The Pixies, Frank Black and the Breeders The Unheard Influence
Published Sep 01, 2002While the 1980s may never enjoy the same degree of popular retro-respect as its two ultra-marketable preceding decades have, it had its moments. Musically, many of the decade's best, most influential moments belonged to the Pixies. Over the course of the quartet's six years together, the Pixies ruled the international rock underground and advanced just far enough into mainstream territory to whet appetites for the alternative renaissance to come. Though Kurt Cobain claimed to have ripped them off, not many of Nirvana's American fans would have noticed, since the Pixies were famously under-appreciated at home. In the ten years since the band's demise, though, the Pixies' stock has continued to rise. With the launch earlier this summer of an eponymous collection of demos, the number of posthumous Pixies releases now equals the number of full-length CDs recorded during its too-brief career. That each of the previous after-the-fact compilations has enjoyed better sales than actual Pixies albums is proof that the Pixies like so many other great artists before them have become increasingly popular since their demise. "People like to think the Pixies were so enormously popular, and we did very well, but, you know, we were a cult band," says Frank Black. "Sure, there were a couple of cities we could pull a few thousand people, but the bulk of the tours, 90 percent of the time we were playing in theatres and clubs and whatever. Sure, we may have been popular, but it's not like the world revolved around us. We were just some little band playing a few shows."
A students' accommodation worker at the University of Massachusetts arbitrarily pairs up impressively named anthropology major Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV with Joey Santiago, a rich kid from the Philippines studying economics. The new roomies notice each other's guitars. Some jamming ensues.
Thompson moves to San Juan to study Spanish at the University of Puerto Rico. There, he begins to hone his songwriting skills, penning such apropos Spanish-inflected titles as "Vamos" and "Isle de Encanta."
Bored with the academic routine and tired of the squalor of his surroundings, Thompson weighs a couple of other options: relocate to New Zealand to witness the once-in-a-lifetime passing of Haley's comet, or move back to New England to start a band. "I was going to adopt a travelling lifestyle," he says of the comet-watching plan. "And I did, but on a different circuit." Santiago elects to drop out of school in order to climb aboard Thompson's bandwagon. After some inspired dictionary-combing, the pair elects to call their fledgling unit Pixies In Panoply. They run an ad in a local paper soliciting a bass player "into Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul and Mary" and able to sing high harmonies. The hilarious appendage of "Please no chops" further narrows the field, yielding just one response. Inexperienced yet motivated bass player Kim Deal has just moved to Boston from Dayton, Ohio to be with her fiancé, John Murphy. Deal suggests a drummer she recently met named David Lovering, a former member of little-known Beantown acts Riff Raff and Iz Wizard. With the exception of a conceptual duo Deal and her twin sister Kelly had long ago dubbed the Breeders, Lovering becomes the only member of the new group with any prior band experience. The band (now the Pixies) plays its first gig at a Cambridge, Massachusetts bar called Jack's Lounge. Vocalist/guitarist Thompson, who has recently adopted the stage name Black Francis, is very much in control as the Pixies' solitary songwriter, front-man and taskmaster. "There was no nurturing whatsoever," he recalls of the quartet's inauguration. "We just formed a band, played a gig and began recording shortly thereafter. We were very quick."
The band heads into producer Gary Smith's new Roxbury, Massachusetts studio, Fort Apache, where they record a 17-song demo that will become known among Pixies enthusiasts as The Purple Tape. Among the band's conservative, yet growing regional fan base are members of recent 4AD signees Throwing Muses, including the Newport, Rhode Island outfit's manager Ken Goes. Goes shuttles a copy of The Purple Tape to 4AD boss Ivo Watts-Russell, who signs the band and, that fall, releases eight songs from The Purple Tape as the U.K. mini-album Come On Pilgrim. Despite some ongoing claims to the contrary, The Purple Tape was not the first thing the Pixies had ever recorded. "Even before we made Come On Pilgrim we had gone into two or three other studios to make demos of some description," says Black. "Those tapes are truly lost."
Eager to capitalise on the resounding British buzz created by Pilgrim, the band heads back into a Boston recording studio, this time with Chicago engineer and Big Black guitarist/vocalist Steve Albini at the console. The results become Surfer Rosa an album many critics concur remains one of the loudest, most stunning and darkly beautiful records of all time. Deal, who is again listed in the liner notes as Mrs. John Murphy (though her marriage will expire by year's end), scores a writing credit for one song, "Gigantic," which will ultimately become Surfer Rosa's most successful single. Meanwhile, over numerous drinks at a Boston night club, Throwing Muses' Tanya Donelly agrees (in theory, at least) to start a band with Deal. Nearly two years will pass before the pair makes good on the agreement.
The Pixies' second full-length album, Doolittle, is also the band's first domestic release Elektra licenses it from 4AD for the U.S. market. The album further galvanises the Pixies' reputation as one of the most dynamic and original bands of the day. Producer Gil Norton introduces cellos and violins to the single "Monkey Gone To Heaven" with fresh, stunning results. Tracks like "Debaser" and "Tame" achieve new levels of screaming, unbridled raunchiness for the band, while the catchy, melodic strains of "Here Comes Your Man" (the original version of which appeared on The Purple Tape) is, contrarily, the most sugary thing the Pixies have yet released. The spectacular contradiction of styles sustains and strengthens critics' favour, and Doolittle cracks the U.K. Top 10. Despite plenty of college radio attention back home, though, the U.S. remains largely elusive. Deal's songwriting contributions remain marginalised; she is co-credited for just one Doolittle track, "Silver." Amidst rumours of low-key creative turmoil with the ranks, the band sets out on its most ambitious bout of sustained roadwork ever: a five-month trek throughout Europe and parts of the U.S. called the "Sex and Death Tour."
Partly due to Black's recent relocation, the band sets up shop in Los Angeles to record Bossanova. "I like L.A. and all that, but I don't want to refer to it as my special lady or anything," says Black, who had lived there as a kid. "I'll leave that to Frank Sinatra." By session's end, Santiago decides to make the city his home as well. Bossanova is released to mixed reviews, with some critics taking exception to the album's uncharacteristic sense of restraint. Still, the disc enters the U.K. charts at number three, and helps secure the Pixies a main-stage berth at Britain's muddy and prestigious Reading Festival. An American arena tour with the Cure doesn't do much to bolster the Pixies' fortunes back home.
Eager to write and record some of her own material, Deal calls up Donelly and reanimates the Breeders. Rounded out by Slint drummer Bitt Walford (listed in the liner notes as Shannon Doughton) and Perfect Disaster bass player Josephine Wiggs, the band hires Albini to record its debut CD, Pod. It easily outsells Bossanova by the end of the year. The Breeders' success and development was to be hindered, however, by the impending bankruptcy of its U.S. label Rough Trade.
Work commences on the Pixies' final album, Trompe Le Monde, in Burbank, and is completed an unprecedented six months later in London. Increasingly, Black is left to his own studio devices as the others limit their involvement to laying down their parts on an on-call basis. Much of the material on the disc is unrehearsed with parts of songs written on the fly. Former Magic Band member Eric Drew Feldman is brought in to contribute "keyboards and synthetics" to the project, initiating a creative relationship with Black that remains active more than a decade later. Upon the disc's release, the band spends another two months on the road in Europe (this time with Feldman on keys), followed by more touring at home. Originally, a young Seattle band called Nirvana (on the verge of releasing Nevermind) is lined up to open U.S. dates. However, Lovering convinces his band-mates to axe that plan, accurately predicting what would have been a grossly unbalanced bill by the tour's midway point. Legendary Cleveland proto-punk unit Pere Ubu is drafted for warm-up duties instead.
The year starts off with good news or so the increasingly road-weary band thinks. Irish rock stars U2 want the Pixies to open the entire American leg of their "Zoo TV" tour. "We had already been on tour for a while and suddenly there was this Oh, you got an offer to open up for U2!'" recalls Black, his voice rife with sarcastic enthusiasm. "Even we had a little bit of a reaction. We had played for big bands before, but this was kind of a longer tour and whatever. We should have known better opening up is opening up, it doesn't matter if it's at an arena or a stadium or a little night club." Having performed to largely indifferent crowds every night for two straight months, the band bids farewell to Bono and company after the tour's finale at the PNE Coliseum in Vancouver. The following two nights, the Pixies headline a pair of shows at that city's venerable Commodore Ballroom. The second night's performance (documented on the 80-minute bootleg video The Sad Punk) is to be the band's last ever. "I think I kind of knew that was it," says Black. "But, you know, it was the end of a tour, so it was an easy time to not really state one way or another that it was the last gig. It wasn't like, Okay everybody, sit down, I have an announcement to make.' But I kind of knew down deep that was probably it for me."
The Breeders release the Safari EP the final Breeders recording to feature Donelly, who opts to commit herself to her new band Belly instead. Deal's twin sister Kelley inexpertly takes Donelly's place on guitar.
Black dispatches a New Year's Day fax, via manager Ken Goes, to his band-mates informing them of his decision to disband. Although he doesn't cite any particular reason for his decision, frustration with what he perceives as meddling and pressure tactics on the part of Elektra apparently played a role. "To have our American record company getting all goofy and trying to manipulate it into something that it wasn't, having extremely high hopes for this project that they were selling, they were fooling themselves," says Black. "Yeah, we had a good little audience and all that and we were considered interesting and popular by the critics, but let's face it. Do you think we would have ever come close to selling the kind of records that, say, a band like Nirvana did a couple years later? I mean, no way. No way. Listen to the records. I just don't think so."
Black's eponymous solo debut is released. Produced by Feldman, the disc features Santiago on guitar along with a cast of veteran A-list session players like former Captain Beefheart guitarist Moris Tepper and one-time Donny and Marie Osmond drummer Nick Vincent. In addition to the new solo career, the former Black Francis has a new stage name, too: Frank Black. "It was a symbolic gesture and perhaps a normalisation of the moniker to make it not seem quite as obscure or abstract," Black explains. "It's more like, Frank Black? Who's that guy?' as opposed to Black Francis, what's that? Is it a guy, is it a band?' Black Francis doesn't sound like a normal name to a lot of people. Black is not a common first name. Francis would be a common surname, or a common first name, but the combination of Black, not just a name but a colour, is more confusing as a first name than as a surname. Even once they understand it's a name, it's still confusing. Which is not a bad thing, but whatever. I made it more confusing by trying to make it more normal, didn't I?"
The Breeders' Last Splash is released soon after and goes on to sell over two million copies worldwide. The single "Cannonball" becomes the ubiquitous hit the Pixies never had, bolstered by a popular video co-directed by Spike Jonze and Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon.
Asked about the inspiration behind Nirvana's uber-single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in the January issue of Rolling Stone, Kurt Cobain explains: "I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. We used their sense of dynamics being soft and quiet and then loud and hard." Black takes the comment as nothing more than a compliment. "He didn't rip off the Pixies," he says. "He may have tried to get a little Pixie or something in his presentation, but at the end of the day what he was saying was, I like the Pixies.' If he had successfully ripped me off, not only would he have been a carbon copy freak, but based on my sound, he wouldn't have sold as many records as he ultimately did." Black is loath to accept credit for establishing the loud/quiet songwriting technique. "I didn't invent that dynamic," he insists. "Maybe I utilised it more than people had recently at that time or something. It's a really basic principal. Did you ever hear that children's song Going On a Bearhunt'? That kind of now-we're-quiet, now-we're-loud thing? I mean, that's just a musical thing. Who invented that? I don't know."
Frank Black's epic sophomore CD Teenager of the Year is released. Brilliantly dynamic and exhaustive, the album's 22 tracks total over an hour and range from borderline hardcore punk to hooky, country-inflected pop to reggae. Unfortunately, the album serves to confound more critics than it impresses. Those who do manage to make their way through it more than once take note of the strength and consistency of the songwriting and performances (Santiago plays on five songs, co-producer Feldman on all 22). The sing-along single "Headache" enjoys limited radio airplay, but even most Pixies fans take a pass, including those at Black's long-serving label. The album is his last for 4AD.
Kim Deal and Breeders bass player Jim MacPherson team up with Dayton pals Nathan Farley (guitar) and Luis Lerma (bass) to form the Amps. Extensive touring ensues, during which time the band ducks into studios periodically to record songs. The Amps' only full-length CD, Pacer, is released in the fall.
Santiago's new band the Martinis have a song on the soundtrack to the movie Empire Records. The track is called "Free" and it features Lovering playing drums and Santiago's wife Linda Mallari on bass and vocals.
Now signed to Rick Rubin's American Recordings, Black issues his third solo album, The Cult of Ray. The disc is in stunning contrast to its predecessor both in its brevity and its comparatively sparse arrangements. The album is Black's first to warm up to the stripped-down, off-the-floor recording philosophy that he will apply to all of his future recordings. "That's where it started to get simplified we went down to 16 tracks," he says. "It wasn't live, but it was more live with simpler performances involving fewer instruments. That's where the idea of working within a simple parameter started to happen. Not necessarily a narrower parameter, just simpler."
Death to the Pixies, an appropriately-named 17-track best-of compilation, is issued by 4AD.
Black and his newly christened backing band (now consisting of guitarist Lyle Workman, drummer Scott Boutier and bass player David McCaffrey) issue the eponymous debut of Frank Black and the Catholics. The disc is licensed for release to a number of labels including SpinART and Sonic Unyon. The entire album is recorded live to two-track tape without any studio overdubs. The band employs the same method to record its next album, Pistolero, in the fall. The grave robbery continues as 4AD releases Pixies at the BBC. The compilation features 15 songs recorded between May 1988 and June 1991, most of them for British broadcasting legend John Peel's longstanding new music show.
On tour in support of the newly released Pistolero CD, Black pleasantly stuns fans at a London gig by slipping a pair of Pixies songs onto the Catholics' set list. "It was on a cold winter's night and I had a vision and a voice said the time has come for them to live again on the stage," he says, with mock reverence. "So I started playing a few Pixies songs. People seem to like them. I enjoy playing some of them."
The Deal twins begin work on what will eventually become the Title TK album. Kim introduces her so-called All Wave studio philosophy, which prohibits the use of any digital equipment in the recording, mixing and mastering process. She even goes so far as to fashion an All Wave logo to adorn future releases that fit the exclusively analog bill.
Dog in the Sand is the first Frank Black and the Catholics CD to be recorded using the band's new portable studio. "It's kind of an oddball collection of vintage recording equipment from the late 40s to the late 70s time period of technology, so it's very analog and tube-oriented with big knobs."
David Lovering unveils his new stage routine as a "Scientific Phenomenalist" with a string of dates at the Knitting Factory in L.A. The show, which he takes on the road opening for the likes of Grant Lee Buffalo and Frank Black and the Catholics, is literally electrifying as Lovering manipulates magnetic fields and electric currents while dressed up as a mad scientist. The Martinis' self-titled full-length debut CD is released independently.
Yet another posthumous compilation is released by 4AD. Pixies Complete B-Sides features 19 tracks culled from half a dozen U.K. singles.
A chance run-in at a New York City club leads to Deal becoming fast friends with a few of the not-so pioneering members of otherwise legendary Los Angeles punk band Fear. Bass player Mondo Lopez and guitarist Richard Presley (supposedly a distant relative of Elvis) are drafted for duty in the new-look Breeders. Shortly thereafter, the pair gets to work recording new material with Deal, who relocates to Los Angeles for the occasion and decides to stay.
The Breeders release Title TK, the band's first full-length release in eight-and-a-half years. Extensive touring ensues. April 25 marks the ten-year anniversary of the last time Frank Black and Kim Deal spoke to one another the tenth anniversary of the Pixies' final live show.
The balance of The Purple Tape material enjoys its first-ever wide release as, simply, The Pixies, and not on 4AD. Rather, Black, Deal, Santiago and Lovering (all bona fide owners of the recordings) manage to come to terms through manager/arbitrator Ken Goes in order to independently license the disc for sale. Among the nine songs on the CD are the original versions of "Subbacultcha" and "Here Come Your Man," along with the previously unreleased track "Rock A My Soul" all recorded back in the spring of 1987.
Frank Black and the Catholics' fourth and fifth CDs Black Letter Days and Devil's Workshop, are released simultaneously. The latter of the two albums features Santiago's guitar handiwork on a number of tracks.
Meanwhile, Black turns down the umpteenth proposal to stage a Pixies reunion the likes of which he says are becoming more frequent with each passing year. "It was some corporate gig or something," he says. "I think it was like a lawn mower company or something, playing their company picnic or something crazy like that. It was an honest enough offer, but it was naïve. It was an offer to be allowed to return to the music business for an hour or something like that. They didn't really know, of course, that they didn't stand a chance of reuniting the band." Black says there's one scenario under which he would take part in a Pixies reunion gig. "Maybe if we get to be the first band to perform a rock concert on the moon," he says, with nary a hint of sarcasm. "I'll do it for the moon."