There are only a very few bands that come along and change everything. The Velvet Underground were one of those bands. So was Nirvana. And without a doubt, so were the Pixies. Correction: So are the Pixies.
I've been waiting 12 years to write that.
In 1986, four very different individuals-singer, songwriter and guitarist Charles Thompson (also known as Black Francis, and more recently Frank Black), bassist Kim Deal, drummer David Lovering and guitarist Joey Santiago-came together in Boston and launched a revolution in sound.
Unassuming in their presentation, challenging and often riotous in their writing, Pixies were everything their mid-'80s pop culture contemporaries were not. Rock could be bleak, albeit catchy insurrection as on the debut Come On Pilgrim; rock could be frenzied, sunny Spanish punk as with Surfer Rosa; rock could be seditious, startling pop, as declared on the breakthrough Doolittle. And so on and so forth. The Pixies rarely mistepped, and new albums were greeted with messianic anticipation.
And then Deal's substance abuse became an issue, and writing and record company demands brought inordinate pressure to bear on already strained group relations. Finally, the famous fax from Black to the rest of the band members announcing he'd disbanded the Pixies. That was that.
On the upside, their legacy was to reverberate through a revived, underground indie-rock scene that offered one of the few islands of musical reprieve throughout the '90s. In a certain way, it was like they'd never left. Which is maybe why their startling re-emergence this year seems less as a nostalgia tour and more the logical continuation of an interrupted narrative. It could be argued that the Pixies, as a result of their continued iconization and influence, are as vital now-and possibly more so-as they were in their heyday.
However, when it comes to writing new music, you could wonder if a band with such a charged history and such a storied place in the evolution of alternative and indie music would easily pick up where they left off. Black said published reports indicating the band would go into the studio in January after the tour are false.
"To pick up where we left off is exactly what we should be doing. As opposed to duplicating," says Frank Black over the phone from Chicago, adding that it wasn't so difficult to reacquaint themselves with their considerable catalogue.
"There's a lot of muscle memory involved. When you start getting into things like muscle memory it's sort of away from the plane of analytical thinking, you know what I mean? It's very natural." Which translated into a minimum of prep and rehearsal time for their grand re-emergence. "I was ready to start touring after about three days." The others "were a little more cautious."
When asked to describe the general ambiance of the tour, and in particular, how he felt about his now re-united band members, Black deadpans, "Fuckin' assholes."
So in other words... ? "We're getting along just fine," he says. "I'm kind of bossy, but I mean, I think everyone kind of knows that. But I'm not as bossy as I used to be, probably."
Let's be Frank
Every time I speak to Black, I hang up the phone feeling like I've been violated somehow. This time is no exception. He's in a passive/aggressive frame of mind, letting his longstanding contempt for the interviewing process express itself in terse, clipped replies. As usual, he's trying to make me uncomfortable; as usual, it's working.
Almost inevitably, the process of interviewing Black unfortunately becomes a component of the larger story itself. As he remarked to me once in a 1996 interview, "The press likes to paint grouchy pictures of me. They're always putting me in some sort of light that is not necessarily correct, so there's nothing I can do about it except, maybe, not do interviews, but that just fucks me. I'd sell 20 per cent less records, so I play along. I'm playing along on this one."
At the very beginning of that interview, he held the telephone over the toilet while he took a piss. Perhaps as a means of illustrating how difficult it can be to get Black to participate in a conversation he clearly wants no part of, I offer the following...
XPress I want to go back a bit and talk a little about the possibility of any new music because that obviously is going to be something that a lot of people are interested in. You say you haven't had much time to write because of the tour, but you also had a lot of time prior to the tour to be thinking about new Pixies songs. What direction do you see yourself going in your writing?
Black A good direction.
XPress And that means?
XPress The songs should be... good.
XPress As opposed to?
Black [long pause] ...Hello?
On the three previous occasions that I've spoken to Black, as the solo artist Frank Black, each interview was concluded with the same question: So how about that Pixies reunion? And each of those same questions was greeted with the same answer: "No way, Josť."
That was his stock reply for everyone. So what was different this time, what brought about this major tectonic shift in thinking? (Pretending for the moment that money-getting paid has always been a major motivator for Black-wasn't the only reason for the rebirth.)
"Oh, I don't... I don't know..."
"I know, I just..."
You've been asked this question dozens and dozens of times.
"Y'know, I don't know," seeming to suddenly relent. A bit. "I don't know really. It just sort of happened. I mean, you know how we got back together, so I could retell you that story, but in terms of what went into it, was there any thinking? No. It was all unconscious."
Big fish to fry
While it isn't a new Pixies album per se, Black recently released Frank Black Francis, a double-disc set featuring early Pixies demos on one CD and a radical reworking of 13 classic Pixies songs on the other. The result-achieved mostly as a result of the participation of U.K. performer/producers Two Pale Boys-is a remarkable, expansive, electro avant-jazz reorganization of mainstays like Where Is My Mind and Caribou complete with trumpet and violin. Sounds like it would have been an enjoyable process. Could have been. Should have been. Uh, Frank, did you have fun?
"Not a lot, actually. I had a fine time hanging out with those guys-the Two Pale Boys-but that was kind of a rough summer, personally speaking. And all I did was sing some couplets down on the microphone, so that was my participation. Those guys, they really did it all. I'm still kind of listening to it, but I like it. I like hearing certain songs kind of framed so spaciously."
Listening to Frank Black Francis lights up a particular part of my brain. There are certain songs that, while stylistically dissimilar, are nonetheless strongly suggestive of Tom Waits, at least in the spirit of the presentation. Waits is someone Black respects. Waits is also someone it has been rumoured that Black has expressed an interest in working with.
"I don't know how much of a possibility that is. I would like it to happen and he seems like the kind of guy who wouldn't do it," he laughs. "He's got bigger fish to fry. He probably has fish to fry literally."
But would you ask? "Yeah sure, I would ask. When I had something to play him."
And I apologize for coming back to this, but do you have a ballpark idea of when people might reasonably expect...
...new music? The 12th?
And for a moment I think I know something that no one else does. For a moment I think my persistence has finally born some fruit.
For a moment, I forgot who I was talking to.
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 28 AT 8 P.M.
ROBERT GUERTIN ARENA, GATINEAU