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