What the Music Wants Paz to Do
“I was a finger-playing purist until 1998 or 1999,” says Lenchantin, “[but] after 18 years picking, I am completely aware of what the music wants me to do.” Photo by Atlas Icons / Chris Schwegler
Paz Lenchantin made a big noise in the late ’90s and early 2000s as bassist for A Perfect Circle, Billy Corgan’s Zwan project, and many others. She joined the Pixies as touring bassist in 2014 and officially became a full-fledged member earlier this year. Here she details her path to joining the veteran alt-rock outfit, what sorts of constraints she operates within while working with frontman Charles Thompson and guitarist Joey Santiago, and what she’s learned along the way.
Do you mind giving us the Reader’s Digest version of your journey from your earliest bands to where you are today?
I started my first band with my brother. He was 14, I was 15, and we started a band called Big Milk. That was a great way to learn to play together, and I just kept going from there. The first tour that I ever did—this was in 1996 or 1997—I got a phone call from a guy named Joey Santiago. I was like, “What? The guitar player from the Pixies is calling me—a nobody?” He was looking for a bass player for his side project, the Martinis. I auditioned, got the part, and went up the coast. It was my first out-of-L.A. gig. Later, I started playing with A Perfect Circle and that blew up. I went my own way and didn’t hear from Joey until 15 or 16 years later, when they needed a bass player for the Pixies.
How did Joey find you in the first place?
He told me he heard of me from a friend. I was playing clubs all over town constantly—even underage. They would put me in this booth and chain me up because I was underage—most of these places were 21 and over—so they were like, “Okay, she can play, but she’s got to stay in this booth.” But that booth became the coolest spot. Everyone would hang out with me in the VIP booth reserved for the teenage kid.
Do you go back and forth between playing with a pick and playing with your fingers?
Not with Pixies. I was a finger-playing purist until 1998 or 1999, but A Perfect Circle had a song called “Thinking of You,” and I was trying to play it with my fingers when it was an obvious picking song. As much as I tried to do it with my fingers, it was like, “No, it’s not cutting it.” So I said, “Fine, I will learn how to pick and put away my finger-playing-purist head.” I locked myself in the studio for about 17 hours—it was great—and learned how to pick. I completely loved it and was so happy to enter the new world of picking sounds—knowing the difference between what the instrument can give you using your fingers or using your pick. With Pixies, I purely play with the pick. Inevitably, it’s the sound that drives me to do that. The song is telling me, “No, this song is with a pick.” Now, after 18 years picking, I am completely aware of what the music wants me to do.
And it’s a tonal decision—it’s not for speed or something else?
It’s a different rhythm. It’s tonal. If you pick really fast using only downstrokes—which I really love doing—it has a certain tone that you can’t get by playing down-up-down-up. Of course, you can cramp your hand, depending on how long the song is, but it’s also a challenge to make the ups have the same tonality as the downs—to make it really even.
One thing about the Pixies is that most of the music’s harmonic motion is in the bass, with the guitars adding color. How much freedom do you have—are you locked into specific bass parts?
I’ve always been very interested in monophonic melody progression, which is something you can get out of a violin—my first instrument—and the bass. It’s where you only play one note at a time. The bass is not a chordal instrument, it’s making lines and it can make lines like a melody. The violin helped me think of melodies versus just percussion or the tonic, the root note, of the song. “You’re playing C? I’ll play C.” You can create chords, like if I’m harmonizing with Joey—who is also playing a lot of polyphonic tones, where it’s not necessarily always chords—we can create a chord with each other, whether it’s a minor or a major, depending on what I hit or what he hits, which is really playful. [J.S.] Bach did that many, many years ago. I was raised classical, and Bach is one of my favorite composers. He was known for creating melodies for the left hand on piano—for the bass hand. He dedicated a lot of his melodies to the bass, as opposed to the more obvious.
So in those melody lines, you’re outlining the chord shapes or creating new chord motion in relationship to what Joey’s doing?
Yeah. But, of course, for a lot of things I’m not thinking too much about it. I like making mistakes to see where things go—to see if that will take me somewhere else. I tend to not want to know the chord changes. I like playing what sounds good and trying to make mistakes that I can stick to [laughs].
On the older Pixies songs, do you have that much freedom as well?
I play to the record. I very much respect how it was done on the record. Playing those songs the way they are, to me, is inspiring. There’s no need to alter something that doesn’t need to be fixed. However, with Indie Cindy they gave me more freedom. I got the call after that record got recorded, and because it was a brand-new record, people weren’t attached to it yet. They had a new member and they didn’t record with Kim. They didn’t have female vocals, so they gave me a lot of freedom to come up with backing vocals and maybe even altered ideas with the bass live. That really inspired me and made it really fun to play.
And the new record continued in that direction?
Right. The key word is freedom. It’s one of the things I thank them and respect them for—giving me the freedom to do whatever I want with the new material. I love that they let me do that. I think it’s very important, especially because that’s what I love to do—I love to create. This is the first band that I had to learn someone else’s stuff—it was an interesting approach and I learned so much doing that—but now I’m really excited recording my own ideas and playing those live, too.