Pixies are back with their eighth album, Doggerel, which finds the legendary alt-rock band exploring new sonic landscapes. With the album set for release on Friday (September 30th), Consequence caught up with frontman Black Francis to discuss the LP and more.
Doggerel was recorded during the pandemic, with Francis having written 40 new songs heading into the sessions. The album also features the first writing credits from guitarist Joey Santiago, who co-penned the music for the single “Dregs of the Wine” as well as a few lyrics for the title track.
With Doggerel, Pixies have now released as many albums (four) in their current era as they did in their initial run from the late ’80s to the early ’90s, during which they released four classic LPs in four years — including 1989’s Doolittle, which landed in Consequence‘s recently refreshed list of the 100 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Pixies are playing a handful of US shows surrounding the new album’s release, beginning with an October 1st gig in San Diego and wrapping up with an October 5th show in New York City, with tickets available via Ticketmaster.
In our conversation with Black Francis, he spoke about how the pandemic affected the writing and recording of Doggerel, dug into a few of the new songs, explained why The Velvet Underground and The Grateful Dead are actually similar, and discussed the band’s prolific musical output over the past decade, among other topics.
Pick up the new Pixies album, Doggerel, here, and read our interview with Black Francis below.
How much was the writing and recording of Doggerel affected by the pandemic and the socio-political events of the past few years?
Black Francis: Well, the best way to make some sort of commentary on the present, on where you are in time, is sort of in the now. I tend to not like to do that. But I think if you keep the lyric sort of open-ended enough it’s almost like you don’t have to. There’s a song from this record called “Thunder and Lightning,” it’s a very minimal lyric, but one of the lines is something like, “They started a war today in another land/ Everything went the way that it all was planned,” right? Now, I compose that song, probably in the period of like December of last year, right? So that was done in December. Now, there had been no military activity that would have been on my radar in that part of the world you know, that I would have been following. I mean, I follow international news quite a bit. But, basically, I wasn’t sitting around going like, “Oh, my God … the Russians are gonna invade Ukraine.” I wasn’t thinking about that, but then by the time the record got recorded, and mixed or whatever, of course, that was the big news story, right? So it’s almost like I wrote it for the moment but I didn’t write it for the moment. I wrote it for some other kind of moment, maybe. But I kept it open-ended so that it wasn’t locked down into the calendar. Some elements of universality, I guess, is what I’m referring to.
And the song “Dregs of the Wine” is quite unique, in that Joey Santiago has a writing credit on it, and it has a bit of Who vibe to it …
BF: You mentioned the pandemic. So I suppose that that song, probably the arch of it was that Joey had started to work on the music for it back in Los Angeles, before we had gathered together to make the record. And Tom Dalgety, the producer, he was the first one in our pack that was kind of traveling around a lot and doing work. So he was flying in and out of the United States right after we got vaccinated, because he was working on a record in L.A. with The Cult, and also some other band, I think, on the East Coast. So he was going in and out of New York and in and out of L.A. And so when he had a day or something, he would get together with Joey, or he would get together with me if he was on the East Coast. So, I think Joey initially presented the music to Tom, and then Tom eventually presented the music to me, and so while Joey and I weren’t in the same room, there was a couple of threads that he and I have that that we just sort of picked up on right away. You mentioned The Who, that is a reference that we have worked with before and I suppose, musically speaking, the way that he began to arrange this music with Tom, it had a lot of parts.
This is how the Pixies put together music … forget The Who, the main metaphor that we use is a sandwich, and it’s how you stack the sandwich. That’s how we think about pop music. Now, there’s other ways to think about pop music, but the way that we think about it, is in this very blocky, kind of sandwich-y kind of way. And so the different sections, the A section, the B section, the C section, oh, we’ve got a D also, we’ve got onion on this sandwich. So you start to think about it as kind of like our like widgets that you can move around in a different sequence, right? So basically, sometimes the song requires some more, I don’t know how to put it, classical music or kind of theatrical kind of arrangement. As the great Charles Mingus one said, the jazz musician, he was commenting on the sort of more experimental space of John Coltrane, right? So you got John Coltrane, who’s doing this other thing, which is very performative, right? And it involves a lot of improvisation, but Mingus, as chaotic as some of his recordings are, they’re very arranged, right? Because he was more of, as I would term it, he was more of a sandwich stacker musician, not to compare myself to Charles Mingus. So for him, a certain type of playing, to him that was just jamming. He wouldn’t call that composing. Now, Coltrane, I think, was trying to take something that was more improvisational, and I don’t know, making it the composition, I suppose. But, you know, Mingus has all this big band kind of background, playing with Duke Ellington and stuff. And so there’s a lot of arranging going on.
So, anyway, the reason I’m bringing all this up is Joey had a few sections on this song. And so what we did was we arranged it or they arranged initially, but I knew what they were doing. What they’re doing is they’re following a kind of rock opera kind of vibe that you would get from The Who, in a song like “Baba O’Riley.” There are other songs like this from other artists, there are a couple of songs by Roy Orbison that do the same thing. And that music is arranged in a way that it sort of feels like you’re listening to pop music, kind of like verse, chorus, verse, chorus, you know, like you might hear in whatever “The Monster Mash” or something, a Buddy Holly song or whatever. There’s something that has that kind of art. First, we go here, then we go there, then we go back to here, then we go back to there. And it’s that’s the kind of the vibe right? Repetition, right? Syncopation with repetition. And so there are some arrangements, though, that, that take on a more flourished kind of attitude. And so “Baba O’Riley” does this in a really wonderful way.
And so … I approached the vocal and the lyric in just more like a Pete Townshend kind of approach, for some of it anyway. And there are other things that I heard in the music, too. I hear Joey just echoing other Pixies songs in terms of the headspace, and when I say the headspace, I guess what I mean is we’re still working mostly with four-four timing, but although there is something that’s not four-four at the bookends. …. But anyway, I digress. Yeah, we went for kind of a “Baba O’Riley” thing. And so I don’t know if we’re trying to literally sound like The Who or it’s just sort of like a little bit of a cue, that kind of thing.
The title track, “Doggerel,” features you experimenting a bit with your voice, even giving off a Tom Waits sort of vibe at one point …
BF: Well, it’s probably just a tendency to want to occupy the lower end of the register. As I get older, I’m still able to mostly do my upper register voices … But it’s also a lot easier for me to get into a lower vocal range headspace partially because I’ve been singing a lot longer so but also I’m older, there’s more wear and tear on my voice. So my voice has more resonance in the lower register. So I might try something that maybe is reminiscent of say Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen or something like that. I might try something in the lower register and see if I could get away with it, right? So, “Doggerel,” though, that song was tried a lot of different ways. It was tried with different music , with different words, it was like a couple of different songs that kept cross-pollinating into each other. And anyway, so the vocal approach kept changing as well, as well as the range, the arrangement on that song kept going on right to the very end of the session, and we had already been fooling around with the arrangement of that song way early on in the demo. So that song is a song that got messed around with for, like, six months. And then so what you hear on the record is sort of just a snapshot of where we finally ended up with it. And we decided and ended up in a couple of different places that I had no idea that it was going to end up in a sort of more pop-rock set, rock ballad kind of way. It was kind of interesting, but so that worked for like the end as the last song [with] big power chords and a nice melody.
The song “Haunted House” is also very intriguing, in that it has a ’50s doo-wop vibe to it. If you can speak on that one, as well?
BF: Well, there’s a lot of chord progressions in ’50s music, but I feel like some of the better examples of that would be in doo-wop. … I mean, there’s rhythm and blues music, but the way that a lot of 50s music and doo-wop music, I think, and then some of the jazz people of that era, I suppose there’s the influence of … certain classical music of the late 19th century. Anyway, there’s a whole thing with doo-wop we could go down the rabbit hole with here. But anyway, I think that if there was a singer, that I was trying to channel when I was trying to write the lyrics to that song and find the vocal character for the song … it would probably be the singer Del Shannon. And while he’s not known for doo-wop music, per se, his music … is really the early ’60s. But of course, a lot of early ’60s music, while it was very quickly taking on a lot of other influences, like psychedelic music and that kind of thing, it was very rooted in a lot of ’50s music, like doo-wop music and girl-group music and that kind of thing. The Ramones exemplify, they echoed this era quite well in their repertoire. But anyway, so as far as the doo-wop background vocal parts, I think that’s just kind of a loose thing that Tom the producer put on there … to give it a kind of a pastiche, if you will, which is what you hear in a lot of early ’60s recordings. The pastiche is always changing you know what I mean? But you hear the blueprint of what came five or 10 years before, you know?
Anyway, I feel like a lot of artists sort of portray the era in which they were born or when they grew up. And you can hear, for example, for me, you can hear the similarities. People always talked about how different the Velvet Underground are from the Grateful Dead. But I would argue that if you were to listen to some recordings by the Velvet Underground, and some recordings, by the Grateful Dead, especially live recordings, and of course, there are great examples of live recordings from both bands — but if you listen to live recordings of both bands, you can totally tell that they all grew up at the same time hearing the same, probably folk records and stuff like that were available in the late 1940s and throughout the ’50s, and a lot of rock ‘n’ roll records, of course, from the ’50s. There’s a very big influence of all of those records. And it’s in the DNA of both bands’ music. And even though yes, there are these great aesthetic differences between those two artists, from a musicological point of view to me, what’s really fascinating is the commonality between those two artists based on what they were exposed to early on in their musical journey.
Following the band’s reunion in 2004, there was a long period where you didn’t put out much music, aside from a lone single (“Bam Thwok”), but over the past eight or nine years, Pixies have been quite busy in the studio, releasing four new albums in that period. What has inspired the band to be so prolific over the past decade or so?
BF: Well, I mean, you mentioned inspiration, but we’re not looking for inspiration to make records. I think that you’ll find out that all of us got inspired to sort of be involved in the making of records, at least in the observation of the making of records by other people, at a pretty young age. So we all are fans, if you will, of records. And so as a working musician, you’re looking for opportunities, right? To not only do your art but to get the art to pay for itself, to pay for itself so that you can just make art, right? So actually a bit more than pay for it. So pay for itself and pay your rent, or your mortgage, or your alimony, or your college funds, or whatever it is that you got to pay for in your life. And that’s because, as musicians, we don’t want day jobs, right? If we have to have day jobs and become weekend warriors and have it be a part-time thing, so be it. There’s nothing wrong with that. And that’s probably what I’d be doing. But since I’ve been about 20 years old, I’ve been a full-time musician. And that’s all I’ve done. And I’m pretty happy with that. And that’s basically the goal of most musicians, I think, if you talk to them anywhere in the world, what would be the best situation for them, the best situation would be for them was would be for them to be able to explore their art, have the art pay for itself, but also pay them enough dividends that that’s what they can just focus on, it would be truly patronized, right? That’s really the goal of any musician. There’s a kind of a misunderstanding, I think, if you don’t mind me saying, from the sort of, I don’t know, the outsider’s point of view … that the artist is sitting around waiting for fucking lightning to strike. You know what I mean? Sometimes lightning does strike and it’s good, right? And that’s fun to talk about how the situation was just beautiful and perfect and we came up with this amazing recording, or we played this amazing show, or whatever you know I mean, lightning strikes, and it’s a beautiful thing. But the main thing that as a musician, we’re not looking for inspiration, we already got that, we already got tons of that. I don’t need any more inspiration, I’m ready to go. I’m looking for opportunities to do my craft.
And so as far as making records is concerned, it’s like we’re just looking for the opportunity right now. A lot of bands have the opportunity if they have a live fanbase. If they have some people that’ll show up and go see him in a club, or wherever they play, you can make contact with those people. There’s a whole world of people out there, they want to go out tonight, and they want to see a band. Okay? That’s the world. That’s the world that the Pixies originally came from. When we first started out, before we had a record out, we were just some local band, we working in the warehouse, unloading trucks or whatever we were doing, tending bar, doing shit like that. At night, we were playing in clubs, because it was a bunch of kids hanging out in bars. Some of them were college kids, some of them were just Bohemians, but they’re all hanging out in the bars at night, trying to get laid, trying to check out the music, trying to be cool, trying to figure out their scene, right? And so that’s what we were focused on was how do we do more of that and then the next step after that is you get to do that in all the towns, you get to go do that in Amsterdam, you get to go do that in New York, whatever, and so and then you do it enough that it’s like, “Oh, we got enough money to put gas in the van and to give everyone a couple hundred bucks,” and “Oh, look, now we got a record out and now we got a few thousand bucks and now everyone can pay their rent” — and you become a working musician and that becomes your lifestyle, it becomes your whole world. So yeah, we’re making records. It’s like, yeah, no shit we’re making records because we gotta go on tour to say hello to the nice people. We gotta go say hello to the nice people. Sell a few T-shirts, play a few shows … I mean you know, let them know we’re still alive: “Yeah, we got a record, man. Here we go, here’s a few songs from the new record.”
We just did three months of shows in Europe, and I mean, half the shows were people that held on to the tickets from like two years ago. You know what I mean? That got canceled because of the pandemic and everything. And so everyone’s like, “We’ll hold on to our ticket, we know you’re good for it.” And yeah, we were good for it, we came back, we played the shows, they came, it all worked out. And that’s a nice thing, you know, we have an arrangement with our patrons. And that arrangement is that I show my face once in a while and rock out in some club or theater or shed or wherever it is, wherever the gig is, and play some of the old tunes because, you know, some people like those ones — some people like them the best, right? I get it. We like playing them, it’s no problem. We’ll play some of those, we always do. And we’re gonna play some of our weirdo songs. We’re gonna play some of our new songs. We’re gonna play a couple of cover songs, maybe that I’m obsessed with or whatever. We’re there to enjoy ourselves, as well.