Pixies Interview: Inside the making of Surfer Rosa
As 4AD releases a deluxe boxset to mark the 30th anniversary of Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, Gary Walker speaks to the chief protagonists behind one of indie music’s most influential and otherly classics. With contributions from Black Francis, Joey Santiago, Vaughan Oliver and Simon Larbalestier, Long Live Vinyl unravels the legacy of a stunningly dark debut…
A thrilling wave of mutilation, voyeurism, violence, incest, superheroes, venereal disease, primal screaming, Catholic guilt and topless flamenco dancers… Billy Corgan called it “the one that made me go ‘holy shit’”, PJ Harvey gasped that it “blew my mind” and David Bowie said it was the best music made in the 80s. Kurt Cobain admitted to ripping it off and said of first hearing Surfer Rosa he “should have been in that band”.
Pixies’ debut album turned 30 this year and remains as timeless, dark, surreal, unsettling and captivating as it was when four goofy kids emerged from Boston’s Q Division Studios with a scowling Steve Albini and the master tapes in hand, three decades ago.
In December 1987, the old order reigned over the album charts, with Rick Astley, UB40, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, George Michael and Fleetwood Mac dominating as Christmas approached. But a new disaffected, exciting alternative wave was about to break, led by Charles Thompson – aka Black Francis; Philippines-born guitar mangler Joey Santiago; Mrs John Murphy – aka Kim Deal, and drummer David Lovering.
It would lead ultimately to Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead and the rise of grunge – a revolutionary breed hell-bent on washing away the cloying excesses of 80s rawk and replacing it with something provocative, urgent and raw.
To uncover the roots of Surfer Rosa, though, we first have to dig back to the 17-song Purple Tape demo produced by Gary Smith and recorded and mixed in a total of just six days in March 1987 at Boston’s Fort Apache Studios, using $1,000 borrowed from Francis’ father. The band’s then-manager, Ken Goes, sent the tape to a string of US and European record labels without sparking interest, before 4AD boss Ivo Watts-Russell bit.
Popular legend has it that Watts-Russell was initially unsure, but was encouraged to persevere with the tape by his then-girlfriend. Yet he later recalled of The Purple Tape: “I absolutely adored it from day one, because my day one was marching around New York with it in a Walkman. It was very exciting. It was the obvious things, Joey’s guitar playing and the Spanish aspect to it.”
Weird at my school
The label’s creative driving force, Vaughan Oliver, was dispatched to a gig at Rhode Island School Of Design to check out Watts-Russell’s potential new charges. Fresh from creating the new edition’s artwork, Oliver tells Long Live Vinyl: “Hearing them for the first time was The Purple Tape, and I didn’t know what Ivo was interested in there.
“I didn’t get it, and I wouldn’t have signed them, but by chance or coincidence, I was going to the States on a flat-swap and I was there just at the time Ivo was considering them. He said: ‘Go and see them’, and I was blown away. Then I met them, and I reported back and said: ‘I’m on board’. There started a 30-year relationship.”
The 4AD boss offered to put out his pick of eight songs from The Purple Tape, remastered, as the mini-album Come On Pilgrim, named after a Larry Norman lyric that reminded Francis of Billy Pilgrim from Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s Slaughterhouse-Five. In a label who’d released albums by Cocteau Twins, Nick Cave’s The Birthday Party and their New England friends Throwing Muses, Pixies found a welcoming home for their uncompromising brand of surreal, sexualised sonic fury.
Decompressing on a hotel bed in Des Moines Iowa, two weeks into the band’s current world tour, Francis’ voice fizzes with enthusiasm as he tells Long Live Vinyl: “It was a perfect fit. 4AD was not all about the kind of mainstream popular music that MTV had become. I remember when Vaughan Oliver sent me the Come On Pilgrim sleeve mock-up. I was working in a warehouse, just down the road from the warehouse where Joey worked in Boston Harbour.
Opening up the packaging and seeing that sepia-toned photograph of the hairy-backed guy… I’d just dropped out of college, I was really into art-film, I’d discovered David Lynch, so I was all about this kind of artsy thing. I didn’t have much of an artsy vocabulary, but I just had an inkling that this is what I am, and the world I want to occupy, so when I got that sleeve, it was art with a capital A, and I quit my job that day. It was perfect. The hairy-
The 4AD connection
The connection with the British label was similarly immediate for Santiago: “They were great. I don’t know what would have happened if we’d got into a typical major record label vibe, but they were really artsy and creative, we could tell we were going to get along with them.”
Watts-Russell later recalled: “They were friendly, enthusiastic, polite people who were just genuinely [thrilled] somebody was going to put their record out. I don’t think they knew much about 4AD at all. The only thing I remember from my first meeting with them was Joey saying: ‘All I care about is that you make me famous in the Philippines, because the chicks are really pretty’. That’s probably the most I ever heard Joey say, really…”
With Come On Pilgrim released in the UK, 4AD warehouse manager Colin Wallace suggested former Big Black frontman Steve Albini to oversee the recording of their full-length debut. Producer – although Albini would later take umbrage at that title – and band met over coffee, and the sessions began the next day. Emerging from the sewage-coated squalor of their Kenmore Square rehearsal room, the Pixies hit Q Division at a gallop, the 13 songs that would make up Surfer Rosa already sharpened to taught, burnished alt-rock perfection.
“We were pretty excited,” says Francis. “I was excited the second that I woke up, and we were just really happy to be doing this thing we’d set out to do. It was like, ‘oh, this is what it’s like, you work with these people who’ve come from out of town…’”
“It was very quick,” says Santiago of the sessions, which were completed in 10 days, with a budget of $10,000 – Albini taking a flat fee of $1,500. “Just because of the way we were, tick-tock, we gotta go, we don’t have that much time. We were really well rehearsed, we were ready for that album. We didn’t have any sort of pre-production on it. The first time I’d heard of pre-production was working with Gil Norton on Doolittle.
“We met Steve Albini at a coffee shop and that was it, we were in the next day. We were excited to get the Pixies on the map. We had the material ready to record, everything was written, way down the road. People were already excited about it – the people we played the material to, live – so it just had to get captured in an exciting sense, and Albini was a pretty damn good choice.”
Inside Q Division, the famously downbeat producer set about applying his ‘anti human’ sonic adornments to the already fully formed songs he would later describe as “blandly entertaining college rock”. Francis, Deal and Santiago were encouraged to use metal plectrums; Francis’ voice was shot through a guitar distortion pedal to frightening effect on the frantic Something Against You, eliciting the singer’s delighted response of “I am one happy prick!”. Meanwhile, Albini utilised every inch of the studio, preferring the natural ambience of small rooms to digital reverb, with Deal’s Gigantic and Where Is My Mind? vocals recorded in the bathroom.
Deal’s then-husband, John Murphy, has said of the sessions: “I remember them taking the amps down to the bathroom so they could record the large, large sound for Gigantic. Albini didn’t like the studio sound, so they took all the Marshalls down to this bathroom, which was completely made out of cement, and that’s where that big, echoey sound comes out of it.”
Santiago, who commandeered Deal’s Gibson Les Paul Goldtop to carve out the lacerating, angular riffs on songs such as Where Is My Mind? and Bone Machine (while Francis played a blonde Fender American Standard Telecaster), recalls: “The flashes of memory I have are being in a little side room, not the main room, with my little Peavey amp,
and I remember him sticking these little microphones in it with a little roach clip.
“I remember doing Vamos and throwing things at the guitar, I want to say they were tennis balls… I just didn’t want to have anything to do with a big, big, big solo, probably because I couldn’t handle it [laughs]. My take on it was that mainstream guitar had a lot of typewriting skills.
“They were typing as fast as they could, and I couldn’t hear it. The only thing that was impressive about it for me was the speed – how can they play so fast? But in the back of my mind, I was like, ‘I really don’t care’. It just wasn’t my thing. I’m more like a classic-rock guy. You gotta hear some riffs or something you’re going to remember, and that requires less notes.”
For Francis, too, the songs on Surfer Rosa were about allying themselves to a new counter-culture movement, rejecting the lazy indulgence epitomised by the bands Pixies watched on MTV, a channel that had begun the slide away from its initial “Ladies and gentlemen, rock ’n’ roll” ideal towards a more sanitised reflection of mass culture. “It was conscious, but I don’t know if it became conscious when we picked up our guitars,” he says.
“It was more going to see bands, and recognising they were either on this side of the line or that side. A lot of the mainstream music seemed like it was trying to go there, it wanted success. To us, that type of mediocrity and flashy lame shtick wasn’t cool. Then there was stuff on the other side of the line – cool bands, they weren’t being flashy or trying to pander to some kind of audience, they were full-on, ‘fuck you guys’. There wasn’t an atmosphere of appeasement, there was an atmosphere of FUCK. YOU. Not necessarily trying to be confrontational, but this is what we do, if you don’t like it, fuck off, I don’t care.
“We were inspired by this kind of attitude of Us Versus Them. Our absorption of that attitude, mixed in with the fact that we were pretty rough-and-ready players, completely naïve, but completely willing to try, it all came very naturally. Even some of our songs that may have a toppy edge to them, a light edge – Here Comes Your Man, or Where Is My Mind? – that was clearly on the artsy side of the fence. All you had to do was listen to the lyrics… Oh yeah, you’re not going to hear this on the radio!”
Those lyrics, which were inspired by Francis’ exchange trip to Puerto Rico and influenced by the early work of David Lynch, landed in the popular musical landscape like an incendiary grenade. The vivid sexual imagery, incest and howled fire and brimstone of a writer whose family joined the Pentecostal church when he was 12 crashed into a subversive examination of Catholicism, a series of potent metaphors for the individual’s own inner turmoil.
On Cactus, covered by David Bowie on 2002 album Heathen, the protagonist is found pleading with his love interest to cut herself up on a cactus and send him the bloody dress in the mail. On Break My Body, he’s “the horny loser, crashing through my mother’s door” and on Broken Face, there’s “This boy who had two children with his sisters… who were his daughters… who were his favourite lovers”.
Such overt references to incest challenged a taboo that had rarely been addressed in popular music, and Francis smashed through it, screaming and yelping with relish. And then there was the perfect collision with Deal’s infectious basslines, poetic romance and sweet hushed nothings on Gigantic, which Cobain described as “the best Pixies song, and Kim wrote it”.
“Charles’ screaming with a sweet female voice underneath it, it’s a good contrast,” says Santiago. “I think it’s great [Francis’ writing], I think it’s bizarre. I knew he was going to be moving into that direction when Debaser was going to be called ‘[Shed,] Appolonia’, and then he just said: ‘Nah, come on, it’s too typical, singing about a girl, all that kind of stuff’, and he started singing about a Dalí film [Un Chien Andalou] and slicing up eyeballs.”
Santiago says the dynamic with his old University Of Massachusetts roommate was a natural one, lending itself to songs that shifted time signature and tempo at will and treated musical orthodoxy with contempt. “It’s pretty amazing, because I always wanted to meet someone who wrote songs from outside the box. I got lucky when we met at UMass. I went to UMass knowing I wanted to be in a band. I tried in high school, but don’t have the discipline to learn other people’s songs. It didn’t interest me, I’d rather make stuff up.
“The music is unconventional. There’s a lot of half-steps, a lot of chords that don’t theoretically go with the key, but it seems to work. We knock off two beats here on some line and not necessarily go four, so we have all these twists and turns. After a while, it got second nature to us – not counting verses in four, with chunks of four, we’d have chunks of three a lot of the time. Then we’d be like: ‘This is the weird one’. ‘Why’s it weird?’ – ‘Because it’s a chunk of four. Watch out, this is the normal one!’.”
“Joey and I had a bond, the same bond we share today,” says Francis. “To this day, we both still confuse each other. We might know each other really well, but I don’t know if we really understand each other. We were bonding over this idea of starting a band, and you just kind of get on with it. For Joey and I, that dynamic has been there since we were 18 – it’s still exactly the same. With the Pixies, we always prefer not to be confrontational with each other.
“With Kim, it was the same deal – I don’t know if she understood what I was about, I didn’t understand what she was all about necessarily, but we shared the same passion of ‘isn’t music cool? Isn’t music amazing?’. That was enough to declare us – we’re a band, we’re playing a show on Friday night, we’ll represent this idea of original music by an original band. It was a very upbeat dynamic, not weighed down by any bad blood. We didn’t have any of that at that point, there wasn’t any volatile chemistry, it was all good chemistry.”
From the moment Francis and Santiago formed Pixies – Santiago picking the name from a dictionary – then advertised for a bassist who liked Peter, Paul & Mary and Hüsker Dü, to recording The Purple Tape, signing to 4AD, making Surfer Rosa and embarking on their first European tour, before recording the follow-up Doolittle, was a period of just three years.
In the foreword to the book Fool The World: An Oral History Of A Band Called Pixies, Chas Banks, the band’s European tour manager, says: “It wasn’t a rollercoaster ride; there weren’t enough downs for that to work as a metaphor. It was more like a volcano exploding, or a huge storm. The Pixies’ ascendancy was nothing less than a force of nature: unstoppable and relentless.”
“It was strange coming out on stage and people were applauding,” Deal has said of the UK shows that followed Surfer Rosa. “Fucking pissed me off. Why are they applauding? We haven’t even played yet. We were doing the bar thing in Boston so much, and so used to nobody ever knowing us.”
“I had nothing to base it on,” Santiago tells Long Live Vinyl. “I could tell we did it pretty fast, and we got a great break, but I just thought, ‘this is the way it’s supposed to happen’. I knew we got lucky, because we rehearsed in a building where there were a bunch of other bands, and we got out of there really fast. It was a dingy rock space with sewage coming in, and it was nice to get the hell out of there. It happened fast, but we worked a lot for it. We were a 9-to-5 band. We didn’t party around, we just went in there and banged it out.”
Released in the UK in March 1988, Surfer Rosa was available in Pixies’ home country only as an import for nearly six months, before Rough Trade began distributing it in North America – initially bundled with Come On Pilgrim. Elektra later picked up the US distribution. In the UK, its popularity grew quickly, with Melody Maker and Sounds naming it their Album Of The Year. It took until 2005 to go Gold in the States, and by 2015 had sold around 700,000 copies there.
Ivo Watts-Russell reported: “The response to Surfer Rosa was times five [that of Come On Pilgrim]. The time between the first two was so short, it was all just this mushrooming thing. Nothing but positive feedback.I remember when I first heard Surfer Rosa, thinking I didn’t know the Pixies could sound like The Fall. That was my immediate reaction, in other words, incredibly raw.”
So, 30 years on, what is the legacy of this uncomfortable, shadowy thrill ride of a record that has somehow avoided the ravages of age?
“It’s very good,” says Santiago, laughing. “It sounds timeless. There’s no bullshit or gimmicks on it and it sounds like four kids doing the best they can. We’re doing what we love and it’s been like that for so long. Surfer Rosa’s 30 years old and everything’s paid off from all that hard work. We’re one of the lucky few who can keep doing this after all that time.”
No pixies, no nirvana?
Kurt Cobain had just formed Nirvana when Surfer Rosa was released, and he adored the record, crediting Pixies as the blueprint for his band’s own quiet-loud dynamic and recruiting Steve Albini to record In Utero. “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song, I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies,” he said.
“I have to admit it. 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.”
PJ Harvey, too, made a beeline to Albini’s door. Thom Yorke said Radiohead following Pixies live at Coachella in 2004 would be like being supported by The Beatles. David Bowie was also hugely enamoured, saying: “The first time I heard Pixies was around 1988. I found it just about the most compelling music outside of Sonic Youth in the entire 80s. The interesting juxtapositions that Charles brought together of quite sordid material, at times… the permutations he created with the subjects he dealt with were so unusual that it caught my ear immediately.
“It’s a cliché, but somebody once said that The Velvet Underground didn’t sell very many albums, but everyone that bought a Velvet Underground album formed a band. I have to suggest that the same thing applied to the Pixies. Once you heard them, you wanted to have a band just like them.”
Francis pauses, then balks at the lofty pretensions attached to the word ‘legacy’ when we run that stellar list of supporters past him. “I can’t really speak to the legacy of it, because it’s my record,” he says. “I’m glad it worked out and those people found the record inspiring, I’m very happy about that. But even 30 years later, it’s almost like I can’t presume any kind of status.
“To me, I’m just kind of in the band, I have a gig tonight, so I’m still kind of in the same racket. While I’m very pleased the ‘product’ has a good shelf life, it may just be my uptight New England soul that doesn’t want to get too emotional about it… I’m not saying we came from poverty, but we definitely come from a working-class blue-collar ethic – just gotta do the job, we’ve gotta do the gig, we’ve gotta practise our new songs so they don’t suck so much… as opposed to [adopts posh voice] ‘We are The Great Pixies’. We’ll bask in the glow when we’ve played a show and the audience claps. That’s our one moment to feel it.”
“That’s where the band’s focus is,” Francis continues. “It’s very in the moment… It’s all one big tour, one big record. We get to be in a band. That’s our distinction, and we’re proud of that, but it’s very work-oriented.
“It’s not that we don’t delve into memories, but we don’t sit around and have a big old chat. If we do, it’s more Pixie-esque humour. Joking around about stuff, especially with someone like Joey Santiago. Joey named the Pixies! He’s the one guy who keeps reminding us: ‘Remember we’re called the Pixies, and you know what the nature of Pixies are… Pixies play practical jokes, Pixies run off into the bushes and hide’.
“That’s where Joey’s at. Joey believes. Pixies are in the moment, they’re not like [adopting faux academic voice] ‘let’s discuss the legacy of the band’. As Pixies, we kind of had to lose a little bit of our human side and adopt this other species – these little people that live in the forest. People in other places believe in this stuff wholeheartedly, and I’m almost inclined to think maybe there’s some weird shit like that going on with this band, and we’re loyal to that…”