Pixies: “Five Notes Are Too Much”

Words: Florian Obkircher 

In celebration of the bands’ sixth album Head Carrier, the band’s guitarist Joey Santiago lets loose on his legendary pointy sound and the secret behind their classic Where Is My Mind?

What do Nirvana, Radiohead, Blur and The Strokes have in common? They have all been influenced by the same band: Pixies. Kurt Cobain even stated that Smells Like Teen Spirit was his attempt to write a song in the style of the Boston band. 

With their unique approach to indie music in the late ‘80s – combining surf rock with catchy pop melodies and elements of noise – the quartet created enduring anthems such as Gigantic and Where Is My Mind?. In celebration of the band’s sixth album, Head Carrier, The Red Bulletin met up with guitarist Joey Santiago.

Pixies’ new single Tenement Song

© Youtube // PixiesOfficialTV

THE RED BULLETIN: Head Carrier is the first album in 28 years where you decided to work with a new producer, Tom Dalgety. After working with Gil Norton for such a long time, did it feel a bit like going out with someone new after a long time relationship?

JOEY SANTIAGO: Yes (laughs). But our relationship with Gil isn’t over by any means. We will probably work with him on another album. The decision to go on with Tom was just to get out of our comfort zone and perhaps give us a new perspective on sound.

Did it work out? Did Tom challenge you?

He did! We did a lot of pre-production with him. We were honing the songs for two or three weeks. When I came up with something, he’d usually stand behind me, tapping me on the shoulder and giving me the thumbs up. If he wasn’t quite happy, he’d say, ‘remember when you did that?’ and he’d play me the riff I recorded in the pre-production session. He’s got an incredible memory. Plus, he has a good instinct for guitar sounds.

Speaking of which, what’s the secret behind the legendary Pixies guitar sound? 

Well, it’s my Marshall amp, and sometimes I use the DOD FX-17 Wah pedal. They don’t make them anymore, I basically use it as a filter. But is there a secret behind my sound? I’m not sure. No matter what I do, my guitar always has this very pointy sound. I can’t help it. 

You and Black Francis started Pixies 30 years ago. How do you still stimulate each other creatively?

The most important element is trust. We don’t really push each other. When we recorded some demos in Toronto for new album, I was a hot mess. I couldn’t really figure out anything, but Charles [Thompson alias Black Francis] wasn’t worried. He knew I’d come up with something eventually. He didn’t want to get in the way of it. We rely on each other, we never argue. It’s a mutual admiration for each other.

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Just last year your classic Where Is My Mind appeared prominently in two major TV shows, The Leftovers and Mr Robot. Do you follow the on-going success of this song you wrote 28 years ago?

No (laughs), friends would tell me when they hear it somewhere, but honestly, I hardly watch TV.

But do you sometimes wonder how it is possible that this little song is still so omnipresent in current pop culture?

Well, it’s probably because of the spooky background vocals. And then there’s the three-note riff, of course. My rule is, five notes are too much. If you use more than five notes in a riff, you’re not working hard enough. Because the less notes you use, the more memorable the riff is.

Do you remember how you came up with that riff?

I came up with it right away when Charles showed me the song in his apartment in Boston. It was like, ‘here’s the thing’. And a few minutes later we were like, ‘it’s done.

>> Head Carrier is out now!

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10 2016 The Red Bulletin

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