The first breakup of the Pixies infamously occurred by way of a fax sent from frontman Black Francis to his bandmates. It was an awkward end to what by most accounts had grown into a dysfunctional relationship, with tensions especially high between Francis (Boston-born Charles Thompson) and bassist Kim Deal. As the band’s posthumous stature grew through the ’90s thanks to an army of alt-rock bands name-dropping them as an influence, we were left to wonder: “What if they could have just gotten along?”
When the full band reunited in 2004, many fans were celebrating just seeing Francis and Deal onstage together again as much as hearing the music. It was a dreamy happy ending for nostalgic Pixies obsessives. It went on for nearly another decade, until Deal announced she was leaving the band last year.
Since Deal quit, the band has gone into high gear, scheduling a huge chunk of shows in 2013 and 2014 (they hit the sold-out Orpheum in Boston this Saturday) and releasing two new EPs without her, the first records since 1991’s “Trompe le Monde.” But Deal’s absence, announced a few months before the first EP’s release in September, has tended to overshadow those strides. The unceremonious canning of Deal’s short-lived replacement, Kim Shattuck, didn’t help, either.
“It was certainly a loss when Kim Deal left,” said drummer David Lovering on the phone from Northampton, where the band was going through its final rehearsals before opening their current tour in Toronto. “We thought, ‘Should we break up now?’ ” It was in the fall of 2012, and since they were already halfway through a recording session in Wales, they decided to go ahead with the new music. “We finally decided we just needed to find someone to fill the bass role.”
If the band was hoping for an unbiased response to their long-awaited new material, they couldn’t have timed it worse. The new songs do sound like a natural melding of Francis’s accomplished solo work with old Pixies ingredients (namely guitarist Joey Santiago’s dissonant bends and eerie surf melodies). But for many listeners and critics, who’d been waiting years for this moment, it was like realizing one of your bridesmaids had skipped your wedding. Positive reviews were couched in “vintage-or-not?” language. Pitchfork predictably threw a temper tantrum, giving “EP 1” a petulant “1.0” out of 10 score (this month’s “EP 2” garnered a “2.0”).
Meanwhile there was Shattuck, who was already a well-loved musician in indie circles known for fronting ’90s pop-punks the Muffs. After the conclusion of the band’s European tour last fall, she was called by the band’s manager, who informed her that she wasn’t in the band anymore.
“I have that weird thing where, if someone confronts me, I just get as bold as possible,” said Shattuck over the phone from her home north of Los Angeles. The band never gave an official reason for her dismissal (Lovering states that she had only been hired for the European tour in the first place), but Shattuck went public about the matter and about the ongoing passive aggression she experienced on tour. Beginning in January, she says she spent months rehearsing with Santiago and Lovering in California before meeting up with Francis for their summer tour dates. She says their manager, Richard Jones, told her to plan on touring through the end of 2014 and haggled her to get a session musician pay rate. “He made sure to tell me that hundreds of people would have done that job for free,” she says, laughing.
Francis was gracious and chatty throughout their travels, says Shattuck, who generally had a lot of fun and, despite her criticisms, doesn’t seem altogether bitter about things (she’s currently prepping a new Muffs record for a spring release). Parts of her story play out like comedy. “I started to get my mojo back after a few shows and started jumping around, maybe spitting water, which I’d immediately feel bad about,” she says. At another show at the Mayan club in LA, she climbed offstage to greet the crowd with hugs and high-fives at the barricade after the band’s set, only to realize the rest of the band had left the stage. She says Jones immediately reprimanded her offstage. “He got in my face and goes, ‘Don’t you ever do that again!’ I asked if he meant that for my own safety, and he just said, ‘No – the Pixies don’t do that,’ in this sort of evil tone.”
All of which is disconcerting for anyone still trying to see the band through a romantic lens. But in the ballooning economy of the punk and indie-rock reunion circuit, there’s a delicate balance between maintaining that old all-for-one appearance on the one hand and simply cashing in on cultural credit on the other.
Francis himself has never been much of an indie-rock idealist. He spent most of his solo career modeling himself as an old-fashioned rock journeyman — driving his own tour van, recording studio albums live, covering Christian folk-rocker Larry Norman, and name-checking John Denver, John Wayne, and Johnny Horton in songs. About the Shattuck decision, he recently dismissed its importance to Yahoo News, saying, “I’m not the mayor, this isn’t the bus service for a town. This is a rock band. There’s been a shift in the lineup, big woop-dee-doo.”
As new bassist Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle, Zwan) steps up for this current tour, we’re left to consider the new era of Pixies. It might be a tough one for purists to follow, but a fan from 1990 might point out that it’s not a great departure from what was already happening on that year’s “Bossanova,” when Deal’s voice was fading from new music and the Breeders had already formed.
“It’s a given for anyone that puts out new material after a breakup,” says Lovering. “A lot of people won’t like it and will just try to compare it to traditional Pixies stuff.”
Of the nine songs released so far, there are some misses (the cowbelled AC/DC riffing of “Blue Eyed Hexe”) and some rehashing of old UFO metaphors (“Greens and Blues”), but there are also some great callbacks to the majestic music they conjured in the past. “Magdalena” is one of the band’s most ghostly melodies ever. “Indie Cindy” off of “EP 1” self-consciously courts the legions of customers that Francis almost seems to feel guilty about selling to — “Well looksie what the wind washed back/ As we follow the bouncing ball/ They call this dance the washed up crawl.” Francis has always maintained an ironic guard over his career despite adventurously (and constantly) diving into new projects, so the cynical tone should be taken with a grain of salt.
Lovering tends to assess the situation a little more simply. “We’re very happy with the songs,” he says. “From where I’m sitting at shows behind the drums, I don’t see people getting up to go to the bathrooms when we play them.”