After not releasing any new music for more than 20 years, the Pixies dropped "EP1" in 2013 with very little lead-up time. Now the band have done it again with "EP2," four rocking new songs from the same sessions that yielded "EP1," produced by Gil Norton.
Singer Black Francis says that doing a "sneak attack" release seems like the most logical way to put out music in the ever-changing digital era, an era which finds the Pixies facing a lot of internal adjustments as well. He says the events of the past year have functioned in essence to "change our whole paradigm, basically."
Founding bassist Kim Deal quit the band earlier in 2013, and the remaining members sacked replacement Kim Shattuck this fall. The Pixies singer says he was surprised with how newsworthy the splits with both Kims were.
In conversation, the man who came to prominence for cryptic lyrics that went from whispers to shouts within seconds of each other, can go from jovial to frustrated in just as little time. What sometimes reads as harsh is often tempered by a laugh, yet he seems quite steadfast in his opinions.
METRO: It was about this time last year that I first heard through a friend of drummer David Lovering that the band had recorded a full album. And then later in the year when I was working on a trend story about how 2013 may end up about being the year of the “sneak attack” album release, I called your publicist and she denied everything! She refused to give up the ghost! Then less than a week later you put out “EP1.” What was behind your idea to release your first new music in 20 years without any announcements leading up to it?
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BLACK FRANCIS: I suppose it has to do with the digital distribution of music, more than anything and the digital distribution of news and publicity statements, for that matter. Everything happens quickly and you don’t need a record company. You don’t even really need a publicist! That doesn’t mean that you don’t use these kinds of people, but you can do everything from your iPhone, in theory. In the past, a bunch of trucks were going to leave New York or Los Angeles or someplace with a bunch of your records loaded up, and they were going to take it to a distribution warehouse, and then record store buyers were going to go to that warehouse and pick up product and take it back to their stores, because there was so much activity revolving around physical product, and now there’s less activity around physical product. As a matter of fact, the physical product that’s been sold so far with the most recent music we’ve recorded has been dealt with primarily over the Internet. Whatever has been sold — and it’s sold out — has been sold via direct mail. Contact and purchase were made over the Internet. There’s an office in New York and there’s an office in the U.K. somewhere and they distribute the product that was purchased online. So there is no truck! There might have been a truck to deliver the limited edition product or whatever that got delivered to those two offices, but there’s not this distribution network involving record stores and buyers and all of that. It’s basically just me and my band and the customer, until we decide to work with a record company again for some sort of release. So I guess what I’m leading up to is that there’s not really a need anymore for promoting in a build-up kind of way, where we say, “Heyyyyy, we’ve got some music coming out! It’s coming down the pipe!” In a way, that almost kind of hurts you. Because you’re creating a self-generated news story about your music, and then you’re not even really making it available at that time. You’re just saying, “Yeah, it’s coming! Keep your eyes open! It’s coming soon!” People don’t want to hear that now. People just want to be like, “Oh, it’s here? Great! Where is it? Click-click-click! There it is! Thank you very much! Download, purchase, whatever, goodbye! Done! I got my instant satisfaction.” So it doesn’t really do us any good to have some sort of precursor announcement about it all. It’s like the sun comes up and it’s a new day and I’m not at all interested in what I was interested in yesterday. I’m interested in today. It’s just the pace of everything. It’s not like we’re trying to draw attention to ourselves through manipulating or trying to do something so different from everybody else or trying to deliberately be annoying. It just works better if we’re like, “Boom! It’s here!” Every time we have a news announcement regarding the band, it’s like …. Well, I remember when Kim Deal left the band this past summer, or the announcement was made regarding that, I believe according to somebody, it was the second-biggest news story on the Internet in the world!
Well, for a day! And of course, the next day it’s like, “What? Who cares?”
That was interesting because the public at large didn’t know you guys had been working on new music so I think a lot of people wondered why you bothered to even make that announcement.
There was definitely game-playing going on. Like “When do we announce it?” and “Do we mix it in with another announcement?” and “Is it a positive announcement or a negative announcement?” or what combination of punches do we deliver to get the most out of this situation? So there were a lot of attempts at manipulating, I suppose, going on. But it’s really just to try to get attention, to try to be heard in the din of things that are trying to be heard.
How hard are you listening to this din? When you release announcements like that one and when you released “EP1,” did you keep pressing “refresh” on your Internet browser all day to see what kind of impact you were making?
Not me, personally. I don’t think anyone in the band watches this from a business point of view, in terms of the things that you could monitor. We know that our manager monitors all of these kinds of things and what he’s able to put into a nice, concise email, he’ll put it in and say, “So, you know that release thing that we did a while ago? Here’s what happened: You sold five copies in Egypt, 100 copies in Canada, 500 copies in the U.S.A.” and he’ll give us the whole breakdown. As far as musicians are concerned, we’re pretty content to see what the buzz is, based on what our Twitter feed looks like, or whatever feed the various band members are tuned into. That’s my particular preference, Twitter. I don’t have any use for the Facebook thing. I participated in that for some years, but I just found at the end of the day it was too annoying. So I got rid of my Facebook account. And I have an Instagram account and a Vine account, but I sort of like those feeds because most of the people that are doing that are, at least from my perspective, light on the self-promotion and very heavy on the “look what I took a picture of!” and “look what I think is funny!”and “look what I think is sexy!” It’s not really about trying to announce a bunch of stuff. It truly feels more social.
So to backtrack a little bit. The initial rumors I heard last year about the full album, was that true?
Well, what’s a full album? I mean, the general notion is that a full album is about 35-40 minutes of music. This is based on the old vinyl LP format. Of course CDs showed up 25 years ago and that format changed just slightly, because people were like, “Oh, I could put an album on here, no problem.” I think it was exciting at first, because when people were re-releasing records they were like, “Oh, let’s put on these additional tracks that never made it onto the original record and we’ll make our record a little bit more of an opus,” and they were trying to utilize the format. I think that why that didn’t ultimately work in a big sort of way is that it was also around the time that the Internet and laptops and cellphones started to creep into our lives, and so I think as a result what’s gone on is that people’s attention spans have grown shorter yet again. So a 60-minute LP on the CD format, people weren’t really buying it. I mean, maybe they were buying it, but they weren’t tuned into your whole grand artistic statement. … As a musician, as an artist we’ve definitely had the sense that we know we could put more music on the CD, but that’s not really what people want. You’re going to be accused of being self-indulgent and not trimming the fat. And now you’ve got the modern moment, where record stores are almost nonexistent, other than small mom-and-pop stores. The CD still lives in places like the U.K. and Poland, where 10 to 15 years ago people invested money in their CD players and they’re not just going to throw them out. But in places like the U.S.A., CD players are just … I mean, I don’t even want a f—ing CD. I think that vinyl sounds great, but I was never able to maintain a record collection, or even a CD collection in a nice way, because I’m too messy and I’m too sloppy and I’m too unorganized. I’ve just got piles of s— everywhere in my life. Even my digital files are a big pile of unorganized stuff. And iTunes and Apple computers aren’t really even helping me any. It’s just f—ing confusing. I’ve got to maintain clouds, and my phones, and then this or that other device. Now I’ve actually just thrown in the towel. Sure, I download s— and I listen to s—, but do I try to keep my files accessible and organized? No! I gave my laptop computer to one of my kids, because she was doing all of this video editing and she was doing it on this tiny little device, and I was like, “Look, you’re going to go blind, doing it on that. Here! Take my laptop!” I gave her my laptop and so now I’ve got my phone and my iPad, and I can’t store anything on my iPad, so it’s like … I don’t know. I digress. I just had a double-espresso.
Well, let’s go back to the original question, if we can, I’ve heard “EP2” now and it does seem like the original intention was to do a full length album when you guys recorded both of these EPs, because they definitely sound like birds of a feather.
Yeah. I mean, it’s a season’s worth of music. You go into the studio for a couple of months and you make a so-called record, whatever that is. You make a pile of songs, 15 songs, 20 songs, something like that. Bigger than a breadbox! That was the relationship with Kim Deal. She only wanted to commit to a couple of slices of bread and we wanted to commit to a whole loaf. We had all of this time booked [in the studio] and we had all of these songs written and demo-ed up and she was like, “I only wanna do these songs.” And we were like, "[long sigh]." We’ve all got lives. We’re all f—ing middle aged, and we don’t really want to just dick around on three songs and have that be our big thing for the next six months. We’re like, “Look, we’re here with the producer and we’re in the same studio where they recorded ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ for chrissakes! Let’s f—ing make some music! I’ve got a hall pass from my wife for f—ing seven weeks! I’m going to use this pass up and by the end of the seven weeks they’re going to be pissed off at me because I’ve been like drinking wine and painting and occasionally making music on a farm in f—ing Wales, while they’ve been busting ass.” You know what I’m saying? That’s the kind of world that the boys in the band were living in. We’ve all got kids and s—. It’s like we’ve all got a pass to be here! Let’s f—ing use it! Because I’m not going to have this pass in a couple of months. In a couple of months I’m going to be in a whole other situation.
How many songs did Kim originally play on? The word I heard was that when she left, they were tracked over, upon her request.
They were. It was four or five songs. I think it was five.
And was there any regard to her playing with replacing those lines or was it “let’s just put Kim’s tracks on mute and let her replacement play whatever”?
She put a lot into the playing, but I think ultimately it wasn’t just that we were making an album’s worth of music, but that we were going to go out on tour and play all of that music and change our whole paradigm, basically, from what we were doing before, which was playing our whole back catalogue. And I can’t speak for her, but I can speculate and my speculation would be that she didn’t really want to participate in all of that. It was not what she was interested in doing or it was too much new stuff. It was a commitment. We were asking for a big commitment from everybody and she was like, “Actually, you know what? I pass.” She wanted a clean break so she was like, “Don’t have me on the record,” and we were like, “OK. Cool. No problem.”
It seems like it was more civil than the first dissolution of the Pixies…
It depends … A lot of people … [seeming to try to figure out what he wants to say] ... We don’t go in and out of rehab, at least not publicly, and we don’t publicly have fistfights or do a lot of rock ‘n’ roll shenanigans that people find out about. Firstly, it’s because there isn’t very much of it. But second of all, when there is, we’re fairly polite about it. And certain stuff we’re just not going to show off to the whole world. It’s just not in our nature. We’re much more polite about it. We’re not like the Rolling Stones, sitting around with our bottle of Jack Daniels and our coiffed hair, going, “Take a look at us, we’re the rock ‘n’ rollers!” We get that and I even appreciate it, but it’s just not what we’re really about, so people have always had a hard time pinning down what makes us tick and so I think that there’s this kind of feeling where anything that [the press] can interpret as discord or chaos or negativity or whatever little tidbit of a soap opera they can find, they’ll overlay that on us. And I sound like I’m being accusatory of your question, and I’m not. But you’re saying that the breakup seems more civil and it probably is a lot more civil, but I guess what I’m rhetorically asking back at you is: How does a rock band break up?
You’re right. It’s never going to be the nicest thing in the world.
[laughs] It’s like asking how many divorces end in a civil way. Probably a few of them do, but most of them don’t!
Well, I guess what I’m getting at is the popular legend that the Pixies originally broke up by fax.
Right! And I think that people just found that as … well, I guess it was easy to interpret that as cold or something like that. But I suppose that because it was like 1992 or whatever, sending a fax to the manager’s office was really the equivalent of sending an email. Nowadays people would send an email or a text or whatever and that would be the sort of non-confrontational “I don’t wanna sit in a room with all of you guys to hash this out” approach. But we had already hashed this out before that fax! I think I tried to oust Kim out of the band before over some pretty big disagreements we were having. And I was convinced by Kim and the rest of the band and by our attorney to not do that. And we all sat in a lawyer’s office and we worked it out. If we hadn’t worked it out in a civil, polite sort of way, there wouldn’t be five Pixies albums. There would only be two or three! [laughs] But some people are like, “Oooh that f—ing cold-hearted Black Francis sent a f—ing gawdamn fax! Can you believe that s—?!” And it’s like, “OK, I get what you’re saying, but let’s really analyze here. Really? Is that really the most cold-hearted thing a person can do? Send a fax to the manager’s office saying ‘I quit’?” I mean, that’s what I did. I sent a fax to the manager’s office saying, “I’m out. I quit. I’m out of the band. I have no interest in doing the band anymore. I’m done.”
Do you still have that fax machine? Hard Rock Café might be interested in it…
No, I don’t. But you know, the problem with the fax thing is that besides it being a big story or whatever, the fact of the matter is that nobody in the band ever heard about the fax, because the manager , in a passive sort of way, was kind of hoping that things would work themselves out and we just needed a vacation or whatever, and he never forwarded the fax on! I asked him to please copy the rest of the band, like on a Xerox machine and mail it to them, but I found out years later that he never did. So the band never heard about it. We were on hiatus and so they heard about it through the grapevine, like on a radio station or whatever. And I had assumed that everyone had kind of heard or had at least been officially informed via post, and they either hadn’t opened their mail yet or hadn’t gotten back to me. That’s all that really happened. It’s just kind of like this thing right now with Kim Shattuck, who was playing bass with us for a few months. So she left the group. Wait, let me tell you how it went: She didn’t leave the group the way Kim Deal left the group, but we decided not to keep working with her. Now from our little point of view in our little corner of the world it’s not that big of a deal. We had been the same lineup for 25 f—ing years, we’re trying somebody out, and we decided amongst ourselves that now we’re going to try somebody else out, and it’s pretty basic stuff. I think in good time we would have said whatever it was that people thought we were supposed to say to address this “issue,” this f—ing so-called issue of the current bass player leaving or whatever, but she instead decided to — for whatever reason, and you can deduce your own theory about it — she went on her Facebook page and said, “I’m very disappointed I’m not going to be working with the Pixies.” End of story, right? So now everybody on the Internet is the expert on everything and it’s the problem with being in a rock band; your fans are very precious about everything, but they kind of adopt a tone that people have about their favorite sports teams. And they go, “Well, I don’t know why they’re playing it this way this year. They’ve got a bad coach in there and they traded the wrong guy out last season. And I’ve got lots of opinions on how this should be done. If I was running the show, this is how I would do it!” [laughs] So that’s what rock fans do, except it’s even on this other level because it’s like this emotionally proprietary thing. But the Pixies have done nothing and said nothing about addressing a lineup change. We didn’t even say that she had left! She said she left! So now all of these fans are making these demanding statements of me and my band, like “You haven’t even said ‘thank you’ to her, publicly!” like I’m some kind of elected official! People have smeared all kinds of concepts together; sports, romance, the idea of politically correct, the idea of morality, the idea of work and fair compensation. There’s all these things where people are like, “I know what’s best in the world and I know what’s right, and oh, I’m a fan of this rock band, and I don’t like the way they’re doing things! You know what? They owe me a statement! They owe me an official explanation about this!” And as a musician, you kind of get caught up in it and are like, “Oh yeah, I really should be addressing this.” But then you realize, “Wait a minute, I don’t f—ing owe anybody anything! It’s ridiculous!” Anyway, that’s my take on it.
While you’re addressing some of the negativity out there, let’s talk a little bit about the big deal that was made out of the Pitchfork review of “EP1,”which the website gave a score of 1.0 in September.
I never read the review, but I’d heard about it because somebody said, “oh, you got 1 out of 10!” Maybe they should go to a 100-star-system and then they could have given us 1 out of 100! I don’t know. What am I supposed to say? They gave me a bad review. I don’t care. If I’m going to read a bad review, chances are, the reviewer’s going to say something that’s going to hurt my feelings. Usually it’s something personal, like, “Hey, that Black Francis guy is overweight!”or something along those lines that will hurt my feelings. But if they want to write a bad review, what can I do about that? Thanks for giving me the publicity. I don’t have a big problem with it.
With the addition of new bassist Paz … how do I say her last name?
I don’t know.
I just know her as Paz!
Hang on ... [looks at notes] Lenchantin! Paz Lenchantin! Anyway, with you guys picking female bassists is that to try to recreate the original dynamic of the people in the Pixies, or is it just to be true to your original vision for the band?
I think in the most basic sort of way, there’s this male/female voice kind of thing. If you were to go take it a little deeper, I suppose that from a psychological view, the whole tone changes onstage as soon as a woman comes on. It’s all dudes and it’s all just one flavor, but as soon as you add a female, even if it’s not an even ratio of males to females, it’s a whole other dynamic. From the band point of view it’s a different dynamic and from the audiences point of view it’s a different dynamic.