Articles: Surf's Up

by Perry Stern
Music Express #152, October 1990.
Transcribed by C. Gourraud for Alec Eiffel


The trap has been set. The surroundings are pastoral, or as pastoral as you can get in the heart of downtown London. Black Francis and I are sitting on a bench in a tiny parkette called Sussex Gardens, surrounded by lunching secretaries, thirsty pigeons and lost tourists. Unfortunately for them, there's no time to offer courteous directions - I have bigger fish to fry, having decided to catch Black Francis in a lie.

For four years now, since the inception of the Pixies, Black Francis, the group's leader/singer/principal songwriter, has been arguing that his lyrics - generally obscure, often indecipherable - really have no significance whatsoever. " It's automatic writing, " he's argued "just stuff I've thrown together to fit the rhyme scheme. the words just sounded good together. " Bunk, I say.

How could this band, certainly one of the most important to rise out of the American indie scene in the last five years, NOT have something important to say? Surely there's something deep and spiritual to be found in songs like " River Euphrates " and " Where Is My Mind " from the SURFER ROSA album (1988), or " Monkey Gone To Heaven ", " Debaser " and " Wave Of Mutilation " from last year's acclaimed DOOLITTLE LP. If he's not lying, Francis must at least be DISSEMBLING. And while we're at it, his name isn't Black, or even Francis, for that matter, but Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV. Everyone calls him Charles.

Walking from his hotel to the parkette, Charles is beeing endearing, making a combative approach difficult. He does seem a bit world-weary; there is a certain amount of comic sarcasm to most of his observations. Plainly articulate and well-read, he nonetheless regularly lapses into an " aw shucks " rural speech pattern, trading " them " for " those " and dropping the odd " ain't " into his otherwise grammatically correct conversation.

With his roundish frame, well-worn flannel shirt, ripped jeans and sunny disposition, 25-year-old Charles is decrying the impossibility of finding decent Mexican food anywhere in Europe. " They just can't seem to get the HANG of it, " he concludes, shaking his head in disbelief. " It must be too simple for them. " Coming as it does from a man who takes his refritos seriously (he named his publishing company Rice And Beans Music), there is a deep sense of tragedy into this revelation. " One day, " he says, " I think I'll open my own Mexican restaurant. Maybe here. Or in Holland. One day. "

Charles has just completed a six-week vacation, his first since forming the Pixies four years ago (that's not counting his cross-country move from Boston to Los Angeles last winter, however). He's been motoring through Europe with his girlfriend Jean, seeing the sights, doing the odd interview in advance of the group's European tour and searching for that ever-elusive perfect Euro-enchilada. He also has a new album, BOSSANOVA, to talk about.

BOSSANOVA picks up the Pixies' tale where the acclaimed DOOLITTLE left off. Over the years the group has evolved from the early, abrasive ferocity of their initial rough demo tape (so enthusiastically received by U.K. indie label 4AD that it was released, untouched, as their debut release, COME ON PILGRIM) through an art/trash novelty of their first full length album, SURFER ROSA, and on the refined, Velvety pop of DOOLITTLE. The Pixies are obviously advanced, but some would argue that they've mellowed, and that they've sold out to commercialism.

" That's what I don't get, " Charles exclaims in response. " So many people comment on the drastic changes between this record and the last one. And they really aren't listening, because to me it's the same 'old shit, ' sort of. There are certain things that have changed, but those are obvious - like having more money to spend on your record, so your 'production values' get a little more sophisticated. But it's the same TYPE of material. "

" It's as though we were this 'crazy, hardcore, wacky band' before, and now we're a 'pop band,'and that's so untrue, " he argues, his exasperation barely contained. " There are songs on this record that are WAY harder than anything we've done before, and some stuff that's way poppier. Like them mellow surf songs [BOSSANOVA is liberally sprinkled with them]. That ain't Top 40! They're different - I'm not saying they're ORIGINAL, but they're different. "

And he's right - nothing the group did before BOSSANOVA had the wistful quality of " Ana " or the dreaminess of " Havalina " (except perhaps " La La Love You "), and these are certainly not tracks destined for the pop charts. But on the other hand, much of what gave DOOLITTLE its impeccable undergroung credibility - the painfully screeched vocals, the hectic rythms - has been discarded on BOSSANOVA.

" We got rid of some of the quirkier, faster numbers, " Charles concedes. " I don't scream as much, but that was okay with me - I wanted to do that; I get tired of hearing it. If I could really scream it out, like Henri Rollins, then I would do it more, probably. "

"I can scream pretty good now, " he adds with a comic defensiveness, " better than I could two years ago [and he proves that on BOSSANOVA's incomprehensible 'Rock Music']. But I remember hearing tapes of live shows, where I scream even more, and it sounds so annoying, hearing this yap, yap, yapping all night. So I'm trying to sing a little more. After all, we are a BAND and I AM a singer. "

This final remark triggers an angry reaction in Charles. " There was a f**king review in f**king Melody Maker [of the first BOSSANOVA single, 'Velouria'] - 'Sounds like someone's been taking singing lessons,' he quotes angrily. " Like, motherf**king A! I am the singer. Who do sing SONGS. It's like I never sang before; like I was - I don't know - reading PROSE on my previous records and now I sing. EXCUUUUUUSE me for singing, " he concludes in his best Steve Martin impression. " Talk about not letting me STANDARD! "

When Charles is talking about " standards, " this is what he means: " I want rules; I want standards, " he says. " Even in heavy metal music and rap music, things are standard, and that's what keeps them all together. Guitar, bass, drums, vocals - that's standard. Thirty-five or 40 minutes on a record - that's standard, although that's changing because of CDs. "

" But, " he adds, " even as stylistic as we are our territory is wide open. It's not like we're the Ramones or some band that's rigid, almost one-dimensional. I wish I WAS in a band like that! I wish I was in a band like The Ramones that could be totally in character all the time. Like Batman, always in character. "

But there is a certain ragamuffin non-image image to the Pixies. On stage they're a pretty flat-footed crew, avoiding eye contact with the audience and eschewing any clothing that is even remotely fashionable. Of their stage presence, Charles simply states, " Believe me, if we could come up with a good show - a good angle and costumes - I suppose we'd do it. But what are we gonna do? It's all been done before. And I can't think of anything good or new at the moment. So we just go up there in our flannel shirts and be one of those 'indie American band that don't give a shit.' "

" But yes, I DO give a shit, " he exclaims, throwing up his hands in mock despair. " I'm sorry but I just don't know what to WEAR! "

In the past, Charles has often referred to unwritten rules about what a Pixies song is and how it should be played. Those rules are unwritten because they're nearly impossible to articulate. Ideally, a Pixie song lasts a little more than two minutes (" it's more satisfyin', I'm telling you. ") Its backbeat, provided by drummer David Lovering and bassist Kim Deal, will, in its pace and phrasing, somehow reflect the emotion conveyed in Charles' vocals with shifting rythms at least once during the course of the song. Joey Santiago's guitar playing is perhaps the most essential and identifiable component of the Pixies. Off-key, off-kilter, Santiago noodles around the melody, often shadowing the vocal line and then breaking off on the finger-flying,ear-splitting tangent.

The vocals will be predictably unpredictable. Considering how limited his range is, though, Charles gets a lot of mileage out of his pipes. Since contributing to last year's Neil Young tribute album, THE BRIDGE (covering " Winterlong "), a definite Youngian phrasing has appeared in Charles' softer, almost falsetto vocals. (Another Young track, " I've been Waiting For You, " sung by Deal, appears on the 4-track " Velouria " single.) Then there's those damned elusive lyrics...

If there is a certain standardization in the Pixies' music, remember that until Kim formed the Breeders late last year, this is the only band that any of the members have been part of. Charles brings that point up a lot. " How could we change? " he asks. " We haven't been around long enough to say, 'Ok let's really do something DIFFERENT.' Different? We're still trying to figure out if we like these big new Marshall amps we bought. Different? We're just starting to know how to play our guitars and get into it. We're just starting to dig and PLAY. "

But if the Pixies should break up tomorrow, Charles has no fear that any of the members will become destitute. " Joey is a guitar GOD, " he estimates, " Dave's an amazing drummer, better than he was three years ago. Kim's got a solo record [POD] that made it to the national British charts. This is our first band. There's been none of the waiting around, gruelling tours, trying out different record companies and managers. How many bands do other people go through before they're finally in THE band? We're in it already, and we don't even know what happened! "

What happened was that sometime between the release of SURFER ROSA and DOOLITTLE, the Pixies became the darlings of the British musical press. In an oddly symbiotic way - almost like an exchange program - just as British indie bands are revered here, U.S. indie bands are revered over there. " It almost seems that way, " Charles agrees. "[In England] the hip, underground bands, at least until recently, were bands like Soundgarden, Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies, Sonic Youth, all that stuff. And then [in the U.S.], 75 per cent of what they play in alternative radio is English. It's kinda weird how it flip-flops like that. But we're pretty much as big now in America as here. There's just not as many national music magazines that would write about us. "

While the Pixies have been able to rely on media sycophants to trumpet their praises in Europe, it's video that has most effectively spread their name across their homeland. This, according to Charles, is not necessarily a good thing. While the Pixies have made videos in the past for " Here Comes Your Man " and " Monkey Gone To Heaven, " Charles has, at least at press time, refused to make any for BOSSANOVA. And while that decision separates the Pixies from the hordes of bands that spend thousands of dollars in a medium they are generally ill-suited to, it also diminishes the impact of a record's release. Already it's caused a problem for the band. As 'Velouria ' inevitably rose up the U.K. pop charts during the summer, a much coveted spot on the TV program TOP OF THE POPS was denied the band because of a BBC rule that states only singles with videos can be performed on the show. Besides, Charles confesses, MTV actually saved his sorry butt last year.

" I'm telling you man, " Charles begin, " I was driving from El Paso in my car. I have this big yellow Cadillac that I bought - my first car. So I'm going through El Paso, it's like two in the morning, and the Border Patrol sees the Massachussetts license plates. I also had a CB installed in Memphis so we could talk to truckers. My handle was gonna be Big Caddy Daddy, but I never actually used it. They stopped me and they assumed drugs because we were coming to the border and we had out of state tags and CB radio, and the car was riding low. I also had a Mexican pinata that was, believe it or not, from Boston that I was supposed to give to my nephews, but it broke and I still had it in the trunk. "

" So they KNEW I'd been to Mexico, " he laughs, shaking his head, and it was like, 'No man, I SWEAR. I'm actually moving from Boston!' And then one of the cops says [mimmicking a redneck], 'Say, I know you, you're in the Pixies! I seen you on MTV!' The next thing I knew they were taking polaroids of me holding their shotguns and stuff. Just 'cause of TV. " Charles' insistence that he wants to confine himself to a single artistic medium, and that his lyrics just don't matter, brings up a question about his litterary aspirations. He has been heard to say that he might contribute something to a book of poems by indie musicians. If words mean as little to him as he claims, why would he consider publishing his work as poetry?

" Oh yeah, " he recalls. " I was asked, but I wouldn't do poetry. " Does he really not pay attention to the lyrics he'll be condemned to sing over and over into perpetuity?

Charles shrugs as he reaches into an envelope he's been carrying and pulls out the lyrics sheet for BOSSANOVA. " This one ['The Thing'] is a sonnet: this is haiku, " he claims, pointing to the three-line stanzas of 'Hang Wire'. " I'm always playing stupid games like that. See 'Ana'? It's like anaGRAM. "

" S.U.R.F.E.R., " he spells out, pointing to the first letter of each line in the song. " It's a matter of needing lyrics really fast because they're setting up the vocal mikes, and you'd better get the song done or it's gonna be an instrumental! "

What about " Dig For Fire, " the place Charles says he'll retire to one day?

" Oh, it's all nonsense, " he says, " a bad Talking Heads imitation. Just like any other cool rock'n roll song or pop song, the CONTENT isn't what hits you. I mean, what the hell is 'London Calling'? I don't know anything about stupid English punk politics, but 'London Calling' sounds TOTALLY great. That's all it is. Gosh, I'm so tired of people referring to me as hopelessly obscure. I mean, pick up a Beatles album - come on! Who knows what those songs were about? Nobody knows. "



Last Updated 11-18-96