Other than Kim not being around anymore, for me personally, really nothing has changed," Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago explains from a hotel room somewhere in the northeastern United States. "I still appreciate it. I'm still enjoying it. I look forward to the first day of the tour, as always. I still count down. Like, 'How many more days until I get back on the road?'"
Santiago is on tour now, on an off day between shows in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. A couple of minutes into our interview, he mentions that he's going through a divorce. He is referring to his personal life, but his band has recently gone through a divorce, too. Fan favorite Kim Deal, Pixies bass player and vocalist, left the group last year, leaving fans and critics to wonder what would become of the seminal act. Will they be declared dead? Will there be some kind of Van Halen-like Pixies version 2.0? Will the Pixies ever knock it off with the drama?
The group initially imploded in 1993, just as the alternative-rock movement gained international momentum. It was no secret that its members struggled with constant friction, ego problems and personality differences. Santiago says he and the rest of the group are "very passive-aggressive" — an understatement, considering the band originally broke up via fax. But their popularity seemed to skyrocket shortly after that, leading most to conclude that the angsty crew peaked just a little too soon.
The members of the Pixies are seen as the godfathers (and godmother) of modern indie rock. Started in 1986 by Santiago and vocalist/guitarist Charles Thompson (a.k.a. Black Francis) as a college band, the foursome that soon included Deal and drummer David Lovering accidentally sparked a movement that would become the early '90s alternative-music revolution. The band's trademark "loud/quiet/loud" song structure was aped throughout the indie uprising, most notably — and blatantly — on Nirvana's megahit, "Smells Like Teen Spirit." At the head was Santiago, the shy, quietly talented figure who still holds the key to that Pixies sound in his fingertips. If Charles Thompson and Kim Deal were the Lennon and McCartney of the group, Santiago was proudly the George Harrison.
He tells RFT Music that his contributions are usually the last piece of the puzzle: Thompson writes the song and lyrics, and it's Santiago's job to add the finishing touches and not "barf all over it," as he eloquently explains. "Let's keep the story line," he says. "Blend in when you have to, in a good sonic way that doesn't get in the way. And when it's time to divert; [the guitar] needs to start rubbing against the music. That way it kind of lives in its own world."
After the breakup, each member spoke of unresolved issues and seemed to have little contact with one other as they moved on to other pursuits. Santiago found work as a Jonny Greenwood-type, scoring films and television shows. Lovering tried his hand at being a magician. Thompson plugged away at a notable solo career and formed a new band called Frank Black and the Catholics. And Deal took her talents elsewhere, starting up the Breeders — a band that became, arguably, more successful than the Pixies. So it came as a surprise when the Pixies announced a reunion tour more than ten years after its disbandment.
The very idea that a band who seemed to kind of hate each other would get back together was slammed by critics as a moneymaking maneuver, but most Pixies-starved fans didn't seem to care. To the great joy of the many younger fans who missed the alternative heyday, the group reformed in 2004 and played worldwide to sold-out crowds. It was all of the original members playing their now-classic songs, making the tour feel less like a cash grab and more like a victory lap. Each show was celebratory, a deserving band finally getting its due.
But a decade has passed since that initial comeback, and there have been some major changes to the lineup. Since Deal left last year, her bassist/female singer slot has been replaced twice — first by Kim Shattuck of the Muffs, and now by Paz Lenchantin of A Perfect Circle and Zwan. Santiago sings Lenchantin's praises, saying, "With Paz it's a no-brainer for me. I just love it. She's got a great reputation. We're lucky to have her."
This shuffling of the standard lineup brought the same old issues with fans and critics, making it even harder for naysayers to give the benefit of the doubt. Deal was an integral part of the Pixies sound, especially live. Fans wondered how they could go on without her — they also wondered if this was finally solid proof that the band members were just in it for the money.
"Yeah, you know, of course that's part of the reason. But that's not all of the reason. If that was the only reason, we wouldn't be doing this at all," Santiago bristles. "As long as people still wanna see it, that's reason number one. And a close second? Yeah, it's for the money, you know?"
"What do they want us to do?" he continues with a laugh. "What if I started digging a ditch? Would they be like, 'You're just doing that for the money!' Fuck it, this is the only thing we know how to do. We enjoy it. We're really good at this. Does it make money? Of course it does! Why? Because we're good at it!"
Despite having to adjust to a new member, Santiago says, most of the songwriting process remains the same. "We're one of those bands that, when we get together in the studio, it's like we have this magic that just happens," he explains. "We have a certain sound, you know? It's because we have good quality control. Charles probably writes subconsciously to impress us. When he writes for the Pixies, he's writing for me, for David, for Kim — but she's gone now. But he's writing for us. We're very stylistic. We're individuals."
He's right — those individual styles, when combined, still make magic. The Pixies recently released some singles and a pair of EPs that are almost too good to be true. The efforts don't sound like a group of past-their-prime musicians trying to recapture a long-lost spark; the music is solid and, well, just sounds like the Pixies. So, what's really changed for Santiago in the last decade? Not much, he says — his eagerness to explore new musical territory while still proving himself onstage as a Pixie remains strong.
"I'm a Renaissance man! This is what we do!" he says, laughing. "It's just a matter of me keeping busy. It keeps me off the streets. And, you know, I like to flex my brain muscles. I like to challenge myself."