The Pixies' music was heavily influenced by punk and surf rock, and while highly melodic, was capable of being tremendously abrasive at the same time. Francis was the band's primary songwriter and singer and had a distinctly desperate, yowling delivery. He typically wrote cryptic songs about offbeat subjects, such as UFOs and surrealism. References to mental instability, violent Biblical imagery, physical injury, and incest feature in many of the band's songs.
The group is frequently posited as the immediate forebear of the alternative rock boom of the 1990s, though they disbanded before reaping any of the benefits this might have brought them. Avowed fan Kurt Cobain's acknowledgement of the debt Nirvana owed to the Pixies, along with similar tributes by other alternative bands, ensured that the Pixies' legacy and influence grew substantially in the years following their demise.
The pair formed a band in January 1986. Bassist Kim Deal joined Santiago and Francis two weeks later after responding to a classified advertisement Francis had placed, seeking a female bassist who liked both folk music icons Peter, Paul and Mary and the hardcore punk band Hüsker Dü. Deal was the only person to respond, but arrived at the audition without a bass guitar as she had never played the instrument before. She claimed her twin sister Kelley Deal had a bass back in Dayton and that she had no money to get it. Francis lent her $50 for the airfare and Deal returned with the bass guitar. The trio started rehearsing in Deal's apartment, "because the old lady upstairs couldn't hear.
After recruiting Kim Deal, the band tried to get Kelley to join the band on drums unsuccessfully. Kim's husband suggested they hire drummer David Lovering, whom Kim had met at her wedding reception. They arrived at a name after Santiago selected the word randomly from a dictionary and took a liking to the definition, "mischievous little elves". The group was originally named "Pixies In Panoply" ("Things on Fire" was considered), but soon shortened it to "Pixies". Once the band had settled on a name and stable line-up, they moved rehearsals to Lovering's parents' garage in the summer of 1986. Their first show—named as "possibly the worst gig in the history of rock" by the band—took place at the The Rathskeller, Boston, where they performed early versions of "Here Comes Your Man", "Dig for Fire", and "Build High".
Upon signing with 4AD (the band later claimed they were "the coolest record company to pay on time"), eight tracks from the Purple Tape were selected for the Come On Pilgrim EP, the band's first release. The title was a lyric in the song "Levitate Me", which came from a catchphrase used by '70s Christian rock pioneer Larry Norman during his live concerts: "Come on Pilgrim, you know He loves you"—Francis once saw Norman at a Christian summer camp. Black Francis would later record one of Norman's songs during his solo career as Frank Black, plus share one concert stage with Norman.
In the EP, Francis drew upon his experiences in Puerto Rico, mostly in the songs "Vamos" and "Isla de Encanta"; the album included lyrics describing the poverty in Puerto Rico. The religious lyrics in Come On Pilgrim and later albums came from his born-again Christian days in the Pentecostal Church.
Come On Pilgrim showcased much of the Pixies' variety and set up the beginnings of many trends in their music. It includes two songs partly sung in Spanish ("Vamos" and "Isla de Encanta") and two songs that explicitly mention incest—"Nimrod's Son" and "The Holiday Song" (). "I've Been Tired" refers metaphorically to sex and rock and roll culture and features a weird sense of humour, and there are three songs with religious references ("Caribou", "Nimrod's Son", and "The Holiday Song"). Beyond lyrical trends, Come On Pilgrim displayed Santiago's erratic leads (as best displayed in "Vamos"), Kim Deal's sweet harmonies (the then-married Deal used the pseudonym "Mrs. John Murphy" on the first few Pixies records, as an ironic feminist joke), and Black Francis's amazing vocal range, from screaming to simple, traditional sung melodies.
As with Come On Pilgrim, the band delivered a wide range of song styles. However, sonically and thematically, Surfer Rosa was similar to Come On Pilgrim—from the drum-driven "Bone Machine", that showed a trademark propensity for surreal lyrics, to pop guitar songs such as "Broken Face", "Break My Body", and "Brick is Red". The band included heavier material, such as "Something Against You", with Black Francis' distorted screaming a prominent feature in the song, and Q Magazine later named Surfer Rosa as one of the 50 Heaviest Albums of All Time. A re-recorded version of "Vamos"—a song that appeared on Come On Pilgrim—appears on the album. The track, "You Fuckin' Die! (I Said)" (referred to as "Bonus Track" or "Untitled" on most versions of the CD) that appears toward the end of the album is actually an accidental studio recording of Francis and Deal talking amicably and joking, and despite the title of the song, there is none of the tension present between the two that would later drive the band apart.
Surfer Rosa featured popular songs such as "Gigantic"—their first single and one of the few songs on which bassist Kim Deal sang lead vocals—"River Euphrates", and "Where Is My Mind?" whose most famous performance was at the end of the film Fight Club, and, as a result is one of their best-known songs to date.
After their critically acclaimed album, the band arrived in England to support Throwing Muses on the European "Sex and Death" tour—beginning at the Mean Fiddler in London. The tour also took them to the Netherlands, where the Pixies had already received enough media attention to be headlining the tour. Francis later recalled: "The first place I made it with the Pixies was in Holland. The setlist included new songs such as "In Heaven", "Hey", and "Wild Honey Pie", and the tour became notable for the band's in-jokes, such as playing their entire set list in alphabetical order. The aforementioned songs were recorded in a Peel session in July at the BBC and they soon made a second trip to the studios; choosing "Dead", "Tame", "There Goes My Gun", and "Manta Ray" to be recorded. In total, the band recorded six Peel sessions and released an album, Pixies at the BBC, with selected recorded tracks from those sessions.
Around this time, the Pixies struck up a relationship with the British producer, Gil Norton. Norton was to produce their second full album, Doolittle (provisionally titled Whore), which was recorded in the last six weeks of 1988 and seen as a departure from the raw sound of Come On Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa. Doolittle had a much cleaner sound, largely due to Norton and the production budget of US$40,000, which was quadruple that of Surfer Rosa. Much of the album's subject matter remained similar to the previous two albums; several song titles seemed to evoke images of bloodshed and mutilation, such as "I Bleed", "Wave of Mutilation", and "Gouge Away".
Doolittle began with "Debaser" an ode to the 1929 surrealist Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí film Un chien andalou. "Debaser" is perhaps their most highly regarded song; in March 2005, Q magazine placed the song at number 21 in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks. Doolittle featured the prominent single "Here Comes Your Man"; an unusually jaunty and poppy song for the band. It nearly landed the band a mimed appearance on the TV chat show Wogan, which was mocked in the video to the song. "Monkey Gone to Heaven", the only Pixies song with a string section, was a Top 10 modern rock radio hit in the US, reached the Top 100 in the UK and still receives regular radio play. Deal's only songwriting contribution to the album was the song "Silver" (co-written with Francis), on which Deal played slide guitar and Lovering played the bass guitar. Lovering sang lead vocals on "La La Love You", an atypical love song from the band.
Like Surfer Rosa, Doolittle was acclaimed by fans and music critics alike, and it is perhaps their best-selling record; it was certified gold by the RIAA on November 10, 1995. It also placed on Q Magazine's 100 Greatest Albums Ever.
Kim was headstrong and wanted to include her own songs, to explore her own world. The way I think Charles [Black Francis] saw it, the band made pizzas, not cookies. Before we made Bossanova, we were even going to fire her after a gig in Frankfurt where we found her hanging out in her hotel room with no intention of playing. But our lawyer convinced us to try and work it out, to give her a warning or something. You know, I blocked that incident out of my head, that was too heavy for me. Kim couldn't believe I'd be party to it but I told her, she didn't seem happy, so why hang around? In the end, Kim realized it was Charles's bag, that he was the singer, but they kinda stopped talking after that.
During the post-Doolittle "Fuck or Fight" tour of the United States, intended to promote the release of the album, the band's hectic schedule took its toll on the band members; the Pixies had released three albums in two years, as well as constant touring. Near the end of the 1989 tour, during their homecoming Boston concert, Deal was in a drunken state, and Santiago smashed up his instruments and stormed off-stage. After the tour's final date in New York, the band was too exhausted to attend the end-of-tour party the following night and soon announced a hiatus.
During this time, Santiago travelled to the Grand Canyon to "find himself", and Lovering jetted off to Jamaica. Francis bought a yellow Cadillac and crossed America with his girlfriend (due to an aversion to flying), and while doing so performed solo gigs in order to raise money for furniture in his new Los Angeles apartment. Deal formed a new band, The Breeders, named after a band she had formed with her sister as a teenager, with Tanya Donelly of Throwing Muses and bassist Josephine Wiggs of Perfect Disaster. Their debut album, Pod, was released later that year.
The subject matter changed from earlier albums, to a more sci-fi, surreal focus on UFOs and alien abduction. The musical style of the album was inspired by surf-rock, as Bossanova started with a cover of "Cecilia Ann" by The Surftones. In general, the style of music in Bossanova was a departure from previous albums. For example, songs such as "Havalina" and "Ana" showed a dreamy side to the band, and Francis' vocals were notably more tuneful (although on "Rock Music", he displayed his trademark screaming). "Dig For Fire" was, according to Francis, a Talking Heads tribute. The lead guitar of Santiago was less prominent, with none of the wilder solos that were present in Come On Pilgrim or Surfer Rosa. The track "Allison" was a tribute to one of Francis' musical heroes Mose Allison (an American jazz and blues artist). The track references space and the universe – ideas commonly explored in Mose's work.
The band continued to tour, and, break-up announcements notwithstanding, one more album was to follow. Trompe le Monde, released in 1991, still featured little creative input from Deal and was not as immediately well regarded as their first few albums. Before its release, it was rumoured the album drew inspiration from heavy metal, and the band's pre-album release of "Planet of Sound", a heavier song than their usual output, did not quell the rumors.
In the end, Trompe Le Monde expanded on the UFO and sci-fi themes (including a song on space travel, "Planet of Sound" and "Motorway to Roswell" about an alien vacation gone bad). Songs such as "Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons" and "Lovely Day" were written in a similar style to songs on Bossanova (such as "Havalina"). The album saw the band move in a more popular direction with songs as "Palace of the Brine" and "Trompe Le Monde". The songs "U-Mass" and "Alec Eiffel" included the keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman—a move unthinkable in the band's Come On Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa days. The album also featured a cover of "Head On" by The Jesus and Mary Chain. Trompe Le Monde was to be the Pixies' last studio album before their breakup.
Following the release of Trompe Le Monde, the band contributed a cover of "I Can't Forget" to the Leonard Cohen tribute album I'm Your Fan and went on a sellout winter tour of the USA, culminating on a TV appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. They then embarked on an uncomfortable tour supporting fans U2 (on their Zoo TV tour) in 1992. However, tensions rose between band members, and, at the end of the year, the Pixies went on sabbatical and focused on separate projects.
In early 1993, Francis announced in an interview to BBC Radio 5 that the band was finished and offered no explanation at the time, unbeknownst to the other members of the band. He later telephoned Santiago and subsequently notified Deal and Lovering via fax, in January 1993. Francis later regretted breaking up the band in that fashion, as he did not allow the rest of the band an opportunity to discuss the move.
Deal returned to The Breeders and scored a hit with "Cannonball" from that group's platinum-selling Last Splash in 1993. However, for several years they struggled to produce another album, mainly due to her sister and fellow band member, Kelley Deal, and her struggles with heroin. While on hiatus from the Breeders, Deal formed and recorded with The Amps, who released their only album Pacer in 1995. A new Breeders album, Title TK, finally appeared in 2002, with only Kim and Kelley remaining from the previous Breeders lineup.
Lovering went on to become a magician and make occasional appearances as "The Scientific Phenomenalist", performing experiments on stage and occasionally opening for Frank Black and The Breeders. Lovering continued to drum, playing on one of Tanya Donelly's solo albums. Santiago played lead guitar on one of Frank Black's solo albums, and on other albums such as Statecraft, by indie-rock musician Charles Douglas. Santiago also wrote theme music for Fox television, and formed a band called The Martinis with his wife, Linda Mallari. They released their debut album, Smitten, in 2004.
In the 11 years following the break-up, rumors frequently circulated regarding a reunion. Though Frank Black steadfastly dismissed them, he did begin to incorporate an increasing number of Pixies songs in his sets with the Catholics, and occasionally included Santiago and Lovering in his solo work. In late 2003 a press release from Black's publicist officially confirmed a reunion would occur in the spring of 2004. The Pixies played their first reunion concert on April 13, 2004 at The Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a warmup tour through the U.S. and Canada was followed by an appearance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. The band then spent much of 2004 touring throughout Brazil, Europe, Japan, and the U.S.
The 2004 reunion of the Pixies was the subject of the 2006 documentary, LoudQUIETloud.
In June 2004, the band released a new single, "Bam Thwok" exclusively on the iTunes Music Store. The song reached number one in the British download chart. 4AD released Wave of Mutilation: The Best of the Pixies, along with a companion DVD. The band also contributed a rendition of "Ain't That Pretty At All" to the Warren Zevon tribute album Enjoy Every Sandwich.
2005 saw the band make appearances at the Lollapalooza and Sasquatch! music festivals. The band also played at European events such as the Reading and Leeds Festivals, and in Edinburgh as part of the T on the Fringe music festival. In August, the band performed an entirely acoustic set (after a warm-up acoustic set in Albany, New York) at the Newport Folk Festival.
The band continued to make appearances through 2006 and 2007, culminating in their first-ever appearances in Australia. By early 2008, however, following abortive attempts to record a new album, Black began stating in interviews that the reunion was over.
In late August 2008, Pixies frontman Black Francis told NME.com he's up for a return to the studio with former bandmates Kim Deal, Joey Santiago and David Lovering for what would be the first Pixies record since 1991's Trompe Le Monde. He stated that "It's just a waiting game right now. Whatever we do in the future is gonna have to be fresh. "I have to see if the band as a whole wants to go into the recording studio for a new record. That makes sense on some level. For us, there's gotta be an angle. It can't be just playing our old songs over and over."
Santiago, as mentioned above, listened to 1970s and 1980s punk (including Black Flag) and David Bowie. Guitarists who influenced him include Jimi Hendrix, Les Paul, Wes Montgomery, and George Harrison.
Deal's musical background was country; she had formed a country band with her sister in her teenage years. Folk music has influenced the Pixies; Francis often listened to Christian rocker Larry Norman, and the band famously requested a bassist who was a fan of Husker Du and the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. Francis also mentions Lou Reed in Come On Pilgrim's "I've Been Tired".
Other media such as film has had an impact on the Pixies; Francis cites surrealist films Eraserhead and Un chien andalou (as mentioned in "Debaser") as influences. He commented on these influences (which he paid tribute to most in Doolittle), saying he "didn't have the patience to sit around reading Surrealist novels", but found it easier to watch twenty-minute films. He claimed the band members were "surrealists" in an interview to Melody Maker: "Maybe the avant-garde appeals to people from our economic background, because we're typically rejecting the older meaningful Christian values, but we're still confused as hell."
He also wrote about other offbeat subjects—such as the sea ("Where Is My Mind?" and "Wave of Mutilation") and earthquakes ("Here Comes Your Man"), and in the band's early works (the Come On Pilgrim era), he included references to Christian themes ("Levitate Me"). Later, as the band's career progressed, he began to focus on sci-fi concepts and themes such as aliens ("Motorway to Roswell") and unidentified flying objects ("The Happening").
Deal sang lead vocals on "Gigantic" and the band's latest composition, "Bam Thwok," both of which she wrote, as well as on "Silver," co-written with Francis; she also sang lead vocals on the Francis-written "Into the White" and the Neil Young cover "I've Been Waiting For You." Lovering sang lead vocals on "La La Love You" and "Make Believe"; both songs were written by Francis.
As their career has progressed, starting with "Monkey Gone to Heaven" (from Doolittle), the band have incorporated other, often unusual instruments and experimented more with their sound. For example, "Monkey Gone to Heaven" used a string section. "Velouria" (from Bossanova) had a theremin, "Alec Eiffel" and "U-Mass" featured a keyboard part (played by Eric Drew Feldman) and "Bam Thwok", their latest release, has an organ solo halfway through the song.
I've heard it said about The Velvet Underground that while not a lot of people bought their albums, everyone who did started a band. I think this is largely true about the Pixies as well. Charles' secret weapon turned out to be not so secret and, sooner or later, all sorts of bands were exploiting the same strategy of wide dynamics. It became a kind of new pop formula and, within a short while, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was charging up the charts and even the members of Nirvana said later that it sounded for all the world like a Pixies song.
Sonically, the Pixies are credited with popularizing the extreme dynamics and stop-start timing that would come to define alternative rock; Pixies songs typically feature hushed, restrained verses, and explosive, wailing choruses. Cover songs and commentary from artists and groups such as David Bowie, Radiohead, U2, Weezer, Nirvana and critics such as Graham Linehan attest to the appreciation of the band by musicians and critics alike. Bob Mould (from Hüsker Dü, who the Pixies cited as an influence) said he "was a huge Pixies fan" and Radiohead's Thom Yorke, after being informed of the Pixies plans to play before them at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, exclaimed:
No! That's just not right! The Pixies opening for us is like the Beatles opening for us. I won't allow it. There's no way we can follow the Pixies!
Yorke said in the same Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival that, while at school, "the Pixies had changed my life". Other members of Radiohead have cited the band as an influence, and Yorke commented, "If we were all into the Pixies and nothing else, then it would be pretty obvious what the band would sound like."
While touring with U2 in 1992, the Pixies were sent a note from the band saying "Keep digging for fire. We love you." David Bowie, whose music had inspired Francis and Santiago while they were at university, mourned the band's breakup: "I felt very depressed the day I heard about the Pixies split. What a waste...I could see them becoming huge." This statement echoed many artists at that time who felt the band should have had more commercial success.
The most notable citation as an influence was by Kurt Cobain, on influencing Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", which he admitted was a conscious attempt to co-opt the Pixies' style. In a January 1994 interview with Rolling Stone, he revealed:
I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it (smiles). 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. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.
Weezer (who later covered "Velouria" in the Pixies tribute album, Where Is My Mind?) have cited the Pixies as an influence on their music and lead singer Rivers Cuomo, in an Addicted To Noise interview, said the band "really blew my mind when I first moved to L.A. and started to discover cool music. Damon Albarn (of the band Blur) said: "When we started we wanted to sound like the Pixies." The number of Pixies tribute albums recorded gives backing to their position as a major influence in modern alternative rock music.
Since the band were signed to the small alternative record label, 4AD, at the time of Come On Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa, no videos were released from their first two records. Starting with Doolittle, their first release with Elektra Records, the band released music videos with their singles, but the videos were often simple affairs. For example, in songs such as "Monkey Gone To Heaven", "Head On" and "Debaser", the videos often consisted of the band playing their instruments.
By Bossanova, the band had developed a severe aversion to recording music videos, as Francis refused to lip-sync to them. For example, in the "Here Comes Your Man" video, both Black and Deal open their mouths wide instead of mouthing their lyrics. According to the record label this became one of the reasons that the Pixies never achieved major coverage on MTV.
As "Velouria" (their first single from Bossanova) was climbing up the UK Top 40, the band was offered a spot on Top of the Pops. However, a BBC rule stated only singles with videos could be performed on the show. To counter this a cheap video was made, with the band being filmed running down a quarry. In the video, ten seconds of footage (the time needed for the band members to reach the camera) is slowed in order to last for the duration of the song. However, the effort in filming the video was in vain; the Pixies did not play "Velouria" on Top of The Pops while the single was in the charts.