Interview: Pixies’ Joey Santiago talks about remaking his band for a new era

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Pixies | Photo by Michael Halsband
Pixies | Photo by Michael Halsband

For more than 25 years, Pixies have remained an influential yet enigmatic force on the underground scene, their taut guitar lines and harsh melodies, interspersed with moments of real sweetness, an inspiration for acts as varied as Nirvana and U2. Their impressive catalogue runs the gamut from wispy post-punk haunters (the ghostly “Where Is My Mind”) to face-melting ragers (the screeching “Rock Music”) to surprisingly breezy pop songs (the near-perfect “Here Comes Your Man”)—all accentuated by front man Black Francis’s distinctive and aggressive vocals.

The past decade has certainly been a turbulent one for the band, who reformed in 2003 after a 10 year hiatus, and spent the next few years playing a string of reunion shows before surprising fans with an unannounced EP, EP1, in September 2013. The release came shortly after the news that bassist and longtime member Kim Deal, whose floaty back-up vocals and killer bass chops added both balls AND corporeality, had quit. The band is now touring with bassist Paz Lenchantin, whose resume includes A Perfect Circle, The Entrance Band, and Zwan. They’ve also released another EP, EP2, featuring four new, hard-hitting rockers.

The Pixies will stop by the Electric Factory on Friday, January 24 (tickets and info at the WXPN Concert Calendar) and will warm up for the show with an appearance at XPN’s Free at Noon concert series (RSVP here UPDATE: sold out). In anticipation of their show, I rung up guitarist Joey Santiago, whose wily, unpredictable guitar lines are an integral part of the Pixies sound, to talk fans, blackout curtains, and why Kim will always be the darling of the Pixies. Read on!

The Key: You guys just released a new EP. What has the response been like so far?

Joey Santiago: It’s been received very positively, particularly the song “Blue Eyed Hexe” (although I particularly like “Magdalena”). The one “criticism” I’ve heard is that maybe it sounds like AC/DC.  To which I say…and what is the problem with that? (laughs)

TK: Do you think people’s reactions are swayed as a result of your decision to release it suddenly, without fanfare?

JS: No, not at all—this is the second time we just dropped the bomb on people. It’s been positive. It’s a surprise, but in this day and age, you can surprise people because everything is digital. I think people appreciate the surprise. I think the days of telling people when you’re going to release a record are over.

TK: You guys have said you’re shying away from the traditional “album” format of 80s and 90s, where you have 10-12 songs on one CD, in favor of singles and EPs that are more friendly to today’s short attention spans. Do you think you’ll ever compose another “record” as a cohesive unit?

JS: We leave that option open. You never know what’s going to happen. These days are just sorta spur of the moment. In a way it’s a lot more risky to put out an EP, I think, because you can’t have fillers.

TK: Is there an EP3 coming out?

JS: Maaaaybe (laughs). 3 is our favorite number. We’ll see. [Ed note: since this conversation, the band has announced that EP3 will be released April 7, 2014]

TK: In what other ways is writing and recording now different from back in the heyday? Obviously, you are all older and more mature now—has this changed the way things work?

JS: The touring aspect has definitely changed—we try to keep it short and sweet, and go out for three to four weeks at a time, instead of for months on end. We have the luxury of not killing ourselves on the road. And we have obligations to go back and see our families.

As far as recording though, nothing has really changed. [For EP1 and EP2], we went to Wales and spent seven weeks straight through. We enjoy it; we enjoy the impeding deadline. We work really hard while we’re there. It’s still all work. It’s been like that since the beginning.

Santiago
Santiago

TK: I feel like a lot of classic Pixies tunes relied on rawness and tension—in Black Francis’s lyrics, in your guitar parts. In what way would you say tension influences your writing?

JS:  That’s a good question. That really just comes naturally—it’s just the way I play. It’s like people saying, “hey that’s a nice walk you got there” (laughs). It’s been developed since the beginning and it’s still in development, but it’s always there. I do subconsciously try to add that little bit of rub to the music, I think. That’s basically my job. These days, I have the luxury of copying myself now. That’s a good thing.

TK: What has been the biggest challenge carrying on without Kim? Are you sick of answering questions about Kim?

JS: (laughs). I think in the beginning it was just a shell-shock. Now, I think it affects the live aspect—she is the darling of the Pixies without a doubt. She’s the most popular one. We thought that the fans would miss her, especially the older fans. So that was a challenge—feeling like we need to win people over again.

TK: What is it like working with Paz? How does she play into the dynamic of the band?

JS: She is a professional. The first day we had practice with her she knew every song already and every lyrics and every nuance. She’s confident with her chops. And she’s open to anything—sometimes she’ll suggest things that are great, even for the old catalogue. And it’s like, “oh wow, that’s a fresh take on that.” We have to yet to play a show with her us, but I have a feeling she’s going to kick ass.

Paz Lenchantin, playing with The Entrance Band
Paz Lenchantin, playing with The Entrance Band

TK: Do you see her as a permanent member?

JS: We’re taking it one step at a time. No one can really replace Kim. Kim is irreplaceable. And Paz has a bunch of other projects—she’s a minstrel. So I don’t know if we can keep her interest in us, but we certainly hope so. (laughs). I’d say we’re not actively looking for a new member right now… but if there’s anyone we could think of to do it, it would be Paz for sure. She’s a very sweet person, and very easy to hang out with. She’s definitely the same personality type as the rest of us—we’re all introverts (laughs). She blends right in with us. That’s the most important part, really.

TK: You guys just completed a reunion tour and are now playing more new material. How have the fans responded to the new material?  Which do you like playing better?

JS: I really like playing “Hexe,” “Indie Cindy,” and “Magdalena.” I basically like playing all of them, ’cause they’re fresh, and it keeps me on my toes. I like to watch the audience responses to [the new material]. We were plying “Hexe” live before the release, and you could tell just by looking at the crowd that people were into it. They’d be nudging each other like “wow, it’s something new!” They’re privy to hear something before it’s out, so they feel very lucky. That’s a good reaction. Our audience doesn’t necessarily dive around, or slap/high-five each other when they respond, but that’s ok. We can tell by watching them that they’re enjoying it.

TK: Your wily and unhinged guitar lines are one of the Pixies trademarks. Who are some of your fave guitarists playing right now?

JS: It’s funny you say that. Now that I’m in New England, I’ve been really into this band NRBQ (New England Rhythm & Blues Quartet). The guitar player is crazy and the keyboard player—he is just a nutty guy, slamming on his piano and doing all this odd stuff and it just sounds like he’s having fun. So I’ve been really enjoying that. And of course the obvious: Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison, Les Paul, Wes Montgomery.

TK: So I love following the Pixies on Twitter, and I was especially digging your “Top 7” lists, of your 7 favorite things this year. [See Santiago’s Twitter account here]. I noticed that “blackout curtains” came up frequently. So I have to ask: what’s the deal with blackout curtains?

JS: (laughs). I’m glad you enjoyed those lists. The deal with blackout curtains is: they hide the sun. When I go back to my hotel room, I can always have the option of it being night time. Being in this biz and touring around, you have to make your own night. So blackout curtains are at the top of my list. Never the estimate the power of the blackout curtains.

TK: Sounds like words to live by.

(Read more – Pixies announce new bassist, release animated video for “Another Toe In The Ocean”)
(Watch more – Pixies release new EP 2 and video for “Blue-Eyed Hexe”)

The Pixies play the Electric Factory on Friday, January 24. The all-ages show starts at 8:30 at tickets are sold out. More information can be found via the venue’s website.

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  • MD

    They have not announced any release date for EP3. You’re parroting a Wikipedia hoax with the April 7 release date.