Black Francis famously sang, “Your head will collapse/And you’ll ask yourself/Where is my mind?”
For fans of the Pixies, the past few months have definitely been enough to spin their heads and make them question their sanity.
First there was the news in June 2013 that founding bassist Kim Deal had decided to leave the group.
A mere two weeks later, the band surprised fans with the release of “Bagboy,” the first new Pixies song in a decade, followed by the four-song EP-1 in September.
After recruiting Muffs leader Kim Shattuck to handle bass duties, the Pixies played a handful of triumphant, sold-out shows in Los Angeles and New York City, followed by a series of gigs in Europe.
The band abruptly parted ways with Shattuck immediately after the European tour, a move that stunned fans and seemed oddly timed since more gigs were booked right after the holiday season.
In December, it was announced that Paz Lenchantin, a talented veteran of acts such as A Perfect Circle, Zwan and The Entrance Band, would join the group for upcoming tours in North America, South America and Europe.
If that wasn’t enough activity, the band unveiled four additional new songs on Jan. 3 with the release of EP-2.
Never a dull moment when the Pixies are involved.
Though it’s been an eventful time, singer/guitarist Francis, drummer David Lovering and guitarist Joey Santiago are taking everything in stride.
“We’re just a bunch of rock musicians, trying to figure it out,” Francis quipped.
The band, with Lenchantin in tow, has a dense gig schedule booked through Summer 2014—a 33-date U.S. jaunt featuring shows in Newark, NJ, Port Chester, NY and Philadelphia will be followed by a headlining run of overseas festivals such as Lollapalooza Brazil and Primavera Sound.
Like Shattuck before her, Lenchantin has accepted the challenge of filling in for the incredibly popular Deal, who cast a long shadow within the band. Lovering acknowledged that in the minds of Pixies fans, Deal will never fully be eclipsed, and it isn’t the group’s intention to do so.
“Basically, nobody’s going to replace Kim Deal,” he said. “We know that. But we’re just having fun playing with different bassists recently. Paz is the next step and we’re pretty excited about it.”
After fielding the same lineup since inception, the Pixies have endured a bit of a whirlwind in recent months thanks to the revolving door of bass players.
“All you can really do is try it out with someone and see how it goes,” said Francis. “This is a new situation for us. We don’t have it all mapped out.”
Though Lenchantin has thus far only been designated as the “touring bassist,” Santiago put in his vote for her to be more than a temporary bandmate.
“Personally, I’m hoping Paz sticks around for the long run—I think she’s a great fit,” he said.
Diehard fans starved for new Pixies material must feel they’ve hit the jackpot lately. Except for a one-off single in 2004, the recent releases marked the first new Pixies material in 22 years.
The Pixies are currently without a record label; therefore, they call their own shots and have made the EPs available only through their website, by download or on limited-edition vinyl. Using a cloak-and-dagger promotional strategy, all new music has been posted suddenly on the website, without prior notice through the press.
Like Radiohead before them, who have released albums with little advance warning and experimented with pay-what-you-like downloads, the Pixies are helping to change the script on how music is marketed.
And the group’s loyal fans have responded. When “Bagboy” was made available on iTunes last summer, it generated more than 15,000 paid downloads, even though the track was available for free on the band’s website. Not bad for a group whose initial existence predated the rise of the internet.
In today’s Twitter-centric, instant-info world, it seems nearly impossible to keep a secret, but somehow the Pixies are managing to pull it off, only revealing information and new music when they choose to.
“I like the surprises that we’ve been able to throw out there—that’s the magical side of it,” said Lovering, a part-time magician himself.
The fact that no fans or media even knew the Pixies were in the studio recording again in October 2012 is something the band takes pride in.
Francis joked, “It wasn’t easy to do, especially when there are forensic fans looking at your Instagram photos, studying them for any type of clues to where you are.”
For the covert sessions, the band convened in a studio secluded in the idyllic Wales countryside, joined by longtime producer Gil Norton, who also served at the helm for Doolittle, Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde.
Lovering remarked, “I’ve always referred to Gil as the ‘fifth Pixie.’”
Norton’s familiar presence helped ease the stress involved with returning to the studio for the first time in nearly 10 years—and the band would certainly get a heaping dose of stress soon after recording began.
Though Deal was present when sessions first commenced, she abruptly informed her bandmates one morning that she was leaving the Pixies. Despite the initial shock, the three guys insisted that they didn’t attempt to change Deal’s mind.
“She had already booked her flight to leave the next day,” said Santiago. “To me, it was over. Her mind was made up.”
In the three days that followed, and over several Welsh beers, Francis, Lovering and Santiago discussed what to do next, and pondered if they should end the act. Ultimately, they decided it was best to persevere.
“The Pixies are more than just one member, so we forged ahead,” stated Lovering, who was instrumental in convincing his mates to continue.
The fact that studio time was already booked added even more incentive to carry on.
“We had to move ahead and it seemed like the perfect environment to do it,” said Lovering.
The three remaining Pixies even mulled the possibility of continuing under a different name, an idea that they quickly thought better of.
“Even if we used a different band name, it would still sound like Pixies,” remarked Santiago.
Rather than sulk or fret about the future, the guys immediately put their noses to the grindstone and continued working in the studio, bringing in Simon “Ding” Archer (PJ Harvey/The Fall) to complete bass tracks.
For a more suitable post-studio replacement, there was never any doubt that the group would seek out another female bassist to handle Deal’s vocal parts, a bedrock of the Pixies sound.
“Our harmony vocals are meant to be female,” explained Santiago. “It’s got that sweetness attached to it, to juxtapose with the angst of Black Francis.”
“That’s definitely a dynamic we’re trying to maintain,” Francis agreed.
Though Deal’s bombshell announcement could have blindsided her former bandmates, Lovering said he’s come to expect a certain amount of drama within his group.
“There’s always something that goes on with the Pixies,” he laughed. “Even before I flew to Wales, in the back of mind, I’m thinking, ‘Something is gonna happen.'”
Presenting fans with new music for the first time in what seemed like forever was a daunting prospect for the band, given its legendary status in the alternative rock community. Talk about pressure.
“We had a legacy going and didn’t want to screw things up,” stated Lovering.
While the Pixies had discussed making a new album for several years, the idea was often met with ambivalence within the group and ultimately fell on the back burner. Eventually, Francis pushed his bandmates to record, feeling that in order to maintain relevance and continue touring, new Pixies music was necessary.
Following the release of EP-1 and EP-2, there are still several unreleased tracks from the band’s sessions with Norton—the plan is to put out one or two additional EPs over the next several months.
When writing the new material, Francis said it was difficult not to get too hung up on pleasing the fans who had been clamoring for a new Pixies album since the early ‘90s. Writing just to make people happy, instead of for yourself, can be a slippery slope.
“We do actually care what people think,” remarked Francis. “But you have to balance that out with the fact that people also want me to be an artist—to just be real and do my thing.”
Despite these challenges, the latest Pixies material has successfully resuscitated key elements of their classic sound, while breathing new life into the group’s existence.
On EP-2, “Blue-Eyed Hexe” is a bare-knuckle, riff-driven rock song with a driving cowbell that recalls the Pixies track “U-Mass,” if it were covered by AC/DC. The tune also boasts some ear-shredding Francis screams straight out of the Pixies’ heyday.
“Magdalena” conjures a unique soundscape, as Santiago’s use of a Moog guitar adds a spacey, futuristic vibe to an otherwise blues-tinged affair.
“I think we do have some blues rock in us, whether people want to admit that or not,” commented Francis. “Our filter is strong enough that it usually comes out a little quirkier than that, but if you listen to a song like ‘Cactus,’ or even ‘Vamos,’ there’s just a little hint of blues in there.”
Francis seems especially proud of “Greens And Blues,” an anthemic song that he envisions becoming a set closer, a spot traditionally held by “Gigantic” since the Pixies first reunited in 2004.
Of “Greens And Blues,” Francis remarked, “It’s like a goodbye song. A separation, if you will, between the band and the audience.” He added, “There’s also the layer of the lyric that’s like the Creature From The Black Lagoon, who is talking to his human friends and saying goodbye to them.”
Could the song’s theme of detachment also be a metaphor for Deal’s departure from the group? Francis said that with all his songs, he prefers listeners to use their own interpretation.
“Sometimes there are layers of songs that I don’t even realize myself until some time goes by,” he stated. “It’s like psychotherapy. You tell your therapist how you feel and then it hits you—oh wow, this is what it’s always meant!”
The Pixies will perform at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY on Jan. 19, the Electric Factory in Philadelphia on Jan. 24, and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ on Jan. 28. EP-2 is available now. For more information, go to pixiesmusic.com.