Showtime is barely two hours away for the Pixies, and Black Francis is frantically reorganizing beer in the mini-fridge. When a can falls to the floor, guitarist Joey Santiago kicks it hard across the trailer, and immediately shouts over his shoulder, “Want a beer, Dave?”
Drummer David Lovering passes on the explosive beverage, smiling backstage during last weekend’s final days of the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California. The Pixies have been an active touring unit since reuniting in 2004, playing songs from the band’s four original albums, which were hugely influential on the likes of Nirvana and Radiohead. Last year, bassist-vocalist Kim Deal left to concentrate on the Breeders, but the Pixies lived on, and April 19 released Indie Cindy, their first album in 23 years.
Singer-guitarist Black Francis (a.k.a. Charles Thompson), Lovering and Santiago spoke with Rolling Stone about being a band with new music again.
Does having new music make a big difference for the band?
Black Francis: Personally, yeah. It’s just coming out right now, so I don’t know what it means in the big picture, but it certainly feels good to be doing something different instead of doing “Monkey Gone to Heaven” again. Nothing against that, but after a while during the Doolittle tour, I would space out onstage doing the record in sequence every night. I would start to get that Groundhog Day feeling of, “Where am I?” I’d start to lose track.
Does having a new album put the Pixies in a different place now?
Joey Santiago: It’s a band now. Bands tour and they make music. And there was a buzz on social media that they wanted a new record. We had to make time for it. Was there something to prove? We just wanted to make music. We’re still viable and creative.
Fans usually want new music, don’t they, even if they hate it when it arrives?
Francis: I don’t think we analyzed it that much. We didn’t put out new music in the last 10 years because we didn’t have an agreement basically to go into the studio, even though there were several attempts to get that to happen. We couldn’t really get an agreement until a couple of years ago. Yeah, we want to be successful, we don’t want to be skewered, we don’t want to get a 1-out-of-10 star review or whatever [laughs]. We don’t want any of those things, but we’re actually perfectly willing to accept all that. At the end of the day, it’s, “Cut the shit – we just want to make music.” It’s a rock band. We live in reality most of the time, unless we have a few drinks. We’re pretty grounded.
Santiago: The first few years, we had an inkling that people just wanted to hear the old catalog. What’s the point when people just want to hear “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and all that stuff? And we hadn’t been around for 10 years, so we had to go around the planet a few times to please people.
Francis: We went down to Brazil and we ran into one of our old roadies, Guitar George – “he knows all the chords” – that guy. We were hanging out in the lobby and he said, “Guys, it’s so great to see you out on the road.” And he’s like, “You’ve made your records and now you’re back – you can go play these songs now five years.” That was his advice. At some point, I realized he was right, that it was perfectly OK to feel what you did before and do it for a while. So we did that for about eight or nine years. [laughs]
You always stayed pretty prolific as a solo artist after the band ended.
Francis: I kept my foot in the door. I started having kids about nine years ago. If I’d had had kids before, I could have been sidetracked easily, but I didn’t have any responsibilities, so I’d just keep doing this. There were tours where Dave was the opening act as a magician. We understand the culture of touring. It’s not always necessarily about making it. It’s always nice to make money, but I don’t think any of us felt there was anything wrong with doing something on a small scale. That’s where we come from. We didn’t start off playing on huge stages. We started off playing in shitty little clubs.
When the Pixies were originally together, you had a great following, but it was still an underground thing.
Francis: We were definitely an underground band. We played festivals, clubs and theaters. Some people after we broke up were like, “Oh, you guys were so big in Europe, playing for 50,000 people!” No, we were playing at the festival, but Sting was the headliner.
Santiago: We headlined Reading.
Francis: We did, back in the day? OK.
Is writing for the Pixies now any different than before?
Francis: It took me a while to figure out how to change hats. It helped that the band was waiting for something they could sink their teeth into. I can’t just give them the first song that pops into my head. But we brought in [producer] Gil Norton and he was pretty instrumental by going, “This, but not that.”
We’ve done a Neil Young song, we’ve done a Leonard Cohen song, and it still sounded like the Pixies. The filter of the band is always going to be so strong that whatever we play it’s going to sound like our band.
Are you writing more?
Francis: We haven’t done it the way that we used to do it back in the beginning – we did try a couple of years ago and it didn’t work out. We used to smoke a lot of dope when we were young, like a lot of young bands. If it was a Saturday afternoon, we would jam. We would cycle material over and over again for hours. Every night after work we used to go to rehearsal space in Boston – they were expensive to rent, for a shithole room. We were there all the time. We were really trying to find whatever the hell it was we were.
David Lovering: Our rehearsal room had a sewer cap in it, and it smelled like sewer all the time, but it was great. It was fun.
Francis: Even when we didn’t have a rehearsal space, we’d go to David’s parents’ house and play in their garage. We always played and played and played. We had gigs as often as we could get them. I look forward to a time when we can be in a rehearsal space, because I like that. It was not loose jamming. We’d get into a mantra or groove and try to find out, “Is this as good as it can be?” And you wait for that little accident to happen, the mess up that sounds amazing. I would like to do that again.
Was finishing the record encouraging?
Lovering: I enjoyed the experience.
Francis: We had this whole thing where Kim [Deal] left in the middle of the record, so that was an interesting challenge. I don’t think we want that kind of challenge the next time we have a session.
You basically had to decide to continue?
Francis: Yeah. The general feeling talking about it amongst ourselves, with Gil and our manager, was rather than try to replace Kim at the time, even if the record has this Kim-shaped hole in it, we needed to leave the hole there. Not “Let’s get a girl in that sounds like Kim!” We had those thoughts of course. We had to do it ourselves.
Santiago: Leave it alone, and have her absence there almost like a tribute, out of respect for her.
In “Bagboy,” there’s a Kim-sounding vocal.
Santiago: That was by accident!
Francis: There was this kid who was helping us at the demo level, and he’d thrown down some vocals when I was out of the studio. Even at the time, I was like, “Oh my gosh, it sounds exactly like Kim. Ha-ha.”
Santiago: I was thinking, that sounds exactly like Kim. You know what, I’m going to keep my mouth fucking shut, and I’m going into my room and let these guys decide if it’s OK. I didn’t know.
Francis: That kid helped us with a couple of other tracks and didn’t sound like her. It’s just the way it came out on that one track. It’s unfortunate because it gave the impression to the conspiracy seekers that we were doing that deliberately to fake everybody out. It was a total fluke.