The guitar-and-bass team discusses their new LP, Head Carrier, and the festering feedback and dissonant dynamics that made the Boston quartet alt-rock legends.
“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”].
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.
Pixies lead guitarist Joey Santiago onstage with his Bigsby-equipped Les Paul in 2014. Photo by Atlas Icons / Chris Schwegler
Talk about a few of your signature moves. One is based on a Hendrix move—holding a note on the 2nd string and then bending up to that same note on the 3rd string. But you take that and then slowly let the bend go out of tune to get that warble. What was the genesis of that?
I was playing with my friend at some party and my guitar was not in tune. I asked him, “What is this?” And he said, “Dude, your guitar is out of tune.” I liked it. That’s really the birth of it.
Those warbles are great.
It’s a mistake—a good mistake—and that’s what we look for in the studio: awesome mistakes. That’s what we’re really about sometimes.
Another one of your signature moves is doing those fast slides on one string, like on “Vamos.”
The first time I do that—the first gig when we’re fresh on a new tour—it literally hurts me! I just wait for the callous to come back and then it doesn’t effect me anymore.
You also quickly pick, or trill, chord clusters in the upper register.
Yeah, I like doing those. Lately, I’ve been figuring out melodies just by picking one string and going up and down. Then you can figure it out like, “Okay, these are cool notes.” Sometimes I’ll write them down on paper and it works—a good percentage of the time it will work. I write down a little line and it’s like, “Okay, I know this will work. Will it sound good?”
What do you write down—the notes in the chord that you’re aiming for?
Yeah, just the notes and stuff. And once again, anytime I can go a half-step, I’ll do it.
Do you get your distortion from the amp or from pedals?
A combination of the amp and a boost. I turn the boost and the Boss Hyper Fuzz on at the same time, and it will give me that instant feedback.
Is that what you were using back in the ’80s as well?
I guess in the late ’80s I relied on a Peavey Special that had a really good gain stage. I liked the Peavey sound. Back then it was cool. It was very pointy—it sounded like it had a fuzz on it already.
I really didn’t have any pedals back then. On this new record, I was trying to get away from using pedals, too.
Most of that raging fuzz on the new album is primarily from the amp?
Yeah, I tried. But in the control room we’d have to add some pedals. I did use pedals, but it was more or less the flavors of my distortion boxes and the boost and all that stuff.
Did you use your Marshall in the studio?
It was just a Marshall and my Fender to give it definition. Come to think of it, Tom just said, “Be natural.” Whatever I played live, that’s it—that’s what I used. The same thing with Charles. He was with his Vox a lot.
There are a lot of great guitar textures and rhythm parts on the new album. As a listener, how can I tell what’s you and what is Charles?
Charles does the rhythm parts. Sometimes I’ll join him—I’ll meander around and then when it comes to my thing, I get out of it.
Do you play any acoustic on the albums at all?
Nope, I don’t. That’s all Charles.
Are your main guitars still Les Pauls?
That’s all I use. If it’s good enough for the Clash, it’s good enough for us.
But you also have the Gibson ES-345.
I like the 345 for the sparkly sound. It’s all for the clean sounds, really. It’s got this natural compression to it—I love it. It’s from 1965, and it’s got a great vibe to it.
Do you use the varitone selector as well?
I always put it on the third position, which is where the neutral thing is, I think. That sounds the most natural to me anyway.
You’ve been a pretty consistent fan of the Marshall JCM800 2205 head and a Fender Vibrolux.
I think Marshall screwed up when they stopped making the 2205s—with that two-channel thing. When we go to rent amps—because the truck doesn’t make the next gig or whatever—we try to rent [the 2205s], and half the time they don’t have them.
What do you use then—whatever they have?
Yeah, I’ll just use whatever they have.
And you always use a half stack?
Yeah, the half stack. The full stack is too spandex.
You don’t want to put your foot up on the monitor and be like Iron Maiden?
Nope. They can do that—they do it well—but that isn’t my personality.
You still use the old DOD wah from the ’80s, right? What do you like about it?
It’s really more aggressive on the top end. It’s not throwback sounding—it’s not like a ’60s sound at all. It sounds modern. I use it as a filter. I set it and don’t mess with it.
Meaning you set it in one position and that will be your tone for the song—like Mick Ronson did with Bowie?
Yeah, I’ll do that. And sometimes I’ll just gradually go up—just to annoy people [laughs]. When I do that, it’s like a crescendo on one note.
Yeah. I love when we play little clubs and people start to cringe in front of my amp. “That’ll teach you!”
The Pixies begin their set at the 2016 NOS Alive festival in Oeiras, Portugal, with their 1988 hit “Bone Machine.”
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.