Pixies – Q&A

QRO got to speak with Joey Santiago and Paz Lenchantin of Pixies about the new album 'Doggerel'....
Pixies : Q&A
Pixies : Q&A

Doggerel and the Optimistic Doomsday Guy

QRO got to speak with Joey Santiago and Paz Lenchantin of Pixies about the new album Doggerel.

In your correspondent’s teenage years in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the excitement accompanying the advent of a new Pixies album was akin to several birthdays rolled into one for some of my friends and I. Music was a unifier for many of us, living in a tense society divided along political and religious lines. Several decades later, I’m living in Boston, Massachusetts, where the band emerged from all those years ago, trying to get the sound working on a Zoom call with one of the greatest and most humble guitarists of his generation, no less than Pixies co-founder Joey Santiago. We are scheduled to talk about the brand-new Pixies album Doggerel along with bassist, keyboardist and vocalist Paz Lenchantin. Initially, Santiago and I kicked things off and Lenchantin soon joined us after finishing a delayed prior interview.

At a time when most of their contemporaries have become greatest hits jukeboxes and release pale imitation self-imitation albums, Pixies seem to have tapped into a rejuvenated creative drive. This is something very evident on Doggerel and I wanted to use the conversation to dig deeper into how that came to be. 

QRO: It’s good to meet you, Joey. I’m Frank, originally from Belfast and now living in Boston.

Joey Santiago: Great! I’ve got a soft spot for Belfast. Really like it.

QRO: I first met you guys there on the Bossanova tour, when I was a 17 year-old high school kid. That was quite a musical baptism for me.

JS: Wasn’t that in a boxing arena or something? A crazy venue!

QRO: That was the National Stadium boxing arena in Dublin the night before. Belfast’s Ulster Hall is more of a city hall and ballroom kind of venue.

JS: The Dublin Olympia is such a great venue. My God!

QRO: Yes – the scene of some of my favourite shows ever, including David Bowie over couple of nights in 1997. [where he wore a ‘Death to the Pixies’ shirt during his encore] 

Bowie wearing Pixies

Shall we get started? 

JS: Yeah. I’m sure Paz will be long soon. Let’s do it.

QRO: I’ll lead by saying that I’ve been listening to new the album Doggerel for a couple of months. Coming to it as a long-term Pixies listener, I have to say I’m feeling a genuinely strong musical progression from Beneath The Eyrie (2019 – QRO review), which manifests itself even more strongly on this one. I don’t want to use the words, “return to form.” More of an evolution. Is it fair to say you’re more confident as a creative working unit again?

JS: Yep, yeah! I mean, we’re gonna evolve. And I don’t want to over explain it, but fuck it. That’s what’s happening and that’s what’s gonna happen, right there!

QRO: It’s got to be hard for a band in your position build upon your distinctive sound and still manage without falling into that familiar trap of sounding like you’re rehashing yourselves by numbers.

JS: We really never did that. From Surfer Rosa through Trompe Le Monde, we never really revisited any of that stuff. We just move on. No point in doing that.

QRO: Obviously, there was over a decade where you guys had ceased operating as a band. You came back, toured significantly and it was about eight years before there was any significant amount of new material released. 

JS: Yeah, I think when we hit the seven-year mark, we realized that was how long we’d been together first-time round. It was time to do something. It was time to be a real band again.

QRO: Was that unsatisfying for you or had you agreed to just play live and not record new songs? 

JS: That reunion just kept going and going. I really thought it was just going to be two years. After we hit that seven-year mark, where it was as long as we were first together, it started to feel a little silly just to keep doing this shows.

We’re gonna evolve. And I don’t want to over explain it, but fuck it. That’s what’s happening and that’s what’s gonna happen, right there!

QRO: To an outside observer it did seem odder the longer it went on, for such a vital a band to kind of be a self-tribute act or legacy act and not make some new work. 

JS: Yeah, that makes that makes sense. I started feeling like I was in one of the best Pixies cover bands. We knew we owed it to ourselves to do better than that.

QRO: Coming to post-reunion album #4, I know that it can be hard for long established artists to draw their audience in to the new material. No matter how good, so many just assume it’s probably not going to be as good as the older material. Do you sense that too and does it frustrate you? 

JS: Yeah, it’s frustrating. 

Hey Paz!

[enter Paz Lenchantin]

Paz Lenchantin: Hey! Sorry – I was on another interview and we went over.

QRO: Great see you, Paz. Thanks for joining! I was just asking Joey the people who say, “Oh I love Pixies music, but I don’t listen to anything after Trompe Le Monde”…

JS: I can be like that too. Sometimes I don’t give people’s new stuff much of a shot, so I understand. Right, BUT… THIS SHIT’S GOOD! I mean, if I had one dream or goal. The dream is… We’re gonna break that cycle with bands coming out with new material and it’s just going to be just as good as we ever did…. and I think we did it.

QRO: I truly so believe you have done that with Doggerel. Yourselves and Midnight Oil, who had an 18 year album gap, have both made new records that hold up alongside your best work, this year. 

JS: [laughs] Yeah. But you know I’m not gonna listen to that shit. Ha-ha. I’m kidding – I’m kidding. I will listen to it! You know, when we touring, we bumped up to them at a festival and they were really nice. Here’s the kicker… The drummer looks like fucking Dustin Hoffman! Dustin, what are you doin’ playing fuckin’ drums?

QRO: I bet Dustin Hoffman doesn’t play drums nearly as well as Rob Hirst. 

JS: Ha-ha. No!

I started feeling like I was in one of the best Pixies cover bands. We knew we owed it to ourselves to do better than that.

QRO: I’m dying to ask Paz this question. How do you feel about what we’ve all been through in the last couple of years having denied Beneath The Eyrie the chance of being fully toured, promoted and ultimately appreciated?

PL: I was kind of heartbroken about that. And when you’re heartbroken, you want the next thing to be even better than your ex. But yeah, it’s like – next! How are you gonna feel better about that? In my mind, it was like, the only way that I can redeem this heartbreak is to make the next one even better.

So, it’s very exciting to have succeeded, even though honestly, I love Beneath The Eyrie, I’m also like, I just love this new record, Doggerel. And… I’m glad that this is how we’re coming back. Glad we’re not coming back just nine months later, in between records. No, we’re coming back better. And it’s like ‘BOOM, here’s the next one!’ I’m very, very happy about that.

QRO: When you toured Europe over the summer, did you play much material from both of the most recent records live?

PL: I’m gonna be honest. There’s just so much material to play. One of the reasons why we don’t like talking to the audience too much. I mean, we talk to each other on stage, but there’s just so much we want to play and we don’t want to overdo it with time. So, we’re kind of like, okay let’s just play as much as we can. Talking less means more music. With the current record Doggerel just out, you want to give all of those songs a stage time.

You want to be like, “Hey, you’re part of the Pixies family now – get on stage!”. So, there’s twelve new songs that you want to give an opportunity to have at least a couple of cameos. And so, then what do you get? We have been playing some songs from Beneath The Eyrie for sure. We have a couple. “Death Horizon” was one of the songs that we play a lot. And I can’t really think but yeah, we do something from every record. That’s for sure!

JS: Yeah, when we toured Europe over summer, we’ve done the new stuff that’s been slowly leaked or released as a single. So, we’ve done “There’s a Moon On”, “Vault of Heaven”. And we’re doing “The Lord Has Come” and the other single, “Dregs of the Wine”.

Pixies’ video for “Vault of Heaven”:

QRO: So, Paz, I was reading that that you’ve been directing some of the band’s recent videos. What’s the origin of your video directing talent?

PL: I’m very surprised by this development, but yes, I’ve directed several Pixies videos. Fortunately, I’m getting to do one of the things I like that was a hobby. I went to film school and obviously, as you know, music is my profession. But being in a band, you have to make a music video at some point. My first one was for “Classic Masher”. And after that I’ll get asked, “Do you want to do a music video for this song?” And I always say “Yes, yes! I have a great idea.” 

So that’s the beginning. And then it’s like, “Wait, what’s the idea? Are you sure you want to do this? Or that you CAN do this?” But I’m starting to really enjoy working with people who do it for a living. Now it’s kind of developed into this place of collaboration where I’m just producing with a storyboard that I have created and find a director that I want to work with. “Vault of Heaven” was the last one that we made. The one that I fully directed was for “Human Crime” and I really enjoyed that because it used animation. That’s something I like to do. We used stop-motion animation in a very whimsical and almost amateurish kind of way. I never want to lose that fun, amateurish style. You can try to make it all slick now on a computer, but I like it really raw.

Pixies’ video for “Human Crime”:

QRO: Joey, speaking of the visual presentation of the band. At the end of 2019 you guys suffered the loss of your long-term collaborator and friend, the genius graphic designer Vaughan Oliver. Without a doubt Vaughan having designed all of your single and album covers since the beginning was intrinsic to the iconic mystique of Pixies work. Coming to a present a new record, is the legacy of that partnership something you had to very carefully consider?

JS: It’s such a shame. I had no idea Vaughn was sick and he was still a relatively young man. The guy we are working with now was his protegee, Chris Bigg from Envelope 23. So, it’s been smooth, as it’s really just been handed down. And you know what was weird? The last time I saw him, for some reason as I was leaving the building, I just turned to him and said, “Hey Vaughan, I fuckin’ love you man!”. And he goes, “Joey, I fuckin’ love you too,” and we hugged and that was it. 

QRO: That’s beautiful. I guess that gives you some kind of a sense of comfort too.

JS: Yep. Absolutely.

QRO: Joey, this is the first time a couple of songs you’ve written have been included on a Pixies album. Pretty good ones too. What I most want to know is, why did that take so long to happen?

PL: Ha-ha-ha. Good question!

JS: I guess it was because I just thought that Charles [Black Francis] wanted to just keep writing and writing and writing. And when he kept saying, “Oh no, contribute guys,” I thought that’s just lip service, you know? To be honest, I do that. I mean, the first thing I picked up was an acoustic guitar. So, I’m not one to sit there and learn a song. It takes me a long time and it’s not fun. You know, it’s like, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”, I might as well be learning that again. So, I’ve always just fooled around to come up with new stuff.

QRO: So, has this record been much different in its creation? I was informed that Charles came to the studio with a bunch of songs already demoed. Was it a communal process to choose what makes it on the record?

JS: As long as there isn’t already a guitar part written for it. That’ll piss me off. It really will.

QRO: Is that what your veto comes in?

JS: It will rub me the wrong way, yeah. But, “Vault of Heaven” had that. So, hey, I guess if it’s really good… you know.

QRO: Back to you Paz. As the person who’s come into the fold most recently, how democratic do you find the creative process of being a Pixie?

PL: It felt natural. Not like when you have to think about something too much or feel you have to try do this or try to do that. One of my favorite things that Joey says all the time is, “What we do for a living is play.” We play and this playfulness is, semantically speaking, when things are effortless because you’re having fun. And the second that it becomes work or difficult you know that’s not right. But it was right from the beginning. And it was very easy. When something is easy, it’s because we can just do it without thinking. And I don’t know why when it’s good, it’s good. But it sounded good, so we keep doing it.

There’s just so much material to play. One of the reasons why we don’t like talking to the audience too much.

QRO: That’s what I thought about the last record. Here’s a band who have known each other for a long time, in a room together making a record that just sounds like they’re loving what they’re doing. The un-forced excitement and energy was coming across on the recording. And I think all of that sounds to be even more true in the case of the new record. 

PL: I think every single time I’m in the room with these awesome three and of course Tom [Dalgety] in the control room producing, I just feel like the luckiest person on the planet. We get to do this! And we’re doing it the way that I’ve always wanted to do it. And that is as a band. This format is something that is changing now. The definition of what is a band is kind of changing. And but this is how this is how I know band to be. Get in a room and play and having the opportunity to do that is like, wow!

JS: There is this one thing that we did on this record that we didn’t do at all before and we’re gonna keep doing it. Fuck yeah! We had like a residential house studio in Vermont. In the morning we would go over the songs. Dave [Lovering] would have this little toy drum kit. It was the New England winter and there was snow on the ground. Everyone’s on a couch or chair, whatever you want, pillows. We were literally just goofing around with the songs. Just kicking around and just playing it with it. So, we were totally relaxed. And then I’d go home and think, ‘It wasn’t that bad.’ Now I feel I could go up to the studio with a little more confidence.

QRO: That that shows in the end result. Everything just feels natural and it doesn’t sound like you’re overworking or forcing anything. The record flows really well and the quality is consistent. I was reading that Dave had carpal tunnel surgery when you guys had the break. Paz, have you have you noticed a difference when working with him?

PL: I mean, I suppose mainly after we play he’s not wringing his hands and going “ouch.” He’s a really solid player, you know, and when you’re playing music the last thing you’re thinking about is a pain that you have. I remember one time I had like a broken ankle and the guys were saying, “Are you sure you still want to play?” I said, “Well, I have two options. Either I’m in pain playing music standing, or I’m playing sitting down.” When you like playing music you kind of forget about everything.

So, there’s a moment where you’d rather be doing the thing that you love and then you kind of forget about that. I’m not going to speak for him. I’m sure he probably has a different answer than me. But that’s the way I’m gonna answer that. He’s always been a solid player, and I’m sure it just feels a lot better for him after he plays.

The last time I saw [Pixies’ late collaborator Vaughan Oliver] … I just turned to him and said, “Hey Vaughan, I fuckin’ love you man!”. And he goes, “Joey, I fuckin’ love you too,” and we hugged and that was it.

QRO: Charles recently said to the NME that looking around he thinks, “The world is going to hell in a handbasket”. Bearing that in mind, the album opener, “No Matter Day” has a sort of heralding the apocalypse feel about it. I heard your producer Tom Dalgety say in the Pixies podcast that he felt the song was the natural opener. Do you feel that sets the overall tone for a record which is more of a commentary on the times than previous Pixies albums?

JS: Let me let the cat out of the bag. The song “Pagan Man”, right? It was just like a little puzzle. There’s no ego. Pagan man, saying, “It’s on you. It’s on you.” He said, “Fuck it. No one’s listening to me. I’m going away.” The guys who’s religion is nature and Mother Earth has had enough. You guys aren’t listening anymore. That’s what I got out of it in the end and I was thinking, “Oh my God. It’s pretty fucking dark.” The guy’s just running away. I’d never meant to be so dark, but it kind of is though. Fortunately, I talk about these things with my girlfriend a lot. I’m a very, very optimistic doomsday guy!

QRO: Ha-ha – I can identify with that feeling a bit.

JS: [laughs] Paz can’t. She can’t identify with that at all. I’m just speaking for myself, but yeah. Ha-ha.

QRO: I hear you though. I try to stay optimistic about people no matter what.

JS: I want to read ‘Cat’s Cradle’ again and get into that. Really get into that space. [Paz laughs]

QRO: Isn’t that all the more reason why people should listen to the new Pixies record? Maybe also go and go and catch an upcoming show. Are we going to see you guys play more extensively in the U.S. next year?

JS: Yeah. I don’t know where and I don’t know when, but it’s cooking and it’ll be presented to us. Actually, it’s probably already all booked, ha-ha. We don’t know, but it’ll be a good surprise!

-header photo: Tom Oxley
-Bowie photo: Frank Donnelly