In the pantheon of highly influential American alternative-rock bands that emerged during the 1980s, the Pixies arguably rank alongside the Replacements in being under-appreciated by the likes of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
This Massachusetts foursome made their mark with a sound that combines surreal lyricism, squealing but catchy noise pop, layered harmonies, and an inventive use of sonic dynamics that paved the way for numerous groups, including Nirvana, Radiohead, Blur, Catherine Wheel, Weezer, and The Strokes.
And while a hiatus that lasted from 1993 to 2002 reunited Black Francis (aka Charles Thompson), Kim Deal, Joey Santiago and David Lovering—to the delight of the group’s legion of fans—the good times lasted until 2013, when Deal left the band. The drama that comes with the dissolution of a longstanding unit was eventually resolved when Perfect Circle bassist Paz Lenchantin slid into Deal’s role later that year.
For Francis, the addition of Lenchantin was a fairly seamless process, unlike the false start the Pixies experienced when Deal’s initial replacement, Kim Shattuck of The Muffs, didn’t get past her tour with the group.
“I like [Kim Shattuck] and thought she was a good fit for the band, but you don’t really know until you actually live it and do it,” Francis says in a recent phone interview. “I think ultimately, it felt like she wasn’t a good fit. That isn’t any criticism of her. It just comes down to personality, chemistry, and that kind of thing. I think when you’ve already got a thing going and you’re trying to bring in new chemistry, then it’s almost like a different thing. That’s potentially more challenging than if you were starting from scratch. With [Paz], it felt pretty natural and pretty fresh to have someone new, but someone that feels like she’s always been in the band. It doesn’t feel awkward or anything. It feels really natural.”
With the lineup set, the Pixies returned to making new music. First came 2014’s Indie Cindy (essentially three EPs released in quick succession beginning in September 2013 and then folded into one full-length release). Then came last year’s Head Carrier, the band’s sixth studio album and first album in which Lenchantin appears as a fulltime member.
Head Carrier has the usual array of songs that deal with odd topics, be it rural roadside prostitution in France and Belgium (the punk-fueled “Um Chagga Lagga”), the Mesopotamian deity Baal (a howling “Baal’s Back”), and late actor Jack Palance, who is the inspiration of the alt-pop nugget “Talent.”
Most intriguing is “All I Think About Now,” a song that serves as a gorgeously ethereal thank you note to the departed Deal and was written by Francis for Lenchantin to sing after the bassist shared some chords that she was playing around with. And while this could have been an awkward topic to write about, Francis was matter-of-fact about how this cut came about.
“When you’re being driven by something that’s sometimes referred to as a muse, it’s magical and nice. But as I say, you don’t analyze it,” he says. “Also, those kinds of creative spurts happen very quickly, so it’s not drawn out. The muse goes very quickly when it’s there. So you know, there’s a muse thing going and then it’s gone, so you just go with it. It’s outside of you, but it’s magical.”
As for what fans can expect when the Pixies hit the stage, Francis is quick to point out that his band doesn’t engage in the usual live band tropes and are pretty straightforward with how they approach their craft on stage.
“Ultimately, we’re a dance floor club kind of band, even if we perform now in a theater setting or something like that. I think that we like to break a sweat, and I would say 90 minutes is about right for us—maybe a little bit longer if we’re really enjoying ourselves,” he says.
“I think people that play for two or three hours are a lot more orchestrated, if you will. There’s a lot more showbiz manipulation going on. I don’t want to say that we’re devoid of shtick, but our shtick usually occurs during our songs, and it’s very tongue-in-cheek, minimal, and it’s not very often. We don’t really do a set list. It’s usually an awkward start, and then we find our groove and then we charge through it.”