SPEAKING IN TONGUES

Hopscotching across rock'n'roll convention, THE PIXIES, along with stablemates Throwing Muses, now look set to lead the charge into a wonderland of inarticulate, impulsive and exquisite noise. Simon Reynolds chases the wave to Boston and discovers the ritual of abandonment and the sensual pleasures of the band's second album 'Surfer Rosa'. Gnome sweet gnome pictures by Thomas Sheehan.

PIXMM2.JPG (10034 bytes)
Part of the Melody Maker front cover

THE  hollering is all. The Pixies are what's left when all the frustrations and absences that once prompted rock'n'roll into being have faded away or been catered for, and all that remains is the urge to holler, shriek and whoop it up for the arbitrary, unnegotiable hell of it. They're a poltergeist whose restlessness can never be pacified, the ghost of rock'n'roll. They throb with an obscure randiness it's difficult to imagine what would ever satisfy. A Pixies song is that primal, that post-post-modern.

The Pixies are about … no, the Pixies plain are, the disfigurement and degradation of language. A Pixies song consists of gnashing, obscure imprecations, rabid interjections, palsied reveries, and the occasional lurch into lucidity: "you're so pretty/when you're unfaithful to me". Like their Boston neighbours and 4AD labelmates, Throwing Muses, they provoke emotional responses you can't pin down: is that seven feelings at once, or a new, as yet unnamed emotion? They run strange gamuts and achieve peculiar juxtapositions of feeling, one minute haggard, the next luscious. What's happening?

AN idle glance and you'd take them for a garage group. But this garage is like the Tardis: there's a supernatural amount of space in this rough-hewn, scrapping sound, a wilderness across which Pixies songs careen like tearaway mustangs or stampeded wagons shedding everything but their chassis. Along with space, there's a deformed sister to conventional pop geometry.

It's as though the acid-crypt punkadelia of bands like The Hombres or The Groupies has been possessed by the spirit of Dada. It's Ubu meets The Gun Club. They rock crooked. Rampaging ruins. "Wit", "playful", "Squirky", "kooky" are all offensively paltry and misleading words to use in connection with The Pixies. It's altogether less suave, more spume-flecked than that. Spooked is a bit better.

Their new LP 'Surfer Rosa' is a brilliant step-sideways from the more produced trajectory of their recording; it's not so much produced as abased by Steve Albini, the ex-Big Black. The sepulchral, impossibly foreboding "Break My Body", the deranged shriek-whine "uh-huhn, uh-huhn" that kick-starts "Broken Face", the truly gargantuan, holy horny "Gigantic", the strange soaring and wilting guitars of "River Euphrates", "Where Is My Mind?" with its crass but genuinely eerie harmonies and its chorus recited in a strange alloy of rueful puzzlement and mild irritations as though Black Francis has simply mislaid his sentence somewhere around the house … alL these and more have encouraged some pretty uncool behaviour in the privacy of this household recently.

We meet in the well-heeled downtown Boston condo of Mrs John Murphy (AKA Kim, the bassist and sometime - more often please! - singer, on tracks like "Gigantic") and her obliging husband. Trite as it may seem to some, what's initially intriguing is the disparity between these genial unruffled people and such … ruffled music: regular Joey Santiago the (incredible) guitarist, David Lovering the drummer with his imminent marriage and his metal-detecting, and the placid centre of it all, chubby Black Francis AKA Charles, the rock'n'roll shaman.

Only Kim seems inhabited by the same hyperactive energies that dishevel the music, fidgeting, splendidly impulsive, possessed of that unselfconsciousness that seem to characterise young Americans, where a thought no sooner enters the head than pops out the mouth.

Generally, mere transcription cannot do justice to the array of stresses, inflections, manic touches, weird characterisations, in a Pixies (or Muses) conversation: the buggering of syntax, the jaywalking and lane changes within language, the abandonment into inarticulate noises and gestures that is more expressive than conventional eloquence. People have celebrated America as a non-verbal culture, and compared with someone like Green (where the voice is corseted and coerced by the precision of what's being said), what The Pixies/Muses do, in their music and in their conversation, is to liberate the sensuality, the breath, of the voice. What they want to "say" will come out, despite the resistance of language, like a geyser. Like talking in tongues.

So are The Pixies their own favourite band?

Charles: "I like it … but it doesn't move me enough yet."

What degree of impact are you looking to match?

"I like Iggy Pop a lot … if I can come up with something that powerful, especially the demo stuff, like 'I'm Sick of You', then …"

Are The Pixies a natural unnaturalness, or was there a deliberate attempt to vandalise the convention? Did you choose to jettison symmetry, put in all these gashes and gaps?

"Well, you want to be different from other people, sure, so you throw in as many arbitrary things as possible. So instead of having the typical four line verse, we'll only sing three lines. Or when we stop for a pause, we won't wait the usual eight beats, we'll go rest for 10 beats. Or on 'I've been Tired', where a four-chord sequence would sound natural, we'll turn it into a three chord sequence, make it trip over itself."

Like a locked groove.

"Yeah. It's kind of religious sounding."

Like a mantra.

"Yeah, kinda. It's all a question of dynamics. And we only do short songs, which makes things sound even more uneven."

Obviously with the lyrics, unlike either the confessional songwriter or the social commentator, you don't set out to say anything…

"Eighty percent of its baloney, yeah. It's that T-Rex thing of 'if it sounds cool …' I write the songs by singing a whole bunch of syllables along with the chord progressions, and they become words. A bunch of five words might mean something, or stand for something. But the five words after it, or preceding it, sure as hell won't have anything to do with them."

KRISTIN Hersh operates in a similar way, but because her stuff is a stream of unconsciousness, of dream imagery, you can take it as being riddled with all kinds of meanings she didn't consciously place there, threads you can unravel and perhaps 'read'. Can your words be interpreted at all, or shouldn't they be?

"I guess they must have a root somewhere; often the songs are vaguely about something. Like that line 'oh bury me/far away /please', it doesn't really mean anything, but it could mean the guy's despondent about being 'the son of incestuous union.' Or like the whole Biblical thing of when the women were menstruating: 'go outside the city walls and do your bleeding out there'"(I have to say, the connection here eludes me, but this probably says more about the short-circuited synapses of this young visionary than he or I could ever "work out").

"I like David Lynch's movies, his attitude where you don't always explain everything, you just come up with stuff that looks good and sounds good, and you just go with it. And you can look back on it if you wanna."

Your approach, your thang, reminds me a bit of Surrealist phonetic poetry …

"It's definitely arbitrary, about going with the immediate. I read this interview with Robyn Hitchcock, he talked about saying something without thinking about why you said it, and because it has a root inside you, it's much more real, true to you, than if you think and analyse everything. That made me a lot more confident about automatic writing, or whatever you want to call it."

It must be a fantastic release.

"Nothing beats volume .. and lights … and drunken people."

Kim: "If I didn't personally have this release, I wonder what I'd do instead."

It sounds like it should be performed on stage with much loss of inhibition.

Charles: "We're not good enough players to ad lib like that. We're still kind of static on stage. Kim kind of twitches. Dave looks like your baby brother when you think he's dying, but he's just crapping his diapers."

Well, I suppose the trad gestures of dis-inhibition just look rehearsed anyway, maybe it's more electrifying and electrified to be rooted to the spot. What's Albini like to work with?

"He's like this braniac, about six foot tall but only 80 pounds, always reading, always figuring out manuals to see how things work. He's into lo-tech, eight-track, he likes live, he hates overdubs."

Kim: "He hates vocals. We spent days and days on the guitars and drums, and did the vocals in one night. It's like he said: 'You're going to do vocals on that song? Well, if you really want to …' He said that it's the first time he's worked with people who can sing. He hated doing the 'ri-ri-ri' harmonies on 'River Euphrates'."

Charles: "He's very extreme. It's either 'that's great, that's genius' or 'that's pussy, that sucks'."

Joey: "Pussy or non-pussy, that was the studio jargon."

Kim: "Everything had to be full throttle. I wish there were more dynamics in it. Every song on the album is produced with the same non-effects, so there's not enough ear-variety."

Charles: "I like him because he likes LOUD. All the needles were on red. He totally overloaded the tape."

Joey: "He let me use my amp, which was cool. It's this country-jazz amp which engineers don't like because it's real whiney."

John Murphy: "On 'Something About You' he put Charles' voice through a guitar, to make it sound all grisly."

Charles: "The thing about Albini is that he's so military macho, but he has this exhaustive knowledge of gay culture, so you wonder … he told us about stuff like 'fetching' "(unprintable, readers, sorry, but if you write enclosing an SAE …)" and 'gerbilling'."

This involves the use of a "de-clawed, de-fanged, oiled" rodent for the purposes of unnatural pleasure.

"But sometimes the tail breaks, and there are cases where people have to go to hospital…"

Charles: "The world is going to end, y'know …"

Dave: "He's part of this network of like minds who circulate videos among themselves, people like the Butthole Surfers. They're into gore … Albini has this video of a politician in Pennsylvania who went on a news conference and blew his brains out on air. And videos of people shooting eggs out of their ass, right across the room into another guy's mouth."

And why "Surfer Rosa"…?

Charles: "See, there's this nude flamenco dancer on the cover, and 4AD wanted to call the LP 'Gigantic' after the song, but decided they couldn't because of the big breasts … People might have got the wrong ideas, so I had to come up with something else."

Something else is what he came up with.

WHAT'S this underground that you and the Muses are deemed to be part of?

Kim:  "See, I don't really think there's such a thing as the underground anymore. In '81, '82, when the punk thing was really going over here, maybe there was. But now, if you're anything at all, you can get an independent record out, get a video together, maybe get it shown late night on MTV.

"The underground is overground now. Before, though, like with the Stray Cats, nobody in Ohio had ever heard of them, you couldn’t get the records, they were never on the radio. I got hold of their stuff by trading cassettes, like they do in Russia. Same with James Blood Ulmer, Captain Sensible, all that stuff…"

"All that stuff" - it’s interesting how the demarcations and taste hierarchies we have in Britain just don’t hold in the States. The local commercial New Wave radio station plays Sinead, Nitzer Ebb, Midnight Oil, Dukes of Stratosphear, Godfathers, Love and Rockets; Mr and Mrs Murphy will introduce me to Aerosmith’s back catalogue, but will flip when I play them The Sugarcubes; the Boston nightclub Axis will mix Cabaret Voltaire and Skinny Puppy with ghastly Noo Wave monstrosities that sound like Belinda Carlisle covering the Comsats’ "Independence Day"; Charles will enthuse about his Damned CDs. Everything’s topsy turvy.

What makes them most proud about being Pixies?

Kim: "Okay, this is my own thing, but having lunched and dined with Steve Albini, that we respect human beings. I know that sounds queer, but listening to him rag and rag, he’s so sure, and nobody can be that sure and not be an asshole. Nobody knows what's going on anyway, so how can he actually say ‘this song sucks’ and when he says it, he means it, that’s The truth. You can’t say that.

"When he was ragging on people and cutting them down, that was a bad feeling. An old man and an old lady came in to the diner, and he’d go ‘they’re stupid, they’re old, they’re dumb’ he doesn’t even have to look at them he KNOWS it."

Charles: "I like the fact that none of us are rock’n’roll type people, we’re truly na´ve, so it’s very pure. There’s not a lot of thought."

The Pixies put a lot of thoughtlessness into their music.

David: "Just the fact that how we look, how we sound, and what our name is - nothing fits together at all, in any aspect."

Are you particularly interested in the uncanny or freaky?

Kim: "You mean do we have any stories? There’s the cake lady. This girl follows the Muses wherever they play, and gives them this food she bakes for them. Cakes."

Any good?

"I guess so. They eat them. At first they were kinda scared. Every gig they play, she brings food. She was there last night, at the Braddle Theatre. A real Bertha. A plain, rather heavy looking girl."

I saw her. She looks out of time, from the Fifties. "Yeah, always that style."

WAS the desire to escape the fate of your parents, a regular, stolid life, was that a beatnik-impulse behind wanting to be in a rock band?

Charles: "You mean, trying to rebel against the 'leave-it-to-Beaver-ness' of your family?"

Sorry?

"Do you know the TV Show 'Leave It To Beaver'? It's a TV show from the Fifties, a comedy about the ideal, nuclear family, being an upstanding member of the community, 'gee dad, I didn't mean to knock her up', that kind of thing."

Dave: "Kids today have all these jokes based on the show, like 'how's your Beaver, Mrs Cleaver?', or what's the worst? Um, 'Ward, you were a little hard on the Beaver last night.' See, Ward is the father and Beaver is the little kid."

Charles: "I mean, yeah - both Joey and me went to college in order to be in bands. And we dropped out of college to make a go of it. I don't want to look back and think, 'oh, I wish I'd been in a rock band instead of this.' At least have a go."

Do you think there are singular, definable feelings in your songs?

Charles: "Hmmm … if you're angry, you scream, I guess."

But it's not an anger directed at anyone or caused by anything specific.

"No, it's just for the pure satisfaction of screaming. Just the yyyooOOOOOWWWW!"

Do you think the music sounds druggy?

"I don't know. I don't do drugs. Do you think it does?"

It sounds kind of wired, vaguely trippy …

"There's a certain attitude that - although when you analyse it it's all baloney, just volume and entertainment - that 'yeah, THIS is what I have to say, everyone else has what they want to say, but THIS is what I have to say. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but it's all I have, and THIS is it."

So it's like a preacher testifying?

"Sure. I've been kinda affected by the charismatic Pentecostal thing, which my family was into when I was a kid in California. I grew up exposed to a lot of preaching and righteous rage, and though I've rejected the content of all that, the style has kinda left an impression on me. It certainly left me f***ed up, that's for sure."

Hence all the religious imagery. Was it a really strict sect?

"No, it was pretty American: all handclapping, heaven and hell and sin. It wasn't quiet, it wasn't Anglican. It was all 'RRRRRREPENT' and 'GOD'! I was 12 and religion came over my entire family. But it began to erode when I was about 17. No, it wasn't the influence of rock'n'roll that drew me away, I was always into rock. It wasn't forbidden, if anything they encouraged it."

The real High Priest of rock'n'roll, talking in tongues as he loves. The religion of the end of religion. And The Word was … the death of The Word.

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