The Pixies - Alternative Godfathers

In the late 1980's, the Pixies unique brand of punk, pop and guitar rock almost single handedly created the alternative music movement of the 1990's. Their sound served as the blueprint for a host of new artists including Nirvana, and were even cited as a major influence on more established artists including U2 and David Bowie. Bono called the Pixies "one of America's greatest bands ever," and David Bowie was such a fan that he later covered several Pixies songs, remarking "I thought they were probably the very best band in America during the '80s."

When asked by Rolling Stone magazine the inspiration behind the smash "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Kurt Cobain stated "I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off The Pixies."

The Pixies were formed in Boston in 1986 by guitarist / songwriter Charles Thompson and lead guitarist Joey Santiago, who recruited bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering. It was at this time when Thompson took on the pseudonym of Black Francis and the group assumed their name after flipping through a dictionary. Francis' often brilliant songwriting employed extraordinary dynamics (they practically invented that "soft verse/loud chorus" technique) and vivid imagery, and his guitar playing was tight and focused, while Santiago's inventive and highly unconventional melodies were refreshing amongst the slew of hair metal players of the day, making him a sort of "anti-hero" guitar hero.

After immediately gaining a cult following on the local level, the Pixies were signed to 4AD Records and released the EP "Come On Pilgrim" in 1987. The following year, the Pixies released their first full-length album, "Surfer Rosa," produced by Steve Albini. This international success this album brought the group caught the attention of Elektra Records, who later went on to release their three biggest selling albums.

In 1992, after the group released the hard rocking "Trompe Le Monde" and opening for U2 on their 1992 Zoo TV Tour, the Pixies announced their breakup. During this period, bassist Kim Deal worked with the Breeders, and Black Francis worked under Black's other assumed name "Frank Black" and Joey formed "The Martinis" with his wife Linda Mallari. Drummer Dave Lovering went on the join the group Cracker followed by a career as a magician opening up for several rock tours (including Black's).

Like all good rock and roll breakups, reunions seem inevitable, and in April of 2004, the Pixies reformed for the first time in over a decade for a world tour, which was later named as "Comeback of the Year" by Spin Magazine, and described by Billboard as "wildly successful."

VG had a chance to catch up with the Black Francis and Joey Santiago as they were preparing to continue their reunion tour. Both Black and Joey are big fans of vintage instruments and were eager to talk to VG about them.

VG: You recently got back together for your very successful reunion tour, playing together for the first time in over 10 years - How does it feel to be playing together after all this time?

BF: It feels like it did before basically. No lie. There's a lot of muscle memory involved in playing music as you know, and when you go back to old songs, I think muscle memory looms larger than poignant thoughts. It's a more gut level thing going on.

JS: It felt good, the anticipation was very exciting, and when the actual playing was happening, I felt pretty much like "just don't f*ck up" (laughs).

VG: Your guitar styles really are very different yet work well together. When you're developing a song, do you consciously plan out your parts or do you just sort of weave your parts together?

BF: I hate to dumb it down too much, but basically I'm the guy who just shows up with the chord progressions, so obviously I'm going to play the chords, many times chunky as they typically are in rock music, and he is the "lead guitar player" so he is gonna play higher and more single note stuff. Sometimes he does a solo, and sometimes a repeated riff, a motif. So we start out from a sort of Joe Blow place…I'm the rhythm guitar player "chugga chugga chugga" and he's the lead player "reeneeneeneenee" you can reduce it all to that. That's not to say that we play in a conventional way, although sometimes we play a combination of really conventional stuff and oddball stuff. That's probably true about the Pixies in general. It sounds kinda normal, but there are subtle oddities going on (laughs). I would say that Joey is the "unsung hero" of the Pixies…maybe not now but in the earlier days, a lot of magazines were personality driven and they wanted to talk about the grouchy lead singer, or the drunk bass player, and what's going on between those two…so our guitar player got left on the back burner. I think there are several things that Joey does though that has made his style stand out. He'll play something that's seemingly very simple, and his whole subtle touch just sort of makes it sounding classy and makes it pop out in the song.

JS: Back in the old days, I'd just record Charles on his acoustic, or the practices with a cassette tape, remember those things (laughs). Then I'd take it home and practice, and come up with my stuff.

VG: How has your songwriting changed since you started?

BF: When I started out I was very much into abstraction and very short songs, and a certain type of surreal thing in my songs. If I've changed one thing, I've tried to adopt more styles into my songwriting, like doing some classic things like love songs or singer-songwriter kind of stuff, trying to expand. When you're young, you tend to try to be a more avant-garde type of guy, and when you do it long enough, you want to go where others have gone before and hold your own. You're not as embarrassed to embrace formulaic or highly stylized things. When you're young you're trying to avoid horrible cliché's and mediocre music, so the last thing you want to do is "hey, let's do a country and western song"…you're all about breaking everything up. You do things for awhile, and you're less conscious of people thinking your dorky. I think you learn respect for some of the forms of music that will live on.

The first Pixies stuff represents my earliest songwriting, and as they say, you have your whole life to write your first album, and six months to write your second, so the first two Pixies records represent a lot of the writing that started when I was a young teenager.

VG: How has your technique changed since you began playing guitar?

BF: I probably have changed but can't properly analyze how. Its just that initially I learned so much on the guitar, and then just didn't try too hard to break out of that, so I've just learned little things through time and trying things, like new fingerings. Especially from watching people that have original styles. You work hard at things like songwriting or rehearsing for a tour, but really don't the effort into the learning curve (of guitar technique)…I just try to let that happen on its own and that's how you develop your own style. But I didn't start out by thinking that "I don't think I'll put much effort into the learning curve so I can develop my own style" (laughs). I think that Joey practices though, but I assume he's in a similar boat as I, as far as the learning curve thing, but he has his own theories and thoughts that he pursues, as I've seen him do in the studio.

JS: It hasn't (laughs)…I'm trying to change it, but I can't! Technique wise, I hope I'm a little better now…But Charles he's got a style of his own too…his rhythm playing is to die for, its really, really good.

VG: When did you start playing?

JS: I started playing in junior high, and never really took it that seriously. But then, around high school, I started gaining more interested in it. I used to plug my electric guitar in at parties and we'd all get sh*tfaced (laughs).

VG: To many, your music was not like anything that came before it, and doesn't sound derivative of earlier genres. What type of music did you listen to as a kid, and if so, who were some of the artists you enjoyed?

BF: I would say that probably Neil Young's "Decade" album was a huge influence on me. That was probably the first record that I heard as a teenager that made me think about the artist, it got me into a lot of different types of material and it gave me a good sense of him. Before Neil, I would say that I was big into Bob Dylan and The Beatles when I was really young, and Donovan. I was a huge Leon Russell fan, and still listen to him. I also used to listen to a lot of Sixties stuff when I was a teenager. I wasn't really into the current stuff or the punk stuff that was going on in the Seventies. In the Sixties, there were these "rock family trees" and I used to work my way through them. I listened to Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, The Yardbirds, and I used to listen to a Christian rock guy named Larry Norman, whose heyday was the early '70's, a folky guy that was too rock and roll for religious people and too religious for rock and roll people. Truly a cult guy that I was really into.

JS: Oh, the obvious players, the usual suspects…Hendrix and all that. I really liked The Beatles too.

VG: Do you remember your first good instrument and amp?

BF: I had an EMC amp that worked okay, and played a Guild acoustic electric through it, which I started playing in high school. This became my first setup with The Pixies, and played this for a lot of the early Pixies gigs. That amp didn't make it too far though…Joey and I were roommates and it stopped working, so we got an all-metal butter knife to open it up to see if we could fix it (laughs). And of course, we couldn't! So the EMC was not revived (laughs)…

Then Joey and I both got into the Peavey amplifiers which worked out for Joey but I never could get a good sound out of mine.

JS: The first good instrument I had, my mother bought for me. It was an Ovation Viper, remember those? It was a good guitar too, I must have been just out of junior high. It had the full 24 frets, and made for someone with tiny hands, so it would sit in my hands every night, and I liked it. I tried a more expensive Les Paul and it didn't fit as well for my hands. For an amp, I got a Peavey Special.

I got my first Les Paul when we formed the band in Boston. I actually initially wanted to be the Tele guy, but Charles already had one, so not to be redundant, I went with the humbuckers, something totally opposite of what he was playing.

VG: There is an old saying (attributed to Brian Eno) that "only about 1,000 people ever bought a Velvet Underground album, but every one of them formed a rock and roll band". This statement also rings true for the Pixies, who initially didn't sell a lot of albums but had in incredible impact. What was it about your music that attracted fans?

BF: Oh I don't know, I suppose enough people found what they wanted to find in it. In other words, people were looking for something that was kind of pop or aggressive were able to find it in the music. Other people who were looking to find something humorous and not taking themselves too serious, even a bit nerdy, were able to find that as well. Some wanted music that was sort of quirky, arty, dare I say "avant-garde" were able to find it in our music. I think different types of people were able to focus in on different elements of the music.

JS: I would just say that it was unique at the time. I don't mean to sound like an old fart, but that was when "alternative" was actually alternative. We didn't consciously rebel against the norm or anything like that; I think it was just a natural thing for us to be alternative. This was in the days of hair metal. I remember going through Electra Records offices, and looking at their posters on their wall, and thinking "they'll really like us"…

VG: Obviously, Kurt Cobain was greatly influenced by the Pixies and Frank's songwriting….Did you ever meet him and what did you think of his music?

BF: It's unfortunate for that particular band. They were so hot, so fast, that everybody wanted them so bad when they "made it." That's just the sort of thing that makes me not want to listen to a band or makes me not want to go see a movie. So there's stuff I've missed out on over the years, because if it's like "everybody's going to see THAT movie" guess what I'm not going to see? So I tend to have an attitude problem with things that become that popular.

VG: So Frank, do you consider yourself a contrarian?

BF: Yeah, that's a good way to describe it. I mean, obviously I hear Nirvana at places like the grocery store now, and they were good and they were talented and all that, but it's hard to talk about something that's such a huge band for so many people. I kind of hesitate to really analyze their music.

VG: As far as amps, The Pixies have used Marshalls for years. When did you first get into them?

BF: We were opening up for Soul Asylum at the original Blue Note nightclub in St. Louis, and they had some Marshalls that sounded really good, so when we got home from that road trip, we both went down to the music store and bought brand new Marshalls, and have used them ever since. When we got bigger, we went with two Marshalls each. I do have some old Vox AC-30's that I used in my solo band, but went back to Marshalls when we got back together.

JS: Yes, from that point onward, we've always used Marshalls, 50 watt JCM 800. Up until that point, I always liked them, but since we had to lug our own gear around, I was like "what are you crazy, I'm not gonna lug that big thing around" so I stuck with the Peavey until we had some help (laughs) and I thought…"let them carry them." I really like the JCM 800's, but don't like the 900's… For the studio, I have a Fender Vibrolux reverb, a blackface '60's model.

VG: Do you collect guitars and what do you have in your collection?

BF: I was really into 60's Teles for awhile, and then a few years back, a bunch of them got stolen. So to sort of "celebrate", I went out and bought my first 50's Tele, a 1957, which initially felt weird, but eventually became my main guitar up until last year, when my brother showed up at a gig in L.A. at the beginning of the Pixies tour with a 1953 Telecaster. He just gave it to me at the gig, and it sounded actually too intense initially…but eventually I started playing it, and now that one is my main guitar.

As far as other guitars, in the early days I played a bunch of these Japanese Fender Tele Specials which I liked. We had a well known guitar tech, a Japanese guy by the name of Toru, who stripped them and took them back to Japan, and dried them out in some sort of barbeque thing, which made them lighter. He then put vintage style pickups on them but kept the whammy bar bridge on them but cut some old style saddles on it, which I like because I like to scrape my pick over them. I have four of these and for guitars originally made in the 80's, and I think they were made for people who wanted to play metal on a Telecaster (laughs). It's strange, because I could go back to the Marshall amps, but couldn't go back to these Teles for the reunion. Nowadays, I just play the'53 Teles, and if I break a string, I'll pickup my '57. They are very light guitars…

JS: I typically like Les Pauls because they the easiest guitars (to play). I have a bunch of them, and my favorites include a black custom which sounds like your "run of the mill" Les Paul, and then a nice old goldtop that sounds super, super crisp. I just bought a '52 Guild Aristocrat with soapbars on, a very nice guitar that I am dying to record with. It's less forgiving than a Les Paul though. One of our crew, Myles Mangino had a great super light Gibson Melody Maker that I loved and wanted to buy, but he just traded it for a drumset and I was like "why didn't you tell me?" I've also got a 1965 345 with a Gibson tremolo bar, that's a really nice guitar too. I do prefer vintage guitars, they feel more worn it, and if it's lasted that long, its must be worth the money (laughs)…I would like a 50's Les Paul though.

VG: Joey, on the "Surfer Rosa" record, you got some pretty amazing clean tones…What were you using on that record.

JS: In the studio, I just plug straight into the amps…On "Surfer Rosa", I was playing a Fender Twin Reverb on that that Charles used to own.

VG: How about live, are you using any effects?

JS: Live I do use pedals, including ZVex Super Hard-On, a DOD wah, a Boss Fuzz pedal, a tremolo pedal, and an Electro Harmonix Memory Man, which I love, but it's noisy on stage depending on the power of the venue, as some places have very dirty power, and an SMF Mr. Echo, which is also a fun pedal. VG: Your style alternated from an almost updated surf rock to extreme hard rock, as on your final studio album, Trompe Le Monde, in '91. Was that a conscious move to a heavier sound? BF: We did listen to a lot of surf music, and we did play loud, but you just kind of make up a bunch of songs, and they come out like they come out. We're not real visionary in that sense. We don't have a game plan. JS: I will play something a bit heavier if the song is harder sounding. When I did those hammer-ons on that album, they were sort of a joke…a metal joke...everyone was just laughing when I was recording that. VGBF: You just announced more tour dates today…Are there plans for the Pixies to record a new album as well?

BF: We don't have any plans; we're sort of hesitant on that. I think we'd like to, but I don't think that's what people are interested in right now. Maybe some of our "uber-fans" would be, but the general audience isn't interested in our new songs, they're interested in hearing "Monkey Gone to Heaven" and that's fair enough. If we do, it will come natural and because we're bored with playing the old stuff.

JS: When the time calls for it, we'll look at it. If there have been discussions on recording, they have been very casual.

VG: What is in your cd player right now?

BF: I'm listening to Burl Ives (laughs)…I listen to a lot of jazz these days, we hear a lot of '80s' pop stuff on the radio. I do like to listen to a lot of folk music these days. There are new groups I like, but I always forget who they are…must be a passive aggressive thing.

JS: Right now, I'm listening to Ennio Morricone, and during this last break, I just got hired to do the soundtrack for a Showtime pilot, called "Weeds." It's about a mother that supports her family by selling weed.

Tom Guerra would like to thank Myles Mangino of Planet of Sound Productions for his help in setting up the interview.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tom Guerra has just finished recording Mambo Sons third album "Racket of Three." For more info, visit