Here Comes Your…Band! The Story of The Pixies

Staff Writer: Hannah Johnson  

The Pixies are an American alternative rock band formed in 1986 in Boston, Massachusetts. Until 2013, the band comprised Black Francis (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Joey Santiago (lead guitar), Kim Deal (bass, backing vocals) and David Lovering (drums). The band disbanded acrimoniously in 1993, but reunited in 2004. After Deal left in 2013, the Pixies hired Kim Shattuck as a touring bassist; she was replaced the same year by Paz Lenchantin, who became a permanent member in 2016. The Pixies’ music contains elements including psychedelia, noise pop, hard rock, and surf rock. Francis is the Pixies’ primary songwriter; his often-surreal lyrics cover offbeat subjects such as extraterrestrials, incest, and biblical violence. The Pixies achieved modest popularity in their home country, but were more successful in the United Kingdom, mainland Europe and Israel. Their jarring pop sound influenced bands such as Nirvana, Radiohead, the Strokes, Bush, Blur and Weezer. Their popularity grew in the years following their break-up, leading to sold-out world tours following their reunion in 2004 

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The Pixies playing hard at their concert while the crowd cheers with stars in their eyes.

 

Guitarist Joey Santiago and songwriter Black Francis (born Charles Thompson IV) met when they lived next to each other in a suite while attending the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Although Santiago was worried about distractions, he noticed Francis played music and the pair began to jam together. Francis embarked on a student exchange trip to Puerto Rico to study Spanish. After six months, he returned to Amherst and dropped out of the university. Francis and Santiago spent 1984 working in a warehouse, with Francis composing songs on his acoustic guitar and writing lyrics on the subway train. “I really enjoy their music, although some of the lyrics are a little far -fetched, they are a good band to jam out to in your room at 3 a.m.”- Jonathan Burger, junior at Woodstock High School. 

The pair formed a band in January 1986. Two weeks later, Francis placed an advertisement seeking a female bass player who liked both folk music act Peter, Paul and Mary and the alternative rock band Hüsker Dü. Kim Deal was the only respondent, and arrived at the audition without a bass as she had never played the instrument before.  She was invited to join the band as she liked the songs Francis showed her. She obtained a bass, and the trio started rehearsing in Deal’s apartment.Honestly, I don’t particularly enjoy The Pixies too much, some of their songs don’t even make sense to me… I mean what the heck is a ‘Debaser’?”-Chris White, Junior at Woodstock High School. 

After recruiting Deal, the band tried unsuccessfully to get her sister, Kelley Deal, to join as drummer. Kim’s husband suggested they hire David Lovering, whom Kim had met at her wedding reception. The group arrived at a name after Santiago selected the word “pixies” randomly from a dictionary, liking how it looked and its definition as “mischievous little elves”. Once the band had settled on a name and line-up, they moved rehearsals to Lovering’s parents’ garage in mid-1986. They began to play shows at bars in and around the Boston area.

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The band playing a colorful concert for the crowd as they cheer happily.

 

While the Pixies were playing a concert with Throwing Muses, they were noticed by producer Gary Smith, manager of Fort Apache Studios. He told the band he “could not sleep until you guys are world famous”. The band produced a 17-track demo at Fort Apache soon afterwards, known to fans as thePurple Tape” because of the tape cover’s purple background. Funded by Francis’ father at the cost of $1000, the recording session was completed in three days. Local promoter Ken Goes became the band’s manager, and he passed the demo to Ivo Watts-Russell of the independent record label 4AD. Watts-Russell nearly passed on the band, finding them too normal, “too rock ‘n’ roll”, but signed them at the persuasion of his girlfriend. 

Upon signing with 4AD, eight tracks from the Purple Tape were selected for the Come on Pilgrim mini-LP, the band’s first release. Francis drew upon his experiences in Puerto Rico, mostly in the songs “Vamos” and “Isla de Encanta”, describing the poverty in Puerto Rico. The religious lyrics in Come on Pilgrim and later albums came from his parents’ born-again Christian days in the Pentecostal Church.  

After Doolittle, tensions between Deal and Francis came to a head (for example, Francis threw a guitar at Deal during a concert in Stuttgart), and Deal was almost fired from the band when she refused to play at a concert in Frankfurt. Santiago, in an interview with Mojo, described Deal as being “headstrong and wanting to include her own songs, to explore her own world” on the band’s albums; eventually she accepted that Francis was the singer and had musical control of the band, but after the Frankfurt incident, “they kind of stopped talking”.  

Spin magazine described the Pixies’ musical style as “Surf music-meets-Stooges spikiness and oft-imitated stop/start and quiet/loud dynamics”.  Their music has also been pictured as “an unorthodox marriage of surf music and punk rock, … characterized by Black’s bristling lyrics and hackle-raising caterwaul, Kim Deal’s whispered harmonies and waspy basslines, Joey Santiago’s fragile guitar, and the persistent flush of David Lovering’s drums.” The band’s music incorporates extreme dynamic shifts; Francis explained in 1991, “Those are the two basic components of rock music … the dreamy side and the rockin’ side. It’s always been either sweaty or laid back and cool. We do try to be dynamic, but it’s dumbo dynamics, because we don’t know how to do anything else. We can play loud or quiet—that’s it.

Although the Pixies produced relatively few albums, whose sales were modest, they influenced a number of bands associated with the alternative rock boom of the 1990s.Gary Smith, who produced their Come on Pilgrim, commented on the band’s influence on alternative rock and their legacy in 1997. 

I’ve heard it said about The Velvet Underground that while not a lot of people bought their albums, everyone who did started a band. I think this is largely true about the Pixies as well. Charles’ secret weapon turned out to be not so secret and, sooner or later, all sorts of bands were exploiting the same strategy of wide dynamics. It became a kind of new pop formula and, within a short while, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was charging up the charts and even the members of Nirvana said later that it sounded for all the world like a Pixies song. 

Sonically, the Pixies are credited with popularizing the extreme dynamics and stop-start timing that would become widespread in alternative rock; Pixies songs typically feature hushed, restrained verses, and explosive, wailing choruses. Artists including David Bowie, Matt Noveskey, Radiohead, PJ Harvey, U2, Nirvana, The Strokes, Alice in Chains, Weezer, Bush, Arcade Fire, Pavement, Kings of Leon and Matthew Good have cited admiration of or influence by the Pixies. Bono of U2 has called the Pixies “one of America’s greatest bands ever”, and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke has said that, while at school, “the Pixies had changed my life”. Bowie, whose own music had inspired Francis and Santiago while they were at university, has said that the Pixies made “just about the most compelling music of the entire 80s.” 

*All photos are from creative commons and Carleigh Ellison*

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