The Pixies: Gouge Away

Some are worried they’re souring their legacy. They don’t give a shit.

On September 23, 1991, the Pixies released their fifth studio album, Trompe le Monde, a thrashing tour de force that combined hardcore punk and surfer cool as only the Pixies could.

Like every previous Pixies album, Trompe le Monde received critical acclaim but meager action in record stores. It would turn out to be the band’s final album before it disbanded in 1993—infamously via fax.

Yet in a strange twist, on that September day the Pixies’ legacy as one of the most influential bands in American rock history was cemented—thanks not to anything found on Monde but to another album released that day: Nevermind.

Kurt Cobain would later say that when writing Nevermind ’s opening track, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” he was “basically trying to rip off the Pixies.”

“I have to admit it,” Cobain said. “When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band.”

The Nirvana frontman wasn’t alone in his praise. In the decade after its breakup, the Pixies were crowned punk-rock royalty in absentia by scores of equally gushing celebrity endorsements. Thom Yorke told the crowds at Radiohead concerts that the Pixies were “his heroes.” David Bowie said the Pixies changed the way rock was played.

Amazingly, and to everyone’s delight, when the Pixies reunited in 2004, the band that took the stage was a perfectly preserved relic of the pre-Nevermind era. All four original members were present, performing material strictly drawn from the original catalog. It was a rare and precious do-over for those who missed them the first time around. And the reunion was wildly successful, earning the group top billing at Sasquatch! and Coachella, not to mention $14 million, according to the Chicago Tribune.

I caught two Pixies shows in the first two years the band was back together, and it felt vital. The Pixies weren’t repeating “Where is My Mind” by rote for the paycheck; they seemed as sincere in their love for the material as their adoring fans were. Yet in one important way, the band wasn’t vital: For nearly 10 years after reuniting, the Pixies did not release any new music, aside from one single that felt like a B-side with no A-side (“Bam Thwok”).

Since at least 2007, the debate between leader Black Francis and bass player Kim Deal over whether the Pixies should make new music has been aired in the open, with Deal saying she feared new releases would sully what’s already out there (and suggesting that Francis, nee Frank Black, nee Charles Thompson, only brought up the possibility to drum up press for his solo work).

But that all changed in one fell swoop last spring, when Deal left the group during the band’s first substantial studio sessions in more than 20 years. Suddenly, the Pixies was no longer a well-preserved artifact—it was a living and breathing and somewhat disintegrating band. And it was making new music, which finally started coming to light last fall with two four-song EPs, simply titled EP-1 and EP-2.

At its best, the new material feels like a natural progression of the creative arc of the band’s first five releases. The best songs, “Blue Eyed Hex” and “What Goes Boom,” are fingernails-on-chalkboard grinders reminiscent of “Planet of Sound” or “Subbacultcha.” “Andro Queen” recalls the Pixies’ underappreciated spaced-out moments. Throughout, the music is essentially Pixies, minus Deal’s cool and husky vocals.

But some critics have been unreceptive (putting it mildly) to the new EPs, and the music has produced an unwarranted amount of hand-wringing over what it all means in the Pixies’ big picture—echoing Deal’s fear that new releases could somehow damage the canon as a whole. The harshest of these critics, Pitchfork, rated EP-1 a 1.0 and EP-2 a 2.0, and glumly concluded the second review by stating that the Pixies had become “a franchise” and that the new releases “are an increasingly mournful asterisk affixed to a beloved legacy.”

To which guitarist Joey Santiago says: “We don’t give a shit.”

Santiago, speaking to Seattle Weekly by phone last week, perks up from his audible road exhaustion and seems primed to talk about the negative reviews. “You know, [the new music] is never going to sound like Surfer Rosa,” Santiago says, referring to an early, seminal album. “If [the fans] want it to do that, just put the fucking record on. It’s there. It’s not going to disappear. If you lost it, buy another one. Plain and simple.

“If you like Meet the Beatles and don’t like Sgt. Pepper’s, don’t listen to Sgt. Pepper’s.”

The other Pixies are cognizant of these reviews as well—what Francis called “resistance” from some of the fan base. But he and drummer Dave Loverling have said they needed to start creating again—if not for the fans’ sake, for their own.

“We wanted to compete on a real playing field again,” Francis told one interviewer. “You get hungry, you want to be judged.”

Or, as Loverling put it, “We didn’t want to turn into a casino act.”

Santiago balks at the suggestion that the Pixies would ever become a “casino act,” but he says the new music has changed the dynamics of the live shows—which are largely selling out—presenting fans with songs they haven’t known by heart since 1991. “It’s a different vibe. Some have heard it, some haven’t, and we try to sell it,” he says. “We try to go, yeah, this is good; to you nay-sayers, yeah, it is good.

“As we go on, people are starting to sing the new stuff. So I think it’s been successful. Obviously it injects new blood in there, and we feel good about it.”

There’s little doubt that Deal’s departure made some critics suspicious of this iteration of the Pixies. Since the first breakup, Black has been more often than not depicted as the big bald villain (he sent the break-up fax) and Deal the ever-cool punk-girl hero. When news first surfaced in 2007 that Francis wanted to make new music and Deal didn’t, the knee-jerk reaction was to side with Deal. As indie music site Tiny Mix Tapes put it: “Frank Black wants to put out a new Pixies album. Kim Deal doesn’t want a new Pixies album. I agree with Kim. Next story please.”

I asked Santiago whether he sees people—music journalists in particular—taking sides in this latest turmoil. “It’s a natural thing for someone to leave and the band to continue on. There’s still three-quarters of us, for crying out loud, who contributed heavily to that sound. Charles [Black Francis] still writes the songs. There’s the guitar, I still do it. There’s the drums, he still does it. Obviously we miss Kim, but what can we say?

“If there are people who think Kim Deal is better than Charles, I don’t give a shit. I just don’t. I just don’t give a rat’s ass. And I think that’s a healthy way to look at things, by the way.”

As for that song Cobain gave the world in ’91: Santiago has said before, with tongue in cheek, that the Pixies’ biggest contribution to music was “being original so Nirvana could rip a song.”

But speaking to a Seattle reporter, he was more diplomatic. “Whatever. I don’t think they did. If they did, then they did it in a very good way. It sounds like them.”

THE PIXIES With Best Coast. The Paramount, 911 Pine St., 902-5500, SOLD OUT. 7:30 p.m. Tues., Feb. 18.

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