Interview: Pixies – Surfer’s Paradise
With a 30th anniversary edition of the Pixies’ debut album Surfer Rosa about to hit the shelves, Black Francis and Joey Santiago speak to Gary Walker about Les Pauls, tennis balls and the legacy of a timeless classic…
“The flashes of memory I have are being in a little side room, not the main room, with my little Peavey amp, and I remember him sticking these little microphones in it with a little roach clip. I remember doing Vamos and throwing things at the guitar, I want to say they were tennis balls…”
Holed up in a hotel room in Des Moines, Iowa during the early days of the Pixies’ recent North American tour with Weezer, Joseph Albert ‘Joey’ Santiago is recalling the scenes inside Boston’s Q Division Studios in December 1987. It was there that he and his bandmates, under the guidance of producer Steve Albini, made an album that would go some way towards shaping the future of alternative guitar music.
Surfer Rosa turned 30 this year, and the Pixies’ debut album remains a timeless alt-rock record that cast a long shadow over the 1990s and beyond. The band’s British label 4AD is marking the occasion with a Deluxe Edition of Come On Pilgrim… It’s Surfer Rosa – containing reissues of their debut EP, Come On Pilgrim, Surfer Rosa and live LP Live From The Fallout Shelter – while in October and November, the Pixies will take over London’s iconic Roundhouse venue for five nights to play both records from start to finish.
Recorded in 10 days, costing just $10,000 – with 4AD paying Albini a flat fee of $1,500 – the Pixies’ debut patented the quiet-loud dynamic that would inspire the likes of Kurt Cobain, Billy Corgan and Radiohead and help accelerate the advance of grunge through a sterile musical landscape. David Bowie called it “the most compelling music outside of Sonic Youth made in the entire 80s” and Thom Yorke likened being asked to follow Pixies at Coachella in 2004 to being supported by The Beatles.
At the heart of this dark, sexy and surreal album – replete with tales of violence, venereal disease, incest and Catholic repression – lies the seemingly effortless dynamic between the furious surf-thrash lead playing of Philippines-born Santiago and the rock-solid rhythm of his former University of Massachusetts roommate Charles Thompson, aka Black Francis.
The pair had bonded over Black Flag and Cars records before Francis left New England for a six-month exchange programme in Puerto Rico. Sitting in San Juan’s backstreet bars with only a Walkman and tapes by the Ramones, Talking Heads and Iggy Pop for company, he began to write his future classic. It wasn’t long before he made the call to Santiago to get the band together.
The pair quit college, moved to Boston and a legendary advert for a bass player who liked Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul And Mary led to the arrival of Kim Deal, known ironically inside the band as Mrs John Murphy – the name of her husband. Murphy’s Radio Shack workmate David Lovering was recruited as drummer.
Central to the Pixies’ manifesto was a rejection of the mainstream pop, MOR rock and hair metal that dominated the charts in 1987. “I just didn’t want to have anything to do with a big, big, big solo, probably because I couldn’t handle it,” says Santiago, laughing.
“My take on it was that mainstream guitar had a lot of typewriting skills. They were typing as fast as they can, and I couldn’t hear it. The only thing that was impressive about it for me was the speed – how can they play so fast? But in the back of my mind I was like, ‘I don’t care’. It just wasn’t my thing. I’m more like a classic rock guy. You gotta hear some riffs or something you’re going to remember, and that requires less notes.
“Our music is unconventional. There’s a lot of half-steps, a lot of chords that don’t theoretically go with the key, but it seems to work. We knock off two beats here on some line and not necessarily go four, so we have all these twists and turns. After a while it got second nature to us – counting verses in four, we’d have chunks of three a lot of the time. Then we’d be like, ‘this is the weird one’. ‘Why’s it weird?’ ‘Because it’s a chunk of four. Watch out, this is the normal one!’”
For Francis, too, setting up in opposition to the prevailing popular culture epitomised by MTV’s slide towards the mainstream was vital. “It was conscious,” he says. “I don’t know if it became conscious when we picked up our guitars, it was more going to see bands and recognising they were either on this side of the line or that side of the line. A lot of the mainstream music seemed like it was trying to go there, it wanted success. To us, that type of mediocrity and flashy shtick, it wasn’t cool. Then there was stuff on the other side of the line – cool bands, they weren’t being flashy or trying to pander to some kind of audience, they were full-on ‘fuck you guys’.
“There wasn’t an atmosphere of appeasement, there was an atmosphere of ‘Fuck. You.’ Not necessarily trying to be confrontational but this is what we do, if you don’t like it fuck off, I don’t care. So when we picked up our guitars our absorption of that attitude that we appreciated mixed in with the fact that we were pretty rough and ready players, completely naïve but completely willing to try, to play a guitar solo even when you weren’t a shredder. It all came very naturally.”
Prior to going into Q Division, the band had recorded The Purple Tape, a 17-song demo made in six Jolt Cola-fuelled days at Boston’s Fort Apache Studio, using $1,000 borrowed from Francis’ father. Eight of the songs were put out by 4AD as the mini-album Come On Pilgrim, with new versions of Broken Face, Break My Body and I’m Amazed later laid down for Surfer Rosa. Inside Q Division, the work was swift as the band, who’d been honing their set in a sewage-soaked Boston rehearsal room, seized their opportunity.
“It was very quick,” says Santiago of the sessions. “Just because of the way we were – tick-tock, we gotta go, we don’t have that much time. We were really well rehearsed, we were ready for that album. We didn’t have any sort of pre-production on it. The first time I’d heard of pre-production was working with Gil Norton on [second album] Doolittle. We met Steve Albini at a coffee shop and that was it, we were in the next day.
“We were excited to get the Pixies on the map. We had the material ready to record, everything was written, way down the road. People were already excited about it, so it just had to get captured in an exciting sense, and Albini was a pretty damn good choice.”
Santiago had initially wanted to use a Telecaster in the Pixies, but his former UMass roommate beat him to it, employing his blonde 1980s American Standard Tele and a Vox AC30 for the sessions. The lead guitarist borrowed bassist Kim Deal’s 1970s Les Paul Goldtop and plugged into a Peavey Special. Deal, meanwhile, played an Aria Pro II Cardinal Series, borrowed from sister Kelley, that she has described as the “weirdest sounding bass” into a Peavey Combo 300, Gil Norton later persuading her to switch to a 1962 Fender Precision for 1989’s Doolittle.
“I played Kim’s Goldtop. I liked it because Charles had the Telecaster, which I wanted,” says Santiago, who has since added several Les Pauls including a ’57 Black Beauty, and a Bigsby-loaded 1965 ES-345 to his arsenal.
“It was either going to be one or the other. A Les Paul is a really good complement to a Tele. If you’ve got the Fender, you’re gonna have to have the Gibson to counteract it, unless you want to be a country act, and then you’re all Tele’d out. Mick Jones and Strummer and all that good stuff…
“The Les Paul with the humbuckers and the distortion drives better, and I think it has a lot more tonal range, because you have the two tone controls and two volume knobs. You can vary the tones a lot with it – roll off the top and get a lot of different tones. You can sound like George Harrison, George Benson, Wes Montgomery, to… annoying!”
When quizzed about the dynamic between orthodox rhythm and rulebook-shredding lead player that has endured for more than 30 years, both Santiago and Francis describe it as natural.
“It’s pretty amazing, because I always wanted to meet someone who wrote songs from outside the box,” says Santiago. “I got lucky when we met at UMass. I went to UMass knowing I wanted to be in a band. I tried in high school, but don’t have the discipline to learn other people’s songs. It didn’t interest me, I’d rather make stuff up.”
“Joey and I had a bond, the same bond we share today,” says Francis. “To this day, we both still confuse each other. We might know each other really well, but I don’t know if we really understand each other. We were bonding over this idea of starting a band, and you just kind of get on with it. For Joey and I, that dynamic has been there since we were 18 – it’s still exactly the same. With the Pixies, we always prefer not to be confrontational with each other.
“With Kim it was the same deal – I don’t know if she understood what I was about, I didn’t understand what she was all about necessarily, but we shared the same passion of ‘Isn’t music cool? Isn’t music amazing?’. That was enough to declare us – we’re a band, we’re playing a show on Friday night, we’ll represent this idea of original music by an original band. It was a very upbeat dynamic, not weighed down by any bad blood. There wasn’t any volatile chemistry, it was all good chemistry.”
Back in the groove of globe-straddling tours and festival headline shows, two albums into a comeback that has seen Paz Lenchantin take over from Deal on bass, Santiago acknowledges that while he’s having the most fun he’s ever had in the band, Surfer Rosa’s legacy remains a powerful one. It is, after all, an album that Kurt Cobain confessed to ripping off, musing, “I should have been in that band”.
“It’s very good,” says Santiago, letting out a laconic chuckle. “It sounds timeless. There’s no bullshit or gimmicks on it and it sounds like four kids doing the best they can.”
“I can’t really speak to the legacy of it, because it’s my record,” says Francis. “I’m glad it worked out and people found the record inspiring, I’m very happy about that. But even 30 years later, it’s almost like I can’t presume any kind of status. To me, I’m just kind of in the band, I have a gig tonight, so I’m still kind of in the same racket. While I’m very pleased the ‘product’ has a good shelf life, it may just be my uptight New England soul that doesn’t want to get too emotional about it… I’m not saying we came from poverty, but we definitely come from a working class blue-collar ethic – just gotta do the job, we’ve gotta do the gig, we’ve gotta practise our new songs so they don’t suck so much… as opposed to [adopts posh voice] ‘We are the great Pixies’. We’ll bask in the glow when we’ve played a show and the audience claps. That’s our one moment to feel it.”
“We never had a moment of drama recording that record, it was always fun,” concludes Santiago. “We always had this fun element to it, ‘Okay what’s the next song? Great, let’s do it’. We were pretty goofy people… Fuck it, we are goofy!
“Now there’s so much to appreciate about it. We’re doing what we love and it’s been for so long. Surfer Rosa’s 30 years old and everything’s just paid off from all that hard work, but in the beginning those were the times. My life was a lot simpler, but it’s just great right now. You don’t want to romanticise it too much, but we worked so hard for it and we’re one of the lucky few who can keep doing this after all that time.”
The Pixies’ deluxe Come On Pilgrim… It’s Surfer Rosa reissue package is out now on 4AD