For the Pixies, commercial success was never significantly achieved prior to their break up in the early 1990’s. By the time they got back together in the winter of 2004, their discography had attained a mythical status whose heavy-duty influence on iconic acts like Nirvana only made them more of a draw than they were the first time around. Pixies 2.0 continued to tour for close to a decade before returning to the studio and picking their discography up where they left it off with 1991’s Trompe le Monde.
2014’s Indie Cindy was highly anticipated but fell flat with fans and critics alike, with regular criticisms being that the album felt too far from the sound they’d come to expect from the Boston-bred quartet. Founding bassist Kim Deal’s absence was noticed, and her replacement, Paz Lenchantin, had yet to really gel with the other members. That made the release of 2016’s Head Carrier all the more welcome. From the opening notes, Head Carrier demonstrates a return to classic Pixies form while simultaneously incorporating a sound that benefited from the lessons learned from Indie Cindy, a bassist who’d become a part of the Pixies’ DNA, and both the baggage and knowledge that frontman Charles “Black Francis” Thompson, guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering brought into the studio as artists in their 50’s.
Unfortunately, the conventional rollout of Head Carrier was delayed as a result of Santiago’s health. Recovering from substance abuse was given priority over marketing the new record and while Santiago focused on his disease, fans the world over were sinking their teeth into the new album.
Glide spoke to Santiago ahead of their next tour to discuss the album, his health, the bands decision-making process and his take on live music circa 2017. Santiago was upbeat, easy-going, occasionally self-deprecating and particularly polite. He called an hour ahead of our scheduled interview time to let me know he’d be running a few minutes behind. For as much ground as we covered, it was clear that he really wanted to talk about Head Carrier. Not only is he proud of the album, but also insists he enjoys it as a listener.
How has the change in technology from Trompe le Monde to Indie Cindy impacted the way the Pixies make albums?
It’s given us more choices. Technology has allowed us to cut and paste different arrangement ideas and perform them live, meaning [we can] go and execute it in the studio. Rather than keep bashing away at an idea, we put the outline on the computer. That was one advantage I saw, other than multiple takes, which sometimes get silly after a while, at least with guitars. I just feel sorry for the producer who has to choose my awesome takes [laughs].
I haven’t seen your pedal board but has digital technology changed your tone?
No, I still go through analog. There are some digital delays I have no problem with, but I’m not that guy that synchs his tempo and echo with the tempo of the song. I think it sounds cooler just waving along like [the pedal has] it’s own identity, like an homage to surf music. Especially with tremolo effects, [perfect tempo] gets to that disco mode if it’s on the beat.
Is there something in your sound that’s intentionally imperfect?
Definitely! We’re into the Wabi-Sabi! It’s a Japanese term that means putting a mistake in a painting, like a slash, but the irony is then the question of where to put it. Like, where is the perfect mistake? There are bad mistakes out there but there are some accidental ones that are just awesome.
The Pixies took decades off from working in the studio together. How has the life experience accumulated in that time changed the way you work on albums?
Everybody came along with his or her own journey into Indie Cindy. I’m going to riff off that question. We came in… I came in with film and TV scoring as a newly acquired background and I was trying to score the lyrics and yeah, it worked. But at times I might have been too literal with it. I prefer [2016’s] Head Carrier where I interpreted [the lyrics]. I still care about the lyrics, but sometimes I interpreted it my own way and it comes across a little more honest because it’s my interpretation. It’s my own thing.
Is Head Carrier more of a Pixies record than Indie Cindy?
Definitely, and we had every intention to do that. On Indie Cindy, the concept was we landed from outer space and looked at the music scene and changed the landscape of what we were, now that we’d grown up. We achieved that concept. The elements of the Pixies were still there but more in an alien form. Now with Head Carrier, we went for more realism of what we’re all about.
I’ve seen you guys a few times since you started putting out new material again, and judging by the audience response, fans aren’t too excited about the new stuff. Is that because fans are getting older? Because there’s a new bass player or simply because you guys have changed yourselves and are doing something different?
I think this question pertains more to the audience we had before, right?
Do you think you have a different audience?
The younger audience we have now is what our audience was back then. I think it’s the same group. The fans we had then are the same open-minded kids coming to shows now. They embrace the new songs. I get older fans not being into new material because it’s not the same as what they grew up on, but it’s not supposed to be the same. Surfer Rosa isn’t exactly like Doolittle. Doolittle isn’t exactly like Bossanova. And Bossanova isn’t exactly like Tromp Le Monde. Kim Deal is dearly missed but life goes on. It is what it is. People grow up. The younger audience… a lot of people are embracing Head Carrier. I get your question but music should be listened to and not looked at.
Commercially successful bands are essentially a business in that they bring in revenue from different sources and to keep business moving they have to hire managers, accountants, publicists, booking agents, guitar techs, audio engineers and so on. It becomes an enterprise. How do the Pixies make decisions as a business?
We’ve kept everyone we’ve had since 2004. It’s a well-oiled machine. We leave the business to the business people. We’re happy with our crew and we love them but as far as the business side of things. It is what it is. If the business fails we won’t be out there, so we leave it up to the hires because we can only do so much. We make music. We do decide, “Shit we’re not going to record in this studio lined with diamonds.” We’ll decide that on our own. We’re aware of those costs but the reason the business is there is so we can be out there, have the luxury of a tour bus, and actually leave our family and come home with something to show for our work.
What I’m trying to get at is, if the four of you are to decide to go on tour or make a new album, are you guys a democracy? Is Charles [Black Francis] first among equals because he writes the songs? What is the decision-making process like within the band itself?
Well as far as making the music or having an album, the desire will be there and at one point or another, if we don’t have material, we don’t have an album. It’s Charles’ impetus to write the songs, or we can try providing stuff now that things are a bit of a different machine. We haven’t done that but the opportunity is there. [Our creative process has] its own brain. Charles, he’s The Guy, and I believe there should be one guy at the steering wheel and when he gets tired someone else will sub in for a little while. But the majority of the trip is the four of us.
On the same theme, a few years back I did an interview with David Byrne and in so many words he told me a big part of what led to the Talking Heads’ breakup-related to personal conflicts resulting from the way royalties were divided, which was based on songwriting credits. Does the fact that Charles writes the songs create conflict?
Not really. Songwriting is about chord progression and melody. But the Pixies has its own sound. Without that identifiable sound, it wouldn’t be the Pixies. There is an ego that kicks in, either harmful or good. The harmful ego would say, “Come on throw me a bone! I’m a big part of the sound!” But the good part would say, “You know what? We know we gave the sound to this entity and it gets us the accolades that allows us to do what we love which is make music and be out on the road.” I happen to love touring.
With regards to touring, and I’m asking as someone in recovery himself, is it scary being on the road as a guy in recovery? Does not having complete control of your surroundings cause you anxiety as you work hard to stay sober?
I was concerned about a dry tour. We’ll touch on this lightly. I didn’t want to really be coddled so I asked Charles about it. I didn’t want the crew or anyone to be resentful and he took the decision off my shoulders and said, “This isn’t your decision.” So there’s love all around me. There’s no drinking, we are on a dry tour. And I mean, the only tough part is between my ears and I’ve got meditation for that.
A few years back I saw you play for about 20,000 people at Boston Calling and a few weeks later I saw you play for about 200 people at T.T. The Bears Place. Will the four of you treat a big gig differently than a tiny one off show or do you think the folks at T.T.’s saw the same show you put on at City Hall Plaza?
The difference in the show is the elephant in the room…. which is the room itself. You can play a basement and it’s going to have a basement vibe. You can play for 20,000 people and you’ll get that vibe. Is the headspace different? Eh, I can only speak for myself but I’m just trying to do my best, which is all I can do. The environment will change the way my amp sounds but that’s about it. I just try to please and perform the songs to the best of my ability. They’re the boss. At that point I’m no longer the boss, they are. Whoever is paying you is the boss and you’ve got to serve them. They’re the best boss to have, whether it’s 20,000 or 200 people, but they’re people that love you. They’re the shit.
You guys were playing T.T.’s because the venue was about to close down and you wanted to pay your respects to a club that helped you guys out in the early days. The Boston indie scene was booming in the 80’s when you guys came up but the Bay State doesn’t seem to be thriving the same way it was back then. Why do you think that is?
There are a lot of facets to that question. One of them is that bands thinking they can talk to a computer and put it out there and that’s it. But you do have to perform live. The venues need viable bands and if you don’t have that, the club will shut down. If there was a bunch of music out there that was awesome and there weren’t enough clubs to hold it all, that scene would boom. But I don’t know. They’re shutting down for some reason. I don’t know what it is.
You guys have always had your finger on the pulse regarding the bands opening for you, Cymbals Eat Guitars, No Age, Jay Retard. Who are some of the bands you’re listening to that you think are channeling the spirit of the Pixies?
Honestly, we leave the opener up to the booking agency. They’re more on the pulse of the scene, really. When these bands do play, man, these acts have been great, so we’re not going to fix something that’s not broken. If we had been disappointed we’d start picking our own openers.
To be more specific is there anything you’ve been listening to lately that’s really got your ear?
I’m excited about this Rage Against the Machine group, Prophets of Rage [featuring members of Rage, Cypress Hill and Public Enemy], because it’s time that the Machine comes back out there and says something. Zach will be truly missed, obviously. But we need some angst out there again, and that’s what I’m looking forward to right now, hearing the album they’re working on.
Joey, do you ever think about your legacy?
Nah. A little bit. People think about that for me [laughs].
What does that mean?
The press, my friends, the fans, you know, they can think about that stuff, I can’t. I have a pity party in my head that I’m more concerned about than legacy. There are things in my life more important than that.
We’re almost out of time but is there anything you wanted to discuss that I didn’t give you a chance to talk about?
I love this new album. I listen to it [laughs]. I do! I am amazed by it! Totally amazed! I love this fucking album!
Also, I’ve been listening to a lot of Rage Against the Machine lately. It’s easy listening at this point.
Sad but true. On that note, I’m looking forward to covering your show in Boston this spring and appreciate your time.
Alright man, take care.
Live photos by Marc Lacatell