Pixies Cast Their Spell

Boston thrash band the Pixies debuts in the U.S. with 'Doolittle'

Chris Thompson of the Pixies.
Ebet Roberts/Redferns
June 15, 1989

Charles Michael Kitridge Thompson IV was all set to go. An anthropology major at the University of Massachusetts, in Amherst, with a passing interest in astronomy and a rather beneficent dad, Thompson was off to the South Pacific, expenses paid, to witness the 1985 passage of Halley's comet from one of the best vantage points on the planet. Then he suddenly decided he'd rather write and sing rock & roll songs than stare at the sky and dig up old bones. He bagged the Halley's trip, dropped out of U. Mass, and formed his first band.

It turned out to be a good idea. The Pixies are Boston's best gift to thrash pop since the late, great Mission of Burma and a roaring foursome who mix and mash abrasive guitar propulsion with Thompson's quixotic melodicism and brutal, beguiling lyric surrealism. Through an odd twist of record-company fate, the Pixies are already adored in England for the lacerating sound of the import platters Come on Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa. The brilliant new Doolittle, the Pixies' formal U.S. debut on Elektra, should have 'em swooning here, too.

"I'm just a college dropout who always wanted to be in a band," says Thompson, a portly, boyish-looking lad of twenty-three who records under the name of Black Francis. "When you start like that, you just kind of go for it. You figure, I'll be louder and faster and wackier than everyone else."

He was certainly luckier than most. The Pixies – Thompson, guitarist and fellow Amherst dropout Joey Santiago, bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering – were still apprenticing in Boston clubs when their demo tape fell through the mailbox of Britain's 4 A.D. Records. The label, home to the space-pop aesthetes the Cocteau Twins, complained that the Pixies sounded "too American," i.e., loud and obnoxious, according to Kim Deal. But the label signed the band anyway and released eight of the demo's songs as Come on Pilgrim to ecstatic U.K. press response.

Surfer Rosa, produced by thrash iconoclast Steve Albini of Big Black, was a major British indie hit last year. The rebounding import buzz meant 4 A.D. had little trouble peddling the Pixies' charms back to major U.S. labels.

The Pixies can be delightfully artless on Doolittle (Thompson's Iggyesque bawl; the wayward strafing guitars on "Debaser" and "Tame"), even coy (the gnarly pop allure of "Here Comes Your Man"). But the way Thompson shoehorns sexual obsession, graphic violence, goofy humor and religious iconography into musical telegrams – bursts of rage and revelation on "Wave of Mutilation," "I Bleed" and "Monkey Gone to Heaven," a corrosive, compelling meditation on God and garbage – transcends merenaiveté. This is, after all, a young man who was raised in Southern California on a dual diet of classic-rock angst (the Stones, Iggy Pop) and religious fundamentalism (his parents joined a Pentecostalist church when he was twelve) and swears by David Lynch's jarring juxtapositions of beauty, terror and whimsy in films like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet.

"If anything is a big influence on me, it's David Lynch," Thompson says. "He's really into presenting something but not explaining it. It's just 'This is an image, this is an idea, isn't it cool?' The way I understand it, that's the only way to be surreal. To be not so connected with it, except that it came from your brain, somewhere way back there."

In fact, Thompson usually leaves his ideas back there until the last minute. "At first, he'll just scream some stuff over the song," says Kim Deal, "some syllables while he's busy working on the arrangement. He isn't really bothered with the words until he's figured out where the song is going." Thompson says it's like "doing your homework at the last minute and getting an A on it."

Sometimes the A stands for "accident." For example, there is no monkey in "Monkey Gone to Heaven." It was just a phrase that Thompson used for the hook at first. It sounded so good he left it that way. "Actually, I don't even know the words to a lot of the songs," Deal admits. "And they've never been explained to me."

Which is no big deal. Ultimately, Thompson aspires to the visceral impact of his own favorite songs, like "Gimme Shelter" and "The Passenger" by Iggy Pop. "Those great songs," he says, "that really meant something the first time I heard them." He remembers one early Pixies gig at a strip club in Lowell, Massachusetts, where the hip college kids were far outnumbered by the usual clientele.

"We weren't exactly playing the kind of music those folks liked," Thompson says. "But the old guys were really getting into it. And it's fun to play for people like that. It's more of a compliment to have someone that doesn't listen to rock music say, 'Hey, you guys are really good. I don't know what it is, but I liked it.'"

This story is from the June 15th, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.

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