LONDON – Sat on the upper deck of his band’s tour bus, Pixies frontman Black Francis shrugs his shoulders and screws up his face. This is, I’ve come to realize, how the man born Charles Thompson IV tends to field questions before, if and when the fancy takes him, forcefully making his point — a technique strangely reminiscent of the quiet/loud dynamic that characterizes his songs.
Guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering are sat either side of Francis just a few hundred yards away from the inner-city Manchester festival arena that the band will later headline and it is, it must be said, quite intimidating, not least because the Pixies’ pioneering reputation is inarguable.
The Pixies’ first album in 23 years, “Indie Cindy,” was released this year, a newsworthy-enough event even without the departure last June of bassist Kim Deal, founding member and “mascot” of the band, who quit just days into recording in south Wales. In Pixies world, it was a seismic event that, naturally enough, dominates our chat. Or so I thought.
“Fortunately, not too many journalists are obsessed with it. Occasionally, somebody is,” Francis says, extending an arm toward me, “which is fine — we just let people ask the questions they feel necessary to ask. It’s not worth getting pissed off about.”
Addressing the Pixies is a daunting enough prospect as it is. This is, after all, a band whose initial six years in existence were among the most influential in rock music history. The five albums released after their 1986 formation in Boston, full of groundbreaking, unhinged songs containing incest, mutilation and religious violence, set the standard against which alternative rock is now judged. Kurt Cobain certainly thought so, telling Rolling Stone in 1994 that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was Nirvana’s attempt to “rip off the Pixies.”
By then, the Pixies had split, tensions between Francis and Deal — him the intense frontman yin, her the iconic, too-cool-for-school yang — grinding the band to a halt. Such was the hostility, Francis told Deal the band was finished via fax.
Their reformation after an 11-year hiatus — during which Francis recorded as Frank Black and Deal enjoyed crossover success with The Breeders as the Pixies’ influence grew exponentially — was therefore unexpected, and greeted with levels of anticipation that far outstripped their original modest success.
That fervor remains. Later tonight, the Pixies will play a brilliant, ferocious show at Summer in the City to a rapt crowd. Hours earlier when I meet Francis, he looks far removed from any notion of a rock star: Painting on a makeshift canvas in the sunshine when I’m introduced, he sits through our interview wearing a T-shirt and shorts covered in paint.
Francis can be light-hearted, but the sense that they are reticent interviewees is inescapable: Even the most routine of inquiries can be met with protracted silences, nods and shrugs. When the imminent trip to Japan is raised, I receive little more than confused disagreements about how many times the band have been and what they actually did when they were there.
It makes Francis’ assertion that I am “obsessed” with Deal’s departure something of a misnomer, as the truth is that the erstwhile bassist is about the only topic guaranteed to get them talking. Steven Cantor and Matthew Galkin, makers of the “loudQUIETloud” film that documented the band’s 2004 comeback tour, stated the Pixies “rarely spoke to one another . . . they communicate through their music” and I get the impression that is how they prefer it.
Yet by design or accident, the conversation often brings itself back to Deal. It can hardly be a surprise: Francis acknowledges that “people attribute certain magical powers” to the chemistry between the founding members. Francis first brings her up when I ask about why, nine years after reforming, new songs finally arrived.
“Kim agreed to embark on a recording.” So it was her holding the process back? “Yeah”. Why was that? “You’ll have to ask her, really. I suppose she had her doubts”. But then she left. “But we were already in the process of recording, so she wasn’t saying ‘stop’ or anything; she was just saying, ‘Continue without me.’ ” Was her decision a surprise? “There was always that potential, I suppose.”
“Truthfully,” Santiago interjects, “she was the most volatile. You can’t skirt around that issue.” A long pause ensues. “I think she’s happier, though.”
Lovering says the group “briefly” considering disbanding “because it was a shocking thing,” but with six weeks’ recording time booked and paid for and with material written, continuing “was the thing to do.” Not replaced officially in the studio, the post-Deal Pixies substituted Kim with another Kim — Shattuck of The Muffs — who lasted just six months. “She was my choice,” Francis says. “And it did not work out.”
Deal’s second replacement, Paz Lenchantin, formerly of Zwan, has fitted in seamlessly but, as with any important band that sheds an integral member, there are people that believe a Deal-less Pixies is a pale imitation. Francis is circumspect on the subject.
“It’s a valid opinion, but at the end of the day, we have always done what we wanted to do and we’re just a rock band. We’re not talking about something of a grave nature. At the end of the day, how seriously can you take it?”
He starts to raise his voice. “Yeah, we get the challenge and we understand the pitfalls. It’s not like we’re living in a bubble and we’re a bunch of idiots. We’re aware of what the pitfalls are and what some of the expectations are and the potential disappointments people might have. But if you feel confident in what you’re doing it’s fine. We made a judgment call and we shall proceed.”
“Indie Cindy,” produced by old cohort Gil Norton, was released this year following its drip-drip introduction as a series of EPs. Francis in particular had always been keen to release new music, fearing the endless touring was “starting to get too Blue Oyster Club — that thing where bands just do the circuit playing their old songs. What should a band do? A band makes records and it tours.”
Living up to a back catalog of such weight could have been prohibitive. Santiago admits “there was a thought of that,” while Francis says Deal’s departure meant “it was obvious we had even more to prove. But it wouldn’t be much fun if you were the rock equivalent of Superman, and everything we fart out of our butts is amazing, and aren’t we just so amazing, we’re superhuman and can do no wrong. The challenge is how you make a bunch of noise and melody and beat sound really cool. And when you embark on that, it’s really hard, and you’re wary of doing something that’s not up to par. But that’s half of the fun.”
Francis says that for the first time since career-high album “Doolittle,” they “went in with a blueprint for the record” that wasn’t derailed when Deal exited.
“We weren’t like, ‘Let’s fill the Kim-shaped hole with something that is a facsimile of Kim.’ ” I ask Francis, whose past lyrical themes have been equal parts evocative, impenetrable and bizarre, about where a middle-aged family man draws inspiration for songs.
“I think there is a misconception that all writers or musicians are looking for new inspiration to propel you on,” he says. “I need gasoline to put in my tank! It’s more like: You like music, you always have; you’re inspired by it conceptually on every level; so you make music. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I don’t feel inspired.’ It’s a fun thing. You don’t need inspiration. It’s always there. It doesn’t go away.”
The uncharted territory the Pixies have encountered extends to reviews of “Indie Cindy,” which have ranged from lukewarm to brutal, a novel experience for the band.
“There’s not really anything we can do about that” Francis says. “Especially when you get older, because it’s just — I don’t f-cking care. All I can do is do what I do to the best that I can.”
“All we know is that she was on board,” Santiago says, referring to Deal out of the blue. “She loved it, she sent an email saying, ‘The comeback kids! These sound really fantastic!’ She was definitely on board, so you’ve got to ask her why she left. And if the review says anything about Kim Deal — gone. It’s no longer a legitimate review. You’re taking something and not reviewing the music.”
A few seconds of silence pass before Santiago becomes animated.
“To give it a painting analogy, you run out of green paint, what you going to do? Mix a little blue and yellow. It might not be the same goddamn shade, but it’s f-cking green. We still did it.”
I look at Francis. He shrugs his shoulders and nods.
Summer Sonic takes place Aug. 16 and 17 at QVC Marine Field and Makuhari Messe in Chiba, and Maishima in Osaka. The Pixies play the Sonic Stage on Saturday in Osaka and on Sunday in Chiba. Ticket prices vary. For more information, visit www.summersonic.com or www.pixiesmusic.com.
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