Has the Pixies' New Bass Player Saved the Band?
From left: David Lovering, Paz Lenchantin, Joey Santiago and Black Francis of the Pixies.
The Pixies play Bomb Factory on Saturday, April 29
Joey Santiago is one of the better rock guitarists since, well, forever. He’s the auteur of the crunchy, grinding, whining, ethereal, soaring aural experience that is the Pixies. He’s the guy who, while at the University of Massachusetts with Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV — better known as Black Francis — formed the Pixies.
The band's wildly varied sound and unfiltered brain-to-mouth lyrical style influenced the likes of Nirvana, Pavement, Jane’s Addiction and the Strokes. In a business that often sees musicians lap at the ankles of the world like weak waves at low tide, Santiago is a tsunami of sound.
Santiago himself would never claim such things, of course, because he is neither a braggart nor a blowhard. Simply put, Joey Santiago is real. So when he comes out with something that sounds grandiose, you can give him a little leeway.
“We’ve got it back,” Santiago said of his band during a recent phone interview with the Dallas Observer. “We’re comfortable in our own skin again. We’re re-embracing who we are.”
That’s an interesting triptych, each statement inviting a question: What did you lose that you had to regain? Why were you uncomfortable in your own skin? Why did you lose the grip on who you were?
The answers are familiar in rock history. In retrospect the band’s downfall appears inevitable, with two hard-headed musical geniuses — Francis and bassist Kim Deal, later of the Breeders — knocking their noggins together like bighorn sheep.
Since 2004, the Pixies have made a few attempts to shake off the ego-impact trauma and give it another go. But nothing notable ever materialized.
That is, nothing until the Pixies reconstituted began touring in December 2013 with Paz Lenchantin, a female bassist starkly reminiscent of Deal's dark beauty, instrumental command and haunting vocals.
Now, as the Pixies embark on a world tour in support of their record, Head Carrier, the pressure on the "new girl" is even higher
“Her enthusiasm and positive vibe is definitely rubbing off on us,” Santiago says. “She’s a creative monster, first of all. But we’re also plenty aggressive, and she gives us that little bit of a sweet quality that we need to be more complete.”
The woman who may be a mystery to many of us is well-known in the business. She was a founding member of A Perfect Circle, in which she backed Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan, and Zwan, Billy Corgan’s post–Smashing Pumpkins project. Regardless these bona fides, given the fact that Deal provided a solid foundation for the Pixies’ best work Lenchantin has some big shoes to fill — even if she is known for playing barefoot.
“Hey, wait a second,” says Lenchantin. “There was maybe once that I was playing barefoot at a gig. It happened during a period where I was surfing a lot, and I was just coming off of the beach, and I got up and played with no shoes on. It became, like, a thing — a foot-fetish thing. There’s this website for that, and there are a lot of my feet photos on there. But I definitely wear my shoes when I play, I can tell you that!”
Born in Argentina to parents of Armenian origin, Lenchantin grew up in a musical family. Both her mother and father were classical pianists, while her older sister was a cellist, she a violinist, and her younger brother a violist. “We were sort of this classical music Carter Family,” Lenchantin says. “Since I was itty-bitty, I learned how to play music as part of life.”
She played a couple of public recitals, with her mother on piano. But mostly the family music spilled forth at home. In Lenchantin’s case, it happened partly in secret, in the privacy of her own bedroom — and with a peculiar twist.
“At age 10 I made friends with the devil,” she says.
Beelzebub in this case was Paul McCartney. “I was at a grocery store with my best friend at the time and her dad, and I heard this incredible pop song on the store’s sound system,” she says. “It was like nothing I’d never heard before — a different time signature and everything. I went up to her father and I said, ‘What is this? What is this music and who did this?’
“And he looked at us with wide eyes and said, ‘Kids, this is the Beatles,’” Lenchantin says. “The song was ‘All You Need Is Love.’ The time signature is 7/8, different than anything I was really familiar with.”
Upon returning home, Lenchantin wanted immediate answers from her mother, who was drinking tea with a friend. “Mom, do you know who the Beatles are?” the girl asked. “Who are the Beatles?!” With that, her mother and her friend broke out laughing.
“I was frightened and intrigued,” Lenchantin says. “I became obsessed.”
Being from a strictly classical-music family, and with a mother who kept her kids on tight schedules, Lenchantin dared not flaunt her obsession with blasphemous and messy rock ’n’ roll. Instead, she removed the high-E and A strings from a guitar to create her first bass and retreated to her room. She filled her daily 45-minutes of free time — after school, ballet lessons, and practicing music at home — by building up her fingertip callouses on the strings of her makeshift bass.
“I was a closet bass player,” she says. “I didn’t want my family to know what I was doing behind shut doors.”
Well, it was a little weird what went on there. “I would go into my room and get my bass out to play, and put my two front teeth on the body of the guitar,” she says. “That was my first amp — my head would amplify the sound. And that’s what I did until I learned all of the Beatles songs that I could possibly learn.”
To this day, when she’s trying to refine a lick or get her 1969 Fender Precision bass tuned just right, she still puts a gentle bite on her instrument. “I’m just lucky to still have my two front teeth,” she says.
The Pixies play Bomb Factory on Saturday, April 29.
Lenchantin is also lucky to be at the right place at the right time, playing in one of the great post–punk, pre-grunge bands as it surges back into form. “Pixies have this great song called ‘Planet of Sound,’” she says, “and I really believe that music is like that. It’s a planet of its own. I’m really happy and fortunate to be on it.”
Head Carrier’s tracks resonate like the “old” Pixies, in the best way. The title song flows from a mid-tempo guitar intro that takes off and soars in trademark Santiago style. There are layers of sound, including a distant backing vocal by Lenchantin. At 3 minutes 36 seconds, it is the second-longest tune on the album. Only "Oona," at 3:37, is longer. To the Pixies, as to most punk bands, shorter is better.
On “Classic Master,” a campy takedown of the self-conscious, self-important hipster, Lenchantin asserts herself with a prominent backing vocal. Lenchantin and Francis sound very much in tune, and on this song, perhaps more than any other one on the album, the sound of Kim Deal enters the listener’s mind.
As for Kim Deal the person, she is nowhere more present than in the only song on the record where Lenchantin takes the lead vocal, “All I Think About Now.” The track begins with a deliberate reference to one of the band’s better known songs, “Where Is My Mind,” with a high, wistful woman’s voice floating above the distorted metronomic twang of Santiago’s guitar. A version of the tune recorded by Santiago and Lenchantin recently served as the soundtrack for a Samsung “Perfect Day: Gear VR” TV commercial.
“All I Think About Now” came about in the way that some other great songs occur: by accident. “This is a strange thing,” Lenchantin says. “I’ve read it about other songs done by other bands. All of a sudden there’s this new song that comes up out of nowhere. And, well, it was kind of like that.”
Francis and Santiago recorded the bones of the song with an iPhone and sent it along to Lenchantin, asking her to set the bass line and essentially complete the song. But she found Francis’ and Santiago’s parts on the recording difficult to discern, and, unfortunately, she fucked up. The band was in London at the time, recording Head Carrier.
“I could only really hear Joey’s guitar,” Lenchantin recalls, adding that she and Santiago and Francis were staying together, in a flat connected to the studio. “I went up to my room and made this whole song over this twinkling guitar sound. I thought it was a great song. I found it beautiful.”
But when she handed over her recording to producer Tom Dalgety (Killing Joke, Royal Blood), he did not find it beautiful.
“It was a mess,” she says. “It was in the wrong key — it was the wrong everything. I was really embarrassed.”
Delgaty’s face told the story. “Tom was looking at me, like, ‘Paz, this is not like you. You’re always really on-point.’ I was, like, 'I’m sorry. Let me fix it.' And so, I fixed the song I had created to make it go with the one Charles wrote.”
The song was better — but not good enough to make the initial track list of Head Carrier. She asked Dalgety and her bandmates to listen to her reworked version, and Francis, for one, heard something he liked. “He felt that it was je ne sais quoi,” she says. “He said, ‘There’s something magical about this. You should sing this song for the album.’”
Lenchantin agreed, but with the condition that Francis write the lyrics. He asked the bass player what she wanted the song to be about.
“That’s when the room got silent,” she says. “If there was, like, a grandfather clock in the room you could have heard it ticking. It was about midnight. I was thinking, ;What do I want to sing about?' Finally, I blurted, ‘Kim!’ It was like a firework! It went off, like, boom! Like a firework that spelled out Kim, K-I-M! Let’s sing about Kim!”
Lenchantin calls the resulting track “a thank you letter.”
“We were in our final stages of recording the next Pixies record,” she says. “I was feeling almost like I wanted to cry. I was so grateful. I was in London, recording this record, with these great people. I was like, ‘Man, thank you, Kim. If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be here.’”
Lenchantin has never met Deal in the flesh but feels inspired by her. “I only know Kim through the spirit world,” she says. “I met her in a dream. Early on, when I was just starting to tour with Pixies. I really wanted to do a good job and, I think, because of that I was trying too hard.
“One night I had a dream, and she came to me. Just like a pixie, a real pixie, a sprite. I’m going to be honest, she was wearing a full leather suit. [She laughs.] C’mon! I mean, it was a dream, OK?! She was totally hot!”
In the dream, Deal whispered in Lenchantin’s ear. “She said, ‘If you want to be like me, don’t be like me.’ I understood it as, Be a Pixie. Be true to yourself. So that’s what I’ve done. You want to be original, to have the spirit of being yourself, and not to copy. Kim helped me realize, in that dream, what’s important is being myself.”
The Pixies, 8:30 p.m. Saturday, April 28, Bomb Factory, 2713 Canton St., sold out, thebombfactory.com.
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