The Pixies’ 2015 North American tour is just around the corner. In about a month they will be kicking it off at the Beale Street Festival in Memphis, Tennessee. The majority of 2014 was spent touring, everywhere from the American states to summer festivals in Europe.
I phoned Joey Santiago, their lead guitarist to talk about band dynamics and ditching internships for The Pixies, who are undoubtedly one of the most influential bands of the last few decades. I was struck by how affable and humble he was. The interview was especially meaningful to me because Filipino-American rock stars are very uncommon. Being not much older than Santiago was when he formed The Pixies, and getting the chance to connect through college stories and on a cultural level with this person who helped inspire countless bands from Nirvana to The xx added an unsaid, rare feeling of personal depth to the conversation.
The latest album, Indie Cindy, was recorded at the legendary Rockfield Studios where Queen, Black Sabbath, and Iggy Pop among others have been. What was it like living and working there? The daily routine, did you guys go out and check out the town or mostly keep to yourselves?
Well you know, the town was a 20-minute walk to a beautiful field, and that’s where the pubs are. Predominantly, we stayed at the proper town and just enjoyed it. We had people come up, [and] we had to go out and eat, [because] no one delivered. We got some proper Wales food. After a while, we recorded five songs; we practiced because Charles came out with some brand new ones. It was overall fun. I didn’t have as much fun because I put a lot of pressure on myself. It was about the same – you go into the studio and try your best and go for it. You entertain yourself. It’s really just the same afterwards. It’s no different.
Why did you pick Gil Norton to produce? And describe what it was like, what was different and new this time around.
Well working with him once again, he would bring the best out of us. He would’ve worked us to the point of tears.
He’s like that?
Sometimes, well sometimes you gotta be like that. Sometimes we’re glad that he’s not like Phil Spector (laughs). When you’re working with him, we didn’t need another variable – we hadn’t been in a studio in 20 years, and we’d worked before. He’d be the one who cared about the legacy, and he knew how to bridge us together. He would know the exact bridge for us to take. We had the work ethic and we tried to enjoy ourselves as much as possible.
Studios are expensive as well…
We never take that into consideration. We were at Rockfield for about seven weeks, and we started at around 11 a.m. and try to go on and be rigid about the time we stopped. In the old days we went on till 4 a.m. That’s about the regular schedule for everyone. It’s not 9-5, it’s 9 to greatness. Greatness is exhausting.
Where does the name Indie Cindy come from and who decided it?
Obviously it’s a song and I think the meaning of that song is that we’ve been away for a while. Indie Cindy is the daughter of someone, and this is a new generation and we’re trying to woo her back. She’s like the embodiment of our fans. Charles is singing to her and the audience that represents her to accept us back. The audience is our boss.
What was it like writing together again after so long? Was the old chemistry still there or did you have to go through the learning curve in the process?
Well pretty much, all the time … I could only speak for myself but I’m really, really hard on myself where it’s come to the point where the producer and Charles are like, “Joe, relax, you’re doing good!”
I’m sure you feel the pressure. The guitar drives the Pixies sound.
It does come naturally. I do have this style – at times I try to break out of it, and I really can’t. It always sounds like me. It’s probably because I hate myself. It’s just natural for me to play it like that. As Charles would put it, “Alright Joe, Pixify this thing. Solidy the Pixies sound.” You have to leave them alone or there’ll be more pressure. There are no rules or guidelines in rock. The possibilities are endless, even though there are only so many notes. That’s the daunting thing.
How does the bonds within the band affect the music – like playing live and writing?
We put aside friendship when we have to, and during the work process we turn into colleagues. We turn into work, and we turn into disagreeing at times. It’s healthy. It’s healthy. I guess you have to be friends to begin with but we take it to another level. When you’re playing it’s just playing; when you’re in the studio, it’s work – you’re no longer playing. When you go into the studio, you’re there to work more than play.
Do you think being friends with someone first helps when you make music?
When we started the Pixies, we didn’t have much time to bond together, we were traveling, touring – friendship is good but you have to watch it.
What were your feelings about reuniting again with the Pixies in 2004? Had you kept in touch over the years and remained friends?
I just kept in touch more with Charles because I recorded on a few of his records and he’d come over for a meal. We’d go out to restaurants. We went go karting one time – we got our own silly go kart licenses. IT WAS HIS IDEA. He’s like a little kid! Yeah, he’s kid-like. We went through one stage where we flew kites on tour.
I can just imagine you guys flying kites together.
Yeah, and we’d go to a pub right after!
The band has a particular love for the U.K., who’ve seemed to always embrace you with open arms. Any favorite tour memories from there?
The fourth gig was played at the mean sizzler … and the first time we headlined Reading in 1990 – first time we headlined a festival. That was a good memory and selling out the Brixton Academy – five or seven nights in 2004 when we came back together. We consider it home. It’s London – it’s like home. It takes a while to get used to but it’s very nice – more of a melting pot than the States.
What was the last concert you went to, not including your own?
Well actually, I go to a lot of comedy shows.
I expected a musician to go to more concerts.
It’s exhausting. We’re trying to preserve our hearing. I’ve seen enough bands. I’ve seen it all. My girlfriend and I have this affinity for comedy.
The story of how the Pixies were formed is well known by now – you and Charles were at Amherst University. Have you been back to the campus? What’re your college memories (like shows, studying)?
Well you know, I went to the university with the idea to start a band. And so did Charles. It was kismet when we became suite mates. Originally, I didn’t want to bring my guitar at all because I was gonna concentrate on my studies. I started jamming with them and started getting distracted. I became a member of an exclusive club called academic probation. And then I made the Dean’s List. I put my head down and said, “Fuck, I gotta get above a 2.0.” I had to hole myself up in a study room that I rented, and I would just go in there and study. And after that, [I’d] get out of there and get a slice of pizza and hang out with friends. I chose economics by default – for some reason I had a thing for it. One day the professor called me after class and suggested economics.
How did you try to convince your parents it was okay to drop out and be in music? It must have been kind of hard to persuade Filipino parents particularly. My parents are nurses and one of yours was an anesthesiologist. They kind of want you to follow in their footsteps. Your mom and dad expected an economics degree, then all of a sudden you were on MTV and the Pixies were famous and you’re in this legendary band!
(Laughs) Yes, it’s a bit like that. I lied – I told them I was going to Boston for an internship with a brokerage company. I did. I lasted about a week. It was so boring. I was out there and I was a peon, and these two brokers who were pretty much assholes asked me to get them a sandwich, and I was like, “What?! I not supposed to do that!” I got out, got something to eat on my own and left.
You just went on that sandwich run and never came back.
I stayed in Boston and pretended I got a job, and eventually I just stayed working other jobs and doing what Charles and I did. Right when my parents saw us on MTV, it was all forgiven. They found out after the semester. They were very proud, and like, “Look, my son did it!”
Thanks for sharing these stories Joey, you’re pretty awesome.
No problem, and salamat po!
The Pixies begin their 2015 North American tour on May 1. Check here for dates.
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