Pixies' Joey Santiago: "I was afraid people would tell me I never grew up as a guitar player... but f**k it, so what?"

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(Image: © Oliver Walker/Getty Images)

Backstage at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom in October 1993, Kurt Cobain famously told Rolling Stone writer David Fricke just how much Pixies, who split up earlier that year, had influenced Nirvana’s biggest hit Smells Like Teen Spirit.

By his own words, he had been trying to write the ultimate pop song and ended up ripping them off in the process.

When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band - or at least in a Pixies cover band

Kurt Cobain

“When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band – or at least in a Pixies cover band,” he revealed, going on to add, “we used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”

The grunge hero was not alone in his admiration for the Boston early alt-rockers – David Bowie also sharing his love for a band that refused to operate on anyone’s terms but their own.

“I never could get over the fact that The Pixies formed, worked and separated without America taking them to its heart or even recognising their existence for the most part,” once commented the Thin White Duke.

In 2004, Pixies frontman Black Francis, born Charles Thompson IV, reformed the group with all its original members – guitarist Joey Santiago, bassist/backing vocalist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering – resulted in 2014 comeback Indie Cindy and 2016 follow-up Head Carrier, with one-time A Perfect Circle member Paz Lenchantin replacing Deal.

This year, the proto-grunge pioneers have been celebrating the 30th anniversary of their debut full-length Surfer Rosa, reissued along with early mini-album Come On Pilgrim and the Live From The Fallout Shelter recordings from a session on WJUL-FM in 1986.

Supported by North American dates over the course of this summer, with their five-night residency at London’s Roundhouse before heading to Mexico and then yet more shows on home soil before Christmas, 2018 has certainly kept them busy revisiting the sounds of their past.

Here, Joey Santiago looks back on the legacy of his band, the equipment he’s trusted in and his vast array of influences...

What drew you to the Les Paul that we hear on Come On Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa?

Charles beat me to the Telecaster, so I had to get the Les Paul just to have a different sound

“It was mainly because Charles beat me to the Telecaster. He got one of those, so I had to get the Les Paul just to have a different sound, so we could go for more of a classic Joe Strummer and Steve Jones kinda thing.  

“We couldn’t have two Teles because that would have been too crunchy. So as soon as I found a Les Paul, I knew straight away it had that thick humbucker sound which must have influenced what I was going to go on and do with the guitar. Oh God, that’s a good question… I probably bought in Boston from Daddy’s, near the Berklee College Of Music. As for the year it was made, I have no idea on the answer to that!”

Your tone was always remarkably bright for a Les Paul…

“These albums were recorded with a Peavey amp, which had that trilly sound in it already. And then when I started using Marshalls, I had to emulate the same kind of bright tone. We just used the reverb from the amp... the shitty one that’s built in. Let’s face it, those amps aren’t known for the best reverb. That’s probably why the reverb was so minimal, haha! I also had a bit of delay later on in the band, but mainly it’s guitar cord to Marshall, à la Angus Young.”

You’ve always cited Angus as one of your biggest influences...

My first concert was AC/DC! I remember reading about the gear and noticed there weren’t any pedals. I attributed that approach to a more in-your-face guitar sound and went for the same myself

“My first concert was AC/DC! I remember reading about the gear and noticed there weren’t any pedals. I attributed that approach to a more in-your-face guitar sound and went for the same myself. I love the way they set the solo up on Highway To Hell with one chord and then BOOM. I also love the beginning riff to Hells Bells… those guitars are fucking ominous.”

And alongside those rock influences, you’ve also mentioned jazz/country players like Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery or Chet Atkins...

“When you listen to music… good is good. I get rock ’n’ roll, so I want to listen to other stuff. At the age of 13, I would ride my bike to the library in the city of Springfield to listen to albums. And I was never going to pick up rock ’n’ roll albums because I could get those elsewhere or just turn on the fuckin’ radio. So I found out about Wes Montgomery from reading liner notes.  

“Funnily enough, that library was across the street from the arena AC/DC were playing one time and I had turned up early. That’s how I found out there was a turntable, albums and things you could loan out. And there you have it: the early bird does get the worm; showing up early pays off.  

“I figured I should come back the next day to borrow some records and start experimenting with different styles of music I’d heard other people admired. Wes Montgomery is where I got a lot of my octave ideas. Even Jimi Hendrix was influenced by him... you can hear it on the song Third Stone From The Sun.”

As for your own lead work, it’s always been bluesy but very unpredictable...

“There’s a Hendrix influence there, too. And probably a lot of booze influencing what I was doing back then, too, haha! You run out of ideas to do that anti-solo after a while, so it’s good to keep looking for things. You can never run out; there will always be plenty of objects to hit that guitar with.

“I was always fooling with hitting major or minor notes. If there was a minor chord that wasn’t that obvious, I would make it more obvious. That’s probably what was happening there. Later on I found out, that some of the solos I did were minor over major, like Where Is My Mind – that solo goes over a B major but I still played the B minor pentatonic because that’s just what sounded right to me.  

“I think I might have tried it the quote-unquote proper way and it sounded really square and wrong. Some people pick it up; the musos point out to me it’s kinda funny how I did certain things. It’s almost become entertainment for myself, hearing little jokes about how I’m breaking all the fuckin’ rules, haha!”

How quickly did Where Is My Mind come together?

“When Charles showed that song, he explained he was going for a more popular kind of song. I just took my first stab at it and it just worked. I remember exactly where we were – in this apartment eating Vietnamese food. He showed me the chords and I played those simple lead notes at the beginning. And then it was like, ‘Okay, that’s done!’ We weren’t going to overthink it when it already sounded good enough to our ears.”

What do you think is the key to your long-lasting relationship in music?

“I have no idea. You just need to have mutual respect for each other and a clear line: this is what I do, this is what he/she does and then learn to stay the fuck away from each other when there’s those boundaries. Let the egos subside. Know when to be a friend and when to be a colleague. Sometimes we’re half of the Pixies, and other times we’re just Joey and Charles.”

It sounds like it was quite a no-holds barred recording experience with Steve Albini – putting vocals through amps and recording in bathrooms...

For the solo on Vamos, I might have thrown tennis balls at my guitar. I have no idea if any of that got used – is it a memory or just an idea?

“It was… it definitely was. We were just trying all sorts of things. I had this initial idea – I don’t even know if we ended up doing it – but for the solo on Vamos, I might have thrown tennis balls at my guitar. I have no idea if any of that got used – is it a memory or just an idea? Haha! But that was my joke to the whole guitar solo world… even a tennis ball can fuckin’ do it. Everything will be fine. Rock ’n’ roll will live on.

“We would go in and work while joking around, but we were always working. We’d lay down tracks, listen back and try to get as much done as we could in the time we had. It was very, ‘Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!’”

Albini went on to produce Nirvana’s final studio album, In Utero. Did you cross paths much with Kurt Cobain?  

“No, that was the only guy I never met from Nirvana...  I know Kim Deal did. I met Krist and Dave and they were really nice. We met them after a show, so it was like, ‘Hey, you’re a musician too, so let’s drink a beer!’ It was such a regular meeting, it could have been anyone really. We’re pretty relaxed, we tend not to talk about music much after the show…”

What is like hearing these recordings of yourself 30 years ago, and how different a guitar player are you now, do you think?

“Now I’m trying to embrace what I’ve done in the past. I’ve experimented out of it on Indie Cindy; I was trying to run away from it. I think [producer] Gil Norton wanted to run away from it, too. Then on Head Carrier, I just gave up doing that. I realised I am what I am and this is what I do. And I think I’m just going to keep drilling away, because it works!  

“I think I’m allowed to rip off myself if I want to. I’m not planning to; well, I am, plus everyone else seems to be doing it, haha! I was actually afraid that people would tell me I never grew up as a guitar player... but fuck it, so what? I like what Angus Young answered back with when a critic accused them of making 10 albums that sounded the same, he said, ‘He’s a liar. We’ve made 11 albums that sound the same!’ I like that mentality. It’s like, ‘Fuck it, this is how it’s gonna be!’”

You’ve also said George Harrison’s contributions to Savoy Truffle have played a bit part in your approach...

“On that song, everything was descriptive and had a purpose. They were talking about a drill to take your teeth out… I forgot the lyrics, but the idea is too many sweets means you will need to get your teeth pulled out. So I always associated that guitar sound with a drill and I wanted that same drilly sound, which probably explains why I like playing like that.  

Think about how you are going to sound different. Respect what others do and leave them the f**k alone

“I want to hear solos that are descriptive of what the song is about; that’s why I like surf music. Then there’s classical music, too – the Four Seasons actually sounds like the four seasons. These are stories that were made out of music.”

What tips can you offer guitarists feeling like they're stuck in a rut or not being inventive enough?

“It’s just a process of elimination. Think about how you are going to sound different. That comes partly from listening to other artists and respecting what you do. Respect what others do and leave them the fuck alone. It’s a simple process of elimination.

“Honour your influences in your own unique way, but don’t be that guy… because there’s always that guy who takes it too far. Absorb a little bit of everything and eventually you’ll paint yourself into a corner and realise what’s left is you – and it’ll be kinda fucked up, but kinda cool. It’s all about you and no-one else.”

Come On Pilgrim... It's Surfer Rosa 30th Anniversary Reissues are available now via 4AD.