Life to the Pixies
They blasted out of nowhere with a brilliantly surreal sound that influenced a generation future stars, from Kurt Cobain to Thom Yorke. Then they split bitterly, with promises to never reunite. So how did the greatest band of the late '80s become the hottest band right now? Here's the complete story of the Pixies — in their own words.
This feature originally appeared in the September 2004 issue of SPIN magazine.
In Heaven and in the Pixies’ dressing room at Paris’ Parc des Princes stadium, everything is fine. Last night, at the city’s Zenith club, guitarist Joey Santiago totaled his cherished Gibson Gold Top Les Paul reissue during a freak-out solo on “Vamos.” But as the sun sets over the 50,000 fans, the 39-year-old is looking ahead — arrangements are already being made to buy an original — and bopping around the plush white space, blasting Donovan’s dippy “I Love My Shirt” from the stereo. “Play some Rod Stewart!” barefoot bassist Kim Deal, 43, shouts from the couch, where she’s thumbing through a copy of Cat Fancy. Moments later, Deal changes out of her pajama bottoms and does vocal warm-ups: singing the alphabet and blasting her lungs open with an inhaler. After years of heavy drinking, chain-smoking Carltons is now her only vice.
Tour manager Richard Jones has set aside a plate of fish for Black Francis (who signs his autographs “Frank Black,” but really only answers to his given name, Charles Thompson); soon the 39-year-old singer/songwriter is picking at it happily. Santiago even dials up some soothing “dinner music” (Brian Eno) for his bandmate’s pleasure. As each bit of anti-drama unfolds, 42-year-old David Lovering, the band’s drummer-turned-“scientific phenomenalist,” performs some sleights of hand. With the exception of one mystifying card trick (Lovering pulls my randomly chosen six of hearts from his wallet, not the deck), the only thing remarkable about any of this is that we are here at all.
Eleven years ago, the Pixies went through the most passive-aggressive breakup in modern-rock history. Nobody died. Nobody sued. They just burned out amid professional jealousy, substance abuse, possible romantic tension, and pressure to deliver on their potential to be the biggest band in rock. Today, the Pixies don’t seem like adversaries. They interact with the chummy insularity that first brought the four misfits together in 1986. It’s not for my benefit when Thompson offers to place Deal’s travel bag in her tour-bus bunk and cheerfully observes, “You look like you got some sun, Kim” (a lyric from their song “Bone Machine,” almost verbatim).
Burying the hatchet has its material rewards. Parc des Princes is just one in a series gigs the band has played since their first reunion show in Minneapolis on April 13. Starting in September, they’ll embark on a four-month North American tour — many dates sold out minutes after tickets became available. This, too, is unremarkable for a beloved band’s reunion tour until you realize who’s buying the tickets. A new generation of fans adores the Pixies as much as aging Gen Xers who fetishized all those beautifully grotesque album covers in their dorm rooms. Young, old, older they’ve filled every seat here in Paris, even though headliners the Red Hot Chili Peppers don’t go on for another two hours. After the show, there’s silence in the dressing room. Deal and Santiago exchange a glance that seems to say, “Something’s happening here.” And there is.
Unless pressed, the Pixies barely acknowledge their status as not only alternative-rock heroes but also the key influence on anyone who’s ever muted a verse and detonated a chorus with a shriek and an effects pedal. Earlier today, construction work in front of our hotel prevented the tour bus from parking, so a van was hired to take us to the show. Upon delivery, the spiky-haired driver turned to Thompson and, in broken English, nearly wept, “Eet has been an honair to drive you here.” “Oh, thanks,” Thompson said with a shrug, not impolitely, but not too impressed either.
“They’re simple songs,” he told me earlier that day while folding his underwear at a local launderette. “‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’ — why does it say, ‘Then God is seven?'” he asks. “Because it rhymes with heaven!” Well, yeah, but it’s not really that simple, is it? And neither is the story of the Pixies.
Charles Thompson (singer/guitarist, Pixies, Frank Black and the Catholics; b. April 4, 1965): My parents moved a lot, Southern California and Massachusetts. I did my first performance with the Folksong Society of Greater Boston when I was pretty young. It was a hippie collective.
Joey Santiago (guitarist, Pixies, the Martinis; b. June 11, 1965): My family moved [to America] from the Phillipines when I was seven. We lived in Yonkers, New York, for two years, then ended up in this little town in Massachusetts called Longmeadow. It was in the Preppy Handbook.
Kim Deal (bassist, Pixies; singer/guitarist, the Breeders, the Amps; b. June 10, 1961): I’m a coal miner’s daughter [from Ohio]. My brother’s the only male Deal that never worked in a coal mine. My father doesn’t have his front teeth from a hammer ricocheting off the side of a mountain. My dad took guitar lessons when I was around 13. He would bring home tablature and I would pick up his acoustic guitar and play it before he would. He’d say, “Oh, gosh, Kim, you’re making me mad. You’re picking it up so easy.” So I thought I was really cool playing stuff like “King of the Road” by Roger Miller — things dads would want to play. He never did learn how to play guitar.
Santiago: I started playing guitar in high school, but I was just fooling around. Before I went to UMass [at Amherst] they had orientation — you stay there for the weekend and look around the campus. My roommate was this elderly guy, like 47, who was going on his third PhD. He was odd. He had a bowler hat and a big beard. I showed him a chord thing I was working on and he said, “You know, a neat note to pick would be this.” And I said, “How’d you think of that?” and he just showed me on a piece of paper. It was like a theory thing. The muting thing on the verse comes from listening to the Cars. But at the time, it was more about getting good grades [than playing guitar]. I was an economics major.
Thompson: I had good musical encouragement in grade school, but I didn’t follow through on any of the lessons. I bought whatever I could get at the used-record store. They wouldn’t necessarily have the hippest punk-rock records; it was more like Ten Years After and Led Zeppelin. I’ve been writing songs since I was 12. There are a couple of songs like “Here Comes Your Man” which I wrote when I was 14 or 15, so some early Pixies songs had their roots in my teen years. But they didn’t crystallize into something until I heard a Violent Femmes or Iggy Pop record, and then I was like, “Oh, okay.”
Deal: Me and [my twin sister] Kelley had songs. A hundred songs. Kelley got a bass guitar, and, being in high school, we wanted to join a band. But you could not play in a band if you were a chick in Huber Heights, Ohio. If you sang a Pat Benatar song and played tambourine, that was acceptable. So we ended up playing the truck stops. The Ground Round. I remember men ordering me and Kelley sloe-gin fizzes when we were 16. We opened for the Allman Brothers once at McGuffy’s House of Draft. When we got there I was pretty nervous because there were motorcycles in the parking lot. But when bikers see young girls with an acoustic guitar harmonizing on a Hank Williams song, you know they’re going to like it.
Santiago: Charles and I met at UMass. There was a suite of six rooms and his was the next one over.
Thompson: We each had our own goofy record collections, and we had this dream of starting a band, because college wasn’t that interesting. University is a big farty bubble where no one knows shit about anything. Everything rubbed me the wrong way, whether it was social interaction with other kids or people formulating their intellectual outlook on the universe — everyone was so full of themselves.
Santiago: Charles would show me his songs. He had “U-Mass” already. “Levitate Me.” We just wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to be in a band that played covers.
Thompson: I never write in a notebook. I don’t have a diary in my back pocket. I don’t scribble music on cocktail napkins. I sit down to write a song and I write it. “Caribou” is about reincarnation. “Ed Is Dead” is about a brain-damaged girl I knew. We tried a couple of rehearsals at Joey’s parents’ house with a drummer, a keyboard player, and a bass player. We got our feet wet. But we were all too busy going to college.
Santiago: Charles did an exchange program. Our Spanish teacher gave us these pamphlets to go to Puerto Rico. He was excited, and he asked me, but he probably knew I didn’t want to go.
Thompson: “Isla de Encanta” is about Puerto Rico. It’s about the beaches. I was going to the beach every day, jogging. Just hanging out, playing pool, drinking beer. I lost a lot of weight, actually; I was really thin. It was so hot and humid, and I was running and walking all over the city at all hours of the night. It was a good experience, but I was there for six months and I had had enough.
Santiago: He wrote me a couple of letters from Puerto Rico. One said, “Screw this academics, let’s just start the damn band!” So he came back and we drove to UMass. It was the last day to withdraw to get your full tuition back, and I got my money back and we drove to Boston. My whole town revolved around people having an education, but I knew Charles had something unique.
Deal: My ex-husband, John Murphy, was from Boston. He worked as a computer programmer, and he was transferred to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Fairborn, Ohio. My brother was at the same company and he introduced us. [But after we got married,] John wanted to go back to Boston. Boston, that’s the coast, and they’re not weird about playing with chicks. I got a job working at a doctor’s office in Brookline. I was hired to do lab work. I loved the microscope and cellular biology. If you gave a stool sample, I’d be the one swabbing it on a plate of agar and seeing what grows.
LEVITATE ME (1986)
Deal: I [saw an ad] in the Boston Phoenix. It said something about Peter, Paul & Mary and Hüsker Dü. “Wanted: female vocalist for high harmonies, no chops,” which I thought was really funny. So I went over to meet Joe and Charles. I thought Joe was a Mexican when I first met him. He didn’t talk much. But Charles played this song on acoustic, called “Brick Is Red,” and I liked it. He had a big hoop earring on.
Santiago: Kim was the only one to answer the ad, but it didn’t matter, because as soon as she left the apartment, Charles and I looked at each other and said, “She’s it.”
Deal: David Lovering used to work with John at Radio Shack [in Boston]. I remembered David from our wedding reception ’cause he was wearing a pinstripe suit. And I knew he was a drummer.
David Lovering (drummer, Pixies; “scientific phenomenalist; b. December 6, 1961): Kim told John that Joe and Charles were looking for a drummer, and my name came up. I hadn’t played in a number of years. My drums were put away, but then I figured, I’ll give it a shot.
Thompson: David was the first guy who seemed like he had time on his hands and was interested. His parents let us rehearse in their garage.
Deal: Joey found the band name in a dictionary. He didn’t come over here until he was seven, so some words he still had trouble with. It’s weird because he’s fluent in English. But every now and then a word creeps up, so he scans the dictionary. I guess he found the name interesting. He liked the “x” in the middle.
Santiago: I just liked the way it looked: “Pixies.” I also liked the definition: mischievous little elves.
Deal: He thought they were arty things. I don’t think he knew that pixies are more like little fairies. I had people ask me, “Oh, is it an all-girl band?” But Joe thought it looked way more heavy. The original name was Pixies in Panoply.
Santiago: I knew that wouldn’t keep. It made it a little Medieval.
I’M AMAZED (1986-1987)
Johnny Angel (journalist; musician): Back in the ’80s, I was a local celebrity in Boston, and I played in a bunch of bands that had songs on the radio, one of which was called the Blackjacks. One of the members had a side project, and he rehearsed in the same place as the Pixies. He came up to me and said, “There’s these weird people that want to open for us.”
Julie Farman (former booker, the Rat; ex-wife of David Lovering): The big local bands were Mission of Burma, the Neats, the Lyres, the Del Fuegos. There was this hierarchy of the Boston scene. These were the bands who played locally and came up through the clubs and really worked it and earned it and hung out. The Pixies were not part of that scene. They came out of nowhere.
Angel: Boston bands are mega-derivative of everything. If a band like the Smiths was happening in 1986, there was a Boston version. But the Pixies weren’t like anything else. I remember thinking that they didn’t connect to me at all, they were just too strange. Like, “Man, if this shit takes off, my career is over.”
Thompson: Our set was pretty much the first two Pixies albums — and a cover. All the Pixies went to the movies together. I dragged them down to see Eraserhead ’cause I loved it so much. I had this brilliant idea: “Hey, let’s cover the song [“In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator)”] from the movie!”
Lovering: Our first gig was a Wednesday night at a bar in Cambridge. And they spelled the band’s name wrong! It was “the Puxies.” A total of, like, five of our friends came down. My best friend, Scott, came. He’s a drummer too, and I really admired him. He thought it sucked.
Thompson: We got a reaction from an audience immediately.
Lovering: We’d play shitholes. Any place with a pool table.
Deal: There were a lot of universities [in Boston]. That means a lot of drinking, a lot of bars, and a lot of opportunities to play out. And if you could bring a couple of your [Boston University]-Emerson-Tufts buddies down, and if you could get ‘em to drink beer, you would get asked back. The bar owners want to sell beer. They don’t care if the music’s good. I don’t even know if the people who liked us came back the next time we played. But something must have happened, because people started coming to the shows to see us.
Evan Dando (singer/guitarist, the Lemonheads): [The Lemonheads] played with them at T.T. the Bear’s Place in 1986. It was our second or third gig and their second or third gig too. It was called “Nu Muzik,” like n-u-m-u-z-i-k. Totally hilarious. Like new wave was still happening. We were expecting all the bands to totally suck, but when [the Pixies] played we were like, “What’s wrong with this picture? This band’s amazing!” After that, I went to see them whenever I could.
Santiago: We also made these posters to announce when we were playing. They said, “Death to the Pixies,” with a photo of Charles [naked] on them. That was Charles’ idea. People were tearing them down and keeping them. They loved that poster.
Thompson: It was my attempt at some sort of Iggy Pop pose. They were done on high-grade paper, they weren’t just Xeroxed.
Kurt St. Thomas (former DJ and program director, WFNX Boston): They were popping up all over town. I was like, “What the hell is that?” They were pretty aggressive posters. They just grabbed your attention because it was like, “What does that mean? Did they break up already?”
Deal: The Rat was the cool club to play at the time.
St. Thomas: The name of the club was the Rathskeller, but everybody called it the Rat. It was this tiny club in Kenmore Square.
Kristin Hersh (singer/guitarist, Throwing Muses): The Rat was just gross, but perfectly gross. It was a study in squalor.
Farman: At the time, it was really in disrepair. Not great sound or lighting, but it had this air about it. It was so legendary. The Cars used to play there all the time. Every punk-rock band had played there, and all the new-wave bands that came over from England.
Deal: We were so scared to go in and hand out our tape that we got Charles’ [then] girlfriend Jean [Walsh] to go instead, ’cause she was a goth. She had the blond hair and the cool-looking getup. So we got here to give it to the booker, so we’d seem cool.
Angel: Jean went to UMass too, but I think they met at a club in Boston, and the story goes… Am I supposed to be telling you this? Oh, I don’t know, fuck, I don’t see why it’s a big deal. She passed [Charles] a note. Jean was just crackers about Charles right away. I think him with her too. I think a lot of really hilarious shit [on the Pixies’ records] comes from him trying to crack her up. Jean loves word games, and he ran a lot of his ideas by her. In that tune, “Tame,” there’s a line “Cookie, I think you’re tame,” and he starts screaming it. I know it was either “honey” or “baby” first, and Jean was like, “Come up with something else.” I know that was her idea. It’s a Jeanism. She likes hard-boiled, ’40s movie dialogue. “Is She Weird?” — that’s definitely about her. And so is “Subbacultcha.” I think she was an enormous influence on the band.
Thompson: You can trace certain songs to people in your life, but, um, it’s a lot more complex than that. If we’re talking about the first three Pixies records, they’re not really very relationship oriented, shall we say. But a song like “Where Is My Mind?” — my girlfriend heard me working on that, and she poked her head in and said, “Finish that one. That’s a good one.”
Farman: We would get tons of demo tapes [at the Rat]. I had this intern who would listen to all of them. She listened to the Pixies’ [tape] and said they were amazing, so she put them on a Sunday afternoon show, but it was probably, like, eight bands with five or six people in the audience.
Hersh: [The Rat] was the first place [Throwing Muses] played with the Pixies, and honestly, I wasn’t going to watch them because their name was so stupid! When they walked onstage I thought they were all lesbians. Charles was really soft and pretty, and he screamed like a girl, but with real guts behind it. When he started singing about his penis, I figured out that none of them were lesbians. From that show on, we made sure the Pixies opened for us everywhere.
Thompson: We got along famously with the Muses.
Tanya Donelly (guitarist, the Breeders; singer/guitarist, Throwing Muses, Belly): We were both bands that didn’t play well with others, and we got put onto a lot of the same bills and became really close. Gary Smith, whose band Lifeboat we played with a few times, took us all under his wing.
Hersh: Gary Smith cared so much about what we were doing. He was the one who forced us all into the studio to record demos and started pushing us into thinking in a more worldly way. One of the things he did was called “Sing for Your Supper.” He made really good fettuccine Alfredo, and we were starving. So you could go to Gary’s house, and he’d make you the fettuccine Alfredo if you sat on his bed and played into his two-track — all the songs that you knew until you were tired. Charles and I both did that. I’m not sure either of our bands would ever have been heard without him.
Gary Smith (owner/manager, Fort Apache studios; producer, “The Purple Tape” demo; musician): The Muses played with the Pixies at the Rat, and that’s where I saw the Pixies for the first time, in sound check. In one song, I was knocked out. I remember thinking, “Holy shit, this is different.” Just the way they approached the songs and the wide dynamic range, the control during the verses and mania during the choruses. By then I was working at Fort Apache [studios], so I knew there was a way to record it. I begged them to work with me. And they eventually said yes. The demos I’d done for the Muses had gotten them a record deal with 4AD. And that was what I was using as leverage. I’m kind of a snotty, sanctimonious guy, and I always wanted to work with cool people.
Joe Harvard (co-founder, Fort Apache studios): When Gary came in, he had a hard-on this big. He had a similar erection over the Muses, so I trusted his judgement.
Deal: I think Charles’ dad paid, like, $1,500 bucks, and we went into Fort Apache. And we did 16 or 18 songs in three days. Jolt Cola had just come out, so we were all doing the Jolt.
Lovering: Fort Apache was in Roxbury, which is not a really great part of Boston.
Smith: We stayed up all night for three days. It was very cold. I remember people wearing snorkel jackets while doing parts, people wearing gloves while playing guitar. When we finally had the whole thing mixed and ready, we were at my apartment, and I was doing the artwork for the cassette. And that’s the day that Charles committed to being “Black Francis.” And Kim decided to be “Mrs. John Murphy.”
Santiago: I don’t know why he did it. We still called him Charles, sometimes Chuck, depending on the mood.
Thompson: I wanted a stage name. It was a punk-rock thing. I’ve since learned it has a much longer history, mostly in black blues music. But for me, it was, “If it’s good enough for Iggy Pop, it’s good enough for me.”
Deal: I was sitting at [work] and I answered the phone and the woman who called, her name was, like, Ethel Goldfarb — and I said something like, “Okay, one moment, Ethel, I’ll get your chart.” And she said, “My name is not Ethel Goldfarb. My name is Mrs. Leonard Goldfarb.” Her power was in her husband’s name and her identity and her value. To show respect, I had to refer to her by her husband’s name. And I thought, “Cool. I want to be Mrs. John Murphy.” And then I got divorced and it wasn’t funny.
Smith: I remember doing the lettering and thinking, “Are you sure about this?” They had a plan back then that they each would do a nude shot for each successive record. It stopped almost immediately. For the cassette, I shot ten rolls of Dave Lovering jogging in the nude. This was “The Purple Tape.” I had a bunch of extra ones made and I sent them to everyone I had met while on tour with Lifeboat. And I do think that had some impact on building the first buzz in America. They were all cool people, like the dB’s, the Hoodoo Gurus, R.E.M., and the Replacements.
Hersh: I begged my manager [Ken Goes] to sign them. Made him sit down in my car and listen to their demos.
Smith: He didn’t really want to do it; he didn’t get it. And I didn’t know anything about management at the time. Back then I just wanted somebody who had contacts at record labels. He didn’t really hear it until other people started hearing it.
Deal: Ken Goes finally gave a tape to 4AD. We had already sent it out. I have the rejection letters: Elektra, Slash, SST, Relativity, Homestead, Throbbing Lobster, New Rose. Everybody rejected us. The story I heard was that Ivo Watts-Russell over at 4AD in London got the tape from Ken, got stuck in traffic or something, and he listened to us and liked it.
Ivo Watts-Russell (co-founder, 4AD records): This is why I hate doing this, because the stuck-in-traffic story was [when I heard] the Throwing Muses. See how it becomes something else? It’s all fucking Chinese whispers. Ken gave me the tape. He said, “David [Narcizo, Throwing Muses’ drummer] gave this to me. I think they’re pretty good.” I listened to the tape for the first time on a Walkman, walking through New York. It was a bit of a guilty pleasure because I was keen on veering the label away from anything that could be described as rock’n’roll. My girlfriend at the time, our press person at 4AD, Deborah Edgeley, just said, “This is great — we gotta do it.”
Thompson: We were like, “Record label? London? Party! Cool! What do we do?” It wasn’t because we were desperate; it was because it was action. All the stuff they were talking about, whether it was a record producer or a particular song, or whether the name of the band was going to be Pixies or the Pixies — they dropped the the because they thought it was cooler to call [us] Pixies — all this stuff was just not important. The important thing was that we were going to go in a studio, we were going to go on tour, we were going to put a record out.
Deal: I’d never heard of 4AD, except that they wanted to sign us. Then I started to pay attention when a band was on that label. The Cocteau Twins were kind of big, and the Wolfgang Press and Dead Can Dance. I thought, “Wow, moody goth rock! Cool!”
Watts-Russell: I called Ken up and said I want to pick these eight songs and I want to call it Come on Pilgrim because it made me think of Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim. And I think Charles just said, “Yeah, all right.” I had been frustrated by enjoying a demo and then getting it rerecorded — half the time it didn’t turn out as good.
Smith: “The Purple Tape” was 17 songs. Ken Goes called and said Ivo only wanted to do eight of the songs. I was kind of miffed. I don’t think [Ivo] took the best songs, and I think he knew that. I think he was doing it as setup for whatever came after. It’s a pity that they made the decision to release the outtakes from “The Purple Tape” on SpinART and leave Come on Pilgrim with 4AD, so now those two things will never be rejoined as they should have been.
Watts-Russell: Gary Smith has slagged me off to this day for having taken those eight tracks. But I’m still glad that was done as an introduction to the Pixies.
Vaughan Oliver (graphic designer, 4AD records): I was Ivo’s first employee. That showed how much he cared about the sleeves. But [4AD] never set out to give these bands an identity. It just evolved in an organic way from sleeve to sleeve. We take the music first, read the lyrics, have a conversation with the band. The primary contact with the Pixies was always Charles. We’d talk around what he liked in art and film. That’s how we arrived at the first sleeve: the hairy man. I think we shared an interest in David Lynch. I could hear it in his music. The horror and the humor. Charles said he liked nudity. He wanted to see some nudity on the sleeve. I said, “Fine by me. Nice start.”
Deal: When I first saw the album, I thought, “Wow, is that really hair on his back?”
Oliver: All the photographs on the [original] sleeves have been by Simon Larbalestier. The hair is real. This guy was covered, behind his knees, etc. But, ironically, he was going bald, so he would shave his head. Then he’d have to shave his neck and down inside his collar, so he’d literally have this hair shirt. It’s exaggerated with the lighting, but [Simon] just plied him with a few drinks one night and got his shirt off.
Santiago: After Come on Pilgrim came out, we became aware of these publications [like CMJ].
Deal: You could open up CMJ and there was this little picture of the country, and you could look at the college stations, ’cause college stations, that’s all there was to listen to. Well, there were modern-rock stations that played the Cure, the Fixx, Siouxsie and the Banshees. But if you wanted to hear Hüsker Dü or the Replacements or anything like that, you had to listen to college radio. Once [Come on Pilgrim] came out, we could see our name listed, like, in the Top Ten. We could say, “Wow, lookit, a college in North Carolina is playing us.” And we could go there and play a show. I don’t think I realized that it was probably a wattage that didn’t even penetrate the campus — that probably two people were listening.
Santiago: First tour was in, like, a Ryder truck. No windows. We were stuck in the back. There was no scenery. We were just excited to be on the road. I had never heard of the Eastern Seaboard. I thought it was romantic. “We’re going to be going down the Eastern Seaboard.” No one else calls it that but bands that tour.
Deal: Jean had given Charles a present: a CD player. So it was the first time I had ever seen one. It skipped all the time. But it was pretty cool.
Lovering: It was really close quarters. We learned a lot about ourselves as well as our temperament towards each other.
Thompson: Other bands like to hang out and get fucked up and build so-called camaraderie and get into the local battle of the bands, and all that stuff that doesn’t really mean anything. [Our] goal was to get the hell out of town, not be local heroes. Fuck that. I want to be Bob Dylan — I don’t want to be the most popular kid on campus.
Santiago: You wanna hear one of Steve Albini’s jokes? “Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “Frank Sinatra.” “Frank Sinatra who?” [Mimics cool Sinatra voice] “C’mon!”
Steve Albini (recording engineer, Surfer Rosa; musician): Ivo sent me a copy of their cassette. I have to admit I didn’t listen too closely until I was on my way to Boston to do [Surfer Rosa]. If somebody wants me to work on their record, I try not to say no. I always try to find a reason to do it rather than a reason to not do it. [With the Pixies] there was an atmospheric quality to their early stuff that was great.
Watts-Russell: Steve was a delight to deal with. Very swift and no-nonsense. Well, maybe because I never met him. I dealt with him on the telephone.
Albini: They did have quite distinct personalities. Kim is giddy and playful. Charles is more serious, but he’s also got a sardonic sense of humor, and I’m a fan of dark humor. He was a kindred spirit in that sense. David Lovering was very pleasant, very cooperative. I didn’t get the feeling that he was the biggest music fan, but he enjoyed playing the drums. The same with Joey. And because they had developed as bedroom players, they had distinctive styles. People who taught themselves how to play had an advantage because they wouldn’t be mimicking. Like, you weren’t gonna play guitar like Ted Nugent if nobody taught you how to do it. They were making music along unconventional lines partly out of ignorance, but I mean “ignorance” in a flattering sense. They were also very good and very smart. On a personal level, I got along with all of them fine. I later said some unflattering things about the band in a fanzine and to this day I regret having done it. [In a 1991 issue of Forced Exposure, Albini called Surfer Rosa “a patchwork pinch loaf from a band who at their top dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock… Never have I seen four cows more anxious to be led around by their nose rings.” — ed.]
Santiago: I know he says some weird things in the press. Trust me, he’d prefer it if I told you he was a prick. But he’s not — not to me, anyway. [Surfer Rosa] did sound really good.
Deal: He’s specific in the way he doesn’t want it to sound. For us it was perfect. He’s not a producer; he’s an engineer. How you sound in the room — he’ll put up the best mikes that the place has to offer. People thought he was this rebellious guy with crazy ideas, but I think what makes him rebellious and crazy is that he’s just so traditional.
Albini: Up until that point, most of the recording sessions that I’d done had either been for my own band or for my friends’ bands at studios in Chicago. So this was one of the first times that I’d been hired to go elsewhere to be in charge of a session for strangers. I guess that’s the key: It was for strangers. And I probably went a little bit overboard in terms of taking charge.
Thompson: I had no approach at that time. I had a guitar or two, a shitty amp, some songs, and a band. My approach was, “Whatever you want to do there, Bucko.”
Albini: From a musical standpoint, all the decisions were theirs, but I think I was more inclined to try to throw my ideas in there. I remember thinking that there were times when their music implied a heavier sound than they were generating, so we’d get them bigger amplifiers. And instead of recording evernything in the studio, there was this big hallway and a big bathroom. So we rigged up amplifiers in there.
There’s a song called “Vamos,” which had already been on their first record. I think they were interested in distinguishing the version that they were recording from that version, so they played the instrumental portion for a really long time, and then Joey played a number of crazy little guitar-solo fragments. Then those were edited together on quarter-inch tape — some of the fragments were put in backwards, some of them put in forwards. And that was played over the multi-track as a guitar solo. So, rather than him playing a crazy guitar solo, he sort of assembled a crazy guitar solo on tape. That’s the sort of thing that they wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t been there saying, “Why don’t we try that?”
Lovering: Steve does a lot of ambient sounds — kind of that Led Zeppeling thing — by miking the room. It just sounds like you’re there in the room with us. I think he recorded those snippets of conversation for ambience, too.
Thompson [Surfer Rosa excerpt, before “Vamos”]: “You fucking die,” I said to her. I said, “You fucking die” to her. Huh? What? No, no. I was talking to Kim. I said, “You fucking die.” No, I, uh, we were just goofing around. No, no. It didn’t have anything to do with anything. She said, “Don’t anybody touch this — this is my stuff.” And I said, “You fucking die.” I was finishing her part for her. You know what I mean?
Albini: When you’re in the studio, you’ve got tape machines everywhere. So when little bits of conversation would come up, I would roll a tape machine in the hopes that some of it would be useful. I think that’s one of the things on the record that I put my fingerprints on that I’m a little uncomfortable with at the moment.
Deal [Surfer Rosa excerpt, before “I’m Amazed”]: …girls and fuck them at school. All I know is that there were rumors he was into field hockey players. There were rumors —
Thompson: So I applied, basically.
Deal: He was gone the next day.
Thompson: I went out for the team.
Deal: It’s like he was gone. They just, like, it was, like, so hush hush. They were so quiet about it, and then the next thing you know…
Deal: I was talking to Charles or Albini, and I was telling ‘em this story. I didn’t know Albini was rolling tape. The story is, there was this guy in high school who was a biology teacher — oh, I don’t want to tell you. Then the mystique’s gone!
Lovering: People memorize those lines. I’ve seen a tribute album where a band covered that dialogue, the conversation, like it was a song.
Albini: Yeah, well, people are fucking idiots.
Oliver: The Surfer Rosa sleeve was fairly provocative, wasn’t it? I’d been talking to Charles about his time in Puerto Rico. I quizzed him on it and just went to a typical, traditional Spanish image of a flamenco dancer. Because it’s so traditional and proud, I wondered how it could be debased. And that’s just by asking her to take her shirt off. She was willing, but I was a bit nervous asking. It was like, “You’re a great dancer, but one more thing…” In America, there’s a little round sticker that just kind of fits her top. It’s so prudish!
Deal: [The 4AD people] were all bald, very thin, and gaunt, and Deborah would have these big red lips, and they would all have eyeliner on. The guys and the girls looked very similar, and they were all wearing these big, Polish, furry hats.
Santiago: They came to Boston and thought we’d be all leather jackets and stuff. We showed up at dinner in our oxford shirts.
Thompson: We knew 4AD had their own little cultish following and indie-rock kids kind of knew who we were, but it didn’t turn into something real for us until we came to Europe.
Deal: 4AD had a tour booked [for us] to open for the Throwing Muses. So in April of ’88, after [Surfer Rosa] came out, we went over to England. That first show at the Town and Country Club was so exciting. The people actually knew the songs.
Santiago: That was a huge gig. It was sold out, and I took the subway to the gig, and right when I got off the train there were people everywhere, scalping tickets.
Robin Hurley (former CEO, 4AD records): It’s a fairly legendary story now that halfway through [the Throwing Muses tour] they switched the billing around because the Pixies were pulling a far higher percentage of the crowd. It was a credit to the way those two bands toured together that they could do that and still keep going with an amazing live show.
J Mascis (singer/guitarist, Dinosaur Jr.): I’d met Charles at UMass in 1984, but I only heard about the Pixies in England. Dinosaur Jr. were touring there at the time with [Albini’s band] Rapeman, and Surfer Rosa had come out and they were playing it in all the clubs. I had heard “Gigantic” so much that later that year, at a Fort Apache Christmas party, I actually played it with the band. Charles wasn’t there, so I got recruited to play it with the other Pixies. It went reasonably well.
St. Thomas: They were struggling just to get gigs in Boston or New York. And then NME or Melody Maker would rave about the band and you’d be like, “Holy shit, look at this! They’re in the NME, but they’re not even in [their own] local paper!”
Lovering: I just think they have better taste over there.
LA LA LOVE YOU (1989)
Deal: After Europe, we went back home and did Doolittle. The first one cost like $1,500 bucks, Surfer Rosa cost like $9,000, and then Doolittle, I think, cost 30 grand. Maybe that took three weeks to do. And just before that came out in ’89, 4AD decided to sign us proper. Five albums, I think. And since they were import-only, they needed a proper U.S. distributor. So that’s where Elektra came in.
Hurley: I think Surfer Rosa had sold just over 100,000 [copies], and the thought was definitely that the band should sell half a million or more in the States. And that has been achieved on Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. Elektra was very supportive. The Pixies were not the most overly commercial band. So to achieve half a million, I think, was good.
Angel: You can tell the difference in their sound on the monkey record — what was that called again? Doolittle. I think Charles started to realize, “Wow, this really is a big deal and there’s pressure on me to write more stuff now.”
Thompson: “Gouge Away” is about Samson and Delilah. “Dead” is about David and Bathsheba. There were some Biblical things I had gotten into. You can’t go wrong with the Old Testament.
Santiago: We were going through the process, and we were like, “Preproduction? What is this? We never had this with Albini.”
Michael Azerrad (author, Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana and Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground 1981-1991): Gil Norton had produced successful bands in the U.K., so he had the sound of young Britain at his fingertips, and that’s where the Pixies were the biggest. It made sense to team up with him.
Gil Norton (producer, Doolittle, Trompe Le Monde): Charles played the songs for me on acoustic guitar before rehearsing with the band. I was trying to develop some of the songs with him — like [adding] the strings on “Monkey Gone to Heaven.” Some of those songs were originally like a minute thirty. So I’d try to do things twice. You had to excite Charles. He was like, “Why do you want me to do it twice? I’ve already done it once.”
Thompson: There were new, cleaner textures, maybe, but it wasn’t like we thought we’d get played on the radio. I mean, maybe “Here Comes Your Man.” At the time I was kind of embarrassed by the song, but the producer really liked it, so I threw him a bone.
Santiago: We were listening to Doolittle in the control room, and were just saying, “Goddamn, this is a great record.” And I said, “We’re going to be those people that people are going to emulate and use as a stepping stone.” I foresaw being the Velvet Underground of something. I didn’t trust anyone who didn’t listen to the Velvet Underground.
Thompson: A song like “Debaser” — to this day, it doesn’t sound commercial to me. Nothing we do is very commercial. Not that what we were doing was so radical or so intense, but it wasn’t what was being played on the radio. We never thought, “Oh, we’re selling out.” It was just like, “Now you have more money to make a record.”
Santiago: We still all lived around Boston. There was some cash in the bank. We got a little more comfy.
Lovering: On our first big tour, we opened for the Cure at [New Jersey’s] Giants Stadium, and I was there early onstage. They had this pre-fab flooring — these huge sheets of plywood and a huge tarp — all over the field. But it had rained the night before and the moisture had warped the boards. So they open up general admission and hundereds and hundreds of goths are running in to get in front of the stage and they’re going down like flies. It was very surreal.
Azerrad: When they opened for the Cure, they were so confident that they arranged their set in alphabetical order. They knew they were so shit-hot that they could shuffle their deck any which way and still win the game.
Oliver: I saw them around that time in North London. It was an illustration of their genius that they played the set alphabetically. And the next night they played it backwards. They’d start with the fucking encore, and it worked!
Ben Marts (former tour manager, Pixies): I remember the slowest-to-fastest sets. They played their slowest songs first and went up to the fastest — just built it into a frenzy.
Deal: But the dynamic in the band was not good. It wasn’t good at all.
St. Thomas: There’s something about Kim’s voice that’s almost childlike. Charles would be screaming incoherently, and then she’d sing this little childlike melody, and that was really jarring. There was definitely a tension [onstage], and obviously we’d find out later that there was a lot of tension between them.
Santiago: I think they really complement each other vocally. She’s the charmer of the band. A lot of girls look up to Kim. If they want to be a rock chick, they have to be like Kim.
Deal: When journalists used to say things like, “Why doesn’t Kim sing more?” Charles would leave the table. He would act so bad. That obviously became a button. So what does a journalist want to do? Fucking press that, time and time again. “Gigantic” [on which Deal sings lead] was our first single. People liked it. People sang along even then. You’d have to ask Charles if that bothers him. I don’t know and I don’t care. It’s none of my business.
Thompson: I have an ego. You have to have an ego to do this. At the time, we would be playing and I would say to myself, “I’m doing all the work. She’s smoking a cigarette and the crowd is loving her. Why am I knocking myself out writing all these damn songs?”
Deal: Tanya Donelly started coming over, bringing her guitar, and we were playing together. I had gotten bored.
Donelly: Initially, the Breeders were just us playing guitar together and hanging out and drinking beer. But both of us loved dancing, so we decided we were going to do a dance project, and it was going to be both David Narcizo, the Muses drummer, and David Lovering drumming. I’d play guitar and she’d play bass. We had some originals, then were gonna do “Tell Me Something Good” by Rufus and Chaka Khan, but we sucked at it. We didn’t have the funk. We were thinking, we’ll have this organic dance band — no machines, no loops, just guitars and drums. It was dumb. So we decided to have a regular old band.
Deal: Ivo found out and said send him a copy of what we were doing. So we said, “Here’s what we’re doing,” and he said, “Okay, record it. We’ll put it out.”
Albini: I instantly preferred it to the Pixies. It had the playful nature of children’s music and this girlish fascination with things that were pretty, but it was also kind of horny. And that juxtaposition at the time was unusual. You didn’t get a lot of knowing winks from female artists. But I also think that musically it was quite distinct from everything else that was around.
Deal: People think that since they like my voice, obviously I’m being oppressed [in the Pixies]. Or because they prefer my voice, they think I should sing more. I don’t want to sing at all! I’d rather play the drums.
Albini: There was a discussion at the time that Kim [making] that record [Pod, which Albini recorded] was causing some friction within the Pixies. It was an unrealted enterprise. I don’t see why it would matter.
Thompson: It just became a grouchy thing. More than anything, it was just people being unhappy in their personal lives.
Marc Geiger (agent; co-creator, Lollapalooza festival): There were some issues, and that probably was part of the problem. I’ll let you interpret.
Farman: The relationship between Charles and Kim was complicated. By the time I was aware of anything, there was none of the camaraderie that you’d expect from a band who had been together for so long. When I did go on the road with them, there wasn’t any antagonism or tension, but… This is so hard. I’m so sorry. I wanna tell you, but… Okay, at one point Charles and Jean decided they were gonna drive in their big yellow Cadillac rather than get on the bus.
Thompson: I had a traveling companion. I suppose it was an attempt at privacy.
Angel: I’ve heard that [there were romantic tensions], but I don’t know.
Oliver: I read that there was something [between Charles and Kim], and that it didn’t work and it led to an adverse chemistry between them.
Dando: I definitely heard a bunch of rumors, but I’m not talking about any of that stuff.
Chas Banks (former European tour manager, Pixies): There’s no way Charles and Kim ever had sex together. It’s like this: Certain actors and actresses have that sexual chemistry onscreen. Then they go home to their husbands and wives. That’s how it was with Charles and Kim onstage.
[The Pixies refused to comment about the rumored affair. Their spokesperson would only say, “People have said a lot of things about the Pixies over the years, but the band doesn’t pay attention to most of it.” — ed.]
Deal: Everyone had gone out to L.A., but I didn’t know that. So I called up Charles to find out when we were gonna get together to rehearse, and he said, “I don’t want you to come out.” “What do you mean, ‘I don’t want you to come out’?” I called Deborah Edgeley from 4AD. I said, “I heard we were rehearsing.” And she said, “Yeah, Joe’s out there.” I thought, “Oh my God, Joe’s out there?” And I knew David had moved out there. Everybody’s out there? So I asked her, “Charles said he doesn’t want me to come out. Does that mean they don’t want me to come out and play ever?” She goes, “I don’t know, Kim. Go out there, ask them.”
I was so sad. I flew out on my own. It was so weird taking a flight by myself, booking my own hotel room. Then I get a phone call from the manager. Me and him had never talked. It was weird. He said, “You are to meet here the next day.” I go, “Okay.” I still have no fucking idea what’s going on. It’s a lawyer’s office! David, Joe, and Charles are there with our manager and the lawyer. And I walk in — it’s like, “Ohhh, I’m fired.” I mean, I didn’t say that. It was so hurtful, it was odd, it was awkward. Charles started talking about [how] I got $11,000 to record Pod. And I guess Surfer Rosa cost less or something. Anyway, the lawyer stopped him from talking about it, because she said that wasn’t relevant to the discussion about why I’m fired. I knew they were wrong, but it really didn’t matter because the fact that all three of them were thinking that — it doesn’t matter if they’re wrong, I’m wrong. I was there to get fired. Then I think Joe and David pussed out and decided they hadn’t given me a warning and so this would be my warning. I don’t know what about. I think Joe feels like an asshole that it happened. David — he’s just gonna say, “Right on,” ’cause David always says “Right on” about everything.
Lovering: I just think of it as a little spat that we had, just from being too tight. I think people’s heads, including my own, were somewhere else. It was a lot more extreme than it should have been.
Santiago: You have to ask Kim and Charles.
Deal: Charles will get mad at you if you ask about it.
Thompson: First of all, a lot of the so-called tension and negativity within the band that people have alluded to over the years is much exaggerated. It was almost thrust upon us because people were looking for it. The band actually got along fine. I did kick a guitar at Kim once onstage in Germany because she was late for the gig. She was like an hour late; it was a sold-out gig.
Banks: She was very lax when it came to being professional and on time.
Thompson: I have since apologized to her. It was just one of those stupid things you do. Now, if someone was an hour late for a gig, I’d just be like, “Rock’n’roll, man.” it wouldn’t be a big deal. But when you’re young, you’re hyper, you’re full of yourself. Your crew pick up on it, and they go, “Oh, Charles is upset.” The gig happened and all was well. I didn’t need to get frustrated. I just picked up the guitar with my foot and hurled it across the stage at her. She was just like, “Fuck you!” That was the only time we had a fight onstage. The audience loved it, of course. It was just embarrassing. It was one of those things that as soon as you’re doing it, you’re kind of like, “Oops, I shouldn’t do this.” I’m not an aggressive person, not physically anyway, and I felt really bad about it afterwards. There was much made of us not getting along because there’s not much of a story with us. We don’t have any kind of image, there is no vision, there is no plan. We’re just four people playing songs. That’s all there is. We’re not trying to do anything except express ourselves. It’s kind of abstract. People have a difficult time with abstraction, and they always want to figure it out. So they say, “Oh, there’s tension in the band. They don’t get along.”
Jeff Craft (international booking agent, Pixies): Charles is a complete 100 percent professional. I know that there are plenty of rock’n’roll bands that have difficult characters in them, and the bands managed to find a way of moving forward. But you can’t do that with somebody like Charles, because he is a very straight guy. And he expects a certain amount of commitment and professionalism from the people around him. If he doesn’t get it, then they go, you know?
Angel: They’d have no band if they fired Kim. She was the soul of the group. It’s like the Stones firing Keith Richards because he’s a fuck-up, I mean, come on! You can’t do that.
Thompson: I moved to California in January of 1990 and I played a couple of gigs while traveling across the country. Why did I do it? Gas money.
St. Thomas: I remember going to see him solo, while the Pixies were still together. I remember thinking, “Why is he doing this?” I remember thinking, “Well, that was good, but it wasn’t the Pixies.”
ALL OVER THE WORLD (1990-1991)
Thompson: [Eventually] we moved to [L.A.] to record Bossanova. Kim didn’t, but Joey and Dave did. It’s a natural place to go. It’s warm there. I grew up there. I didn’t even want to move there — my girlfriend wanted to. It wasn’t like, “We’ll never leave our beloved Boston.” We didn’t give a shit! A lot of musicians move to L.A. for no particular reason other than the weather’s really good and it’s laid-back.
Santiago: I remember going to L.A. and hating it. It’s hot, smoggy. I ended up living in L.A. I’ve been there for over ten years. People are always saying, “Good luck trying to leave.”
Oliver: Before I even received the music, my partner Chris Bigg and I were talking about a Pixies planet, just this image of a Pixies world, which was strange because [Charles had] come up with all these extraterrestrial references.
Thompson: I did have some UFO experiences when I was younger, and I decided to tap into that and explore. I thought it might be fun. I don’t know if I wrote my best songs while doing it, but whatever. Again, it’s like you start to get rid of the jabberwocky “I’m going to sing the first words that come into my head” approach. In a way, that kind of thing is good, but in a way that can become kind of hack. You sit down and you want to write a song about something. It’s hard to keep that abstract surrealist thing going. Or I just wasn’t talented enough to keep it going.
St. Thomas: I’ve spoken to Charles many times about UFOs. He’s just fascinated by science fiction and he got into the whole Roswell thing. That’s usually what he would talk about, these very odd topics: UFOs or the most random things. But if you got him on a topic, he’d know so much about it. We talked about Bob Hope once for an hour. He was telling me all these things about California and Bob Hope and I was like, “Why would you know all this stuff?”
Santiago: Bossanova was different from the other albums. It’s mellower. It’s a pretty record. We got a lot of flak for that. Everybody said we went soft.
Thompson: I think there’s good stuff and less good stuff on every record we made. It’s a mixed bag from beginning to end. And I have no favorite, because it’s a mixed bag. Maybe Doolittle has a few more A-list songs. And let’s be honest: Surfer Rosa is a great record, but “Tony’s Theme” is not one of my best songs.
Azerrad: They headlined the Reading Festival in August of 1990. That show was kind of a make-or-break thing. They were stressed out about it. Gil Norton had actually taken them up to a rehearsal hall in Manchester and they worked out all the kinks as if they were doing preproduction for a recording. And sure enough, they go on and the place exploded. The crowd was just heaving up and down as one, and there was this great cloud of sweat and steam coming off them. The band was just pounding. Every song seemed like this epic statement, even though a lot of them were two minutes long.
Santiago: Yeah, Reading. I think I threw up before the show. Goddamn, it was a lot of people.
Lovering: That was our first [big] headlining thing. That was probably the most money we made for a gig at the time. We played a secret gig the night before, at a little pub in Reading. And that was the hottest gig we ever did, as far as temperature. It was absolutely deadly. I played in my underwear.
Geiger: After Reading, I went on the road with them in Germany. They did shows with David Bowie and Midnight Oil at big, 50,000-people festivals. [Then] I offered them Lollapalooza. I offered it to them the first year and they turned it down. Charles didn’t want to do it.
Kurt Cobain [from unpublished interview transcripts for Azerrad’s Come As You Are]: When I heard the Pixies, I said to myself, “This is exactly what I’ve been doing and what I really want to do. Now that there’s a band like this who’s actually becoming popular, maybe some people would really enjoy this stuff, so I’ll start writing more pop songs.”
Deal: Yeah, Kurt did [talk us up], didn’t he? And David Grohl would do that too. Maybe people listened.
Thompson: I didn’t like Nirvana. Not at the time, when they first hit, but I will never like whatever is popular. If everyone’s going, “Have you seen this Quentin Tarantino film everyone’s talking about?” it’s like, “Guess what I’m not gonna go see next week?” That’s where my snobbery just takes over. In retrospect I can hear it and go, “Oh yeah, they have talent.” But they don’t sound like the Pixies — they sound like Nirvana. No one sounds like the Pixies.
Azerrad: Success in rock’n’roll has a lot to do with timing. Not only do you have to get all the breaks, but you also have to capitalize on them. When everything started breaking the Pixies’ way, their train engine was running out of coal.
Santiago: I don’t know. Maybe Charles did that hard-rock thing on purpose. I couldn’t wait to get to it because I think I got slammed in some stupid guitar magazine. Trompe Le Monde is hilarious. There’s so much shredding on it!
Norton: I was trying to do something a bit grander since the band was a bit grander — more arena rock.
Thompson: We were making the records at too fast a pace, which was a good learning thing, but there wasn’t enough criticism. Everyone was just, “Give us more.” I blame nobody but myself. You’re 25 years old, you’re smoking pot all day; I don’t think you have the best perspective. You can do no wrong, and I was just really getting into being in a studio and learning. You start to get curious and you go, “Oh, that’s how that works. Everybody out of the way!” You stop relying on the producer to give you advice. You stop relying on the engineer. You start telling them. A lot of what the Pixies did early on was spontaneous. Then you start writing in a studio and working with chord progressions and writing lyrics really fast. You can get some good results, but then you keep doing that over and over, and it can’t sustain 45 minutes of music every year. So you end up with what might be interesting recordings, but maybe they just don’t have any “Monkey Gone to Heaven”s or “Where Is My Mind?”s or “Gigantic”s. You just have “Rrraaaahhhhh!” You have more coffee-fueled late-night musings. It just doesn’t sustain itself.
Lovering: Our whole thing was just pumping ‘em out. I think I would have been happier if I’d had a little more time to play the songs.
Norton: [Kim’s presence] got less every time, especially when we did Trompe Le Monde. I wasn’t happy by the end of that, because there was one song, “Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons,” that I thought was perfect for her to sing. Charles didn’t want her to sing it. He definitely didn’t want her to have a big imprint on the songs.
HEAD ON (1992-1993)
Craft: I know that U2 are massive fans of the Pixies, but [the 1992 tour] was a complete waste of time.
Santiago: When I heard about it, I was so stoked. They were the biggest band in the world. And they wanted us to support them! It was nice. But I noticed that [Charles and Kim] weren’t enjoying it, and I was just like, “Man, that’s a fucking drag.”
Lovering: That was probably the biggest tour we opened. It was also the only tour where no one knew who we were.
Marts: It didn’t seem to be a secret that U2 had asked Nine Inch Nails and Nirvana to open up for them [first], and I guess those bands passed and Pixies said yes.
Lovering: What’s sad for me is that we played our hometown; we played the Boston Garden, where I saw my first show, all my sporting events, everything. So it was the most amazing thing to be playing Boston Garden, not only opening for U2, but on St. Patrick’s Day. Oh man, I thought it was gonna be a huge show.
St. Thomas: I remember sitting there, thinking, “This is so fucked up! How can you people just go get a hot dog and a beer!” The Pixies didn’t get booed, they just got that lukewarm applause.
Lovering: Our dressing room was the regular men’s room. I swear to God. We did the show — no one acknowledged [us]. It was amazing. Of all the shows we did with U2, all over North America, that was the worst, where just no one had a clue who we were.
Farman: The show in L.A. really sucked. The U2 crowd didn’t get it. They came for the spectacle and the Pixies are never about a spectacle.
Azerrad: I saw the U2 tour at Madison Square Garden. There was no life in [the Pixies’] set. I walked out incredibly disappointed. I thought, “This is where they really crack it in the U.S., and the goods were not there anymore.”
Deal: The last show we did was in April ’92, our own show in Vancouver. Afterwards, Charles said something about taking a sabbatical. I was like, “Oh, for how long?” And he goes, “I believe a sabbatical is one year.” And that’s the last conversation we had, the last time we talked, and the last sentence was, “I believe a sabbatical is one year.” Asshole. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but that’s a fucking stupid last sentence.
Thompson: We took a break. I just turned the break into a 12-year break. I didn’t announce it to anybody. What was I going to do, have a band meeting? People are always like, “Oh my God, the band broke up! Black Francis sent a fax to the band!”
Deal: In January of ’93 I was in San Francisco recording [the second Breeders’ album] Last Splash. I was in the studio and [my sister] Kelley comes up to me and says, “The Pixies broke up.”
Geiger: Why did they break up? Charles and Kim. Personal issues. I think there were all kinds of issues. I’m not going to go into it.
Craft: It’s fair to say that Kim’s partying and tardiness led to the breakup.
Banks: You can do a lot of damage with too much marijuana and too much wine. That’s all it was with Kim. Honestly, she didn’t stop.
Deal: You know, I haven’t drunk alcohol or done drugs for a year and a half.
Thompson: What people do is their business. There were a bunch of young people traveling the world, playing nightclubs. There were a lot of drugs and alcohol, but not any more than anyone else. Rock musicians tend to think they have a monopoly on drugs, sex, and rock’n’roll.
Deal: [Charles] was promoting his solo record. Maybe he just got sick of people asking about the next Pixies record and thought, “You know what? There ain’t gonna be one.”
Thompson: I was needing to socialize with other people or not socialize at all.
Watts-Russell: I think it was the best thing for them to split. They made some great records, and it was time to end. And they were hating each other, so why the fuck not?
Norton: I felt one more album would’ve established them as a really big band. I could feel [the end] coming, though, because Trompe Le Monde was a hard one to do. All the stuff between Charles and Kim — you could feel there was animosity.
Albini: I remember hearing about the fax after the fact. And I remember hearing that the story is pure bullshit, that there is no fax.
Watts-Russell: It doesn’t exist. If you ask all members of the band about “the fax,” they wouldn’t tell you it existed unless they’ve all decided to perpetuate the myth.
Thompson: Yeah, it happened! People make such a big deal about that. I mean, what is the alternative? There was no e-mail. How was the band supposed to break up? It was a little cold-hearted, but so what? What are you supposed to do? Call a press conference?
Deal: I didn’t have a fax machine. Joe didn’t have a fax machine. David didn’t have a fax machine. Whatever, man.
Lovering: About a year after the U2 tour I got a phone call from our manager, saying the band was broken up. I had some inkling that maybe we had done what we could do.
Farman: It was devastating. There was a sense of disbelief because it didn’t come directly from Charles. It came from Ken. And for David and Joey — not for Kim so much because she had the Breeders — but their whole life had been the Pixies. They’d never really done anything else. So they were ill-prepared.
Santiago: Charles called. I think he said, “Joe, I just broke up the band.” And I was like, “Really?” I didn’t know what to say. After Bossanova, I suspected that every tour was our last one. And when he finally told me that’s it, I was like, “Good, I don’t have to wonder anymore.” A band has its shelf life, as they say. I went into this little depression — maybe not a little, my wife would say huge. I stayed in my room. We definitely ended on an exclamation point and not a comma.
Thompson: We were kind of played out. We started to get mixed reviews. Our concerts were still full, but we weren’t ascending or anything. Maybe we were getting a little boring. We were on this boring tour — nothing against U2, but an opening slot is thankless. We were not getting much of a reaction and feeling a little tense, especially me. I needed to get away from that band and those people. Kim went and did some records; I went and did some records. Dave got into magic. Joey got into his music and started a family. It’s not really that big of a deal, and sending a fax to break up a band is not that big of a deal, either. To me, that’s kind of beautiful. I actually apologized for the fax, because they didn’t see it coming. But what better way to avoid all the emotion than to just say, “Bye!” It’s a “Dear John” letter. “Sorry babe, I’m leaving. Love ya.” It’s perfect. Psychologically, it probably wasn’t the healthiest thing to do. There was no closure — I’ll give them that. But it’s better than having some big fight or someone quitting the band and putting out a couple of shitty records with a different lineup, getting into some kind of legal squibble. It was sort of like, “Fin.”
Harvard: The Pixies would have dragged great Boston bands along with them. So I have always lamented that the Pixies crapped out when they did. Boston could have been Seattle.
Dando: [Laughs] Thank God they broke up.
Azerrad: Kim took that residual Pixies goodwill and her own charisma and talent and parlayed it into a big success for one album.
St. Thomas: Nirvana took the Breeders on tour. I think they were really into it because Nirvana was opening doors for them.
Deal: We were on MTV. It was really odd — to be on 4AD and to be used to being under the radar all the time.
Thompson: I wasn’t surprised that [Last Splash] was so successful. And people love Kim.
Santiago: I told her when I saw her, “Man, I’m so envious of that Breeders record.” [Laughs] And she said, “Good!”
St. Thomas: People were so excited about the first Frank Black record and the Breeders record because we were all missing the Pixies in our lives.
Farman: When Nirvana ended, Dave Grohl used to call Dave and see if he wanted to drum for Foo Fighters.
Lovering: It was just something that passed by. I think it was just some talk. That would have been really nice to play, you know.
THE HAPPENING (1994-2004)
Farman: I thought there was way too much bad blood for [a reunion] to ever happen.
St. Thomas: I became friends with Charles and Kim a lot more after they broke up. They were out there promoting themselves, and they became more accessible. I ended up doing interview CDs with both of them. I did one for the Breeders and one for him, and it was always clear that you couldn’t bring up the Pixies.
Craft: For years, we weren’t allowed to even mention the word Pixies. It was taboo.
Geiger: Charles put it out there pretty strongly that it was a non-issue, so it’s not like you could say, “Hey, Charles, let’s talk about the Pixies reunion.” He was completely, vehemently against it in every way.
Craft: The breakthrough came when he started playing Pixies songs with Frank Black and the Catholics.
Geiger: His attendance started to get better. You can say it was Dog in the Sand and the other [solo] records, or you can say it was because he was doing Pixies songs. Joey played with him, David would open up with the magic act, so you’re kind of half there.
Lovering: I did a bunch of tours with other bands — Cracker, Nitzer Ebb. But nothing was equal to the Pixies. It just kept trickling and trickling until I just gave up drums. I have a friend, Grant-Lee Phillips, who was in Grant Lee Buffalo. We were both into magic when we were young, so one day we went to an international magicians’ conference in Los Angeles, and we saw some magic that blew us away. So I just rediscovered magic and went fully into it. It’s been about six, seven years now that I constantly have a deck of cards in my hand if I’m not in the shower or sleeping.
Santiago: [Eventually] I took some antidepressants and started going, “Hey, look at this! There are trees!” I started learning computer programs and was like, “You can record in a computer? How the fuck do you do that?” I co-scored a film [Crime and Punishment in Suburbia] and a TV show [Undeclared].
Angel: I used to ask Charles [about a Pixies reunion] every year, “When are you going to do it?” He’d always hem and haw, and I’d say, “You know you’re going to do it eventually.” He’d say, “No, no.” At one point a few years ago, he said, “Everybody thinks there’s all this money to be made. The offers aren’t that good.”
Santiago: I don’t know what happened. Maybe the mathematicians did something and said, “Hey you guys, it’s woth it!”
Angel: I know [Charles] is expecting his first child [with his girlfriend, Violet]. That’s another reason you want dough. Also, the kinds of tours he and the Catholics have been going on for years are exhausting. This is easier.
Deal: I think [that last scene in] Fight Club got “Where Is My Mind?” popular. I don’t know how people know our music now. For some reason, over the decade we got popular.
Geiger: There are four factors [that led to the new popularity]. One is Kurt Cobain, hands down. When America’s youth lost Kurt and were looking for answers and influences, the Pixies got the benefit. The Pixies’ music at one point was described as “abrasive,” but when you hear the 27-song set now, it sounds like 27 number-one pop hits. The music aged unbelievably well. Also, the way they broke up, and the purity — they kept their artistic credibility, they didn’t sell out in their videos. The biggest factor is the world coming to accept the underground again. Four years ago, if the Pixies got back together, I don’t think they’d have the same success they have now, because the world is looking for artists of substance and they’re sick of being fed product.
Angel: They’re good songs. They’re timeless. Little Richard songs are timeless 50 years after the fact. Mozart is timeless. Good shit is timeless.
Geiger: Ken Goes called one day and said that Charles was thinking about the reunion, and would I talk to him? Charles and I went to dinner and had a very long discussion about the pros and cons.
Thompson: There were a lot of things that needed to happen. Points A, B, C, D, E, F, and G had to happen. There are some reasons I won’t talk about, but I’ll tell you one thing, I went into therapy. My relationship of 16 years ended and I started seeing a therapist. My personal therapy extended to other things in my life. I started to realize, “Okay, I have a problem with this because of this.” Or “That person is doing this because of this.” Also, you just chill out a little bit with age. Add to those things a lot of money and…
Santiago: It was a shock when he called me for the reunion. I was like, “Wow, fuck, we better be good. We have to start practicing.”
Lovering: My life this past year had gone down the shitter. My relationship was absolutely horrible, involving police and prison, and financially it was bad. I was drinking a lot. I was kicked out of my house. One day I was going to the bank, I had to withdraw some money, and I didn’t have enough money to take out. It must have been the most depressing day I’d ever had. And then my cell phone rings. It was Joe. “Guess what?” he says. “The Pixies are getting back together!” It was amazing. I think magic saved my life to a certain point and kept me alive, and then that just blew me away.
Deal: So last August, Joe calls me up and says, “Pixies are gonna start playing shows, would you be interested?” I said, “Oh, really?” Then I went, “I don’t know.” And he said, “Here’s Charles’ number. He wants you to call him.” So I left him a message saying, “I hear the gang’s getting back together.” I hadn’t talked to him since April of 1992. And he called back and said, “So what do you think about it?” I said, “Sounds exciting.” Me and him actually didn’t talk about it much, but me and Joe talked about it quite a bit, and Joe really wanted to do it. So I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it, as long as things are cool, Joe.” So I went out to L.A. We had about four separate rehearsals, four days each. It was strange at first, but after about 45 seconds it didn’t feel funny at all.
Santiago: It felt good. Dave, Kim, and I met up first, because we knew Charles knew the songs, so we met in L.A. to get our shit together before he comes over. I was nervous with Dave because he hadn’t been at a set in a while.
Lovering: It was like muscle memory; everything came back. It was amazing. But we were still walking on eggshells around each other.
Geiger: Paul Tollett, the promoter of the Coachella festival, was also a massive Pixies fan, and it was his dream to get the Pixies to play.
Paul Tollett (president, Goldenvoice concert promotions; organizer, Coachella festival): The Pixies had been on our list always, but we never thought it was even a possibility. We never really officially approached them. Marc Geiger called me and said, “Are you interested in the Pixies?” almost joking, and I said, “Of course. I’d love it.” Radiohead we’ve been trying to get every year as well. Last year Radiohead said they couldn’t do it, but they’d be interested in next year. But when you hear that, you never believe it. Then they called and said they were ready to do it. Thom [Yorke] said that Pixies and R.E.M. changed his life in college.
Farman: Watching them play at Coachella was insane. I cried!
Santiago: People were cheering. I was just choked up. It was like, “Wow, goddamn it, this is weird!” We were just soaking it in.
Thompson: It was a show, you know? I enjoyed it. It’s an audience and I’m there to perform and that’s what I’m focused on. It’s a gig. It’s not the coming of the aliens or anything.
Albini: It was amazing to see 50,000 people who’d never seen this band before but for whom this band was really important. But I couldn’t tell you what about their music appeals to so many people. I think they’re one of those bands that make an impact on their immediate audience, and then those people leave their records to their kid brothers when they go away to college. Then those people get into the band and then when they go off to college, they leave that bigger pile of records to their kid brothers.
Wayne Coyne (singer/guitarist, the Flaming Lips): The Pixies — they sounded just like them and didn’t seem to be a tired or disgruntled version of themselves.
Thompson: Now I see Kim as our secret weapon. She’s like, “Hi.” And the crowd goes crazy. Or “Gee, it’s hot.” And they just lose it. I don’t even talk onstage anymore.
Craft: They’re getting on better now because they’re olders and wiser. It’s because Kim has stopped drinking — I’m sure you’re aware that this is a dry tour. As a result, she’s playing well and doing everything that she’s been asked to do.
Deal: The good thing is now we don’t have to have a dynamic, because all we do is travel to a place and people are happy that we’re there. We’re not working together. This is not a hard thing to do.
Watts-Russell: It’s uncool and being done for the money — that’s one answer. The other answer is God bless them. They deserve it. And I really hope they’re having a good time, because it appears that the audience is.
Deal: People are so happy to see it. Not just excited that they like a band playing. It’s more than that. It’s like, “Oh my God, you’re back! We haven’t really missed you because we’re too young to remember you, but if we were old enough, we’d miss you!”
Thompson: I forgot how much I like this band, how much I like being in this band.
LOVELY DAY (2004-?)
Deal: Is there gonna be a new Pixies record? I don’t know.
Santiago: There are people who want us to make another record. We have one new song [“Bam Thwok,” written, and rejected for the Shrek 2 soundtrack] and one cover [of Warren Zevon’s “Ain’t That Pretty at All”]. I figure it’s inevitable that we’re going to want to record an album.
Lovering: We have no end in sight. We’re just taking it day by day.
Thompson: I never thought we’d get back together, and we did. And it’s fine; it’s great. I don’t know how long we’ll do it, whether we’ll record or not. We’re a band, so immediately you start getting stuff like “Shrek 2 wants you to do a song,” or “Hey, the Warren Zevon tribute record is coming up. Dylan’s doing it.” We’re a band, we’re playing gigs, what else is there to do but play gigs and record? We’re going to record songs, but I don’t know if we should make a whole record. We’re doing this DiscLive thing in the States, and we sell them out every night. The quality is pretty good, but they’re just mementos of the shows.
Deal: You don’t really have to think about it other than you’re at a club, you’re playing, and people are happy to see you. And then you feel real good. But I don’t walk around thinking, “Uhhh, legend of the Pixies!”
Thompson: I’m going to be a dad, yes. It’s in a whole other category of human experiences. Let’s just say that I have the overwhelming sense of having bigger fish to fry now. Will I play the kid Pixies records? It’s not something I’ve thought about. It’s not one of my fantasies yet.
Done with reporting by Carrie Borzillo-Vrenna. Additional reporting by Andrew Beaujon