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I Believe in the Pixies: Catching up with Joey Santiago

12 May 2015
“I live cement. I hate this street. Give dirt to me. I but lament… this human form – where I was born… I now repent.” – “Caribou,” The Pixies, 1987

It is six-thirty on an October morning in 1987. I am languishing in the too warm sunlight. My hundred and fifteen pound frame is shrouded in an overly black, extra large, 100% wool sweater. I have been wearing this for far too many days. It badly needs a few go-rounds in the Maytag but it sports sleeves long enough to obscure wrists artfully damaged in a foolhardy attempt not one month prior. You’d think somebody might notice I haven’t changed clothes in awhile, but I am odd and weird and generally of poor hygiene on the best of days. It is known that home is a nebulous concept at this point in my life. That if I haven’t crashed at a friend’s house the previous morning, I likely slept on the street somewhere. Or up on a rooftop. No one seems to give it a second thought. I am fifteen and tragic. Too young to live. Too stupid to die.

I am standing at the beginning of a side street. A five minute walk will empty out onto the busiest road in the city. I’m supposed to be heading into class when the thought strikes me. I can end it. I can end it now. I have but to make the short trek down this avenue. Reach the boulevard. Step out into a truck. It will be over quickly. Eighteen wheelers scream down this route every morning. It will be easy. A momentary burst of pain and then nothing. I take the first step.

I have no compellingly interesting motivation to commit suicide. Not really. I’m lonely. I feel misunderstood. I’m tired at too young an age. Certainly a hundred thousand people before me have had better reasons. And yet… I quite simply cannot face another day. I take more steps.

I think about the poor sap behind the wheel. Who is he? Why is he here? Will he feel remorse for running me down like a random squirrel? A foolish, self absorbed creature that for no decent reason simply decides to lurch into his path. Will this mess him up? Is it fucked that I’m involving a complete stranger in my private nightmare? Maybe I should leave a note in my pocket? Let him know it isn’t his fault. Not really. Just an accident of happenstance. I take more steps. Almost leisurely. Up to a four lane thoroughfare that by all rights should be bristling this time of day with any manner of angry commuters. I look left. I look right.

There isn’t a car in sight.

The street is completely empty.

Numb, I let slip a mumbled stream of profanity. Decide to skip school entirely. Instead morosely wander the commercial district for a few hours. I find myself at the “Tracks” record store. I come here often. The manager, Travis – he’s unlocking the storefront as I close in. He glances up. Frowns as he notes my illicit presence. “Uh.. Hey brother. You..” He steals a look at his watch. “Aren’t you supposed to be.. You know..?”

“Nah. Fuck school today.”

He shakes his head a little sadly. “Duuude.. You know.. You can’t hide out here. I need trouble with cops like I need a hole in the head.” I shrug and turn to leave, but he waves me over and speaks conspiratorially. “Ah.. Shit. Tell ya what. Since you’re here. I’ve been holding this thing for you.” He dips inside to rummage behind the counter for a few minutes and walks back out with a bootleg plastic cassette. “New guys. I think you’ll dig em. They’re called the uh..” He pauses and squints at the scrawl across the scotch taped label. “Yeah. Okay. They call themselves, ‘The Pixies.’”

Later that afternoon I sneak into school. Hop the locked fence that closes off the balcony in the auditorium. Thread my way upstairs and then climb through a crawlspace that leads into the rafters with access to the theater’s lighting equipment. I am safe here. No one will find me. I snag my battered walkman from a duffel bag and pop in the cassette. The music roars to life through a cheap set of headphone speakers. Within minutes I realize that I am listening to the most important band in the world.

* * * * *

It’s two o’clock in the afternoon nearly twenty eight years later. I’m staring nervously at my phone. Three minutes ago I tried to call in for this interview but it slipped to voicemail. I call again. Still no answer. I give it five more minutes and make the last attempt when all of a sudden the miracle of modern cell phone technology pipes in his distinctive sprawl of a voice.

“Heya. Joey Santiago. Who’s this?”

The conversation starts easily enough. It’s as though I’m speaking to a man I’ve known for most of my life, which in a weird sort of way, I have. Joey Santiago formed the core of the band alongside frontman Charles Thompson in 1986.

Of course The Pixies never succeeded in the manner they by all rights should have. Instead, they paved the way for lesser bands. Bands birthed by their massive, chaotic sound. Bands cribbing notes gleaned by the careful study of Black (Charles Thompson) Francis’ inscrutable lyric sheets. Bands that The Pixies would later be reduced to gigging for as an opening act. It’s a travesty, really. But for a few years in the late eighties throughout the early nineties? Those in the know knew that The Pixies were absolutely vital. That They Were Going to Change Everything. And change everything, they did. From a certain point of view.

Jeff Hewitt: Next year will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the band?

Joey Santiago: Oh Jesus.. Yeah. Yeeeeahh. I was talking to Charles. A few weeks ago. And uh.. Thirty-five years we’ve known each other. [He’s lost in thought for a moment.] We were suite mates. At college. We lived in a dorm. He was like, two doors down in a suite. We had a a living room. Common area. And yeah. He played his own songs. Which I just thought was.. You know, I went to college to start a band.

There’s been a lot of press about Kim Deal’s departure, but it seems to me that what a lot of people forget is that the core of the band really is you and Charles Thompson.

Well. Yeah. Yeah, I guess. But.. Yes, she answered an ad. But she was the person right away that we got along with. And we didn’t bother trying other people after we met her.

Can you tell me a little about Charles and how you work together?

Well… he writes the songs. And he’ll give me the chord structure. Back in Boston he’d come over to my apartment and we’d jam out. I remember him coming over and showing me “Monkey Gone to Heaven.” He came over and.. It was my first home. I didn’t even have a phone. And he goes, “Yo Joey. You gotta get a fucking phone!” And he comes in with his acoustic guitar. And he says, “Hey.. What do you think of this?” If man.. If man is five? Then the Devil is six. And God is seven!

I liked it. But it turns out now it’s one of my least favorite songs to play. Oddly enough.

What’s your favorite?

Well.. It. It changes, you know? But right now.. It’s always changing. But I love playing “Indie Cindy.” I just love playing that. From the old catalog? We finally played “Brick is Red” a few weeks back. I like that a lot right now.

Really? That’s.. See, I woulda guessed.. Because the solo on –

Oh! Oh, and “Vamos.”

Yeah, I woulda guessed that you love playing “Vamos” because it always sounds like you’re having a blast on that solo. When I think about what defines you as a player that’s the first thing that comes to mind.

Yeah. I just go shithouse on that. I don’t know why. It just.. calls for it, you know?

With a thirty year career behind you and so much that’s changed now.. I was fifteen when I first heard “Come On Pilgrim.” I had just come out of getting into The Cure –

Oh yeah!!! The Cure.. Man. I was.. I was – I grew up in the suburbs. We didn’t have college radio where I was. So uh. The most punk thing I listened to.. I was in high school. Ninth grade. The most dangerous band at that time was AC DC. Not that they were all that dangerous, but I heard “Highway to Hell.” And I went to see them in concert. And it was like. Fuck. Dammit!!! You know? That’s when I got it. I was like, I want to do that!!! It wasn’t making a record anymore for me. It was live performance.

Is that the most important thing for you? Performing live?

Well… that’s what turned me onto playing music. It was no longer a piece of hardware. Seeing them made it a live thing. And it just clicked for me. “Ohhhh. That’s right. They get to do this too.” And it was. I was like, Yes! Yes! I want to do that. That there’s more to music than just listening. And then the other one. The other thing that turned me onto it was Black Flag. I was studying somewhere in UMass.. In a public area. And I saw Charles walking by, and he goes, “Joe! We gotta see this band!” And it was close by. So we went in, and it was like. Oh my god! I remember how pissed the custodian.. He was sweeping up stuff. Glass. There was a mosh pit, which is a thing I never got. I never understood why do you want to hurt yourself? But I loved the energy of the crowd. And I was like.. Yeah, okay. **This** is punk. I was a little into it with Iggy Pop. Stuff like that. We went to college, and that opened up our minds.

But when I think about the sound of The Pixies.. and I think this is important. A lot of people talk about the punk vibe of what you do. But to me the biggest thing for you is stuff like Dick Dale. The Ventures. You know.. Surf guitar?

Oh yeah. Absolutely. And Link Wray too. You know.. We were taking summer classes. And listening to surf music. And getting **really** high. Charles had a big point, that the biggest surf band out there was the Beach Boys. But they were also one of the only ones with lyrics. And when I started playing guitar.. it wasn’t.. It’s not that I was taking it to the next level. But I played along with the character of that music and listened to the lyrics and it was a huge thing for me.

And the other band.. For some reason I always think of you and Sonic Youth as being intertwined? Is there a connection there?

Oh yeah. It was.. The funny thing is that.. I mean.. We had different audiences. But we were both outsider bands. We’d find out.. or they would find out when one of us was going to release a record. And the other would move the release date. Cause we were sort of in the same niche. And we didn’t want to compete with each other.

I don’t.. I know you’re getting asked a lot about Kim’s leaving. And I don’t want to make you rehash the stuff you’ve said elsewhere.. But it’s the gorilla in the room for you guys right now. I know a lot of people ask, “Why a new album.” To my mind it makes sense. You’re songwriters. That’s what you do. But the process on “Indie Cindy..” It doesn’t seem as organic as the earlier work.. Do you.. ah.. Are there any plans to return to your roots and maybe.. Put something together that’s conceived as a whole from beginning to end?

Ayup.

Really??

We’re working on that right now. It’s going to be.. Almost like the same as the original kind of process. Because.. You know. I guess.. Kim was really hesitant on making new music. So that’s why we kind of piecemealed it this way. We couldn’t really.. Jam it out. As such. And.. That’s probably one of the reasons why.. it has this different pop to it? But now I think.. It’s.. We’re working on new stuff and we’re in the same room now. Yeah.

You can’t see my face but I have a huge smile on it right now.

Hah! Yeah. It’s a different vibe now. Well.. no. Not different. Now we’re back to square one. We’re going.. And the next album is actually going to be a.. Another sophomore record for us. We’re back to being sophomores again. And it’s the second record after.. Well.. You know.. After…

After being away for awhile.

* * * * *

“It feels right here in the sunlight and this ride is almost through..” – “Jaime Bravo,” The Pixies, 2013

It’s roughly been a month since I spoke with Joey Santiago. I am now forty-three years old. I consider the wistfulness in Joey’s voice as he talks about what the band is trying to do now. There has been no shortage of naysayers when it comes to their future prospects. Words like has-beens and sell-outs have been bandied. I imagine that he cannot help but be bothered by it at some level. Yet the man was born to play music in front of an audience. It is the thing that he is best at in this world.

With the departure of Kim Deal many have crawled out of the woodwork to proclaim the band’s halcyon days as far gone. That all our heroes can do now is tarnish a time tested body of work. That they should simply play the old songs. Forget about anything new. But I ask you: What are The Pixies are supposed to do now? Close up and go home?

I think of Tennyson. My favorite poem. – “But something ere the end, some work of noble note may yet be done…” It may be that Charles Thompson, David Lovering, and Joey Santiago have nothing left of any real note to contribute to the vibrant, writhing pulse that is rock and roll. It may be that they’re done. I don’t know. It may be that it is foolish to think that any of us have anything to offer the world coming into middle age. But I also know that if there had been cars on that road all those years ago? I’d have missed out on a better life.. I’d have never made it to what I’m good at now.

I have to believe in second acts. In third acts. And fourth acts. I have to believe that our lives are whole arcs. Filled with promise all the way through that cannot be contained by mere windows of youth. That the best times in any of our lives lie yet ahead.

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven – That which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

* * * * *

I have to. I just have to. Do you understand me? I have to believe in The Pixies.

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12 May 2015

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