Joey Santiago is a man at peace with himself. Lead guitarist for the Pixies, and by most accounts the driving force behind their reunion, Santiago couldn't be more content with the current state of the band. Answering our phone call with a "YEEHAW," Santiago proceeds to interview us for the first five minutes, amiably demanding to know about our lives while making some accurate guesses about why we do things.
A friendly and disarming man of 48, Santiago has spent virtually all of his adult life as a musician, since forming the Pixies at age 20 with college buddy Charles "Black Francis" Thompson. During the Pixies' long hiatus, Santiago worked extensively with Thompson on his multitude of solo records, wrote soundtracks for television and fronted The Martinis with his wife. He's just delighted to still be a working musician, and not looking for anything more than what he's currently got. "I just go by the daily sheets," he says. "Like, 'Where shall I be? The show's at 9? Oh, it's at 8:45 now? Really?'" He laughs. "That's all I am most of the time."
As you've no doubt gleaned from headlines and speculation and angry words on Twitter, the Pixies recently lost bassist and backup vocalist Kim Deal in the midst of secret recording sessions for three recently released EPs. They are the first new material since rejected soundtrack song "Bam Thwok!," which saw the light of day soon after the original reunion in 2004. One touring bassist, Kim Shattuck, has come and gone since then, and now former Zwan and A Perfect Circle bassist Paz Lenchantin is on board for the current tour. "We couldn't be any happier with (Paz)," Santiago says. "She melded with us. Paz has her own legacy, she's a player. She's right in the pocket, great bassist, great singer, she just knows everything. Everything you could expect from a musician."
The fans, as you might have guessed, still miss Deal. An influential songwriter, and the sweet and pure voice of the Pixies juxtaposed with Thompson's wailing screams, Deal left an indelible impression on indie standards like "Gigantic," "Into The White" and "Silver."
Has the band kept in touch since her surprise decision to fly 5,000 miles away from a recording session on the spur of the moment? "No. Not at all. But you know what?" Santiago asks. "We don't really keep in contact when we're not working together. It doesn't reflect on our relationship, the lack of communication." He will admit, however, that Kim had "a smile that kind of just used to draw people in. It had this addictive quality."
Asked if it felt strange recording material and writing new songs 25 years from the first Pixies release, Santiago says, "It was no different from what we did in the past. It's like, 'What time am I fixing the overdubs? What time am I fixing my shit?'" Santiago thinks such a consistent approach comes from the band's blue-collar background. "We're from New England, we still have that work ethic, y'know? We're all working-class band members. The hardest thing other bands did was try to look poor."
Isn't it strange, though, that the band has been back together for longer than their original run, by a measure of a good few years? He laughs at this suggestion. "Nooo. ..." he stops to think. "Not at all. I never ask the guys, 'Oh, how many years has it been now?' I'm just in the moment all the time. I think we'd attribute that to, if we had to explain it, that we're loving it now.
"We loved it beforehand, but we're in awe of people liking us now." Surely he couldn't have expected a Pixies comeback to be met with anything but adoration and love, right? "I think it was unexpected [that people would still love us]. We really used to always be regarded as this kind of band, this 'thing' that was more than a band. Now we're a band that people are still discovering." Santiago thinks that what the reunion has done is let another generation discover the songs of a quarter-century ago. "We had a 6-year-old girl come to the show. She was on her father's shoulders the whole time. She was right up front. I don't think she'll ever forget that. When I see that I'm like, who took who to this? Is the father the chaperone? It's certainly weird."
In 2004, the news that the original lineup of the Pixies, famous for their acrimonious final album and breakup, had gotten back together to tour the world sent shockwaves through the entire music community. There were rumors, but no one actually believed it would happen.
Then it did, and in a month the Pixies were touring the U.S. before a triumphant four-night stand in London, home to some of the Pixies' most committed fans. The shockwaves reverberated more than the guitar solo in "Vamos." Surely, without Deal and 10 years on from the blaze of publicity and delighted middle-aged indie fans, the Pixies are now just part of the musical landscape, more or less. Santiago takes a moment to consider that. "When we first got together in 2004, you know, the first time back, people just couldn't believe it. People were ravenous. The expectation was a lot more for us. We could feel the pressure."
Do they still feel the same pressure now? "Well ... it's kind of tried and true now. We just don't feel the pressure when we tour any more. We're just enjoying it. Enjoying the road." It must feel strange to play a battalion of new songs, songs that are fresh and largely unheard, alongside songs you wrote in the 1980s that have been played in college dorms and on the radio ever since. "We're back," he says. "And I can't get enough of it, you know? It feels really good." He doesn't sound fake or forced.
"It's all going over really well live. If we didn't sell it, if we didn't impress [the fans] live, then we'd have nothing, but we've converted them to liking it. It's a different animal live," Santiago says, possibly in reference to the lukewarm reviews some of the new material has received from a confused press still reeling from the idea of Pixies material recorded with a former member of The Fall on bass.
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How do you work new material into the set, then, when so much has changed musically since the late 1980s? "We pretty much start with 'Bone Machine.' Then there's two other spots, but then that's it. The rest of the set is completely up for grabs. We don't have a setlist, we're through with that. We did in the beginning, but we tossed it. You've got to feel the vibe, you've got to play to the room. We don't read music, so why do we have to stick to this "thing?" You can't tell in advance when [the audience] wants something. You've got to figure it out on the spot."
What about the future, what about the new material, and what are you going to do after this tour? If Santiago knows, he's not saying. "We have no idea!" he says, chuckling. "With the new stuff, there was no warning, I loved it! I didn't even know when it was going to drop. I had to ask our manager." But you at least knew it existed, right, unlike the rest of the world? Santiago guffaws. "Ha! Yes. Yes, we did." If he knows more than that, he's not saying. For now, the Pixies are happy to be the touring band of musicians Santiago's always wanted them to be.