Wednesday, March 05, 2008

An Illustrated Guide To... Pixies

You almost don't need to say you're a Pixies fan or that your band are inspired by Pixies any more. Their inspiration doesn't work in the same way that it would were you inspired by the Velvet Underground or the Kinks or Gang Of Four or Blur or Belouis Some or Esther and Abi Ofarim or, yes, Nirvana, or, hell, even the Beatles. For them, there's specifics and groundwork to do, whereas if you're inspired by Pixies (no 'the', that's important) we know what you mean - high wire dynamics, high mixed bass-led counter-melodies, quiet-loud, inscrutable, surrealist and fantastical lyrics, more than likely sudden screaming fits. But although the building blocks were there, before Pixies made a splash on both sides of the Atlantic's undergrounds if you were in an alt-rock band you were either Husker Du-speed hardcore or hairslide twee. Pixies invented this sound between them, and yet they still don't really sound like anyone else much as they didn't sound like anyone at all when... well, let's quote Gary Smith, producer of the demos that became Come On Pilgrim, from his sleevenotes to Death To The Pixies:

History has a horrible need to erase the details so that its landmarks stand out against the din. The three kids beside me were probably two years old when the red light was on for Levitate Me. How am I supposed to explain to them that the world into which Black Francis started screaming still heard it like a scream and not like fashion? How am I supposed to relate to them that context makes all the difference in how we view a work of art or a work of rock?

By his own admission Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, born 1965 in Boston, Massachusetts, didn't discover rock music until attending the local university to major in anthropology, where he got into Iggy Pop, the Violent Femmes, the Cars and XTC and met peers J Mascis, later of Dinosaur Jr, and Manila-born classic rock and Velvets fan Joey Santiago. After a period in Puerto Rico during his second year he decided to drop out of college and decide whether to move to New Zealand to observe Halley's Comet or form a rock band with Santiago. Choosing the latter, both moved to Boston.

Meanwhile Kim Deal, born 1961, had married a Bostonian posted to her home town of Dayton, Ohio by the name of John Murphy, and in 1985 they both moved back. Having been in a folk rock duo with identical twin sister Kelley called the Breeders in her teens, she was keen to join a band and a week into her Mass. residency spotted an advert in the Boston Phoenix requesting a bass player into "Husker Du (and) Peter, Paul And Mary". Deal didn't actually play bass but was the only respondent, while for a drummer Murphy suggested electrical engineering student friend David Lovering, who was sceptical at first but eventually it clicked with him whilst watching rehearsals and he officially joined in spring 1985, almost a year and a half before they got round to making their live debut, Joey having come up with the name Pixies In Panoply before his bandmates convinced him to shorten it. ('Panoply', by the way, means "a wide-ranging and impressive array or display", and at the time of writing there doesn't seem to be a band called that so get in there quick)

Earning excitable notices and a local live following early, as much for their casual dress - Deal was working as a secretary and would go on stage in her work clothes - as their uniquely developed sound, they were picked up by Smith, new owner of the Fort Apache studios who had recently given fans the Throwing Muses a leg up, for a six day, 17 track recording session that became known as The Purple Tape. Such was the keenness to get it out that it was only in sleeve design that the non-definite article name was decided and the stage names Black Francis (a suggestion from Thompson's father) and Mrs John Murphy were decided upon.

Broken Face (The Purple Tape version)

After several rejections and some pressing by Kristen Hersh, 4AD picked the band up for a one-off deal, their influential head Ivo Watts-Russell picking eight songs out from the demo and releasing them under a lyric he picked out, Come On Pilgrim, filched from a catchphrase of recently deceased Christian rock groundbreaker Larry Norman, for whom Black Francis would repay the compliment by appearing at his final live show and covering one of his songs in the early 00s, thus making Norman surely the only artist to be covered by both Francis and Cliff Richard. Whatever the source, Come On Pilgrim was the first showcase for that unique coming together - the driving yet langorous basslines, the inventive drumming patterns, Deal's ice cool backing vocals, Santiago's flamenco-inspired chord changes and tendency towards lead lines that went all over the place ("angular and bent", he has said), and Francis' broken Spanish, religious references and sudden switches from airy singing to balls-out screaming. The possibly apochryphal story is that while temping in a flower shop his employer's singer cousin suggested he "scream it like you hate that bitch". (NB. Come On Pilgrim has never been made seperately available since its first run)

Nimrod's Son

On the back of a string of great reviews from the UK music press, not to mention a fall-out with Smith, a 4AD employee suggested to Watts-Russell that the first proper Pixies album should be produced by Steve Albini, who at this point had been "recording engineer" on nothing of note beyond his own Big Black. Recorded in ten days utilising Albini's soon infamous miking and sound techniques, Surfer Rosa came out as a tight ball of enigmatic darkness - Q later rated it in their 50 Heaviest Albums of All Time list - boasting coiled springs of energy, the odd (very odd) warped pop melody and what the 9.5/10-awarding NME described as taking their influences in a way so as to "force the past to sound like them". Melody Maker and Sounds both called it their album of the year (NME put it in tenth, but then they had Van Morrison & The Chieftains' Irish Heartbeat at 2, the clots.) In 1991 Albini famously described the record to a Boston fanzine as "a patchwork pinch loaf from a band who at their top dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock." He later apologised, pleading arrogance born of being unsure about his capabilities and claiming "to this day I regret having done it...I don't think that I regarded the band as significantly as I should have", aalthough he admits "the things I like about that band, it's not really the music". People who did included Kurt Cobain and Polly Harvey, who both sought out Albini's assistance on the back of hearing the record.

Vamos (live at the Town And Country Club, 1st May 1988)

Curiously, although given a UK release in March 1988 Pixies were still unsigned in America, eventually ekeing out in August through a Rough Trade distribution deal with Come On Pilgrim appended. So it was that the band saw Europe as a bigger immediate target, touring with and often upstaging the Throwing Muses from April of that year. During that tour Deal and the Muses' Tanya Donelly began writing songs together, Deal resuscitating the Breeders name and recording a demo at the end of the year with friends which 4AD immediately fell for.

In the meantime there was a Pixies wave to be surfed. Gil Norton, a Scouser who'd previously worked with, yes, the Muses, had produced a single version of Gigantic which grazed the UK top 100, so was a natural choice for the second album proper, Doolittle. Outside observers were noticing a change in the band dynamics, Deal, having recently divorced, often showing up late to the studio, and her vocal contribution downsizing started to be felt. Otherwise it was a natural progression, less raw and with more pop about it, especially in the case of Here Comes Your Man, a song left off Come On Pilgrim for being too straightforward. Even Lovering gets a lead vocal. Francis later claimed "this record is him trying to make us, shall I say, commercial, and us trying to remain somewhat grungy", but especially for 1989 this is commerciality not as anyone around it understood it. It was here that the loud-quiet dynamics came into their own, but there were slower, if no less intense, songs and a string section on Hebrew numerology-quoting standout Monkey Gone To Heaven, one of several songs invoking the sea and environment as carriers of destruction. Unbelievably, it entered the UK chart at number eight and Billboard at 98, going RIAA certified gold in 2005.

Debaser (live at Newcastle Polytechnic, 27th April 1989)

A lengthy tour followed, starting in Europe with a tour that was livened up on occasion by playing the set in alphabetical order or backwards (including walkoff after the first song), followed by opening for the Cure back home. None of it helped calm tensions between the two headstrong frontpeople, nearly coming to blows offstage in Stuttgart and almost culminating in Deal's sacking. She instead chose post-tour downtime to get a Breeders album done with Donelly, bassist Josephine Wiggs and drummer Shannon Doughton, a nom de plume for Slint's Britt Walford. Steve Albini travelled to Edinburgh to record Pod, later claiming he feels it's the album on which he got the best sound and performance of his career. An off-kilter pop record somewhere between the Pixies' scree and Throwing Muses' angular college rock, it reached 22 in the UK on May 1990 release. Meanwhile after a required break the men all moved to LA for ease of recording studio use ahead of Norton-produced Bossanova, recorded that spring and released in August. The first album on which Black Francis wrote and sang everything, it was their first album not fully written before entering the studio. Surf and Neil Young influences make an appearance here, as well as Francis' UFO obsession and a refraction of those taut dynamics into a bigger sound. Francis says it's his favourite and some agreed at the time, although not many in retrospect. Still, by anyone else's standards it's another home run.

Down To The Well (BBC John Peel session, recorded 16th April 1989)

It still led to one of the great Pixies moments, triumphantly headlining the Sunday of the 1990 Reading Festival. The following year, however, bridges were still to be mended, so much so that personnel working on 1991's Trompe Le Monde recall the four rarely being together in the studio, trying to piece together songs that didn't have melodies or lyrics. Those that did were years old - Subbacultcha appears on the Purple Tape - as the sound became much heavier and more direct, with not many elements of their trademark untrademarkable sound. Recognised as not their greatest work and polarising many within the label, it still reached number 7 in the UK in October with lead single Planet Of Sound charting at 27, four months after a triumphant gig at Crystal Palace Bowl on the other side of a lake and followed the next spring by the support slots on U2's defining Zoo TV tour, not that these dates went well. In April 1992 they played their own date in Vancouver ahead of a year's rest.

Black Francis had long planned a solo album at this stage under the adapted name Frank Black, but that summer he sent a fax to long serving manager Ken Goes declaring he wanted to make the split permanent. Promoting the album via phone interview on Mark Radcliffe's Radio 5 show Hit The North, Black answered a question about whether the band was over with "in a word, yeah", continuing "a lot of times people just end up boring fans, and stick around a little too long. I want to stay fresh and I want to be able to make a longer career out of this, and I think the way I'm going is the best way." Having by his own admission not previously told his bandmates he is also believed to have later informed Deal and Lovering by fax, an action he now regrets, saying at the time he didn't want a confrontation. So this most influential and special of bands died, which pretty much left Nirvana to rush through the immortality gap to the mainstream with a song called Smells Like Teen Spirit that all concerned dismissed as "attempting to rip off the Pixies".

That album, the now self titled Frank Black, emerged in March 1993. A collaboration with Trompe Le Monde keyboard player Eric Drew Feldman, formerly of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, it lyrically ventured even further into ufology and musically into a slightly more streamlined version of Pixies' latter day sound. Joey Santiago appeared on guitar throughout, and he and Feldman returned for the following year's Teenager Of The Year before Black formed what became his backing band The Catholics for a string of raw recordings ranging from country to hard rock - The Cult of Ray (1996), Frank Black and the Catholics (1998), Pistolero (1999), Dog in the Sand (2001), Black Letter Days (2002), Devil's Workshop (2002) and Show Me Your Tears (2003).

Meanwhile Kim Deal had recorded another record, the Safari EP, with the Breeders, now including Kelley, in 1991, and upon Pixies dissoluton it became her primary concern. Donelly left to form Belly while Walford was replaced by Jim Macpherson before 1993's Last Splash, which preceded by enormous radio and MTV hit Cannonball (the famous bassline is Wiggs') became her most commercially successful recording to date, reaching 33 on the Billboard chart. However in 1995 Kelley, a long time heroin addict, was caught in a drugs bust and sent to rehab in lieu of prison, Kim forming The Amps in her absence (one album, 1996's Pacer) as well as working with Sonic Youth and Guided By Voices, before the Deals and three new associates reunited with Steve Albini for 2002's Title TK. Santiago formed The Martinis with wife Linda Mallari, releasing album Smitten in 2004, and composed for independent film soundtracks, while Lovering drummed with Cracker, Nitzer Ebb and Tanya Donelly among others before embarking on a project as a 'Scientific Phenomenalist', performing science and physics experiments in the stage magician style, playing 2002's All Tomorrow's Parties and opening for Grant Lee Phillips, Camper Van Beethoven and - oh look - both Frank Black and the Breeders.

By that point Black was coming to terms with his past. Death to the Pixies: Best Of 1987–1991 had scraped the UK top 20 in 1997, a reissue of Debaser charting at 23, followed by 1998's fine Pixies At The BBC compilation of five Peel sessions and one for Mark Goodier, 2001's Complete B-Sides and 2002's eventual issue of the rest of Pixies (The Purple Tape). He started playing Pixies songs in his set again, opening one London gig with six, and in 2004 released the experimental Pixies 'covers' album Frank Black Francis, a double CD set comprising a solo acoustic demo recorded at Fort Apache in March 1987 and a set of reworkings with Keith Moliné and Andy Diagram from David Thomas And Two Pale Boys. In July 2003, after playing Caribou, Monkey Gone To Heaven and Where Is My Mind? for a live XFM session, Zoe Ball - Zoe Ball! - asked him the increasingly regular question of whether a reunion was ever going to happen, to which he replied that "I do dream about the Pixies reunion, I do have to say... We do get together and have private jams together, but not for public consumption." In fact Black later admitted he hadn't seen most of them for a while - Deal, who overcame drink problems in rehab in 2003, later claimed she and he hadn't spoken since the final Pixies show - and wasn't strictly truthful, but the story was widely reported and the seed germinated. So it was that on September 10th 2003 a band spokesperson revealed to MTV that the four were in rehearsals and would begin a tour in April 2004. The 13th, in fact, when they re-emerged at the Fine Line Music Cafe, Minneapolis. They sounded much as they ever did.

Bone Machine (live at Fine Line Music Cafe, 13th April 2004)

Such was the success that international dates and festivals were added well into 2005, buoyed by another compilation, Wave Of Mutilation, and a DVD, Pixies, featuring a full Throwing Muses support set and a documentary including contributions from not only all four members, associates and journalists but also the peer likes of Bono, Bowie, Thom Yorke, PJ Harvey and Graham Coxon. And Chris Olley of Six By Seven. (Also on shelves: Pixies Sell Out: 2004 Reunion, Pixies Club Date: Live At The Paradise In Boston and Pixies Acoustic, recorded at the Newport Folk Festival) There was even a new song, the not entirely successful download only Bam Thwok, significantly written and led by Deal, her first lead vocal since Doolittle's Silver. In July 2005 Black floated the idea of a new album and demos have been rumoured, but after two years of public prevarication he put the idea on the back burner. One reason may be the documentary loudQUIETloud, directed by Steven Cantor and Matthew Galkin and premiered in 2006, the band have declared it a false impression of the on the road bonhomie but the images of Deal requiring a seperate motor home as a security blanket, Lovering breaking down over the death of his father and nobody really seeking to communicate tell a certain bittersweet tale. (And there's some great live footage, obviously.) In the meantime came more Black albums - 2005's Honeycomb, 2006's Fast Man Raider Man and, under the name Black Francis, 2007's Bluefinger and the Svn Fngrs EP, released this week. Last year's Frank Black 93-03 mops up the Catholics era. The Breeders' fourth album Mountain Battles is released on April 7th in the UK. At least they've now properly had the opportunity to come to terms with that magic the four of them created back then.

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