“Charles and I were up until 4.30. I’d put down a riff and I’d mixed it for Paz to hear so she could record the next day. But she heard it wrong - I’d mixed the guitar up a little too high. So when she went to the studio she told me she fell flat on her face. She was embarrassed,” Joey Santiago gives a chuckle that reverberates all the way down the phone line from LA. “But it was a happy accident.”
“Then Charles says to Paz, ‘You’re going to sing on this’. And Paz said ‘I’ll only sing about this if it’s about Kim’. Charles said ‘I need more than that’ and she said ‘A letter to Kim’.”
And so the song ‘All I Think About Now’ was born. It’s a song Charles - or Frank Black / Black Francis, as he’s better known - wrote as a “thank-you letter” to former bassist Kim Deal. It features lines like “If I could go to the beginning, I would be another way / Make it better for today” and in doing so hints at the turbulent but blistering history of one of the most important bands of the last 30 years. The Pixies are a group whose scorched Earth, rock-bent rage, anger and Biblical tales threaded together into the most visceral rock songs.
And if a song tells a story then ‘All I Think About Now’ seems to do so more than most, connecting the lines of the band’s history from 1987 to the present: The bonds and the strains between them, the shifting dynamics, the failure to match their personal relationships with the power of the records.
So, a brief history: Between 1987 and 1991, they created some of the most primeval, potent rock albums. They were peerless. No band has captured what they did. The Pixies proved so influential that it’s now almost impossible to imagine how bizarre they seemed when they arrived. They were outsiders, singing Old Testament morality stories (‘Gouge Away’, for instance, is apparently based on Samson and Delilah. “You can’t go wrong with the Old Testament”, says Frank), howling about slicing up eyeballs and selling T-shirts that read Death to the Pixies. ‘Doolittle’, their masterpiece, was thrilling and saw them shift alt-rock in their wake, dragging it with them. There was no one else like them. And thirty years on, no one has come close.
"We’re in a special position where we’ve been around a while and it’s totally amazing how much people want to hear us again."
— Joey Santiago
Yet it wasn’t just the guitars which teetered on the verge of chaos. Theirs was a tumultuous history – by the time Frank sent a fax telling manager Ken Goes that the band was over, the four rarely came to the studio at the same time. But in their absence the Pixies legend only grew, their music gaining greater force.
Which made it surprising that they decided to return in 2004. Thankfully the reformation worked. They embarked on a series of tours hammering out those greatest hits and embarking on a 2011 run celebrating ‘Doolittle’s’ 20th anniversary. The fact that things seemed to be going just a little too well was underlined in June 2013, when it was announced Kim Deal had quit the band. It seemed unimaginable that they would continue. An integral part of that inexorable alchemy that the Pixies possessed was now missing.
But here we are, launched back into the present, asking Joey if he knows if Kim has heard the song written about her. “She might want to check it out, she might not. If I were in her shoes I think I’d refuse to listen to it for a long, long, long long time. That would be me, anyway.”
That’s that then. But the band have carried on without Kim, releasing 2014’s ‘Indie Cindy’, which collected material from three EPs. They replaced Kim with her namesake, Kim Shattuck, only to unceremoniously fire her and replace her with former Zwan member Paz Lenchantin.
Now they’re back with ‘Head Carrier’. It’s their first recorded material to feature Paz on bass and it’s a return to the sound that made them. “I am beyond excited about this one,” says Joey. “Hopefully it will shock people in a good way. Like ‘Shit, they’re back at it again.’ It feels like we went through this internal battle with ourselves and came out on top.”
With a new member and a fresh impetus, to Joey, ‘Head Carrier’ is an album that harnesses the spirit of the band. “This is more Pixies-ish. With ‘Indie Cindy’ we were just trying to get away from what we’d done before and see what comes up. Also Kim left the band. And the first time out you have to explore something. It was either go towards the future or embrace the past and this time we’ve… done both. But sonically we’ve embraced the past.”
Frank had already hinted it was a return to the sound and spirit of the band’s 1989 masterpiece ‘Doolittle’ (the “early-Pixies slosh” as he refers to it). Joey concurs. “I would compare it to ‘Doolittle’ too. Very angry one track then very poppy and then sombre,” he laughs. “All the feelings are there.”
It may not sound as vital as their masterpiece, but the writing process helped give them the time to plan the details, uncover the sound they wanted. “It was back to the old days of getting ready for the record like with ‘Doolittle’. After that we didn’t have much process, we were touring a lot but this time we set aside eight weeks to get ready for the record. You know we have that comfort now - to call our own shots and just to be more relaxed. There’s no rush.”
‘Um Chagga Lagga’
Recording at London's Rak Studios with producer Tom Dalgety helped the band keep focused on the record. “We have to make every record away from any kind of distraction. I never called anyone while we were working. The rule is we can’t work where one of us lives. And we chose London because we call that our second home. 4AD was there, the whole bit and London was the first place to break us courtesy of John Peel.”
And Paz has proved a revelation. “Paz was very, very important to have on this record. Her input was great and her chops, awesome. Within a year we knew she was definitely right and then in two years we were like ‘Jesus, we love her’. We already knew that she was one of us, she got the vibe.”
Joey waxes lyrical not just about Paz but also his favourite songs on the album (“It used to be ‘Head Carrier’, then ‘Bel Esprit’. Now it’s ‘All the Saints’”) yet he’s far more modest about his own part in the process and the band’s history. “I’m proud of this sound that I make, but it’s just the way I do it. I can’t help it and that’s what I was trying to run away from with ‘Indie Cindy’. With this album I just put my hands up and say ‘I give up. I’ll do it and I’ll do it again’” He pauses, “But I love it.”
And 30 years on from when they started, there’s the luxury of looking out at the world, at their mark on it and the fans they’ve brought with them. “We’re in a special position where we’ve been around a while and it’s totally amazing how much people want to hear us again.”
“We have that emotional connection with our fans. We’re in awe that we’re still getting embraced out there, still relevant. We know that a lot of bands don’t have the luck we have.”
With their Biblical stories and otherworldly yelp, the Pixies always seemed a band joyously born out of time and out step. That was the thrill of hearing them for the first time. Does he think they would still be successful now if they were putting their debut album out? “It’s a completely different musical environment now but it still comes down to: good songs, performance and a unique sound. That’ll work in any era. Business aside, MP3s, social media, blah blah blah. But if you want to be a good band those three elements are always important. That’s what music needs.” And music needs the Pixies.
Pixies' new album 'Head Carrier' is out 30th September via Pixies Music/Play It Again Sam.