Joey Santiago, lead guitarist for alt-rock band the Pixies, was never into playing fast. He says it’s just too much work.
“There were enough people doing it,” Santiago says of the guitar shredders. “I wasn’t going to join that bandwagon at all. I couldn’t remember anything about it other than, ‘Wow, that’s fast!’ Really, that’s all you’re going to say about it. Yeah, it’s fast. But if you listen to the phrasing of George Harrison and other guitar players like that, it’s like, ‘That’s more my speed right there.’ I mean, I try to have a slower hand than [Eric] Clapton. I have a syrup hand. Maple, not corn syrup.”
Since Pixies formed just over three decades ago, Santiago’s angular, minimalist approach to the guitar has been an integral part of the outfit’s idiosyncratic sonic palate. Rather than cramming notes into the songs, Santiago leaves space between the notes, letting his riffs ring and breathe. He says it’s about being patient and not being in such a rush.
“That’s hard for me to do because I’m so manic,” Santiago says. “It’s like, ‘Okay, fucking slow down, goddamnit.’ And when you finally find that out, it’s hard. It’s hard to remember to do that. It works. You don’t have to talk all the time. It’s having a conversation.”
While Santiago has no problem conversing musically, he admits that outside the band, he’s still the worst communicator. “I just am,” he says. “I try not to be such a social misfit. When [people] meet me for the first time, they just go, ‘What the fuck is up with him?’”
That even goes back to his days as a high school quarterback in his home town of Longmeadow, Massachusetts. “I just didn’t talk at all,” he says. “The coach would try to have me talk to him, and it was like, ‘No, please. I already know what to do.'”
Santiago might not be the best communicator, but the same could have been said for the rest the band members earlier in their career. Santiago, frontman Black Francis (born Charles Thompson), drummer David Lovering and bassist Kim Deal released five studio albums from the time the band formed in 1986 through its breakup in 1993. Eleven years later, the band reunited, and some of the reunion tour was captured in the 2006 documentary loudQUIETloud, where Deal’s sister Kelley said, “You guys are the worst communicators ever.”
But since Kim Deal left the Pixies in 2013, during the recording of Indie Cindy, there’s been a different chemistry in the band with the arrival of bassist Paz Lenchantin, who came on board in 2014 as a touring member.
“She’s just brought in a new kind of energy,” Santiago says. “She’s just a very, very positive person. She belonged right away.”
Following Deal’s departure, he says, the musicians didn’t know if they were going to keep going as a band.
“It’s just a miracle that we did just keep going,” Santiago says. “This is what we know how to do best. We don’t know any...I don’t know what else to do. It’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was, I don’t know, eleven or something. It’s happened. Nothing is going to get in the way of it. Nothing. I’ve paid the dues. We were getting paid by pizzas and beer and gas money. We drove ourselves. And it’s like there’s no fucking way I’m going to… and then we went from tour buses to nice hotels. It’s like, nah, I don’t want to do anything else. Let’s just try to keep this going.”
They kept forging on, indeed. While Indie Cindy, the band's first album of new material in two decades, was not one of the act’s stronger releases, they more than made up for it on last year’s Head Carrier, which includes tunes like “Bel Esprit,” “Might as Well be Gone,” “Classic Masher” and “Oona” that evoke classic Pixies songs.
“We’re so unique that why fight it?” Santiago says. “I’ve been trying to fight it for a while. When I give up, that’s when it comes naturally. When I just go, ‘Okay, you know what? You’re not that bad. Just do what you know how to do best and just go along with it.’”
While preparing to record Head Carrier, Santiago says, the process mirrored the making of the 1989 masterpiece Doolittle. All four bandmembers sat in a room and hashed out the songs and picked the ones to demo. They took the demoed songs to producer Tom Dalgety, whom the band met in 2015, and he chose the songs that he thought would be good for the album.
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Santiago says the new material fits flawlessly into the band’s live sets. ‘It’s part of the language,” he says. “It’s seamless. It’s just totally seamless. You know, we notice some of the kiddos out there singing along with it. It’s nice.”
On the current tour, the band has been drawing from some ninety songs that it’s rehearsed.
“It’s just the way it is,” he says. “I think at this point, a set list would just confuse us. Looking down and, 'That’s next.’ How do you even know what’s next? You can’t even tell if it’s going to be appropriate for the next song. You don’t even know what our mood’s going to be like at the end of two minutes.”