OAKLAND (CBS SF/AP) – As a young musician, Pixies frontman Charles Thompson was determined to make it past the velvet rope at the mythical club that is rock stardom.
“It inspired us even from the time before we were rock musicians,” said Thompson, who performs under the name Black Francis. “It’s how we became rock musicians … the idea of being in that club.”
But even for a band as influential and revered as the Pixies, maintaining club membership means staying relevant. And that can be a tricky thing.
How many continual tours of only old hits, after all, can a band embark on before it starts drifting too close to nostalgia act territory? At what point must a band fire up the songwriting engines again to reaffirm itself to new generations of music listeners?
In the case of the Pixies, who disbanded in 1993 and reunited in 2004, the last decade has been marked by what Thompson calls a “never-ending, it seemed, encore performance of our repertoire” with only one new song, “Bam Thwok”, released in 2004, to show for it.
“It was easy to be distracted from any other kind of ambitions like recording and writing new material because we were constantly touring or taking a break from touring,” Thompson said during a recent stop in New York.
That all changed in late June, when a video for a new song, “Bagboy,” showed up online unannounced. A few weeks later, the band again surprised fans with an online collection of four new songs released under the name “EP-1” along with a global tour announcement. The band added a 33-city, North American leg on Monday that’s scheduled to kick off in Toronto on January 15.
The band deliberately kept the whole affair low-key. The new songs didn’t leak online, there was no pre-release hype and no record label distribution. Pixies drummer David Lovering, who is also a magician, likens the excitement that resulted to his magic act.
“As a magician the best thing is the element of surprise,” Lovering said. “You want that wonderment … kind of like Christmas coming.”
The biggest surprise came two weeks before the release of “Bagboy,” when the band announced the departure of bass player Kim Deal, who’d been with the Boston quartet since its inception in 1986. Her breathy background vocals and endearing stage presence provided a foil to Thompson’s aggressive delivery.
Deal broke the news to Thompson and guitarist Joey Santiago midway through the recording sessions one late morning in a coffee shop.
“I believe Joey and I got up in the next moment and went immediately to a pub and kept drinking … to kind of soothe the shock that had occurred,” Thompson said.
The band was left with four weeks of booked studio time and a decision to make.
Following a period of mourning, they proceeded with production.
“That just gave us all the initiative and really the get-go to go for it,” Lovering said.
The new-look Pixies enlisted the help of Simon Archer to play bass on the unfinished tracks and then recruited Kim Shattuck of the Los Angeles band the Muffs to play bass on the current tour.
The new songs are immediately catchy, with more emphasis on traditional song structure and less of the quirky and frenetic nature of earlier songs. “Andro Queen” and “Another Toe” are more classic rock than punk, while “Indie Cindy” and “Bagboy” have more of the classic Pixies formula, with Thompson’s uncanny half-spoken sermons and odd time-signature changes.
Overall, the new material is absent the loud, quiet, loud dynamic – sparse and quiet verses juxtaposed against infectious, feedback-drenched choral eruptions – that came to define the Pixies sound. Thompson said he’s never understood why they get credited with pioneering the musical technique.
“I can only guess there wasn’t a lot of that going on at the time in other records that were being released,” he said. “And so ours stood out.”
Though the Pixies never caught the attention of the American mainstream, the band’s impact on popular music cannot be denied. A host of artists, from Radiohead to Weezer, David Bowie and U2 all cite the Pixies as an influence.
Kurt Cobain, arguably the band’s most famous champion, noted on numerous occasions how he used the Pixies’ musical stylings as a blueprint for Nirvana. Following the success of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the members of Nirvana recalled in various interviews how they considered shelving their biggest hit because they felt it came too close to sounding like a Pixies song.
What did the Pixies think?
“Yeah, they ripped us off,” Santiago joked.
What impact the new-look Pixies will have on a new generation of musicians will unfold as they continue to tour and release more songs, which they say are coming, on their own terms. For now, Thompson is keeping the band’s future plans close to the vest.
“If we tell everyone how we’re going to conquer the world,” he said, “someone else is going to steal our idea, and they’re going to conquer the world.”
The Pixies begin their North American tour on January 15 in Toronto, Canada and will have two Bay Area stops on February 21 at the Fox Theater in Oakland and on February 22 at the San Jose Civic Auditorium in San Jose.
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