We Like Accidents: Talking with The Pixies’ David Lovering & Joey Santiago

Pixies 2013-2014

The summer before my freshman year of high school, I got into a car with my girlfriend, and she turned up The Pixies’ album Doolittle. It blew my world wide open and changed the way I thought about music forever. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Pixies—both for fans as well as for musicians. The legendary band is currently out on tour once again, selling out shows and destroying audiences across the nation. Austin has the privilege of hosting the tour’s final show on March 1st at Austin Music Hall. I had a chance to speak via phone with drummer David Lovering and guitarist Joey Santiago about the history and future of the Pixies and how they go about creating sounds that have affected music fans across generations.

The Pixies possess a more clear past and future than most bands making music today—a fact that can be observed just by looking around the crowd at their shows. David Lovering tells me that the venues they’ve played on tour have been a split mix of seated theaters and open floor, and in those venues, attendees range from “kids who weren’t even born” when the band’s first albums were released to “people [his] age,” which is 52, in case you’re wondering. The band embodies the undeniable maxim that everything is the same yet everything is different.

When I ask about the dynamic of the band, about writing and recording, both Lovering and Santiago insist everything is the same. Lovering says, “There’s really no difference from when we were younger to now. We’re all the same people. We have the same dynamics when we play.” Although he does admit that touring has changed a little, joking, “They didn’t have jumbotrons back in the day.” Likewise, when I ask Santiago about his approach to writing and recording, he says simply, “It hasn’t really changed.”

While these core dynamics may remain from the band members perspectives, a moment later, both Santiago and Lovering are citing clear ways in which the band has shifted. I ask Lovering if he ever mentally compares the new material to their older records. He says, “It’s all different. That’s what we’re doing now. All the Pixies albums were different. Comparing Surfer Rosa to Trompe Le Monde or  Bossanova to the EP2—it’s just all very different. That’s how things are with the Pixies. It’s just another kind of Pixies song.” I think what he’s trying to capture is the conflicted appeal the Pixies have always had—loud, quiet, whispered, screaming, wry, enraged, explosive. The fact that things may be different now means they’re really just the same as ever.

Guitarist Joey Santiago talks about his work on Pixies songs like this: “Pick a word and go with it. We like accidents.” I ask Santiago, who has worked scoring films during the Pixies’ hiatus, what’s similar about these two types of work. “Providing an atmosphere,” he says. Santiago’s eerie, wavering guitar style is part of what defined The Pixies’ sound in the late 80s and early 90s. For other comparisons, Santiago reaches way back into his childhood, saying, “Classical composers, which are totally heavily influenced by nature. Like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The teacher played it for us, and told us to draw, and my drawings kind of reflected the four seasons. I thought it was incredible.” Later in my conversation, I ask about a quote where Santiago talked about centering on the word “weird” in a song, making the music match the concept.  He says, “At times, Charles will have the lyrics completely done, so that’s why I would pick up a word here and there. The chord structure almost dictates what’s on top of it. Charles was like, ‘Make it sound like a snail. Can you make a snaily thing? Sometimes he’ll say, ‘Joey, you’re gonna have to be the snail.” I point out that this impressionistic approach to music writing isn’t all that different from drawing pictures of Vivaldi. “Yeah!” Santiago agrees, “Yes, exactly.”

Regarding his guitar playing on the new EPs, Santiago confesses, “With these two EPs, I tried to venture out. I have a certain sound, and I tried to not use it as much as possible, but now I kind of miss it. Maybe the next one, we’re gonna hit ‘em over the head with the sonics. I got a feeling… because we’re starving for it. I wanna do it. I wanna go there again.” I press him to find out exactly where there is. He  says, “There’s a lot of theres.” He hesitates, and then breaks it down to the most simple level: “I’m gonna use my hands. This is how I’m gonna get the sound: hands, guitar, guitar cord plugged into the amp. That’s it. It’s gonna be as simple as that.” I admire the aesthetic purity, but I have the feeling he’s avoiding committing to a statement about the band’s direction. Then, he adds, “That’s gonna be like Surfa Rosa but not. I’m not gonna revisit it. I’m just going to visit the physics of it. We’re gonna use the word raw—stripped. That’s the word that gets thrown around when Charles and I talk about things.”

It’s exciting that the Pixies may be returning to a philosophy of simplicity, of rawness, but that tumultuous past may house some ghosts. Lovering doesn’t hesitate to admit, “We were a dysfunctional band early on. When Charles decided to call it quits, it wasn’t really surprising. I was resigned to the fact that the Pixies would never get back together.” I ask Lovering if the discord might have been the fuel that powered the Pixies early in their career. “I can’t speak for Charles,” he says, “but I think everything environmental would reflect out in your writing.”

Now, the band seems less at odds, and Lovering tells me he thinks, “You get older and wiser. You’re so old that you’re going to do whatever it is to make it comfortable for you,” he laughs, and finishes, “Just let it slide—let it roll.” Lovering’s attitude comes from a genuine thankfulness to be once again performing music he loves. “I was given a second chance,” he says. “When it was taken away, I gave up drums completely. I hadn’t played them for 14 years. When I got them back, I was like ‘wow, this was something I had given up.’” The sentiment strikes me as surprisingly relatable—like a friend or a lover or a coworker with whom you think the relationship is forever broken. Then, miraculously, it’s okay again.

Yes, they are still the Pixies, but they aren’t the same band—even in a purely literal, physical sense—they are without bassist Kim Deal. On what the band misses without her, Lovering immediately remarks, “The style of her vocal.” Then, he adds, “And her presence on stage. I’m missing her as a person.” The moment is abrupt and suddenly almost poignant. Perhaps nothing artistic or musical compares to the physical space now unoccupied by Deal. “She was always right there, to my left,” Lovering finishes. The statement hangs for a moment, suspended in phone silence, as I’m unsure what to say.

“I mean, I really never worked with a lot of other bass players anyway. I knew Kim,” Lovering starts again. He played drums in high school, but had fallen out of the habit even before he was recruited for the Pixies in the mid 80s. After playing exclusively with Kim Deal as a rhythm section partner for his entire career, he’s now readjusting. “Paz is much more of a pro player. Paz is a powerful machine,” he says of the band’s new bassist Paz Lenchantin.

These new Pixies seem like they’re still in process of redefining themselves. And that’s okay. If it was the dysfunction that fueled the band’s power in the early years, they have to figure out a way to regain their edge without pushing each other over it. These first two EPs don’t match up to the band’s great oeuvre, but there are flashes of the band’s classic sound within the mix. It’s our job as fans, even as critics, to encourage and expect an eventual triumph, rather than to categorically dismiss the efforts of a band that has proven their significance. John Updike wrote The Widows of Eastwick, Philip Roth wrote The Breast, and Hemingway, Across the River and Into the Trees. Attempting to add to a great legacy is always a delicate task, but one that inherently deserves applause and patience. We must avoid the kind of cynicism that led Jayson Greene to write in his review: “The sad spoils of a job in music criticism: I am finally given the chance to review a new release by the Pixies, and it’s this. There is a bitter personal irony in the moment…” This narcissism—taking the first output from The Pixies in 20 years and making it about yourself—is staggering.

This is a new era for the band. They have a new bassist, and each of the original members bring something from their time working independently of the band—Santiago his scoring, Thompson a solid solo career, and Lovering, a career in magic. On the latter, Lovering compares the two like this: “With the Pixies, I could be playing in front of 75,000 people, and it doesn’t bother me in the least. I’m playing with three other people; I’m behind the drum set. When I did my first magic show, it was in front of maybe four people in someone’s home theater, a parlor—I never sweat so much in my life. Magic builds confidence. Music, you got other people up there with you. But magic, when you do a one on one, it builds up confidence in you. The difference is only two letters between magician and musician. When you see a good band, it’ll inspire wonder and awe, and when you see good magic, it’ll inspire wonder and awe. Magic offers one thing music doesn’t. It offers the ability that the impossible is possible.”

I have to disagree with him on this last point. Music offers the ability to transport listeners to completely different worlds, offers entirely new ways of thinking, offers the ability that the impossible is possible. The music of The Pixies does that for me. It’s something completely improbable in the realm of what’s possible in musical achievement, something purely magical.

About author
Bryan Parker is a writer and photographer living and working in Austin, TX. He is the founder of blog Pop Press International and print journal True Sincerity and recently released his first book, a volume on Beat Happening in the 33 1/3 series.

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