By Nevin Martell on January 6, 2014
Space cakes are a rite of passage when visiting Amsterdam for the first time. Gobble down one of the THC-laced treats, spin the wheel of fate and see where it takes you. You may find yourself laughing hysterically while taking in still-lifes at the Van Gogh Museum, quietly sobbing in a corner of the Anne Frank House or doing god-only-knows-what in the Red Light District. It’s a crapshoot.
When the Pixies visited Amsterdam in 1988 during their inaugural European tour with Throwing Muses, they devoured more than their fair share of the pot-packed pastries. It seemed like the right thing to do. But then it all went pear-shaped.
“I got way too high,” remembers frontman Black Francis (née Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, otherwise known as Frank Black). And not in a good way. Suddenly the Pixies frontman found himself stoned out of his gourd in the dead of night without a single clue about where he was in the world.
Luckily, Throwing Muses’ singer Tanya Donelly took pity on him. “She was kind enough to sit with me while I tripped out,” says Francis. “I don’t know where we got the pieces, but we drew out a board in a sketchbook and played chess till dawn. I remember the dark squares of our makeshift chessboard rising into the air in a psychedelic vision.”
A lot has changed in the intervening quarter-century since that surrealistic chess match. The Pixies would become one of the greatest alt-rock bands of all time. Francis, along with guitarist Joey Santiago, drummer David Lovering and bassist Kim Deal, forged a series of era-defining subbacultcha anthems—“Wave of Mutilation,” “Debaser,” “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” “Dig For Fire,” “Velouria” and “Gouge Away”—that sound as vital today as when they were first laid down on tape. What may have been the band’s biggest hit, 1988’s “Where Is My Mind?,” found a second life over a decade later when it soundtracked the explosive climax to David Fincher’s Fight Club.
Along the way, the Pixies built up a religiously devoted alterna-cult that included Kurt Cobain, Thom Yorke and Bono. Despite endless acclaim, the band were never commercially successful. Instead of million-dollar payouts, they earned the respect of their peers and the love of their fans. But it wasn’t enough. Internal strife broke up the band in 1993. However, the quartet re-formed in 2004 to play a series of highly praised reunion tours, which ended up stretching over the better part of the decade.
These days, the band’s on-the-road antics are decidedly different. On this early October morning spent speaking with Francis from his Amsterdam hotel room, he was sewing up a pair of pants while listening to vintage Springsteen tunes. He had just returned from an invigorating yoga workout and a “nice clean meal” at a macrobiotic buffet. There were no trips to the space cake coffee-shop circuit on the schedule. In fact, he’s given up pot entirely, though he still savors its heady scent.
A few other big-picture items have changed as well since that maiden European voyage 25 years ago. Kim Deal is no longer a Pixie. The Internet revolution completely altered how listeners learn about and consume music. And the group has gone from being fresh-faced darlings of the underground to battle-tested, household-name headliners.
More chess match than crapshoot, it would seem.
Last November, the foursome convened in Wales for their first official recording sessions since the Pixies' 1991 swansong, Trompe le Monde. “New music wasn’t always part of the plan,” admits Francis, “though it was always part of my personal agenda.”
The group ensconced themselves at the venerable Rockfield Studios, where you’ll find the grand piano on which Freddie Mercury composed “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Longtime producer Gil Norton, who had overseen Doolittle, Bossanova and Trompe le Monde, was again at the helm.
It looked like the stars were finally aligning for fans, who had been waiting over two decades for new material. (In 2004, the band released the Kim Deal–penned digital-only single “Bam Thwok” and a cover of Warren Zevon’s “Ain’t That Pretty At All,” but nothing further.)
Lovering had an uneasy feeling about the sessions. “My whole family was asking me before I left, ‘Are you excited to go?’ I’d answer, ‘Not really, because this is the Pixies and something always goes down.’ I didn’t know what was going to happen, but something in the back of my mind had me thinking that the trip wouldn’t be a bowl of cherries.”
Unfortunately, Lovering’s sixth sense was spot on. Just a few days into the sessions, the band was taking a break over cups of coffee in a nearby village. It was then that Deal dropped the bombshell from out of nowhere: she was out of the Pixies for good.
Her bandmates were blindsided.
“I was shocked,” says Santiago. “Even if you knew it was going to happen, you’d be shocked that someone would follow through quitting an awesome band like the Pixies.”
For his part, Francis wasn’t shocked. “Just disappointed,” he says, sounding like a parent dismayed by their teenager’s transgression.
Deal walked out, leaving the remaining trio to figure out what they would do next—or if they would break up the band. After a few days of talking, thinking and drinking, they decided that they would carry on as the Pixies. “If we had renamed our project we’d have gotten reamed for sounding like the fucking Pixies,” reasons Santiago.
Lovering looked at the situation with equal parts pragmatism and positivity. “We had already paid for six weeks of recording out of our own pockets,” he says. “ I kept telling myself, ‘This is not going to get us down. We’re going to forge ahead.’ In the end, Kim leaving gave us a renewed fire.”
To fill in the Deal-sized hole in their sound, Francis placed a phone call to one-named bassist Ding, who had worked with PJ Harvey and The Fall. (Kim Shattuck of LA pop-punkers The Muffs would ultimately join the band as their touring bassist.) With the logistics covered, Pixies V2.0 restarted the recording sessions.
Francis had written a clutch of brand-new material before arriving, though some tunes were composed on the spot. “None of the songs are from back in the day,” he says. “I don’t work like that. I’m writing for an upcoming session; I’m not writing just to put it in my archive. It’s like, ‘This is what I’m doing this season.’”
So far, only five of the songs have been released. The first to make its debut was the bouncy, shouty “Bagboy,” which the band offered as a surprise free download in June, just two weeks after Deal publically announced her departure. Within a month, the song had wracked up more than one million downloads and streams on the band’s website, while the accompanying video on YouTube tallied up another million-plus views.
The next batch of four tunes arrived in early September—again with no lead-up, just an out-of-the-blue posting on the band’s website—as EP1. There’s the shimmery space-out “Andro Queen,” chugging charmer “Another Toe In the Ocean,” a bombastic slice of squalling geek metal “What Goes Boom” and the first single “Indie Cindy,” a snarky loud-quiet-loud pop-rocker that's sure to have been a bona fide hit if it had been released in the halcyon days of ’90s alt-rock.
“Some people say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t sound like Doolitle,’” Lovering says. “Of course it doesn’t. Come On Pilgrim didn’t sound like Surfer Rosa; Surfer Rosa didn’t sound like Doolittle; Doolittle didn’t sound like Bossanova; Bossanova didn’t sound like Trompe le Monde. Whatever we did was always going to be its own animal.”
Overall, though, Lovering has been happy with the response, which he characterizes as positive. EP1 did get an attention-grabbing skewering on Pitchfork, which gave it the equivalent of a single star. Santiago was unamused. “To give something one star, you’re not a serious critic, you’re just being a dick,” he says. “But we forgive [the reviewer], because we know it’s a publicity stunt.”
For his part, Francis was less affected. “I didn’t read the review, because I don’t read Pitchfork,” he says. “I only read a review if someone shoves it in my face. I try to take that old-school showbiz perspective that it doesn’t matter what they say about you, as long as they’re talking. I’m OK with a bad review. More than ever before in my life, it doesn’t affect me emotionally.”
One unexpected fan did twerk her way out of the woodwork around the same time. Miley Cyrus admitted that the Pixies were the only band that she listened to for several years of adolescence. “We attract all kinds,” says Francis graciously. “You like to think that everyone in your audience is stunningly beautiful, really smart, artsy and has no flaws. Everyone’s a supermodel scientist. Then you meet the sports jocks guys. And I’m glad they bought a ticket to my show. However, if I met them elsewhere, I’d just think they were big fucking douchebags. But, hey, they’re my customers. Music is for everybody.”
He pauses for a moment before continuing his tangent. “If people are getting off on music, it’s way the hell better than getting off on being a dick or a fascist or a homophobe. If a negative person is taking a break from being a negative person by listening to my music, that’s awesome. Maybe the next time they put on that negative cap, maybe they won’t do it as much, back off or even change. I’ve certainly changed through music, because you get so much joy out of it. At some point you say, ‘Hey, am I going to get all wound up about all the stupid bullshit in life?’ Fuck it, let’s listen to some Thelonious Monk or Bill Evans, man. Fucking-A.”
By the sound of it, growing older has taken the edge off of Black Francis. It seems like he’s mellowed out and dialed back, content to put on some old jazz records to ride out the breezy afternoons. Then you talk to him about the future of the Pixies and that estimation goes out the window.
The group’s touring plans extend until the end of spring of 2015. As the name EP1 implies, it is just the beginning—more material will follow (there are still some leftover songs from last year’s session with Gil Norton that have yet to be released). “It’s going to be a surprise,” is all Francis is willing to say.
“We’re not going to be predictable,” adds Santiago. “With the digital format and social media, it doesn’t need to be planned at all. Once you have your eggs in a row, you can just do it.”
Fans shouldn’t necessarily expect a traditional album. Fourteen tracks and a Vaughan Oliver–designed cover do not a post-millennium Pixies album make. Gone will be the months of lead-up to the big official LP drop date and the weeks of anticipation-building press campaigns. Instead, you should expect the Pixies to wage guerilla-style operations, popping up without a moment’s notice.
“Our manager tells us, ‘We’re done with the LP format,’” says Francis. “Right now there isn’t any new format to take its place though; just emotional attachments to existing formats. The rock-and-roll star’s star has diminished and the importance of the LP has diminished. That’s because people have overpaid for records for a really long time, but now they have the entire history of recorded music at their fingertips.”
For his part, Francis isn’t concerned about how the music gets released. That’s something for the band’s management team to figure out. He and his bandmates are just excited to be playing music to a forever-fervent group of longtime fans and a growing group of younger monomaniacs, who hadn’t even been born when Come On Pilgrim burst upon the scene. With the personnel drama firmly in their rear view, now is the time for the Pixies to get back to doing their own thing on their own terms.
“I got into this to play music,” says Francis. “It’s all I’ve ever done. I’m happy. I do what I want to do. No one has ever told me I couldn’t do a particular song or work with a certain producer. I have complete artistic freedom and make a living at it. I put food on the table for five kids. What the fuck do I have to complain about? Nothing.” F
Photos by Michael Halsband
Cover + Opening Spread:
Art & Direction + Design: Vaughan Oliver
Design Assistance: Michael Speed
Illustration: Ian Pollock
This article is from FILTER Issue 54