Joey Santiago is in love. “I am!” he laughs. “The longest I separated from this girlfriend is probably a week. Then I listened to her again. Haha! I love it!” The object of Joey’s desire is his band’s new album, Head Carrier. The Pixies’ guitarist may have finished recording it months ago, but he remains utterly smitten. He takes it to bed and discovers little details he hadn’t noticed before. “I was shocked at some songs, they shine at lot better than I thought they would. You could listen to this forever and enjoy it.” Not surprisingly, he wants to show his new baby to the world. “I played it to some friends and both of them had goose-bumps – they just loved it! It’s tough and lush. Warm and dark and murky…”
Santiago’s giddiness might come as a surprise. This isn’t his first time, after all. Head Carrier is the seventh Pixies album, in a lifespan stretching back 30 years to their formation in Boston, MA. But there is, the guitarist notes, a new element to the Pixies’ DNA this time. “It’s Paz. She’s awesome. Now, everything is just so light, we’ve got lightness. I think I lost 12 pounds it’s so light now.” Paz is Paz Lenchantin, the bass player who joined the Pixies at the start of 2014, before the release of Head Carrier’s predecessor, Indie Cindy, but after its completion. If there was any lingering uncertainty regarding her official status, even during the two years of touring that followed, that’s changed now. Her position was sealed, emotionally, when she sang one of the new album’s stellar moments, “All I Think About Now,” a song she co-wrote with Pixies’ lead singer-songwriter Charles Thompson aka Black Francis and which is a tribute to Kim Deal, the original Pixie whose role Paz now occupies. “It just came at the last minute, a week before the recording process ended,” says Lenchantin. “I came up with some chords which I showed Charles, and he really liked it and he put some lyrics to it.”
“Paz said she wanted me to write a letter – a thank-you letter,” says Black Francis. “So I did. It was kinda poignant for us. It was important that song was a collaboration. Something from the Pixies’ DNA but also something from her as the new member, together.” The genesis of Head Carrier began even as Indie Cindy was being made – a direct consequence of Kim Deal’s decision to quit the band in June 2013 during a recording session at Rockfield Studios in Wales. “So we knew we had to make another one, even before we finished Indie Cindy,” says Black Francis. “That one by definition had turned into this transitional moment. We tried to make that transitional moment as good as we could, but no matter how great we potentially could make it, we knew it would still beg the question: what’s your new paradigm? It still remained transitional. Instead of becoming defining, it became transitional.”
Although almost 23 years separated Indie Cindy from its predecessor, 1991’s Trompe Le Monde, the Pixies’ 2014 comeback album that felt like a solid and contiguous addition to the canon. Both records were produced by genial Liverpudlian taskmaster Gil Norton, who had also guided the band on Doolittle (1989) and then Bossanova (1990). But when Black Francis and Joey Santiago sat down to discuss what might come next, they instinctively knew a change was required. “Joey and I decided that we had to be a little more self-defined, by the band, as opposed to the band’s history,” says Francis. “Pro-active as opposed to remaining where we had been. Not that we wouldn’t work with Gil Norton again, but we felt like we had to work with someone else. Seemed like the right thing to do.”
“We said the next one has to be a punch in the face,” adds Santiago. “Gil could have easily done it, but we had to get out of our comfort zone. We had to find a tough audience per se, and that meant a different producer.” At their manager’s suggestion, in September 2015 the Pixies met Tom Dalgety in Toronto, where the band was recording demos. The English producer of Royal Blood’s breakthrough debut, Dalgety’s other credits include such noted volume dealers as Killing Joke and Opeth. But according to Black Francis, the specifics of his track record mattered less than whether he was agreeable company for a meal.
“We hired Tom over dinner. We liked him. We liked his personality. And we knew that he had produced records before. So it’s not like – ‘Does this guy know what he’s doing?’ ‘I dunno, whatever…’ He’s produced some records! Yeah, he knows what he’s doing! Everyone understands what the task is at hand. But – do you like the person? Can you sit down and have dinner with them? Ah, I like this person. I think we can make a record.” Near the end of 2015, the band undertook three weeks’ pre-production at Real World Studios, near Dalgety’s hometown of Bath. The producer pulled some songs apart and outright rejected some others, including one the band had been hitherto convinced was a keeper. “Your ego has to go out the door if someone says, ‘I don’t like this’,” says Santiago, “because that’s their job. He’s won Producer Of The Year, for crying out loud – who are we to say?! But when I came up with something good Tom would tap me on the back and give the thumbs-up. And I’d feel awesome.”
“Tom took the lead on what songs worked better with each other,” adds Lenchantin. “And then we just played them ’til they sounded right. Played them every day, for hours!” Thanks to their staunch work ethic and Dalgety’s precision eye for arrangements, the band arrived at London’s RAK Studios in February in a heightened state of readiness. According to drummer David Lovering, they had never been so well drilled prior to making an album. “That was just a joy for me, ’cos I would consider myself a slow learner,” he chuckles. “Previous albums like Trompe Le Monde and Bossanova, the later ones, those came together very quickly and it almost wasn’t until two months into a tour where I would go, Aha, this is how the songs should go! So I always have trepidation going into the studio. I listened to Indie Cindy not long ago, and I was like – Owwww! It hurt me a little, some things I heard. But when I listen to this album, I’m very, very happy.”
Recorded in just three weeks, Head Carrier has the sonic hallmarks of a classic Pixies album – tungsten guitar riffage, sun-soaked harmonies, rhythmic pummel and lyrical intrigue – while never pandering to nostalgia. Aligned to its palpably fresh momentum, many of its songs have a poignant undertow, acknowledging its creators’ real time/real life journey. At least three, according to Black Francis, “fall into the sour grapes love song category”, though two of these – “Classic Masher” and “Bel Esprit” – feel quite exultant. The title track and “Plaster Of Paris,” meanwhile, share a somewhat thematic kinship, though the linkage is worthy of a cryptic crossword setter, turning upon the grisly fate of Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris.
“Head Carrier is the story of Saint Denis, as told from the perspective of one of his collaborators, Luther,” says Francis. “Saint Denis is also the most famous cephalophore. Then, I was reading a lot about how plaster of Paris was first commercially manufactured from the same place that Saint Denis met his demise, which was Montmartre. That was a nice way to tie in a lot of that imagery.” Elsewhere, the songs offer a typically varied buffet of Pixies esoterica: rural roadside prostitution in France and Belgium (“Um Chagga Lagga”), the Mesopotamian deity Baal (“Baal’s Back”) and the legendary American actor Jack Palance, who makes a cameo appearance in the rambunctious “Talent,” one of two songs whose primary musical influence Black Francis attributes to The Stranglers.
“Trying to channel their energy – and not necessarily pulling it off, but it’s always nice to shoot for lofty things. I wanted to use Jack Palace primarily because his name was a nice soft rhyme with ‘talent’. But I do like Jack Palance – I would never have used just anybody just because their name rang a certain way. The combination of your name ringing a certain way and the fact that you’re an iconic cool actor… basically, you’re a shoo-in for the job.” The album’s emotional core, meanwhile, resides in its second half, amid the plangent “Tenement Song” (“A song about music, a song about songs,” says Francis, “and where music comes from – maybe people in your family who showed you how to play the piano”), or the closing “All The Saints,” which boils down all questioning to its eternal essence: “Wondering why I’m still here/Too many times I had fear/Trying to be near you.”
And of course, the beatific “All I Think About Now” – “Remember when we were happy?/If I’m late can I thank you now?” – a tribute to the Pixies’ past from its freshly alchemised now. “How could anyone make any of this up?” wonders Paz. “I could never imagine it. This is a great band. I’m just happy to be a part of it. I respect and honor their beautiful past and I’m so fortunate to be part of the band’s present and future. It’s unfortunate what happened with the departure of Kim, but with a tip of the hat to her I also respect the path that she’s given me.”
That the Pixies could have a viable present in the 21st century, let alone a bright future, seemed impossible during the 10 years following their break-up in 1993, and again following Deal’s departure. But there’s always been a whiff of alchemy to this band that confounds the natural order of things. It’s a large reason why they remain so special, and so beloved. “We’re a dysfunctional band,” acknowledges Lovering. “But when you get older, it’s not that you get wiser, it’s just that you learn how to put up with everyone’s shit a little better! That’s what it is. So we’re putting up with everybody’s shit. And because of that, and because Paz lessens the craziness, it’s a pleasure.”
“We never take it for granted,” adds Santiago. “But at the same time, it’s so natural for us. There’s that chemistry where we get together, and we just have to go, ‘Oh OK – we sound like the Pixies. Fuck – we are the Pixies!’”