Notes on the Pixies Live at TSB Arena (10.03.2017)
The Pixies were a phenomenal band in their heyday, launching an entirely new wave of music, with Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain even admitting that one of his band’s best-known songs (‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’) was just a bad Pixies knock-off. And decades after their formation—and several years after their re-formation following a well-documented fallout-reunion-fallout (their original bassist has been replaced in their latest incarnation by Paz Lenchantin, and I’m happy to report she aced it live1)—they still brought their A-game to the show.
(Sure, yes, they have a new album to peddle.)
Seeing them play live, for the second time, canvassing a rich selection from their back-catalogue, I was palpably reminded of why their music had the incredible impact that it had in the first place. Their music is simple as far as technical playing skill goes—even I can hammer along on the guitar or bass to most tracks—but it gets interesting when you consider their sonic palette and the dynamics they’re willing to play around with: there’s their well-known and genuinely ground breaking loud-quiet-loud oscillations2, the sometimes loping and lopsided drum rhythms, the lead guitar that cuts like a rusty razorblade, the bold chord progressions, the barked and snarled or else sweetly falsetto-sung lyrics about incest and aliens and art-house cinema, and those solid slabs of bass that evoke greater feeling in three or four modest notes than some artists manage to squeeze elaborately out of a grand piano.
The point being that the Pixies wrote solid songs, and they knew how to wrangle their instruments, but they never deferred to the annals of safe songcraft when it came to the sonic and lyrical spaces they were willing to explore. Instead, they experimented with the noises and attitudes and ideas that nobody else was playing around with3 and just went ahead and did what felt interesting and right to them. At one point in the concert, the drummer, David Lovering, threw the lead guitarist, Joey Santiago, a drumstick, which Joey then used to slap at the strings of his instrument, occasionally also whacking the guitar’s kill switch to bring the buzz-saw bedlam abruptly in and out of hearing, and this all constituted his grand guitar solo, lasting several minutes. Of course, it was really an anti-solo, and something of a piss-take (particularly felt with Guns ‘n’ Roses—a rock band that is everything the Pixies are not—having visited our shores only a few weeks prior, booking out a football stadium). It was also a weird bit of noise that worked perfectly in the song simply as a weird bit of noise. And it was a lot of fun—the crowd lapped it up.
It’s nice to know that committing to your own interests and your own voice, and following them down the rabbit hole to whatever strange lands they may lead you to, can pay off. And that as long as you can justify the choices you make within the context of the thing that you are crafting—that is, as long as the thing gels, hangs together, as long as it works and avoids being lame4—then that’s perhaps all the permission you need to proceed.
I say that because, on a personal note, this concert was the ideal way to cap off the first, nerve-wracking week of what will no doubt be a rewarding but also harrowing year undertaking a Master of Arts in Creative Writing5. The concert was like a combo pep talk and shining example of ‘finding your voice’—the stuff that starting-out creative types hear about so often—all channelled through immensely crazy and lovable songs.
1 For example, taking up the vocal lead, plus of course the bass, on the encore of ‘Into the White’, which was experienced as a pure wall of sound, with the stage flooded by totally band-obscuring smoke.
2 There’s a terrific documentary about the band actually titled loudQUIETloud.
3 I’m simplifying history, but it’s true the band was doing something that felt very new.
4 To paraphrase contemporary American author George Saunders, regarding fiction writing: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write
5 Through the International Institute of Modern Letters, at Victoria University of Wellington.