The Pixies: still delivering musical mayhem
A drummer with no drums, a bassist who'd never played bass, a lead guitarist who's claim to fame was staying at uni for as long as he could without graduating and a frontman with a fondness for Christian rock and The Cars.
The ideal recipe, I'd say, for musical mayhem.
And here they still are, 31 years on from their first meeting and kicking off yet another tour in support of yet another album. They make landfall here at Christchurch's Horncastle Arena on March 9, immediately followed by Wellington's TSB Arena on March 10 and Vector Arena in Auckland on the 11th. Then it's off to South Africa, America, Europe and Israel; an itinerary that would have been inconceivable, even at their most creative heights.
On the phone from Japan before their opening show, Pixies drummer Dave Lovering admits he wasn't at all that sure he was in the right place when he met his future bandmates. It was 1986 and he'd been invited to a jam on he back of a recommendation from an old workmate, now married to the bass player (Kim Deal). But if the musical visions of the others skewed left of centre, his career to date had involved a succession of bands trotting out Steely Dan and Chicago covers. His favourite band was Rush, prog-dabbling Canadians specialised in cookie-cutter, heavy rock.
"Yeah, that was interesting," says Lovering, "I'd given up the drums by then and was working in electrical engineering, but I got a call and thought 'what the heck, why not?' I didn't even have a kit. So they played me some songs and we sort of hit it off…"
But it wasn't until they began rehearsing in earnest that he began to enjoy the music. "There was a moment when I thought 'I really like this…' and that was it, their dysfunctional ride was away.
There are some groups – think The Beatles – who appear to be connected at the hip, but this bunch – mostly due to issues between Deal and front man Charles (aka Black Francis aka Frank Black) Thompson IV – often struggled to share a stage and became known for wildly erratic, toy-tossing, live shows. On the other hand, those disparities tossed some fire onto the five releases they banged out before finally shattering in 1993.
And there's no denying the import of those albums and their enthusiasm for extreme dynamics (after all, they named their rockumentary loudQUIETloud). It was a formula of taking things way, way down, pulling the listener in, before blasting them a crescendo of guitar squalls and shrieks and then dropping out again. No, they didn't invent it, consider Promises' 1978 hit Baby It's You, but the technique was shamelessly nicked by everyone from Radiohead and Nirvana to The White Stripes and Coldplay.
Still, says Lovering, it took him a while to find the groove after years of middle-of-the-road (MOR) rock. It didn't matter what the others were doing, he had a whole bunch of drums and was dead-set on playing all of them, all the time: "I was clattering away, lots of fills and basically stepping over everything until I started to listen properly. It took me a few months to realise that less really is more."
He didn't have long though, as their debut mini-LP Come On Pilgrim (a shout out to Thompson's fave Christian rocker, Larry Norman) was recorded and released within a year of their formation and gained immediate cult status for it's eye-popping cover and the puzzling question of why a band from Boston was so keen on singing in Spanish. But it was the follow-up, Surfer Rosa, that more properly signalled their intent. Being at a party in 1988 and hearing Deal's Gigantic for the first time was pretty special. The album's also notable for launching the production career of Steve Albini who until then was mostly known for his splendidly confrontational band, Big Black.
Now on a roll, The Pixies released their most successful album, Doolittle, a more polished collection that continues to provide the bulk of their live sets. Titles like Wave of Mutilation, Debaser and Monkey Gone to Heaven sound bleak, but it was a thrilling landmark in the evolution of post-punk, alternative or whatever the hell you want to call it. It's confidence and scope make it hard to believe that at its recording they'd only been together for two years; heady stuff really.
So, busy busy and Lovering was loving it. In his school yearbook, he'd said he'd wanted to be in a rock band and here he was in one of the most critically-acclaimed groups of its time. Obviously it was high time for their first break-up – officially referred to as a hiatus – especially once conflict between Deal and Thompson escalated into actual violence. Band life is never easy when you have two exhausted stars bickering over the spotlight.
They managed to patch things up in 1990, but the damage had been done. Their next album Bossanova really missed Deal's input and, in hindsight, Trompe Le Monde feels more like Thompson's first solo album. A coup de grace seemed inevitable and duly arrived after their odd coupling with U2 for 1992's grandiose Zoo TV tour.
Thompson waited a few months, then took it upon himself to pull the plug, calling his old college-mate Santiago and faxing the others. If Deal seemed to well, deal with it quickly, Santiago and Lovering weren't so fortunate and feel into depression.
"That was a dark time," says Lovering, "it was something I'd loved so much then it was all taken away. I was like 'wow'. I tried playing in other bands, but really, how do you top The Pixies? But then what else do I do? I'd been out of engineering for too long to go back, so I became a magician and while that was wonderful for me, I was heading down, down, down…until I got a call."
After a bit of teasing and a handful of solo albums, Thompson decided 2003 was the right time for another crack.
"I honestly never thought it would happen," says Lovering, "it was the furtherest thing from mind, so when Joey [ever the middleman] called I was 'are you kidding me?' I mean jeez…then we played our first gig at Coachella and it was amazing, so many people. We had no idea that our popularity had grown like that, even at our biggest way back when we never played venues like we can play now. But that first show, seeing all the kids, dancing along, singing the words, then going back [to Coachella] in 2014 and there was a whole new generation of kids there…we're in danger if becoming the Grateful Dead of alternative rock."
Great, but trouble was never far away and, in 2013, Deal and Thompson fell out once again and she left the band for good. After a short-term replacement, the three remaining Pixies recruited Paz Lenchantin, who had previously played with (former Tool frontman) Maynard James Keenan's A Perfect Circle.
Lovering reckons the band has never been so happy. OK, he remains grumpy about how he came across in loudQUIETloud ("selective editing to used to create drama that wasn't there and I keep having to explain what really happened"), but otherwise, "Paz has been with us four years, but we still see her as the new member, so we're still on our best behaviour".
A turning point came when they realised they'd been reunited for longer than they'd been a band in the first place; it became an obligation to start recording again. If their first effort, a compilation of three EPs called Indie Cindy failed to set the critic's aflame, their latest, Head Carrier, is unmistakably a proper Pixies album, even if the fire seems somewhat dampened. It also boasts Lenchantin's first contribution, All I Think About Now, an accidental song she kicked off after mishearing a demo tape. Thompson added lyrics which form something of an apology directed at Kim Deal.
Now, what to expect from their concerts? As ever, who knows? They don't do set lists. To their mind, playing the same songs in the same order dulls their performance and prevents any ability to drive the audience vibe. The problem has become, says Lovering, that sometimes they forget to play the classics, so they've taken to carrying a list of the five songs they have to play no matter what. When they get an airing is another matter, they kicked off a gig in London in December with Wave of Mutilation, a monster most bands would save for the encore. So, don't be late.
Regardless, Lovering will be giving it the "full college try".
"It's 90 minutes non-stop, night after night, and I am starting to realise I'm 55. But I'm happy and still working well, I think, so I'm not thinking about the future. It's all about enjoying the ride for as long as we can."
The Pixies play Christchurch's Horncastle Arena on March 9, Wellington's TSB Arena on March 10 and Auckland's Vector Arena on March 11. For more information and tickets, see livenation.co.nz