While many of today’s rock bands cite Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and Radiohead as their inspiration, who inspired the most successful ‘90s bands? As the Pixies prepare to celebrate the 30th anniversary of “Bossanova,” we look back on the band, and their influence on the musical landscape that was the early ‘90s.
With a career spanning 30+ years, much has been written about the band, but some plot lines are in every story: line-up changes, reunion, and rabid fan base. Fortunately, the Pixies are so much more than band drama with a cult-like following. With a blend often labeled as punk rock with surf rock, they are credited with the “loud quiet” alternative-rock style that spawned grunge. Kurt Cobain admitted he attempted to “rip off the Pixies” for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” by using the Pixies’ “sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”
As group co-founder Black Francis explains, “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.”
Songwriter Francis (born Charles Thompson IV) and guitarist Joey Santiago met in 1986 while attending the University of Massachusetts. After deciding to start a band, they placed an ad for a bassist which garnered one applicant: Kim Deal. Despite never playing bass before, she was invited to join, obtained a bass, and the band practice began. The trio hired David Lovering to handle drum duty and randomly chose the word “pixie” from the dictionary as their name.
Gigs in the Boston area got the attention of Gary Smith of Fort Apache Studios. The band used $1,000 from Francis’ father to create a 17-track demo (known to fans as the Purple Tape). The demo made its way to independent record label 4AD via local promoter and band manager, Ken Goes. With a deal signed and Smith as producer, eight tracks from the demo were chosen for the 1987 mini-LP, “Come on Pilgrim.” If the new style of music was not interesting enough, lyrics about poverty in Puerto Rico, incest, religion, and sexual frustration could fit the bill.
The following year, Steve Albini produced their debut album, “Surfer Rosa.” The album established them as a success in Europe by earning “Album of the Year” awards from Melody Maker and Sounds.
With “Gigantic” being the only single released, the response in the US was muted, but critics were impressed and the disc would go on to be certified Gold in 2005.
As time went on, another track from Surfer Rosa emerged to be a gigantic hit. “Where Is My Mind?” Is considered one of the crowning achievements of the era.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. This song has been covered and the rifts and music style have been repeated by a virtual army of bands.
An American distribution deal was formed with Elektra Records and the band recorded their second full-length album, “Doolittle.” Not as musically raw as the previous releases, “Doolittle” had a $40,000 budget compared to “Surfer Rosa’s” $10,000 tab.
“We were solidifying a style and we knew we had a niche,” says Santiago. Talking about “Doolittle,” “that’s when I thought we’re going to be a stepping stone to other bands, that we are going to influence other bands. With ‘Doolittle’ we refined it, polished it up a little bit with pre-production. We didn’t do that as much with ‘Surfer Rosa ‘and ‘Come on Pilgrim’.”
Produced by Gil Norton, “Doolittle” featured the track that is ingrained in Generation X’s brain, “Here Comes Your Man.” (Seriously, we can name that song in two notes!) “Monkey Gone to Heaven” gained traction on US alternative rock stations and reached number 10 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart.
“Debaser,” “Gouge Away,” and “Wave of Mutilation,” were critic-approved tracks. Released in April 1989, “Doolittle” continues to rank on “greatest album” lists and was certified Platinum for selling more than one million copies.
Unfortunately, an all too familiar band situation emerged. Tensions had been growing between Francis and Deal – a thrown guitar here, a refusal to play there. Called “headstrong” by Santiago, Deal wanted to include her songs on the band’s albums, a task that firmly belonged to Francis. While Deal did accept the situation, she and Francis had stopped talking. At the end of what was dubbed the “Fuck or Fight” tour, the band took their 1989 hiatus.
Pixies band members – minus Deal – moved to Los Angeles to work on the next album with Gil Norton producing. The band was able to practice the songs as Francis wrote them, and the album explored outer space, aliens, and UFOs. Released in August 1990 to positive reviews, “Bossanova” spawned memorable singles “Velouria,” “Is She Weird,” and “Dig for Fire.” While finding success in the UK, the band struggled a bit in the US. MTV was still playing music videos in the early ‘90s, but with the band’s aversion to videos, they were never a major player on the channel.
Touring pressed on, and the band reunited with Gil Norton for 1991 release of “Trompe le Monde” – the band’s last album before their break up. “Letter to Memphis” and the cover of Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Head On” each landed at number six on the Billboard Modern Rock chart. “U-Mass” and “Planet of Sound” also got the attention of fans.
The band supported the release by touring with U2 on the massive 1992 US Zoo TV tour. Unfortunately, but touring brought the tensions back and by the end of 1992, band members went their separate ways to work on different projects.
During a January 1993 interview on BBC Radio 5, Francis announced that the Pixies were over. The much-reported story says he called Santiago, but faxed Deal and Lovering the news. The band was officially broken up.
Black Francis renamed himself Frank Black and released solo material. Santiago joined him on several albums, but also wrote theme music for TV and film. Lovering drummed for Cracker and learned a new trade as a magician. Deal rejoined her sister Kelley to make music as The Breeders and had a huge hit with “Cannonball.”
Although the complete band was not working together, 4AD and Elektra Records offered up compilations and demo tape material. The band’s popularity grew and fans hungered for a reunion, not letting go even after a decade had passed. Despite saying a reunion would not happen, Black began playing more Pixies songs at his concerts. With Santiago playing guitar at shows and Lovering performing magic as an opener, discussions led to phone calls and practices, and in 2004, fans got the reunion they had been begging for. Unsurprisingly, the reunion tour dates sold out in minutes.
The Pixies reunion tour began in April 2004 in Minneapolis, MN, and wound across the US and Canada, including a stop at the flourishing Coachella Festival. The band continued through Japan, Europe, and Brazil, and the reunion tour grossed more than $14 million in ticket sales. They released a new song, “Bam Thwok,” written and sung by Deal. 4AD offered up a “best of” disc and compilation DVD, and the band hit Lollapalooza and other festivals, touring into 2007.
October 2009 was the 20th anniversary of “Doolittle,” and the Pixies toured worldwide in support of it, performing the album track for track. The fans loved it, but Black was getting restless. “I found myself spacing out. I wouldn’t know if we were in the first or second chorus, I’d have no idea. It didn’t happen every night, but it happened from time to time and to me that was a real turning point personally where I was like, ‘OK, enough of this shit! Let’s make some new songs!’’
We arrive at the most discussed and analyzed time in the band’s history. In June of 2013, the band announced that Deal had left the band. Black later said, “Kim and I just didn’t get along well after a time. She always had her own ambitions and became comfortable in a leadership role in her other band. It must have been hard for her to be in a band where some other guy was always pulling at the reins. We would have survived if we could have just stopped the train and taken a fucking vacation. The people around us who were older should have seen that.”
The group followed that announcement up in July with the hiring of guitarist and vocalist Kim Shattuck, previously of Muffs and Pandoras. Shattuck joined the band on their European tour and the group released an EP of new tracks named “EP1.” But by the end of 2013, Shattuck had been dismissed and Paz Lenchantin from A Perfect Circle and The Entrance Band was on board.
ABOUT THE PIXIES
If you’re a good band then the filter of the band is pretty strong.
A new member doesn’t always work out (obviously as shown with Shattuck), but when asked how things had changed with Lenchantin’s arrival, Loverin said, “‘I don’t even know the difference. It’s just been great and like nothing has changed.” He credits Lenchantin with forcing him to step up his game. “The wonderful thing about Paz is she’s a wonderful player and has made me play better as I don’t want to be embarrassed around her (…) It’s great that we have a rhythm section that is kickass.”
Now back in the game as a four piece, the band released additional EPs of new material called “EP2” and “EP3.” The three EPs were only available as digital downloads or limited edition vinyl, eventually leading to “Indie Cindy” – the 2014 LP collection of all three.
A new album from a long-time adored band is always tricky, especially if you throw in long hiatus and major line-up change. Do you change your sound or do more of the same from your past? Where is the fine line? Did Deal’s absence affect the sound? Santiago expected there to be debate. “It’s what I expected. I knew there was going to be polarity. Some people praise it. Some people just go, ‘Oh. Why?’ It’s what I expected, definitely.”
As fans chewed on “Indie Cindy,” the Pixies toured with Robert Plant and worked on their sixth album, “Head Carrier.” Produced by Tom Dalgety, the album was the first all Lenchantin bass. “All I Think About Now,” sung by Lenchantin, is a “thank you” to Deal created with Black. “When you look back fondly in a poignant kind of way, you have a lot of ups and downs mixed together,” said Black. “I guess that’s what it’s about. It’s about regret. It’s about good memories. It’s about bad memories. It’s about if … if …”
The band’s seventh studio album, “Beneath the Eyrie,” was announced in January 2019. They shared its creation and progress with a 12-episode podcast, releasing the singles “On Graveyard Hill” and “Catfish Kate.” With Dalgety handling producer duties again, the album has been called “back to basics” to “please their already die-hard fan base.” The band intended to spend 2020 touring to promote it, including a stop at the massive Riot Fest in Chicago.
The dumpster fire that is 2020 happened.
The Pixies have postponed their 2020 summer dates to 2021 and Riot Fest has been rescheduled for September of next year. The Pixies will join The Smashing Pumpkins, My Chemical Romance, Coheed and Cambria, Taking Back Sunday, Sublime with Rome, Dirty Heads, The All-American Rejects, New Found Glory, Simple Plan, Circle Jerks, Fishbone, The Sounds, and many more. If you snag tickets before July 16, 2020, you get into the exclusive Thursday Preview Party. This amazing party will feature secret sets, carnival rides, and you get to buy merch before it goes on sale to the “regular” peeps. You cannot buy a ticket for this amazing event later – it’s now or never!
The pandemic may have put a halt to their concerts, but the band is still celebrating the 30th anniversary of “Bossanova” with a limited edition red vinyl release on August 7, 2020. Place your preorder now because you know this will sell out.
So what about that musical legacy? The Cobain comment has been published repeatedly, and the Pixies influence on Nirvana has not been secret. While no one can argue David Bowie was a ruler of ‘80s music, Bowie felt the Pixies made “just about the most compelling music of the entire ‘80s.” Thom Yorke said the Pixies “changed my life” and was an influence on Radiohead’s early days.
U2’s Bono also called the Pixies, “one of America’s greatest bands ever.” The Pixies’ style can also be heard in Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, The Strokes, Modest Mouse. Perhaps they did not intend to create grunge, and usher in the biggest musical revolution of our generation, but they will just have to accept the fact that they are legendary.