The Pixies (left to right): Paz Lenchantin, David Lovering, Joey Santiago, and Charles Thompson. Photo by Travis Shinn

“I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies.”

Can you guess which highly influential modern musician once confessed this to Rolling Stone’s David Fricke?

A) Thom Yorke

B) PJ Harvey

C) Kurt Cobain

D) David Bowie

Need a hint? The mystery heavy-hitter then added, “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.”

If you guessed Cobain, congratulations. The late Nirvana frontman made the admission to Fricke in 1994, not long after he and bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl had blown open the ’90s grunge movement and essentially defined the decade via tunes whose explosive dynamics were largely inspired by late-’80s Pixies releases like Surfer Rosa and Doolittle.

But if you guessed any of the other answers, don’t feel too bad—you weren’t far off. Harvey and the Radiohead frontman have also been quite up-front about their appreciation of the Boston quartet. The late great Bowie, meanwhile, went even further. While Pixies have always been very much a group effort led by singer/songwriter/guitarist Charles Thompson (aka Black Francis and Frank Black), it’s lead guitarist Joey Santiago’s unorthodox guitars—dissonant, insanely overdriven, and almost always feeding back—that make the Pixies the Pixies. And Bowie, who obviously knew a thing or two about great guitarists, knew it as well. “[Santiago] is terribly underrated,” he said in Gouge, a 2002 British television documentary about the band. “It’s much more about texture. [Santiago] supplies extraordinary texture.”

The strange thing, however, is that Santiago’s “extraordinary” approach seemingly came out of nowhere: His influences are as simple as they come. “AC/DC, obviously the Stones, Beatles, Hendrix, even Robin Trower,” he tells us when we ask him to name a handful of favorites. “I was in the ’burbs, so it was just classic rock—they didn’t have any cool stations over there. It wasn’t until I went to college that I listened to more alternative stuff.”

It was also at college, in the mid ’80s at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, that Santiago met Thompson. The pair then moved to Boston and teamed up with bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering to form the Pixies in 1986. Over the next seven years they released four LPs, toured extensively, and built a small but loyal following—especially in the U.K. and Europe. However, in 1993, the band broke up amid bitter tension and bad vibes.

In spite of the split—or maybe because of it—the Pixies’ legend grew. They reunited in 2004, played for massive and enthusiastic crowds, and in 2014 released Indie City, their first album of new material since 1991’s Trompe le Monde. However, Deal left the band to focus on the Breeders and other projects the year before Indie City, and Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle, Zwan) eventually became the band’s full-time bassist [see accompanying sidebar, “What the Music Wants Paz to Do”].

“That’s what we look for in the studio: awesome mistakes.”
—Joey Santiago

We recently spoke to Santiago about the band’s latest release, Head Carrier, as well as his strange obsession with feedback and why his beat-up old DOD FX-17 wah drives people crazy.

A lot of people talk about the huge contrasts in dynamics in your music, but it seems like it’s often more about you either playing a guitar part or sitting out. How did you develop that?
Well, we did it by accident. I don’t know if anyone would remember it, but I remember writing, “When you’re not playing, you are playing” on [the wall in] our practice space. It is a rest. That’s musical. When you publish your music, there it is—that little rest symbol. So you gotta do it.

It’s a very orchestral approach: If you played violin in an orchestra, you’d have pages of just sitting out.
Charles had planned on it—but also when we were practicing, we had the bass, the rhythm guitar, and the drums just doing it, and I thought it was cool, like, “Why not leave that alone for a while?”

David Bowie said that your guitar playing is about supplying texture.
Yup. It’s true. When I started playing the guitar, I really was into the weird sounds that a guitar will make in between the notes. I just heard it. The little squirts and blippy sounds—those are what I like.

You’re often sitting at the verge of feeding back—that’s by design, right?
It’s by design—and by a lack of chops [laughs]. No seriously, when we first got the amps and started practicing, I heard the feedback and, y’know, I heard it from Hendrix and was like, “Oh my God. This is it. I love it.” I pretty much abused it for a while.

Do you find you have to stand in a certain place to make it work?
Yes, and I remember the spot I would have to be in at a lot of clubs—at CBGB, T.T. the Bear’s Place, and Green Street Station. It moves around, but I know. When we started playing festivals, I said, “Just find me that right spot.” I love that—I love looking around for it.

Is it harder to find on big festival stages than in a small club?
Yes it is, but it is generally within this little arc that you just have to find. I like doing that and turning around at maybe a 90-degree angle, or whatever.

Santiago (left) and Charles Thompson kick out the jams with their fave axes—a Les Paul and a Telecaster, respectively. Photo by Atlas Icons / Chris Schwegler

How about in the studio—do you set up and play in the same room with your amp to get that feedback?
I used to, but you can actually get it through the control room, too. They just have to turn up the monitors. I just found that out from [Head Carrier producer] Tom Dalgety. I like to be in the other room—so I can be with myself and work with myself and not have to be self-conscious that people are really watching. But it’s a lot easier to be in the control room.

It’s probably a lot easier on the ears as well…
Yeah, and the communication with the producer and all that stuff.

Is it true that Charles does most of the Pixies’ songwriting, but you come up with the guitar parts and arrangements?
Yeah. When I put the guitars down he’ll say, “Now it sounds like the Pixies.” He definitely leaves me alone. When I’m having a tough time on some song, he’ll say, “Ah, you’ll get it, Joe. Stop worrying. You’re going down that rabbit hole. Stop it.”

The rabbit hole is a bad thing or a good thing?
It’s a bad thing—it will be a vortex of doubt.

Do you usually play in standard tuning?
Usually. Occasionally, I’ll drop a D down if I notice that I have to. Like with “Havalina” [off 1990’s Bossanova], it’s down to C# on the E string—and it sounds really good.

Your lead lines typically go well beyond the blues scale. How would you describe your harmonic concept?
It’s based on the chord structure. Charles likes to do those half-step [chord changes], and I also look for the half-steps anywhere I can. That’s really it.

What do you like about half-steps?
I think whole-steps are friendlier.

Meaning that the half-steps have more dissonance or angst?
I think so. Yeah.