When people talk about the Pixies’ massive influence on the sound of rock music, what exactly do they mean? Certainly the vocal styles of Black Francis and Kim Deal, and their lyrical obsessions. But perhaps even more often, they’re referring to the sound that lead guitarist Joey Santiago is able to wrestle out of his instrument.
If pressed, however, to describe Santiago’s style—which has graced everything from the gorgeous “Where is My Mind” to the mysterious doom of “Gouge Away” to the almost onomatopoeic guitar tide of “Wave of Mutilation”—they probably can’t.
That’s OK. Neither can he.
“I have no idea what I did,” he says of the sound he developed from the group’s debut EP Come on Pilgrim in 1987 through the last album before their breakup, 1991’s Trompe Le Monde—and then again on the two albums they’ve recorded since their 2004 reunion, 2014’s Indie Cindy and last year’s return-to-form Head Carrier.
He can’t even explain exactly how he finds that diverse but distinctive palette of sound again when he needs it for a new song. “I just go for this thing, and I don’t know how I come up with it. I can’t really explain it,” he says. “Sometimes it comes automatically, sometimes I have to search for it. But mostly automatic. Once I get the gist of the chord progression, I start hearing it. I’ll come up with a little trick here and there, and then lo and behold, it’ll sound like it.”
It sounds like it can be a bit complicated. But not always.
“Sometimes I can just write it down on a piece of paper and go, ‘I know this shit’s gonna work,” he says.
Born in the Philippines, Santiago emigrated to the U.S. with his family as a child in 1972 after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. Growing up in New York and Massachusetts, he met Charles Thompson IV—later to be known as Black Francis—while studying economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the early ’80s. After rooming together and talking about starting a band for years, they finally did it in 1986, recruiting bassist Deal and drummer David Lovering for the Pixies.
After the Pixies broke up, Santiago played on Thompson’s solo albums (for which the former frontman switched up his stage name to Frank Black), played with his wife Linda Mallari as the Martinis, and scored some films and television shows.
Even when the Pixies got back together, Santiago knew they wouldn’t be making new albums anytime soon.
“When we reunited, we knew what people wanted. They didn’t want to hear new songs,” he says. “I would be bummed if I went to see a band that I’d be waiting for and they didn’t make room for the songs I wanted to hear.”
But when the reunion went on longer than expected—their sold-out shows this year seem to indicate the band is as popular as ever—they decided they had to figure out if they could make it work in the studio again. And …
“Well, it didn’t, the first time,” says Santiago, laughing. He’s referring to the much-maligned Indie Cindy, which critics and fans felt strayed too far from the Pixies’ classic sound, though he says the reunited band’s first effort was probably doomed no matter what—if they had tried to recreate their old sound, “it would have been ‘oh no, they didn’t grow up.’”
Last year’s Head Carrier struck a better balance—“we wanted to embrace the past,” he says—and Santiago found the experience “fantastic.” He’s seen the difference in the audience response when they play live.
“I can see people singing along to tracks from Head Carrier,” he says. “It’s great.”
In a lot of ways, he feels like the reunited Pixies simply picked up where they left off, though there are some differences. Deal left in 2013, and was briefly replaced by Kim Shattuck before the band found Paz Lenchantin, who co-wrote and sang “All I Think About Now” on Head Carrier—and of whom Santiago is a big fan.
And there are other differences, too, for the 52-year-old Santiago, who co-founded the band three decades ago.
“Now I have a family,” he says. “So after a while you wonder what the hell they’re doing over there. I get these texts like, ‘Hey, blah blah blah!’ It’s like, holy shit, what’s going on? I better go home! Or take a nap.”
But in general, Santiago is happy with the sound—whatever you want to call it—that he created, and the unique spot he found in Rock ’n’ Roll Town (which is almost certainly on the Planet of Sound) by not just ripping off his own guitarist influences.
“I looked at it like ‘that guy’s a fireman, why am I gonna be a fireman in this town? Maybe I’ll be a cop—oh, there’s already a cop in this town! Maybe I’ll be a janitor! Oh, there’s already a janitor,’” he says. “I ended up being the guy hanging out in the coffee shop.”
The Pixies perform at the Catalyst at 8 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 11. catalystclub.com.