The larger-than-life legacy of the Pixies: Download Central with Sanjoy Narayan - Hindustan Times
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The larger-than-life legacy of the Pixies: Download Central with Sanjoy Narayan

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Jun 21, 2024 07:50 PM IST

The ’80s band may not have had a lot of mainstream success, but they’ve influenced generations of rock legends. And they’re still going strong.

Early this month, the band Pixies released two songs: a new original titled You’re So Impatient, and a cover of the 1955 classic Que Sera, Sera.

The band’s new original, You’re So Impatient, runs just over two minutes and is a tense song about love dynamics between two people, set against the grisly backdrop of a dead shopping mall full of zombies. PREMIUM
The band’s new original, You’re So Impatient, runs just over two minutes and is a tense song about love dynamics between two people, set against the grisly backdrop of a dead shopping mall full of zombies.

It was a big deal. Any new release by Pixies is. The story of the 38-year-old band, formed in Boston, is the stuff of legend. For most of their career, they have been an underrated group, but their influence in the late ’80s and early ’90s, on bands that would become huge successes, is undeniable.

Nirvana, Radiohead, The Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer and many others have often declared how much Pixies shaped their music.

The new original, You’re So Impatient, runs a shade over two minutes and is a tense song about love dynamics between two people, set against the grisly backdrop of a dead shopping mall full of zombies.

The version of Que Sera, Sera is an eerie twist to Doris Day’s original, which featured in the 1956 Alfred Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much. The Pixies version was created for the American TV horror series From (2022; about an American city that imprisons everyone who enters).

These are the sorts of things one expects from this band, whose current line-up features Black Francis, Joey Santiago, David Lovering and Emma Richardson.

Francis, 59 (born Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV) is the lead vocalist, lyricist, and plays the rhythm guitar; Santiago, 59, plays lead guitar; Lovering plays the drums. Richardson is a new addition. The former bassist of the British Band of Skulls was recruited this year after Pixies abruptly announced the departure of Paz Lenchantin, who had been their bassist for a decade. Lenchantin had replaced Kim Deal, co-founder and bassist, in 2014.

When Pixies started out, with the mini-album Come On Pilgrim (1987) and studio album Surfer Rosa (1988), the reception in the US was lukewarm. Europe took to the band more wholeheartedly. Their style of alternative rock contained elements of punk rock that appealed to audiences in the UK and Europe, which had a more established punk/alt scene then.

Yet, from their early days, other musicians were big fans. In an interview still available on YouTube, the late David Bowie calls theirs among the most compelling music of the 1980s. He quotes a cliche that goes something like “Not many people bought Velvet Underground’s albums but those who did started a band themselves” and points out that, similarly, not many people may have bought Pixies records but those who did wanted to play like them.

The band stood out for its trademark song structure, which was innovative at the time. They were the first rock band to alternate relatively quiet verses with explosive blasting choruses. Francis’s lyrics were unique; he used unconventional narratives to talk about what might be everyday subjects, creating a surreal effect.

The other standout was the band’s lead guitarist, Santiago, whose textural riffs, abrasive, minimal, and unpredictable, gave Pixies the sound they are known for: a blend of punk and classic rock.

By the time I got to see them perform live, it was 2015. The gig was at New York’s storied art deco Beacon Theatre, and John Grant, then relatively unknown, was opening for the band. A new Pixies album, Indie Cindy, had just been released, featuring the new bassist Lenchantin. The hall was, surprisingly, not filled to capacity, but the band delivered the goods.

Delving into their catalogue, they performed a mix of old and new songs. From 1989, they did Debaser, which references surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. They played 1991’s U-Mass, named for the University of Massachusetts that Francis and Santiago both attended (both dropped out to become musicians). They performed Monkey Gone to Heaven, a 1991 nod to environmentalism; and many more. For the encore, if I remember right, they performed Vamos, an old song with a chorus in Spanish.

In 1993, after five studio albums, the band broke up. Deal moved full-time to what had been her side band, The Breeders. Francis segued into a solo career, occasionally performing with Santiago. Lovering, curiously, became a magician.

Then, by the early 2000s, the four were reuniting for occasional gigs, and released a song or two. In 2013, Deal formally quit the band. Lenchantin replaced her, and more albums followed after Indie Cindy: Head Carrier (2016), Beneath the Eyrie (2019), Doggerel (2022).

Compared to their pioneering late-’80s and early-’90s albums, which defined their abrasive yet melodic style, the newer releases have tended to be more polished while still capturing aspects of their classic sound. There is still something very distinctive about it.

Their quiet-loud dynamic, once a trademark, may have been adopted by many others, but the Pixies do it in a style of their own. Lenchantin’s departure could disappoint some fans. She played the violin too, and her vocals complemented Francis’s well. Yet, in the ongoing, evolving reunion, the quality of music has never flagged. A cruise through the Pixies discography bears this out.

Another way of appreciating their music is to watch them perform without rock’s heavy amplification. There is on YouTube a 10-year-old video of the band playing at an NPR Tiny Desk Concert. Francis plays an acoustic guitar, Lenchantin is on violin and Santiago’s lead riffs are tender. It is worth checking out.

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