Band of Outsiders: Is it Possible to Really Know the Pixies?

The enigmatic indie forefathers aren’t interested in labels, legacy or industry standards
Pixies
L-R: David Lovering, Black Francis, Paz Lenchantin, Joey Santiago (Credit: Tom Oxley)

Writing about Pixies is difficult because, on some level, they are unknowable. For example, the band’s frontman was born as Charles Thompson IV, is known in the Pixies as Black Francis, and performs solo under the moniker Frank Black. Furthermore, the band — whose first incarnation from 1986 to 1993 reformed in 2004 — has famously shied away from interviews, music videos, and other traditional forms of promotion. All of this, along with the abstract nature of the band’s lyrics, Francis’ penchant for referencing everything from the Rosciscuran movement to the Bible, and a legacy of music that’s beloved by nearly every subgenre of alternative music, makes for a perfect storm of artistic ambiguity. While this formula might seem pretentious on paper, Pixies’ music is anything but, and that’s because the way they present themselves has been so consistent that it seems extremely unlikely to be contrived.

When asked over email by SPIN if the band’s enigmatic approach was conscious or just aligned with the band members’ individual personalities, Francis replied “Well, I’d say both. We are keenly aware that we are being quoted or observed or reviewed or whatever. It reinforces our tendencies toward surrealism. We are not surrealist in the classic sense of the word, but the tone and attitude of a lot [of] classic surrealist art I would guess is influential on our aesthetic.”

Surrealism is known for being supernatural, metaphysical, and otherworldly, and recognizing that is the key to attempting to understand Pixies. Perhaps on some level, Francis is being cryptic as part of an art-imitating-life ideology (and ingrained distrust of journalists). But in addition to being responsible for helping create a quartet of objectively perfect indie rock albums in the late ’80s and early ’90s, this enduring surrealist sensibility is one of the reasons why the legend of Pixies seems larger than life almost four decades after their formation. The myths inform the mythology at this point, and even the band themselves don’t try to make that distinction. To put it another way, not getting any straight answers is ultimately just part of the performance.

In that spirit, what does Francis think is the biggest misconception about the Pixies?

“Not sure I know,” he says. “We are open to interpretation.”

Pixies
L-R: Paz Lenchantin, David Lovering, Black Francis, Joey Santiago (Credit: Tom Oxley)

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Pixies history, Francis and guitarist Joey Santiago met as students at University of Massachusetts-Amherst in the mid-’80s and formed the band in Boston in 1986, soon recruiting co-vocalist/bassist Kim Deal (who would go on to form the Breeders with her twin sister Kelley in 1989) and drummer David Lovering. Their 1988 Steve Albini-produced album Surfer Rosa remains one of the most important indie rock releases of all time and is as much a debut as a greatest hits collection, featuring songs like “Bone Machine,” “Gigantic” and “Where is My Mind?” (which officially entered the cultural zeitgeist 11 years later as the backdrop for the final scene of Fight Club). The band released the equally impressive Doolittle in 1989, and then Bossanova (1990) and Trompe le Monde (1991).

Then things get a little fuzzy and incestuous, but there are a few things we do know. The band broke up in 1993 when Francis proclaimed on BBC radio that the Pixies were done – and, according to 2006 documentary LoudQUIETLoud: A Film About the Pixies, didn’t inform the other members prior to the public announcement.

Francis went on to pursue a solo career, Deal pursued the Breeders full-time, Santiago continued to work with Francis while writing music for television, and Lovering performed with Santiago’s band the Martinis in addition to a stint in Cracker. Then Pixies did something that was far less common in 2004. They reunited and started touring again, playing festivals such as Lollapalooza as well as headlining dates.

Throughout all of this, the tensions between Francis and Deal were well-documented, and the Pixies announced in 2013 that Deal had left the band. Deal was replaced briefly by Kim Shattuck of the Muffs and then A Perfect Circle bassist Paz Lenchantin, which has been the band’s lineup ever since. The reunited Pixies released Indie City in 2014 (which featured Simon “Dinger” Archer of the Fall on bass), Head Carrier in 2016, Beneath The Eyrie in 2019, and Doggerel in September.

If that sounds like the plot of an indie-rock soap opera, you wouldn’t be the first one to feel that way. However, the band’s complicated history shouldn’t overshadow Doggerel, an excellent album that sounds like classic Pixies. From the slinky, syncopated opener “Nomatterday” (which features a surprising and strangely satisfying tempo change), to the eerie progression and instantly recognizable falsetto of “Haunted House” and laid-back groove of “Pagan Man,” Doggerel is an album that is worthy of the band’s classic catalog — and is teeming with levity and weightlessness in ways that sometimes intersect, but more often leave the listener with the inability to decipher one from the other. A perfect example of this is “Get Stimulated,” which features expert backing vocals from Lenchantin and opens with the couplet “I don’t have pills or the thrills to survive. Some say I’ve never lived, but I know I am alive. You always say that I’m living in my head, but I will cry for you long after you’re dead.” This dichotomy of eulogy and euphoria lies at the core of the album and is what makes Doggerel the kind of record that unfolds itself more upon each subsequent listen, which has been a prerequisite characteristic of all of the band’s celebrated releases.

 

This time around, the band worked in a very different location to create the album. Doggerel was recorded over three weeks last January and February with Tom Dalgety at Vermont’s Guilford Studios, and that experience definitely influenced the overall sound of the album.

“There is some cinematic atmosphere that we slipped into,” Francis says when asked about the setting’s influence. “It was mirrored by the frozen forest, streams, and snowfields which lay just outside the massive studio windows.”

“There might be a correlation that was activated,” Santiago adds. “I don’t know. We may have made a similar record in some punky studio in Oakland. No one knows. It was comfortable. Time to roll up the sleeves, and it’s best to stay in and not go out. You could literally die if you go out. There’s just something about having everything blanketed [by snow]. It just feels like you’re going to be more [in] deep thought. I just couldn’t imagine doing it in a sunny weather place. I think it’s time to work, the winter. I think the four seasons are very natural.”

Lenchantin takes a more introspective angle about the same topic, explaining that the isolation helped her visit a “potential self of mine that I don’t see like hardly ever” before delving into how fortunate she feels that the band likes to work and record together in person rather than handle things digitally. But it’s not just the personal connection and opportunity to use snowshoes in the middle of the Vermont wilderness that makes Lenchantin feel lucky to be a part of the band.

“I ditched school when I was 13 or 14 to see the Pixies at Dodger Stadium with the Cure,” she says. “Obviously, it’s an important band in my life and upbringing, so there’s a natural understanding. I didn’t have to learn something, it’s just like natural embedded understanding — but style is important and, you know, I’m not gonna be using my fingers in Pixies, I’m gonna pick because that’s the style and I love that. I love that they have a style. I really enjoyed making this record. I was very heartbroken with not being able to tour behind Beneath the Eyrie. We were just starting to go to the road and it got cut. If you lose something, you should replace it with something even better, right? That’s the way you turn that energy around, and I really believe we did.”

Pixies
(Credit: Travis Shinn)

Santiago also seems to feel thankful to be in Pixies these days, although it seems as if maybe he didn’t always feel that way. “I actually was pretty sour,” Santiago says of one particular time when Pixies weren’t together. “I went to the movies, I heard [“Where Is My Mind?] in a trailer, and I was just like ‘Ah fuck this.’ I left the movie. It wasn’t Fight Club, it was just a trailer for something and I even forget what movie I was going to watch.” He adds that he suffers from a disorder called Misophonia, which makes him very sensitive to sounds like crunching and eating. “I get into kind of rage, so it gave me another excuse to be like, ‘See? That’s why I won’t go.’ So I left.”

But now as Santiago and the Pixies are closing in on their second decade of re-existence, the guitarist is reaching new heights within the band. Doggerel features the first Pixies song he’s ever written (“Dregs of the Wine”) and “Pagan Man,” a song on which he helped Francis with the lyrics. That said, he’s still not going to ask Francis about the meaning of Pixies songs.

“No, no, no, no,” he laughs. “And I hope they don’t ask me about ‘Pagan Man.’ It was just put together, man. It was just a bunch of words smashed together. I had to throw words away and put new ones in there, and it was a fun process, in the end it became this story. I wouldn’t ask Charles about what it’s about at all. It seems very personal. There’s bound to be a puzzle in there that’s, you know, a deep secret.”

In other words, if Francis doesn’t feel the need to discuss his lyrics with his own bandmates, it’s no surprise he doesn’t want to be too descriptive with anyone else. “Well, there are two co-writes with Joey and I on Doggerel,” Francis says. “I think that’s one more writing collaboration than has appeared on any other disc in the Pixies catalog. I imagine there will be much more collaboration forthcoming. I sense it.”

In some ways, it’s refreshing that Pixies have cultivated a sound and identity that seems to exist in a cultural vacuum, giving the listener just enough information to create their own idealized image of the band. Like Weezer’s inadvertent 1996 emo masterpiece Pinkerton, the Pixies have influenced many punk and indie bands while maintaining a level of detachment that’s starkly in contrast to a music culture steeped in self-awareness and social media.

“It’s been said enough times that we are influential,” Francis says. “I don’t know if I can sense that or not. It’s nice to be paid a compliment. I accept. But it’s not the reason why we make music. Simple validation, simple patronage is all that we have ever asked of our audience. We like to feel that the customer has gotten their money’s worth. Also, we want it to be good.”

Santiago is at least aware of the 1999 compilation album Where Is My Mind? A Tribute To The Pixies, which features Eve 6, Nada Surf, Get Up Kids, Weezer, and more, but he doesn’t really seem to have much of a reference point for that type of music. For that matter, the fact that many of the biggest bands of that era’s punk and indie scenes got their start covering Pixies classics like “Velouria” and “Debaser” is all the more reason for him to not get into them.

“When someone says ‘I’ve been listening to this, it kind of sounds like you,’ I go ‘Thanks for the warning, man, but I’m’ not going to listen to that,” Santiago says. “I’ll admit this, maybe two years ago — during the pandemic, whenever that was — I finally listened to Fugazi. I love them, so it’s good. It’s like ‘Fuck it, I’m the guy who’s discovering Fugazi.’ That’s the way I am, you know? I just won’t listen to things that I think are going to be too close to us.”

The inherent modesty of the band’s founding members suggests that the Pixies’ indifference to their influence might just be steeped more in utility than anything else. Sure, it could just be outward-facing humility to play down their own importance, but there’s no sign that Francis nor Santiago secretly revel in their role as indie forefathers while pretending to be the music industry’s social misfits.

Pixies
(Credit: Mauricio Santana/Getty Images)

“We are the nerdiest people in the trailers [at a music festival] and everyone else looks like fucking rockers, man — and here we are, just jaunting along, you know?” Santiago says. “I always felt like an outsider… I still don’t think I’m in the ‘scene’ in the fashion sense. I know because rock n’ roll a lot of it’s based on fashion too, right? And I just never prescribed to it. I wish it was done on purpose. I wish I could say that we’re just going against the grain, but I can’t. Plus, there seems to be an outfit for something that’s supposedly outside. So you want to be outside? Come in here, but there’s a rule: You’ve got to dress this way. Well, what kind of rebellion is that?”

The inner workings of Pixies are difficult to define because this band of outsiders also makes the listener feel like they’re always on the outside. When asked to define the current dynamic of the band, Francis politely says to watch LoudQUIETLoud: A Film About the Pixies, which chronicles the band’s 2004 reunion tour featuring Deal on bass. Perhaps the best way to get a more concrete answer about how the band works is by asking the only person to experience it both as a fan and a member.

“I’ve been the one looking at [the band] from the outside, and coming in with that kind of love, with that perspective, that respect, does give it another strength,” Lenchantin says. “In an era too where it’s like ‘indie rock’ or ‘we’re anti-videos” — well, [the band started in] a time period where there’s no cell phones, and to grow with the time you have to bend with time. You have to know that time exists and it’s a factor, but you’re OK and you can do somersaults with time. That’s what makes something timeless. What’s good is good. It’s not going to change who you are, but time is the alchemy of music. It’s the thing that will morph you into something you can’t ignore.”

While the idea of bending time sounds like the plot of a science fiction film, it does explain how the band has managed to stay so relevant and vital on Doggerel while eschewing the typical pitfalls of the music industry. After careful consideration, we realize the biggest clue about the band’s current identity comes from when we asked Francis about the decision to name their latest album Doggerel, a word that is defined as “loosely styled and irregular in measure, especially for burlesque or comic effect.”

“We usually title LPs after a lyric from the record, sometimes it may also or only be from a song title,” he explains. “The word fit the song (I could [go] on for a long time about that), the song title fit the LP title. We are prone to the ditty. We are self-deprecating. We are also mischievous. We are Pixies after all.“

IMPACT

you may like

Scroll to Top