Articles: Surfer Rosa to Supernova

By Roy Wilkinson
Sounds, December 1990.
Transcribed by C. Gourraud for Alec Eiffel



In 1990 Nick Cave took the Pixies to the movies, David Bowie had them go on tour with him, and Bono sent them a note after a Dublin show: "Keep diggin' for fire, we love you".
But then again you'd have expected the minor league rock practitioners to try and get in on the act sooner or later. After all, the Pixies remained the best rock band on this or any other planet you care to mention.
This year, the Pixies took off into space.

As Kim Deal said, the 'Bossanova' album was "more Steven Spielberg than David Lynch". Charles Francis stripped away the visceral weirdness from his songs and replaced the Old Testament flesh feasts with a sheen of extra-terrestrial intrigue.
As he told Sounds: "We've tried to elevate the sci-fi thing, make it more opera-ish, more of a serious rock thing. Some of the songs on 'Bossanova' are spacey, but they're not silly. Things like space are pretty much related to the elements. "We want UFOs to be an acceptable topic. They're romantic."

Pixies have always combined an intuitive intelligence with a naivety that allows them to ignore all the detritus that's been poured on rock'n'roll over the years. It was this that had the group pondering rock in a primeval context back in 1987.
"Can you imagine what a guitar must have sounded like at the beginning of time?" wonders Charles. "Even with Chuck Berry in the '50s, people thought the human body wasn't designed to cope with such volume. Imagine what someone in pre-history would have thought on hearing that noise. They'd think it was God speaking to them, or that it was lightning.
"What else could it be? What else could be that loud?"
Pixies were practically exploring this notion over the first three albums. They may not quite have transplanted rock to pre-history, but they did take it into an alien land of Bibles and bones where rock's cosy lyrical world of babes and feeling alright was replaced by howls, screams and guttural verbal pile-ups. Having recast rock in a primal, kitsch-free setting, they were ready by the time of 'Bossanova' to time travel to an age that rock is more conventionally associated with.
'Bossanova' was definitely characterised by its reference to America in the late '50s and early '60s. There was an explicit surf reference in the cover of The Surftones' 'Cecilia Ann', but the mood lived on in a music bathed in the sci-fi fascinations that went with America at a time of post-war peak confidence - after Pearl Harbour and before Vietnam, when kitchens were newly crammed with futuristic labour-saving devices and man was beginning his ascent into space.
As Charles explains it, the reason they chose to use a theremin on the record was as much because it was used as the voice of the lead alien in My Favourite Martian as because it was used on surf records.
'Bossanova' was more playful than the Pixies had ever been in the past and more relaxed too. But it could cut up like few others - just listen to the blankly titled 'Rock Music'.

1990 was the year in which the traditional derivation of Charles Francis' songwriting talent became most apparent. He grew up being taught how to sing by a Thai neighbour who played in a covers band and was as likely to namecheck John Mayall as John Cale. He even pre-empted the rehabilitation of Donovan in August.
"Yeah we always forget to mention Donovan as an influence," he revealed. "Me and Joey always used to listen to Donovan - 'They call me mellow yellow', quite right." Despite the immediacy of Pixies' songs, they were written along basically age-old lines, only with an odd beat added to the bar here and there. The lyrics were mapped by building up gnashing streams of words, but over strict rhyme schemes.
Just, how many rockers would you get telling the poetic derivation of a song's structure in this detail?:
"Yeah, the first two verses to that song ('Hang Wire') are in a Haiku format - Japanese verse with three lines: five syllables, then seven, then five. Only thing, it isn't true Haiku cos it doesn't incorporate nature and make some philosophical statement about the universe or whatever." While the songs have strict structure the words are piled on.
Charles: "There's just so much going on in the world today, so much information bouncing off satellites that you just have to use the first thing that comes into your head. It's not automatic writing - God spare us - it's just sorta brainstorming, very flippant, not like there's any real reference to the topics."

If 'Bossanova' was the Pixies' most laid-back album it didn't have the single with it to crack open the mainstream charts.
For although a brilliant performance at Reading proved that large-scale shows were no problem to them, Pixies music remains too quirky, too abrasive for the perceived dictates of daytime radio. The year ended with Pixies negotiating another feverish trail across the bulk of America with, as usual, the band running on a tightrope as the adrenaline took its toll.
It's difficult to see where they'll go next. At this point they've only got history to measure themselves against.
"I'd like to have another album of songs written by the end of the year," said Charles back in August. "I really want to get into the thing like The Beatles where they'd make a record every six months."
To do that the Pixies will have to take another leaf out of The Beatles' songbook and stop touring. Even then, they'll have only one songwriter doing the work of three and a bit - unless, that is, Kim's Breeders compositions start going out under the Pixies banner and Dave starts doing a Ringo and writing his answers to 'Octopus's Garden'.
Whatever, the world is catching up with the Pixies in one area. While Twin Peaks has catapulted David Lynch's musical scheme into the charts, this band have been with him all along, cranking out a version of Lynch's 'Lady In The Radiator Song' from Eraserhead.
It's hardly an ear-splitting blare in the movie, but that wasn't going to deter this bunch. "Nah," said Charles.
"You just turn up the volume and shout it real loud. It sounds fine." If prime-time America can adapt to David Lynch, or vice versa, then there's no reason a band of the Pixies' awry magnificence cannot succeed on a mass scale. The only thing is, who's going to give them their own soap opera?



Last Updated 07-04-97