Reporting Brian Ives
If you went to college in the late ’80s/early ’90s and you were listening to what was referred to as “alternative” music of the era, then you probably love the Pixies. To find yourself sitting in a room with three of the Pixies — Black Francis, Joey Santiago and David Lovering — years later, it’s akin to sitting with Shatner and Nimoy, chatting about Star Trek. It’s a “wow” moment. There are lots to think about. How do you address Black Francis? Does he even call himself that anymore? “Mr. Francis” sounds weird. He records solo albums as “Frank Black.” So maybe “Frank?” Or “Mr. Black?” No, too Reservoir Dogs.
Then there’s the five-ton gorilla in the room: How to approach the issue that beloved bass player Kim Deal recently left the band, marking their first lineup change, ever. The men of the Pixies don’t seem enthused about the interview from the get go; they just played a gig the night before and seem a bit bleary eyed. Maybe, give them a break and don’t ask.
You have to ask.
Happily, there were things other than lineup changes to talk about. The band recently released a new single and video for “Bagboy,” as well as a new EP (the first of a series) called EP1. And it was produced by Gil Norton, the man who helmed Dolittle, Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde. The new music holds up to Trompe le Monde, if not their earlier classics, although at least one influential critic disliked it and took it rather personally. But with over 10 Frank Black albums since the Pixies split in the early ’90s, was it easy to write Pixies music? “I don’t ever think about it that way, but when we put together this recent selection, Gil asked me to think about it that way so I did. And so, I like to think I put on my ‘Pixies cap.’”
In the years while the Pixies were in “retirement,” one of their big influences – David Bowie – covered them. “Cactus” the highlight of his 2002 album Heathen. The band still seemed blown away by that particular honor, and Black said, “Well, after I came to and reoriented myself, I felt thrilled. I like his version!” Despite the news that Bowie has no plans to tour for his excellent The Next Day album, Black has invited the man to go on tour. “We should do a tour with David Bowie. We can be his band. That’d be cool. We can be his backing band. We go out and do our set, he comes out to do his set with us and, you know. That’d be cool.”
Bowie’s influence is heard on “Andro Queen,” on EP1, but Black has said that the song is inspired in part by the Platters’ great doo-wop hit “The Great Pretender.” It turns out that the song was also influenced by a Shatner-esque reading of Bruce Springsteen’s “The River.” Seriously.
“For a while I was reading song lyrics to my children instead of stories at night, in kind of a William Shatner way like that… they wanted to listen to ‘The River’ by Bruce Springsteen, because my daughter was really into this song. Then we started to read ‘The River,’ (in a Shatner-esque voice), ‘Then we go down to river and into the river we die.’ And ‘The Great Pretender’ was a big song that we were listening to a lot, so they’d go ‘Daddy sing/read ‘The Great Pretender.” ‘Oh yes, I am the Great Pretender.’ And as I did this, the kids, of course they don’t want it once, they want the same thing 25 times so after a while I was like the meter is really regular, really well-written, really organized, really neat. And I always loved the song, but I was even more impressed by the song that there was this formality to the language. So I decided to steal that feel and use that as a skeletal structure to insert my own words, and then, when I finished then I just added some chords to it. It doesn’t sound anything like ‘The Great Pretender’ obviously, but I got a lot of help from that song.”
“Andro Queen,” like the rest of the new songs, were recorded since Kim Deal left the band. Was it strange to record with a different bass player?
“So, um, I think when it actually happened it wasn’t strange. I think it was strange contemplating ‘What it’s going to be like now?’ But I think once we continued it was like ‘Oh, okay. So we’re musicians. We’re making a record. Everything’s alright.’”
But their June 14 Facebook post, announcing her departure read, “We are sad to say that Kim Deal has decided to leave the Pixies. We are very proud to have worked with her on and off over the last 25 years. Despite her decision to move on, we will always consider her a member of the Pixies, and her place will always be here for her. We wish her all the best.” So is there any sense that she’ll come back?
It’s an uncomfortable moment, but Santiago says simply, “We didn’t know she was going to leave so we don’t know if she’s going to come back.” For now, Kim Shattuck (of the Muffs and the Pandoras) will be filling in on bass and backing vocals.
With well over a quarter-century since their 1987 debut EP Come On Pilgrim, the band is eligible for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. What’s their take on the institution? Santiago says, “I’d love to be in it, personally. But there are so many other people that deserve to be in it that haven’t. I think it’s incredible the amount of people from the past that aren’t in it. Like Donovan just made it in two years ago. What the hell is that? I think it’s silly.” Lovering is a bit more practical: “But there are some good restaurants in Cleveland that I’d like to visit. It’d be an honor I guess.”
And Black? “Um, I dunno. I don’t know what I think about. I’m not sure.” And with that, our time is up.