Origin: Boston, Massachusetts
Genre: Alternative Rock
Years active: 1986–93, 2004–present
Come On Pilgrim (1987)
Surfer Rosa (1988)
Trompe le Monde (1991)
Indie Cindy (2014)
The Pixies are an American alternative rock band formed in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1986. The group currently consists of founders Black Francis (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Joey Santiago (lead guitar) and David Lovering (drums). Co-founder Kim Deal (bass, backing vocals) left in 2013, and was replaced by Kim Shattuck as live bass player for a few months, then by Paz Lenchantin for the band’s 2014 tour. The Pixies achieved relatively modest popularity in their home country, but were significantly more successful in the United Kingdom and mainland Europe. The group disbanded in 1993 in acrimonious circumstances, but reunited in 2004. Despite limited commercial success, their jarring pop sound subsequently influenced bands such as Nirvana, Radiohead, The Strokes and Weezer.
The band’s style of music contains a range of elements, including indie rock, psychedelia, noise rock, and surf rock. Black Francis is the Pixies’ primary songwriter and singer. He has written about a number of offbeat subjects in the band’s songs, such as extraterrestrials, surrealism, incest, and biblical violence.
The group is credited with having an influence on the alternative rock boom of the 1990s. The Pixies’ legacy and popularity grew in the years following their break-up, leading to sold-out world tours following their reunion in 2004. In June 2013, the band released their first new material in almost ten years.
Joey Santiago and Black Francis (born Charles Thompson IV) first 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 then 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.
The pair formed a band in January 1986. Bass player Kim Deal joined Santiago and Francis two weeks later after responding to a classified advertisement Francis had placed, seeking a female bass player who liked both folk music icons Peter, Paul and Mary and the band Hüsker Dü. Deal was the only person to respond, but arrived at the audition without a bass as she had never played the instrument before. She was invited to join the band just because she liked the songs Black Francis was showing her. She later obtained a bass, and the trio started rehearsing in Deal’s apartment.
After recruiting Deal, the band tried unsuccessfully to get her sister, Kelley Deal, to join as its drummer. Kim’s husband suggested they hire drummer 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 and took a liking to how it looked and its definition as “mischievous little elves”. Once the band had settled on a name and stable 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.
Record contract and Come On Pilgrim (1987)
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 “The Purple 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. On it, Francis drew upon his experiences in Puerto Rico, mostly in the songs “Vamos” and “Isla de Encanta”; the album included lyrics 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. Critic Heather Phares sees themes such as sexual frustration (“I’ve Been Tired”) and incest (“Nimrod’s Son” and “The Holiday Song”) on the record.
Surfer Rosa and Doolittle (1988–89)
Come On Pilgrim was followed by the band’s first full-length album, Surfer Rosa. The album was recorded by Steve Albini (who was hired by Watts-Russell on the advice of a 4AD colleague), completed in two weeks, and released in early 1988. Surfer Rosa gained the Pixies acclaim in Europe; both Melody Maker and Sounds gave Surfer Rosa their “Album of the Year” award. American critical response was also positive yet more muted, a reaction that persisted for much of the band’s career. The album was eventually certified Gold in the U.S. in 2005. After the album was released, the band arrived in England to support Throwing Muses on the European “Sex and Death” tour—beginning at the Mean Fiddler in London. The tour also took them to the Netherlands, where the Pixies had already received enough media attention to be headlining the tour. Francis later recalled: “The first place I made it with the Pixies was in Holland.” The tour became notable for the band’s in-jokes, such as playing their entire set list in alphabetical order.
Meanwhile, the Pixies signed an American distribution deal with major record label Elektra. Around this time, the Pixies struck up a relationship with the British producer Gil Norton. Norton produced their second full album, Doolittle, which was recorded in the last six weeks of 1988 and seen as a departure from the raw sound of Come On Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa. Doolittle had a much cleaner sound, largely due to Norton and the production budget of US$40,000, which was quadruple that of Surfer Rosa. Doolittle featured the single “Here Comes Your Man”, which biographers Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz describe as an unusually jaunty and pop-like song for the band. “Monkey Gone to Heaven” was a Top 10 modern rock radio hit in the U.S., and reached the Top 100 in the U.K. Like Surfer Rosa, Doolittle was acclaimed by fans and music critics alike.
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 want[ing] 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 kinda stopped talking”. The band became increasingly tired during the post-Doolittle “Fuck or Fight” tour of the United States and fighting among members continued. After the tour’s final date in New York, the band was too exhausted to attend the end-of-tour party the following night and soon announced a hiatus.
During this time, Santiago and Lovering went on vacation, while Francis performed a short solo tour, made up of a number of concerts to generate gas money as he traveled across the country. Deal formed a new band, The Breeders, with Tanya Donelly of Throwing Muses and bass player Josephine Wiggs of Perfect Disaster. Their debut album, Pod, was released in 1990.
Bossanova, Trompe le Monde, and break-up (1990–2002)
In 1990, all members of the group except for Deal moved to Los Angeles. Lovering stated that he, Santiago, and Francis moved there “because the recording studio was there”. Unlike previous recordings, the band had little time to practice beforehand, and Black Francis wrote much of the album in the studio. Featuring the singles “Velouria” and “Dig for Fire”, Bossanova reached number 70 in the United States. In contrast, the album peaked at number three in the United Kingdom. Also in 1990, the Pixies released a cover of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s “Born in Chicago” on the compilation album Rubáiyát: Elektra’s 40th Anniversary.
The band continued to tour and released Trompe le Monde in 1991, their final album before their break-up. The album included “U-Mass”, which has been described as being about college apathy, and whose guitar riff was written years before at the University of Massachusetts before Francis and Santiago dropped out. The album also featured a cover of “Head On” by The Jesus and Mary Chain. Also that year, the band contributed a cover of “I Can’t Forget” to the Leonard Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan, and began an international tour on which they played stadiums in Europe and smaller venues in the United States. They then embarked on an uncomfortable tour supporting U2 on their Zoo TV Tour in 1992. Tensions rose between band members, and, at the end of the year, the Pixies went on sabbatical and focused on separate projects.
In early 1993, Francis announced in an interview to BBC Radio 5 that the band was finished and offered no explanation at the time, unbeknownst to the other members of the band. He later called Santiago and subsequently notified Deal and Lovering via fax, in January 1993. After the break-up, the four members embarked on separate projects. Black Francis renamed himself Frank Black, and he released several solo albums, including a string of releases with Frank Black and the Catholics. Deal returned to The Breeders, who scored a hit with “Cannonball” from that group’s platinum-selling Last Splash in 1993, and released two more albums several years later. She also formed and released one album with The Amps. Santiago played lead guitar on multiple Frank Black albums, as well as on other artists’ albums. He wrote theme music for the show Undeclared on Fox television and for Crime and Punishment in Suburbia. He formed a band called The Martinis with his wife, Linda Mallari, who released an album in 2004. In 2004, he also played lead guitar on the album “Statecraft” by the novelist and musician Charles Douglas. Lovering went on to become a magician and made occasional appearances as “The Scientific Phenomenalist”, performing experiments on stage and occasionally opening for Frank Black and The Breeders. Lovering continued to do some drumming, playing with the band Cracker, as well as on one of Tanya Donelly’s solo albums, and on the Martinis’ song “Free”, which appeared on the Empire Records soundtrack.
4AD and Elektra Records continued to release Pixies material in the band’s absence. They released the best-of album Death to the Pixies (1997), the Peel-session compilation Pixies at the BBC (1998), and the Complete ‘B’ Sides compilation (2001). Meanwhile, in 2002 material from the band’s original 17-track demo tape was released as an EP, Pixies, on Cooking Vinyl in the U.K. and SpinArt Records in the U.S.; Frank Black has also used these labels to release solo work and albums with The Catholics.
The Pixies in concert in Kansas City, October 1, 2004. From left to right, Frank Black, David Lovering (back) and Kim Deal.
In the 11 years following the break-up, rumors sometimes circulated regarding a reunion. Though Frank Black steadfastly dismissed them, he did begin to incorporate an increasing number of Pixies songs in his sets with The Catholics, and occasionally included Santiago in his solo work and Lovering’s magic show as an opening act to concerts.
In 2003, a series of phone calls between band members resulted in some low-key rehearsals, and soon to a decision to reunite. By February 2004, a full tour was announced, and tickets for nearly all the initial tour dates sold out within minutes. The band’s four-night run at London’s Brixton Academy was the fastest selling in the venue’s 20-year history.
The Pixies played their first reunion concert on April 13, 2004, at The Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a warm-up tour through the U.S. and Canada was followed by an appearance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. The band then spent much of 2004 touring throughout Brazil, Europe, Japan, and the U.S. The group won the Act-of-the-Year award in the 2004 Boston Music Awards. The 2004 reunion tour reportedly grossed over $14 million in ticket sales.
In June 2004, the band released a new song, “Bam Thwok” exclusively on the iTunes Music Store. The song reached number one in the UK Official Download Chart. 4AD released Wave of Mutilation: The Best of Pixies, along with a companion DVD, entitled Pixies. The band also contributed a rendition of “Ain’t That Pretty At All” to the Warren Zevon tribute album Enjoy Every Sandwich. “Bam Thwok” and “Ain’t That Pretty At All” were both recorded by engineer Ben Mumphrey, the former at Stagg Street Studios in Van Nuys, CA and the latter at Metamorphosis Studio in Vienna, Austria.
In 2005, the band made appearances at festivals including Lollapalooza, “T on the Fringe”, and the Newport Folk Festival. They continued to make appearances through 2006 and 2007, culminating in their first-ever appearances in Australia. Since 2005, Francis has at various times stated that the Pixies recording a new studio album was either a possibility, or an unlikelihood, the main obstacle being Deal’s reluctance to do so.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of Doolittle, the Pixies launched a tour in October 2009 where they performed the album track-for-track, including the associated B-sides. The tour began in Europe, continued in the United States in November, with the Southamerican and Australian tour following in March 2010, then New Zealand, and more European dates in spring 2010, and back to North America in fall 2010 and into spring 2011. In the autumn of 2011 the “Imaginary Cities” tour continued the “Doolittle Tour” as they played many venues for the first time.
Kim Deal’s departure, “Bagboy” and new material (2013–present)
Kim Shattuck playing with The Muffs
On June 14, 2013, it was announced by the band’s Twitter profile that Kim Deal had left the band. Deal has since posted new solo music on her website and the remaining Pixies have welcomed her to come back as her schedule with Breeders allows. Two weeks later, the band released a new song, “Bagboy”, as a free download via the Pixies website. The song features Jeremy Dubs of Bunnies and formerly of the Bennies on vocals in place of Deal.
On July 1, 2013, the Pixies announced the addition of The Muffs and The Pandoras guitarist and vocalist Kim Shattuck, who would be replacing Deal for the band’s 2013 European tour. On September 3, 2013 Pixies released an EP of new songs titled EP1. On November 29, 2013, Shattuck announced that she had been dismissed from the band that day. In December 2013, Paz Lenchantin was announced as the new bassist for the 2014 tour. More new material surfaced when Pixies released their second EP, titled EP2, on January 3, 2014. The single released to radio was “Blue Eyed Hexe.” Another new EP, called EP3, was released on March 24, 2014. All the EPs were only available as downloads and limited edition vinyl. The three EPs were collected in LP format and released as the album Indie Cindy in April 2014.
The Pixies’ musical style has been described 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”.
The Pixies draw influence from a range of artists and genres; each member came from a different musical background. When he first started writing songs for the Pixies, Francis says he was listening to nothing but Hüsker Dü, Captain Beefheart, and Iggy Pop; Other influences associated with Francis include The Gun Club and The Cars. During the making of Doolittle he was listening heavily to The Beatles’ The White Album. He has cited Buddy Holly as a model for his compressed songwriting.
Santiago listened to 1970s and 1980s punk including Black Flag, as well as David Bowie. Guitarists who influenced him include Jimi Hendrix, Les Paul, Wes Montgomery, and George Harrison. Deal’s musical background was folk music and country; she had formed a country-folk band with her sister in her teenage years, and played covers of artists such as The Everly Brothers and Hank Williams. Other artists they listened to included XTC, Gang of Four and Elvis Costello. Lovering is a fan of the band Rush.
Other media such as film has had an impact on the Pixies; Francis cites surrealist films Eraserhead and Un chien andalou (as mentioned in “Debaser”) as influences. He has commented on these influences, saying he “didn’t have the patience to sit around reading Surrealist novels”, but found it easier to watch twenty-minute films.
Songwriting and vocals
Most of the Pixies songs were composed and sung by Francis. Critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine has described Francis’s writing as containing “bizarre, fragmented lyrics about space, religion, sex, mutilation, and pop culture”. Biblical violence is a theme of Doolittle’s “Dead” and “Gouge Away”; Francis told a Melody Maker interviewer, “It’s all those characters in the Old Testament. I’m obsessed with them. Why it comes out so much I don’t know.” He has described Come on Pilgrim’s “Caribou” as being about reincarnation, and extraterrestrial themes appear in a number of songs on Bossanova.
Deal co-wrote Doolittle’s “Silver” with Francis, and they share lead harmony vocals on the track. She also co-wrote and sang lead vocals on Surfer Rosa’s “Gigantic”, and is the sole songwriter of the 2004 digital single “Bam Thwok”. She was credited as Mrs. John Murphy on the former composition—at the time she was married and she used this name as an ironic feminist joke. She also sang lead vocals on the song “Into the White” (which is another song she and Francis co-wrote) and the Neil Young cover “Winterlong”, both B-sides. Lovering sang lead vocals on Doolittle’s “La La Love You” and the B-side “Make Believe”.
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, Radiohead, PJ Harvey, U2, Nirvana, The Strokes, Weezer, and Pavement 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.”
One notable citation as an influence was by Kurt Cobain, on influencing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which he admitted was a conscious attempt to co-opt the Pixies’ style. In a January 1994 interview with Rolling Stone, he said, “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it [smiles]. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band—or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.” Cobain cited Surfer Rosa as one of his main musical influences, and particularly admired the album’s natural and powerful drum sounds—a result of Steve Albini’s influence on the record. Albini later produced Nirvana’s 1993 In Utero at the request of Cobain.
Music videos and DVDs
No music videos were released from Come on Pilgrim or Surfer Rosa, but from Doolittle onwards, the following videos were made: “Monkey Gone To Heaven”, “Here Comes Your Man”, “Velouria”, “Dig For Fire”, “Allison”, “Alec Eiffel”, “Head On”, and “Debaser”; these were later released on the 2004 DVD Pixies. Furthermore, a music video accompanied the release of their 2013 song, “Bagboy”, as well an alternate video released on a later date. Videos have been made for all the songs in EP1. The videos for “Here Comes Your Man” and “Allison” were also released on The Complete ‘B’ Sides.
By Bossanova, the band had developed a severe aversion to recording music videos, and Francis refused to lip-sync to them. For example, in the “Here Comes Your Man” video, both Black and Deal open their mouths wide instead of mouthing their lyrics. According to the record label this became one of the reasons that the Pixies never achieved major coverage on MTV.
With Bossanova’s release, 4AD hoped to get the Pixies chosen to perform their single “Velouria” on the BBC music programme Top of the Pops. To this end, the band was pressured into producing a video for the song, and they made one cheaply with the band members filmed running down a quarry, shown in slow motion. The group was ultimately not given a spot on the show.
A 90-minute documentary called loudQUIETloud: a film about the Pixies directed by Steven Cantor and Matthew Galkin was released in 2006. The film documents their 2004 reunion and tour, and covers the years after the break-up. In addition to Pixies and LoudQUIETloud, four other Pixies’ DVDs were released between 2004 and 2006, all featuring concert performances: Live at the Town and Country Club 1988, The Pixies—Sell Out, The Pixies Acoustic: Live in Newport, and The Pixies Club Date: Live at the Paradise in Boston.