When, in a 1994 Rolling Stone interview, Kurt Cobain famously admitted that Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was just another Pixies rip-off, he wasn’t telling the Pixies diehards anything they didn’t already know: He was just clueing in the suckers who thought that the Pixies upgraded soft-loud dynamic began and ended with Nirvana’s “Nevermind.”
It is exceedingly hard to speak or read of the legendary Pixies without hearing the dreaded N-word – that is, Nirvana. But only because it took Kurt Cobain’s public worship to get American music fans, which have been known to be late to the greats before, on the pop-punk practitioner’s tip – and away from the misconception that Nirvana set the scene for the Pixies.
But now, more than a decade after Cobain’s suicide and months after the band that he idolized decided to table their significant personal issues and reunite, the truth about which group had the greater impact on modern rock is no longer a toss-up. There is little doubt that Cobain himself wouldn’t challenge the claim that the Pixies – four unassuming musicians named Black Francis, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago and David Lovering – have had, more than any other band in recent memory, an indelible influence on alternative, college, indie or summarily othered rock. For so long, the Pixies labored under the long shadows cast by bands like U2, R.E.M., The Cure and more, but the more time passed, the more music fans and artists came to realize – as Bowie did the first time he heard “Debaser” off of the Pixies’ brilliant third full-length “Doolittle” and immediately incorporated it into his live set – that modern rock had its own Beatles. They just never cared enough to find out.
“I don’t think you can be someone from our generation or later and not be influenced by the Pixies,” explains Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, whose own band is spearheading a mirror-image modern rock resurgence similar to the one that invaded video and radio airwaves the last time a president with the name of Bush was bumbling his way through the White House. “The Pixies were part of that ‘There’s gotta be something else on the radio’ starter pack that we all received when we were younger. Everyone that’s into music has that revelation at some point in life. But the Pixies continue to be one of those bands. I think they’re important to anyone who likes music. I don’t think you can find someone involved with contemporary – for lack of a better term – alternative music that can say they never liked them.”
That theory is being thoroughly tested this year in arenas and clubs across the world. Although the Pixies were a touring machine ever since first hitting public consciousness like a hammer with the release of their 1987 EP “Come On Pilgrim,” the reunited foursome has spent much of this year rocking crowds from Slovenia to Santa Barbara and all points in between. The response, to say the least, has been one of utter delirium. The band easily sold out almost all of their early American warm-up dates within minutes, and has shattered sales records in venues across the world – and that’s not even considering the festival headliner status they’ve been afforded in California, Washington, Japan, Italy, England, Austria and pretty much any other country that appears on a map. Whatever tickets weren’t immediately snapped up somehow made their way onto eBay, where they commanded three to four times the face value. Yeah, audiences like the Pixies. They really, really like them.
And it’s not hard to see why. The band’s light-speed output – five brilliant releases in five years from 1987 to 1991, including the canonical “Surfer Rosa” and “Doolittle” – featured Thompson’s cryptic lyrics and cathartic howls, Deal’s angelic vocals and driving bass, Santiago’s bent guitar solos and consuming feedback, and Lovering’s precise timing and relentless energy, all of which added up to a hook-filled catalogue that was as compelling as it was groundbreakingly alienating. Sure, there wasn’t a college student around at the time that didn’t freak out when the Pixies’ covered “In Heaven” – a song sung by a mutated angel who lived beneath a radiator in David Lynch’s cult classic “Eraserhead” – or played “Debaser” – a nod to Bunuel and Dali’s surrealist film “Un Chien Andalou.”
But the Pixies’ appeal went further than the cryptic abstracts that set them apart from so many clichéd bands of the time. They were arrogantly anti-commercial at a time when pop culture was saturated, as it is today, by so much glossy, pointless product. They didn’t dress like rock stars, didn’t look like rock stars, didn’t ape the styles of other rock stars and were resolute in their approach to making nothing else besides the music the point of their existence.
And even though Black Francis – known also as Frank Black during his decade-plus solo career, and Charles Michael Kittredge Thompson IV to his parents – probably owns the most apocalyptic scream in music history, he never let theatricality invade the organic nature of the Pixies material. In a mainstream world of alt-preeners like The Cure’s Robert Smith or bubble-metal’s David Coverdale and Vince Neil, Black Francis was just an Average Joe with, as the “Surfer Rosa” tune so eloquently and loudly proved, “something against you.”
“Charlie wasn’t the Robert Plant-type mold of rock front man at all,” explains Mike Watt, bassist for punk stalwarts The Minutemen and an alternative rock hero in his own right. “This cat could be anybody. There was always something about those kinds of guys, whether it was Charlie, Curt Kirkwood from the Meat Puppets or Bob Mould from Husker Du – they were just regular cats. When Charlie played his acoustic, I couldn’t stop thinking that it felt right, that music wasn’t just made for the elite, for the guys who looked a certain way. And Charlie had a singular voice; it wasn’t generic. And we hated generic. We came out of arena rock, where Peter Frampton would come onstage in a kimono and play. And we were like, ‘No, Peter, we don’t feel like you do,’ know what I mean?”
But Watt, Gibbard and the Pixies faithful who followed the band’s first incarnation around the country in the ’80 and ’90s – begging DJs to play “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” “Gigantic,” “Bone Machine” and anything other than what they were playing at the time – were often met with nothing but frustration and disdain. You couldn’t find the band on MTV, and not only because the Pixies were adamant about making the most annoying, resistant clips ever aired on television; there were plenty of those to go around, after all. Like Pearl Jam after them, the Pixies understood that the video of a song often obscured the brilliance of the latter in favor of the casual ease of the former. Which is why their maddening video for the gorgeously crunchy “Velouria” consisted of nothing else than the band running across a boring rock quarry directly at the camera in slow motion. But their unyielding nonconformity extended outward from the band’s various personalities into everything they did, both while the band was intact and after it had acrimoniously disbanded after their final show more than 12 years ago.
Yet the Pixies’ nonplussed attitude about their considerable impact is still visible to this day, especially when Deal or Thompson are cornered on the subject.
“You know, it’s funny,” says Deal. “It’s just funny. People will still come up and say to me, ‘We’re big fans of the Pixies.’ A lot of people have been saying that to me throughout the years, and I’m remembering that not that many people came to our shows. So when they say, ‘I love you guys!’ I ask them if they ever saw us. And I’m not trying to catch them in a lie, but really, when? When did you see us? And it was usually The Cure concert in Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium [in 1989]. That’s it.”
But that somewhat cynical belief seems to be in direct contrast to the praise heaped upon the band by superstars like Bowie, Bono, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, PJ Harvey and many more in the UK documentary, “Gouge.” Indeed, “Gouge” itself is included on the Pixies’ recently released self-titled concert DVD, which is but one of several 2004 efforts – along with Thompson’s solo album “Frank Black Francis” (out now from SpinArt) and the 4AD greatest hits package “Death to the Pixies” – aimed at capitalizing on the band’s well-received reunion. In that documentary, Bowie claims that the Pixies forever changed the format in which hard rock was delivered to the world’s hungry ears, adding that the format didn’t exist before Thompson and company framed it (he also confesses that, outside of Sonic Youth, no other ’80s band was nearly as compelling).
Asked in “Gouge” whether or not a band like the Pixies could happen now, Thom Yorke pauses for a while before answering, “You’d have to be that good, for starters.” Bono similarly claims that although his band U2 toured the world and conquered the mainstream, “[we] just weren’t hip enough because we hadn’t heard ‘Surfer Rosa.’” He also claims in “Gouge” that not only are the Pixies one of America’s greatest bands ever, but also that Charles Thompson is one of America’s finest songwriters of all time.
So the argument about the Pixies influence and reach, regardless of whether the band accepts it or not, is no longer solely the stuff of smoke-filled college dorm conversation; it is now accepted as modern rock scripture. Which raises a particularly thorny question, even in light of the band’s enormously successful reincarnation, and that is simply this: Where do they go from here?
Thompson, who for so many years forbade discussion of the Pixies in his interviews, is unremarkably oblique about the future of a band that forever changed music – only to summarily leave its heartbroken fans at the altar. When asked about a possible new album, Thompson responds evasively with a string of variables. “Yeah, I mean … you know, we have to, uh, I don’t know.”
Deal is similarly hard to pin down on the subject. “I wonder what the fine line is between playing shows together and feeling like a band, you know? It feels like we’re special guest stars in every city. It doesn’t feel like a band yet. I mean, it doesn’t feel not like a band, but it does feel different. And it does feel special. But we’re stopping around Christmas; plus, Charles knocked somebody up! The baby’s coming in January, and he’s going to want to spend some time together. I think that’s probably going to freak him out. And with a band, you have a total … it’s different than this very discrete, finite thing. It’s not that we’re not going to do anything ever again, it’s just that … it’s not like a band. It’s different. It’s a little bit of both actually.”
While those obfuscations might not sit well with those who have been carrying the torch for the woefully underrated Pixies while everyone else was busy championing pretenders and one-shot heroes of the alternative universe, some are simply excited at the prospect of having a chance to finally see the band destroying eardrums again, if only once.
“This tour is for us, the fans,” argues Earlimart’s Aaron Espinoza, whose recent measured release ‘Treble and Tremble’ is a far cry from the artist’s earlier, more directly Pixies-influenced noise rock. “And yeah, they might be making a ton of money off of it, but fuck it. We’re the ones that are benefiting from it. Anyone who wants to be cynical or negative about it can fuck off. Why don’t they just shut up and enjoy the whole thing?”
Deal shares that assessment, although her opinion may cause the Pixies faithful no shortage of heartache. “Let’s pretend Led Zepplin got back together, all four of the original members. I would be so psyched to see them and, in a way, I wouldn’t even ask them if they were going to record again. I wouldn’t want to know. It’s not like I’d shoot them in the head if they did. Not at all. But I don’t know if I’d buy it. I wouldn’t say I would buy it. I wouldn’t say I wouldn’t buy it. It would be so incidental to them playing the songs that I know and that I love and that I want to hear as a selfish fan. I just want to hear the shit that I want to hear, the shit I know, the shit I like.”
In other words, the future of the Pixies is as uncertain as its past was tumultuous and incendiary. That in itself is no new emotion to the Pixies diehards that Deal claims she rarely encountered in the wave of praise-showering late adopters who only saw the group open for The Cure or U2 on those disastrous bids for mainstream recognition. (“People were milling around, getting their seats,” Kim confides about those ill-fated tours. “It wasn’t like we went over really bad, we just didn’t go over, because there wasn’t anyone there to see us.”)
But, in the end, the favorable and unfavorable digital realities of the 21st century’s music industry environment may spell the end of the Pixies, who have so far released only one new track, the Deal-penned “Bam Thwok” to Apple’s blindingly popular iTunes platform (a move that landed the new track at the top of iTunes’ charts for weeks). Deal isn’t too keen on turning out a new record in an industry where artists are unable to take much control of their destinies.
“I think that even deciding or pondering these issues now is different,” she explains, “because we’re old – or older – and the music industry is much more different right now than it was in the past. Why would you even print out CDs now? Printing them out almost doesn’t matter or exist anymore. I think ‘Bam Thwok’ sold like five downloads, and the rest were just ripped off. I’m glad that we were making music when we did, because we wouldn’t be able to afford it today.”
Whether or not those reasons sit well with the Pixies’ ever-growing arsenal of fans, champions and disciples is not for the band to decide. For now, they’ll settle for a fat paycheck, the unrestrained ardor of those who finally get to see them again – or for the first time – and leave the future where it belongs. That is, anywhere else besides the present.
This article appeared in AlterNet