"It's not I'm original or anything." Charles Kittridge Thompson IV, aka
Black Pixies frontman, is describing how he comes up with the lyrics to the
band's songs. It's characteristic that he should depreciate his own efforts
like this; he uses the word "just" more than most and stresses the
simplicity of the band's approach, makes it seem like, y'know, no big deal.
As for the lyrics, well, Charles shouts at mirrors.
"Me and a hundred other guys, probably" he says, off-handedly. "The bathroom usually has good reverb" When The Pixies' records first began trickling out, courtesy of 4AD, they didn't seem quite as ordinary as Charles makes out. They weren't your typical 4AD band, for sure (the label's traditionally less abrasive roster includes The Cocteau Twins and The Throwing Muses), with all that strangulated screaming in Spanish on the debut Come On Pilgrim and that mad clamour of heavy metallic guitar Then there was the hip cachet of using Big Black/Rapeman leader Steve Albini to produce the follow-up Surfer Rosa (this was 4AD boss lvo's idea, apparently they'd never heard of Albini). And the brutal physicality of the imagery, with titles like Bone Machine, Debaser, Wave Of Mutilation, Gouge Away, Broken Face and Break My Body. Not to mention the band line-up, names like Joey Santiago, Mrs John Murphy and the mysterious Black Francis himself. About this last, Charles is his usual offhand self " My father had talked about naming a child, if he had another, Black Francis. I thought it sounded good, so I took it." Somehow, it comes as scant surprise to learn that somewhere in the past, Charles's father has been friendly with Captain Beefheart.
Other elements of the band's mystique, once probed, turn out to equally ordinary roots. Bassist Mrs John Murphy, for instance, was once John Murphy's wife. Now her divorce is final, she's back to being plain Kim Deal again. Joey Santiago is the lead guitarist's real name. And the Spanish lyrics those came from six months Charles spent in Puerto Rico as part of his Spanish course at college. It was this Caribbean jaunt, in fact, that prompted Charles to drop out of college and start The Pixies.
"I lived in this building which was kind of a drag," he recalls. "It was a male dormitory, and I've got nothing against homosexuals, but it's just like I'm not, and I don't relate to it culturally and the whole building was like a Roman bathhouse, y'know? I was dropping out of my classes left and right, and hanging out at the beach learning plenty of Spanish, but not paying much attention to my studies."
Increasingly disenchanted with life in Puerto Rico, he toyed briefly with the idea of taking a boat down to New Zealand to watch Halley's Comet, which would pass close by there. "I'm not an astronomer or anything," he says. "It just seemed like the cool, romantic thing to do at the time. But then I remembered I wanted to be in a rock band. I only had a few tapes with me - a Ramones album, a Talking Heads album, Little Creatures, and I was supposed to have my Iggy Pop albums, but they didn't record when I put them on tape, so all I had were these blank tapes with "Iggy Pop" written on them. And that was about it. I just listened to them over and over for six months, and I heard a lot of salsa music around town, so I just got out of there and started a band. I called up Joe, said, I'm getting out of here, get out of Amherst, I'll meet you in Boston, let's get an apartment..."
Joey and he, it transpires, had often fantasised about being in a band.
Charles had gone to Amherst full of Beatles and Doors and Ten Years After,
met Joey and discovered Iggy and The Violent Femmes and punk rock, and liked
the idea of doing it themselves. "Even though we weren't musicians, we were
constantly telling each other, Oh, we could do this stuff, we could make a
band. So we just dropped out and did it, without any idea of how to do it,
or any concept of what you were supposed to do except you were supposed to
get gigs in clubs, we knew that much. We used to go and time other bands'
sets, to figure out how much material we had to come up with."
Since Charles was to be the singer/songwriter guy, Joey decided he would be the lead guitar guy. They put an ad in a local Boston paper advertising for people to join a "Husker Du/Peter, Paul & Mary band". As you would, if you wanted to form a band.
"We got one response. It was our current bass player. She happened to know a drummer (David Lovering). Actually, her twin sister was going to be our drummer I even contributed 50 dollars, as I recall, towards a plane ticket so she could come to Boston from Ohio and meet us. It would have been really cool to have had twin sisters in the band but, looking back on it, I'm really glad that we got a shit-hot drummer instead."
With David Lovering installed behind the kit, The Pixies (Joey's name, chosen from a dictionary; they were originally to be called, wait for it, Pixies In Panoply) were soon gigging, and making demos within six months, the second lot of which found their way over to 4AD's lvo, who liked them enough to release them as the eight-track album Come On Pilgrim. "Our information," Charles says of the label, "was that they paid on time!" Which, as things turned out, was very much to the band's advantage. It hardly seemed as if The Pixies had scratched the surface of a career one tour supporting The Throwing Muses, firm critics' faves, a stint atop the independent charts with Surfer Rosa before they became the biggest indie band since The Smiths. Suddenly, in April 1989, their third album, Doolittle, vaulted into the "real" album chart, the one with Madonna, Simply Red and Guns N' Roses in it, at Number 8. Charles was set to be a very rich chap.
"I did all right," he admits. "All sorts of things kick in after a while: a T-shirt deal here, overseas publishing deal there, that kind of thing. It goes up and down. But last year was my best year. I made more than my dad did, must have made over a hundred grand. Bought a Cadillac. Moved to LA." For an "indie" band, The Pixies have a very mature, large-scale approach to their work. Not having been nurtured by a local scene, they don't for instance, have any specific attachment to a particular place. Though they're often thought of as a "Boston band", only half the band lives there - Charles lives in LA, Kim in Ohio - and they regard themselves as a more international prospect.
"It's hard to sing about pronouns, about he or she or I, without sounding really boring or vague. If you can get away with singing about space or the weather or the ocean it comes off grander, more mystical . . ."
"It doesn't really matter where we live, because as soon as a tour's over, we all take off and don't even talk to each other for a month," says Charles. "We have our own equipment in England, because it's easier and cheaper than transporting it over. We're not like on a local circuit, we're on the total international circuit. That's not any big deal, it's just the way it is. So it doesn't really matter where you get on the circuit, or off it. There's amps everywhere, and rooms everywhere, studios and clubs everywhere."
But what about the hanging-out, the comradeship that usually forms a group's
style - which is the single biggest reason for most people having joined
bands in the first place? "We never had anything to do with that, not in the
smallest way. We just ended up in Boston, only the drummer comes from there,
made some demos, and got out as soon as we could! There's no reason to stay
in Boston, not when you can go to France. Let's get some stamps in the old
The Pixies have plenty of passport opportunities coming up, as they prepare for another eight-month bout of touring to promote their new album, Bossanova, which carries on where Doolittle left off. There's the same blend of hard and soft, the same sweet melodies treated as if they were Big Black songs, though the physical imagery of breakage and decay, is replaced by more elemental imagery songs of wind and fire and weather. Effectively it's the same thing.
"It's not very deliberate, it's just the way it came out," says Charles, modestly "The lyrics are just kind of thrown together. I don't know if it means anything. Those kind of things just sound nicer usually. It's hard to sing about pronouns, about he, she or I, without sounding really boring and vague: but if you sing about hard things, they sound better, I think. The words are easier to grab out of the air as you're listening to this loud rock music.
"I don't know if it's a cop-out on my part, but I resort to those things
quickly if I can get away with it, because they come off cooler than singing
about a girl - not that I don't do that, but if you can get away with
singing about space or the weather or the ocean, and do it well, then . . .
I like that category of things. It comes off grander more mystical."
The dominant themes this time round, according to Charles are surf and sci-fi - which has resulted, contrary to what he's just said, in several songs about girls. Cecilia Ann for instance, is a cover of an old Surftones song: Allison was originally about a girl called Alison, "but of course Elvis Costello has a song called Alison, so I had to change it." Now it's about Mose Allison, the jazz pianist. "Same situation with Velouria: that was My Victoria, pretty good, but The Kinks song . . . I don't know it's gotta be a good song to get away with it. But when I found "Velouria", it sounded great." Then there's Ana, a slow surf song. "That's a five-line verse poem, but it's an anagram: the first line of each verse spells "SUR-FER". She's, like, this naked surfer girl on a board on top of an 11 -foot wave, y'know cruising in never-never land. Never-never ocean." Of course. What else could it be?
Havalina, another track, is apparently the Mexican name for a wild boar and has nothing to do with the band of that name - who did, however, get The Pixies stoned in Texas. "Helped us out in a very dry period," says Charles. The Happening, likewise, has nothing to do with Diana Ross. "That's based on this guy Billy Goodman, who had a radio talk show out of Las Vegas, The Billy Goodman Happening, dedicated to UFO stuff people calling in to tell of how their husband got murdered by an alien. The song The Happening tells of how the aliens land in Vegas: it's always been my wish that if they do land, it'll be Billy and his audience that get the credit in the greeting !"
The Happening is as close as the new album gets to the Old Testament imagery that Charles used in several of his earlier songs, most notably the David & Bathsheba story that forms the basis of Dead, a track from Doolittle. A product, perhaps, of his Pentecostalist upbringing?
"No, not really. 1 think that kind of imagery is pretty staple, as far as old blues goes - singing about Samson & Delilah, and so on. I've been exposed to religion and blues music, and they're part of the same thing. Though I don't see myself in quite the same position of pain and desperation as some of those old blues guys must have been in. I'm flying around the world, playing for teenagers, y'know what I mean?"
Last Updated 05-13-97