David Lovering on The Pixies, recording Indie Cindy and the departure of Kim Deal
When David Lovering auditioned for the little indie rock band in Boston, Massachusetts that his friend Kim Deal had just joined, he couldn't have known the impact that band would go on to have - not just on indie music, but on all of the rock'n'roll music made in the last 30 years.
The Pixies - formed around the songs of Charles Thompson, aka Black Francis, the surf guitar of Joey Santiago, Lovering's drums and Deal's bass - were part of a New England indie rock scene that included Throwing Muses.
A record deal with cult British indie label 4AD meant UK audiences were the first to hear and fully appreciate the band's genius. A refreshingly stripped back guitar-bass-drums sound was a world away from the stale chart sounds of the day, yet the beating heart of the band was one of pure, gorgeous pop.
Black Francis' twisted lyrics about incest, eyeball slicing and tawdry Biblical themes - sometimes beautifully intoned, mostly screamed like an angry lunatic - made the Pixies' a genuinely original proposition; while Kim Deal, owner of one of indie rock's most beautiful female voices, offset the angry masculinity with alluring femininity.
David Lovering, who had learned to play in school marching bands and still fosters a love of Rush, toned down his proggier side to imbue the records with punk-rock pace, funky stickings and a raw energy that helped propel the band to rapid cult status.
The band made five albums in the space of just four years - including the incredible Surfer Rosa (1988) and Doolittle (1989) - before splitting, acrimoniously, in 1991. The creative tension between Black Francis and Kim Deal, who by now had formed The Breeders, made any kind of reunion seem an impossibility until, incredibly, in 2004, Lovering received the phonecall that got his life and his drumming - which he'd given up to become a professional magician - back on track. The Pixies were reforming.
"It almost brought a tear to my eye," recalls Lovering of his first time back behind the kit with the Pixies in 2004. "It was like, woah! This is something that I really loved and I'd given it up for so long."
For 10 years now the Pixies have been relentlessly touring, but new material was not forthcoming until 2013. Indie Cindy, despite the loss of Kim Deal who quit just as the band went into record, is a cracking album, with Lovering back to best studio form and even tackling odd-time signatures.
Between impressing us with magic tricks in a hipster London hotel, David chatted amiably about the Pixies' latest album, the band's incredible comeback story, locking in with a new bass player and his new-found love of ergonomics.
"It was a bad time in my life. You've heard of a starving musician? I became a professional magician - think of the term 'dying magician'! It's not a very good career choice"
Tell us about that phonecall from Joey Santiago, to tell you the band was getting back together.
"It was a bad time in my life. You've heard of a starving musician? I became a professional magician - think of the term 'dying magician'! It's not a very good career choice. That wasn't panning out. I was lucky to have money from the Pixies previously, but things were getting to a decisive time to figure out that I've got to do something different. And at that point I had a really, really bad girlfriend. It was torture. So I was at the lowest point, and then I get a call from Joe - and it was amazing because it was the furthest thing from my mind. I never would have dreamt that the Pixies would get back together, so when it did happen it was very welcome."
Until the band got back together, had you realised the impact that you'd had on music in the interim years?
"It took until Coachella… we began in 2004, a Canadian tour. The first one was in Minneapolis actually, and it was a great show. It was scary but we had a blast. We played hard and I think we did well. At Coachella we came out and everyone was going nuts, but the thing that was different was there was a sea of kids, and the kids weren't even born when we were a band. Yet they knew every word to every song and would sing along with everything. It was a surreal moment. It was the first time I recognised, wow, something changed from back then. And it wasn't until doing all the press, and realising, back then there were a lot of people who cited us as influences and in that time the people who liked those bands connected with the Pixies, or learned about the Pixies, and I think it just got perpetuated. I look back and I gotta say in hindsight I'm glad we broke up! I wouldn't be here now, I don't know what would have happened if we'd stayed together."
And it had been some time then since you'd last played the drums?
"I stopped playing drums in 1994/95. I had played after the Pixies broke up, I played with a number of bands, a couple of little things and some session work, then I just gave up drums. And I think maybe it was because I couldn't find work and things weren't really happening, but it was also just dissatisfaction… the Pixies was something that I really loved and had a great time playing in, and I don't think anything I was doing was matching it that well. I gave up drums and it was a period of being lost. And then magic came in, so for 10 years I didn't play."
What was it like first getting back in the room with the band?
"It was amazing. It was Kim, Joe and I in a rehearsal space in Los Angeles and I was sitting there at the kit, and I did the count and went into it, and nothing had changed! Playing drums was all the same, just like riding a bike. The only difference was some of those subtleties you get after playing a while, conserving energy, really getting in the groove with that smoothness, and just stamina. That altered, but otherwise nothing had changed. The same feeling, the same playing, the same people in the room."
And how did it feel to be drumming again?
"It really made me think this is something that I lost, that I stopped doing, that I loved so much. And what's interesting about it is that I love drums now! I've always liked changing heads and doing whatever-it-is to the drums, but definitely everything about it I appreciate much more now."
And you'd been a magician…
"In 1995, I went with a friend to a magic conference in LA and I saw a magic trick that just blew me away. And from that point I wanted to learn everything about magic. And that's what I did. I bought books, I bought videos, took classes, I joined the Magic Castle. I slept with a deck of cards for years - I'm not kidding. That's how much I worked at it."
And you were the 'Scientific Phenomenalist'.
"I worked for a number of years until I became proficient enough, did a lot of theatre stuff, stage stuff. I was doing close-up magic, which is great for parties and I think it's the best kind of magic there is, but I needed to do something which would make money, so I thought of a stage show and I tried to think of all the names… and the thing that was the most magical is all my loves. I like science, I have an electrical engineering degree, I like experiments, I'm into magic… So, hey, I wore a lab coat and started doing experiments, and a lot of stuff I did was electronics on stage, different props. And I did that for years, opening up for rock bands. I opened up for the Pixies twice, and the Breeders.
"But the thing about it was, to do that show is like putting together 12 drumsets in one setup - it's so much little piddly stuff, and it involved pyrotechnics, it was a lot of work and a lot of time put into it. Just the cost of it and the amount of work I put into it didn't even come close to what I was being paid for it. This [the Pixies] is helping pay the bills a little better than all the magic stuff!"
Tell us about first hooking up with the Pixies.
"The first time I met them, I went to Kim's house. She'd just answered an ad with Joe and Charles. They were looking for a drummer, so I came over and she had a Linn drum. Charles was playing Ed Is Dead, and I was playing a Linn drum, and just listening.
"Just from our experiences of hanging out and meeting each other, that was it, that was the band. We started doing gigs all around Boston. It was always Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday nights, getting any gig. The first gig was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at a bar called Jack's. We were advertised as 'the Puxies'! There were probably 17 people in the audience and we played what we had, which might have been a 30-minute set, and that was all our songs. Our songs are short to begin with, but we didn't have tons of songs then, and that was probably the only gig I was scared at, I was nervous. After that there were never any nerves, I was just confident playing and we just kept building it and building it, playing every gig we could get around Boston, every club - just working it until we could finally get maybe a Friday night or a Saturday night, and then our popularity just grew. We did a demo, and it just went on from there."
"The first gig was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at a bar called Jack's. We were advertised as 'the Puxies'! There were probably 17 people in the audience and we played what we had, which might have been a 30-minute set"
Your sound was pretty integral to the feel of the Pixies. How did you approach putting drum parts to Charles' songs in the beginning?
"I don't know what it was - I don't think I had a plan or anything, it was just playing along to it. It was all just what I thought, and of course I would get input from the band as well: 'David, don't do double time here, keep it slow, don't do a ride', something like that. There was not a lot of thinking about it, just playing along."
How did your love of Neil Peart and prog fit in with the band?
"The first couple of gigs, maybe the first month of playing, it was [sings]: 'Ed… is… dead… badadadadada' [mimics long, elaborate drum fill]. I mean, it was busy, there was a lot of busy-ness and it didn't take me long for to realise, it can't be this busy. And that's been my mantra - I think it's kind of more so later in life: less is more."
You tackle some odd-time signatures on the new album though - did growing up with Rush songs help you to get comfortable with those?
"I'm comfortable cos I've practised it. Indie Cindy, off the new album, it took me a long time to get my head around. In fact, I feared doing the song because it was such a challenge. But once I got it and knew the count, it's the easiest thing in the world - and now, it's stupid I feared it so much. Now it's so easy, it's in my brain and I know what the count is and it's settled in."
The band's been back together for 10 years now, and you've only just decided to record an album. What took you so long?
"We had toured and toured and just kept going and going, and at the seven year mark we realised that this is a point in our reunion tour - seven years - that is longer than we were initially a band. It was quite stunning to think of that. It was almost scary. But it also, I think, kicked us in the ass to think, we've got to do something different. And I think the feeling was that we were playing so well, we're a viable band still. But it took a good two years after that of pushing the idea, as well as Charles writing stuff. And in order to do this, we had to be good. That was the prerequisite. So it was big to us, what we had to do, we knew what had to be done.
"So songs went, songs we threw in the trash… We took a lot of stuff that we were trying, rehearsing, things that were working in terms of trying to play together and get everyone on board. It took two years before everyone said yes, we were happy with the songs finally, and we went to Wales and started recording."
How much input did Pixies producers Gil Norton, who did the new album and Doolittle, etc, and Steve Albini, who did Surfer Rosa,
have into your drum sound?
"Gil had done three previous Pixies albums and we wanted him to do this one because he knows how to handle us and it's a great connection. Gil gets a certain sound, he definitely changes the snare up all the time. It's a sound he's looking for, and I'm quite happy with it.
"When we did Surfer Rosa with Steve Albini, he used more room mics and some close miking - not a lot of miking - on the toms. So you're really cranking the ambient mic so it gives it that room sound. Pretty simple but you can really see the different worlds, and for that the kit I was using was a Tama Artstar II - I loved it. That was my favourite kit, it just sounded big. I bought an extra snare for it. And that was that whole album.
"But Indie Cindy, I had the Gretsch endorsement and I couldn't get a kit for recording - that was here, actually, in Wales - they didn't have a kit to give me. So I was, 'What are we gonna do? I'll have to ship my kit over'. But it's a lot to ship one kit over. My drum tech, Chumpy, also owns a drum hire company here, and when I showed up at the studio in Wales there were three drumsets, at least nine different snares - from piccolos to woods to big brass - everything there. It was amazing. So that's where we picked and chose from with Gil, and of course all the different sounds. You'd have to really listen closely to the songs to hear what the difference in sound is, but I was very happy with it."
How did the writing of drum parts go this time for Indie Cindy?
"Some of the songs, Gil and Charles went to Gil's place and worked on preproduction, and Gil threw in some drum machine stuff, so on some songs there's drum machine. What I found really nice was, for the first time ever, drums was something someone else was thinking about, their take on it, and that was really interesting. It was wonderful to have something different to listen to that may not be my thing I would be doing, so hearing some of the things gave me new ideas as well, or maybe transcribing it to what I use. So I found it was a wonderful way to experiment, it was one of my favourite ways of coming up with parts."
Had any of the new songs been developed during the live shows?
"This was a lot of stuff that I got separately, sections of songs, and some of these songs were new enough that I didn't know where they were going. We didn't do any live songs, this was all four-way, all the demos were going back and forth, working on them on an electronic kit at home. That kit I could plug the MP3s in and play along, and that's how I did it, playing along with Gil's intepretation and learning that in sections as well. The way the Pixies have always written is Charles has the songs, pretty much, he just brings his guitar and plays it and we just add whatever, and it was the same with this one - from working with Gil to the final songs that were worked on, they had everything sussed, the arrangements and the way the songs were going to go."
That must have been very different from the way you wrote songs back in the day, when all of you would get in a room together.
"We did do preproduction with this, we've always done something where we play the songs - we did it in Wales. In the studio we all set up and just played these songs. We had a week of working on songs. But as far as the difference, we'll always work through songs until we know them, then we'll track them. The way I track, it's very rare that we're all playing together."
Any particular favourites from the new album?
"Indie Cindy's good because it was a bitch to learn. It's fun to play, so I'm very happy with it. Magdalena I like because there's a groove to it, a feel. That was the simplest, I came up with that really quickly in the studio and it was very easy - there's not even a cymbal hit in it! Less is more, and it just works."
Are there more Pixies albums to be made in the foreseeable future?
"I'm glad we got over doing it now, and the mindset now is we're a viable band and this is what we like to do. There's another one we'd like to do after that."
"She was just done. She was in the studio, we were recording along and then in the coffee shop she said she was going to quit the band, and we just didn't know what to do"
So, Kim Deal. You've all toured together for 10 years then as soon as you go in to record, she leaves. What happened there?
"She was just done. She was in the studio, we were recording along and then in the coffee shop she said she was going to quit the band, and we just didn't know what to do. She didn't have to explain it, it was just, 'I've done this and I'm done'. So whatever the explanation, we were, 'Okay', we wished her well and didn't know what to do. And it was a good day-and-a half and a night of just, 'Oh gosh, are we done with the band?' But we were already recording and stuff, and it seemed like the right thing to do was to go forward. And so we did, we just kept forging forward.
"We had this guy, Simon 'Ding' Archer, come down from Manchester, who did the bass, Joe and I picked up more background vocal stuff that will compensate hopefully with more Pixies for the loss of a Pixie. We were without Kim's vocals mainly, that's what we were missing, that was a big detriment. But we went ahead with it and we were happy with it, and what else could we do?"
Is it weird after all this time not having Kim there on bass next to you on stage?
"It was. The first couple of shows without her were interesting because it's the only thing I knew for years and years since I was in my 20s. My only bass player that I really played with for a long time and who I knew, was gone. So it was very odd. Now it's really nice we have Paz Lechantin. She's a bass player. Kim wasn't a bass player - she was a guitar player that picked up bass. For a short time, we had Kim Shattuck - she was a guitar player. Paz is a bass player, she's really good, she sings well, the audience loves her. The interesting thing about it is Paz is so good she's making me play better. So I'm having to step up."
Have you always locked in with the bass in the Pixies?
"I try to lock in with the bass because it's hard to rely on some of the other things in the band which may not be in time. So it was just me concentrating with Kim - it's the same I'm trying to do with Paz. Once you have the rhythm section thing everyone else can screw up and do what they want, but if that's locked in, it's pretty nice."
Have any of the old songs changed in the way that you play them?
"No, I try to play them true. There's a few things that might have escaped from my memory because I've fallen from their trueness. I never change anything severely, just little things maybe. Things I've added, I know I have. The song Where Is My Mind, we've been playing it forever, we play it every show. I happened to listen to the song or see a video of the song from a long time ago and I realised, 'Holy s**t, I'm playing it wrong'. And it goes [sings drum beat] and there's always a hi-hat on it, and I never, ever knew that! So I'd forgotten it, and now that's what I do in the shows - the hi-hat's back. But it stunned me."
Which of the old Pixies songs are your favourites to play live?
"There's loads. All the fast ones I like. Vamos, Tame, Bone Machine, Crackity Jones - anything that's fast, I like. Monkey Gone to Heaven, that's a good, fun one to play cos it's easy to groove on."
You were signed to a British label, 4AD, first. Did you always find that British audiences took to you most readily?
"Definitely. The first place we knew when we first got signed to 4AD was here in London. And we had never left the States as a band, we just played on the Eastern Seaboard - not far, actually, just New England - and the first show was at the Mean Fiddler and that was nuts. The audience, the reaction, I'd never seen anything like it, We didn't experience that back in the States. But it showed me, wow, this was something else. I don't know if you can attribute it to good taste [laughs], but they get what's going on over here."
How are the band all getting on now?
"I think we're getting on fine in whatever circumstances, but we're still the same band, same s**t goes down even when we're one less member. We're still dysfunctional [laughs] - not as dysfunctional as people think. To us we're normal, this is the way we operate, this is the way we have been operating for a long time, but we're definitely the same, still operating in the same good and bad way. As they say, a little older and wiser. Wiser means you make everything a little more comfortable, regardless of what it is. Just make it easier on yourself. So we're putting up with a lot of bulls**t [laughs]!"
Can you see the Pixies going on for many more years to come?
"I hope to, I enjoy doing it, it's something I love to do. I think it's a wonderful job and I would like to just keep playing. So hopefully, hopefully…"