Joey Santiago of the Pixies: "We're all a bunch of screwballs without leather jackets and spandex"
Pixies (due at the Fillmore Auditorium on Thursday, February 13) formed in 1986, and within two years, the act became one of the most important and influential of the bands of the alt-rock era. Though credit for the loud-quiet-loud dynamic the Pixies made famous more properly belongs to another Boston outfit, Mission of Burma, this foursome took that idea and turned it into some of the most twisted, tender and electrifying songs of that time period.
With four proper albums, Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, Bossanova and Trompe le Monde, as well as an EP, Come On Pilgrim, Pixies made an impact on its peers (Nirvana, U2 and Radiohead to name a few), as well as on anyone open to something very different from the overproduced hard rock that ruled the airwaves in the late '80s. The demented subject matter, combined with Joey Santiago's odd sounds that chased the phrasing, Charles Thompson's "scream of consciousness," as one writer put it, plus Kim Deal's buoyant bass work and radiantly innocent-sounding vocals and David Lovering's channeled yet expressive chops made for a unique and compelling music.
The Pixies eventually split in early 1993 and regrouped more than a decade later for a proper international headlining tour. The outfit has remained somewhat quiet after that until last year when the band released two EPs. Both are clear departures from previous albums while remaining distinctively Pixies. We recently spoke with Santiago about how he ended up playing the Les Paul, how Psycho inspired one of his most iconic guitar lines and the unexpected general impact of "The White Album" on the band and its approach to making songs.
Westword: You got into computer programming?
Joey Santiago: Yeah, I did. You mean the Iggy Pop thing? It wasn't that big a deal. It was in high school.
Was it Basic or machine language?
Right! Exactly, it was Basic. I made dot matrix thingies. It would have been faster just doing it yourself.
In the early days of the band you had borrowed Kim's Les Paul before buying one of your own. What do you like about those guitars?
It was just because of necessity. Charles beat me on the Telecaster. He showed up with his Telecaster one day, I didn't even have a guitar, and I went, "Oh, shit..." Now I gotta put on this fucking heavy thing. The Clash -- Strummer was on the Tele, and Jones was on the Les Paul, so it's a pretty proven combination. You need two palettes. You can't have two of one; it's either too thick or too thin.
In that interview with The Daily Beast last year, you said that the Beatles' "The White Album" was one of the best albums ever. Why do you hold that particular album in such high esteem?
It's like the perfect radio station. It's got drive-y, your pop, it's got your psychedelic -- it's just got all the genres wrapped up in one and done really well and recorded really well. I always learn a little production trick every time I listen to it. You know, "Oh...they dropped a snare in." And even musical tricks, like going from one time signature like 4/4 to another. You're always learning something from it. It's an easy album to get ideas from.
What do you "Joey-fy" about Charles' songs?
Well, you know that's what he says, too. When we record something and then it's my turn, he does say that. Afterward he says, "Oh, it just got Joey-fied." Sometimes he'll go, "Now it sounds like the Pixies!" It's kind of true. I'm the last guy to go on, and everything's got to be in tune first before I screw it up. There's got to be some kind of signpost where everything's in tune because I'm going to wack around on it.
Is "Pixies theory" something you consciously developed or did an awareness of that come along later.
It came in first. I met this guy at the university and he showed me one thing and one thing led to another and I started making up my own stuff. I can write down a guitar part on paper now, but I can't, in any way, read music. But I make those notes. I'll have little descriptions. I'll write "Jimi" with an "i," and that means a Hendrix bent note. I'll put "octave" and other stuff. It's like my own little language. If someone looked at it they'd go, "What the hell is this?"
Upon buying Doolittle in 1989 through a tape club I had assumed I was getting a heavy metal album. Do you feel that people in the industry knew how to market your band back then?
No, I mean, it's funny you say that because we got signed with 4AD, and they did not know what we looked like. The publicist came to Boston, and was like, "Oh!" We had awkward T-shirts on and all this stuff. They thought we were going to have all this leather stuff on us. And...we didn't. We just looked like we just got out of university, you know what I mean? We were real. We were nerds, you know, that's the way we are.
I always wished I could dress like a rocker, but it would wear me, you know what I'm saying? I wouldn't own the look. It'd be like, "That guy looks like an idiot." Because I would feel like an idiot. I don't like dressing that way anyway. It's not me at all. I'll let the music do the talking. That I can wear. Last time I checked, people listened to music and didn't look at it.
On your second new EP you used a Moog guitar on "Magdalena 318." How did you become familiar with that instrument and do you approach playing it differently than you do the Les Paul?
Yeah, you'd have to because it's like one big eBow. I just know a person that works at Moog, and he contacted me, and I would try it. It was like, "Damnit, why did you show me this shit?" It's good.
You also mentioned using weird pedals in talking about the Moog. What pedals did you use?
I used a Moog delay, it's very unique. I also used this new thing they came out with this new thing I tried out called the Cluster Flux. And also a Midi Murf. "Magdalena 318" sounds like that in the beginning. That's what made that sound stick out. I could always go back to a no pedal vibe like Surfer Rosa where I went straight into the amp, no effects.
In a track by track commentary out there on the new EPs, you said of "Snakes" that you finally sounded like Steve Reich.
Yeah, Charles and I were listening to it. He likes the stuff I'm into. He finds it very amusing, or, rather, entertaining. Like, "Oh-ho, this is what you're listening to!" Because I discover stuff. I was doing film and TV, and I think most composers listen to that because it's a soundscape, and it doesn't get in the way.
Throughout your career, you've often kind of latched on to specific words in the lyrics like "dead" in "Dead," of course, and "strange" in "Greens and Blues." What is it about that that inspires you to come up with a riff?
It's just a mood, not a riff necessarily. It gives just gives me a signpost. Charles does write to the chord progression so that makes it a lot easier. But with "Dead" I just latched onto that word and the shower scene from Psycho came to mind and that [music made by] Bernard [Hermann], "ee! ee! ee! ee!"
So with "Dead" I just made that kind of sound. It's kind of like that stabbing because that's a stabbing sound he did--it's staccato. I just did a staccato thing. When he hit a chord, I would hit the seventh on it, so it has that anticipation all the time, never resolved. It's always anticipation, "When am I gonna stab or not? When am I gonna stab or not? Am I gonna stop?! No...I'm gonna keep going. I'm gonna kill you. You're gonna be...dead."
With the new music did you try to pick up where you left off? Did you more trust in your chemistry as a band rather than go back?
From Come On Pilgrim to Trompe Le Monde we grew up. So it's just a natural thing for bands to do. When bands don't do that, they die. They wilt away. I think people should know that and they shouldn't go to bed with Surfer Rosa and Doolittle just because we still sound like the Pixies.
If Led Zeppelin kept on doing the first album, it'd be like, "Oh...what the fuck is this? I already have this. Now you're ripping me off." It's like not letting your baby grow or an annoying teenager -- you want them to group up eventually. And we were annoying teenagers. And we grew up and matured.
For the current tour you got a new bass player, Paz Lenchantin. Why did you choose her and how have you found working with her?
I worked with her before, and a friend of mine Josh Freese had recommended her. And I trust that guy. Josh Freese is an excellent drummer and he had played with her before and I did just once but I don't really remember because it was so long ago. She came into a try-out, and just nailed it. She's very enthusiastic. Her reputation as a touring bassist that could blend with anybody and not be annoying preceded her:
No one jumping off the stage or any of that nonsense! You can quote me on that one. None of those silly things you do. Act your age! We're already waving to the audience, you don't have to get on their face. Like I said, we let the music do the talking. We don't do somersaults. We've got this thing and people relate to us. It makes you want to be in a band. We've never done back flips or any of that stuff. We don't need to. Join another band or something.
Listening to the two EPs that came out this past year, they sound pretty different from each other. Were they written at different times?
I guess it was done by accident. As big fans of "The White Album," and we don't like to have the same flavor throughout. Every album is like that. We're never exploring psychedelia or reminiscing about Woodstock or all that stuff. There's never a theme. We don't talk about being on the moon. Though that's a great record, The Dark Side of the Moon. We don't go to places and stay around there.
You've spoken to the importance of chemistry in the band in various interviews. How would you describe the chemistry in the band this time around?
I think we're communicating a little better. That's not to say it's been a "normal" thing. People on the outside who see us say, "Oh, you guys are so dysfunctional." And I go, "What do you mean?" We got better! I think we're doing good. It is what it is. We're all a bunch of screwballs without leather jackets and spandex.
How do you feel that your soundtrack work has benefited how you work with the Pixies?
Ever since I got into that I've collected delay pedals. I've got a silly collection of them. You could hear an echo just looking at my pedals. It's a sexy hobby collecting delay pedals. They all sound different. When you're doing soundtrack work it has that ethereal thing that you don't want to get in the way. But I think I work a lot quicker [because of that experience], I think.
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