Following the unexpected cancellation of their scheduled Wednesday night set as the opening act for Robert Plant (who's currently battling a bout of laryngitis) at FirstMerit Bank Pavilion, the Pixies went on with the show performing instead a rare, small club gig within the intimate confines of Metro. I spoke with Pixies drummer David Lovering and guitarist Joey Santiago about the influence of Led Zeppelin, the importance of road testing new material, why it's important to them to continue writing and recording new music, the creation of their most recent studio effort Indie Cindy and more...
On paper, a tour featuring the unlikely pairing of former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant and American rock band the Pixies was an interesting one. But when you consider the level of artistic expression and experimentation that has defined Robert Plant's career as a solo artist alongside that of the Pixies as one of the architects of alternative rock, it starts to make more sense.
It was a series of summer concert dates born out of a chance encounter and the first for the Pixies as an opening act since U2's "Zoo Tv" tour in 1992, shortly before their initial breakup.
"We had met him originally on an airplane ride. And the conversation with him just kept going on and on and on. The guy was just a wonderful gentleman. Finally [it] came up, 'Well, we’re the Pixies.' And he goes, 'Ah, Boston’s finest.' He actually knew who the Pixies were! And that just – I mean, I could’ve just dropped to the floor right then!" says Pixies drummer David Lovering of his band's mile high bonding session with Plant over, not music, but soccer.
"It’s almost like a dream come true kind of. It’s been a crazy thing. I’m a huge fan of him and his music and everything" continues Lovering. "We prepare for it just like any other show… But playing with Robert Plant? I would not have ever imagined that" adds guitarist Joey Santiago.
But Lovering's Zeppelin obsession goes further than just Robert Plant, as can be said of many drummers. "I actually own a replica of a John Bonham [drum] kit. It’s the one that, actually, his son used when Zeppelin did 'Celebration Day,' the reunion show [in 2007]... It’s a Vistalite kit that Ludwig made... It’s a pretty wild looking drum set."
But as Plant continues to battle a reported bout of laryngitis, it was announced early Wednesday that that evening's show would be postponed, with Plant going it alone, rescheduling the show for September 23rd.
Which left the Pixies in a bit of a predicament.
Continuing to write the next chapter in the second half of a career that began in 2014 with the release of their fifth album, Indie Cindy - their first new studio album since 1991's Trompe Le Monde - the band saw the current run of American dates as a terrific opportunity to road test new songs they're in the process of working out prior to recording.
It was an opportunity they didn't have under the shroud of secrecy in which Indie Cindy was recorded, hence the last minute announcement of the band's Wednesday night set at Metro, a rare treat for fans to catch a band like the Pixies in such a small venue.
"Hopefully, what we’re going to do is, when we start touring, we’ll be playing probably one, maybe two new songs a night. It’s a good way to go back to what we did initially when we were a band because we haven’t had the opportunity to – even with Indie Cindy it was just throwing emails around and kind of rehearsing once or twice – but actually doing gigs where you can actually play [new songs] and iron them out. I think that’s gonna help a lot" explains Lovering of the band's approach to making new music this time around.
Always a band which thrived on studio experimentation and general unconventionality, it became clear to the members of the Pixies that there comes a time when a successful reunion can veer dangerously close to mere nostalgia. Wednesday night, over the course of almost two hours at a jampacked Metro, the Pixies proved they're still very much a relevant rock and roll act, touching upon virtually every corner of their catalog with conviction.
"Over in, I think 2011 – where it was seven years of touring on the reunion – it was a surreal experience to think, 'Wait a minute. Hold on. We’re touring on our reunion longer now than we were initially a band.' And that was quite shocking to us" observes Lovering.
"It became very important. It was time to be a band. It felt like we were doing this for a while and we didn’t want to be a circus act. We wanted to keep recording" insists Santiago of the significance of creating new Pixies songs - songs which eventually came to encompass the Indie Cindy album.
While great in theory, that plan was threatened quickly. Only two weeks into the secretive Indie Cindy sessions, bassist/vocalist and co-founding Pixie Kim Deal announced she was leaving the band. After nearly a decade of successful reunion touring, it was the type of bombshell that had the potential to stop the band dead in its tracks.
"It was just like, wow - this could be the end. Are we gonna end right now? Is that it? Are we just over and done? But at that point we were in the studio already for around two weeks and had material. And it just became the consensus. It was the three guys – Joe, myself and Charles – and we just went, 'Why don’t we just forge on and do it?' So that’s what we did" explains the drummer.
"We just said, 'What the f-ck are we gonna do?' But… having said that, we had a lot more time. We had four or five more weeks left on the studio in Wales. We wanted to keep recording and we loved the location. [Producer] Gil Norton went on as usual and just plowed along, started calling us. 'It’s your turn Joey. It’s your turn Charles. David you gotta do your drums.' There was family to miss, yeah - she was part of the family. [But] we were just finishing an album at that point. There was nothing to think about" says Santiago of the decision to continue the sessions and finish a series of three online EP's that shocked fans and eventually saw proper release as the first Pixies studio album in twenty-three years.
To say Deal's departure had the potential to shake up the band's core sound is an understatement. The band recruited Muffs frontwoman Kim Shattuck to finish those sessions on bass and round out a series of 2013 dates. Since then, it's been Paz Lenchantin (formerly of both Zwan and A Perfect Circle) handling bass/backing vocal duties.
Wednesday night at Metro, Lenchantin's bass melded with the band nicely as did vocals on tracks like "Velouria," "Hey," "Debaser" and more. Santiago in particular grinned widely Wednesday night seemingly satisfied as the band ran through "Debaser."
"She’s a perfect fit. She really is. Hopefully she stays for the long haul - until Charles faxes us that it’s over. Actually, texts us. (laughing) We embrace technology" said Santiago of the band's current on stage rapport with Lenchantin (laughing as he threw in a joking reference to the band's initial breakup for good measure).
"She’s played with a lot of bands and really knows her instrument – there’s like a virtuoso on it. I don’t wanna be embarrassed! I’ve gotta step up my game, I think, in order to do that! It’s made me think a lot different about the bass and just trying to play better and stuff like that. It is working. There’s a groove going. I can’t beat that" explains Lovering of the current state of the Pixies rhythm section.
Consistently ahead of their time prior to the breakup, since the 2004 reunion the Pixies have been in the enviable position of continually generating new, younger fans which rarely happens once a band wears out the initial reunion excitement. Whether that's a result of shrewd pop culture placement in places like the Fight Club soundtrack or their frequent namecheck by artists like Kurt Cobain, it was the type of anomaly that made new material that much more important.
"Since Indie Cindy and all that, this is what we love to do. This is all that we did while we were a band initially, back in the day, other than this reunion time... We still think we’re a viable band" confirms Lovering.
"My daughter texted me the other day and said, 'Kids were playing ‘Where is my Mind?’ at school. The new craze is the Pixies at school. The seventh and eighth graders especially. And the teachers love it!' And I replied, 'That’s why we keep touring!' But there ya go – from middle school to their teachers.
[In the studio] it’s our turn to entertain ourselves. [On tour] we’ve been entertaining the fans. I call them our boss. They’re the only real boss we have. But when we’re in the studio we’re just very, very selfish, I guess, in a way. We entertain ourselves" observes Santiago of both the Pixies audience as well as their approach to the studio.
Wednesday night at Metro, for the first time since their reunion, following sets (with Kim Deal) at Lollapalooza in 2005, (with Kim Shattuck) at Riot Fest in 2013 and elsewhere at larger club settings like the Aragon Ballroom and Riviera Theatre, the Pixies seemed like a band with something to prove.
While it's cliche to call a cover a highlight, the ferocious manner in which the Pixies tore into the Jesus & Mary Chain's "Head On" evidenced one of the most difficult things to accomplish for a band tackling the work of another: putting a unique spin on it. It's a trait that characterizes many of the band's finest moments on record and, as guitarist Joey Santiago hints, could be a harbinger of good things to come as the band continues to work on new music.
"I think we just really, somehow, managed to make – by accident – timeless music... Let’s face it – it’s gonna come out sounding like the Pixies anyway. There’s really no pressure because we’re gonna sound like the Pixies. Look at the covers we did: 'Winterlong' by Neil Young, Leonard Cohen. In the end, it sounds like the Pixies. We just can’t help it."
- Jim Ryan (@RadioJimRyan)
(Photos by Barry Brecheisen - For more of Barry's work visit ChicagoNow's Eye Tunes)
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