Pixies' Joey Santiago Talks Tour, Recording With Steve Albini, Alt-Rock's Early '90s Explosion

Pixies' Joey Santiago Talks Tour, Recording With Steve Albini, Alt-Rock's Early '90s Explosion

By Greg Prato

Feb. 6, 2023

Although Nirvana seems to always get the lion's share of credit for breaking down the doors commercially for alt-rock, there were several other similarly-styled bands that helped pave the way prior to 1991. And one such band was certainly Pixies. Formed in 1986 in Boston, the classic Pixies line-up was comprised of singer/guitarist Black Francis, guitarist Joey Santiago, bassist Kim Deal, and drummer David Lovering.

By the dawn of the '90s, Pixies had become one of the leading "college rock" (a term often used before the now more common "alt-rock" tag) groups, on the strength of such albums as Surfer Rosa and Doolittle – plus such popular tunes as "Monkey Gone to Heaven" and "Here Comes Your Man." But by 1993, the band was kaput, before reuniting in 2004.

Since 2014, Paz Lenchantin has been supplying bass in place of Deal, and in May, the band will launch "leg one" of their 2023 North American tour – in support of their eighth studio album overall, Doggerel. Santiago spoke with AllMusic shortly after the announcement of the US dates, and was up for discussing the band's history and future plans.

AllMusic: I understand the Pixies are planning on doing a lot of touring this year. What can fans expect at the shows?

Joey Santiago: Well…we don’t have a setlist – so that could interest people. We've got a lot to choose form each night. But most of the time, we'll do the "bread and butter ones" – "Where Is My Mind?", "Hey," "Debaser," "Monkey Gone to Heaven." Those are always on the list.

AllMusic: How do you know which song you're going to play next?

Santiago: Body language. Charles [Black Francis' real name is Charles Thompson] will just start a song, and we'll know it. And, he has a microphone that he tells us, because we have in-ear monitors – a walkie-talkie kind of thing.

AllMusic: What are some of the more uncommon songs you enjoy playing?

Santiago: From the old ones – because we hardly ever do it – would be "Motorway to Roswell." It's not hard, it's just one of those, "Oh, we're doing this tonight? Oh, shit…OK!" And the new stuff from the new album. Most of the stuff is ingrained. I'm leaving on the 18th…I start practicing on the 18th, before my flight.

AllMusic: Last year saw the release of the album, Doggerel. Was it written and recorded during the lockdown period?

Santiago: It was. And doing that during the lockdown, when people were just starting to tour – without cancelling shows – we had a tour planned and we were recording the record, it seemed like, "OK. There's a light at the end of the tunnel with this virus." For me, subconsciously, it had the feeling of hope. You record an album, you're going to want to present it live – so, it has that feel. And it's my first time co-writing songs – so that felt good. Lyrics, too – what the fuck, man! That was a weird one. It's like, one of the best lyricists on the planet is asking me to do lyrics? Are you kidding me? I gave it a shot – and it worked.

AllMusic: Why do you think it took so long for you to collaborate on songs for the Pixies?

Santiago: I just never fixed anything that wasn't broken, y'know? We've been doing fine like that. And during Covid, I just started fooling around with an acoustic guitar – because I don't fool around with an electric guitar. And I started stacking chords together and making sense out of them, so, I presented it.

AllMusic: Which songs off the album are particular standouts for you?

Santiago: I love "Get Simulated." It's simple, and I like the little nod to Keith Richards I did on it, rhythm-wise.

AllMusic: Who were your guitar influences, and who are guitarists who are your peers that you admire?

Santiago: The peers, right now I would say Tom Morello. His playing is cool and unique. And as far as the old-timers would be the obvious ones – Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison.

AllMusic: When the Pixies reunited in 2004, what was it like playing a bunch of small warmup gigs, and then suddenly, playing in front of 50,000 people at Coachella?

Santiago: The smaller gigs are really more nerve-wracking for us. For me, anyways – because they can see you…and look at your laces, y'know? But what we did there was we toured through Canada. The first show was in Minneapolis, but we went through Canada, and then we headed to Coachella. So, by that time, we were really comfortable with playing the songs. I'm not going to lie to you – when we were at Coachella, I didn't know it was that big. It felt like the old days when played festivals. We have that. We're not like a new band out there, that doesn't have this experience. We've had this experience before. We headlined the Reading Festival for crying out loud – back in the day. So, we're used to the pressure.

AllMusic: Gary Smith – who owned Fort Apache studios and recorded Come On Pilgrim – passed away recently. Do you have any good Gary stories you’d like to share?

Santiago: I never really hung out with him, but he just was always friendly, nice. I remember going to a party in his apartment. I made a comment about his lampshades and how cool they were. [Laughs] That's what I remember. He seemed to be really proud of the lampshades. There was a lot of thought into that detail. He's a producer – he's got that "detailed mind."

AllMusic: How would you describe the Pixies’ relationship currently with Kim Deal?

Santiago: I would say it's how we left it. We said our goodbyes, and that's it. We really don't communicate with her, but there's no hard feelings on my end, and I'm sure there's no hard feelings on her end. She's living her own life. In between tours, the four of us really hardly mingled with each other. I don't think Charles and I have talked since we left whatever airport we left – Heathrow. So, it's normal that we haven't talked.

AllMusic: It seems like the common narrative with ‘90s rock music is Nirvana came along out of nowhere and changed the musical landscape and introduced alt-rock to the masses. But it seems to get overlooked that several bands helped clear the path, such as Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and of course, the Pixies.

Santiago: You know when you play telephone, when you whisper in someone's ear, and you say, "Fudge." And all of a sudden, it comes up to you, and they say "Lemon Tree?" It's kind of like that. For me, it started probably with the Beatles, and then Lou Reed. It just strung along and then came to us – and then Nirvana blew up. It was just a perfect storm for them. Everything started getting accepted as that. It was truly alternative at the time. Now, everyone's alternative. It's almost like, go pop and go the other way and you'll be alternative. Alternative to what? What are you alternative to? 5,000 other bands?

AllMusic: At the time, did that whole explosion around 1991 catch you off guard?

Santiago: I had no idea it was going to blow up that much - considering the music that Nirvana put out wasn't in a commercial pigeonhole at the time. In that sense, it became a surprise.

AllMusic: Did you ever meet Kurt Cobain?

Santiago: No, I did not. But I met the other two – Krist and Dave.

AllMusic: What would you consider to be the definitive Pixies album?

Santiago: It would be Surfer Rosa. Because that's what blew everything up for us. And to this day, a lot of bands love the sound of Surfer Rosa.

AllMusic: Speaking of Kurt, he was supposedly a big fan of the drum sound that Steve Albini got on that album.

Santiago: Yeah, exactly. It was a combination of songs and the sonics that we got. So, it was the whole package of what you would expect from an "audio art."

AllMusic: How would you compare working with Steve Albini to Gary Smith, early on?

Santiago: Well, Gary Smith did do a bit of pre-production with us. With Gary, we worked fast – I think we did it in two or three nights. We worked around the clock. He worked fast and was very enjoyable to work with. With Steve, the same thing – he was a funny guy. At the time, it was our second record that we were doing, and I really didn’t have any gauge on how to compare people. I was just there to record. I really wasn't paying attention – at that time – to what a producer does. I wasn't interested in equipment, microphones…I didn't give a shit about that. All I cared about really was, "How come I go in the control room, and that's not the sound I'm hearing out there? What's going on?"

AllMusic: Future plans? Projects?

Santiago: Aside from touring, that's about it for now. I want to get back into composing. That will be next. That's just hard to line up, but I really, really want to do film music.

For a complete list of upcoming Pixies tour dates, click here.