Back To Black Francis: Revisit The Pixies’ 2013 Comeback Feature

As Pixies announce a new album and share the first single, let’s look back at the legendary US band’s most recent cover feature from 2013 as NME’s Tom Howard finds them rejuvenated and ready to start “phase two”

September 26, 2013, 1pm.

A people carrier rolls up to London’s Maida Vale Studios and four people who don’t look like rock stars get out and slowly go inside. Pixies are in London to perform before a live audience for Steve Lamacq’s BBC 6Music show, and it’s the most oversubscribed session in BBC history. Out of 56,000 applicants, only 200 people could actually watch in the studio. (The second most coveted was The Specials in December 2012, which had 16,000 applications.) A few hours before the show the three remaining original members of the Boston band are, in separate interviews, reflecting on the previous night’s gig at the Roundhouse in Camden Town. It was the first time they’d played new songs – standalone song ‘Bagboy’ plus ‘Andro Queen’, ‘Indie Cindy’ and ‘What Goes Boom’ from their new four-track ‘EP1’ – to a European audience since the summer of 1991, and only their seventh show since returning earlier this year. They’ve all been thinking long and hard about it, and they’re all feeling a little insecure and in search of validation.

Drummer Dave Lovering, who’s wearing a blue patterned shirt that only a man who’s also a professional magician would buy, says: “We’re just hitting a stride now. Our first ever London show was at The Mean Fiddler [in April 1988], and it was the first show that took us by surprise. We’d never received that kind of reaction before. People were going bonkers. So we feel like we can tell where we’re at with the new line-up and songs by coming to London. I saw some moshing and people liking the stuff last night, so that was a good indication. I can see people applauding, but I’m still not gauging whether everyone’s just being polite. So it’s still tough. ‘What Goes Boom’ is good because it has power to it. ‘Bagboy’ is good, because that’s been out there. ‘Indie Cindy’ I can’t gauge yet…”

Guitarist Joey Santiago, who’s sneezing a lot because of his “severe allergies”, is more pragmatic: “When people don’t react when we play live we’re just not executing it. Then when we execute it I go ‘There, you heard the fucking song’ and the crowd appreciate it and I go, ‘Yeah, it’s validated, it’s a good song’. We just have to execute it. When you’re on stage you can either think that the crowd are going ‘Where’s ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’?’, or that they’re just being quiet and going ‘wow’ and observing. ‘Wow’ because they know they’re hearing something special. Because I know [the new songs are] good shit. And I gotta – we gotta – convince everyone.”

“It’s odd in the most delightful way,” says Pixies singer and songwriter Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, aka Black Francis, for all things Pixies-related. “We’ve been very lucky, and always talked about in glowing terms. We’ve had it handed to us on a silver platter, and that silver platter has gone. It’s a good thing though, because it’s like, ‘Oh you guys got a new bass player and new songs, you wrote a new gospel for the Old Testament’. And people ask: ‘Is it valid? Is it legit?’ So we have something to prove at every single show. It’s not handed to us on a silver platter anymore. Kim Deal kind of took it with her under her shirt as she ran out the door.”

Deal, the band’s original bassist, is not in London. In June, the band announced that she had left the band – she actually quit in October 2012, two weeks into six weeks of recording sessions the Pixies had booked at the Rockfield Studios in Monmouth, south Wales, with producer Gil Norton. She walked into the coffee shop where the rest of the band were drinking, said her goodbyes, and won’t give interviews about why she left. General consensus from Lovering, Santiago and Francis is that she just wasn’t into the idea of recording any new Pixies songs. At Maida Vale instead is The Muffs’ lead singer and guitarist Kim Shattuck, who’s replaced Deal to play live with the Pixies. When I ask to speak to Shattuck, the band’s manager says no. When I ask Black Francis why she’s not giving any interviews, he demurs, then suggests, “I guess you could ask our manager.”

It’s tempting to see this as a sign of the in-house friction that seems to always plague the Pixies, but at the soundcheck the interaction between the members is endearing. At one point Shattuck asks if they can do ‘Gouge Away’ because she “wasn’t clear about a couple of things last night” at the Roundhouse show. Then she asks Francis to show her again when to come in with her bass lines on ‘Hey’. As he starts yelping that famous opening line – “Hey! Been trying to meet you” – Lovering pipes up: “Charles, save your voice”. So Santiago sings instead. Come the actual set the band rattle through 20 songs, including all five new ones. ‘Another Toe In The Ocean’ gets its first play in the UK, having been ditched at the Roundhouse. A show in front of 200 people at Maida Vale is an unusually intimate environment, but they sound decent, if not totally stunning, in among the songs everyone’s here to see: ‘Bone Machine’, ‘Break My Body’, ‘Velouria’ and the rest. Applause ranges from adoring to appreciative, and no one seems to mind too much that they don’t play ‘Debaser’.

That same afternoon, Francis gives me a tour of Maida Vale Studios. The Pixies played here six times between 1988 and 1991 – five times for John Peel, once for Mark Goodier – so he knows his way round. He’s just finished the vocal exercises he’s been given by a guy who works with opera singers. The man in possession of rock music’s most deranged and primal howl (he was once described by David Bowie as “a screaming mass of flesh”) is 48 years old and taking care of himself. His voice was in reasonable shape at the Roundhouse, considering the battering his larynx has had from bawling “THEN GOD IS SEVEN”, “REPEEEEEEEEENT” and “TAAAAAAAAME” over the years.

He’s changed out of the shorts and T-shirt he was wearing earlier in the day and into black jeans and a black shirt. He’s been doing bikram yoga for three and a half years and is “a lot stronger and a little bit lighter” than he used to be. “And I make better choices more often than bad choices, with regards to food and drink and all that. Yoga is miserable to do when you’re hungover.” He looks remarkably like Hank Schrader, Walter White’s brother-in-law in Breaking Bad. I tell him this. “People are always saying that to me,” he says, but he’s never seen the show and doesn’t have a TV in his Boston home.

When he finds the specific glass-walled enclave of Maida Vale that he’s been looking for, he points through one of the windows into a studio full of instruments and amps. He reckons this is where the Pixies came for their first ever BBC session in May 1988 and played ‘Levitate Me’, ‘Caribou’, ‘Hey’, a cover of The Beatles’ ‘Wild Honey Pie’ and their interpretation of the song ‘In Heaven’ from the David Lynch film Eraserhead, all of which they still play in their live shows. They probably spent a lot of time “smoking pot”, says Francis. “When we were young.” Does it seem like a lifetime ago? “It seems like about five years ago.” But a lot has happened to the band in the two and a half decades that have passed.

Since the Pixies’ fourth and last album, 1991’s ‘Trompe Le Monde’, the original members have done a variety of things. Santiago formed a band called The Martinis and composed scores for films and TV shows. Lovering drummed occasionally for The Martinis, and for the bands Cracker and Eenie Meenie, before becoming a professional magician. Deal formed The Breeders with her twin sister Kelley while still in the Pixies, and released the albums ‘Pod’, ‘Last Splash’ and ‘Title TK’, then formed The Amps in 1995 when The Breeders went on hiatus as a result of Kelley’s heroin addiction and subsequent arrest for possession. Francis has released seven albums as Frank Black, another seven as Frank Black And The Catholics, five and one EP as Black Francis and two and one EP with the band Grand Duchy, which is just him and his wife, Violet Clark. He has gone from a man in his twenties leading the freakiest alt-rock band in America, to a man in his late forties with a back catalogue that has more in common with the classic rock of Neil Young than the devilish mischief of the Pixies.

So when, in early 2012, he decided to try again to write some new Pixies songs, he knew he had to get into a different headspace. After all, it hadn’t gone well last time. “About two years ago we got together in Sommerville, Massachusetts,” he says. “We rehearsed for a week and played only new music. And I guess the general feeling was that the rehearsals were fairly disastrous. The feeling was not good, so it was kind of a bummer. That was the first time we had gotten together in 20 years to play new material together. It didn’t click. There were some conflicts. It wasn’t productive.”

This time around he moved out of his home next door to the University Of Massachusetts and into a cheap motel down the road. “It was strange,” he says. “I would leave home for a few days, stay up late, drink, write songs and look out the window.” One of the first songs he wrote was ‘Silver Snail’, which hasn’t been released yet. “It’s about those disastrous rehearsals, about me as the lead silver snail speaking to his other snails. I kept thinking about snails because I painted a snail with one of my children, and soon after I went to the motel I stuck the picture to the wall of the motel as a mascot, like, ‘OK, now it’s time to find this headspace where I can write Pixies songs that would be acceptable to the other Pixies’. I kept thinking about snails and I was reading about the reproductive methods of snails. They have these little black harpoons they plunge into each other and it’s kind of an orgy of wounding and writhing around. It’s very unusual and sci-fi. Creativity, from a psychological point of view, is related to sexuality. The creative act is psychologically a sexual one, so I was thinking about the process of me and my band trying to be a band again. I was doing what I had to do to write material for this event that was finally gonna happen.”

When Pixies released ‘Bagboy’ in June this year followed by ‘EP1’ in September, it was An Event. Here was a band who had split up in 1993 after one mini-album (‘Come On Pilgrim’) and four full-length albums – ‘Surfer Rosa’, ‘Doolittle’, ‘Bossanova’ and ‘Trompe Le Monde’ – that sold quite badly at the time, but have since become legendarily influential. Kurt Cobain famously said he was trying to “rip off the Pixies” when he wrote ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Thom Yorke said the Pixies “changed my life” and were Radiohead’s “heroes”. David Bowie said they made “just about the most compelling music, outside of Sonic Youth, in the entire ‘80s” and included a cover of the ‘Surfer Rosa’ track ‘Cactus’ on his 2002 album ‘Heathen’. Pixies have since cashed in long and hard on this wave of adoration, and toured pretty much constantly since they reformed in 2004. As befits a band that’s built a career around songs that delight in lampooning topics such as incest, genital mutilation, scuba diving and Salvador Dali films, they mocked their own reunion with a DVD in 2005 called Pixies Sell Out.

But why did it take eight years from when the band reformed for the new songs to arrive? Says Francis: “Primarily, Kim [Deal] was reticent about it, and some of her reasons were perfectly valid. Hey, we’ve got some street credibility with the old back catalogue – do we really wanna mess with that? Do we really wanna start up with a new artistic enterprise again? All this kind of thing. It’s not like there’s any guarantee you’re gonna be as good and the people are gonna accept it. But writing and performing is the formula for being a musician.”

Francis initially faced criticism for carrying on the Pixies without Deal, leading to accusations that they were now nothing but a bloated Black Francis side project. “I don’t feel insulted when people say that, but they’re discounting David and I,” says Santiago. “David’s got his style – those drum riffs he has at the beginning of most songs. He’s underrated. And not to pat myself on the back, I’ve got a unique style. You can’t discount that. We miss Kim’s charm. She was the front cover of our charm. And we miss her quirkiness. We’re all quirky, but her quirkiness fitted with us. I love her, but this is phase two. New bassist, new songs. Like our first days of being a band.”

There were two reasons why the Pixies chose Wales for their recording sessions in October 2012. Firstly, they wanted to keep them a secret. Secondly, Rockfield Studios in Monmouth are producer Gil Norton’s favourite place to work. Norton has worked with Echo & The Bunnymen, Foo Fighters and Patti Smith, and produced everything the Pixies have recorded since ‘Surfer Rosa’. On a new song called ‘Magdalena 318’, he helped Francis get deeper into his Pixies headspace. “He was really into this narrative of us having been in outer space on another planet for 20 years, away from earth. That was the fantasy he wanted us to pursue. I didn’t try to make that narrative part of the libretto of our comeback opera here, but it became that. We’ve been away on this asteroid for 20 years with our instruments, separate sleeping quarters and little gymnasium. And Magdalena was kind of our haunt, our clubhouse, our hangout, our secret batcave. And when it all went sour we had to come back here, where we’re from. On another level the song is about love gone bad, which is not a bad metaphor for the band.”
Two weeks after the band arrived in Monmouth, Kim Deal went home. The remaining Pixies soul-searched for a few days, then decided to stay in Wales, draft in PJ Harvey’s bassist Simon ‘Ding’ Archer and finish all the songs they were working on. “He was perfect,” says Francis. “He had some balls and was a punk-y kind of player. It didn’t solve our vocal problem, but it solved the low-end problem.”

Francis says “there isn’t any solution” when it comes to replacing Deal on backing vocals, but the band’s friend Jeremy Dubs did a bizarrely good job of impersonating her on ‘Bagboy’. “He has a very high voice. He’s a small guy. He’s in a wheelchair. I just threw the idea of singing on ‘Bagboy’ and when I heard it I was like, ‘Oh, this sounds exactly like Kim Deal!’ I think it’s funny. You don’t plan these things, it just happened. When he did more vocals for us he didn’t sound like Kim at all. That was just one moment and it was kind of amusing for all of us. Some misunderstood that for trying to do an imitation of Kim but it wasn’t. It was just good luck. An echo of the past.”

Now that ‘EP1’ has been recorded, plus some as-yet-unannounced follow-up EPs, what does Francis actually want from this new era of the Pixies? “Ultimately I’m looking for something that hasn’t happened since the first time the band met success in clubs in Europe and the UK back in the ‘80s, when people were going nuts. People were throwing themselves at the stage. It was like a religious revival or something. It was very kooky. Not aggressive, but physical. It was really sweaty and drunken. A lot of people were getting stuff out of their system, and we were getting a lot of out of our system and it was very special. I don’t know if I’ll ever experience something like that again, but I always hope that can happen again. But hey, whatever, I’m 48 years old. I was 22 then.”

November 1, 2013, 11am.
Black Francis calls, hungover in a hotel room in Vienna. He’s feeling chatty, and speaking loudly and fast in between bites of a black truffle omelette. Since the last time we spoke Lou Reed has died (“I just can’t stop singing his songs in my head”), NME has voted ‘Doolittle’ the eighth best album of all time (“I humbly accept”) and the Pixies have played Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin and Prague, giving ‘Magdalena 318’, ‘Blue-Eyed Hexe’ and ‘Silver Snail’ outings at those shows. These songs are likely to appear at the Pixies’ UK shows this month. He’s not sure that the new songs have gone down any better in Europe than they did in London. “Depends who you ask. I think they’ve been going down really well. The rumour is there are some people, let’s just say ‘in our circle’, who think it’s too bad these new songs aren’t really lifting the audience during the show.

“But you can’t expect people to get excited in the same way over material they’ve never heard or have only recently heard. The reference isn’t deeply ingrained enough. So the reaction as far as I’m concerned has been very good. I can see that they’re paying attention, I can see that they’re not doing other things during those songs, and I see there’s not a lot of talking going on, so those are all good signs. I’ve played new material before and found that people’s attention drifts and the talking level goes up, but I haven’t seen any of that. So I think the reaction has been very good. But that’s just me.”

Does he ever worry that the Pixies aren’t a relevant creative force in 2013, and that people may never learn to love the new songs? “I am relevant in the sense that I am a so-called indie artist. I started off as an indie artist in 1986 and have remained that. I have had moments of success, mostly with the Pixies, and I have had many more obscure indie rock moments in my career. When I look at someone like David Thomas from Pere Ubu, is he relevant? He might not be to a bunch of kids that listen to Arcade Fire, but he was never gonna be relevant like that. The only thing relevant to someone like him is to be a real artist. To pursue your art and have it filtered as little as possible when you present it. I’ve been true to that. I headlined a festival and 60,000 people sang along to my song, and that’s a relevancy I’ve had the good fortune of experiencing. I liked that relevancy, and the pay is great. But as long as I can make music and have an audience, even if it’s a small audience, then that’s relevant and important and the ambition of being an artsy fartsy rock musician.”

When I ask about the Pixies writing even more new music once ‘EP2’ and the subsequent EPs have come out, he becomes animated. “I have the ambition to. It’s not easy, trying to reinvent your band after all these years. A lot of people get focused on ‘Oh so Kim Deal left your band and what was that all about’ but that’s just one story. There are other stories…”

What are these other stories?

“Like, I used to be the leader of the Pixies, right. And then for better or for worse I broke up the band. The band didn’t exist anymore. Then the band got back together to do a reunion, but not to become a creative entity again. They got back to do a big encore. And so, really, I just became the singer of a repertoire. And while we have recorded new material and I’ve had a huge hand in that because I am the writer of the songs, it’s different now. People are older, they have other lives. They have other stuff they wanna do. It’s not like we’re young and we’re surfing this wave like ‘OH MY GOD, WE’RE GOING TO EUROPE, WE GOT A RECORD DEAL, WOOAAAHHH!’ And you just surf that wave when you’re young and people were like ‘Oh there’s Charles, popping away’ and I was like ‘OK, I WANNA GO BACK IN THE STUDIO, OK I WANNA DO THIS, OK WOOOAAAH’ and everyone follows you and goes ‘OK, sure, no problem man, we’re just surfing the wave’.

And then for the first time in any of our three conversations, Black Francis loses the bravado and sounds ever so slightly sad.

“But that wave crashed a long time ago, and we washed up on the beach. So now we’re on the beach and it’s a different place out there. So I can go ‘Come on you guys, let’s get back on our surfboard and get back out there’ and they’re like “Charles, if you go out on a surfboard right now you’re gonna kill yourself, you just can’t fucking cut it right now, we’re not impressed with your surfing skills right now, we’ll go in the water when we think you’re ready to go in the water”. It’s this other dynamic. It’s not leading a band in this crazy chaotic atmosphere. So I guess I miss that. It doesn’t feel like four people hanging out surfing. It’s more complicated.”