Guitarist Joey Santiago and songwriter Black Francis (born Charles Thompson IV) met when they lived next to each other in a suite while attending the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Although Santiago was worried about distractions, he noticed Francis played music and the pair began to jam together. Francis embarked on a student exchange trip to Puerto Rico to study Spanish. After six months, he returned to Amherst and dropped out of the university. Francis and Santiago spent 1984 working in a warehouse, with Francis composing songs on his acoustic guitar and writing lyrics on the subway train.
The pair formed a band in January 1986. Two weeks later, Francis placed an advertisement seeking a female bass player who liked both the folk music act Peter, Paul and Mary and the alternative rock band Hüsker Dü. Kim Deal was the only respondent, and arrived at the audition without a bass, as she had never played one before. She was invited to join the band as she liked the songs Francis showed her. She obtained a bass, and the trio started rehearsing in Deal's apartment.
After recruiting Deal, Kim paid for her sister, Kelley Deal, to fly to Boston and audition as drummer. Though Francis approved, Kelley was not confident in her drumming, and was more interested in playing songs written by Kim; she later joined Kim's other band, the Breeders. Kim's husband suggested they hire David Lovering, whom Kim had met at her wedding reception. The group arrived at a name after Santiago selected the word "pixies" randomly from a dictionary, liking how it looked and its definition as "mischievous little elves". The Pixies moved rehearsals to Lovering's parents' garage in mid-1986 and began to play shows at bars in the Boston area.
Come on Pilgrim (1987)
While the Pixies were playing a concert with Throwing Muses, they were noticed by producer Gary Smith, manager of Fort Apache Studios. He told the band he "could not sleep until you guys are world famous". The band produced a 17-track demo at Fort Apache soon afterwards, known to fans as the Purple Tape because of the tape cover's purple background. Funded by Francis' father at the cost of $1000, the recording session was completed in three days. Local promoter Ken Goes became the band's manager, and he passed the demo to Ivo Watts-Russell of the independent record label 4AD. Watts-Russell nearly passed on the band, finding them too normal, "too rock 'n' roll", but signed them at the persuasion of his girlfriend.
Upon signing with 4AD, eight tracks from the Purple Tape were selected for the Come on Pilgrim mini-LP, the Pixies' first release. Francis drew upon his experiences in Puerto Rico, mostly in the songs "Vamos" and "Isla de Encanta", describing the poverty in Puerto Rico. The religious lyrics in Come on Pilgrim and later albums came from his parents' born-again Christian days in the Pentecostal Church. Critic Heather Phares sees themes such as sexual frustration ("I've Been Tired") and incest ("Nimrod's Son" and "The Holiday Song") on the record.
Surfer Rosa and Doolittle (1988–89)
Come on Pilgrim was followed by the Pixies' first full-length album, Surfer Rosa. The album was recorded by Steve Albini (who was hired by Watts-Russell on the advice of a 4AD colleague), completed in two weeks, and released in early 1988. Surfer Rosa gained the Pixies acclaim in Europe; both Melody Maker and Sounds gave Surfer Rosa their "Album of the Year" award. American critical response was also positive yet more muted, a reaction that persisted for much of the band's career. The album was eventually certified Gold in the U.S. in 2005. After the album was released, the band arrived in England to support Throwing Muses on the European "Sex and Death" tour—beginning at the Mean Fiddler in London. The tour also took them to the Netherlands, where the Pixies had already received enough media attention to be headlining the tour. Francis later recalled: "The first place I made it with the Pixies was in Holland." The tour became notable for the band's in-jokes, such as playing their entire set list in alphabetical order.
Meanwhile, the Pixies signed an American distribution deal with major record label Elektra. Around this time, the Pixies struck up a relationship with the British producer Gil Norton. Norton produced their second full album, Doolittle, which was recorded in the last six weeks of 1988 and seen as a departure from the raw sound of Come on Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa. Doolittle had a much cleaner sound, largely due to Norton and the production budget of US$40,000, which was quadruple that of Surfer Rosa. Doolittle featured the single "Here Comes Your Man", which biographers Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz describe as an unusually jaunty and pop-like song for the band. "Monkey Gone to Heaven" was a Top 10 modern rock radio hit in the U.S., and reached the Top 100 in the U.K. Like Surfer Rosa, Doolittle was acclaimed by fans and music critics alike.
After Doolittle, tensions between Deal and Francis came to a head (for example, Francis threw a guitar at Deal during a concert in Stuttgart), and Deal was almost fired from the band when she refused to play at a concert in Frankfurt. Santiago, in an interview with Mojo, described Deal as being "headstrong and want[ing] to include her own songs, to explore her own world" on the band's albums; eventually she accepted that Francis was the singer and had musical control of the band, but after the Frankfurt incident, "they kinda stopped talking". The band became increasingly tired during the post-Doolittle "Fuck or Fight" tour of the United States and fighting among members continued. After the tour's final date in New York City, the band was too exhausted to attend the end-of-tour party the following night and soon announced a hiatus.
During this time, Santiago and Lovering went on vacation while Francis performed a short solo tour, made up of a number of concerts to generate gas money as he traveled across the country. Deal formed a new band, the Breeders, with Tanya Donelly of Throwing Muses and bass player Josephine Wiggs of Perfect Disaster. Their debut album, Pod, was released in 1990.
Bossanova and Trompe le Monde (1990–1993)
Pixies ticket from 1st October, 1990
In 1990, all members of the group except for Deal moved to Los Angeles. Lovering stated that he, Santiago, and Francis moved there "because the recording studio was there". Unlike previous recordings, the band had little time to practice beforehand, and Black Francis wrote much of the album in the studio. Featuring the singles "Velouria" and "Dig for Fire", Bossanova reached number 70 in the United States. In contrast, the album peaked at number three in the United Kingdom. Also in 1990, the Pixies released a cover of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band's "Born in Chicago" on the compilation album Rubáiyát: Elektra's 40th Anniversary.
The band continued to tour and released Trompe le Monde in 1991, their final album before their break-up. The album included "U-Mass", which has been described as being about college apathy, and whose guitar riff was written years before at the University of Massachusetts before Francis and Santiago dropped out. The album also featured a cover of "Head On" by The Jesus and Mary Chain. Also that year, the band contributed a cover of "I Can't Forget" to the Leonard Cohen tribute album I'm Your Fan, and began an international tour on which they played stadiums in Europe and smaller venues in the United States. They then embarked on an uncomfortable tour supporting U2 on their Zoo TV Tour in 1992. Tensions rose among band members, and at the end of the year, the Pixies went on sabbatical and focused on separate projects.
Breakup and solo projects (1993–2003)
In early 1993, Francis announced in an interview to BBC Radio 5 that the Pixies were finished. He offered no explanation at the time, unbeknownst to the other members of the band. He later called Santiago and notified Deal and Lovering via fax, in January 1993.
After the breakup, the members embarked on separate projects. Black Francis renamed himself Frank Black, and released several solo albums, including a string of releases with Frank Black and the Catholics. Deal returned to the Breeders, who scored a hit with "Cannonball" from their platinum-selling Last Splash in 1993, and released two more albums several years later. She also formed the Amps, who released one album.
Santiago played lead guitar on a number of Frank Black albums, as well as on other artists' albums. He wrote theme music for the show Undeclared on Fox television and film Crime and Punishment in Suburbia. He formed the Martinis with his wife Linda Mallari, who released an album in 2004. In 2004, he also played lead guitar on the album "Statecraft" by the novelist and musician Charles Douglas. Lovering went on to become a magician and made occasional appearances as "The Scientific Phenomenalist", performing experiments on stage and occasionally opening for Frank Black and the Breeders. Lovering drummed with the band Cracker, as well as on one of Tanya Donelly's solo albums, and on the Martinis' song "Free", which appeared on the Empire Records soundtrack.
4AD and Elektra Records continued to release Pixies material: the best-of album Death to the Pixies (1997), the Peel-session compilation Pixies at the BBC (1998), and the Complete 'B' Sides compilation (2001). In 2002, material from the Pixies' original 17-track demo tape was released as an EP, Pixies, on Cooking Vinyl in the U.K. and SpinArt Records in the U.S.; Frank Black has also used these labels to release solo work and albums with the Catholics.
The Pixies in concert in Kansas City
, October 1, 2004. From left to right, Frank Black, David Lovering (back) and Kim Deal.
In the years following the breakup, rumors circulated of a reunion. Though Frank Black dismissed them, he incorporated an increasing number of Pixies songs in his sets with the Catholics, and occasionally included Santiago in his solo work and Lovering's magic show as an opening act to concerts.
In 2003, a series of phone calls among band members resulted in some low-key rehearsals, and soon the decision to reunite. By February 2004, a full tour was announced, and tickets for nearly all the initial tour dates sold out within minutes. The band's four-night run at London's Brixton Academy was the fastest selling in the venue's twenty-year history.
The Pixies played their first reunion concert on April 13, 2004, at The Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a warm-up tour through the U.S. and Canada was followed by an appearance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. The band then spent much of 2004 touring throughout Brazil, Europe, Japan, and the U.S. The group won the Act-of-the-Year award in the 2004 Boston Music Awards. The 2004 reunion tour reportedly grossed over $14 million in ticket sales.
In June 2004, the band released a new song, "Bam Thwok" exclusively on the iTunes Music Store. The song reached number one in the UK Official Download Chart. 4AD released Wave of Mutilation: The Best of Pixies, along with a companion DVD, entitled Pixies. The band also contributed a rendition of "Ain't That Pretty at All" to the Warren Zevon tribute album Enjoy Every Sandwich. "Bam Thwok" and "Ain't That Pretty at All" were both recorded by engineer Ben Mumphrey, the former at Stagg Street Studios in Van Nuys, CA and the latter at Metamorphosis Studio in Vienna, Austria.
In 2005, the band made appearances at festivals including Lollapalooza, "T on the Fringe", and the Newport Folk Festival. They continued to make appearances through 2006 and 2007, culminating in their first-ever appearances in Australia. Since 2005, Francis has at various times stated that the Pixies recording a new studio album was either a possibility, or an unlikelihood, the main obstacle being Deal's reluctance to do so.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of Doolittle, the Pixies launched a tour in October 2009 where they performed the album track-for-track, including the associated B-sides. The tour began in Europe, continued in the United States in November, with the South American and Australian tour following in March 2010, then New Zealand, and more European dates in spring 2010, and back to North America in fall 2010 and into spring 2011.
Deal's departure and Indie Cindy (2013–2015)
Kim Shattuck playing with the Muffs
On June 14, 2013, the Pixies announced that Deal had left the band. Deal has since released new solo music and the remaining Pixies have welcomed her to come back as her schedule with Breeders allows. Two weeks later, the band released a new song, "Bagboy", as a free download via the Pixies website. The song features Jeremy Dubs of Bunnies and formerly of the Bennies on vocals in place of Deal.
On July 1, 2013, the Pixies announced the addition of Muffs and Pandoras guitarist and vocalist Kim Shattuck to replace Deal for their 2013 European tour. On September 3, 2013, the Pixies released an EP of new songs titled EP1. On November 29, 2013, Shattuck announced that she had been dismissed from the band that day. In December 2013, it was announced that The Entrance Band and A Perfect Circle bassist Paz Lenchantin was joining the Pixies for the 2014 tour. More new material surfaced when the Pixies released their second EP, EP2, on January 3, 2014. The single released to radio was "Blue Eyed Hexe". Another new EP, EP3, was released on March 24, 2014. All the EPs were only available as downloads and limited edition vinyl. The three EPs were collected in LP format and released as the album Indie Cindy in April 2014. The album was the first release from the band in over two decades, the last being Trompe le Monde in 1991. In 2015, Pixies toured in support of Robert Plant for a series of dates across North America.
Head Carrier (2016–present)
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On July 6, 2016, the Pixies announced that Lenchantin was now a permanent member of the band. Their sixth album, Head Carrier, was released on September 30, 2016.