Tagged: Billy Corgan

The Pixies make peace with their past

Charles Thompson, the singer, guitarist and songwriter of the legendary Pixies, remembers the pivotal moment. It was 2010, and the band was eight months into a tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of the band’s second full album Doolittle. At that point, the reformed group had been playing their greatest hits for six years – almost as long as the time in which it took the Pixies to release five of the most celebrated albums in indie rock between 1986 and their acrimonious split in 1993.

The band would begin with a few B-sides to throw the audience off-balance, then hit them with Doolittle in its entirety – in sequence, as contracted, almost note-perfect (“that was one way we really kissed the audience’s ass”, he notes) followed by an encore, and Thompson – better known by his stage name, Black Francis – was getting more than a little restless.

“I found myself spacing out,” he admits. “I [wouldn’t] know if we were in the first or second chorus, I’d have no idea. It didn’t happen every night, but it happened from time to time and to me that was a real turning point personally where I was like, ‘OK, enough of this shit! Let’s make some new songs!’ ”

Bands reforming and making new material after a long layoff is often a fraught process. For the Pixies, perhaps the defining American guitar band of the late 1980s, it was like returning to base camp, only to turn around to scale Everest all over again.

Not that Thompson would see it that way. You might expect him to be weary, if not downright prickly, about discussing the band’s past: he’s on the hustings to promote the band’s seventh album Head Carrier, following 2013’s “second debut” Indie Cindy. That record was a somewhat piecemeal affair, released as three EPs before being compiled as an album, and recorded without the band’s bass player Kim Deal, who had been opposed to recording new material and who walked out on the sessions.

The subject of Deal is inescapable. She remains a totemic figure: her beaming smile and apple-pie vocals offset Thompson’s sandpaper howl, her enormous charisma overshadowing the other members. In a band that was a riot of colour – Thompson’s screams, Joey Santiago’s surf-and-space guitar and David Lovering’s busy, inventive drum patterns – Deal was the rock; her steady, undemonstrative playing keeping the Pixies more or less earth-bound.

But her songwriting was suppressed by Thompson’s, and after the band’s split, she found huge early success with the Breeders. Thompson, meanwhile, changed his stage name to Frank Black, pursuing a solo career as his old band acquired almost mythic status.

None of this raking over old coals bothers Thompson in the slightest. He’s in what he calls his “atelier”, an art studio not far from his home in suburban Massachusetts, is booming with bonhomie, and as comfortable with discussing the Pixies’ past as their present.

He’s also self-deprecating. When Deal announced she was leaving the band (over dinner, the night before the recording of Indie Cindy was to begin), Thompson and Santiago simply got up and walked away. It was, he says, typical Pixies: “[We] had occasional blowouts and arguments and threw things at each other, but that was very much the exception to the rule,” he says. “We’ve always been very diplomatic, and I guess the flip side is that people are passive-aggressive.”

He cheerfully owns this trait himself. “Look at the way that the band broke up the first time!” he hoots. “ ‘Oh OK, here’s a fax, I’m going to type up a fax and send it off to the powers that be. Goodbye, thank youuuuuu!’ That’s just kind of our personalities.”

Deal has been replaced by Paz Lenchantin, from A Perfect Circle and Billy Corgan’s Zwan, and she fits the sound and look of the Pixies to a T (whether the group’s rabid fan base would even accept a male bass player is an interesting question). Aware of the shoes she’s filling, Lenchantin has encouraged a rapprochement with the band’s past, writing the music for and singing All I Think About Now – a song she encouraged Thompson to write as a thank-you note for their erstwhile bass player.

Her presence has certainly made playing in the Pixies fun again – “We really like her, she’s given us a whole new life and we’re very grateful to her,” Thompson effuses – but even so, the musical as well as personal dynamics are inescapably different. “A band is who they are a lot of times, and the chemistry never really changes,” Thompson says. “It’s very difficult to change the original blueprint. Even though people grow older, it’s hard to escape the psychological imprint of the beginning.”

Perhaps the tension with Deal was part of the Pixies’ magic. But it was also something that had to be constantly worked around, until it became unbearable, and it’s here that Thompson’s aversion to conflict again emerges.

“In hindsight you can say that, [that] the tension that existed added to or altered the flavour of the final result,” he says. “There are so many examples of creative conflict going on between people in a group that affects the result in a positive way. So I think that’s totally valid, but I can’t say that I’d want to pursue it. I don’t really want to enter an enterprise in conflict, you know. There’s plenty of conflict to go around in human interaction; I don’t need to seek it out.”

Thompson knew that some fans and critics would view the Pixies’ new material cynically. Then again, they couldn’t win: previously, others disdained them as a cash-in for not writing it. It’s the price the band have paid for their unblemished first incarnation.

In the end, he couldn’t care less. “We’re not going to get into this abstract conversation with each other about, like, ‘Dude, is it valid?’,” he says. “It’s like, yeah, whatever the fuck! Of course music is valid. You just kind of get on with it.”

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 24 September 2016

Death to shuffle!

It’s funny how, 10 years since the advent of the iPod was supposed to mark the death of the album as a conceptual art form, great albums keep magically appearing. They appear about as regularly as articles proclaiming (yet again) the death of the album.

Cue Diana Elliott in yesterday’s Age. Given this isn’t exactly the first time this argument has been promulgated in the last decade, I presume Diana has crawled through a wormhole from 1965, back when pop charts were ruled by singles.

Remember singles? These marvellous seven-inch creations only had room for one song per side – you could squeeze maybe a couple more in to make an EP, but at the expense of sound quality and all-important volume. Ray Davies, the Kinks’ master songwriter, still speaks fondly of them as his favourite musical medium.

Back then, albums mostly were little more than filler padding out a couple of sure-fire hits. Then the Beatles and Bob Dylan came along and expanded the minds of a generation, at the same time spoiling the party for those unfortunate Baby Boomers suffering from what wasn’t then called Attention Deficit Disorder.

Last week, a couple of friends began frantically tweeting each other about the merits of a new album by Melbourne’s Witch Hats. It was streaming on a local music website for a day, so I tuned in, and was impressed enough to tweet back if it was available on – wait for it – vinyl.

Yes, vinyl. The medium that’s making a comeback for those that, you know, actually care about music and how it was created, and don’t like to see it defiled in cheap-jack formats that throw out half the product before it hits the ears. Put it down to me crawling out of a wormhole marked April 1971, when I was born.

The Rolling Stones put out Sticky Fingers that very month. Now that’s an album. A few great rockers (Brown Sugar, about the merits of interracial cunnilingus, being the best known); Wild Horses is perhaps the band’s most stunning ballad; and Marianne Faithfull’s tortured ode to addiction, Sister Morphine.

I could go through the rest of the track list, but there’s no need. A great album is like a good sexual encounter; it’s all about pacing – ebb and flow, climax and resolution. It’s a cheap shot, but what sort of sex is the iPod generation having? Elliott’s article makes me wonder if they can keep their minds on the job.

For those having trouble with diminishing attention spans, the Ramones should have provided the perfect antidote. Albums of between 12 and 14 songs in less than half an hour! Hey, if you don’t like Beat On The Brat (in which case I don’t trust you) at least you know Judy Is A Punk is just around the corner.

Actually, one of the real drawbacks of the CD age (and a good reason for the cursed format’s slow slide into oblivion) is how many musicians abused the fact that it provided them with 78 minutes to play with, instead of the standard LP length of between 35 and 45.

Suddenly albums that would once have qualified as doubles began to proliferate. It got worse when a few artists began issuing double CDs, the worst offenders being the Smashing Pumpkins, who gave us Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, aka Billy Corgan’s infinite ode to his own genius.

It’s true that double albums, let alone double CDs, do amplify the problems Elliott alludes to. That’s why there are very few good ones. I am one of the unbelievers, for example, that would quite happily junk half of the Beatles’ opus, the so-called White Album. I never want to hear The Adventures Of Rocky Raccoon again.

But if you can’t sit still long enough to listen to Revolver from beginning to end, maybe it’s you who needs to slow down. Not everything in life is an instant hit. Some things take a little longer to give up their secrets, and that is part of the reward.

I was at a friend’s party last weekend, and he’d lovingly assembled a song list on iTunes to impress and entertain his musically voracious friends. Like Rob from High Fidelity, whom Elliott also references, he understood the lost art of the mix tape, the importance of a perfect sequence that also underpins an album.

At one point, he began vehemently decrying the very notion of “Shuffle”. “How can you shuffle the soundtrack to your life?” he spluttered in indignation. It might work if the music fades into the background, like aural wallpaper. But if you’re actually listening, it doesn’t make any sense.

First published in The Age, 17 November 2011