Finding out that one of your heroes is just as down-to-earth as anyone else can be a refreshing moment.
“I’m in Los Angeles and I’m getting new glasses,” says Joey Santiago, lead guitarist with the Pixies. “I’m gonna look like a senator in one (pair), and in the other one I’m gonna look like a badass.”
Proof perhaps that, despite having influenced a generation of musicians, Santiago is, at heart, just like the rest of us.
And you may well have heard of some of those guitarists and songwriters. Kurt Cobain from Nirvana told Rolling Stone in 1994 that, “When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band.” Listen to “Levitate Me” from the Pixies’ “Come on Pilgrim” mini-LP alongside Nirvana’s “All Apologies” and you might get Cobain’s point.
Santiago seems to take that kind of praise in his stride.
“Nirvana did say that, but we got spoiled when (David) Bowie said something great about us,” he says. “Bowie is a big deal … but Nirvana is great too, because they carried the torch that we dropped.”
Indeed, as Cobain himself said, “We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.” And so came the Nirvana single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” released in September 1991, the same month as the Pixies’ last album from the band’s original lineup.
Founded in Boston in 1986, the Pixies — Santiago on guitar, Black Francis on guitar, vocals and songwriting duties, Dave Lovering on drums and Kim Deal on bass and backing vocals — put out four albums between 1988 and 1991 and then acrimoniously disbanded.
The band reunited in 2004, but Deal departed in 2013, just weeks before the group started putting out new music once again. She was eventually replaced by Paz Lenchantin, previously of Zwan and A Perfect Circle.
It is this incarnation of the Pixies that is set to travel to Japan and Australia for the next leg of a tour in support of the band’s latest album, “Beneath the Eyrie,” which was released in September.
Santiago explains that while Japan will get a set comprising new songs and hits from the band’s career, Australia will hear the Pixies’ first album, “Surfer Rosa,” in its entirety.
“We did (the ‘Surfer Rosa’ set) in a few cities around the world, and we didn’t get to hit Australia and Japan,” he says. “But in Japan we’re just doing our ordinary shows. Sydney asked us to do this for them.”
But while parts of the world may be demanding material from the Pixies of days gone by, Santiago is more than happy with the response the latest album has had.
“They’re saying we’re back to form, which is great,” he says. “It’s the (band’s) best work to date, and hopefully we’ll improve on the next one, or we can go in another direction and there might not be a comparison to what we’ve done in the past.”
With its occult themes, jagged rhythms and storytelling lyrics, “Beneath the Eyrie” fits nicely into the Pixies’ back catalog, following on from 2016’s “Head Carrier,” the first album to feature Lenchantin. The latest album sees the bassist receive songwriting credits alongside Francis (who, incidentally, Santiago refers to as Charles — the frontman’s real name being Charles Thompson).
Santiago says Lenchantin has become more comfortable with her role in the band, despite being the relative newcomer.
“Charles is comfortable with her input as well,” he says. “(She brings) a lot of positive injection to it (and) joy. We actually have a nickname for her — ‘Pazative.’ That’s what she is. She’s a great musician, she’s like a One-Take Charlie.”
The latest album, despite exploring new ground in its themes, is unmistakably a Pixies record.
“‘Beneath the Eyrie’ is back to our old format of making a record, which is we record demos and practice the heck out of them,” Santiago says. “Although with this one we didn’t do any pre-production. Tom (Dalgety, producer) opted out of it because he wanted to keep it fresh for us.”
Santiago agrees that this helped keep the album sounding and feeling more organic.
“The goal was to make it more exciting for us when we go into the studio and it’s not beaten down already,” he says. “So we have a fresher perspective and we still change things around during recording when it isn’t perfect.”
While Santiago only receives credits for his guitar work with the Pixies, he is an able songwriter with film and TV scores under his belt. Yet there are no firm signs of him ever contributing songs or vocals to the band.
“You know, Charles keeps saying that he wants me to sing … to me it sounds more like a threat,” he says. “I’ll probably be more comfortable doing it, but you never know, I don’t want to do it, start singing, and people start going to the bathroom and getting beers.”
Like with any band, all Pixies fans have their favorite album and track. Santiago volunteers his own.
“I like (1990 album) ‘Bossanova,'” he says. “It’s melodic and I think that you could tell what we had learned from (1988’s) ‘Surfer Rosa’ and (1989’s) ‘Doolittle.'”
For his favorite song, after naming “Daniel Boone” from the new album, Santiago digs into the band’s repertoire.
“I like ‘Dead’ (from ‘Doolittle’) because it goes through different hyper-transitions,” he says. “Then also the minor thing that goes on in the end, when we switch to minor. It’s just good, it’s very cathartic, it’s schizophrenic.”
Santiago’s choice of “Dead” as a favorite track points to this guitarist’s style, described by himself in past interviews as “angular and bent.” Listen to the band’s records, and you could be in awe of Santiago’s often minimal playing, free from complicated solos, but often playing by the loud-quiet-loud Pixies rulebook. But Santiago himself is quick to play down his skills.
“I don’t understand why they like it, why it’s highly regarded. I mean, it’s not that technical,” he says with a laugh. “At times when I’m playing live, I think that people are going to discover that I’m just an imposter, they’re going to start laughing and go, ‘Look at that guy! What is he doing?'”
With that in mind, are there any moments of regret regarding the band’s output?
“No, not really. It’s just a stamp on what we were like, what we did, what we thought of, and it’s always a learning experience,” Santiago says. “We worked on it so hard and it is what it is. There’s no regrets on any track.”
The Pixies never came to Japan during their first run, with fans here having had to wait until 2004’s Fuji Rock Festival and a short tour at the end of 2005 to see the band play live. Despite that, Santiago is fond of the country and is looking forward to his next visit.
“I want to get chopsticks from Denny’s,” he says. “I went into one and there is absolutely nothing that Denny’s has here (in the United States). They had these chopsticks that say ‘Denny’s’ on them. I want that again.”
With a bit of luck, the gigs in Japan will give fans a typical Pixies set duration, which often runs to 38 or 39 songs — all without a setlist.
“We love to play those songs, but to fill the time it has to be that many,” says Santiago. “We don’t have epic seven-minute songs, and we don’t necessarily jam out. The songs are what we did in the studio, that’s it.
“We don’t have a setlist at all. We go in there and the only style we know … is the first one, and then Charles calls (the songs) out to us. We have these in-ear monitors, like little walkie-talkies just for us, but we hear the band and everything and he’ll call them out. Or he’ll start doing something with his guitar or Dave will count off something and we know what the song is.”
Santiago says this approach allows for a little extra excitement during the show.
“It adds urgency and it adds a freshness to it,” he says. “I like to play a game when I’m on stage and try to predict what Charles is going to call out next.”
Aside from that unpredictability, what is it that brings Pixies fans back for more, time and time again and keeps the band going?
“For me it’s that we cut out all the bulls—-,” Santiago says. “People relate to us because we look normal, not like a bunch of rock stars. We’re weird enough and we’re catchy enough, we’ve got those two elements going for us.”
With the future of the band secure, perhaps Santiago will find time to get back into his film-scoring work one day.
“If we had extended time off, I would do something like that,” he says. “There’s not enough scheduling in there, so I don’t do that anymore. Knowing that we’re going to be touring a lot, I just like to kick back. I’ve learned how to just relax and just enjoy the time off rather than sit around going ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do today?’ F—- it. I don’t have to do any of it.”
See? Just as down-to-earth as you and me.
Pixies play Yokohama Bay Hall in Yokohama on Feb. 24, EX Theater Roppongi in Tokyo on Feb. 25 and Bigcat in Osaka on Feb. 26. For more information, visit www.pixiesmusic.com.