Encouraged by Bono, The Pixies are thinking about making their first studio album in 20 years. But is it such a good idea?
After 20 years, The Pixies are thinking about a new studio album
Like him or not, Bono is well known for his persuasiveness. Be it cajoling various presidents of the United States to increase their humanitarian aid to the underprivileged, enticing multinational corporations to ally themselves with his Project Red campaign, or, indeed, making the average rock fan believe that it's still cool to be impressed by a 50-year-old man cavorting around stage in sunglasses, the frontman of U2 is, well, influential. But even Bono must have raised an eyebrow this week when Joey Santiago, the guitarist from the cult indie band The Pixies, revealed that the Irishman's pleas for the band to make their first album in 20 years had indeed begun to make a difference. "Even Bono asked... we can't leave that unturned," Santiago told the US rock magazine Spinner. "That would frustrate me. I think we should do it."
All of which sent alternative rock fans of a certain age - The Pixies blazed their way out of the Boston scene in 1987 with the raw mini-album Come On Pilgrim - scurrying for the message boards and fan sites. Six years might sound like a mere footnote in rock history, but between 1987 and 1993, The Pixies - comprising Frank Black, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago and David Lovering - were one of the world's most influential bands, a strangely compelling mix of surf music and punk rock, featuring Black's howling vocals and Deal's whispered harmonies. The critically acclaimed albums Surfer Rosa, Doolittle and Bossanova featured some of alternative rock's biggest hits of the time: the turbulent Debaser, the poppy, wispy Monkey Gone to Heaven, the surprisingly straightforward Here Comes Your Man.
And then it all went wrong.
The history of rock is pockmarked with trailblazing, cult bands who split up acrimoniously, only to see groups clearly influenced by them go on to take all the glory. So it was with The Pixies. Though Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit was released before The Pixies had grown tired of throwing guitars at one another on stage, Kurt Cobain once admitted that it was his attempt at writing a Pixies song. Indeed, listen to any classic Nirvana track and it's the dynamics of the quiet verse followed by the roaring, primal chorus which give the music its heft: a structure that was, essentially, The Pixies' calling card. As Black said in 1991, "we can play loud or quiet - that's it."
And because they didn't sully their reputation with a series of contract-obliging albums that steadily diminished in power or quality, The Pixies have remained something of a touchstone, a throwback to a time when an alternative band were genuinely alternative. Even if you were born well after their wilfully abrasive last album, 1991's Trompe Le Monde, a journey through the annals of 20th century rock will always take in a Pixies song or two.
Well-regarded bands nearly always end up burying the hatchet - essentially, only The Clash and The Beatles managed to avoid such temptations - and thus it wasn't a huge surprise when The Pixies began to tour their classic albums again in 2004, despite the hostility that had once festered between them. Admittedly there was a faint whiff of the cash cow about the reunion. But in many ways, the band deserved the payday they didn't really enjoy when they were actually releasing music. It's not as if they weren't aware of what they were doing: the DVD for the 2004 tour was called Sell Out.
So why has it taken a further seven years to consider recording a new album? Santiago put his finger on it in the interview with Spinner. "In the back of our minds I think we're afraid that it might cause friction," he said. Lovering also seemed to admit that it's rather easier just to play Doolittle night after night to a rapturous crowd who know all the words. "We want to protect the legacy. If we do something, it better be good," he said, consistent with Black's remarks in a Guardian interview last year. "What we don't want to do is just release something that somehow doesn't seem magical," Black warned.
In a way, then, the band are just as worried as their fans about the potential for a new Pixies record to be crushingly disappointing. Which means there might be a way to go yet before we hear any new material. It might, actually, never happen. Which, all things considered, wouldn't be a travesty.