Our Rebirth series takes a look at bands and artists who made it big and then made a comeback. This time we look at the Pixies.
The career of the scene-leading rock outfit known as the Pixies is a fairly strange tale, all things considered. Spearheaded by self-professed “untrained musician” Charles Thompson IV, the man who would come to be known as Black Francis/Frank Black (era depending), the band have enjoyed sustained success home-and-away, spanning multiple decades, and become a revered name amongst contemporaries and old-guard alike.
As for their influence, well, how long do you have? The loud-quiet contrast that best epitomises the band’s unique catalogue has been found in many genre works since, and the DIY aesthetic of their playing was never forgotten either.
Forming in 1986, they arrived slightly ahead of schedule to the alternative boom that would define the 1990s, and in many ways gave it some strings to the bow. Everything they did was out there, chaotic, seemingly nonsensical. Hiring a bass player who’s never played? Check. Digging deep into the furthest reaches of your personal tastes for inspiration, and haphazardly smashing them together regardless of their sonic differences? Check. Songs concerning sexuality, the surreal, god, violence, the environment, early pop culture? Check on all fronts, and approached in a variety of different ways.
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Pixies were formed by Black Francis and guitarist Joey Santiago, whilst the two worked at a warehouse in Boston. They played for a few years, before filling out their line-up with bassist Kim Deal (or Mrs John Murphy, as she was known) and her husband’s friend, drummer David Lovering. They rehearsed in David’s parents basement for shows in and around the Boston area, before they ultimately captured the attention of producer Gary Smith.
Smith produced the 17 track ‘Purple Tape’ fans would come to know as the first real benchmark in the band’s history. From there, certain tracks were revised for the mini-LP (and first official release) Come On Pilgrim through label 4AD…. but it goes deeper! Debut full-length Surfer Rosa, released a year later, reworked songs from the tape too, and ‘Vamos’ happens to appear on each of the three projects (to be fair, it is fantastic).
The label allowed for work to go on with a fresh set of ears, and soon-to-be-legendary record producer Steve Albini was the only man in the running. Known for his creative freedom approach, he was a perfect fit for these youngsters and their pop sensibilities; it has to be assumed that anyone else at the time would’ve exploited every dollar out of this. Albini never banked much of anything; he never really got in the way. He let them sound like they wanted, and Surfer Rosa was a wonderful opening gambit for it.
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The majority of cutting-edge projects aren’t favoured by time… it’s hard for them to stand out against those that expanded on the original idea; those that added to it and made it more interesting. Popular genre pieces form a canon, and they evolve and evolve. With the focus on utilising airy room sound and no wider, overarching theme at play (they LOVED this in the early days), the tracks that make up Rosa were little islands of their own. In 2020, they’re still strange and fantastical places to visit.
If they chose their name for its mischievous connotation, you could say this is the album that best embodies ‘them’.
1989’s Doolittle was no difficult second album. It was a BOOMING triumph. It’s an album that plays up the dynamic between Francis and Kim more than ever… and that sadly foreshadows some tension down the road. Stick around. A pre-pubescent Grunge was peeking its head around the door for something to chew on, and Doolittle, along with Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation and Dinosaur Jr’s Bug would quickly fall into the cooking pot in varying portion sizes.
Doolittle was just as idiosyncratic, unpredictable and violent, but packaged a little more presentably. They weren’t so detached from the band that sought the preservation blanket of Albini that this move seemed insane, but had perhaps learned to love the smell of money just as much as they did Hendrix chords, songs about incest, and pseudonyms. What is ridiculous is how underutilised Kim’s songwriting was at this stage in their career. After all, less than a year later, she would go on to record Pod, the stellar debut album of her own new band The Breeders. The twanging menace of Silver is her only songwriting credit to speak of, despite the last song she fronted, Gigantic, being Surfer Rosa‘s only real hit. You would’ve thought they’d have capitalised more on that.
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Anyway, you know Doolittle. I don’t need to write about ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’, ‘Debaser’ or ‘Here Comes Your Man’ because you still hear them on every rock station kicking. Rightfully so. Saying this, it’ll probably be no surprise to you that the album was a bigger success in Europe than anywhere else.
Another touring cycle proved catastrophic for the power struggle at the front of the band. Deal, feeling ever-more limited in her inputs, outright refused to play a show in Germany, and everything between her and Black went kaput.
At the end of the US leg of things, they shut it down for the remainder of the year.
The three male members moved to LA at the beginning of 1990, and work began again. Deal eventually followed once her obligations to The Breeders were completed, and Bossanova came to life. A comparatively rushed affair to their usual model, the band only had a fortnight to practice pre-recording, and Francis was writing lyrics during studio sessions. The whole process sounds nightmarish; everything from the pressure internally to the bloody mixing desk not playing ball, and picking up pirate radio signals that would cut days short.
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Now-frequent Pixies producer Gil Norton met with Rick Rubin to pull some strings, and recording was completed at Master Control. Now, with everything going on, it’d make a lot of sense for Bossanova to have been a raging dumpster fire… a stapled-together, disorganised mess of fetal or fragmentary ideas. What if I told you it’s their most coherent record?
The miscellany of themes that give Bossanova its bold, out-there personality may mesh better than anything they’d attempted beforehand. It figures that they’d do well in total chaos, but this well? Surf-rock nonchalance elegantly dresses the paranoid questioning of the album to the point it can slip by you in disguise. Even as Francis’ mind whizzes, orbiting minute-to-minute, the parallels and extremities on show keep things so balanced that you never go fully with him into the abyss.
It’s contextually interesting to hear this uncertainty dart around, as so much was up in the air for the group too.
But back we go touring. Relentless, unwavering touring… and yet another album. If the plan had been to refrain from burning out, let this serve as the 101 class in precisely not doing that. Trompe le Monde (Fool the World) was released in September of 1991. I’m sure nothing else came out that month that’d overshadow a rock album like this (oh well, whatever, Nevermind).
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The fourth record was a vitriolic slap in the mouth. The now well-documented tensions were boiling over for all to see in ugly detail, with many critics coming to view the work as Black Francis’ “solo debut”, for how little Kim Deal was actually allowed to contribute. Kim had come into her own as a songwriting force away from the unit, and it seemed her prowess had been matched right in front of her very eyes. It’s kind of embarrassing. This one is tough, loud, and desperate… and it’s the final piece on the board. Connect 4 albums, lose a tired band. You fooled no-one.
In 1993, Black announced on Radio 5 that it was over. You know, before informing anyone involved. Deal and Lovering received a fax spelling it out, later in the day. Lovely. Everybody went their separate ways, but not quietly into obscurity. The Breeders continued to do their thing to moderate success (the Last Splash LP is a certified banger); Santiago eventually got into writing scores after getting his own project The Martinis off the ground, and Lovering was even in talks at one point about a position in hot upstart act Foo Fighters.
As for Francis? Well… the rebirthed ‘Frank Black’ didn’t stop for a second. His eponymous debut album in ’93 was followed by another two works in three years, before forming new collective The Catholics in 1997. There was clearly nothing to be learned from burn out, this was just the way he operated. Ironically, it was Pixies that gained traction in this era. Life is odd that way. David Fincher’s Fight Club strapped a rocket to Surfer Rosa classic ‘Where Is My Mind?’, and groups now at the forefront of global popularity were citing hearing Pixies as what had changed the way they’d approached the creation of guitar music.
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In 2004, they returned, with their first full tour of dates in over a decade. A brush with the mainstream post-split changed their minds about the project, and the whopping $14 million they’d gross in ticket sales alone from that reunion tour fuelled the fire. That’ll mend even the most caustic of bad relationships.
A few years went by, and live CD after glory-days compilation after live CD churned out. There was no fresh studio material to speak of, barring ‘Bam Thwok’, which had dropped at the very inception of their revival. Fans were begging for an album; for them to get off the road and show they weren’t just cashing in on the hits.
It would take almost another decade, and Deal leaving AGAIN for this die-hard dream to become a reality. You see, Kim was always much more enamoured of the liberation she felt heading The Breeders, so when the most successful iteration of the group were in talks of reuniting, it made much more sense to her to rejoin Jim MacPherson, Josephine Wiggs, and her sister Kelley in that pursuit, over recording new music with those that had historically pushed her down somewhat.
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Pixies regrouped, and a short while later, filled the permanent role with bassist Paz Lenchantin. Three plainly numbered EPs, released a couple of months apart in the fall of 2013 and beginning of 2014, would become the tracklist for their first studio album release of the new millennium, Indie Cindy, dropping merely a month after EP3.
It was a strange decision to re-release tracks that had only recently seen the light of day under a different banner, and the album, shockingly, received the same lukewarm reception the EPs had. It’s not exactly what fans were clamouring for, and Black himself described it as a “transitional moment”, as opposed to a “comeback record”. A lot of hype fell on its arse, and something had to be done.
Welcome to the stage, 2016’s Head Carrier. Beating out the shape that had defined them in both runs so far, Pixies were reinvigorated by the inclusion and contributions of Lenchantin, alongside producer Tom Dalgety. You can hear how excited they are to be making music, too. The energy of Head Carrier transforms their iconic sound into something confident in itself for the first time. There’ll be detractors who find this change besmirching to the lonesome, weird-kid perspective of the 90’s index, but this bit of self-assured delivery works well here. Who in the present day can pretend they’re fucking outsiders any longer?
This is completely where you head after Trompe le Monde. It might have taken a quarter of a century, but we’ve said thanks and goodnight to the past (check out ‘All I Think About Now’) and it’s all systems go, dead ahead into 2019’s Beneath the Eyrie. This one’s a lot of fun. Brandishing the gothic pomp of a lost Misfits record, whilst still managing to sound like themselves, Eyrie is wide-eyed look to madness. It caught some flak from reviewers who maybe expected another Doolittle, but it was hugely appreciated by those with the interests that Pixies share, as opposed to outright interest in them.
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Of course campy horror tales of catfish women and witches sound good, what do you mean? I WANT to be barked at by an irritable old gunslinger. It’s a work infatuated with the dark, be that fictitious or otherwise, but it always retains a sense of humour regarding its telling. Most importantly though, it’s the work of a band infectiously happy to be one.
A lot has been said regarding the legacy of Pixies, and a lot will continue to be too, considering they don’t appear to be wrapping it up yet. For the most part, the stresses of that conversation are in the wrong place.
It’s easy to get bogged down into the legendary run from ’87-’91. It’s just as easy to forget that the band have lived in that shadow for a long, long time. The rebirth of Pixies is a success story; not because they soared to recapture the heights they once knew, but because they got on with having a good time away from the era no-one can shut up recounting.
They could’ve easily been cast aside, despite their very best efforts and verified top-tier status. In their dawdling years, they simply could not provide what everybody wanted from them. The foursome that set out on their journey from Massachusetts had to evolve and change, and ultimately start enjoying themselves again… whether that was with the rest of the group or not.
Regardless of how you may feel about the new string of records, the fact they weren’t buried underneath their own weighty hype and legacy, a miserable husk of their former selves, is exactly enough of a win.