The Pixies were in Wales earlier this year, recording their first batch of new songs since 1991’s Trompe le Monde, when bassist-singer Kim Deal dropped the bomb. “We were at a little coffee shop near the studio,” frontman Black Francis tells Rolling Stone. “Kim walked in at some point and said, ‘I’m flying home tomorrow.’ She quit the band. It was an awkward moment. We didn’t hug or shake hands or anything. [Guitarist] Joey [Santiago] and I just stood up and said, ‘Okay.’ Then we had to get out of there, so we immediately went to a bar. I had to move from coffee to alcohol.”
Two nights earlier, the four members of the band went out for Indian food. “There weren’t any managers, producers, roadies or anything,” says Francis. “I can’t remember the last time we all sat down and had a meal, just the four of us. It was wonderful. We broke bread together, shot the shit and had a nice meal. After the meal, Kim wanted to go back to her lodging, so we all walked her to a cab. Thinking back now, I realize this was her saying goodbye. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I think it was meant to be our last supper.”
For a couple of days, it seemed like it truly may have been the end for the band. The Pixies had been Black Francis, Kim Deal, David Lovering and Joey Santiago since they first started playing dive bars around Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1986. Carrying on without their most charismatic member seemed like a daunting task, even though the group had seven weeks of studio time booked with producer Gil Norton and a batch of demos they all felt lived up to their classics.
“For three or four days, we were in mourning,” says drummer David Lovering. “But we didn’t have time to keep doing that because we had this studio booked and lot of overdubs to record. We just rolled up our sleeves and said, ‘We might as well finish this.'” The group erased Kim’s parts and recruited PJ Harvey bassist Simon “Ding” Archer to sit in for the sessions.
“Everyone was just devastated,” says the band’s manager, Richard Jones. “But everybody believed in the songs. We decided to just carry on and see what happens.”
They couldn’t have been completely surprised, though: the only really shocking aspect about Deal quitting the Pixies is that it took her 28 years. She got the gig by responding to an ad in a local Boston paper in 1986: “Band seeks bassist into Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul and Mary. Please – no chops.” She was the only person to show up and the band soon found a huge cult audience, but tensions surfaced quickly. “Kim is a songwriter in her own right,” says Santiago. “But in the Pixies, we make a special flavored pizza. We don’t want to detour from that palate.”
While a couple of Pixies songs were co-written by Francis and Deal (“Silver,” “Gigantic”), the vast majority of the catalog was written solely by Francis. “I remember just one time this even came up,” he says. “She came to rehearsal out of the blue and said, ‘I have a bunch of songs.’ This has never been previously discussed. We played them and said, ‘This sounds way different than our other stuff.’ She was like, ‘Okay, fine.'”
It’s quite possible that Deal has a different take on the songwriting issue (she wouldn’t comment for this story), but in 1990, she formed the Breeders with Tanya Donelly and released the much-loved Pod, which built on her already large fanbase and proved her ability to write catchy songs. “She had a lot of charisma,” admits Francis. “She was cool standing onstage with her cigarette, and she’s cute and people just fell in love with her.”
The final two Pixies albums didn’t have a single song with a Kim Deal writing credit, and her trademark sugary backup vocals were largely absent. “That led to a lot of backhanded compliments about me,” says Francis. “People thought I was Paul McCartney trying kick John Lennon out of the Beatles. I got really resentful about that. People would be like, “Oh, that Frank Black guy, he’s a bit of an asshole.'”
After a soul-sucking stint opening up for U2 on the Zoo TV tour in 1992, Francis broke up the band by fax. Not long after that, the Breeders scored a massive crossover hit with “Cannonball.” “I didn’t have any problem with that,” Francis insists. “Another indie-rock musician had success. Great.”
Black Francis inverted his name to Frank Black and released a series of cult solo albums, never matching anything close to the sales or acclaim of the Pixies’ catalog. The Breeders, meanwhile, climbed all the way to the main stage of Lollapalooza until Deal’s drinking problem lead to an almost decade-long hiatus from the studio.
The late 1990s and early 2000s were a tough time for the other members of the Pixies, too – especially Lovering, who worked as a magician. “You think being a musician is hard? Being a magician is 50 times harder,” he says. “I was doing 13-year-old teenage girls’ birthday parties. I was also involved with a really bad woman. The Pixies’ money was dwindling, the magic was not working, and this woman was robbing me blind. My life was the worst I could have ever imagined, then a phone call comes and it lifted me out of the depths.”
The phone call was from Francis, who was finally willing to reunite the Pixies. Between 2004 and 2011, they toured incessantly, playing to humongous audiences and making more money than they ever imagined. Gradually, the euphoria over their return died down and they became another band slogging it out on the oldies circuit. Between 2009 and 2011, they played their 1989 classic Doolittle every night. “During those shows, I wouldn’t even know where I was,” says Francis. “It was so Groundhog Day, just the same things over and over and over.”
Recording new songs was the obvious next move, but Deal was resistant. “Hell no,” she told Rolling Stone in 2007. “I heard the last Rolling Stones record was good. The thing is, I don’t care if it’s the best thing they’ve ever done. I just wouldn’t listen to it. . . I was kind of waiting for Charles and Joey to get together and do demos and they never did.”
That’s exactly what happened when the Doolittle tour died down, and by early 2013, they had a batch of new songs that even managed to excite Deal, who flew to Wales to record them with Doolittle producer Gil Norton. That proved short-lived enthusiasm, however. “She just had enough,” says Jones. “She didn’t want to do all the things that go with releasing new music, as in all the traveling and touring. She just decided that she wanted to move on.”
Now, months later, the Pixies find themselves sitting in the crammed dressing room backstage at Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. They played Chicago’s Riot Fest the previous evening and had to leave the city at 6:30 a.m. to make soundcheck at Fallon. The guys are drained, but new bassist Kim Shattuck is wide awake and psyched about appearing on the show. “One of my old bands was supposed to play Arsenio Hall once,” she says. “But it got canceled at the last minute. This is my first time on a show like this.”
After Deal left, the group realized they needed another female bassist. They met Shattuck, a veteran of the Los Angeles rock bands the Muffs and the Pandoras, at a charity show last year. “A lot of our songs have that romantic loss, romantic gain, sexuality thing,” says Francis. “We need the female and male represented.”
They play their single “Bagboy” and “Indie Cindy” on the broadcast. The latter song is from EP1, the first of several planned EPs the band plans on dropping online during their 18-month world tour. Reviews were mixed, which doesn’t much surprise anyone in the band. “I don’t think people are giving them a fair listen,” says Santiago. “They were begging for new songs for years, and I think they’ll be embarrassed in three years when they read their initial thoughts.”
Francis is also unsurprised to see the new songs getting a mixed reaction. “The fans are emotionally involved in the whole thing,” he says. “Even more than us. But we just got into this to make music and see whatever level of success we could reach. We didn’t want the day job. We don’t want to be managers of warehouses or whatever. We don’t want to run a restaurant. This is what to we do, and my solo career is over. I have no interest in making solo records. For me, this is it.”