On the occasion of frontman Black Francis’ 52nd birthday (April 6), here are 29 geeky facts about the Pixies
Black Francis’ first guitar was purloined from the tips stolen by his mother from his father’s bar. In Fool the World: the Oral History of a Band Called Pixies, the singer says the Yamaha classical guitar went on a road trip with his cousin, then landed back in his possession when he was 11 or 12.
Charles wasn’t the only one in the Pixies with an alias. For the first two records (Come on Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa), bassist Kim Deal was credited as Mrs John Murphy. She reverted to her real name when her marriage to the real John Murphy hit the skids.
There’s an age gap in the Pixies that you might not realise. Kim Deal and drummer Dave Lovering were born in 1961, Thompson and guitarist Joey Santiago in 1965.
Black Francis didn’t discover punk until he was 16, saying “it was good I didn’t listen to these hip records.” He started out on a diet of 60’s songs, religious music and Emerson Lake and Palmer, then Iggy Pop, Husker Du, Captain Beefheart and Talking Heads, who he says “weren’t punk either”.
He’s maintained a love of Iggy Pop throughout his career. When the band played a secret show at the now defunct Mean Fiddler in Harlesden in 1988, Black Francis refused to start until the sound guy played ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ in full. The technician had faded the Stooges track out when the band had arrived on stage.
A young Charles moved around a lot, from Southern California to New England, and then to Massachusetts. He went to university at U-Mass then moved to Boston when he dropped out. Later the whole band would move to LA, except Kim Deal.
When Frank arrived in Massachusetts, he says he won a ‘teenager of the year’ accolade at the local Gowanus club, whatever that is. Teenager of the Year would become the name of his second and most popular post-Pixies solo album.
While at Umass, Frank Black was on nodding terms with J Mascis, who would go on to form Dinosaur Jr. The pair were in the same year - as was Joey Santiago - and they talked about music mostly when they met. Their paths would cross countless times in the future.
Joey and Frank dropped out of Umass and moved to Boston, but not before Black Francis and his walkman went to Puerto Rico to find themselves. On returning to the new city, the singer says it was around this period that “the songs started to get interesting".
Gary Smith of Fort Apache Studios is credited with “discovering” the Pixies, although he says “there are people who think Christopher Columbus discovered America, like suddenly it was there and nobody was doing anything". Smith had also had a hand in getting Throwing Muses signed to 4AD.
Pixies recorded 17 tracks at Fort Apache, which became known as the Purple Tape. Black Francis said he borrowed $1,000 from his father to record it. Money well spent; eight of the tracks made up their first record, Come On Pilgrim.
4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell didn’t intend to sign the Pixies himself, wanting to keep the label mainly British and goth. He decided to take the band on himself when he’d stepped in to help them sign to another American label, only to find nobody else wanted them.
The title Come On Pilgrim was borrowed from obscure Christian rocker Larry Norman, a musician Black Francis sought to emulate in his mid-teens. He was surprised to learn Surfer Rosa engineer Steve Albini had heard of the singer, a rare moment of bonding between the pair.
Albini said it was the first time he’d been hired to work “with strangers”, and was paid $1,500 for two weeks work. He unwisely slagged the group off to a fanzine, admitting years later that he regretted his ill chosen words, though he did continue to work with Kim Deal’s The Breeders. "He was two faced, you know,” said a hurt Joey Santiago. “He's confusing.”
Charles’ teenage dalliances with Christianity informed many of the lyrics on Doolittle. ‘Gouge Away’ for instance is apparently based on Samson and Delilah. “You can’t go wrong with the Old Testament”, said the singer.
‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’ is based on Hebrew numerology according to its author. The devil is six and God is seven? “It’s an interesting fact,” said Black Francis. “If it is a fact. I didn’t go to the library to figure it out.”
Debaser nearly didn’t make the cut as Black Francis wasn’t entirely happy with the recording. "Oh no, you've got to keep this on the album, Charles" said producer Gil Norton. The track was recently voted third favourite Pixies song of all time by Rolling Stone readers.
‘Hey’ - which may be the most popular Pixies album track of all time - was recorded almost entirely live, even the lead vocal, according to Norton. “I was on the edge of my seat all the way through that going, "go, go, go!" he told Fool the World... compiler Josh Frank.
Black Francis was forever writing in the studio, with much of Trompe Le Monde written there and then. He also had to provide a third verse on the spot for ‘Here Comes Your Man’ - the record company had pegged it as the single from Doolittle, and it needed to be longer than two minutes.
Polly Harvey’s favourite track on Doolittle is ‘I Bleed’, which she described as “one of my favourite songs… a beautifully structured, very powerful, haunting, scary, and very moving song."
Pixies b-side ‘Manta Ray’ is named after Charles’ name for UFOs. The singer became obsessed with flying saucers after his mum saw one in the Nebraska night sky.”My mother's weird, but she's not that weird,” he said. “She’s got no reason to make that stuff up.”
Pere Ubu’s Eric Drew Feldman was drafted in on keyboards in the latter stages of the Pixies first phase, and played on classics such as ‘Alec Eiffel’. He went onto produce the first two Frank Black LPs, and returned later for NonStopErotik and The Golem soundtrack.
Pixies were on a break when Black Francis broke up the band in the most Phil Collins way imaginable, by fax. He xeroxed his resignation letter to manager Ken Goes in the summer of 1992. When the news broke in January 1993, Kim’s sister Kelley informed her “Pixies broke up” after hearing it on the radio during rehearsals for The Breeders.
Charles claims the Pixies getting back together again was an accident. Bored with being asked about whether or not the band would reform he said to journalists, "we get together all the time and jam" as a joke. The next day the rumour they were reforming even hit CNN. “And I was like, no I was just joking, and then I was like, well yeah, what the hell.”
Once the band reformed in 2004, Black Francis said: “I forgot how much I like this band, how much I like being in this band,” adding that he didn’t expect the healing process of reforming “to be so spiritual”.
On another occasion he said: “Hey, I'm not going to go out there and hire three other people and call it the Pixies. I understand the marketability of the original lineup and how people hold that to be precious and dear, so that has value.” Despite this, Kim Deal left the band in July 2013 ahead of the release of their long-awaited Indie Cindy album.
Black Francis said he wasn’t sure why Kim left the band: “She’s been reticent for a very long time to make a new record. She was unhappy with the situation, or unhappy with her life or whatever, just not happy.” The door has been left open for her return.
The band hired another Kim, Kim Shattuck from the Muffs, but fired her after touring the US due to a lack of interpersonal bonhomie. “Personality-wise, she’s very west coast, she’s very extrovert,” said Francis. “We’re very east coast, very introvert.”
If the Pixies have their own, identifiable sound, then their artwork has always been cohesive and recognisable too. This is because they stuck with the same people, photographer Simon Larbalestier and graphic designer Vaughan Oliver. “If there were a ‘fifth Pixie,’ said Oliver in 2009, “it would have been Simon - his work so suited what they were doing.”