The Pixies - Artist Profile

Wave of Inspiration

The Pixies
4AD
Core Members: Black Francis, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago, David Lovering
Formed in: 1986, Boston, Massachussets
Key Albums: Surfer Rosa (1988), Doolittle (1989), Bossanova (1990)

The Pixies are, perhaps, the definitive alternative rock band. Across five records and six years, the quartet perfected a brand of spiky, abrasive, coiled-up songwriting that made amazing use of dynamic shifts from quiet to loud.

Though their legacy is utterly legendary, in their day The Pixies were only modestly successful, commercially. Their lasting impression was on the generation of bands that followed them: Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl, Pavement, Radiohead, Spoon, The Strokes, and TV on the Radio are just some of the bands to have cited The Pixies as a defining influence.

Background

Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV —who would, in the future, be known as Black Francis, then Frank Black— grew up in Long Beach, California, in a Pentecostal family. "I grew up exposed to a lot of preaching and righteous rage," Thompson would recall, to Melody Maker, "and though I've rejected the content of all that, the style has kinda left an impression on me. It certainly left me f***ed up, that's for sure."

Feeling that the handclapping, performative aspect of the church was pushing him towards rock'n'roll, Thompson started learning guitar, piano, and drums, inspired by his hero Iggy Pop.

In 1984, Thompson leaves California to school at the University of Massachussets, where his roommate is a Filupino guitarist named Joey Santiago. The two spend much of their freshman year jamming together, smoking dope, and listening to punk records.

Thompson studies Spanish for a year in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he, in his isolation, focuses on writing songs.

By the end of the school year, he gives himself a choice: either travel to New Zealand to witness Halley's Comet, or return to Boston and start a band.

He picks the latter, and convinces Santiago to drop out of UMass and join him. They place a newspaper advertisement that soon enters the stuff of legend: "Band seeks bassist into Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul & Mary. Please - no chops."

There's only one response, from Kim Deal, a young musician who's just moved to town from Dayton, Ohio, to be with her husband, John Murphy. She brings along a drummer who she met at her wedding, David Lovering, to the try-out. With one rehearsal, The Pixies line-up is set; it never changes.

The Pixies play one "terrible" show at infamous Boston venue The Rat, then decide to enter Gary Smith's newly-built studio Fort Apache to record. “There was no nurturing whatsoever,” Thompson later said. “We just formed a band, played a gig and began recording shortly thereafter. We were very quick.”

Beginnings

The Pixies record 17 songs (including a cover of "In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)" from David Lynch's film Eraserhead), a demo that becomes known as The Purple Tape. Playing around the Boston area, the band makes fans of Throwing Muses, the local outfit who've just become the first Americans to sign to England's impossibly hip 4AD Records.

The Muses' manager, Ken Goes, begins managing The Pixies, and passes their demo onto 4AD head Ivo Watts-Russell, who initially dismisses the idea of signing the band, hearing them as "too rock'n'roll." He soon changes his mind, and remixes eight of the Purple Tape songs, releasing them as the 'mini album' Come on Pilgrim in 1987.

Taking its title from a song by Christian singer Larry Norman, the record is full of a mish-mash of lyrical influences; Thompson's gonzo ramblings jumbling Christian, sexual, and surrealist imagery. "Eighty percent of it's baloney," he'd later confess, to Melody Maker, of his lyrics. "A bunch of five words might mean something, or stand for something. But the five words after it, or preceding it, sure as hell won't have anything to do with them."

Instantly embraced by English music weeklies Sounds and NME, The Pixies are, from the beginning, bigger overseas than at home; something that will hold throughout their career.

Come on Pilgrim spends 29 weeks in the English Indie Charts, but has no American release.

Break-out

Hoping to capitalize on the success of Come on Pilgrim, 4AD send The Pixies into the studios with infamous Big Black frontman Steve Albini, to make their first album. The resulting record, Surfer Rosa, is a stunning debut by anyone's measure; swinging from sweetly beautiful to brutally loud. "I like him because he likes loud," Thompson exhorted of Albini. "All the needles were on red. He totally overloaded the tape!"

Though doused in distortion, Surfer Rosa is a showcase for Thompson's brilliantly-melodic songwriting. The LP is wildly acclaimed in England, where it peaks at #2 on the indie chart. The Pixies arrive on European shores in April 1988 to support Throwing Muses, a match the hype-loving local press dub "the finest double act since the Romans decided to put the Christians and the lions on the same bill."

Melody Maker and Sounds go on to crown Surfer Rosa as '88's best album. By that time, The Pixies have already recorded a follow-up album, provisionally titled Whore ("Whore is a great word with a lot of connotations," Black explains, "mercantile connotations and politics, everything"), with Englishman Gil Norton in Boston.

4AD employed Norton to forcefully 'clean up' The Pixies' sound. "We had to fight a lot with Gil," Black would tell The Catalogue, "playing the songs with him for three weeks, eight hours a day, and fine-tuning every little nook and cranny."

The recordings turn into Doolittle, one of the most influential and well-regarded albums in rock'n'roll history. Loaded with countless killer songs —"Here Comes Your Man," "Wave of Mutilation," "Debaser," "Monkey Gone to Heaven"— Doolittle is hailed as an instant classic by critics, and peaks in the UK Pop Charts at #8.

Doolittle is released on Elektra in the US, but initially achieves only modest sales. It will, eventually, go on to sell over 1 million copies, long after The Pixies break up. With tensions building between Deal and Thompson, that almost happens sooner rather than later.

Next: The Pixies on Hiatus and the Birth of The Breeders...

Hiatus and the Birth of The Breeders

During the recording sessions of The Pixies' Doolittle LP, frontman Charles 'Black Francis' Thompson reclassifies his initially ambitious goals for the band. "In my own naïve way, I want to make records and be a rock star," he says, after the LP's release. Bassist Kim Deal, in particular, bristled at the increasing creative control, and increasing ego, that the band's leader was exhibiting.

"Kim was headstrong and wanted to include her own songs, to explore her own world," guitarist Joey Santiago would recall, to Mojo. Tensions reached a head at a show in Frankfurt in which Deal initially refused to play.

Convinced by management to continue, The Pixies call their 1989 US dates the "F**k or Fight Tour," and Deal and Thompson do plenty of the latter. With the decade ending, the band decide to go on hiatus. Santiago and Lovering go on holiday, Thompson moved to Los Angeles, and Deal decides its finally time to form her own band.

The Breeders begin life as Deal, the Throwing Muses' Tanya Donelly, bassist Josephine Wiggs, and former Slint drummer Britt Walford. They record a demo Thanksgiving 1989, then, in December, head to Scotland with Steve Albini to record for two weeks. The Breeders debut album, Pod —a more moody, obtuse work than The Pixies— is released in May of 1990, and debuts at #22 in the UK.

Bossanova and Trompe le Monde

By then, Santiago and drummer David Lovering had relocated to Los Angeles to join Thompson. Deal returned to Dayton, but came out to LA to work on The Pixies third album, Bossanova. Taking its key influence from surf-guitar music, the album is far more straight-ahead than its predecessors, and the band receives, for the first time, mixed critical response.

The album debuts strongly —at #3 in the UK, and, finally, at #70 in the US— but sales tail off. In fact, by the end of 1990, The Breeders are selling just as well as The Pixies, which only hints that bad times are ahead.

In October 1990, Deal spontaneously tells the crowd at London's Brixton Academy that it's The Pixies "last-ever show." The rest of the tour is canceled, and, whilst Santiago and Lovering fly home, Deal goes to Brighton to work on new Breeders material with Wiggs, and Black plays a string of solo shows in London; suggesting the imminent future of The Pixies' key charges.

The Pixies' fourth and final album, 1991's Trompe le Monde, is recorded over six months, a far cry from the ten days in which they made their debut LP, Surfer Rosa. The recordings —which sprawl from Burbank, California to Paris and London— are not much of a band affair, Thompson presiding all of the writing and most of the playing, with major contributions coming from producer Eric Drew Feldman.

The Pixies follow the album's release with their largest-ever US tour. Initially, the opener is intended to be an upstart band named Nirvana, but Lovering convinces his bandmates their openers are due to become an overwhelming success.

He's right. Bolstered by the breakout success of the single "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Nirvana are on their way to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world. Ironically enough, their frontman, Kurt Cobain, confesses, of the tune, "I was basically trying to rip off The Pixies."

Break-up

The Pixies instead throw their lot behind another gargantuan band, supporting U2 on their Zoo TV tour in North America in 1992. After their leg of the tour, they play two headlining shows in Vancouver that turn out to be their last.

“I think I kind of knew that was it,” Thompson later admitted. “But, you know, it was the end of a tour, so it was an easy time to not really state one way or another that it was the last gig. It wasn’t like, ‘Okay everybody, sit down, I have an announcement to make.’ But I kind of knew down deep that was probably it for me.”

On January 13, 1993, Thompson tells a BBC Radio interviewer that The Pixies have broken up, though, at the time, he hasn't told any of the other members. He later sends faxes to Deal and Lovering informing them of his decision.

Reunion

Given the acrimony of the break-up of The Pixies, few thought that they would ever get back together. A 1997 best-of was even called Death to The Pixies. Yet, in 2004, the members finally relented and reformed to play shows, but not record new material. Money was clearly their motivating factor, Thompson not even denying it.

"Right now we're just playing the old songs and getting paid lots of money for it. That's all anyone is asking for, so that's all we're motivated to do," Thompson laughed, to Slate, mid-way through their reunion shows. "[Record labels] aren't asking [for new material] and, to be honest, neither is the audience. This is all just about: 'You guys broke up too soon and I was in high school. So please tour again.'"

The Pixies would, over the next five years, intermittently play major festivals. At Coachella in 2004, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke initially refused to come on after the band, saying: "That's just not right! The Pixies opening for us is like the Beatles opening for us!"

In 2009, The Pixies released the limited-edition box-set Minotaur, whose $450 'deluxe' edition seemed like even more of a blatant money-grab than their reunion tour. Later that year, they embarked on a 20-year anniversary tour for Doolittle, playing the album in its entirety.

Legacy

Though Thompson has suggested he's open to recording new Pixies material, for the moment their legacy is safe in their initial albums, who have gone on to sell way more copies after the band's break-up than they did before.

"People like to think the Pixies were so enormously popular, and we did very well, but, you know, we were a cult band,” Thompson said, in hindsight. “We were just some little band playing a few shows.”

Still, with their incredible influence on perhaps the three most defining alternative bands of the '90s —Nirvana, Radiohead, and Pavement— The Pixies are safe in their status as underground music legends.