“I was at a record store in Boston, and I saw a person returning Come on Pilgrim,” says Joey Santiago, guitarist for legendary indie band the Pixies, recollecting their debut EP, on 4AD records. Back in 1986, the British label was known for its roster of ethereal gothic bands, and here was one seriously unhappy fan.
“Cocteau Twins was the sound…and then we came along and it was a jolting difference,” Santiago says.
He pauses to laugh at the lost sale. “I actually took it as a compliment.”
Santiago’s anecdote encapsulates the good news/bad news saga of the band. The Pixies didn’t just shake up a label; they sent tremors through the alternative music scene. Their jagged sound, shouty vocals and surreal yet salty lyrics inspired Radiohead and Nirvana and even made a fan of David Bowie, who called the Pixies the greatest band of the ’80s next to Sonic Youth.
Yet for all their cool bona fides, none of the Pixies’ four albums (Surfer Rosa, 1988; Doolittle, 1989; Bossa Nova, 1990; Trompe le Monde, 1991) charted anywhere near the U.S. top 40, and their five top-10 modern rock singles include no number ones.
A series of highly successful reunion tours beginning in 2004 helped redress this injustice and secured their place in the pantheon of rock gods. But the Pixies haven’t escaped their crossed stars: In a surprise move last September, the band released their first new music in over 20 years—the aptly titled EP 1—backed by a new tour. But the news was overshadowed by the announcement that bassist Kim Deal had abruptly quit in the midst of recording.
Following the January release of EP 2, I spoke separately with Santiago and drummer David Lovering (who’s also a professional magician) about the decision to get back into the studio.
When I suggest that a 20-year recording hiatus might imply concerns about living up to their own legend, Lovering blames protracted touring for making the decision seem more agonizing that it really was.
“When we got back together in 2004, that was going to be a yearlong tour—but it kept going. And going, and going,” he says. “In 2007, we came up with the Doolittle Tour. It was going to be one year; that turned into two years. … We had talked about doing new material. But it wasn’t clear if it was just talk. … But when Dolittle was done, we felt touring was a little incomplete without new material.”
Santiago shrugs off the question. “After a while, we just said, it’s time to entertain ourselves. And that’s my goal in the studio. … It’s a lot of work—but it’s time for us to be selfish, and just work and entertain ourselves.”
No looking back? “We don’t do sequels. We’re not milking it.”
Although Deal has expressed ambivalence about adding to the Pixies’ canon, she isn’t talking publicly about her reasons for leaving. And the band has respected her privacy. When I ask, Lovering responds, “I can’t say for sure all the reasons she left. I think that even before that, she would have been done with the Pixies. We wish her well, and we’re just trying to forge on ahead, with version 2.0.”
But Pixies 2.0 quickly ran into Kim-gate 2.0, when Deal’s touring replacement, Kim Shattuck, was replaced in November by Paz Lenchantin. Rumors circulated on social media about broken promises and passive aggression from the band—claims the Pixies deny, adding that no permanent decision has been made yet.
One unalloyed success, however, has been the band’s move to total independence. Skirting the labels, they’re releasing their music on the Pixies’ website as downloads and special-edition vinyl. With no advance promotion, the vinyl edition of EP 1 sold out in a single day. EP 2 dropped the same way, guerrilla style with no prelaunch hype.
“Exactly, it’s guerrilla release,” Santiago says. “Think of it as our next joke. We like to play jokes.”
Then he has a new thought, “Hey, young bands do it all the time. When we came out with our first release, we didn’t know people. Who the fuck are the Pixies? So, you know in a way, we kinda went back to what it was.”
So it’s a new start for the Pixies. Can we expect a full album?
Says Lovering, “There may be something like a record in the future. As a magician, I cannot reveal all of the surprises.”
Santiago’s response is more familiar to us non-magicians: “We don’t know. We have no idea. We just go from day to day.”
The Pixies perform at City National Civic on Feb. 22. More info.