The South Carolina Music Guide

The Pixies: “Monkey’s Gone to Halley’s Comet”

When the South Carolina Music Guide asked me to conduct a phone interview with a member of the Pixies, I was excited to talk to one of the most iconic bands of the 90’s. The Pixies loud-quiet-loud formula was jarring at the time, a welcome break from the blandness of pop and even college rock of the late 80’s. Bands like Nirvana, Radiohead, The Strokes, and Weezer have cited the Pixies as influences. With so many bands citing them as an influence, some wonder why they haven’t been in consideration for Rock Hall status. After breaking up in 1993, the band reunited in 2004 for a series of dates that evolved into a tour, some festivals, more touring, and eventually new songs. At some point during these reunion tours, they realized that their reunion had lasted longer than the original incarnation of the band. They began to write new material again, but came to an abrupt change when bassist Kim Deal, a cornerstone of their songs and image, left the band. The Pixies went on to record three EPs with different people playing bass. Those EPs ended up becoming 2014’s Indie Cindy LP. They started a new tour this past Friday, and they stop in Charleston on May 11th. Last week I got to do a phone interview with the Pixies’ guitarist Joey Santiago, who describes his sound as “angular and bent,” cruising from a loud sonic plow to a tasteful surf riff. I had a few dozen questions ready for Joey about: the new album, how it was being received, what fans can expect on this tour, how well has the new bassist (Paz Lenchantin) worked out on tour, is she a member of the band or is the door open for their original bassist (Kim Deal) to return, would there be new music, how often he gets to bike on tour, and other personal thoughts. What I got was one of the most lighthearted and funny conversations I’ve had in years. And I learned almost nothing about what is happening with the Pixies.

TB- Good morning Joey, this is Tim Brennan from the South Carolina Music Guide.

JS – Oh hey. Wow. I forgot I had an interview this morning.

TB- Sorry about that. Do you have time right now?

JS- Not really. I just got my breakfast. Can you call me back in fifteen minutes

TB- Sure. Talk to you in fifteen.

JS- Man, sorry. I’m such a space cadet.

TB- No problem. The least favorite part of any artist’s career may be the interview. So I appreciate any time I can get. After checking with his PR guy to make sure Joey didn’t have another interview immediately after mine, and that I could get enough time with Joey, I called back and reached him right away. 

TB- Where are you right now?

JS- Nashville.

TB- I wasn’t sure where you guys would be. I was given interview times in pacific, mountain and central time zones.  How’s Nashville?

JS- Time does not exist. Not for the Pixies. We don’t “do” time.

TB- Is the rest of the band there or are you adding visiting Nashville to get some country influence on your own?

JS- I think I have a couple of country riffs. I’m not sure. Nothing big. Just a couple. (laughs) But maybe I could add some. Yeah, the whole band is here.

TB- How exactly do the Pixies get ready for a new tour?

JS- We’re just setting up our stuff. Rehearsal for crew. Then it’s us practicing songs. Might be working on new songs. Brand new songs, also we would love to road test it in this great country of ours.

TB- That’s fantastic news. We’d love to hear it.

JS- It’s in its babyform. Or like a teenager who thinks he knows everything. Like my daughter who is a tween. Teenagers know everything. But they don’t.

TB- So we might get a rough version in Charleston?

JS- Yeah, maybe.

TB- How would you describe the new material?

JS- You know like a teenager trying to get their own space. Like my kids. Like you can cure cancer or something and your kids won’t be impressed. They know everything.

TB- A little rebellion.

JS- Exactly!

TB- How does a kid of an iconic rock star rebel?

JS- She’s taking cello! My son is trying to take the violin. I taught him how to play Daytripper on it. I’d go “me likes this.” But he quit three notes short. I should put him through an amp with that eye ear candy stuff; and if he doesn’t like that then there’s no hope. Did I just say “ear eye candy?” (Laughs) that’s funny. Switching those up.

TB- Like a Picasso painting?

JS- Oh yeah, Picasso, man. Maybe my son might rebel by cutting his ear off. Wait that’s Van Gogh, right?

TB- Yup, that was Van Gogh. I hope he doesn’t go that far. (I try to get back to the topic of the pixies) I understand you guys have enjoyed working with Paz on the last tour. Is she involved in the writing process of these new songs?

JS- Yes, she is a quick study and having that quick study, she gives great suggestions. I’m trying to work out parts. I have my own set up problems. I got to figure shit out first. You know, figure my own shit out.

TB- In a previous interview, I read that you’ve embraced the “anti-guitar hero” role, the guy who goes for sounds that the song needs as opposed to guitar theory. Is that your focus, the sounds as opposed to the music theory?

JS- Oh, that’s what “anti-guitar hero” means? I thought it was because I don’t have the outfit? Oh I get it. I’m all about function. It’s the function.

TB- With your fashion or guitar playing.

JS- I’m like a third world country.

TB- How so?

JS- You got to go with your needs and be happy. In the beginning I wore this leather jacket and someone stole it. So, there I was back wearing the parka and went with the needs. The parka fit the needs of Indie Cindy. Like I said, “please accept me with this parka. Because if I can’t impress you with my personality and humor, we’re not gonna get along. So Sorry Cincy, I’m off to Mindy. Shits gotta rhyme Cindy.”

TB- When you were writing and recording for Indie Cindy, you did a lot of it in private and only let it out piecemeal, on your own label, when you guys felt ready. I read one quote from Black Francis, “we should try to keep this just part of our lives and not have it up for grabs.” Is there a sense that with the acclaim from fans and critics, and the reputation of the Pixies that sometimes other people believe they have some ownership of your songs?

JS- Nobody is allowed in the studio. It’s always been the four of us in there. You know we’re shy and we take a lot of risks. I don’t think people should be subject to that pain.

TB- Is it still painful? I’ve read how you all got along great on this last tour with Paz in tow.

JS- That’s the tour. We still get along. You can still get along with pain. I get along with people when I sprained my ribs. But there has to be pain.

TB- When Doolittle came out, I was 22 and I loved it. I’m a lot older and enjoy Indie Cindy. What, really, has changed in your mind about the Pixies sound and songwriting?

JS- We have better medication. We were a bunch of manic depressives. Our favorite song was “Manic Depression” (Jimi Hendrix). It still is. We haven’t covered it yet. We don’t want to. It would fix our anger. Can’t let that happen. When we get happy, it doesn’t work for us. We get balloons in the bus and it wakes us up when they pop. There are too many balloons. No clowns, though. We’re scared of clowns. We do not find them funny. Back in the day, while touring somewhere hot and humid – I can’t remember where, I just know it was real hot and real humid – and there was this clown that was supposed to lure you into a store. Some fucking pharmacy. This clown was outside and had this outfit on and he was miserable. Sweaty and hot and dirty. In that costume. Outside smoking a cigarette. It looked miserable. My kids are scared of clowns. Don’t talk about clowns.

TB- When you released Indie Cindy, and the EPs that built it, you gave people a lot of free ways to listen to, and own, the music. Then people still bought it when it became available for sale. Were you at all surprised that you could make money off of something that was also free?

JS- That is the most physically of what we sell – is the vinyl. I can’t play CDs. I only listen to vinyl. There was no other way to play music. I love to play my kids’ vinyl and then turn it off and have them listen to it slow down. But they tell me it stops getting funny after about 500 times. My kids are kind of scared of the end of “Good Night” (The Beatles). That whispering voice creeps them out. “The Day Begins” (Moody Blues) poetry used to scare the shit out of me. Not the words, just the voice was creepy. You hear more of that on vinyl. It was cool back then, all the stuff. The cartridge you had to get. The needles. It starts with the needles.

TB- And you probably started learning songs listening to vinyl, slowing it down to get the notes.

JS- Yeah, but that’s what make it cool about guitar. When you play guitar, you make shapes. At least I do. Blues is square. Like the Fonz, you know, “square,” and that’s how it sounds. Square. Isosceles came up with the triangle and you use the Isosceles triangle to make square walls because of the angle of it. If it is angular, it will sound angular.

TB- And the “Hendrix chord” is what shape to you?

JS- Very angular. It’s an inverted triangle and a straight down with another angle. And that’s another triangle. It’s either a question mark or an answer. It’s either hey man or what. It’s like ‘knock knock’ or ‘who’s there?’ It thinks that’s funny. Music is supposed to be funny. If only people knew what was coming out of my head and not keeping to myself.

TB- So, back to this tour. It sounds like you guys have been experiencing a kind of rebirth. Can we expect a lot more in the future from the Pixies?

JS- We’re waiting for Halley’s comet to come back and when it comes around again, that’s it. We’re breaking up. It will be a long time, though. We are working on technology where we can jump off it with bungee chords. We know some astronauts working on it. Everything has to be monkey tested.

TB- Monkey tests?

JS- No, start from ground level we’re gonna slingshot the monkey. You get the reference to “Monkey’s Gone To Heaven?”

TB- Yes, I was just thinking about that. So, monkey’s gone to Halley’s comet?

JS- Well, it’s the opposite of bungee. Not bungee off but shoot up. Like a slingshot. We’re thinking it will push it. The monkey might catch up to the comet. We’re gonna be attached to the monkey and then careen over somewhere else. We’re not PC at all. We’ll test it with a dead monkey. First, record an earth shattering record that will change the world. Then break up and just go into the ether. It has to be a dead monkey. Maybe get Michael Jackson’s monkey. But it will probably be dead by then. It will be a long time.

TB- Then look at the greens and blues from above? (in reference to the second song off of Indie Cindy)

JS- Provided our space suits make it. I am not going to go with the white space suit. Mine will be black with a leather jacket. That’s when the parka goes to the Goodwill. I’ll have a leather jacket. With a happy face. Maybe bring Animal from the Muppets.

TB- Because he’s the best musician in the Muppets?

JS- Yeah! That’s it. Animal. But not that frog. Let’s face it, Kermit is a little too ‘eco’ for us, talking about Green. You hear that song? Can’t have Kermit being green because we’re travelling with a dead monkey. Make sure you mention it is a dead monkey. It will be a monkey that died humanely. Not with my Les Paul. It will be a natural death. Don’t quote me on that. It might get accidentally hit with my car. You know the back of the monkey. As it runs away.

TB- But if the monkey climbs a wall?

JS- It doesn’t have thumbs, right? Well we can just take off another finger and make it so it can’t climb. You’ve got to keep it dry. You know, out there. Just dry. That’s me.

TB- Like your guitar a lot of time, dry with no reverb.

JS- Yeah! Like Reverb is a crutch, but sometimes you need delay. Show them when you’re shy. I want it blurry. Like Monet. Then we go from Monet to Arp, Calder. From blurry to dry. Angular. That’s what we are hoping for when the veil of reverb and delay comes down. Shit better sound good. OR else the fucking monkey better start running. Hopefully, it won’t start to climb.

TB- Back to the monkey (laughs)?

JS- Man, you have to be recording this. This is funny. I want you to have every word. Let’s get some controversy. We’re not going to be on heroin. We’re not going to get arrested. We’re not going to commit murder. Wait we might. Nobody will know that monkey. You can’t call it killing if you say ‘hello’ to a monkey and it won’t say ‘hello’ back. You can’t kill something if it can’t get you a cup of coffee. That’s not murder. If you ask it to get you a cup of coffee, it will climb up a tree and get a banana. I didn’t ask for a banana. I wanted a coffee. And if I wanted you to get a banana, I don’t want you to start eating it. And if it throws feces at me, feces is known to be poisonous and it was self-defense. When shit gets thrown at me, fucking hell. I’m gonna rage. When you see a bayonet on the end of my Les Paul, you’re been warned.

TB- So….. Don’t wear a monkey costume?

JS- That’s why we don’t play on Halloween! Gets dangerous. Monkey will have a AAA pass to our show and on our rider, bananas. But no toilet paper for that monkey.

TB- Why won’t there be any toilet paper?

JS- Not a bathroom in sight. He flings feces at me, it’s on. We need him for that fucking Halley’s comet. He needs to fling feces so we can kill him. Cause, we’re going back to what Divine says in that John Waters film, “In life sometimes you got to eat shit.” That’s it! The clown was just outside of Baltimore. Ahh, I remember that because of John Waters lived there. I remember when I saw the clown, thinking about John Waters. And the Raven. Edgar Allen Poe. The raven, slingshot wise, can’t go to space. But we can use the Raven to take a monkey finger so the monkey can’t get away.

TB- I’m not sure PETA would be down with your plan to take a monkey finger.

JS- Hey! There are two rude things that happen in life. We don’t like shit being thrown at us and we don’t like fingers pointed at us.

TB- Are you a Poe fan? He was stationed here in Charleston for a while and people here hold on to that fact, with a tavern in his name near where he is barracked. Do you get time to visit cities while on tour?

JS- That’s cool. I didn’t know that. I don’t know if Poe did free form, like Snoop. Did he rhyme? I don’t know. Maybe I should freeform. Write this (Joey pauses for a few seconds): “If you not gonna have etiquette we won’t have any ethics If he lacks etiquette…” Oh wait, what rhymes with ‘etiquette?’

TB- Semantics….. Umm…..

JS- Yeah! “If he lacks etiquette, and semantics goes out the door on another comet”

TB- Ok, I’ve written that down. And you know, ‘comet’ rhymes with ‘etiquette?’

JS- Oh yeah! That works. And ‘scat’ too. That’s what they do with scatting. Lyrics are like shit being thrown at you. Good shit. Not monkey shit. That’s where the term good shit came from. Back in the studio, someone was scatting and someone said, “Fuck man, that was good shit. “

TB- We are looking forward to seeing the Pixies in Charleston. Do you have any good memories of South Carolina?

JS- (Long pause) We visited the zoo. And we were fond of the monkeys. Very fond. I know we were young.

TB- Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I hope the tour goes well. This was one of the funnier talks I’ve had. Thanks.

JS- Yeah man, you got all of this down? I’d love to read what you do with it.

TB- Me too (Joey laughs) I’ll get you a copy.

JS- All right. Bye.

If I learned anything about the Pixies from this conversation, I learned that they have more songs on the way, and that Joey has an infectious laugh. He was laughing throughout our conversation and made me not care about my questions regarding the future of the Pixies or how they deal with expectations. I had to be reminded that the Pixies is a band that has written songs inspired by art novels and snorkeling trips. It’s a band that has created a style of recording and songwriting that influenced many of the bands who have followed. They’ve already answered just about every question. I can only hope their performance at the N Charleston PAC on May 11th is as lively, unexpected and out there as this conversation. And hopefully, they’ll play “This Monkey’s Gone To Halley’s Comet.”

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