Dear Pixies, Stop Milking It

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As far as ads go, the new iPhone ad featuring a cover of the Pixies’ “Gigantic” is pretty charming. The laundry list of all the things featured in the commercial could rival a Stefon skit, and among them is a band of “alternative” teenagers trepidatiously tackling “Gigantic” as “alternative” teenagers have done for the last 20-odd years. The purpose is to sell $300 phones to “creatives,” but it’s not a half-bad representation of what the Pixies have come to mean in the 23 years since their last album: a badge of honor that reads, “I’m ‘alternative’ in a kinda obvious way, but at least the music is really fucking good.” It’s slightly less cool than liking The Replacements, slightly more cool than liking the ’90s bands who ripped off the Pixies in one way or another (Nirvana, Weezer, Radiohead).

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODmfmUWqlSA]

But at least the iPhone ad is upfront about its intentions: “this is for money.” We should not begrudge musicians that — this is their livelihood as much as it’s their art. There’s no royalty check for getting name-checked in NME, for influencing “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Bands that wouldn’t have existed without the Pixies have been inducted to the Rock Hall ahead of them, a trend I suspect will continue as we hit the silver anniversary of the Alternative Nation years. So I get it. It’s time for the Pixies to get theirs. But the way their new album Indie Cindy, which does not include founding bassist/co-vocalist Kim Deal, has rolled out suggests greed under the facade of art.

Since last September, every few months the Pixies have self-released three four-song EPs — 1, 2, 3 through their website as digital downloads for the fair price of $4 each. The downloads were also bundled with limited-edition vinyl going for the steep rate of $18, as well as with a T-shirt ($24). Now these three EPs have been compiled into Indie Cindy, out next week in an array of formats and combinations set to optimize sales: a standard CD; a digital download plus an expanded iTunes exclusive download featuring a bonus 13-track concert set recorded during the Pixies’ most recent North American tour; a two-disc, deluxe gatefold album on 180-gram vinyl; a limited-edition (5,000 copies) two-disc set featuring the album (CD AND vinyl), aforementioned concert audio, and a 40-page hardback book. Forget the fact that the EPs received some of the harshest critical evaluations in recent history. (Musically speaking, I mostly agree with what Steven Hyden said over at Grantland : Indie Cindy is neither good nor bad, merely forgettable, particularly by Pixies standards.) How can fans not see that this is the definition of milking it?

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1vdYTzPtKQ]

This is not exactly new for the Pixies. In the mid-2000s, when the first Pixies reunion — that’s a phrase we use now, “a band’s first reunion” — came about as a series of live shows, the band released four different live DVDs, another best-of, and one new song, “Bam Thwok.” In addition to T-shirts and old albums, the DVDs and best-of comps were what they had to offer at the merch booths on the road, where they stayed for on and off for six nostalgia-fueled years. A candid documentary, loudQUIETloud, was filmed in 2004 when the reunion started, and was released amidst the headlining festival appearances and international jaunts. The film, co-produced by Deal’s sister Kelley, revealed the grim financial reality of being the biggest critical darling band of the last two decades. Drummer David Lovering, in particular, struggled to make ends meet, taking up metal detecting and magic as hobbies-turned-professions. Before the Pixies reunion tour, he was couch-surfing, due to dwindling biannual royalty checks. He blames “MP3s and such.” Guitarist Joey Santiago described his financial situation — the whole domestic family life — as “eking it out.”

In addition to being a film about the business of being a band, loudQUIETloud is a snapshot of the Pixies dynamic. The affable Kelley Deal chides Kim for being unable to communicate with her bandmates, who are all in very different mindsets. Revisiting it now, you understand why Kim Deal is no longer part of the Pixies. “We don’t talk to each other that much,” frontman Francis Black says at one point. “And it’s not that we don’t like each other, it’s just the kind of people we are.”

When asked if they will make a new record, Francis responds, “I’m not going back to shipping and receiving.” But amidst Black’s insistence that anything could happen, Deal notes throughout that the point of the tour is not to write a new record. By all accounts, she gave it a go when the band finally convened to make what would become Indie Cindy. But soon she left abruptly, departing from the Welsh countryside where the band had gathered to record with longtime producer Gil Norton. Santiago told the New York Times that her departure took the band about three days to soldier past. “It’s time to shine,” he said. “No one is going to take that away from me.” So began the extended game of musical chairs that has been replacing Deal. (Sidenote: Deal does not necessarily need the Pixies to make money. She lives a quiet life in Dayton, Ohio, still recording and touring handsomely alongside Kelley in The Breeders.)

Is it about the money or about the credit? Both, I suspect. They want a piece of the pie they bought the ingredients for, many years ago. Admittedly, they’re nervous about it — and they probably should be. “It says to the audience: ‘I don’t know if this romance has still got what it needs to happen again. I don’t know if you’ll accept me; I don’t know if I accept you. But we have this memory. Can we do it again?’” Francis told the Times of “Indie Cindy” (the song).

I wonder if this is asking too much. Put aside the “milking it” financial bit, and just consider the mere notion of a new Pixies album being anywhere near as good — let alone “important” — as their five original albums. Modern alt-rock culture is a Pixies echo chamber, one in which deviation from the Francis-Kim loud-quiet juxtapositions is not totally embraced. It’s one thing to go to one of the reunion tours or the Doolittle tour; it’s another to commit to what is essentially a different band, under the promise that it’s gonna be the Pixies. “We should just start over with a different name,” Francis pondered, seemingly seriously, in loudQUIETloud.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDa3cY7U6NA]

Few bands have stomped on their legacy the way Black, Santiago, and Lovering have. It’s what happens when the practicality of being a person meets the reality that music is a livelihood, not just an artform. Black Francis has released 18 solo albums, and two as Grand Duchy alongside his wife, Violet Clark. He does not know how not to do this. It just so happens that his livelihood means more to people — emotionally and financially — when he does it under the Pixies’ name.