and syllabs more than themes.
" I spend a lot of time on chord progressions and then I spend a lot of time on the poetic structure of the words to be. The rhyme scheme and how to mathematically fit the words into the song you come up with before you actually come up with the content. I don't read a lot of poetry. I don't read very much at all, but a lot of the rules have stuck with me. I write a song rather than I write a topic. "
His veritable shrug of the shoulders explanation to his craft is typical of the Pixies. Whether at a hotel in England or Germany, Charles eagerly roams along tangents unrelated to his band, while politically addressing the heart of the Pixies' appeal.
Just mention Rice and Beans to him, which is the name of the Pixies' publishing company, an ode to the time Charles spent in Puerto Rico, and his voice lightens and out pops childlike zeal. " It's all I ate for six months in Puerto Rico and now it's my favorite meal - rice with black beans with plenty of garlic and some fresh lime juice over it. Oh, man, it's good. I' ve been dying for rice and beans. I' ve been eating this lousing fucking British food about a month now. "
In another chat from Germany, he displays demented idealism after learning about the New York subway robbery victim who retaliated by opening fire on his assailants the following night. " Wow, actually I hate to see this kind of things happen in the world, but I would love to see a wave of vigilantism... I actually would like to see some nasty, mean motherfucking people get what they have coming to them. I' ve known people that have been very very violently abused by people. My cousin's a mechanic in Miami. This guy, not even robbing him, just wanted to find out if the part for his motorcycle was ready and it wasn't. This guy fucking pulled out a 357 magnum, put three holes in him, and paralyzed him from the waist down. Not even to rob him, but just because he finally snapped one day. I don't think revenge is good, but I think it ought to get so bad that everything just fucking collapses. A wave of vigilantism. Everything just totally breaks down, just total chaos. Just to weed out all the bullshit. I don't think it will happen. At least a big storm to destroy a bunch of stuff. Give us some time to build back up again. "
But allude to the Pixies' rapid success and Charles genuinely stumbles on words like " overrated ", and " I don't know ". " I just write songs. I sit around with my guitar. It's like doing homework. It's not very dramatic. I just write songs like a lot of other people do. I strum the guitar and try to come up with something interesting. "
The Pixies gyrate to a neurotic clock and strangling harmonies, between Charles' cathartic high-pitched emissions and Kim Deal's (formerly Mrs. John Murphy before a divorce with the Mister) more soothing comebacks.
Charles admits, " I try to draw attention to myself, I guess. I try and be dramatic or whatever, try and prove I can scream too. I'm a wimpy little nerdy guy. Well, not little but... So you know I guess I just want to rock like Iggy and all those other people. Iggy is the only guy I can really trace directly. I can listen to a Pixies record and say, Oh yeah, there is some Iggy Pop impersonating right there.' All the other stuff I listen to is certainly an influence, but I can't really trace it. It's more emotional rather than specific. "
On Doolittle Charles trades in some screams for a softer touch without forfeiting the edge. " You just get tired of listening to yourself scream. You just want to sing. So we sang a lot more. "
Charles'tantrums of emotion are meant to trigger emotion. " The main point is to get chills down your spine, get goose bumps when you hear music, for me anyway. The best rock music does that for me and that's what we try to do when we make records. We're just trying to be like 13-year-old boys again, and girl. And trying to make cool records. Cool rock songs that other people will just really get off on. We're competing with our favorite records. We want people to still listen to them in ten years, hopefully. "
Hopeful foresight for a band only celebrating its third anniversary. As the story goes, it all started while Charles was in his first year at the University of Massachussetts in Amherst. A strange woman entered his Spanish class asking if anyone wanted to go to Puerto Rico for a year as an exchange student. With the speed of Superman changing in a phone booth, Charles headed for the coconut groves, but dropped out of college there after six months returned to Beantown to form a band.
He sold his former college roommate Joey Santiago on the proposition, compelling him to drop out as well. After placing a musicians classified ad in a Boston paper for a bassist for a Husker Du and peter, Paul & Mary band, Kim answered the " cute " ad. Kim, the only respondent, introduced her drummer friend David Lovering to the project and the lineup gelled in the summer of 1986. Santiago dubbed them Pixies in Panoply, which was quickly shortened.
When 4AD in England heard the Pixies' demo tape, they swiftly pressed and released it as the Come on Pilgrim mini Lp.
Doolittle, the Pixies'third release following 1987's Pilgrim and last year's Surfer Rosa Lp, adheres to Pixies primitivism, though introducing clearer production. Pilgrim naturally chafes with the most jagged edge since it's from the demo. Then, with Steve Albini's production on Surfer Rosa, the Pixies finetuned their raw energy.
" Albini turned the guitars up real loud. That's not any criticism to him. That's a very basic thing. We' ve worked with a lot of other people and a lot of other people wouldn't dare do that. " Then again, Albini may have been compensating for the fourth or fifth of the spending money compared to Doolittle. " What am I saying fourth? It's not even close. "
Doolittle hardly rates as smooth pop, but alternative commercial stations easily slide the Pixies between Fine Young Cannibals and Elvis Costello, usually with more seasoned tracks like Gigantic and Monkey Gone To Heaven. Pixies' angst on these lulls you into danger - Speedy Gonzales on vallium headed for Sylvester's jaws. But Charles realizes the importance of expanding beyond the college scene.
" I suppose we'll make more money. It will have a direct effect on us, not really deliberate or anything, except we can afford to make records perhaps where the production is better because we spend more time and more money on it. It's not really that it's more commercial. It's a little more in synch with what's considered airsafe. Our record did make it for some freaky reason into the British National Chart Top Ten which is unheard of for an independent band. But a lot of things are going to have to change before you hear our record on Top 40 - it's just pretty rigid. It has nothing to do with record companies or ad agencies or MTV. It's what people want. I don't blame MTV or radio stations one bit. If all of a sudden tomorrow MTV started playing Sonic Youth and all the commercial stations started playing Butthole Surfers and Black Flag - I'm mentioning real hard stuff, but even real underground sort of stuff. If they start playing it they would fuckin... there would be an uproar. They wouldn't want it. They would turn their radios off and go to their stereos and play their Huey Lewis albums manually. It's OK if people have bland mediocre tastes. I mean if that's what they want I don't care. I think that there's a lot more mediocre people who don't give a shit about cool rock and roll music and people are like that. That's what they want. I' ve always felt that. I think people are responsible for their own tastes and I don't think MTV or anybody else should be responsible for people's musical palates. "
The subject of creating videos triggers artistic frustration in Charles. " There are so many rules about making videos. Because it's just like so many bland guidelines for the people programming the videos like on MTV or charts shows they have in England and Europe. They basically want a nice simple thing or a lot of fast editing and you know, it's just like a commercial, which is fine. I understand the concept. I think if more Top 40 acts would just stop making fucking commercials and at least have some respect for their own music, even if it's bland shitty music and make something decent. They' ve got all the cameras and these big budgets. And have more respect for filmmaking and movies in general and try and really stand out instead of just market. But what can you do, if they want to market records and they want to make money, I can't really blame them for doing it. "
With a twinge of rebellion, the Pixies just completed a video for Here Comes Your Man. " It's really funny and weird and we're hoping there' ll be a fluke and they' ll play it, at least for the humor value. The look of it is real cheap. There's no lip synching. We just open our mouths real wide and go aaaahhh.... Some friends of ours directed and we used local film students around town. Water on the brain is the theme. "
The Pixies' affection for primitivism blares from both the sparse compositions and their artist's photographic eye on the Lp covers. Come on Pilgrim introduces the band as half-man, half-beast with the hairy humanoid photo. As the manic savagery of Pilgrim incorporates biting harmonies, those chills on Surfer Rosa acquire structure, as on the cut " Bone Machine ", and the homely creature transforms into an exotic naked woman. By Doolittle, the Pixies can contain the primal beast, placing a halo on the monkey's head.
Actually, this Monkey Gone To Heaven forced the Pixies to change their original album title, WHORE. " I didn't like the word went with the artwork. Too Catholic or something. People would think I was anti- Catholic. "
But, religion seeps into Charles' lyrics, partly from his born-again household past. Preaching's out of his league and interest, but the Old Testament still crackles in his breath.
Dead refers to the story of King David and Bathsheba, " Uriah hit the crapper, crapper. " In Gouge Away Charles sings, " chained to the pillars/a 3-day party/I break the walls/and kill us all/with holy fingers. "
" The pillars have something to do with an old story - Samson and Delilah. Pillar's a cool word, though. It's something that supports traditionally, but I don't think like that. I think of it more as a decoration, in mansions or a palace or a big ballroom or even an old archaeological dig with no buildings left. I worked on a couple of burials (a few years ago on an archaeological dig in Arizona). I don't remember if we figured out if they were buried the same time or not. I saw the rib cage of the infant. "
Monkey Gone To Heaven plays on Hebrew scriptures - Man is 5, the Devil is 6, and God is 7. " It's a reference from what I understand to be Hebrew numerology, and I don't know a lot about it or any of it really. I just remember someone telling me of the supposed fact that in the Hebrew language, especially in the Bible, you can find lots of references to man in the 5th and Satan in the 6th and God in the 7th. I don't know if there is a spiritual hierarchy or not. But it's a neat little fact, if it is a fact. I didn't go to the library and figure it out. "
The stark repetition of Monkey, embellished by a string section, which Charles insisted on rather than using synthesizers, parallels the harsh thruths about man in nature. The million pounds of sludge killing men in the sea. Charles himself gets sucked into the Ocean on Wave Of Mutilation.
" I guess I' ve always lived kind of near the ocean. I never got to live for too long in one place, but I like oceans in general. I think the ocean's an inspiration for anybody. It's the other part of the earth. There's land and then there's the ocean, and it's even bigger. There's nothing in there man, but it's just a big blank space. Kind of scary too, for everybody, even for people that aren't afraid to die in it, like the captain of the ship. The watery deaths and everything that lives there, food, fish and animals. Just amazing stuff. "
If nature's an amusement park for Charles, then the supernatural's a rocket to the moon. Manta Ray is not a fish; it's visitors from outer space. " That's my code word for UFO. It's about a UFO incident in 1965. I have it described to me in great detail by people who were there. My mother was there. This was in Nebraska. My cousin has a couple of UFO experiences, too. I' ve only had one and I don't even remember it; it's sort of undramatic. There were legit people who don't even follow that stuff. It's like, What, mom? Say that again? There was a flying saucer floating above the house for half an hour and everyone just stood there and watched it? '
" Yeah, I don't know. There was just kind of a floating saucer, " Charles imitates in a maternal falsetto. " I was just like, What?' It was just hovering. Then the state police came and chase it, but they couldn't catch up with it. A big red fucking saucer, a glowing, fucking, flying saucer. My mother's weird, but she's not that weird. She's got no reason to make this stuff up. She's harmless, do you know what I mean? I have a couple of memories as a young boy seeing things in the sky that did not look like airplanes. Once a rocketship, but I thought it was a blimp because we lived right near the Goodyear Blimp in L.A. It was right down the road and took off everyday. It would have messages and stuff. So I was watching the lights of the blimp so I sort of was following in the car, then it started going in the other direction, really fast. It was a blimp, then it wasn't a blimp. Of course an airplane does not look like that. The only thing that moves like it is a helicopter and it just did not look like a helicopter. It was a blimp then it was going really fast and going in the other direction. Blimps make real wide turns. Did you hear about that guy in California a few years ago who went up in all those weather balloons in a lawn chair? He went up to about 30,000 feet with 10 weather balloons. he's not even strapped in. he's just sitting there. A jet goes by him, the pilot reports him and I guess they were waiting for him when they came down. They finally figured out who he was and made a big deal about it because he was up there where all the traffic was. But it was cool. Of course there was this big fight with all these people supporting him saying he had the right to be up there. Think about him sitting there. What the hell's he thinking? I am fucking sitting here and I am high.' He probably was high. "
Actually, Charles toys more with " Back To The Future " retrofusion rather than techno-wizardry. Pixies songs can be barbarically simple and even lullaby like Silver is based on the time of a waltz. La La Love You with Lovering on vocals and whistles, reincarnates 60's amour. No surprise that Charles'musical sentiments rest in that period.
" There's a section of your brain that can play any Beatles'song at a moment's notice and replay it perfectly in your head. I can't replay any Sonic Youth song in my head. You start listening to the Beatles when you're like 6-years-old. "
That era's influence also prevails in pop numbers like Here Comes Your Man, though some of the spitfire jangles, like Crackity Jones incorporates the punk aesthetic. But Charles is still entrenched in 30 and 40 year- old music.
" I listen in Boston to Oldies 103. It's the only radio station I listen to - late 50's, early 60's stuff. All the songs are real short and the technology was really limited and they had to be kind of cool and kind of creative and pop sort of at the same time and try to compete with each other and get people's attention. There were less rules, so there was a lot more wild stuff. A lot more wild than you hear on the radio now, even college radio. That's nothing against college radio, but our current alternative music, I mean, come on. People have been making rock records for 30 years, so how weird is it really? How dangerous is it? How rebellious is it? Not at all. From Henry Rollins on down, there's nothing dangerous about it whatsoever. It's very safe entertainment. "
Rebellious or not, the Pixies are only one of a horde of young bands honoring their forefathers, judging from the fleet of tribute albums recently. In particular, Imaginary Records, which is run by Alan Duffy from his dining room in Manchester, England, has been busy compiling alternative rockers to cover the likes of Syd Barret (BEYOND THE WILD WOOD), Captain Beefheart (FAST 'N BULBOUS), the Kinks (SHANGRI-LA), the Byrds (TIME BETWEEN), and in the works, tributes to the Rolling Stones, the Bonzos, and Jimi Hendrix. The Pixies themselves appear on a Neil Young homage, THE BRIDGE, distributed on Caroline Records, with part of the proceeds going to the Bridge School in San Francisco, a special education facility for which Young has performed two charity concerts. Charles chose to reincarnate Winterlong.
" It's one of my favorite Neil Young songs. It's like an Everly Brothers song. It's really 50's. He doesn't play it 50's, he plays it really slow, country, twangy. But we sped it up a little bit and we took out his guitar parts and added Pixies'style guitar, but we kept it basically the same and kept it a good pop song, because that's what it was really. We're pretty proud of it. It sounds better than anything we' ve ever done, which is a shame because we didn't write it. "
Charles vows this project will not unravel a string of " Pixies do the Beatles " or " Pixies do Iggy Pop . " " We thought of it. We're too lazy to figure out other people's songs. It's more fun to do really obscure stuff for me than do a cover tune. There's just so many bands that are really good musicians as well, and it's so easy for them to do covers and they do them all the time. We' d be just another band doing a cover tune - showing off who they really like. "
As much as Black Francis reaches to his roots, the Pixies seal any generation gaps with a screeching solvent. Though the rebellion may have abated in favor of the business-minded success story, rock's spirit still lingers for Black Francis. " You can put on some punk band or some hardcore band that totally blows your mind. You love it so much it doesn't compare to the Beatles. So I don't think rock died anywhere. "
The Pixies flutter with too much vibrancy to allow any " rock is dead " sentiments. Their catapult supports that, though the spotlight didn't appear instantly.
" We worked real hard. I don't think we worked as long as other bands. Like the people who have been trying to make it for 10 years, and they're still playing the local clubs and have their day jobs, which is fine. We thankfully haven't had to go through all that shit. We' ve worked hard, though. I remember practicing in the rehearsal space in Boston five or six nights a week when I first started this band, spending like $400 a month for this shithole to rehearse in. I remember going down there and never seeing any other bands rehearse there. On the weekends they' d be down there partying, so I felt good when we were rehearsing. I felt like we were the only people rehearsing, it seemed. Actually, we're not rich or anything. We're never around to use the rehearsal space, so we pretty much practice like we used to - in the drummer's dad's garage where he has a workshop. "
Precisely in June 1988, Charles realized the Pixies could be his life's work. " When you get your first big check and you don't have to go to work - that's the big break. That's what makes you mobile, makes you able to go on tour on a regular basis, or record records on a regular basis. "
Extravagance, though, does not become the Pixies, so they opt for practicality - stuff like a tour team.
" We hired my cousin to be the guitar roadie and we have a road crew. It's a lot easier. We don't have to haul crap around. It's a good thing, because we have a semi-truck filled with shit. I can't believe we have so much crap. So we have a crew. All we have to do is walk onstage and hey, we don't even have to tune the fucking guitar, my cousin Mark does it. I' ve got a suitcase with a zillion T-shirts in it, a couple of pairs of sweats, a couple of pairs of army pants, that's it. I shave about once a month, and I' ve got a toothbrush. "
So, is this success? Well, the Pixies have vaulted to bootleg status. Three songs recorded for John Peel surfaced on a 7' 'released by Discos El Sucko records. A photo of Hitler crouching in sordid tenderness next to a small, blonde Aryan-looking girl spotted the cover, though Charles has no idea why. he's amused by the whole deal.
" I heard about that. I' ve been trying to get a yellow one, because my girlfriend's sister collects lots of colored vinyl, but I'm having a hard time finding it. They just taped it off the radio when they played the songs on the John Peel radio show. It's not really live - none of the John Peel sessions are really recorded live, you just got in a 24-track, automated, state-of-the-art studio with an engineer and a producer, and you have a day to record three ot four songs. "
This spring the Pixies recorded another Peel session, but chose not to release the songs on vinyl. " We' ve never really liked how our Peel sessions turned out. But I wish we had put out that 7' ' . I wish we had more freedom to put out yellow records and make little collector's items. "
Speaking about record company elasticity, Charles accepts the added intensity of working with a major label as casually as he rattles on about UFO's. Any demands for cohesion or sandpapering he views as beneficial to both the Pixies and his farsighted vision, earning enough to remain a Pixie.
" There's some pressure to make an expensive sounding record as experimental as it may come out. At least sound like it was put together. It was an attempt to be commercial, but not be commercial so we could sell a lot of records, just so we could make a cool record. Sure we wanted to make money; we didn't want to make shit. But we did want to compete with Top 40. I think it's working. "
What's also working, as Charles sporadically mentions, is the cash flow. Not that cloud nines of fame and fortune lure him to Pepsi commercials or slick light metal, but it's time for settling rather than settling for.
" I can't live hand-in-mouth. I could, but I certainly don't want to. What if my girlfriend were having a baby? I' d want to be able to buy a house, set up shop. I can't if I' d always be running around worrying about where to eat. I'm a white male American. I might as well take advantage of that and put the money away. I'm not materialistic, I just dont want to live in a shithole all my life. I live in a shithole now, but it's not really that bad. I want to live in Western Massachussetts where there's more space. I'm tired of living in the city. There's nothing left to do but go to the movie theaters and restaurants all the time. That's why I'm fat. I don't go exercise. I'm claustrophobic. I' d be healthier out there. I always wanted to go camping on horseback - to go deep in the woods and cover a lot of ground. "
The Pixies on horses. Sounds like a more serene ground than the thousands of miles of club to club heaving. Also a lot less confusing for Charles, who is still sorting it all out.
" It's hard to tell what's controlling me right now. And it's like sort of trying to make a living. Trying to make a pile of money while the ball's still rolling.
" We're sort of at that cult status that I think we can make a living out of it if we put out a record every month or every year and tour regularly and sort of stay afloat. We have to really do this for a while or have a really big record to have us not be so concerned about sinking beneath the water. "
Last Updated 04-09-97