There aren’t many bands that have changed the way music sounds. Bands who caught music off-guard. Bands who, when you first heard them, somehow managed to flick your melodic axis a few degrees anticlockwise. But that certainly happened to this writer when his mate Ian played the Pixies’ Come On Pilgrim album in 1987.
It opens with Caribou: sinister, delicate guitars and ghostly vocals melt into beautiful screams and seething distortion. There’s Isla de Encata: The Fall if Mark E Smith was Mexican not Mancunian. And don’t forget I’ve Been Tired, complete with lyrics that Oscar Wilde would have been proud of: |Why don’t you tell me one of your biggest fears? I said, ‘Losing my penis to a whore with disease’.”
In an era when the UK Top 30 featured U2, Sinitta, T’Pau and Whitney Houston, the Pixies sounded… different.
“It’s very flattering to hear people say that,” smiles Pixies’ guitarist, Joey Santiago, “but I can honestly say that when Charles [the band’s frontman, Black Francis] and I first started working together, we were just doing stuff that we liked. There was no conscious thing about being some kind of “groundbreaking” band.
“The only rule we had, really, was to try and get away from the standard 12-bar blues framework. Not that we had anything against it. I love the blues, I love AC/DC, but music is allowed to do different things, just like every other aspect of life. And I’m not just talking about art. Let’s take television sets: if the design never changed, we’d all still be sitting there with massive TVs that weighed a ton and didn’t have any remote. The blues rock thing is still out there and you can still enjoy it, but there are other things for you to try.”
As a kid, Santiago’s journey into music was a haphazard affair. He was born in Manilla, listening to the Beatles and his mother singing Que Sera Sera, then moved to New York in the early-’70s after President Marcos declared martial law.
“That was the first time I can remember my mother buying a record,” says Santiago. “A K-tel compilation that went right through the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. K-tel was my musical education!”
A couple of years later, the family moved to Massachusetts, which is where Santiago actually got hold of his first guitar.
“Like all good Catholics, we went to church every Sunday and I became fascinated by the guy playing hymns on the guitar - fascinated by the idea that he could play songs on this strange looking bit of wood,” he recalls. “My brother had a guitar in his bedroom, so I stole that and became kind of… yeah, I suppose I was obsessed.
“The problem is that a world like ‘obsession’ has all these negative connotations. I wasn’t OCD or anything like that - my bedroom was still a mess - but the passion for the guitar was all-encompassing. I would play games with myself, not leaving my bedroom until I’d played Twinkle Twinkle Little Star ten times without making a mistake. No clicks, no bum notes.
“I finally got an electric guitar when I was around 15 or 16, after my dad smashed that acoustic.”
Too many renditions of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star?
“Nah… I got drunk. He was so angry that he smashed it. My mom felt so sorry for me that she bought me an Ovation Viper from the local music shop. Without a guitar I was lost. All my friends were hanging out doing teenage stuff, but all I wanted to do was play guitar.”
Santiago actually met Charles ‘Black Francis’ Thompson at university in Amherst, and the pair eventually moved to Boston to “chase their dreams”. With bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering, they became Pixies.
“Nominally, I suppose I was the lead guitarist,” explains Santiago, “but the guitarists that had really inspired me were people like George Harrison. It would have been great to be one of those million-notes-a-second guys like Blackmore or Eddie Van Halen, but I loved how Harrison could add so much to a song without all the ego stuff. He wasn’t trying to show the world how great he was.
“Having said that, I am a massive Eddie Van Halen fan. He is one of the guitarists that made us all see the instrument in a different light. Before Eddie, no one had really heard of the Floyd Rose [tremolo], but when we heard Eddie doing those huge divebombs. Man, that was mind-blowing.
“Brian May was another guy that I listened to. He could do the fancy solo shit, but he always kept an eye on the melody, which is what I try to do with my guitar parts: anything I add needs to have melody and it needs to tell a story.”
On the early Pixies albums, Santiago would literally map out his solos and guitar parts on paper.
“I can’t do notation or anything, so I developed my own musical shorthand. If I wrote ‘Jimi’, that meant, ‘Go to the octave’. As we released each album, I tried to experiment a bit more and, eventually, I started doing things on-the-fly. On this recent album, Doggerel, all of my guitar parts were made up as we were actually recording the songs in the studio. We all played along to the drum track, but my guitar was only faded up in my headphones. That allowed me to do my own thing without being too self-conscious or messing up the song for everybody else. When we listened back to my guitar, I instantly knew which bits were going to work.”
During our Zoom chat, Santiago points out the Strats, Jaguars and vintage steel guitars that have been added to his collection, but Doggerel and the vast majority of all Santiago’s live and studio work has been done on a Les Paul.
“That thick sound became part of how I played; it shaped my guitar parts. I’m not against other guitars, but I know that the Les Paul is going to sound good with my settings. Why mess with something that’s working pretty well?”
Although most reviews of Doggerel have been positive, Santiago happily admits that he never expected to be releasing a new Pixies album in 2022.
“As a band, we’ve had our ups and downs,” he laughs.
The band were originally brought to an end by Thompson in 1993, but the split was surrounded by rumours of in-fighting, not to mention Deal’s struggle with alcohol.
Despite the success of Thompson’s solo work and Deal’s band, The Breeders, there were constant rumours of a reunion, which finally happened in 2003. Almost 20 years later - and without Deal, who left in 2013 - Pixies seem to come and go as they please. Tour, record, disappear, release some live albums, embark on a few side projects, disappear, record, tour and…
“To be honest, I have no idea what’s happening with the Pixies next year,” admits Santiago. “I have no idea what’s happening next week! Things kinda happen and I just go with the flow. Y’know that song by JJ Cale, Call Me The Breeze? That’s life in the Pixies. ‘Well, now, they call me the breeze. I keep blowin’ down the road.’”
Joey Santiago picks his Top 5 favourite guitar performances
Hey - from the Doolittle album, 1989
“That song was recorded live, but we did everything in one clean take and the solo feels really well-constructed. Some good dynamics, too. I changed pickups and rolled off the volume during that take. Trying to add more of a sensitive feel. The phrasing is pretty loose which makes it all the better.”
Bone Machine: from the Surfer Rosa album, 1988
“I love the main riff, but the solo is completely cathartic. The chord is a major 9th, which was an homage to a hit song at the time, Kiss, by Prince. His song starts with that chord. Bone Machine is another solo that comes in hard and loose. It’s not so much a one-note solo as a one-chord solo. Wonder if that has ever been done before?”
All Over the World: from the Doolittle album, 1990
“Crazy guitars in the body of the song: the cool staccato line, then the nutty shredding. The end solo from 3:00 on was constructed on paper without a guitar on hand. I knew it was the right vibe. I knew I had a formula that worked and was confident to go to the studio and try it without playing it beforehand. Still sounds pretty good to me.”
Where Is My Mind?: from the Surfer Rosa album, 1988
“This was actually the first thing I tried. A lazy arpeggio that instantly sounded strong and hooky.”
Vamos: from the Surfer Rosa album, 1988
“I would say that 99% of all the ‘solos’ I’ve done for that song live involve not touching the guitar strings with my hands. There have been times when I put the guitar on the stand and let the thing make noise using just my pedals. It’s a guitar by itself. A pun performance, a guitar on its own… a solo guitar solo.”