The Pixies, fronted by Black Francis (Frank Black), headline Riot Fest Sunday in Humboldt Park.
By Mark Guarino
Sun-Times Music WriterThe Pixies comeback rolls into Riot Fest this weekend where the band performs Sunday. The band emerged from Boston in 1987 to release four albums in four years that continue to stand as touchstones of art-rock individualism where pop hooks and noise-rock converge.
Like all influential bands that achieved modest album sales during their tenure but entered legend long after retirement, the Pixies emerged last decade to greater success based on a generation of tastemakers, including Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, advocating on their behalf.
An EP, appropriately titled “EP-1,” released last week, is a long-awaited bookend to those records. Bassist Kim Deal departed before recording (she is replaced by Kim Shattuck of The Muffs), but the unusual song structures, dreamy images, and straightforward rock of the new songs serve as a reminder of the vital role the band played in uniting the indie-rock of the 1980’s to the mainstream alt-rock of the 1990’s.
Frank Black, or Black Francis as he is known in Pixies-land, talked last week about what how the new recordings have been a long time coming, and where the band goes next. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: Your Riot Fest set is on the heels of the release of a new EP, a first collection of new music in 22 years. What prevented that until now?
A: I suppose we like to play. We like to be a band and part of the formula or part of the agenda of being in a band is creating music and I think that once you created a body of work, it’s probably fine to just live with your repertoire. But at some point we felt like we have something to say. But there was disagreement among the band whether or not we should do that. So it took us a long time before we actually had a studio booked.
Q: What was at the heart of the resistance?
A: You can never be naïve again so it goes without saying when a band is young and starting out, frequently they do their best work because it’s a special moment. The arc of someone’s life, when you finally get in the limelight, you finally get on the stage and doing your first expressions — it’s a very special time. So if you happen to pull that off at the beginning of your career — because so many people do it gradually or later in their career — but if you pull it off at the onset, then sometimes you can’t recreate that. Or if you attempt to recreate it, sometimes people don’t do it very well.
Our reunions were going so well, people were happy to keep hearing old songs. On the one hand, we didn’t want to mess with it. It had gotten to the point where people close to us were saying, “you know, the reunion thing is pretty cool but you guys might want to do new stuff.” All four of us finally agreed to do new material. Kim Deal is not on the record. She began the process for us.
Q: You are one of the most prolific songwriters around, having released numerous solo records. But was writing new songs for the Pixies create more of a challenge?
A: We got our old producer Gil (Norton) involved because he was the one guy who could properly assess where we were at with my songwriting. He gave me some advice. There was a different headspace. He wanted to do the right thing for us. He definitely had some ideas for what that meant. Part of it was forcing yourself to write, which is hard for me. Sometimes the greatest songs are just spontaneous, there’s not a lot of forethought. It’s just a magical time when that happens.
Q: And Gil pushed you to make the songwriting more regimented.
A: That’s a valid way of working but personally, it’s obviously hit or miss because you can’t get the magic every single time. And the other valid part of the workshop process is reassessing what you’re working on. That takes a lot more time, but you have different results too. It’s less hit or miss. Mostly he gave us the perspective of living with the songs awhile before revealing them to anybody.
Q: Did the new way of working help you break from the past?
A: There was a narrative that Gil placed on us. And that involved us Pixies being an ongoing entity over the last 20 years. In his narrative, we were on another planet, a planet of sound, still making music for ourselves. And our return to earth to this planet would somehow represent everything we’ve been doing over the last 20 years. That was his science fiction plot. That not first time Gil overlaid a narrative or plot onto a recording session. Part of it was, in the past, we didn’t work that way, we never had a themed album. But that is how he could get inside of it. So (guitarist) Joey (Santiago) and I bought into it. We accepted his narrative, we never said we never obsess on it or follow it, but we let him have his fun with his story. But you live in that long enough and you start throwing a guy a bone. You start saying “hey Gil, did you hear my new song, get it? I’m on message here, man, I’m following the script.” There’s not a lot of sci-fi imagery in those songs but there’s enough.
The Pixies, “Bagboy” video from the new EP, “EP-1”
Q: You’re a writer who leaves a lot of space in your songs to draw people in to make their own conclusions. But what gets you into a song to pursue it?
A: There’s lot of things that can get me inside a song at the writing level. It’s nice when you can go one plus one equals two and we all understand that. It’s nice if you can pull that off. But let’s face it, we’re talking two or three minutes tops. A handful of couplets thrown down and a lot of guitar solos and racket. That’s the form. I’m not a real painter, but I’ve been painting a lot in the last year or so. My perspective is worthless, my drawing is horrible. But when I try too hard and start to get be pretty or perfect or exact or representational in a realistic kind of way, my lack of skills really come out. But if I just have the creative energy and just move with the surface and create action, then I usually come up with something that I think is a pleasing result.
I think it’s a similar thing with songs. If you try too hard to tell the story like you’re writing a book, then it gets too fussy or too uptight. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because the form dictates that it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know what the song is about. I don’t even have to know what the song is about.
Q: Not knowing exactly what you’re doing probably creates a better union with the listener, because you’re not dictating anything to them. There’s more room to get inside the song.
A: You imagine a big universe out there and the form that you’ve worked with, in this case a pop song, is really a shape of a keyhole. The big psychedelic universe is on the other side and really, what the form allows is this peephole access. It’s great, but it’s got limitations and restrictions, so you’re going to see what you see. You’re not going to see the whole picture. You’re not going to see the whole vision and truthfully, maybe you don’t want to, maybe it wouldn’t be as interesting. That restrictive kind of vision is more interesting than knowing the whole picture.
Q: Did Kim Deal leaving change the chemistry of the band once you got into the studio?
A: A new dynamic would have appeared. But because we were in the middle of writing and recording and it was the first time we had done that as a band for 20 years, there was plenty about it that was totally the same. Time had not changed. It was the same people, same dynamic, same psychology. But because there was a little bit of estrangement with the experience, which we hadn’t done in a long time — there was enough of that that was weird and unfamiliar. And that was strange, I don’t think having Kim leave necessarily made it stranger. It was already in a strange place. It was going to be strange if she was there or not. Fortunately, there were key things that were the same — same people, same energy, same producer.
Q: The Pixies have toured for so long to bigger crowds than it had during its recording years. Obviously that’s great for business, but with so many people wanting to hear those old albums, did that create any conflict internally to see what you could do next?
A: The greater conflict for me personally would be showing up again, resting on your laurels and not really taking the gamble of putting out new music. I wasn’t ashamed but it starts to feel a little like (expletive). If you want to do something cool, you gotta go, “yeah we might blow it or people won’t get it or it might not be successful.” The same thing with Kim leaving, do we stop or do we continue? Is this valid or will people say it’s invalid? We knew people would say, “Kim left band? You are hereby invalidated.” That’s the just way it is when people are fans. So that’s the real conflict: are we really going to sing “Where Is My Mind” again and again and never break out of that? You start to feel a little embarrassed. We’re glad to be done with that. We’re not the Buddha here, we enjoy success, we enjoy money, we enjoy being able to provide for our families, we’re not above making money.
But that’s not why we got into this. And we never ever made a creative decision based on what it might mean economically or what it might mean for the marketplace. Even our most commercial, poppy-sounding numbers, whatever decisions were made in the writing or production of it, if there was a decision made to keep the song pretty or poppy or even more commercial sounding, that was because that was the aesthetic the energy dictated. It’s not how do we make it commercial to sell more? No, this song is already barking up this particular tree. So let’s embrace that and let it be what it can be. This song over here is very dirgey and loud and very angry sounding, are we going to rein that it to make it more palatable? No, you just let it be what it wants to be. It’s not that we only like independent music. I like all kinds of music. To try to pretend we’re too cool for school, that’s not really that accurate. I love bands that are totally indie and flying the flag and I get it. I think it’s cool, but we’re really not like that.
Q: Do you think if you started out now you would have been able to make the four albums in four years you did? What makes the business different today?
A: I think it’s the same. When you start to micro-analyze everything, you think it’s way different now. You think, “oh gosh these poor young bands today it’s so much harder to make it unless you have a brand name.” I think all that stuff is kind of true. But if you look at the meta picture, I think it’s the same. You got your mainstream on one side. And at the other end of spectrum, you got your avant-garde, (expletive) you side of things. And it’s a struggle for everyone. Everyone struggles to be good, everyone struggles to make it. Some of the things have changed.
But I believe in the big picture nothing’s changed. It’s art versus commerce, good versus bad, compromise versus non-compromise. Still the basic things. It’s just as hard and/or easy as it ever was. You can say people don’t buy records anymore and they want to get their music for free. Yeah, okay, but you can connect your music to some sort of network a hell of a lot easier than in the past. It’s the same balance. Certain things have shifted the focus. But if you look at the whole picture, a mountain appears over there, a valley appears over there.
Q: So what do you talk about with younger bands that seek you out? I imagine that must happen a lot on these festival bills.
A: My advice for bands would be go make music. I’m a big proponent of playing live. I don’t think it should be rule but there’s something about the ancient act of doing something live in front of people. It predates electricity. As humans, we don’t tire of that. It’s a really, really valid place to be. It’s where you really learn. If you really want to be good comedian, you have to take baptism by fire and get up there at microphone and do your standup routine. You kind of need to do that you need to make that cosmic connection with people.
I think it’s the same thing with music: you have to play a club somewhere. Just like what old hardcore punks kids used to do: rent a VFW. Just do it, man. “Who’s going to help me, who do I have to meet?” I remember seeing some indie magazine with some up-and-coming punk band on the cover and the headline of the article was “get in the van and play.” I really believe that. Not in any blue collar way, but in a more cosmic way. Are you going to get in the van and play or are you going to get in the band and play? If you want to be in the club, then get in the van and play. Whether you’re good or not, whether it’s hip or not, whether you used to be successful and now have fallen on hard times. Whatever, man, get in the band and play. Magical things happen when you do that.
Q: But success often gets bands out of the vans and into tour buses. What happens then?
A: On the old Pixies records, we were coming out of the band-in-the-van kind of mentality. There was a lot of humor, a lot of quirks in those records that sort of happened through living life. So just making a record 20 years later, sure we brought a lot of experiences but we weren’t exactly in the van were we? Lots of jokes weren’t there. So the record is valid and we brought enough experience to it that it has life. But there’s not a lot of bubbly, weird, kooky energy. That kind of energy comes with time. We’re at the beginning of that process in a way. Which is great place to be. I feel you can never be naïve again. But there’s something about now having to redo it, it feels a little bit innocent, little bit naïve. And that’s a good thing for us. That’s our main calling card, our naiveté, and everyman kind of simplicity — that’s all we got. That’s why people resonate with us. We may be a little kooky but people get it. We’re kind of real.
The Pixies at Riot Fest, 8 p.m. Sunday
Friday-Sunday at Humboldt Park also featuring the Replacements, Guided By Voices, Fallout Boy, Blink-182, Blondie, Danzig, and many others.