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Tour turns out surreal for Pixies

Reunited, they find themselves far more popular than when they parted a decade ago.

September 24, 2004|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

David Lovering, the Pixies' drummer, fanned out a deck of cards. "Pick one," he said, then shuffled them, turning some face down and some face up. He spread them out in the floor of the band's dressing room at the Greek Theatre, all facing up now except one -- the chosen card, the jack of diamonds.

There's magic and then there's magic. A couple of hours later Wednesday night, Lovering, who put his drums in storage five years ago when he began studying sleight of hand, was pounding out the beats in front of an enraptured crowd.

It was the first L.A. date of the reunion tour whose success -- not to mention very existence -- has caught everyone by surprise, from the band's fans who never expected to see them again to music-business bean counters to the Pixies themselves.

"Usually when a band gets back together they can achieve the peak numbers that they achieved at the height of their popularity," the band's agent, Marc Geiger, said Wednesday. "This one's eight to 10 times their peak. So it's kind of like a $20 bottle of wine that went up to $500."

The Pixies' original run went from 1986 until 1992, when leader Frank Black (then known as Black Francis) pulled the plug, burned out on the touring and recording pace and personal tensions in the group, especially between him and feisty bassist Kim Deal. They never sold a lot of records, and by the end they had barely penetrated the mainstream, but rarely has a band become so venerated in retrospect as a revolutionary force.

"I didn't want to get locked into a specific time," Black said Wednesday before the concert, speculating on why the Pixies music has aged so well. "A lot of the Pixies repertoire is in the spirit of 'Jabberwocky.' There's a lot of wordplay and stuff. That's not to say that the songs are all meaningless, but a lot of it is just rhyme schemes and language....

"I took some avant-garde film classes in college, and reading about the French Surrealists ... I think something inside me said 'I am a surrealist.' ... I think sometimes our stuff is timeless because it's just floating out here."

Black, Lovering, Deal and guitarist Joey Santiago came out of Boston with a disquieting mix of psychodrama shrieks and eerie, edgy elegance. They combined punk and pop, harshness and hooks, surf-music tones and arty overlay, creating a template for the alternative rock that would take over the '90s.

Endorsements piled up, from David Bowie (who recorded their song "Cactus" on one of his recent albums), Bono (U2 took them on the road as an opening act), Radiohead's Thom Yorke and, perhaps most famously, Kurt Cobain, who said he patterned Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the Pixies formula.

Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl was one of many musicians on hand Wednesday to pay homage and take in the 30-song blitzkrieg, which the band frequently stitched together like a suite, with barely a pause between numbers. The set, loaded with such fan favorites as "Bone Machine," "Waves of Mutilation," "Debaser" and "Where Is My Mind," unfolded with bracing precision and power.

With two nights at the Greek and an upcoming show at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, the Pixies have vastly multiplied their original audience here during their time off, which has been the pattern on a tour that began in April, hit its stride at the Coachella Festival in May and now goes into December, when they close with six shows at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York.

"Since the last tour, that's 12 years of rock generations," said Black, whose real name is Charles Thompson. "That's like two big waves of people that got into that band after we broke up.... The records have stayed in print. Maybe they heard about it from their older brothers, maybe it's been a staple of dormitory record collections.... It doesn't hurt to have people like Bowie and Yorke dropping your name....

"But it's happening because it's happening, and there's no real tangible reason for it. It's complicated, whatever the reasons are. It's just happening and I accept it, just like I accepted the low blows and the leaner years.... I'm just happy that the rest of the band wanted to do it and it worked out."

It certainly came as a surprise to Black's bandmates, though they knew there were always lucrative offers on the table. Post-Pixies, Black had sustained a cult-level audience, while Deal hit commercial pay dirt with the Breeders before that band's day passed. Santiago has a group called the Martinis and is trying his hand at soundtrack work, and Lovering became a professional magician.

"I didn't think it was ever gonna happen," Santiago said backstage. "Charles would be the person to initiate it, and I thought he was so far removed, there's no way" it was going to happen. "So when he called, it seemed pretty surreal."

Black, who recently divorced and began a new family, says candidly that the money was an incentive, but there were other factors as well.

"Just getting older ... I started therapy and I think that kind of mellowed me out a little bit. I became a much more easygoing, relaxed person.... It isn't exactly the same, but there is something about it that's like it was in the beginning that's got us all grinning."


The Pixies

Where: Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, 8808 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine

When: 7 p.m. Oct. 23

Price: $15-$39.50

Contact: (949) 855-8096

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