Book Review/Interview: Pixies

Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies
By Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz
Published by St. Martin’s Griffin
$14.95/316 pp.
Review by David Chiu

I couldn’t stand Pixies when I was a senior at Brooklyn Technical High School. Not because of their music (although I only heard one song, “Here Comes Your Man).” It was just that everyone in my circle of friends was playing Trompe Le Monde and I either didn’t want to join in their bandwagon or get it (I was still listening to Led Zeppelin and Foreigner back then). In retrospect I wished I did because now I feel like one of those ‘Johnny come lately’s’ who saw how the roots of alternative music from the ‘90s to today were planted firmly by the Boston-based quartet. Grunge would have never had happened had it not been for Pixies.

This new rock and roll biography about Pixies doesn’t let you forget how influential and revolutionary the band was then and now. A lot has been written about the band but no one had the exclusive access that was granted to Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz on Fool the World, an oral history that includes interviews with the principals—singer/guitarist Black Francis (Charles Thompson), bassist Kim (Mrs. John Murphy) Deal, guitarist Joey Santiago, and drummer David Lovering—along with reminisces of countless colleagues and friends (Kristen Hersh, Chas Banks, Gary Smith, Tanya Donnelly, etc.).

In conversational detail, Fool the World traces the band’s entire career: playing at Boston’s the Rat in the early days; the recordings; the final days leading to their demise highlighted by opening for U2’s Zooropa tour; and the recent 2004 reunion. In between are details about the recording of their classic albums such as Bossa Nova and Doolittle, working with producers Steve Albini and Gil Norton, and being lionized outside of their home country, particularly in England.

For a band whose music reveal an eccentric and wild persona, the members of Pixies come across as quite an ordinary bunch—other than the usual personality clashes, one can’t find the backstabbing, heavy drugs and shady record company people that have been the norms in rock and roll and in tell-all books. Rather, they were just ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The authors let their subjects freely speak about themselves the music and the scene without an agenda, and they piece everything together quite cohesively.

The die-hard fans will probably find it difficult to put the book down as they discover or rediscover a Pixies album, song, or gig that is dear to them. Even the authors would probably agree, however, that those who really want to seek the essence of the band should get several of the albums. When I finished the book, I went straight for the Death of the Pixies compilation and heard the magic in songs like “Debaser,” “Monkey Goes to Heaven,” and “Gigantic” and thought, ‘Why didn’t I catch on with this sooner?’

NewBeats spoke to the authors of Fool the World: Josh Frank, founder of Mind Over Money Theater Festival and the Theater-less Theater Co.; and Caryn Ganz, a journalist and former associate editor at Spin magazine.

How did the idea of wanting to do a musical about Frank Black (a.k.a. Black Francis, a.k.a. Charles Thompson) and Pixies come about and why?

Josh: Much like the book, it was a very organic thing. I was working in the rock musical world [on ‘Love, Janis,’ the musical based on Janis Joplin]. I started thinking, Okay, what if I did a rock musical for my generation? I immediately thought of the Pixies. I grew up on their music. Their music represents the bare bones [rock] infused with fantasy that made it all so surreal. I started thinking about it and going over it in my head. I was still very impressed with what they were doing solo-wise.

Originally it was, ‘Let’s see if I can do it.’ I called up [Frank Black’s publicist] and then the next thing I knew he agreed to meet with me in L.A. for martinis. So I’m telling him why I was doing this. Charles was [thinking] ‘If he could talk Werner Herzog into doing something I don’t see why I shouldn’t let him talk me into it.’ The next thing I knew I was starting to go around and interview them which led to other people and other people.

The book came out of that. I got overwhelmed [with the material].The story is not about the band—The only way that their stories made sense was the 80 or 90 people who were around them all these years.

I’m very good in finding the true dramatic elements in a story. I come from a theater background, so I’m really good with narrative and finding the drama in real life, so I needed someone who is a good journalist who can make it all make sense.

Caryn: [Josh] has so much passion and enthusiasm that I knew that it was going to take us pretty far. I just gave him pointers but he was so excited, that I wasn’t really worried about [the project]. I had a lot of contacts, so that was definitely beneficial.

What was it like talking to Pixies? How were they like when you interviewed them?
Josh: What was really interesting about meeting the Pixies themselves—to me this is an interesting story and interesting spin on an otherwise over-articled band—I myself got to spend time with them when no one else did. My talk with each member was in 2001 and 2002. It’s safe to say I was the first before the reunion thing to really have each of them talk to me about the band openly.

Kim seem like the most grounded of all of them. When I was 16 years old she was the woman I wanted to marry. I heard these horror stories…I was so nervous that I waited ’til the last minute to contact her. She picked up the phone and the first thing out of her mouth was, ‘Okay Josh, why am I the last to hear about this project?’ I am sweating like a pig on the phone. I wanted to die. I flew out to Dayton, Ohio and spent an entire day with Kim and Kelly, and it’s probably one of the highlights of my early life.

Charles was the same. I heard he’s very confrontational and bored. We spent the first hour talking about our personal trainers and just life. Talking to him…he was just the normal guy in the world, and also gracious. They were all such gracious hosts. I was so humbled by that—it made me want to do right by the whole thing.

The book doesn’t follow the typical ‘tell-all’ approach of most rock biographies.
Josh: This [story] is about normal people who do amazing things. We seldom hear about normal people who do amazing things. I think people always wanted to make the Pixies bigger, crazier, fucked up and dirtier than they actually are.

Caryn: The Pixies were not a crazy rock and roll band, which I was actually a little bummed out to discover while working on the book. I think it because the lyrics were so wild…you think of a band that’s had some crazy partying. In truth, they were very calm [and] happened to write some of the coolest music ever.

Josh: It fueled me to really want to dig deep and to find out about the other subtle truths about them and the world they grew up in. So that led me to the other group that was surrounding them. What was amazing that was finding Simon Larbalestier, who did the photographs, and finding Steven Appleby who did the cartoons. That’s why I featured Steven Appleby’s cartoons in the book. I think it was such a coup that he agreed to do new cartoons to illustrate the story. Simon and Steve are great examples of all these crazy people who ended up looking like.

Caryn: We felt it was a good way of telling the story letting us step out of the way. I thought it would be better for the readers. I really think we were as objective as humanly possible.

Did you have an inkling that the band was getting back together again in 2004?
Josh: No. And I wasn’t really thinking about it and I didn’t care. That’s the other thing, I didn’t mourn that they weren’t around anymore…that they grown up and moved on. What happened was when I sat down with Chas Banks, the European tour manager, maybe 9 or 10 months before the reunion, and he said, ‘Off the record you can’t say anything about this, but I should let you know that you are a lucky boy with very good timing. There is a possibility they might play again.’ I e-mailed my book agent and said, ‘Is there any chance of speeding up the release date of this?’

Caryn: We were definitely missing some things…after the reunion was announced, we were like, “Argh!” We both picked up a bit of other Pixies transcripts from other people who interviewed them most recently, like Marc Spitz. He was willing to donate I can’t even tell you how much transcript. Stuff like that really made a difference. I don’t feel like we were missing them ever. It was just luck.

What did you come away from the experience?
Josh: It was incredibly humbling to meet them—to meet people who were so far away from you. Like, ‘Who are these people? What planet do they come from?’ And to find yourself that you are actually on the same planet with these people and you guys have both personal trainers and like drinking martinis and dressing up for no apparent reason. That’s pretty amazing.

The reason I was able to get all this because I was not a journalist. I didn’t have an agenda. And I love hearing the stories from people who inspire and finding myself in that person.

Caryn: This is really everything you wanted to know about the Pixies.

What has been to the reaction to the book?
Caryn: Pretty positive…I’ve been really happy. John Murphy was one of the first people to get in touch with me. I knew he really liked it. I haven’t heard anything from the Pixies. Even if they didn’t like it, they didn’t go public with it.

How do you explain the continued popularity of Pixies’ music?
Caryn: You could make a strong argument that they were a forerunner to grunge. I think it has an incredibly weird energy that I think especially captures young people. In the late ‘80s, it was a definitely slick pop rock time. And then came the Pixies…totally raw. I think it captured a lot of people’s imaginations. People in the book say that [the music] doesn’t sound dated, and I totally agree with that too.

So is the musical still a possibility?
Josh: This is the kind of reason why it was good it turned into a book. Imagine if I had taken the musical all the way and in 2004 and it was ready to open off Broadway and they had gotten back together. Do you think someone would rather spend $40 to see the Pixies again live and play their songs or coming to my musical and seeing actors telling their life stories with their music? The reason I wanted to do the musical because it was lost history. I think everything happened the way it was meant to because they got back together. You can’t write a musical about a band’s history because they are still making it.

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