Several words come to mind when pondering the Pixies, among them "pioneering," "innovative" and "influential." Lately, it's safe to add "resilient" when discussing the veteran rockers.
Since their 1986 inception, the Boston-born band — front man Black Francis, guitarist Joey Santiago, drummer David Lovering and beloved bassist Kim Deal — have been an integral part of the modern alt-rock mold. Last year, however, the Pixies experienced a potentially fatal blow when Deal announced her sudden departure after 25-plus years.
Despite the setback, the Pixies endured, regrouping with the help of touring bassists. Tickets to many shows on their current worldwide tour, which stops at Bayou Music Center on Thursday, have sold out within minutes.
Where many other bands' reunion attempts have fizzled, the Pixies seem to have cooked up a successful recipe for staying power. Santiago thinks the band's 2004 reunion (after they broke up in 1992) has remained successful purely due to the length of time they'd stayed off the map.
"We simply hadn't been around," he says during a recent phone call. "And we broke up at the height of our career — which was a blessing in disguise — because in the years following, people started appreciating us.
"It didn't hurt to be mentioned by Kurt Cobain [as a major influence] or to have our music played in Fight Club," he adds.
According to Santiago, the band members matured by light-years during their time off the radar.
"We used to party back then...a lot," he laughs. Nowadays, he says, the Pixies favor more conscientious priorities, like nurturing their growing families and living healthy lifestyles. Now married with two children, Santiago is an avid cyclist who tries to maintain his healthy routine while on the road.
"I'm more health-conscious now," he says. "Charles has been obsessed with Bikram yoga."
Santiago is referring to Charles Thompson, the Pixies' front man, more commonly known by his stage name, Black Francis.
Something has provided the lasting glue that keeps the Pixies intact, though it's evidently not spending quality time together.
"It's like a marriage," Santiago says of the band's dynamic. "But when we get home [from tour], we don't retain that relationship like a marriage does. In all honesty, we hardly even call each other, and you rarely see us together besides when we're all onstage.
Distance, he adds, "keeps our conversations more interesting when we are together."
But that doesn't mean the Pixies don't share a remarkably close underlying bond.
"Charles is my interpreter," Santiago laughs. "For example, I'll say something ridiculous, and people will be like, 'What the fuck did he just say?' and Charles will translate precisely what I meant. I guess it takes a bizarre person like Charles to understand a ridiculous, random guy like me. That's why we're buddy ol' pals."
With such history, it's understandable that Deal's departure was a huge upset for the band. Santiago admits her leaving was a tender subject but insists they've moved on.
"The beginning of her leaving was most difficult," he explains. "But now that the train is rolling, we don't have time to think about it. We get the daily schedules saying, 'Lobby call's at 8; show's at 9:15!' I mean, we think about Kim, but after a while it's back to business as usual."
Santiago says newly recruited touring bassist Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle, Zwan) also seems to ease the impact of Deal's departure.
"We love Paz," he beams. "She melds in with us and has a very positive personality. She also plays the violin, so she brings a whole different element to the music."
In addition to touring extensively, the Pixies have been recording new material and releasing surprise EPs during the past year. Santiago considers newbies "Indie Cindy" and "Blue-Eyed Hexe" among his favorite Pixies songs ever, calling them "magic in the studio."
Reminiscing, Santiago attempts to dissect what exactly has made the Pixies so influential and to so many.
"We were different," he reflects on the band's prime. "But we had no idea we were influencing a lot of people — we were just making music.
"You never know what the hell is going to happen," Santiago sighs. "You just have to enjoy it."
...or maybe the Pixies should just retire already.
On Thursday, Houston will witness the Pixies' first show in town since 2010, and obviously a lot has changed in that intervening time. The 2010 date was at Verizon Wireless Theater, with the band playing all of second album Doolittle in lieu of any new material, since at the time they didn't have any. But Verizon is now Bayou Music Center, and the Pixies will be playing some brand-new songs with brand-new bassist Paz Lenchantin.
Not everyone is excited, though. In fact, it's time for the Pixies to retire.
Let's start with the most obvious reason: They're no longer the same band they once were. Lenchantin is a good bassist who can probably perform all the Pixies classics admirably, but, pardon the pun, no Deal, no deal. Kim Deal was a fundamental part of the band as a songwriter, singer, performer and just as a personality within the group.
It's not the same without her, like that brief period where Aerosmith tried to replace Joe Perry in the early '80s or the phony Guns N' Roses where Axl Rose tours without Slash. Kim Deal was as much a part of the Pixies as Black Francis ever was, and without her they have lost a vital component, really, the only reason the first reunion tours worked in the first place.
But let's give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, the Pixies had been reunited for nine years by the time they gave up on Deal, and hadn't released any new material at all in that time. Anyone who knows Frank Black's career trajectory knows this is not something he can really take in stride. The man is a fountain of new songs — he's overflowing with them.
So if Deal was holding them back from making new music, fine. The only problem is that she was right to hold them back from making new music.
It's a fair point to make that the Pixies couldn't really tour those same old songs forever. Until the new songs came along, they had only five records to use in creating a set list. People were already getting bored, and the tours were met with less and less excitement because people knew what they were getting.
So for the sake of shaking things up, maybe it was necessary to record new material, except the Pixies are sort of a magical thing. Their best material was something that could never happen again, and even their last two records, Bossanova and Trompe le Monde, showed the inevitable decline after their moment had passed. Despite a minor revisionist renaissance recently, anybody could tell the act was wearing thin by Trompe le Monde, which incidentally had the least input from Deal.
But if the magic was dying by the early '90s, it's firmly dead now. Nothing the Pixies could ever do would live up to the esteemed legacy of their early work, which they've now proved by recording two bland EPs that have essentially been Frank Black solo works. That's exactly what Deal was afraid of all those years.
These EPs don't sound like the Pixies anybody remembers, save for a few scant traces. They sound like Black fucking around with genre pastiches and Pixies-esque songwriting. It might be more appropriate to call them EPs recorded by a band influenced by the Pixies than to say that they are new EPs by that band in the flesh.
They aren't even bad, either. That's the worst part. If they were humiliatingly terrible, it would at least serve as a minor amusement. These are merely diversions into the kind of generic college-rock that Pixies imitators have been spewing forth for the past 25 years, with none of the spark or songwriting genius of an album like Surfer Rosa. Essentially they're exactly what you would expect from Frank Black in 2014, and it's a shame they have the Pixies name slapped on them.
But if the Pixies could not continue without new material, then what's the alternative? Retirement.
It's not too late. As tragic as it is to see them keep going on like this with these EPs and half-baked tours with whatever female bassist they can dig up to stand in Deal's shoes, they can still retire now with at least some grace and dignity left intact. They haven't totally driven it into the ground yet.
But it's on Black's shoulders to call it a day. Hopefully he will come to his senses and retire the Pixies once and for all.
The Pixies play Bayou Music Center with Best Coast on Thursday, February 27. Doors open at 7 p.m.
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