Pixies fans' prayers were finally answered last year, when the group returned with its first new set of studio recordings in more than two decades.
After releasing the summer single "Bagboy," the alternative-rock legends followed up in September with a four-song release titled simply EP1. Last month, the band continued to make up for lost time with a second four-song collection, EP2.
As with its predecessor, there was no advance fanfare for the new release. It was simply made available for purchase through the Pixies' website Jan. 3.
Apart from some archival recordings, limited-edition live albums and the 2004 one-off single, "Bam Thwok," the Pixies' only public presence had long been in well-received touring. Yet, as it turns out, on at least two occasions frontman Frank Black (aka Black Francis), guitarist Joey Santiago, drummer Dave Lovering and bassist Kim Deal made attempts to recapture the studio magic heard on late '80s classics Surfer Rosa and Doolittle.
According to Black, it took the return of producer Gil Norton to remove the obstacles that had doomed the Pixies' 2007 and 2011 efforts at songwriting and recording. Norton helped Black re-connect with his inner Pixie by convincing him to go "back to basics" in his songwriting.
"I think when you first start to write songs, there is a little bit of naïveté and there's a lot of simplicity," says the singer, songwriter and guitarist. "With naïveté and simplicity comes a kind of strength and a clarity. And it isn't that you're supposed to stay there necessarily, or never become more sophisticated or more complicated, or anything like that. But it must be noted that there is this clarity and simplicity with your early work.
"And by simpler, I don't mean necessarily easier to play," adds Black. "I mean in terms of the number and types of chords, and the way they transition into each other, that kind of thing. We actually have a couple of numbers in our new material that are still a little bit complicated, at least for us. But in general, there's this kind of a floaty clarity that he was trying to get me to connect with — and I just tried to satisfy it."
Everything seemed to be falling into place for the Pixies until last June, when Deal abruptly quit the band. (At the time, she'd also been touring with her reunited post-Pixies group, the Breeders, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the group's hit 1993 album, Last Splash.)
She has not commented publicly about her departure — something that doesn't surprise Black.
"We thought we had finally won her over in terms of convincing her to do new music," he says. "I guess we had, but we thought we were going to be doing a much larger body of work. And I think her interpretation of it was, 'Hey, I didn't know there was going to be so much involved.' And I can't really speak for her, [but] I've got my theories. I think that probably she just didn't want to commit to it."
After briefly considering pulling the Pixies' plug, Black, Santiago and Lovering instead recruited bassist Simon Archer (who's worked with PJ Harvey and the Fall) to record new bass parts for the songs that would surface on EP1 and EP2. Then the Pixies brought in former Muffs and Pandoras bassist Kim Shattuck for touring last year.
Shattuck, though, was dismissed recently, with Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle) signing on for this winter's U.S. tour, and perhaps beyond. Frank said there's no secret behind the change in bassists.
"You ask someone to play with you for a while, and you play," he says. "So we came to the end of a cycle and the band decided we were going to try somebody else. It's not any kind of hard feelings."
When it comes to the recordings, EP2 actually turned out to be stronger than its predecessor. "Blue Eyed Hexe" is a rocker with sharp riffs and thump that may remind fans of Trompe le Monde's "U-Mass." "Magdalena" pulls back on some of the voltage, going more for the kind of space-age atmosphere and disarming melody of tunes like "Is She Weird."
Meanwhile, the poppier side of the Pixies finds its way into "Greens and Blues" — think "Monkey Gone to Heaven" — while "Snakes" closes the EP with brisk acoustic guitar and a driving beat.
On the current tour, Black says, new songs are incorporated with old ones, and the set list changes based on a variety of factors. "For example, 'Dig for Fire,' I think that's a song that the audience always really responds well to," says Black. "But as a band, when we play it, it's OK, but I don't know if any of us really get any kind of major catharsis out of it."
In the end, the songs rise or fall just as the band had.
"If it's a song that the audience doesn't react strongly to — and we don't react strongly to it — it has a good chance of being retired."