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Pixies Guitarist Joey Santiago Talks Chemistry, Surf Rock, Song Lyrics + the Reasons He’ll Never Quit the Band

Joey Santiago
Spencer Kaufman for Diffuser.fm

For some fans, Pixies simply aren’t Pixies without founding bassist Kim Deal, who left earlier this year during sessions for the handful of new tunes the group has dropped since June. Deal was a key member, for certain, but it’s arguably even harder to imagine the alt-rock godheads continuing without lead guitarist Joey Santiago. His job has always been to “Joey-fy,” as he puts it, the material, and his riffs and textures — grating and metallic one second, sweet and surfy the next — are as distinctive as singer and main songwriter Black Francis’ squealing vocals and surrealist lyrics.

Last month, Santiago checked in by phone from Copenhagen, one of the many cities Pixies have hit since the fall, when they debuted their Deal-less lineup and embarked on a multi-leg global tour that resumes next month. In the course of his Diffuser interview, Santiago discussed the importance of chemistry, the brilliance of classic surf-rock song titles and the reasons he never asks Francis — aka Charles Thompson — what his songs are about. Santiago also touched on Deal’s departure and offered his thoughts on whether Pixies could carry on in his absence — not that he’s going anywhere.

We saw you play at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City and at Riot Fest in Chicago, but how are the European shows going?

Very good, actually. The responses have been very good, all sold out. It’s amazing: The crowd’s getting younger. I know we’re getting older, but they’re certainly getting younger.

Since the band was on a British record label back in the day, have you ever felt more appreciated in Europe?

Well, it’s not only [because] we had an English label, because in America, 4AD is revered as a cool label. And they were. We all loved working with them. Maybe it’s that, but also, we toured here a lot more. I guess we were just addicted to the adoration. The States were just hard to break for some reason. But over here, you had [BBC DJ] John Peel, the John Peel Sessions. Also, people are more fans, rabid fans, and I also think it’s because there are very few radio stations here. When there’s a good one, they attach to it. In the States, there are so many, just too many of them, and [formats mandate] we’ve got to play pop, we’ve got to do this. Over here, not even college stations … regular stations that will play your stuff.

It’s weird to think that the Sex Pistols could have had a number one on the U.K. charts. That never would have happened in America.

No, did they chart at number one here?

Yeah, ‘God Save the Queen’ apparently would have been No. 1 if it hadn’t been banned by the BBC.

Oh yeah, that’s when punk was just fresh, you know? When you had to make your own punk clothing, before they sold them at Camden Market and everywhere, and you didn’t have to do anything.

With these recent shows, since you’ve been able to play new material, have you felt more satisfied than you did on those ’00s reunion tours? Obviously, you’re still doing a lot of old songs, but there have been quite a few of the new ones making their way into the set.

Yes. There’s more of a challenge when those songs appear on the set. I look at the set list and I go‚ “OK. Here comes a new one. I hope I get it right.” Every song, you’ve got to get it right. But there are nuances to it. There are so many twists and turns of these songs. They sound simple, but if you miss a turn, you’re gonna have to wait. [laughs] Until the next one, you know? And, having said that, I’ve yet to play a perfect show. And then someone will play perfect. David has been playing perfect. We haven’t all clicked in and played something perfect yet, a perfect set. That is always the challenge, because I take mistakes really hard. I am really hard on myself when I make mistake somewhere. It is always fresh, to me, anyway.

We mentioned seeing you at Riot Fest in Chicago, and the other big story there was the Replacements reuniting. If you had to give them advice on whether they should try to make new music or just go on tour and play the old stuff, what would you say?

I would put aside talking about new music first. I would just probably work on the chemistry of the band — just try to have that chemistry first and foremost and go on from there, because you can’t record an album without chemistry. Having said that, that is why it took us so long to get our stuff together before we recorded. I mean, the chemistry was always there, but we just never had time to record an album. We just kept touring. That is what I would say, just to chill out. Try to chill out and enjoy. Don’t be a bunch of assholes. It’s like, “F—ing dig a ditch,” you know? Shut up. You’re playing. You’re staying in a good hotel. You’re getting adored every night. There is nothing to complain about. Just tell yourself that all the time. Do not complain. Like Frank Zappa said, “Shut up and play the guitar.” Everything has a silver lining. Go home and see how you like that.

Speaking of chemistry, people have been asking you a lot of questions about Kim Deal’s departure. You’ve indicated that she wanted to be doing her own thing and have more creative control. Is that something you’ve ever wanted, to have more of a songwriting role in the Pixies?

No. I am quite content just making up guitar parts. I know wouldn’t be good at songwriting. It would take me too long. I just haven’t practiced it. I am so happy with the role of just playing guitar over songs. That is the part that satisfies me. I get to be original in that realm, and kudos to Charles that he loves my playing. He leaves me alone to Joey-fy it, to have that sound on top of it. In a way, I am so satisfied with that. I couldn’t be any happier and Charles should be the one at the helm of it, really. You have to have one guy at the helm, otherwise the ship is going to capsize.

In terms of the lyrics, there’s always been quite a bit of room for interpretation. Do you ever find yourself talking to Charles and being like, “Hey man, what the hell is this about?” Like, the first time you heard “Bag Boy,” were you as disturbed as the rest of us?

I never asked him what the lyrics are. I just never do. I just listen to music, and I do attach myself to one word. I have always done that. I subconsciously run with it. A good example is the song ‘Dead.’ I kept hearing that word, “dead, dead, dead.” So I got inspired by the ‘Psycho’ shower scene, when she’s taking a bath and [shrieks] eee-eee-eee, so for the guitar part I had on the chorus, I had that bink-bink-bink, so it is kind of ‘Psycho’ sound. Sometimes, I just gotta do what I gotta do. I don’t know what it is, but I just do it. [Asking about] the lyrics? No, because, it’s too personal. He’s not even going to know what it is. Half the time, he doesn’t even know what the song is. He is just trying to fit words into a pentameter. I would imagine that that is all he is trying to do.

As a music fan, have you always been more into the sounds than the lyrics? You’re a noted fan of ’60s surf rock — some of that stuff has words, but a lot of that stuff is instrumental.

Yeah, when it comes to melodic parts, my brain will go to ’60s surf rock. I read an interview with Charles, and he had a very good observation about when Charles and I were listening to surf music back in our college days. We took summer classes, and we would get a little high, and we would listen to the surf music, and the most amazing part about that, we found out, is there aren’t any lyrics. Right? So there is just the title. That’s probably where I got it. ‘Hawaii Five-O’: It sounds like surf coming in. Link Wray’s ‘Run Chicken Run’: It sounds like that; it sounds like a chicken running around. We were fascinated by that, the song titles. The song titles were so descriptive of what was going to come next. That is probably how I attach myself to a word and then run with it.

The rest is sonics, for me. The rest of the music after that — you’ve got your Jimi Hendrix, you’ve got your Beatles — I would just listen to a particular sound that they would make, and I would be like, “That’s it. I only want that. I don’t want the melodic part of it, because that has been done. I want that like ‘eck’ [mimics guitar noise].” The little squeals or the little slides — that will perk my ears.

That stuff you bring to the music is arguably one of the defining characteristics of the band. Now, you’re carrying on without Kim, but if you were to quit, and it was just Charles and drummer Dave Lovering and two other people, would it still be the Pixies at that point? 

Well, it would just be different. It’s like when Kim’s departure came about, we were a little different. [We] didn’t have that beautiful voice on top. She has a very unique voice. We were looking forward to adding that on, but for some reason, the chemistry there — and I would have to guess it’s true for anybody that is going to depart a project — is that you’re just not vibing. The chemistry is just not there. “I don’t want to hang out with you boys. I want to hang out with the girls, with the Breeders.” I would say it would be — not patting myself on the back — it would be a hard shoe to fill. For someone to say, “Hey, sound like Joey,” it is like, what’s the point, you know? I’m not going to leave unless I die suddenly. I would never quit this band. Like I said, there’s too many blessings involved with it. I would never quit just for the hell of it. That is just dumb. This is the best job in the world. A lawyer, really? You make a lot of money, but I’d rather be rocking out.

Charles has said he has no interest in making any more Frank Black solo records, and it sounds like he’s going full bore with the band from here on out. Do you see Pixies still going strong 10 years from now with maybe another 3 albums under your belts?

We don’t think about the future, per se. We’re hardworking people. Again, we have always been, but now, there is another equation in the room, which is creating music, because we have already let the cat out of the bag. We are always going to do that, because it is such a challenging experience, and when we went back into the studio, it was all really about the same thing. Especially with [producer] Gil [Norton]: He would just grill you until you are in f—ing tears. Having said that, recording an album is work. It’s gratifying work, but it’s brutal. That is the part where you have got to be serious. The rest of the time, when you’re touring, you’ve got to have fun, but when you are in the studio, it’s serious business. You’ve got to make s— sound good.

Safe to say there won’t be another proper Pixies full-length, and that it will be more EPs and singles from here on out?

We don’t know … We have this idea that the album format is dead. But, I would equate it to just the physical aspect of this. Why is that disc 12 inches? What if it was f—ing 20 inches? What the f— do you do then? You gotta fill that. Then all of the sudden, you have to times it by two; then people have to make 70-minute records? What is it that was so magical about 12 inches at 33 and 1/3 speed, so that you have, what, 27 minutes, or 30? And now what is the point to hanging on to that? There isn’t. There just isn’t. What do people do now? They are just buying one track at a time. They really don’t care about the album. This is the way we are thinking about music.

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