For more than ten years, since the Pixies ended their run with a meltdown that left pretty much everyone pissed off, the chances of this group ever getting back together were basically nil. All four members scattered: Frank Black embarked on a solo career that has produced ten albums, many of which were critical triumphs and all of them anticipated eagerly by long-time and new fans. Joey Santiago did session work and got into scoring television and film projects in L.A., and received critical kudos for the two albums he did with wife Linda Mallari as The Martinis. Kim Deal put together the Breeders who opened for Nirvana, headlined at Lollapalooza, and recorded a platinum album. After finding little satisfaction in studio work, Dave Lovering gave up music entirely and began a career as a professional magician.
But like star systems in an expanding universe, each of the Pixies would feel the pull, sooner or later, back toward the center, where once they had exploded and showered the musical vacuum with pointed, ironic, blackly humorous, and unforgettable songs. It took a few years – twelve, to be exact. But in late 2003, against all expectations, they did get there.
And once again, everything changed.
The Pixies’ 2004 tour was a total surprise and at the same time no surprise at all. Of course, it was a miracle that they were all up there onstage, pummeling through the songs that had inspired bands from Nirvana to Radiohead and guitar-thrashing teenagers in garages throughout the Western world. On the other hand, once they were there, how could they not sound glorious? If anything
they were stronger than ever, despite their tempestuous legacy.
The band's return was documented on digital film. Those who disbelieve, or who consider a Pixies resurrection too good to have actually happened, are proven wrong with Pixies Sell Out, a DVD extravaganza that captures the greatest shows from their 2004 reunion tour. Footage includes hair-raising performances from around the world: the Move Festival in England, Voodoo Festival in New Orleans, T in the Park in Scotland, Fuji Rock Festival in Japan, Coachella in California’s desert valley, Austin City Limits festival, and the heart of the DVD, the Eurockeennes Festival in France.
Typically, though, the Pixies comeback began with a burst of confusion and contradiction. Reactions within the band, for example, were hardly consistent when word spread that Frank Black wanted to put the act back together:
“I was elated,” enthuses drummer Dave Lovering.
“I dreaded it,” admits bassist Kim Deal. “I just hoped it would go away.”
Just as typically, given the patterns of communication that had helped drag the Pixies to their demise in the early nineties, it began with Frank Black and his habit of expressing wishes indirectly. Rumors persist that he had originally broken up the band by letting his colleagues know it was over via fax. (“He remembers it that way,” Kim insists, “but it never happened. It could never have happened because he isn’t a confrontational guy. He couldn’t fire anybody, so he just stopped talking to us.”)
This time out, he apparently let everybody know what was on his mind by talking to the media. In an interview with London’s XFM Radio in the summer of 2003, he mused about his dreams of getting the Pixies together again. He even sweetened the bait by revealing that they still hooked up now and then to jam, though “not for public consumption.”
“Well,” Black says, coming clean at last, “we never actually jammed or anything. I was sort of stealing a quote from George Harrison, who said, when asked about his band’s much anticipated reunion, ‘Hey, if we all got together and jammed in the living room, you guys in the press wouldn’t even know about it.’ So I was being completely sarcastic, and the next day it was in The New York Post. It was like the cat that was never actually in the bag was out of the bag anyway.”
That’s all it took for the rest of the band to catch on. “I actually heard about it from my dad,” Lovering laughs. “One day he says to me, ‘I hear the Pixies are getting back together.’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ See, I knew that would be impossible. I would never, ever have conceived of a reunion actually happening. So I discounted it until one day Joey called to say, ‘Guess what? Charles [Thompson, a.k.a. Frank Black] wants to get the band back together.’ And that just made my whole world much better.”
Black had asked guitarist Joey Santiago to convey his wishes to Lovering and Deal – just in time, it turned out, for him to disappear into a series of solo projects that made him unavailable when the rest of the band decided to see how it felt to play together again. With Black tied up on a European tour, the three met in November ’03 at the Breeders’ studio in Vernon, south of downtown L.A.
“Joe and I had agreed that if we sounded like shit, of course we wouldn’t do it,” Kim remembers. “So I packed my stuff into a Volvo station wagon in Ohio and checked into corporate housing near Joe’s house. He had burned ten of our songs onto a CD, which I picked up at his house – David already had all the Pixies stuff on iPod. We listened to those songs, and then we drove down to the Breeders’ space and got to work.
“It began quietly,” she continues, “like, ‘Okay, how does this one start?’ But toward the end of the day Joe and I were amazed at how, for better or worse, we sounded exactly the same as we used to. We even joked about whether this was good or bad, but we all agreed it was remarkable.”
In four days they worked up a list of forty songs, which they polished on and off through the winter, until Black was free to join them. “I was worried because he’d been doing solo stuff for a decade,” Kim says. “I thought that might give him a different sensibility of performance. When you’re in a rock band, it’s part, part, part, like with the Who, it always goes like this: ‘We won’t get fooled again
AAAGGHH!! Yeah!!’ But then you get this Mac Davis thing, where you decide that maybe you won’t go to the verse just yet, you’re going to ride the opening notes until you feel like singing the verse. If you have to cough, you can just cough. You can stop the song to take a drink of something and start the song back up.
“But Charles sounded great,” she smiles. “He sang like a beauty. It was gorgeous. I was so impressed.”
“On my first day back with the Pixies, we took a break to get some tacos,” Black recalls. “It reminded me of our early days of rehearsing in some industrial place, with little amps, a minuscule P.A., and a couple of mikes. I was feeling so up that I said, ‘Hey maybe we should do an unannounced gig in a few days, at some local club.’ The rest of the band looked at me like I had two heads because, to be honest, I’d forgotten a lot of the words to the songs. I was all over the place on that first day. But I knew there was a lot of muscle memory involved, and after I reviewed a little bit that night it all came right back by the next day. And by a couple of days after that we were sounding exactly the same as we had years before.”
With everyone onboard now, plans were laid for their reunion tour.
Opening in Minneapolis, the Pixies tour rolled first into Canada. From the start they drew packed houses and won rapturous reviews: At one of their early shows, in Saskatoon, Pop Matters described the performance as “ninety minutes of bedlam.” And even as part of an all-star bill at Coachella, The New York Times reported, “the day belonged to the Pixies.”
More important to the band was the feedback they were getting from their audiences, which was unlike anything they’d experienced. “In every city, people were so happy we were there,” Kim marvels. “People were crying. It didn’t really hit me until later in the summer, when Charles, Joe, and I went to a Stooges reunion in Berlin. And I realized, ‘Oh, my gosh, maybe people were reacting to us the way I was to the Stooges.’”
“When we started this tour,” Frank adds, “and all the crowds were singing along with us, we were like, ‘Wow, did you hear that tonight? That was amazing!’ But the whole time I’d been thinking, ‘Hey, man, we’ve been through this before. Don’t you remember that first wave of popularity in Europe? It was ridiculous. But you guys don’t remember – we were all too drunk!’”
But, as Frank concedes, there was something different in the response they got throughout 2004. “There were lots of younger people who’d never seen us before. Instead of thrusting their fists in the air and screaming along with the lyrics, the way it was the first time, there was a kind of deference. There was a lot more people standing there, really quietly, and going, ‘Oh, so this is what it’s like to hear the Pixies!’ It was more of a religious than a military zeal.”
Each gig stood out. Most were extraordinarily positive: great performance from the band, enormous warmth from crowds that ranged from early teens to late forties. Some were a little strange, like their appearance at a metal festival in Vienna. “These were young metal fans who had no idea who we are,” Frank laughs. “We were used to that ‘oh, my God, they’re back!’ reaction, so there was a little tension there. But when we were onstage we approached it like being some little band from Boston again, trying to make our way into the world. That was kind of nice, actually – a bonding thing, like ‘We do what we do, and if they don’t like it, screw ‘em.’”
And a few would prove unforgettable. They made their first-ever appearances in Iceland and in Japan; their set in the lush, green setting of the Fuji Rock festival is one of the highlights of Pixies Sell Out. But for all four members of the band, the highlight of their reunion was in the dry desert heat at Coachella.
indescribable,” Kim says. “We had worked our way west toward Vancouver, playing regular-sized shows. But when we walked out onstage at Coachella, the sun had just begun to curve down, so it was getting cooler but it wasn’t dark yet. We could see all these people and they were so happy. It wasn’t like, ‘Geez, they’re clapping loud.’ It was more this sense of excitement that the Pixies were there. I was so overwhelmed that I screwed up the beginning of our first song, ‘Bone Machine.’”
“I think we played Pomona the night before,” Dave continues. “A lot of the Coachella bands were there, so there was this feeling that it was a big event. Getting there, it was wonderful to hang with the bands backstage. It reminded me of one of the first times we’d played in London, at a place called the Mean Fiddler, after Surfer Rosa had come out. The audience just shocked me. It was the same at Coachella: I hadn’t ever seen that number of people with that amount of love. It was incredible.”
After Coachella, the Pixies routine that only got weirder – i.e., more comfortable, more fun – with each gig, and they found themselves getting along. “We buried the hatchet,” is how Santiago explains it, while Dave elaborates: “We’re all older and wiser, so we could deal with each other much better this time around. Other than that, there was no difference in what it was like to go on the road again. It felt exactly the same, from rehearsals to being onstage.”
They even passed time on the road playing games, including one ancient music geek diversion based on band names. “Okay,” Kim explains, maybe getting a little excited. “I’d start and say the name of a band, like ‘Asia.’ Then someone else would take the last letter of that word and name another band.” (“Alabama?” the interviewer suggests.) “Yeah, exactly. Then I’d say
well, I couldn’t say ‘Amboy Dukes,’ it would have to be ‘Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes,’ so
‘Abba’? We’re stuck in the A’s, aren’t we? We’d play that for four full hours and have a blast.”
All four agreed on the most important point of the tour: The Pixies were beating everyone’s expectations, including their own. ‘We’re definitely tighter,” Santiago observes. “And I was trying new things, using more effects in a very flavorful way. I’d never done that in the past.”
“I’ve had a lot of time to think about the drum parts I’d recorded with the Pixies, which I was never happy with,” Dave adds. “Neil Peart [of Rush] was my favorite then, so I would always go nuts and throw a lot of fills into our early stuff. Now I’ve pared it down and it’s like, ‘Aha! Now I understand how it goes!’ I’m thirteen years too late, but at least it’s coming together now.”
“We were always about trying to play like the record,” Frank says. “That was our thing. Now, our thing is to play as we used to. While there are subtle differences – like, we’re probably a little more muscular as musicians – we do in fact sound the same, which is ‘mission accomplished’ for us.”
In assessing the result of nearly twenty Pixie years, from their first gigs in Boston through catalog of history-changing CDs (Come On Pilgrim, Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, Bossanova, Trompe le Monde), their crash-and-burn breakup, and their improbable return, it’s Kim who wraps up the ongoing saga with perfect, eloquent brevity:
“We sound the same