Armed with a bottle of wine and a little chien andalusia, the Pixies’ Black Francis bares his soul and sets MAGNET straight on Kim Deal, Kim Shattuck, dope, daddyhood, new songs, old wounds and how, after 26 years, he finally found his mind. Story by Jonathan Valania, photo by Gene Smirnov.
The year is 1988. I’m a college DJ stranded in the middle of Pennsyltucky. Entranced by the naked boob on the cover of Surfer Rosa, I slap it on the turntable and … they had me by the first 20 seconds of “Where Is My Mind?” They never really let go. Shortly thereafter, I got a gig working for a Pennsyltucky daily. They asked me one day if I wanted to interview some guy named Black Francis from the Pixies. Would I? Man, this was a dream come true! I could finally learn the WTF of lyrics like, “He bought me a soda, he bought me a soda/And he tried to molest me in the parking lot.”
When I got him on the phone, he was no doubt bone-tired from endless touring and weary of answering stupid fanboy questions. He insisted I call him Charles and pretty much refused to give me a straight answer to any question. “Who cares?” he’d say. “We just try to make cool rock music.” I remember thinking, “What a dick.”
It’s 1993. In the wake of a dispiriting trail-of-tears trek across North America as U2’s opening act, and years of low-intensity inter-band strife, Black Francis breaks up the Pixies via fax, rechristens himself Frank Black and proceeds to release what fans consider to be a steady string of increasingly irrelevant solo albums. Kim Deal manages to land on her feet, but after a few seasons of success, the Breeders’ career collapses under the weight of the Deal sisters’ substance abuse and related baggage. Joe Santiago manages to eke out a living scoring films you never saw along with the occasional episode of Weeds and Undeclared. And the drummer gives up music to become—wait for it—a magician.
In some ways—ways he is still not fully ready to cop to—Black Francis suffered the most. Breaking up the Pixies was Black Francis’ original sin. The world—at least the part of the world that had any bearing on the life of Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV—loved the Pixies, and decided that he would be punished for his sins with a long twilight bar-band exile of dwindling record sales, half-full concert venues and diminished cultural relevance; this despite making music that was, almost without exception, as good—if not better in its own way—than his Pixies work. “Everything I do as a solo artist will always be overshadowed by this other band called the Pixies,” he says in the documentary Loud Soft Loud. “It doesn’t matter what I do—it’s always going to end in tears.”
The cold hard fact is that people like bands, not songwriters. A band is a narrative with archetypes: the cute one, the funny one, the smart one and so on. A songwriter, in the public’s imagination, is just some guy who bangs out jingles to make the mortgage every month. Barry Manilow is a songwriter; the Beatles are a narrative. People love good stories more than they love good songs. Frank Black didn’t have a good story. He’s the guy who killed the Pixies.
It would take him a decade to figure that out.
Fast-forward to 2004. My college roommate—who was zonked on acid, as was I, that night at the Ritz (Aug. 4, 1989, to be exact) when the Pixies did “Wave Of Mutilation (U.K. Surf Mix)” and the Earth stood still and the hand of God came down in a ray of pure white light and gave Black Francis a handjob (I swear to you this really happened)—calls me up one day to say the Pixies are getting back together. “Just when I stopped caring,” I say. That’s not entirely true—not for me or anyone else. The shows sell out in minutes. I’m giddy when I see them in Camden, N.J., and I know I’m not alone. And contrary to what people who weren’t there the first time around say, they’re as good as they ever were. The classic songs seem immune to the ravages of age, and besides, the Pixies’ strange allure was never based on the hormones and hair of youth. Yeah, they’re fatter and balder, but, having settled or set aside the irreconcilable differences of the past, and worked through the addiction/rehab/divorce craziness of middle age, they are also wiser.
And so am I.
Black Francis was right all along. Who cares about all those painfully literal fanboy questions and all that soap opera, he-said/she-said jive? The Pixies are just trying to make cool rock music. Sometimes that’s enough. Besides, the only thing worth knowing is this: If man is five, then devil is six and God is seven. Or, to put it another way, the Pixies were just four hard-working kids based out of Boston whose monkey died and went to heaven.
Something happened while they were away. This cult band with its weird, noisy songs about UFOs, incest and broken faces became more famous in death than they ever were in life. They’d become part of the great collective alt-rock unconscious—like mid-period Cure or the first Violent Femmes record or Thurston Moore’s haircut. By 2004, Surfer Rosa was on every punky bar jukebox. Jocks cranked “Wave Of Mutilation” as they raced by in daddy’s car, flipping off the nerds. And every cool chick bass player worth her salt had played “Gigantic” practically until her tits fell off. When I saw the Pixies reunion, 20,000 people sang along with every word of “Where Is My Mind?” Judging by the median age of the crowd, most were still in short pants when the song first came out. It would seem that the Pixies have become—dare I say it—folk music. Hell, the following year they did a reverse Dylan—they went acoustic at Newport.
By 2012, the reunited Pixies had been together longer than the original band’s seven-year run. Then came news that Kim Deal had left the band. The reason for her departure was never explained. Then came news the Pixies were going to carry on with plans to record new music without her.
The morning after the day that Kim Deal quit the Pixies, Black Francis shaved off all his pubic hair. To signify a new beginning, he would later tell me.
Everyone’s always trying to get backstage. It is the Valhalla of the concert experience—the mythical lodge of ecstatic feasts forbidden to mere mortals, full of ardor and ecstasy, although anybody who’s ever actually been there will tell you that you ain’t missing much. It’s a sweaty cold-cut plate, warm beer, a crab couch, the prevailing sense that you are overstaying your welcome. All of which pretty much sets the scene in the Pixies’ dressing room backstage at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia.
Guitarist Joey Santiago and a pretty middle-aged blonde are sitting on the crab couch sipping beers. Turns out she went to elementary school with Santiago in the Boston area, where she still lives, and just saw the Pixies for the first time when they played Boston last week. She just happened to be in Philly visiting her son, who goes to college here. One friend request later, here she is. This is what passes for groupies backstage at a Pixies show these days: someone’s mom.
Cocksucker Blues it ain’t.
I always thought of the Pixies as harmless-looking people making dangerous music. But offstage, the band members are, by their own admission, well … boring people. Put it this way: If they had a reality show, nobody would watch it. But who am I to judge? I am currently trying to square my relative backstage boredom with the fact that the 1989 version of me would probably never stop masturbating over the fact that he was even here.
Drummer Dave Lovering is in warm-up mode, his head covered with a towel, tapping out paradiddles on anything that doesn’t move, not talking to anyone. In an adjoining room, Black Francis and new touring bassist Paz Lenchantin are doing vocal warm-up exercises that, through the wall, sound like a cross between bad opera and the Muslim call to prayer.
Lenchantin is filling the big shoes of the dearly departed Kim Deal, as well as Deal’s more recent replacement, Kim Shattuck, frontwoman of the Muffs, who parted ways with the band back in November somewhat acrimoniously. Lenchantin is so cool that if anyone can solve the I’m Not Kim Deal problem, it’s her. Tonight she is wearing a brandy-color velveteen mini dress a friend sent her from Paris—the kind Marianne Faithfull used to wear back before the Mars Bar Incident. She added the white frilly color and cuffs to set it off. Smart girl.
She was born in Argentina, and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was four to escape the brutality of the Dirty War. She’s not just a pretty face—she’s got chops. She played bass in Billy Corgan’s Zwan and Maynard James Keenan’s A Perfect Circle. She played bass on Brightblack Morning Light’s sultry, self-titled 2006 LP. (All rubbery Rhodes clangor, tremolo-ripple bass, woozy slide guitar, sex-fogged vocals and a whole lot of crystal blue persuasion, it is arguably the best fuck-music album since MBV’s Loveless.) Until signing on as the Pixies’ touring bassist in early December, she was the bass player for L.A.’s bluesy psychonauts the Entrance Band. Tonight marks her sixth show with the Pixies.
When Black Francis emerges from the practice room, there is a discernible bounce in his step. He gathers the band around for a combined set-list discussion and pep talk. Throwing air punches at an imaginary foe, Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robot-style, he giddily calls out the first three songs of tonight’s set, punctuating each announcement Ralph Kramden-style with a cartoonish Pow!
“Bone Machine.” Pow!
And then, as per Paz’s request, “River Euphrates.” Pow!
(Frankly, it’s a strange display. Everyone laughs a little too hard. I can’t tell if they’re trying to convince me that they’re having fun, or just themselves.)
Having seen the Pixies a half-dozen times since 1988, I feel qualified to say they’re as fierce a live band these days as they ever were, absent Deal’s velveteen vocals and infectious (yet slightly unsettling) perma-grin. The sold-out crowd is surprisingly young and—best I can tell, wandering the cavernous Electric Factory—way into it. But for reasons unclear, the Pixies walk off at the end of their set and never return for an encore. This is highly unusual. To the best of my knowledge, the last band to not do an encore was Great White back in 2003. And that was because the club burned down in the middle of its set.
I make my way backstage to find out what happened. When I knock on the dressing room door, the Pixies’ manager opens up a crack, shakes his head “no,” then closes the door in my face. I step outside to grab a smoke, and a few moments later the stage door explodes open. Lovering brushes past, bounds down the stairs, lights a smoke, pulls the visor of his hat down low, turns his back to the exiting crowd, scrolls through his text messages and emails, clearly in no mood for company or conversation. I guess there are some things about being a Pixie that we will never understand.
I head back to the dressing room, which is now admitting guests. Black Francis pours me a tall glass of wine, refills his own and, unbidden, explains why there was no encore tonight. “The crowd didn’t earn it. I’m old-school that way. I’m Vaudeville,” he says with a shrug. “I find that when the audience is younger, they want you to hold their hand and smile and kick the beach ball around, and we don’t do that. We don’t do jazz hands.”
We are not scheduled to sit down for a one-on-one interview until the Pixies play Newark, N.J., in a few days, but a couple more refills later, Black Francis is ready to talk. Right now. Somewhat flummoxed, I tell him I don’t have my questions or my recorder, and my iPhone is almost dead.
“I have a cassette recorder,” he says. “We can use that.”
A cassette recorder? But how would I play it back afterward?
“I’ll give you the recorder—you can have it.”
This is actually quite perfect. I can’t think of a better person to ask why Kim Deal quit the Pixies than Black Francis with half a bottle of wine in him. We duck into the empty dressing room next door. He takes the one chair and I sit on the sofa, which turns out to be very low to the ground. He looms over me. It’s a small, bare room and Black Francis is using his outdoor/half-a-bottle-of-wine voice. He booms in the close quarters. He’s wearing a gray, military tunic-style overcoat, not unlike the kind you would expect a North Korean soldier to wear in winter. In the dimly lit room, with his shaved head, considerable girth and that tunic, I feel like Martin Sheen being lectured by Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. (“Are you a rock critic or a music journalist, Willard?” Um, both? “You’re neither—you’re an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.”)
BF: Look, I get the feeling the publicist or the manager says to writers, “Don’t ask about this, don’t ask about that.” Fuck that—ask me anything you want.
OK, let’s talk about Kim Deal leaving the band. What’s your side of the story?
BF: Well, it’s very simple. She’s been reticent for a very long time to make a new record.
Now, why do you think that was?
BF: I don’t really know. I can speculate. I’m sure some of the reasons were personal, and some of the reasons were common sense. Like, “Ah, we got a good thing going. If it isn’t broke, why try to fix it? Let’s not make that bad move, the comeback record.” She either wanted to or didn’t want to. It wasn’t that big of a deal for us. It was frustrating to me personally at times, because I wanted to do that. At the end of the day, I just embraced her reticence. But she started giving us a couple of clues with things that she said.
BF: “Maybe Joe and Charles should make some demos with Gil Norton.”
Fast-forward. It’s the fall of 2012. You’re all in a recording studio in Wales with Gil Norton behind the board. Then what happens?
BF: We got to Wales, we got to work, but it was a little slow going, and she was very … my impression was that she was very stressed, or unhappy, or whatever for whatever reason. As everyone would be. People have things going on in their life that (don’t) always … it’s easy to take things personally sometimes, but when you get to the bottom of it, they got stuff going on in their life. It’s nothing to do with you.
So, we were doing things in a very meticulous kind of way with Gilmore, which he loved, because he was meticulous. Some drums, now some bass. So, after we’ve done the four or five big songs that I have tweaked out with Gilmore at his house, and kind of brought them to a certain level, once she saw that we had every intention of going beyond this little batch of four or five songs—that we were going to have a full record—that’s when she decided, “OK, I’m out.”
So, it was too much, whatever the reason. She came to the coffee shop—and to her credit, I mean, when I broke up the band for the first time, I just fucking sent a fax to the manager saying, “Copy this fax and mail it to everyone. I’m fucking out of here.” No confrontation, no discussion, no face-to-face, no let’s-kiss-and-say-goodbye; none of that. Just total “I’m out, I don’t want to deal with this.”
She had the balls, anyway—she knew we had our espresso at a certain time of the day, probably earlier than she would have her espresso. So, she comes in—we’re drinking our espresso—and gets her cappuccino: “I’m flying home tomorrow.” So, we were just like, “Ugh!” Joey and I didn’t want to get in an argument, so I got up and Joey followed me for different reasons. I wanted to go drink, and he wanted to go to the music store and get a slide. Then he went to the bar with me to drink. We just didn’t want any confrontation.
She enjoyed a better rapport with David, so we knew that David would talk to her and maybe change her mind or whatever, or find out what the reason was. We never got to the bottom of it. She called me finally from the airport. She called me right as she was getting on the plane on my cell phone to talk. I think by that point I had calmed down enough to just say, “Look, do whatever you have to do. Call us when you get to wherever you are, and if you’re interested in coming back … ” But she didn’t want to do that. She just kind of left. But she did communicate again—she said, “Hey, if you need any more bass … ” But it wasn’t quite … from our point of view, it wasn’t committed enough.
I mean, to her credit, she stuck it out on this whole revue thing as long as she could. But when it got to he point where we were going to do it all again—record new content, do all the interviews, do all the radio shows, do all the publicity, do videos, all that full shebang—I think she was just like, “It’s too much, man. I’m out of here.” But I don’t know—why did she leave? To me, she was unhappy with the situation, or unhappy with her life or whatever, just not happy. I mean, when someone’s not happy, they don’t want to be wherever they are, whatever it is. It doesn’t matter what it is. If you’re not happy, you don’t want to be there.
You guys never got as far as cutting vocals before she left?
BF: No, and really, I think that was the real commitment. Whether she knew it consciously or not, I think that’s when it starts to turn into something else. Anybody can come in and play some bass. Can you tell if it’s Kim Deal or not? Not necessarily. A lot of people aren’t going to be able to tell the difference. So, but as soon as the voice enters, just one little line, just one little note, a whole door opens. The whole person—and in her case, she’s a very charismatic person—her whole thing just fucking comes into the room. You can’t remove that; you can’t erase that. There’s no fucking engineer in the world that would do that. “Erase the fucking Kim Deal vocal part? No fucking way. Whatever you tell me to do, this is going in a fucking vault.” It’s like the Beatles. “Erase that.” Yeah right, we’ll erase that. You’re the fucking Beatles. We don’t erase anything you do, you know what I mean? I don’t know if she knew, but she must have self-consciously known: having her voice is really what it’s all about. That really just represents.
But the door’s still open if ever she decided to change her mind and wants to be in the Pixies again?
BF: Yeah. I don’t think that will ever happen, personally. I think she’s done with it. But, you know, you never know. I can’t say if she called tomorrow, I wouldn’t be like, “Oh wow, really?” Who knows?
When was the last time you spoke with her?
BF: The last time I spoke with her was when she was getting on that plane.
Was the reunion era less frictional than the initial era? As far as interpersonal stuff?
BF: Yeah, in general. I mean, everyone is much older and much more sober …
Can we go back to 1993, to just before you hit “send” on the fax? Why are you fed up? Why do you want to burn the Pixies?
BF: I don’t remember exactly what I said in the fax, but you know, I was on tour all the time. I was trying to hold on to this relationship I had going on. The constant touring schedule was interfering with that, and there was some animosity between Kim and I that had just settled into an icy coolness.
A cold war? No shooting or hand-to-hand combat—just hostility and undermining each other at every opportunity?
BF: A cold war. I mean, not like aggressive, but definitely passive-aggressive. It just wasn’t that much fun for everybody. Looking back now, what we needed was somebody in our world who was savvy enough to just go, “Look, these kids are, like, kind of tired. They’ve been doing a lot of work. And they probably need to have a little vacation. They need to take six months off and stop doing whatever they’re doing so they can catch their breath. Then they’ll pick up where they left off.” If someone had said that to us, advised us … “Look, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Just chill out. Go on fucking vacation. Take a year off!”—we never would have lasted a year—“Take a year off!” If someone would have just said that to us, I think we would have done that and we would have just continued. We would have worked it all out.
I don’t know what the other guys were doing, but I was just smoking dope 24 hours a day. I was young, I was cocky. What did I want to do? Touring was OK, but what I wanted to do was go hang in a recording studio and experiment and try to figure out how it all worked. The record company was like, “Yeah, whatever you guys record, we’ll put out.” So, it just kind of fed that. Then that kind of interfered with touring. The agents were constantly encouraging the touring, which the band, I think, was kind of into. But I was always interfering: “No, let’s stop the tour and go cut another record.” But nobody’s saying, “Hey, let’s just chill the fuck out. Give these guys a little vacation.”
I’ve been in bands. I know what happens: I know when you’re overworked and a) you’re young and dumb, b) there’s alcohol and substances involved, c) you’re exhausted and you lose perspective—there are these slights that never get resolved. They get internalized. These little petty grudges just linger and simmer, and you forget after a while why you’re angry with each other, but that doesn’t change the fact that you are angry with each other. Is that about right?
I’m not going to make this whole thing about Kim Deal, but I would like to give you the opportunity to respond to this narrative that’s emerged that you were doing the lion’s share of the heavy lifting: writing all the songs, singing them. Yet Kim was the one that got all the adulation. People really liked her—she smiled, she had a dreamy voice …
BF: She’s got charisma.
She’s got charisma. And you somehow resented that. Is there any truth in that? Or is that just kind of people projecting?
BF: Well, there’s truth in it in the sense that the narrative you referred to, those kind of narratives can be hurtful if they’re not factual. So, I’m resentful of the narrative. That resentment can start to affect your interpersonal band situation. The fact of the matter was that I was the writer, we had a band; we had a little thing going. One time, Kim walked into rehearsal—we were not psychologically prepared. She just showed up to practice one day, probably because she had to get her nerve up and say, “Oh, I have a bunch of songs, also.” We had never heard about these other songs before—it was out of the blue. So, the way she did it was a little like, “Whoa!” But we went along with it.
But the thing is, we’re rehearsing with shitty amps in a really loud rehearsal space. We’re probably bonked out of our mind on marijuana and we’re trying to make some sense out of a din. So, she brings in all these new songs or chord structures or whatever, and of course it didn’t click. So, the rest of the band and I talked about it and went, “Yeah, the new stuff she brought in today seemed kind of different. It didn’t seem to really work.” Now whether it was really good or not, who knows? It was a fucking cacophony when we tried it. So, we just went, like, “Kim … ” And she was very bashful and said, “Oh, that’s OK, don’t worry about it.” So, that was put aside.
When was this, roughly? What album?
BF: This was around Surfer Rosa, or maybe after Surfer Rosa. Somewhere in there. I remember a couple years after, we were touring around in England. We were doing something at the BBC, and she was listening to mixes in another room in the studio complex of her new record for her new band. She invited us down to hear them. So, we went down and we listened to them. So, really, the fact of the matter is that she was putting together the first Breeders record while the Pixies were going, and nobody had a problem with it. She didn’t have a problem with it; we didn’t have a problem with it. That’s the way it was going on.
She didn’t really find a receptive space for her material within the band until she started her own thing, and we were all like, “Cool.” So, that’s really all that happened. So, people that are writing about it trying to figure out … again, it’s a narrative. “Oh, that’s Charles, the guy who screams Taaaaaaaaaammmme! He’s not letting her write the songs.” And that’s not exactly right. That’s not exactly how it went down. So, you know, who knows what would have happened if we were able to get some vacation time in?
It seemed early earlier on that you guys sang a lot more than you did on the last two records. Was there a conscious decision to stop doing that?
BF: I think that there was probably iciness between us two, and then there was probably Gil trying to always force it or something. He’s trying to force these two people to sing together …
You didn’t really want to?
BF: I don’t think I was against it, I think … you know, people were barely showing up at the sessions, and the whole thing starts to turn into the Charles Thompson Show.
By what album?
BF: Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde, those two records. It starts to turn into me hanging out at the studio for hours and hours and hours with Gil because I had the studio itch.
And those guys would just rather not? Or they already did their parts and they let you finish the record?
BF: I think if you’re not the writer, there’s only so much time you can put into the studio. You’re like, “Look, I got other shit to do than listen to Mr. Stoner here try it yet again a different way.”
When did you first start smoking pot?
BF: That was with the Pixies, I think. Not really until I started touring. I didn’t touch it when I was in college—not really.
For what reason? It just didn’t interest you?
BF: I think I was fearful of drugs and alcohol, so I never really went there. I think the first time that I got drunk was with Joey when we were in college. I vomited in the toilet. I was a very goody two-shoes when I was a teenager. But I think once I discovered pot, I was like, “Oh, I like this a lot.” I smoked it quite heavily throughout the whole Pixies.
Did it aid your creative endeavors?
BF: I don’t think I ever wrote a great song when I was high.
When was the last time you got high?
BF: I haven’t really smoked in about 10 or 12 years. I got kids now, and stuff. It’s too hard, you know? It’s too hard to negotiate that when you’re baked.
What about psychedelics?
BF: Yeah, sure. We used to do mushrooms a lot. We would go on college radio stations and, if it was the fall, tell people that if they had mushrooms, bring them to the show. We did them a lot. But ’shrooms never worked out for me. I had a beautiful experience the second time with our lighting guy walking around Cleveland. But when you’re on tour, hanging out in bars and nightclubs tripping, it’s not fun. People’s faces melting—it was just a paranoid bummer. So, eventually I stopped altogether.
What about LSD?
BF: Couple times. Once I went to a midnight movie and took it, and one time I was in Vegas and went to see Redd Foxx on acid. But I think I never got over “If it doesn’t grow out of the ground, I don’t want to touch it.” Cocaine, ecstasy, heroin—I remember somebody giving me a hit of ecstasy like 25 years ago, and it didn’t do anything.
So, while we’re dealing with the Kim controversies, can we just talk about the Kim Shattuck situation?
BF: Yeah. There’s not much to say, but yeah, sure.
Was she not cutting it music-wise or personality-wise? Or was it the way she was carrying herself onstage?
BF: It’s tough being in a band with new people, especially when you’re coming in to replace someone who’s been there for 28 years. It was a lot of pressure. What can I say? It just wasn’t working out. We all tried to make it work. She tried to make it work. It wasn’t working out. We tried to make it work again and, in the end …
I want to give you an opportunity to respond to the one thing that she seems to put out there: At one of the L.A. shows, she got excited and jumped into the crowd. And you guys didn’t like it, and then the next thing she knows, she’s fired. Is it as simple as that?
BF: No, certainly not. That would have been in the first week of shows that we performed in Los Angeles, and she remained with us until three months later, or whatever, like that. So, it wasn’t about that. Is it true that we didn’t care for the demeanor she was projecting? Yeah, but it was an honest mistake—well, not a mistake. She wouldn’t have known there was some kind of rule. We wouldn’t have known there was some kind of rule about certain body language or stage demeanor. But when you’ve been in a band for a long time, you don’t realize there are unwritten rules until some newbie comes in and starts breaking the rules. And you’re like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa—we don’t do it like that! We do it like this.”
So, in a way, it was kind of cool that she sort of barged in, so to speak, and started doing things that are natural to her. And then we suddenly realized that’s not who we are. There was a certain identity awareness that had occurred within our own band. So, we told her, “No, don’t do it like that—do it like this.” And she did. She changed it up. You know, she was just a different kind of personality.
So, it was personal, not musical. Or was it musical as well?
BF: I would say it was probably both. I think personality-wise, she’s very West Coast, she’s very extrovert. We’re very East Coast, very introvert. That’s my thinking on it. Now, in terms of her playing, my call was that … the first few times I met her, I really liked her, and I thought, “Well, she’s not a bass player. But neither was Kim Deal.” So, maybe that’s the magic right there: someone who’s not a trained bass player. So, that was kind of perfect: that she was rough and ready, like us. She’s kind of cut from the same cloth. She’s the same age as us, she’s sort of the same kind of player as us, and she’s not a bass player, just like Kim Deal. “Dude, I’ll play the bass for ya!” Perfect.
So, it worked with my narrative. It worked with my little story. The problem with that is that we were a seasoned band playing a certain way, doing things a certain way, playing things a certain way. David has the most physically demanding job in the band—he’s the drummer. So, he’s had to keep himself in shape and practice his paradiddles, or whatever he does to keep himself in shape. And I think at this stage in the game, he was like, “Look, I don’t want to play with some lead singer/guitarist who’s picked up a bass. It’s not happening for me. I need to have someone who’s in the pocket. I need a real bass player. I worked really hard, I finally got to where I am—now you’re giving me some chick who doesn’t even play the bass.” So, I think it was frustrating for him.
Maybe I didn’t notice at first. I was like, “Oh, that’s great, and she’s hitting the notes! She’s singing the harmonies.” Life is beautiful, right? “Isn’t she awesome?” And Dave was like, “No, that’s not fucking awesome.” It took me a long time to figure that out, but eventually, I was like, “OK, I get it. He wants someone that’s slamming down on those eighth notes with him, 100 percent, and that makes for a better audiovisual picture.” If the drummer is just on the bottom and everyone is above him, it’s a wobbly building, and it’s like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. You get the two-rhythm section, maybe even the rhythm guitarist down there on the bottom, and you start to have a really solid structure.
I’ve been listening to the new EPs (2013’s EP-1 and this January’s EP-2), and I think the material is really, really strong. These tracks could hold their own on Bossanova. And in some ways, I think the songwriting is a lot more fully realized and sophisticated than a lot of the old stuff. The chorus to “Indie Cindy”—it’s got that beautiful, soaring groove, and your vocals are about perfect. As someone with 28 years of Pixies fandom under my belt, I feel qualified to declare that as prime-cut, top-shelf Pixies. OK, so maybe there’s no “Where Is My Mind?” or “Wave Of Mutilation” in there, but I fail to see how the editors at Pitchfork can justify giving EP-1 a 1.0 out of 10 rating. That’s not a fair and balanced critique—that’s somebody with an agenda. And I think what’s going on here is they are sort of recasting you guys into this old narrative where you are the “bad guy” and Kim is the “good guy” and, “You chased her off again. We love Kim Deal and we want her to be in the Pixies, and we want her to be on these new songs, so now we’re mad at you and we have to punish you for being that bad guy again. Here’s a 1.0 review—fuck you.”
BF: Yeah, it’s like a whole Lester Bangs kind of thing. It’s like, “Fuck you! You used to be the fucking king, but now you’re a fucking piece of shit.” It’s that kind of thing. I get it. It’s cool. I’d rather play in a band than have to do that shit, but I get it. It’s kind of like, if you’re not going to do something, you’re just going to critique and talk about stuff. I get it if you want to be like the guy from Pitchfork. The Pixies have a comeback record? All right, one out of 10.
BF: Yeah, you know, it’s cool.
That’s not cool. That’s not judging the work on its merits or lack thereof. That’s a temper tantrum.
BF: Yeah, but it’s always been like that. Even back in the day with the NME.
As I recall, they were always tripping over themselves to kiss your asses.
BF: Until they made the editorial decision that, “Now we will remove their crown.”
Well, that’s the way British music papers work: One week you’re the savior of rock ‘n’ roll, and the next week they’re crucifying you.
BF: Yeah, I’ve been through that. So, I learned to accept it. I’m not really offended by that. Especially when I don’t make an effort to read this stuff. It’s more of a bummer for the tour manager to come to you and say, “Yeah, it’s a little soft today out there, a little quiet. We only about half sold the room.” You know, “Hey, the promoters moved the show to a smaller venue.” When you start to hear that kind of stuff, that hurts more than a review, you know what I mean?
Assuming you’re speaking from experience, when you were deciding you were going to break up the Pixies, had you thought it through? Did you tell yourself, “I’m not going to be able to operate at the same level I’m currently operating at. I’m going to have to start over again—back to playing bars”?
BF: Probably not. I must have been way too cocky to have that kind of thought process. Yeah, I probably thought it was all going to just continue and I was going to become great or something. I had a good time doing what I did, you know what I mean? I got to earn my dues so I could play my blues. But yeah, I didn’t have any kind of vision. I just continued. I learned pretty quickly. I became humble pretty fast.
Was there a point afterward that you thought, “Why did I do that?” Did you regret splitting up the band at any point?
BF: No, I held on to that story for a really long time. But I was able to let go of that story because I was breaking up with my wife, and that probably had something to do with that. That big part of my life was ending and I was more open to change. I was going to a therapist, and I was becoming older, and I had to confront all these new things I never had to confront before. I had to learn how to talk to women again. I had to go through all this shit. Then you become a lot more open to stuff. “Hey, the Pixies are getting back together again!” I didn’t say that. But then I thought, “Well, you guys want to get back together?!”
“Where Is My Mind?” is pretty much the unofficial theme song of Fight Club, and that movie is easily one of the coolest, most radical and most beloved movies of the past 15 or 20 years. Are you happy with the way the song was used in the film?
BF: Yeah, I like it fine. I thought the placement of it was very rewarding and dramatic. What’s not to like? The song has turned into its own small business. I get a lot of requests to license the song, and I say yes to almost everybody.
What have you said no to?
BF: There was a pornographic film that was being made that was pretending to be something other than a pornographic film, and it was very plain to us that it was just a pornographic film that for some reason wanted to license the music. And I think I said no to that. When we started making music, there was a huge aversion to all that. And I admire people like Tom Waits who basically say no to everything and say, “No, fuck you. Nobody’s going to put my music in their stupid shit, and I’m sticking to my guns.” And I admire that. At the same time, I also admire someone like Iggy Pop who’s like, “I don’t give a fuckin’ shit what you do with my song. That’s not why I made it, that’s not why I recorded it, that’s not why I made the record, but if someone wants to give me money to sell sausages, I don’t give a shit.” And I understand that, too, and I’m stuck between the two.
Kurt Cobain famously said he was just trying to rip off the Pixies when he wrote “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Did you ever meet him or have a conversation with him?
BF: Nope, never.
The Pixies have been covering “In Heaven” from Eraserhead for almost 30 years. Have you ever met David Lynch?
BF: Nope. That was a mistake on the part of our old manager. We had heard from Lynch’s people; I can’t remember what movie it was [reportedly Lost Highway - ed.], but they were playing this song from Bossanova, I think “Cecilia Ann,” on set as some temp music for the mood of the scene, and they wanted to use it in the movie. They weren’t necessarily trying to, like, get away with anything, but at the same time their position was like, “Look, little tiny artsy band, we’re the big fuckin’ … we’re in Hollywood here making a movie.” Even though it was David Lynch, “We want to use this for the movie, but were not going to pay for it.” Obviously they loved the song—they were using it already.
Our manager took the position like, “Screw you guys—you don’t want to pay us?” I get that. It’s like an old-school New England, like, “Fuck you, you ain’t giving me zero. No, give us a least a token, something! Don’t just do that.” So, he was like, “Take a hike. We don’t give a shit,” and I get that. But now when I think about the origins of the band and our direct connections with David Lynch in terms of us singing a song from the Eraserhead movie—and I remember all of us going to see Blue Velvet together as a band after band practice, all four of us sitting there in a movie theater together—David Lynch was a revered figure in my world, and the manager should have just let that one slide. It is a David Lynch movie, after all, and that’s forever.