In Essential Albums, our favourite artists dig up a handful of records that they consider “essential” by any definition they choose. Today, guitarist Joey Santiago gives us five classic albums that influenced the spirit of the Pixies.
There's a famous quote, often attributed Brian Eno, that the first Velvet Underground album only sold 30,000 or so copies in the first five years, but every one of those buyers started a band. Until their reunion in 2004, the same could be applied to Pixies: a genius band underappreciated in their time, but whose fingerprints - the loud/quiet/loud dynamics, sweet and sour contrast, demented absurdity - could be found on most of the groups who followed in their wake.
During a break from the rehearsals for their latest tour, guitarist Joey Santiago admits he's followed his band's influence, but argues most of it doesn't do justice to the Pixies. "To me they took the wrong angle," he says. "They don't know the philosophy we had, which is not to be influenced by anything, at least not in a direct way. So when I hear bands that emulate us it's like, okay, great, but you didn't get the point."
That puts Joey Santiago in a strange position for Essential Albums - how can he talk about the influence of bands he tries not to sound like? - but he actually relishes the exercise. Rather than specific riffs or ideas, Santiago says he integrated the spirit of those albums into the Pixies: a scraping guitar effect here, a wry musical joke there. And lately they've had to rediscover that spirit; after nearly a decade as a (mostly) live-only reunion band (longer than their initial run) they've finally put their name to some new music.
They've released two new four-song EPs - EP-1 and EP-2, with a third (called, you guessed it, EP-3) to follow this year - but there are a couple of major differences between the Pixies now and in the late '80s. 1) they're totally independent ("For an established band, working with a label in a traditional sense is really just getting ripped off," says Santiago) and 2) one of their key elements, bassist Kim Deal, is now absent. Her replacement (the second, after the here-today/gone-tomorrow run of Kim Shattuck), Paz Lenchantin, fit in instantly, and after minimal rehearsal they now have 60 songs in their repertoire. Evidence of why, he says, can be found within these five records.
Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians (1978)
Joey Santiago: There’s this atonal stuff that I really like. I like the repetitiveness of it. I've used it for some film work, but I’m still trying to integrate it with the Pixies. Just looking for the right song to do it in. Maybe "Magdalena" comes close. I use some gadgetry on that, and it's got a good vibe to it. [Lead singer] Charles [Thompson a.k.a. Black Francis a.k.a. Frank Black] and I kind of did a version of it on the intro to "Snakes." I don’t know if we succeeded, but that was our inspiration, just trying to have two counter-melodies. And trying to make it trippy. That whole album is really, really a trip. You’ve got to be in a certain mood to listen to it. And when you’re in that mood, you’re in a magic moment.
The Beatles, The Beatles (1968)
Every time I listen to it, I just find another sonic detail. Like, what’s that? Was that a dub? Was that a tape splice? It’s interesting. The production of it is so adventurous. The little studio tricks they do are very, very, very, very subtle, very psychedelic. It’s the tastiest thing. The White Album is just a great, great radio station.
There is one song that influenced me there guitar-wise. It’s pretty obvious, it’s “Savoy Truffle.” You can listen to that and figure out what I took out of it. I think it happens on every chorus, he does the bendy stuff that I like to do. You know, the [makes scraping sound effect]. You’ll hear it, I do it on “Dead” and a bunch of other songs. I believe ["Savoy Truffle"] is a song about Eric Clapton. When you’re weaning off heroin, you crave sugar. So he’s in the dentist’s office, and the guitar is the sound of the drill. I like those little jokes that bands have.
AC/DC, Highway To Hell (1979)
Highway To Hell is a classic album. And it’s funny, there aren’t any innuendos at all. It’s not tongue-in-cheek. It’s not cheesy, because they’re not hiding it. They should have just said "hey, I want to fuck you" and got it over with. [laughs] I guess there’s a little innuendo, but not too subtle.
That was one of the first shows I ever went to. I rode my bicycle down. I forget the year. Bon Scott unfortunately had just died. It was around where we are right now, Springfield. I wanted to be Angus Young, you know. Angus’s solos are lyrical. They’re not stunts, they’re not meant for speed. And the recording is just awesome. The production of it, the way the guitar sounds: nice and raw and dry. I’m heavily influenced guitar-wise by the sonics people get, the sounds. That’s first and foremost. Then the melodies they come up with. I’m just looking for that little interest in my ear that’s noticeable. Like, that. What is that? That’s an attention-getting sound. It’s not a melody, per say.
The hardest thing for me to do in the Pixies is a guitar solo. I actually don’t like it. Okay, I’ll admit it, I can’t play that fast. And I don’t even have an interest in doing it. Plus, I don’t like to do things that other people have done already. There’s plenty of speed players out there. It’s not my job to do that.
Bee Gees, Best of Bee Gees, Vol. 1 (1969)
The ‘60s Bee Gees are just the best. There’s one song in particular there that just blows my mind. It’s got this Manchester vibe. I don’t even think they’re from there. It’s a song called “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You.” That is psychedelia. It’s so cool, and it’s eerie, and then it breaks into this chorus that just reminds me of the Manchester movement. It goes for this very modern thing, and then bam, just cuts out. Very strange and psychedelic, very eclectic.
I like this collection of these greatest hits. I like their albums, too. But this is the one I have on my iPhone, and I listen to it constantly. I love it. I just love it. I grew up listening to Bee Gee’s. “Massachusetts,” “Holiday,” “I Started a Joke” – that’s such a sad song. [sings] “I’ve got to get a message to you.” My god. I love it.
Velvet Underground, VU (1985)
The vibe I get off VU, because I recently went through a breakup, is a great breakup album. It’s my version of liking Rumours or Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood. So that’s my recent inspiration for it. Other than that I just like the album, but it just dawned on me, it seems to have a common thread of breaking up with someone.
There's a famous quote that everyone who bought a copy of Velvet Underground's debut started a band. The Pixies seem to...
Wait, did they say that about us or the Velvet Underground?
Velvet Underground, but there seemed to be a similar story attached to you before you reunited.
Well, it's exactly that. When I listened to the Velvet Underground it was like "shit, I want to start a band like that." It sounds very accessible to a musician that’s going to start out. It’ll also weed out the riff raff. There’s another quote that someone, maybe Evan Dando said it: “I don’t trust people that don’t like the Velvet Underground.” If someone doesn’t like them, there’s no reason to be in a band with them because that’s part of the language that we’ll revert to. If they don’t get it, it’s like really, let’s just forget it. If they’re repulsed by it, "alright, neeeext."