Pixies - Biography
“I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band — or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet then loud and hard.”
- Kurt Cobain talking about “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
January 1994, Rolling Stone Magazine Interview
Take incest, alien abductions, ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey, Mose Allison, mental illness, surrealists Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, then mix with male/female trade-off vocals, obscene gnashing guitar parts, screwy solos, irreverent howling and horrifying screaming/laughing. Now add a dash of pop hooks and you are close to the Pixies song formula. Although their career was brief and they had no mainstream singles, the Pixies were one of the most exceptional rock bands to come out of the 1980’s. After their break up in 1993 the band went on to become more popular with subsequent generations than they ever were with their own. Their reunion tour ten years later was one of the most talked about musical events of 2004. Even with a relatively small musical canon, the Pixies are timeless.
Pixies began in 1983 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst when Charles Thompson first met his dorm mate Joey Santiago. Thompson was studying anthropology and the two became fast friends while jamming to David Bowie and punk tunes. After a short study abroad program in Puerto Rico, Thompson returned to Boston, dropped out of school, and convinced Santiago to start a band with him. They spent the following year jamming and working in a warehouse, while Thompson wrote lyrics on subway trains. Eventually. the two placed an ad in a local paper for a female bassist into Husker Du and Peter, Paul, & Mary. Their only applicant was bassist Kim Deal who later admitted to not owning a bass. After borrowing a bass guitar from her sister, Deal’s husband (divorced in 1988) suggested the band take on David Lovering, a drummer he’d met at their wedding reception. The band chose their name after Santiago randomly stumbled upon the word “Pixies” in the dictionary and found the definition “mischievous little elves” amusing.
In order to add to their surrealist mystique, Thompson changed his name to Black Francis. He also borrowed $1,000 from his father to record an 18 track demo tape. This demo would become a highly sought after bootleg known as “The Purple Tape” because of its purple cover art. 4AD label owner, Ivo Watts-Russell soon signed the band at the request of his girlfriend and the Pixies first EP, Come On Pilgrim (1987 4AD) inspired a small cult phenomenon. Francis took the title of the EP from the catchphrase of Christian evangelist Larry Norman, whom Francis had seen at a Christian summer camp as a youth. The band later returned to the studio with producer Steve Albini and recorded their debut album, Surfer Rosa (1988 4AD). Albini was integral in capturing the band’s raucous guitar attacks, vicious percussion, and angelic quiet moments. The album yielded classic Pixies tunes like the rocking molestation song, “Bone Machine”, the surreal sea shanty “Where Is My Mind?” and one of the few Kim Deal originals “Gigantic”, which served as the band’s first single. Surfer Rosa was a huge critical success in Europe and the band soon headed across the pond to record their first of six Peel sessions. While in Europe the quartet met British producer Gil Norton and a partnership followed that would last until the end of their recording career.
The Pixies' next album was originally titled Whore but was changed to Doolittle (1989 4AD) before release. Thanks to a recording budget of $40,000 and Norton’s production skills, the album had a cleaner sound than previous releases. Doolittle proved to be the Pixies' most successful album, launching them on a world tour and spawning the popular alternative radio singles, “Wave of Mutilation”, “Here Comes Your Man”, “Monkey Gone to Heaven” and the infamous ode to surrealist Luis Bunuel “Debaser”. Deal’s lack of original contributions to the band would become a major point of contention between her and primary songwriter Black Francis. The eerie slide guitar ballad, “Silver” would be the last Deal song to be featured on a Pixies album. The subsequent “Fuck or Fight” world tour proved to be rocky at best. Tensions between Deal and Francis were steadily escalating and finally came to a head in Frankfurt, Germany when Deal refused to play that night’s show. During their Boston gig, Deal appeared drunk, prompting Santiago to smash his guitar and storm off stage. By the end of the tour, Deal and Francis were no longer speaking and after three albums and constant touring, the Pixies took their first hiatus.
In the interim, Deal formed the Breeders with Throwing Muses guitarist Tonya Donnelly and Perfect Disaster bassist Josephine Wiggs. Deal took the name from an old high school folk rock band she formed with her twin sister Kelley in the '70s. The Breeders debut album Pod (1990 4AD) was produced Steve Albini (Surfer Rosa) and received rave reviews. Despite the success of the Breeders, and the ever present tension with Francis, Deal returned to the fold to record the Pixies' third full-length, Bossanova (1990 4AD). Reuniting with producer Gil Norton, Bossanova was an aesthetic turning point for the band. Francis took full control of songwriting duties and turned his lyrical content toward alien abductions and UFO sightings set against a surf rock soundtrack. Bossanova was released to mix reviews with fans claiming the album was too tame and pop compared to previous releases. Deal's backup vocals, which had always been integral to the band’s sound, were also minimized. The Bossanova tour only created more distance between Deal and Francis. While playing the Brixton Academy in England, Deal told the crowd the concert was “our last show”. It wasn’t. Bossanova was a huge hit in Europe and the Pixies continued to tour, headlining the 1990 Reading Festival. However, the band did cancel their upcoming American tour opting to take another short break before heading back into the studio for what would become their final studio album.
The band promised Trompe le Monde (1991 4AD) to be a return to their former heavier sound. Based on their first single, the ripping guitar number “Planet of Sound”, rumors spread that Francis and company were making a heavy metal record. Trompe le Monde (French for “Fool the World”) was heavier than its predecessor, with keyboard contributions from former Pere Ubu member, Eric Drew Feldman, the album contained more pop-oriented songs like “Letter to Memphis” and “Motorway to Roswell”. Kim Deal’s contributions to the album were almost nonexistent and left some fans to wonder if she was still in the band at all. Despite the naysayer’s, Trompe le Monde was a relative success with college radio, and the band embarked on a sold out U.S. tour in the winter of 1991. Tensions within the band quickly rose to boiling point while on tour opening for U2 in 1992. After the tour, Deal returned her focus to The Breeders while Francis began work on his first solo album.
In early 1993, Black Francis sealed the Pixies' fate by announcing the band's demise during an interview with BBC's Radio 5. Each member was notified of their imminent unemployment by fax. Francis changed his name to Frank Black and released several solo records with moderate success. The Breeders released their sophomore effort, Last Splash (1993 4AD) to rave reviews propelling their hit single “Cannonball” to the top of the charts. However, Deal and the band would be plagued throughout the 90’s with problems ranging from substance abuse to writers block. It would take The Breeders nine years to produce the follow up, Title TK (Elektra) in 2002. Santiago formed the Martini’s with his wife Linda Mallari while Lovering became a magician often opening for The Breeders and solo Frank Black shows.
Despite their breakup, the popularity of the Pixies continued to grow. Posthumous collections like Death to the Pixies: 1987-1991 (1997 4AD), a collection of live Peel Sessions out-takes Pixies, at the BBC (1998 4AD), and the eventual release of The Purple Tape titled Pixies (2002 SpinArt) created a new generation of fans. In 2003, the reunion rumor mill went into overdrive when Frank Black announced that all four original members had been getting together for jam sessions. Later that year, it was announced that the Pixies would reunite for a reunion tour throughout 2004. On April 13, 2004, Frank Black, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago, and David Lovering stepped on stage together at the Fine Line Music Café in Minneapolis, Minnesota for the first time in over a decade. The following world tour was a rousing success that continued for over a year, with the band making a much talked about appearance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. June of 2004 saw the release of the iTunes only single, “Bam Thwok” ironically written by Kim Deal. The band made appearances throughout 2006 and 2007, however, Frank Black has recently announced that after an attempt at recording a new record together, the Pixies have once again gone their separate ways.