Charles Thompson, known to Pixies fans by his pseudonyms Frank Black and Black Francis, has some ideas about the band he co-founded in 1986. They’re pretty basic.
“I believe in my heart that the agenda for the Pixies has always been, from the beginning, to be a rock band,” he said on the phone from Boston a few weeks ago, in advance of a string of concerts. “And by being a rock band, what I mean is ‘a collective of people that goes to a nightclub and performs a concert, and then also books recording sessions at studios.’ And that’s about it.”
If only it were that simple. Music fans and sociologists alike understand, though, that collectives can be volatile. Even Spinal Tap knows: Drummers vanish, choke on vomit, spontaneously combust — and are replaced. The Rolling Stones haven’t toured with Bill Wyman in ages. The Doors went on the road with Ian Astbury of the Cult as their lead singer, for heaven’s sake.
Kim Deal recently left the Pixies, the guitar band that helped transform alternative rock in the late 1980s, and Kim Shattuck (the Pandoras, the Muffs) took the stage as her replacement Friday at the Echo for their first concert as a unit. In the life of the band and its fans, it’s a challenging time. At what point does the chain break?
The fortunate few hundred Pixies devotees found out Friday, more will know during the band’s four consecutive sold-out concerts in Los Angeles starting Monday (the first three at the El Rey, the fourth at the Mayan), and the rest can judge for themselves on the group’s new four-song EP. On its first batch of new recordings in 22 years, with more to come in the near future, one of the great rock bands of the ‘80s and ‘90s is moving forward after Deal’s sudden departure.
Though amicable, her decision was abrupt, considering that the band, also featuring lead guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering, had finally started working on music again. According to Thompson, that process began in 2007, a few years after they’d reunited to tour, when he set up a microphone at home. He ended up with six or seven sketches of songs.
“They were very trashy-sounding demos, but I thought they had spirit and showed promise,” he said.
Thompson wanted to prove to the others that he could write something that represented the band. So he sent them the songs — and they replied with silence.
“I received no response whatsoever from any of the other three people,” he said, still sounding a little shocked.
Though he later learned that one email may have gotten lost, a frustrated Thompson issued what he described as “a fairly cocky” ultimatum in advance of an upcoming tour. Not wanting to keep replaying the same 20 songs every night, he demanded that they either work on new stuff or he was done.
“Somebody in the band,” he said coyly, “called my bluff, and said, ‘Fine, we’ll cancel the tour. No problem.’” That led to more frustration. “I tried to strong-arm the process, and that was my mistake, and I admit that,” he said.
Then the band minus Deal met up in Los Angeles to build some songs and present them to her. Those languished. The four tried again in 2011 by booking a room near their first Boston rehearsal space to jam some songs.
“Let’s just say that the rehearsal session, at least on some level, was disastrous,” said Thompson, laughing.
The end came in June 2013, after they converged at producer Gil Norton’s studio in England, where some of their best albums were recorded. In the middle of the process, Deal made an announcement.
Recalled Thompson: “At some point, she said, ‘I’m out. I can’t do this. It’s just not what I want to do.’ It was perfectly amicable. It wasn’t like we were fighting about anything. She just wasn’t comfortable with the process.”
He said the three remaining members “were devastated for about two days, and then we had a band meeting and decided that we should continue.”
The Pixies, after all, were in the studio and liked the songs they were making.
“It’s corny to say it, but it’s all about the music,” said Thompson. “That’s why we got into this. This isn’t about being accepted or being validated or dealing with my demigod status that I have amongst my fans.”
Said status has made it tough on his muse, said Thompson, whose work outside the Pixies is known for its stylistic range. He didn’t want to feel confined by the band’s past, and he remained baffled by why some of his songs resonated.
Ultimately, he “found the zone that I felt like was a Pixies head space,” he said. “And I guess it was, because that’s when I really started to get good reactions from Joey and David.”
On Friday the band played all four tracks from its new EP, titled “EP-1,” and a couple other new ones. They sounded good, even if the material couldn’t possibly yet ring with the same rush of enthusiasm as the classics. “Another Toe in the Ocean,” especially, was as solid and catchily abrasive as anything else in the set.
Did guitarist Santiago smile any more than usual? Hardly. Did the erstwhile Black Francis offer witty banter? None to speak of — just a devotion to playing the songs loudly and accurately, with drummer Lovering at the back of the stage relentlessly banging.
Early songs in the set such as “Head On” and “I’ve Been Tired” didn’t arrive with the same punch as the recorded versions; rather, they possessed more groove and swing — only to pop with exclamation points when Santiago and Black kicked in the distortion.
During “Caribou,” rather than bellow the words “repent!” as he does on record, Thompson sang them quietly, with a sturdy but underplayed resolve.
Shattuck? She was fun to watch, filled the stage with a much-needed brightness and certainly knows her Pixies bass lines. She’s in the unenviable position, though, of trying to meld into a group of three men with decades of history both on stage and as business partners.
“I really like that she’s a good screamer,” said Thompson. “And even though we weren’t looking for a female vocalist who knows how to scream, we’ve got new material coming up and new songs to write, etc., and she is going to be asked to scream.”
There’s a bonus too, confessed Thompson. If Shattuck steals the light, “then I can be the sweet one. I want to be the sweet one that everyone’s in love with. She can be the angry weirdo in the middle of the stage, and I can stand to the side.”
If only it were that simple.