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A conversation with the Pixies’ Joey Santiago

(Christian Córdova / alickr)

This past Wednesday night the Pixies rocked out John M. Greene Hall at Smith College with songs from each of their albums, old and new. A few days prior to their show, I had the opportunity to discuss with lead guitarist Joey Santiago topics such as his time at the University of Massachusetts, his work as a film composer and the music of the Pixies.

Joey Santiago spent his first two years of college at UMass between 1983 and 1985. He would go on to meet future lead singer of the Pixies, Charles Thompson, in their shared dorm room. Following sophomore year, they both decided to leave UMass and head to Boston in order to form the Pixies with bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering.

The band would soon go on to become one of the most critically successful and influential bands in punk rock history. An incredible focal point of the Pixies’ unique sound, Santiago’s guitar playing style is filled with bends, distortions and scream-like chords. Behind all of that, he has come up with some incredibly catchy tunes that have contributed to the band’s iconicity.

JS: This is the UMass paper right? You know, that was the newspaper that made me get a major. I was undeclared.

DC: You ended up study anthropology or economics, right?

JS: No, that was Charles (Black Francis). I was economics. The professors called me over because I was acing everything.

DC: You aced everything?

JS: Yeah! The professors called me over and said, “You want to join our department?” I just said “Okay!” But this all happened because you guys put out an April Fool’s paper.

DC: We still do that. It’s pretty funny.

JS: Yeah, it’s a joke! They said that undeclared students were the first students from college that were going to get drafted. For Grenada.

DC: Oh my god. You believed them?

JS: F**k yeah I did! I was scared of war!

DC: Because this is the UMass paper, I’d love to hear about your time here as a student. Even though you never graduated, the school definitely considers you to be a proper alumnus. To prove this, on the sixth floor of the library, there is a big, framed, Pixies poster that the faculty definitely put up themselves.

JS: You think the faculty put that up there?

DC: Oh, for sure!

JS: Maybe they’ll give us our doctorate degree too!

DC: There’s a rumor about you that when you came to UMass, you were living in the Sylvan dorms?

JS: Mhm… It was a suite and also, we were living in Brown Hall.

DC: These days, Sylvan isn’t the most popular place to live because it’s so far away from the action on campus, did you feel that way?

JS: It was definitely away from the party scene, which I loved. It was the nerdy area, so I liked it. I was really afraid of getting a jock for a roommate.

DC: Instead, your roommate was Black Francis. What are the odds of that? Did you both ever venture out of the Sylvan dorms to explore campus or were you mostly content in Sylvan?

JS: I was content up there, and then I moved to a house in Wakefield. All the way in Wakefield.

DC: That must have been a long drive to campus every day.

JS: Hardly. I forgot I was at school after a while. I really did bad on that.

DC: The second lingering rumor around campus is that the song “Debaser” off of “Doolittle” is an homage to Composition and Literature Professor Don Levine who “debases” films in his avant-garde film class by giving away their plot before the students even get to see the movie. Any truth behind that?

JS: No, I’ve never heard that. His [Black Francis’] lyrics are…you can’t really define them. I don’t even think he knows what he’s talking about!

DC: Really?

JS: Well…that’s what I like to think.

DC: For a little while, the Pioneer Valley was your home. When you’re driving your way toward Amherst and the general area, what’s going through your head? Do you feel reflective or nostalgic at all?

JS: I am actually… I am. I am amazed how much influence that area had around me. I got to see a lot of bands play in the area too and it was an influence just watching people on stage performing. I knew I wanted to be on stage.

DC: Today, there’s a really big DIY band scene at UMass and a lot of these bands have a lot of talent, which is evident when they play house shows. Do you have any advice for those that are trying to “make it” in the music scene?

JS: I would just tell them to make sure to enjoy what they’re doing. If they’re playing parties, whatever they’re doing is right. I would just practice and play live as often as you can.

DC: The Pixies have a song, “U-Mass” that has some interesting lyrics. “We’re not just kids, to say the least/we got ideas to us that’s dear.” How should UMass students interpret that song, and how do you interpret it?

JS: Charles wasn’t relating to campus life. Watching all the f**ked up people at the time, like the heavy right-wingers was educational. It was an eye-opener.

DC: After the show in Northampton, the Pixies are embarking on a huge tour throughout North America and Europe, in support of your new record “Head Carrier.” You’ve been touring since your 20s. Does anything change as you revisit locations throughout different phases in your life?

JS: I think I’m into a lot of botanical gardens and beaches. That’s where I go.

DC: Where’s the most beautiful botanical garden in your opinion?

JS: There’s one in Cape Town and Melbourne that really stood out.

DC: Your new record “Head Carrier” sonically builds off the new addition of Bassist Paz Lenchantin. I’m wondering what it was like to get into the studio with her? Did she contribute anything new to the Pixies sonically?

JS: Yes, of course she did. Her suggestions and her arrangement ideas. When we got into the studio with Paz, it was time to get back to basics, whatever that meant with us. We didn’t have to work hard at finding a new connection. When we start making music, it’s just making music. There’s no thought or pressure involved in it. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad it’s bad. That was our only criterion.

DC: “Head Carrier” feels like a record that is more thoughtfully constructed on a sonic level than past Pixies records. Is this as much a record for the Pixies to enjoy as it is for the fans?

JS: It’s for us to enjoy. When we play live shows, we all enjoy playing with each other, but the big boss is the audience. When we get in the studio it’s the most genuinely entertaining time that we have together.

DC: Let’s talk about your work as a composer. The first show to ever feature your music is the 2001 Fox show, “Undeclared” that was created by Judd Apatow. After the Pixies broke up in 1993, how did you wind up getting involved in the show?

JS: Well I had no idea who Judd was, and my agent reached out to me and said, ‘Judd Apatow wants to meet you!’ I wondered to myself, ‘Who is he?’ I didn’t watch ‘Freaks and Geeks.’  I just made a bunch of music after I found out that you can actually buy recording equipment for your home. I made a lot of music just for fun that I ended up sending to my agent. He ended up liking the songs and those are the ones he sent to Judd for that show, which is about college life. It’s kind of rock-based and he wanted kind of rock and roll based songs.

DC: All those wavy tunes that you made for ‘Undeclared’ are employed in some fun ways, I think. Did you end up getting into Judd’s previous show, ‘Freaks and Geeks’ after working on ‘Undeclared’?

JS: I did. I loved it. I totally related to it, the disenfranchised kiddos.

DC: Many great recent musicians, who started their careers in rock bands, have gone on to become successful film composers. To name a few, Nick Cave, Cliff Martinez, Trent Reznor, Jonny Greenwood (who claims to have been directly influenced by your work) and Karen O. Has composing both these features inspired you to continue pursuing work as a film composer? Are there any projects currently in progress?

JS: Oh yeah, I like what Cliff Martinez has done. Clint Mansell too, the work he’s done with Darren Aronofsky has been outstanding. I’m definitely interested in pursuing it. My agent’s been asking when I’m going to have the free time. There’s nothing in progress just now, but it will happen.

DC: Your music with The Pixies brings forth a multitude of images in the mind of any listener. What kind of images are you looking to define with your sounds? For example, Nick Cave has scored a lot of Westerns…

JS: Oh, definitely Westerns. The only difference between Westerns and surf music is the landscape. They both sound the same to me. The Western has more of a desert-y thing to it but it’s not much different than the surf sound. That’s it; it all has to do with the landscape. You’re scoring the environment, I love it. And there’s more Westerns being made than surf films…

DC: That’s definitely true.

JS: But I can work on a lot of different things… Who’s that guy that did ‘Fight Club’? Fincher?

DC: Fincher made ‘Fight Club.’ He likes to use Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails, I know.

JS: Yeah… he used him. God damn it. (Jokingly) What the hell’s wrong with me? He’s also used the Dust Brothers. He uses good stuff.

DC: All of these artists are influenced by your work as a guitarist, so it’s safe to assume that some great films are soon to come your way.

JS: It’ll happen. I just have to put my mind to it.

DC: David Bowie once described you as an “Underrated Guitarist.” Since the Pixies reunion in 2004, have you begun to feel that appreciation which Bowie and other musicians felt was lacking?

JS: When we started making records again, like “Head Carrier,” I finally became cognizant that I did have my own style as a musician. I do have my own voice in music. I appreciate that now, rather than thinking that it was underserved.

DC: Black Francis is now living in Amherst and apparently he really likes living out here in the Pioneer Valley. Any chance you yourself have thought about coming back to the Pioneer Valley?

JS: Eh. You know, we had one conversation where we said we should finish our education [at UMass] and live in Sylvan again. But it’s mellow in Amherst and I love it there. I can get my hacky sack on.

William Plotnick can be reached at wplotnick@umass.edu.

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