A man in the queue for the The Pixies reunion gig at Brixton Academy is asked why he thinks they broke up: “They were too good. They had to stop sooner or later.” And why he thinks they got back together: “They were too good. They had to sooner or later.”
Between forming in Boston in 1986 and splitting amid animosity in 1992, The Pixies created five albums from the combination of Charles Thompson’s distinctive wail and strange lyrics versus the drawling whisper and tickling bass of Kim Deal, the guitar brilliance of Joey Santiago and the precise, infectious rhythms of David Lovering. It was rock music so distinctive and powerful that it captured the hearts and ears of nearly all those who heard it.
Despite this, they achieved only moderate success during their first incarnation. Unlike so many other acts of their era, The Pixies never managed to crossover. Splitting up just as America’s alternative scene was heading into the mainstream. But celebrated by everybody from David Bowie to Radiohead, and eulogised in the music press, they became everyone’s favourite discovery. Never truer than when it was said about the Velvet Underground, not a lot of people bought their records, but everyone who did formed a band.
The playing of their song ‘Where Is My Mind’ in the closing scene of über-alt film Fight Club further helped introduce them to a new generation. And so when they began a reunion tour in 2004, it made them a lot of money, made a lot of fans happy and forced them to face their legendary status.
That reunion has been documented in loudQUIETloud, a film by Steven Cantor and Matthew Galkin. Its title coming from The Pixies oft-copied sound dynamic. Likely to be as close a portrait as we’ll ever see of them, we get to witness the triumphant shows and the devotion of their fans worldwide. But we also see the blisters, the boredom and signs of the tensions that broke them up the first time around. There is little high drama though. This is more a story of four middle-aged people dealing with their own problems and priorities, while coming together to reform a strange force they were once part of all those years ago.
A fan long before he filmed them, I ask Cantor if anything about the band surprised him when he finally got to meet them: “I think what was most surprising was how utterly normal they all were. I think they’ve all been humbled by the fifteen years since they broke up, so they were just really regular, down to earth, easy-going, approachable people.” Though this was to change as their confidence in their own status grew: “As the tour went on I think they kind of regained their rock star swagger a little, which was interesting to observe.”
We talk about one of the key things the film captures, the fact that the band hardly communicate. “Well I think it’s there in the film that they don’t interact with each other,” Says Cantor. “There is an amazing dynamic when they get on stage, they have this amazing electricity, this chemistry and you think they must love each other and love their music and love their fans. But if you’re privy to what’s happening backstage you sort of think, ‘Wait a minute everything that was going on stage must have been artificial, they don’t even talk to each other’. He goes on, “The Second they got of stage they went off in their own directions and said goodnight.”
But what of The Pixies own view of their staring role and return to the stage? After several calls, a “Can you call me back in five minutes?” and a “Can you hold on just one second?” I finally get to speak to Charles Thompson, AKA Frank Black or Black Francis. Apologies and explanations out the way, I ask him how he feels about his portrayal in the film. After a long pause he says: “Mildly inaccurate but I kind of like it. I mean, it’s a documentary, they’re not just turning the camera on randomly you know. Even subconsciously they’re kind of looking for something that fits their hunch about you.” He continues, “But in a way, maybe it’s better. For once I’m shrouded in a little mystery and you know, jeez, I don’t think I’m a very mysterious guy.”
Twelve years is a long time in anyone’s life. Did he find it difficult to go back to the old band and those old songs after such a gap? “No it wasn’t difficult. It was difficult the first time around,” he says with a slight laugh. “Once we got over the stress that led up to it, the tension, the apprehension about it all, once we all got back together in a room and said ‘Hi’ it was like all those years apart were disappearing and we were like ‘What were we doing five minutes ago?’ except 5 minutes had been 12 years, so it was kind of surreal.
Their 2004 tour was one of the fastest selling shows in music history, but Thompson appears to be little surprised by the massive popularity of their reunion: “Even when we were nobody, playing our first gig to like 50 people, I remember there was this general kind of feeling of support from people we didn’t know and we were just this band starting out, tuning our guitars for five minutes in-between songs. But even then there was this kind of reaction like ‘Whoa, you guys are really special or something’ and people seemed amused, confused and delighted all at once and it’s always been like that.”
So does he feel they’re finally getting the recognition they’ve always deserved? “Deserve is not how I feel, I think it’s nice. I subscribe to the showbiz attitude of ‘You get what you get.’ If you’re blessed, then gather ye and say thanks and if your not blessed then try hey, try again, that’s showbiz.” He adopts a high voice, “Showbiz baby!”
Despite being cited as an influence by so many, Thompson refuses to be drawn about The Pixies legacy on music: “I’m the classic wrong guy to ask. I’m on the inside looking out and you and other people have that shared perspective that you can see things in this comparative kind of way. Whenever people bring up this ‘Oh, you influenced the so and sos’ I don’t really hear it. I hear rock music. Whether it’s Nirvana or it’s anybody, I don’t hear it the way other people hear it.”
He has his own views on what made them such a special band: “Erm, well of course there is my genius,” he says in deadpan tones. “But besides that my perception of things is that we are just regular people. Even if people exalt us, whoever it is, I think exalts us because we’re not up there trying to be all pretty, we have a diamonds in the rough kind of quality and people like that. People like an underdog you know.” The Pixies – ordinary people who made extraordinary music.
By Kenn Taylor