Pixies

There’s a beautiful line about the Pixies that encapsulates both the massive impact the band had in its heyday, suggests rock ‘n’ roll’s slow, steady death since those glorious times, and paints a grim picture of the world of music into which the band is now caught up in upon its glorious return to the stage.

It’s found in the liner notes to a best-of compilation, Death to the Pixies, and writer Gary Smith is trying to explain to his children why Black Francis’ larynx-shredding screams – one of the band’s, and rock music’s, most surprising and satisfying abnormalities – had such a profound effect on him, and everyone else who heard that voice in the late 1980s:

“How am I supposed to explain to them that the world into which Black Francis started screaming still heard it like a scream and not like fashion?”

Replace Black Francis with the Pixies as a whole, and the line is just as apt. The Pixies were startlingly fresh when they debuted on record in 1987, and when they caught chart momentum with Doolittle two years later, they were still like nothing else. Their mixture of sunshine and inky blackness, their casual demeanour, and even their everyday fashion spread throughout the indie sphere like a tidal wave, and like R.E.M. before them, they defined what we view as “indie music” today. Suddenly everyone from Nirvana to Pavement had, however indirectly, drawn inspiration, and even Sonic Youth sounded more like the Pixies than they’d like to admit when they started writing actual songs instead of noise-rock jams.

Flash forward 20-plus years, where the Pixies have returned to playing stages all over the world, and not much has changed – not even the Pixies – and that’s simply because they haven’t had to: everyone still sounds a little bit like them, but just like before, no one has ever been able to match them.

As if to prove their status, they’re touring around playing that seminal album that brought the indie sound to the mainstream, Doolittle, front to back. Nothing more, and nothing less will do. The Pixies are back (again), and they’re once more here to show the kids where that music they’ve taken for granted first came from.

***

First, an introduction, in case you’re unfamiliar with your godfathers. The Pixies are vocalist Charles Thompson (aka Black Francis, aka Frank Black), the frontman who looks like your mailman or the guy behind the counter at your local Home Hardware who writes and sings of sliced-up eyeballs, broken faces and monkeys gone to heaven with a voice that can change from a casual drawl to an apocalyptic shriek on a dime; bassist Kim Deal (aka Mrs. John Murphy), who’s somehow able to be the happiest person in the world on stage despite the dark, cracked-up poetry surrounding her; guitarist Joey Santiago, the calm eye in the middle of the storm, seldom moving; and drummer Dave Lovering, who can conjure up snare snaps that rock your bone marrow without seeming to strain himself in the slightest.

Together, they crafted five classic discs of world-changing rock music, yet none holds more of a special place in peoples’ hearts than Doolittle, their third work and second full-length album. Their current Doolittle tour is in celebration of the album’s 20thanniversary, and as Lovering and Santiago prove, time has only sweetened the taste of the Pixies and their work.

“I think we’re in a better place than we were back when we were first together,” opines Lovering. “We wanted to take this album on the road for a long time, and now that we’re here I couldn’t be happier. I get to play this music again, which is so much fun for me, and we all feel really good about how things are going so far and where we are today.”

Both Lovering and Santiago are not interested in talking about “the future” in preparation for the latest leg of the tour, at least the future in terms of a band: there’s no new album in the works or even being thought about, and no new direction the band wants to take as it looks forward. The only music they’ve released since reforming in 2004 was a single new song, “Bam Thwok”, and it wasn’t even written by primary songwriter Francis; it was by Deal, whose songwriting has never enjoyed much notice within the group (unless you count “Gigantic”, perhaps their biggest single from back in 1988).

“We’re simply enjoying this tour,” says Santiago, “and to be honest having the opportunity to focus on a single period of our careers, a single project, is surprisingly refreshing for us. There’s no pressure to play ‘the hits’ – whatever that means – or come up with a new setlist every night. We just play the album, and it’s tons of fun, because it’s a great album.”

Lovering shares his bandmate’s enthusiasm for the tour and the record: “Doolittle is just the most fun album of ours for me to play. Even when we were playing before, just traditional setlists, whenever we would play songs from that album I would light up a little more and I always enjoyed them. Now that I get to play the record front to back every night, it’s like a vacation almost. Not that it’s super easy, but we go through so many different moods and variations that it’s a blast every time.”

***

Santiago and Lovering aren’t alone in that sentiment. Doolittle consistently finds itself on lists cataloguing the best albums of the 1980s, if not all time, and many Pixies fan communities and message boards are rife with “Doolittle is the best album of all time” discussion threads.

Looking back at the making of the record, the two have nothing but happy memories.

“We were touring in support of Surfer Rosa [the band’s first full-length] and Charles was coming up with all these songs,” remembers Santiago. “He would play them for us in between shows and we were all very excited, and by the time we got back from touring we got right into the studio and laid down a bunch of demos. We really took advantage of the pre-production process so by the time we were ready to record with [producer] Gil [Norton], we had our shit down and it went very smoothly.”

Lovering has similar thoughts about the recording process: “We brought in Gil because we wanted a different sound than we got from Steve [Albini, who produced Surfer Rosa], and we got what we wanted I think. It was a very happy, exciting time for the band, because we were consistently growing and expanding and it really shows on what we ended up with.”

Other recollections of the Doolittle sessions, however, weren’t as rosy. Apparently, tensions were not only rising between Francis and Deal, but also between Francis and Norton, the latter of whom would consistently suggest adding verses and increasing the length of several songs (although Norton’s suggestion to slow down the tempo of one song, “There Goes My Gun”, potentially saved us from what could have been a weird Pixies-meets-Black Flag contortion…and gave us a classic song in the Pixies canon).

“This record is him [Norton] trying to make us, shall I say, commercial, and us trying to remain somewhat grungy,” is how Francis told it to Rolling Stone soon after the record’s release. However, Santiago and Lovering don’t necessarily see it that way.

“I think Gil did what he thought was best, and in the end it was the best that we could have hoped for,” says Santiago. “It captures us at the perfect point between what we were doing before – that really snotty, gritty sound – and what we were starting to do and did later on, which was a little smoother, but was still rough around the edges. It’s very cohesive.”

(The fact that Norton would stay on to produce the Pixies’ final two records – 1990’s Bossanova and 1991’s Tromp Le Monde – shows Francis must have had a change of heart, and that the rest of the band certainly didn’t mind his presence either.)

“The sessions were a great time, and we pushed ourselves and he pushed us, but in the end it was a lot of fun,” says Lovering. “I remember Gil cooked us a turkey dinner for Thanksgiving: that was the kind of environment it was. And I think out of that environment we came up with something that represented us at our best.”

***

Twenty-two years later, and the record’s majesty hasn’t dwindled one bit. Listen to the opening “Debaser” with its hilarious chorus, as Deal answers Francis’ screams of the titular word with a reassuring echo, like a mother comforting her rambunctious child; the Nirvana-birthing quiet-loud dynamics of “Tame”; the surfy pop-rock of “Here Comes Your Man”; the orchestral majesty of “Monkey Gone To Heaven” with Francis’ heart-lifting shrieks of “God is seven,” and it is clear that Doolittle is destined to live on as one of music’s most defiantly strange yet wonderful creations.

Onstage, the delivery is little different, nor is the reaction from the crowd. Lovering and Santiago stress that the band does not veer off into crazy jams during their Doolittle sets, nor does anything else stray from the recorded version we all know and love.

“People are coming to these shows with the expectation that they will hear the album, so that’s what we give them,” says Santiago.

Adds Lovering: “We don’t want to hear it any differently, either. What you hear on the album is our definitive versions of those songs, so why would we play them any differently?”

Even after two years of celebrating the twentieth anniversary of their most accessible and popular album, the two bandmates don’t see themselves getting bored of it.

“I will always love these songs, and I will always love playing them, I think,” says Lovering. “We’re doing this because we know how much people love this record and these songs, but also because we love them too. That’s not going to change.”

Originally published April 2011