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Road Trip to The Pixies: Does the most important band of the 90's still have what it takes? Plus an Interview with David Lovering.

11 May 2017

To talk about the Pixies these days, we first need to get a few things straight.

Yes, Kim Deal is gone. No, She's not coming back. That's over and done. The band is still very much consumed by the art of making new music. Of course they're doing this to make money, but that doesn't preclude a desire to be good at it as well. You, if you're very lucky, probably enjoy whatever it is you do to make the rent. That doesn't mean you'd keep showing up to the job if you didn't get paid.

Oh, and one more thing? Frank Black is not your bitch.

He is not your fucking karaoke machine. Neither is he your hero nor is he your pal. He doesn't know you. And you don't know him. Not like that, anyways. Frank doesn't owe you shit. He's only still playing shows because he feels like playing shows. He's not here to rekindle your youth. And he really doesn't give two shits about his band's place in history, whatever that may be. No, this is not Cool Dad Rock. Fuck you for thinking even for a second that it might be. This is still a very weird and very dangerous band. Same as it ever was.

Got all that?


Now, we may proceed.

. . .

Of course, the Pixies are more than their chief songwriter and rhythm player. Joey Santiago has only gotten better as a lead guitarist with age and provides the crucial fireworks that lift so much of their catalog into the stratosphere. David Lovering infuses much of the vital quirkiness that makes the Pixies the Pixies. Nowhere is this more evident than in their live shows, where his swampy sense of percussion and instinctive gravitation towards a downbeat makes him appear almost as if he's just dancing with some sticks in his hands behind the rest of the band, while he just happens to hit the kit at the appropriate times. Lovering is, at his essence, a Ringo Starr sort of drummer. A drummer that plays to the song, thereby becoming an integral piece of it. We had a chance to sit down with David a few weeks prior to the show.

Jeff Hewitt: A lot of people might be surprised by your early influences, which aren't really rooted in Punk -- but rather drummers like Neil Peart or John Bonham. Was there a conscious decision early on to sort of pare down your style to fit with what the band was trying to do from the start?

David Lovering: "You know.. When I think back to the first rehearsals.. Even the first demo tapes. I was a lot busier as to my approach to playing on the songs. And I don't know that there was a conscious decision to pare that down to a more simple approach, or if it just happened that way, but I went from a five piece kit with a lot of cymbals to a four piece with half the cymbals. Definitely, less is more."

Not to rehash the whole Kim Deal story, as I'm sure you're all sick of talking about it -- but as a drummer who's had to go through a few bass players in a short period of time, can you talk about how that's affected your playing?

"What's interesting with Paz*.. is that she's just a real virtuoso. Not only on bass, but also on piano, violin, and cello. Whatever she picks up, really. She's amazing. For years I just.. You know, I only ever played with Kim Deal. That was all I knew. I didn't know any different as far as how other bass players might approach playing. Paz is just so accomplished. And what's amazing that's she's done for me, really, she's just so good, that it's pushed me to play better. I've stepped up my game just on that alone. Because I just don't want to be embarrassed around her."

"One other thing about Paz.. Is just the person she is. The band is getting along so well right now. Better than we ever really have. And she's the reason for it. We're very fortunate to have her in the band. She's been with us for four years now. Long enough that she's an official Pixie. With Joe, and myself and Charles**.. She still feels like the new kid on the block. And because of that, the rest of us are really all behaving."

*Paz Lenchantin, who joined the band in late 2013, replacing Kim Shattuck of the Muffs who briefly replaced Kim Deal
**Charles = Charles Thompson: Lead Singer AKA Black Francis. AKA Frank Black

Are you still writing the set-list for your shows?

"Not anymore. I used to, years ago. But what we do now is.. Well, we don't really use a set-list. We've got a live microphone that only feeds to the band members -- we're the only ones who can hear it. And we have certain hand signals. Really, only the first song is set, because the sound engineer needs to know what that is. After that we just wing it. We have about 60 to 70 songs that we know, a master list that we choose from.. We've learned after playing so many shows that there are certain combinations of dynamics that work. At least two songs that we have to play, and then from there it's all just how we feel in the moment."

When the band broke up in '93.. I heard that you eventually just stopped playing all-together? How difficult was it to pick it back up when you guys reformed in '04?

"I did some sessions after we broke up. So I didn't quit playing completely at first. I mean.. the Pixies being gone was such a huge disappointment to me. To the point that drumming just fell by the wayside. I became a magician. I spent years learning magic to become proficient at that, and it was the farthest thing from my mind that the Pixies would ever get back together. So when that came up, I was like, really? Are you kidding? It was pretty much just like riding a bike, when I had to play I just picked it right back up."

"One thing that's funny? Back in 1993, all the other band members were buying new instruments. Really nice stuff. I had been using the same drum-set I had used forever. So I said, I'm gonna get a new kit. I went out and bought a really nice Gretsch kit, top of the line. Spent so much money on it. And then the band broke up. They sat in their cases, never played.. From 1994 to 2004. When we reunited, I went out and unpacked it all -- and that's the kit I've been playing ever since."

You mention, 2004. I know that was a tough year for you, with your father's passing. It occurs to me that I've never read anything about him? What did he do? And how did he react to your becoming a musician?

"Oh, my Dad was a sign painter. Same with his Dad, my Grandfather was a sign painter as well. And my sister went into sign painting. Later on, rather than having the artistic ability to paint either.. You know.. Sides of trucks or billboards, it all became about using printers and vinyl lettering."

"It's funny, I wasn't trying to really.. I was an electronic engineer, originally. I had just started doing a job doing that. And at the same time the Pixies were getting on in Boston. And we got signed by a major label. And I had to make a decision to either keep the job or do that music. Which is something I had always wanted to do since I was a kid. I loved working with electronics, but there was a special affinity with music that swayed me. My parents.. At the time. I was lucky to pay off my student loans with it, so that helped. But my parents started off wishing I was a a doctor or a lawyer instead of an engineer, and then I became a drummer and they were just.. Let's just say they didn't like the decision."

What was the process this time around, as far as songwriting?

"We had seven weeks of pre-production. Where we set up in various places to work on the songs. And the luxury of that was.. Well.. That was a luxury in and of itself. We never really had the ability.. We couldn't afford to do that in the old days. We'd only have a week or two. Or worse, we'd be working stuff out in the actual studio. There was a whole new comfort level, this time around.. It was a joy. It was almost like, how we were in Boston before getting signed. Where we would just play in clubs with no pressure. Figuring out songs well before we recorded them. Played them and played them and played them. It just makes it so easy when you have that kind of time."

Given the differences between now and how the industry was when you guys first started putting records out, what does success look like for Head Carrier for you? And what is the likelihood of another studio album past this one?

"Well, you know. Since we did Indy Cindy.... That was a big step for us. We were sitting around, just kind of resting on our laurels. And once we got over that hurdle, of putting something out after a really long time.. It just made us realize and remember that making a record is something we like to do. Just recording and playing. And really, it's not any different today then it was back then. You hope that you sell enough records to make a living. You hope the fans respond to the music."

Last question.. You've got to realize.. I know you tend to avoid this. But you have to know that you're a huge inspiration to so many drummers, and other musicians. Dave Grohl, for example.. Who I don't believe would be Dave Grohl if the Pixies had never recorded "Debaser." What do you listen to now? And do you hear yourself in any of these bands?

"I.. I listen to a lot of stuff that is nostalgic for me. I don't know that I think that I'm really all that influential. Honestly, most of the time, I can't hear it like that. If the Pixies come on the radio, someone has to tap me on the shoulder and be like, hey, you're on the radio. I don't really hear music in that way."

Have you.. Have you ever met Dave Grohl? I have to imagine that he would be a total fanboy with you. He's a huge Pixies fan.

"I did. He.. (laughs) He was very nice. Very nice to me. But.. Then again.. You know?"

"I just..."

"I don't think I'm anything special."

"I'm just really.. I'm not that big of a deal."

. . .

The last time I wrote about this band, I made it clear how important they are to me -- laying out in no uncertain terms how much of a personal connection I have with this group. Not that that has much bearing on anything in particular. To be sure, the individual members of the Pixies don't have the first idea on how to respond to that kind of love and adoration. And there's nothing wrong with that -- they wouldn't be the Pixies if they did.

I was, perhaps, overly kind regarding their 2015 release, Indy Cindy. In my defense, I probably didn't have the heart to kick my heroes around while they were obviously trying to regain their footing, but the album ended up as a hodgepodge mishmash that really doesn't feel like it holds an honest position in the band's overall catalog. Fast-forward to their late 2016 effort, Head Carrier? Is this a better album? Is it worthy of bearing the vaunted Pixies logo on its cover? Or is this yet another cynical attempt by yet another jaded group of musicians to cash in on a once fabled heyday?

The short answer, is yes. This is an actual, honest to goodness, real Pixies record. And if you're wondering about their live show, these days? They're amazing in every way.

Head Carrier is at every turn a better record than Indy Cindy. Both in sheer magnitude of sonic quality as well as thematically. Spending some time with Frank Black's lyrics, you're taken on an exploration around the concept of cephalophores -- the Greek word from which "Head Carrier" is a literal translation. These are Catholic Saints who wander, searching to choose their final place of rest while literally holding their own heads in their hands. The story goes that these saints did so in order to obfuscate their burial spots and avoid being harvested for relics by grave robbers intent on making a few quick bucks off their corpses. Black has ever shown a lyrical fascination with Christian mythology due to an early belief and membership in a particular evangelical sect known as the Assemblies of God, alongside an influence at a young age by the father of Christian Rock, Larry Norman. While Frank eventually fell out of his Church going beliefs, biblical references pepper much of this new work as well.

The core of this project -- thematically, at least -- lies revealed in one lyric in particular, in "Plaster." "I can’t dance but I don’t wanna bore ya / Last line from the Cephalophore / I’ll be the son of a son of a son of a bastard" -- I'm fairly sure this a reference to Nebraskan Poet and activist, Erin Belieu's poem titled of the same word. And if we look up the last lines of that poem, we see the following: "...of a long gone boy / not named for a distant Saint, / and the consecrated style with which/ he carried himself, searching for / the grave to take his suffering."

Think about that for a moment. Think about how that might apply to Frank. This runs deep. Decapitation is in and of itself deeply symbolic of a severing of a thing before it's time is through. Obviously, the very concept of Frank Black, or before that -- Black Francis -- shares much with the Saints, who receive a second name in death. As in the poem, Charles Thompson didn't choose his alternate names from a Saint, but rather from his father's choice of a name for a second son. A son that was never born.

Decapitation dreams often occur in a period of illness. Or in a time when the mind of the dreamer is unwilling to accept a new physical limitation, such as age. The symbolism can indicate a divide between the body and mind. A separation of the head and the heart. An earlier line in Belieu's referenced poem further outlines the overall structure of the lyrical work on this record: "a category of stubborn saints / who don't lie down until / they choose the grave."

Does that sound like anyone we know?

Of course, the ironic thing about all this to me is how much attention has been paid to the song Paz wrote for the band, "All I Think About Now" -- for which Frank Black penned the lyrics after she asked him to as a thank-you note to Kim Deal. And I have to wonder if Paz was unaware at the time that the whole of this project is, in the end, symbolically a lament at Kim's departure. At the too soon severing of that connection. And at the entire notion of a band Black once described as "a beautiful corpse" taking it's last.. Mulishly obstinate steps before reaching a final destination.

. . .

Of course, the younger generations don't entirely get the power of this band. I've played some of my favorites for my teenage daughter and she just rolls her eyes and waits for me to leave so she can go back to T-Swift. Hopefully, she'll grow into it one day. The aged twenty to thirty something musicians I hang around? They respect the music, but don't necessarily feel it like I do. As for the original fans, there are many who constantly whine and moan about the Pixies. Indeed, it's almost a pastime to deride whatever the new record is. For some of us, nothing they ever do will match the raw power of Surfer Rosa. Hell, my favorite will always be the debut album -- Come on, Pilgrim. And to me, the quintessential Pixies song will always be the first track on that record -- "Caribou." Which is, incidentally, the first of the Pixies I'd ever heard.

But to ignore this new work is to miss a thing of complex, sad beauty. A deeply intricate construction that has been built on top of everything that came before it. That couldn't exist without a lifetime of this music. And honestly? I truly believe that Head Carrier is as least as good as Bossanova. If not better.

Who knows.. Maybe this is the end of the line for our reluctant heroes. Maybe there won't be another record.

Maybe they're done.

But I certainly hope not. I pray there's still a few more steps for them to take before the end. I know, I've said this before. But after this show and this record?

I still believe in the Pixies.

And you should too.


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11 May 2017

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