The Pixies: Play What You Want

From left: Paz Lenchantin, David Lovering, Black Francis, Joey Santiago

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

From left: Paz Lenchantin, David Lovering, Black Francis, Joey Santiago
From left: Paz Lenchantin, David Lovering, Black Francis, Joey Santiago

In the vein of alternative rock, few bands carry the weight of the Pixies, the cerebral project started by Black Francis just over 30 years ago. The Bostonian four-piece released some of the biggest rock hits at the tail end of the last millennium, including their instantly recognizable track “Where Is My Mind?,” inspiring a countless number of younger acts along the way, perhaps most notably an anger-fueled grunge trio from Seattle who admitted to ripping off one of the band’s songs for their own track, a little tune called “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” After going on hiatus in 1993, wiped out from touring and the pressure of the world’s desire for continued creative output, the band reunited in 2004 for a few poorly received albums before parting ways with bassist Kim Deal in 2013. The band’s most recent release, Head Carrier, turned that streak of bad luck around; the album is the band’s strongest full-length release since going on hiatus and is full of well-written, well-played tracks.

The Pixies’ return to greatness may have had something to do with how they made Head Carrier, which marked a significant change in the Pixies’ recording process. On each of their previous albums, that process was short as could be; the band would spend a few days getting ready to record, hop in the studio, get the job done and get back on the road as soon as possible. On Head Carrier, the band — who, for the first time, had nothing else to focus on but making the best record they could — spent six weeks in pre-production, which gave singer Black Francis and co. time to iron out the kinks and figure out what worked and didn’t work. “By the time we got into the studio, we knew the songs inside and out and were ready to play,” Francis says. “It made the entire process a lot smoother for us.”

Time can’t take all the credit for the band’s rediscovered genius, of course; most of what’s good about Head Carrier lies in how it reminds us that Black Francis remains one of modern rock’s strongest and most unique talents. Keeping things fresh gets a bit more challenging over the years, he says, but the key lies in staying focused on all the musical spaces you haven’t yet been to. “You find you’ve already been down a lot of avenues, so you have to find new places to go,” he says. “Otherwise you keep doing the same thing again and again.”

The band walks the line between old spaces and new on “All I Think About Now,” where they mourn the musical loss of Deal, issuing one final and proper goodbye to the creative force essential to crafting their early sound. “Remember when we were happy?” sings — ironically enough — Deal’s replacement, Paz Lenchantin, who joined the band as a full-time member prior to the writing of this record. “That’s all I think about now/ If you have any doubt/ I want to thank you anyhow.” It’s a peaceful sendoff to an old friend, a refreshing way to usher in the new era of the Pixies, and a gentle reminder that this band has come a long way, covering a lot of ground in the their three-decade-and-counting career. Reflecting on the legacy the band has left so far, Francis seems to feel good about the mark he’s left. Though his own kids don’t yet appreciate his music — they’re still at the age where they’re rejecting what Dad thinks is “cool,” he says — he has hope that fans will reflect fondly on what the band has been able to accomplish.

“I think people will look back and think we were a smart band,” Francis says. “Smart about the way we were writing songs and what we were saying. At least I hope they will.”

With all the perspective he’s gained from writing dozens of songs and touring the world over, Francis’ advice to the next generation of rockstars is simple: play what you want to play and your path will unwind before you. “Don’t dwell on [finding your own sound] too much,” he says. “Don’t get in your own head about it.”

It’s hard to say what’s next for The Pixies. At this juncture, it’s impossible to tell if they’ll crank out another album or return to hiatus, perfectly apropos for a band that has consistently proved themselves to be unpredictable at best. Either way, if there’s a lesson to be learned from Head Carrier, it’s that we can’t count the Pixies out just yet: they certainly aren’t giving fans any promises for the future, but they’re not necessarily hanging up their hats, either.

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