Some people dread reunions.
It would be easy to assume that Charles Thompson feels that way about getting his old band back together. The charismatic Pixies frontman, who shrieked and howled under the name Black Francis before launching a successful solo career as Frank Black, is a notorious grouch.
Interviewing a grumpy rock star is torture. Among music journalists, word spreads fast about who the most easily irritated subjects are. When all else fails, sometimes a flaming burnout of a discussion becomes the story itself. (Remember Terry Gross's infamous NPR interview with Gene Simmons?)
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But on this occasion, Thompson is quickly proving that rep wrong, or at least a little outdated. By 9 a.m. on the first day of press interviews for the recently reunited Pixies' North American tour, he's on his third round of questioning, and he's surprisingly laid-back. Down to earth. Humble. Even -- dare we say? -- kind of funny. Life is good for Thompson, and for now, he obviously just enjoys being in the moment as a Pixie.
Indeed, the moment isn't what it used to be. Now that Thompson and his bandmates -- bassist Kim Deal, guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering -- are back in action, the songs are all the same, but the world is different. The music industry's changed since the group got its start in Boston in 1987, and fans have multiplied by a generation. Demand for Pixies concert tickets is so steep that new dates were recently added to the three-and-a-half-month tour. And the band finally gave in and flew to Japan for the first time. It was a brief, two-nights-and-turn-around trip that the Pixies would never have considered before.
"So here I am, older, maybe less arrogant, doing the same thing, you know," Thompson says, launching into a mock-dopey voice. "'Okay, sure, fine, whatever you say -- whatever I have to do to make the money.'"
Timing plays a huge part in the somewhat unlikely reunion of these alt-rock pioneers. (After all, this is the band that suddenly broke up by fax eleven years ago, when Thompson's tensions with Deal, who was struggling with drinking and drugs, were at their peak.) Thompson even admits that if the Pixies had reunited at the five-year mark, they probably wouldn't have been as successful. Now, not only is Generation X feeling nostalgic for songs like "Debaser" and "Monkey Gone to Heaven," but so is Generation Y -- even though it missed out on the Pixies' heyday. Keep in mind that these kids were weaned on Nirvana, and Kurt Cobain had gone on record as one of the Pixies' most famous fans.
"In the United States, the interest in our tour is probably even bigger than it is in Europe. It was the other way around before," Thompson says. "I think things in Europe happen a lot faster with pop culture. Because it's taken that long for things to filter out here, and you add in the fact that there are two or three generations of rock kids that have grown up listening to the band -- after the fact, of course. Now they're all coming out to patronize us."
What led up to this was a make-up almost as random as the band's famous break-up. Last summer, a British radio-show host interviewed Thompson and asked the obvious -- and long-deflected -- question about a possible Pixies reunion. "I made a joke with a DJ, and it kind of fanned out from that," Thompson recalls. "They just decided to turn it into a rumor. They knew that I was being sarcastic, but they decided to overlook that."
Once word got out among indie-rock fans around the world, Thompson started to take the notion seriously. He says, "I was on the road, so I don't think that [the other Pixies] knew how to get ahold of me, so I ended up calling them to say, 'Hey, sorry about this funny thing that ended up in the papers and stuff. I was just kidding around. But anyway, on that note, do you want to take advantage of this moment, and do you want to do it?'"
In April, lucky Minneapolis fans got to see the quartet play its first show together in twelve years, and in May, the band co-headlined the opening night of the Coachella Valley Music Festival in California. Among the 50,000 spectators at the sold-out event, the biggest buzz by far was about the Pixies, who looked happy to be together and sounded as dead-on as any longtime devotee could have hoped for.
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"Everyone plays, like, ten percent better," Thompson says. "Well, we still make plenty of mistakes. But, yeah, there's just something about it -- just being a musician for that much longer has made everyone a little more solid. So that's kind of nice."
The Pixies are concentrating on touring for now, and the only CDs in the works are the limited-edition DiscLive recordings available at each show. Although they haven't ruled out recording another full-length, it's just as possible that they'll release more downloadable singles through iTunes, like they did with "Bam Thwok," their first new work since Trompe Le Monde came out in 1991.
"The record business is kind of in a slump right now, so maybe we shouldn't make a record," says Thompson. "It kind of puts the power in the artist's hands a little more, in that you don't need to -- especially if you already have an established career -- you don't need to run around and try to get your record together and find a record label in order to exist. You can just go, 'Hey, there's this movie that's calling up and asking for a song -- let's do a song.' There's not the pressure to come up with a whole record and finance it and all that."
So the changing times have worked to the Pixies' advantage. And the bandmembers have so much more studio experience -- more "rock muscles," as Thompson puts it. "Everyone just kind of plugged in and played," he says. "It was amazing how quickly it all kind of fell together."