Combining jagged guitars and stop-start dynamics with melodic pop hooks, intertwining male-female harmonies, and evocative lyrics, Pixies are one of alternative rock’s most influential bands. On albums such as 1988′s Surfer Rosa and 1989′s Doolittle, they upended conventions, melding punk and indie rock, classic pop, surf rock, and stadium-sized riffs with singer/guitarist Black Francis’ fragmented lyrics about space, religion, sex, mutilation, and pop culture. His words may have been cryptic, but the music was direct, forceful, and laid the groundwork for the alternative explosion of the early ’90s. From grunge to Brit-pop, Pixies’ shadow loomed large; it’s hard to imagine Nirvana without Pixies’ signature loud-quiet-loud dynamics and lurching, noisy guitar solos. However, the band’s commercial success didn’t match its impact — MTV was reluctant to play their videos, while modern rock radio didn’t put their singles into regular rotation. By the time Nirvana broke the doors down for alternative rock in 1992, Pixies were effectively broken up. During the rest of the ’90s and into the 2000s, they continued to inspire acts ranging from Weezer, Radiohead, and PJ Harvey to the Strokes and Arcade Fire. Pixies’ 2004 reunion was as surprising as it was welcome, and the band’s frequent tours led them to record albums including 2022′s Doggerel, which expanded their groundbreaking sound with country and folk influences.
Pixies were formed in Boston, Massachusetts in January 1986 by Charles Thompson and Joey Santiago, Thompson’s suitemate while studying at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Born in Massachusetts and constantly shuttling between there and California, Thompson began playing music as a teenager before he moved to the East Coast for good during high school. Following graduation, he became an anthropology major at the University of Massachusetts. Halfway through his studies there, he went to Puerto Rico to study Spanish, and after six months he decided to move back to the U.S. to form a band. Thompson dropped out of school and moved to Boston, managing to persuade Santiago to join him. Advertising in a music paper for a bassist who liked “Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul and Mary,” the duo recruited Kim Deal (who was billed as Mrs. John Murphy on the group’s first two records), who had previously played with her twin sister Kelly in their band the Breeders in her hometown of Dayton, Ohio. On the advice of Deal, the group recruited drummer David Lovering. Inspired by Iggy Pop, Thompson picked the stage name Black Francis and the group named itself Pixies after Santiago randomly flipped through the dictionary.
After a few months, Pixies had played enough gigs to land a supporting slot for fellow Boston band Throwing Muses. At the Muses concert, Gary Smith, an artist manager and producer at Boston’s Fort Apache studios, heard the group and offered to record them. In March 1987, Pixies recorded 18 songs over the course of three days. The demo, dubbed The Purple Tape, was given to key players within the Boston musical community and the international alternative scene, including Ivo Watts, the head of England’s 4AD Records. On the advice of his girlfriend, Watts signed the band. After selecting eight of the demo’s songs and remixing them slightly, 4AD released them as Come on Pilgrim in September 1987. Named for a lyric from a song by Christian rocker Larry Norman — whose music Francis listened to while growing up — the mini-album peaked at number five on the U.K. indie album chart.
In December 1987, Pixies began recording their first full-length album, Surfer Rosa, with Steve Albini at Boston’s Q Division studio. Albini, who had pioneered the thin, abrasive indie guitar grind with Big Black, gave the band a harder-edged sound over the ten-day session, yet the group retained its melodic hooks. Released in March 1988, Surfer Rosa became a college radio hit in America (and was ultimately certified gold by the RIAA in 2005); in the U.K., the album reached number two on the Indie Chart and earned enthusiastic reviews from the British weekly music press. By the end of the year, Pixies’ buzz was substantial, and the group signed to Elektra.
While touring in support of Surfer Rosa, Francis began writing songs for the band’s second album, some of which appeared on their 1988 sessions for John Peel’s radio show. That October, the band entered Downtown Studios in Boston with English producer Gil Norton, with whom they had recorded the single version of “Gigantic” in May. With a budget of $40,000 — four times the amount Surfer Rosa cost — and a month of initial recording sessions, Doolittle was Pixies’ cleanest-sounding album yet. It received excellent reviews, leading to greater exposure in America. “Monkey Gone to Heaven” and “Here Comes Your Man” became Top Ten modern rock hits, clearing the way for Doolittle to peak at number 98 on the U.S. charts; meanwhile, it hit number eight on the U.K. Album Chart. Throughout their career, Pixies were more popular in Britain and Europe than America, as evidenced by the success of the Sex and Death tour in support of Doolittle. The band became notorious for Black Francis’ motionless performances, which were offset by Deal’s charmingly earthy sense of humor. The tour itself became infamous for the band’s in-jokes, such as playing their entire set list in alphabetical order. By the completion of their second American tour for Doolittle at the end of 1989, the bandmembers had begun to tire of each other and decided to take a hiatus.
During his time away from Pixies, Black Francis went on a brief solo tour. Meanwhile, Kim Deal re-formed the Breeders with Tanya Donelly from Throwing Muses and bassist Josephine Wiggs of Perfect Disaster. In January 1990, Francis, Santiago, and Lovering moved to Los Angeles to prepare for recording Pixies’ third album, Bossanova, while Deal worked on the Breeders’ debut album Pod in the U.K. with Albini; she joined the rest of the group in time to start recording in February. Working once again with Norton at Burbank, California’s Master Control studio, the band wrote many of the album’s songs in the studio. More atmospheric than its predecessors, and relying heavily on Francis’ surf rock obsession, Bossanova was released in August of 1990; unlike Surfer Rosa or Doolittle, it contained no songs by Deal. Bossanova was greeted with mixed reviews, but the record became a college hit, generating the modern rock hits “Velouria” and “Dig for Fire” in the U.S. In Europe, the record expanded the group’s popularity, hitting number three on the U.K. album charts and paving the way for their headlining appearance at the Reading Festival. Though the supporting tours for Bossanova were successful, tension continued to grow between Kim Deal and Black Francis — at the conclusion of their English tour, Deal announced from the stage of the Brixton Academy that the concert was “our last show.”
While they canceled their planned American tour due to exhaustion, Pixies reconvened in early 1991 to make their fourth album with Gil Norton, recording in studios in Burbank, Paris, and London. Hiring former Captain Beefheart and Pere Ubu keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman as an auxiliary member, the band moved back toward loud rock, claiming to be inspired by the presence of Ozzy Osbourne in a neighboring studio. Upon its fall release, Trompe le Monde was hailed by some as a welcome return to the sound of Surfer Rosa and Doolittle, but closer inspection revealed that it relied heavily on sonic detail and featured very few vocals by Deal and, as on Bossanova, none of her songs. The band embarked on another international tour, playing stadiums in Europe but theaters in America. Early in 1992, Pixies opened for U2 on the opening leg of the Zoo TV tour; upon its conclusion, the band went on another hiatus, with Deal returning to the Breeders, who released the EP Safari that April. Francis began working on a solo album.
As he was preparing to release his solo debut in January 1993, Francis gave an interview on BBC’s Radio 5, announcing that Pixies were disbanding. He hadn’t yet informed the other members; later that day, he called Santiago and faxed Deal and Lovering the news. Inverting his stage name to Frank Black, Francis released his eponymous debut that March. The Breeders released their second album, Last Splash, in August 1993. The album became a hit, going gold in the U.S. and spawning the hit single “Cannonball.” Soon after, Deal also formed the Amps, who released their one (and only) album, Pacer, in 1995. Santiago and Lovering formed the Martinis in 1995 and appeared on the soundtrack to Empire Records. During the late ’90s and early 2000s, 4AD issued archival Pixies releases, including Death to the Pixies 1987-1991, Pixies at the BBC, and Complete B-Sides.
After releasing The Cult of Ray for American in 1996, Black shuffled between different labels and ended up on spinART for 1999′s Pistolero, and several subsequent solo albums. Deal and the rest of the Breeders, meanwhile, suffered from problems ranging from substance abuse to writer’s block, and only surfaced intermittently, spending time in the studio but only having a cover of the Three Degrees’ “Collage” on the soundtrack to 1999′s The Mod Squad to show for their efforts until they released Title TK in 2002. David Lovering left the Martinis and became the touring drummer for Cracker, and also appeared on Donelly’s Sliding and Diving, but found himself unemployed in the late ’90s. Combining his studies in electronic engineering at Wentworth Institute of Technology and his years of performing experience, Lovering dubbed himself a “scientific phenomenalist,” a cross between a scientist, performance artist, and magician, and warmed up the crowds at Frank Black, Breeders, Camper Van Beethoven, and Grant Lee Buffalo concerts. Santiago and his wife Linda Mallari continued the Martinis through the ’90s, recording several demos and self-released albums. Santiago also began a career composing soundtracks and incidental music, beginning with the score for 2000′s Crime & Punishment in Suburbia, to which Black also contributed a track.
Hopes that Pixies would re-form remained unfounded until 2003, when Black revealed in an interview that he had considered reuniting the band and that he, Deal, Santiago, and Lovering occasionally got together to jam. In 2004, Pixies reunited for U.S. tours, an appearance at that year’s Coachella festival and gigs in Europe and the U.K. that summer, including performances at the T in the Park, Roskilde, Pinkpop, and V festivals. All 15 of the band’s North American warm-up dates were recorded and released in limited editions of 1,000 copies, then sold online and at the shows. The week after the Pixies’ Coachella appearance, the DVD retrospective Pixies and revamped best-of Wave of Mutilation: The Best of Pixies were released by 4AD. The band also released two songs, “Bam Thwok” and a cover of Warren Zevon’s “Ain’t That Pretty at All” in 2004.
Despite consistent touring throughout the 2000s and 2010s, no more new music appeared until 2013, when the group went into the studio with longtime producer Gil Norton. During those sessions, Deal officially left the group. Former Fall bassist Simon Archer, aka Dingo, replaced Deal in the studio, and the band hired the Muffs’ Kim Shattuck for touring duties. “Bagboy,” the first Pixies song in nine years, arrived in July 2013 and featured Bunnies vocalist Jeremy Dubs. That November, Shattuck departed the band; a few weeks later, Paz Lenchantin — who also played with Zwan and A Perfect Circle — was drafted as the Pixies’ bassist. EP2 arrived in January 2014, and EP3 was issued that March. The EPs were compiled as the album Indie Cindy for that April’s Record Store Day. It reached number 23 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, making it the band’s highest-charting album in the U.S. to date. Pixies began work on their sixth album late in 2015, working with producer Tom Dalgety at London’s RAK Studios. Released in September 2016, Head Carrier was the first album to include Lenchantin as a full-fledged member. The album peaked at number 72 on the Billboard 200, while the single “Classic Masher” debuted on the Adult Alternative Songs chart at number 30, marking Pixies’ first appearance on a Billboard airplay chart since 1992.
Late in 2018, the band reunited with Dalgety to record their seventh album at Dreamland Recordings in Woodstock, New York. Pixies documented the making of the album in a 12-episode podcast hosted by author Tony Fletcher that premiered in June 2019. That September, Beneath the Eyrie — named for an eagle’s nest discovered near the studio — arrived on Infectious. The album charted in several European countries, and reached number seven on the U.K. Albums Chart. The following year, the band issued demos for the album as well as the single “Hear Me Out.” In 2021, Pixies embarked on their first tour in two years, including dates with Nine Inch Nails. The Live in Brixton box set, which collected all four of the June 2004 shows at the London venue, appeared in February 2022, and new music soon followed: The stand-alone single “Human Crime’′ surfaced that March, while the full-length Doggerel arrived that September. Recorded with Dalgety at Vermont’s Guilford Sound, the band’s eighth album borrowed from folk and country, and was also the first Pixies album to feature songwriting and lyrics by Santiago. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Heather Phares