EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT BOSSANOVA

BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK

By Martin Aston

 

 

IN CONVERSATION WITH

Black Francis – vocals, guitar, songwriter

David Lovering – drums, vocals

Kim Deal – bass guitar, vocal*

Joey Santiago – lead guitar

Gil Norton – producer

Chris Bigg (4AD in-house designer)

 

THE PROLOGUE

It’s 1989. In three years, Boston-based quartet Pixies have joined Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine at the forefront of uniquely inventive and visceral rock acts. Pixies songs were predominantly short and sharp, rife with frontman Black Francis’ fondness for melody and noise, chopping merrily between quiet and loud, their musicianship both electrifyingly taut and gleefully unpolished. Unusually for the times, when alternative rock was favouring opaque, dream-laden imagery, Thompson’s lyrics were populated with sex and religion, alternately profane, savage, mischievous and surreal. His ability to scream in tune was also notable. 

 

Having met 4AD through their friends Throwing Muses, Pixies’ released a debut mini-album, Come On Pilgrim in 1987, culled from a demo tape (later released in its entirely as The Purple Tape). Produced/engineered by Steve Albini, singer/bassist of post-hardcore trio Big Black, Surfer Rosa was Pixies’ full-length studio debut, followed by Doolittle, produced by Gil Norton, a Liverpudlian who’d broken through by co-producing Echo & The Bunnymen’s baroque masterpiece Ocean Rain and Throwing Muses’ eponymous debut album. Doolittle’s lead single ‘Monkey’s Gone To Heaven’ had reached No.5 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks, marking Pixies' US chart debut, and though it only reached No.60 in the UK singles chart, the track was a huge critic/fan favourite, enhancing and expanding Pixies’ reputation.

 

Constant touring, a constant spotlight and Thompson’s manic work ethic drove Pixies on. Not even tensions between Thompson and bassist Kim Deal could derail the band as they attempted to regroup to record a new album…

 

THE SET-UP

Tracked down to give his recollection of an album that celebrates its 30th anniversary in August 2020, the man formerly known as Black Francis has responded to COVID lockdown by going back to the land. “I’ve been hanging out in my backyard most of the day,” says the man currently known under his birth name of Charles Thompson. “There are chickens to take care of, and gardening projects. I’ve sowed a little field with beans, corn and squash, the holy trinity of American veg. I’ve just taken apart an iron trellis that was mangled by a vine. Maybe I can repurpose it, like a sculpture. But it has the potential to cause me great bodily injury!””

 

Before Charles has the chance to gouge away, he explains that he moved back to the east coast ten years ago after two decades in California. He’s in Amherst, Massachusetts, “just down the street from where Joey [Santiago, Pixies guitarist] and I went to college. I understand the West Coast but this feels more like me. I wanted to say to my children, ‘This is what we’re about’.”

 

It was Charles’ girlfriend Jean who prompted their move out West: “She wanted to escape a colder climate, so I bought a Cadillac and we drove across the country,” with Charles’ mini-solo tour paying for the trip and for furniture once they’d found a place to live. Joey Santiago and Pixies drummer Dave Lovering followed a few months later, ostensibly to start new Pixies record, but they also moved permanently to the West Coast. 

 

Dave currently lives in the Santa Ynez Valley in Southern California, amongst, “vineyards, horse ranches and hillbillies”: what he calls, “an idyllic country life,” suited to his family better than LA or Boston’s urban bustle. Joey is the only Pixies left in Los Angeles itself, and like Charles and Dave, is a parent: there’s been a lot of growing up done since Pixies’ halcyon years of the late ‘80s. But in 1989, riding high after Doolittle, the band were still in the eye of the storm, eager to push onwards and upwards. 

“It was a really enjoyable time, heading to LA,” Dave recalls. “Recording progressively got more fun and grander in terms of what was involved and the places we went, which lent to the atmosphere. Our mindset was, we’d passed the sophomore test with Doolittle, and you’re trying to survive in music, so we had to pass the junior test with Bossanova. Those years were flying, we were just pushing out record after record.” 

 

Joey knew the stakes had been raised. What with Charles packing up in Boston and relocating in LA, and the upheaval between himself and Kim Deal, the band had spent less time together than before, and Charles had less songs prepared. in addition, Joey recalls, “Charles felt more pressure because Doolittle had been so popular. People wanted another goddamn ‘Monkey’s Gone To Heaven’.” 

 

THE PRODUCER

Gil: “Before Doolittle, Charles came to my apartment for three days. I like to work with songwriters with just an acoustic guitar, to know what they’re writing and get to the soul and purity of the music. Charles got frustrated with me!”

 

Charles: “‘Steve Albini was more, ‘Yeah, let’s make a record’ as opposed to playing the songs for Gil for three weeks, eight hours a day, fine-tuning every nook and cranny. But it was a plus to have someone who liked us, our pop structures, melodies and the way we presented ourselves. Gil did polish us up a bit but he really got into what we were doing, and in the end, we agreed on takes. Gil slowed us down a bit too and made us feel cockier and more pompous about what we were playing. Like, ‘Don't just play the songs: what are you playing? Don't rush through things, be confident about those chords, and play them on time, and in tune!' It was kinda schmaltzy, which I liked."

 

Joey: “When it came to making a new album, we really didn’t want another stranger working with us. We just wanted to feel comfortable, and Gil knew the band’s psyche like no one else: the singer, the girl in the band, all that stuff. He’d say, ‘Let’s just make a record, please!’ I always joked around and just rolled with it, whatever it was.”

 

Gil: “There had been spats and frustrations, and things had got a bit tense with Kim. I had a conversation with Charles before we started, like, let’s calm down a bit, we’ll get over this. Things had been blown out of proportion given the crime committed!”

 

THE STUDIO

Gil: “We’d made Doolittle in Boston, so the idea was that they’d all come out to LA. I’d been recording at Cherokee, making [Bunnymen singer] Ian McCulloch’s solo album Candleland, so I talked to Cherokee about getting a good deal.”

 

Charles: “The circumstances at Cherokee became comical. The owners, these two brothers, were trying to screw around with our session. They had a last-minute booking from Rod Stewart, who was going to spend way more money than us, so they wanted to demote us from the A room to the B or C room. To give Gil credit, he went nose-to-nose with the brothers, they almost came to blows. Meanwhile, Rod’s guitar player is warming up in the A room playing [Rod’s disco hit] ‘Hot Legs’! We ended up moving into the overdub space sooner than we would have, but it didn’t work out because of the radio interference.”

 

Gil: “Around 6pm, we’d get this weird interference coming through the desk, I think because it hadn’t been earthed properly. We kept having to stop and we probably lost ten days of recording time. Everyone got frustrated and we lost momentum. Cherokee’s owners asked us to move out for a few days whilst they tried to sort the problem.”

 

Gil: We went to Aire LA studios, doing mainly guitar overdubs before going back to Cherokee.  At one point, they were trying to blame me, saying I wasn’t recording the guitars properly! We had to move out, but I had no other studio lined up and I didn’t know LA well.”

 

Dave: “The drums were set up in the big room at Cherokee and sounded better than anything I’d heard in a studio. It was such a downer to move out.”

 

Gil: “There was a bar called Small’s, I think on Melrose and Hyland, where Joey and I used to go with some friends. We’d bumped into [producer/ label head] Rick Rubin there before we had problems, he was a Pixies fan and he’d had asked how things were going. We bumped into Rick again and I explained what was happening, and he said, ‘My office is your office, I can help.’ The next day, he sent a list of available studios, and we ended up at Master Control.”

 

Charles: “We first moved to Silverlake studios for a couple of days, a tiny bungalow, to do a couple of B sides, but ‘Stormy Weather’ was also cut there.”

 

Gil: We had to finish at Master Control as the band had a tour booked. But they had a few days off in Berlin, so I was got summoned to finish a few things off at Hansaton studios, but mainly to record ‘Blown Away’. Hansa was amazing. This was before the Berlin wall came down. You walked out of the studio and the wall was right in front of you. The rooms were massive: the doors and ceiling must have been 20 feet high.”

 

THE RECORDING

Gil: “I had the songs for Doolittle organised beforehand but we didn’t have this same time for the next album. But we already knew each other so it wasn’t daunting. Charles had ideas, structures, chords, even some old demos. We tried out different things, then worked on Joey’s guitar parts… It evolved as we went along.”

 

Joey: “I didn’t join the sessions until it a bit later, I was partying my ass off in LA first! Charles would show me stuff, and we’ fool around a little because he knows I don’t like to come in too cold: I’m not a jammer, I can’t just hear a song and go, ‘here’s the part’. But I’d check in almost every day, to see how things were going, and they’d bounce something for me on tape, and I’d head back to my apartment and get familiar with the song, and then I’d go out to dive bars. LA was such a glossy scene; it was still heavy metal and all that ridiculous stuff, and I didn’t have the right outfits!”

 

Gil: “With Bossanova, I wanted to conjure up a cinematic image, these big sonic landscapes. The only thing was, there weren’t many lyrics, so I didn’t know what those songs were about, which can affect how you present it, to get that into the instrumentation and the arrangement.”

 

Dave: “To compare the two albums, Gil worked hard on Doolittle, to get the right sounds. There was the same amount of work on Bossanova, just not as much ‘production’. For example, we didn’t have strings like we did on ‘Monkey’s Gone To Heaven’, maybe just a couple of keyboards and a theremin.Bossanova wasn’t as wild or deep or lush as Doolittle, but more streamlined.”

 

THE TRACKS

‘Cecilia Ann’ 

Unlike previous Pixies albums, Bossanova kicked off with a cover version. The original was by The Surftones, aka Steve Hoffman and Charles "Frosty" Horton, recorded in 1964 but first released on the 1989 compilation Surf Legends (And Rumors).

 

Joey: “Charles and I would get stoned at university and listen to surf music. We’d laugh at the songtitles, how it related to the music: what came first, the title or the music? For example, Link Wray’s ‘Run Chicken Run’ sounds like a chicken with its head cut off. But we didn’t know ‘Cecilia Ann’ in those days.”

 

Charles: “Joey and I - maybe Kim and Dave too - had cassette boomboxes. On tour, we’d buy tapes at truckstops, including surf music compilations. One had this cool, original track that hadn’t been released before, which we got obsessed with, the same way we’d been obsessed with ‘In Heaven’ from Eraserhead and ended up covering it.”

 

Gil: “I like the surf-iness, and for me, it set the atmosphere and the tone of the album.”

 

Dave: “On the Bossanova tour, we’d start the show with ‘Cecilia Ann’ and a large curtain in front of the band, who were backlit so you could see our shadows. As soon as it ended, the curtain would drop and the lights would pop on and we’d go into, I think, ‘Rock Music’. It was wonderful, dramatic, kabuki theatre. Until the curtain didn’t come down a few times, which blew the whole drama! So, we stopped doing that.”

 

Charles: “Years later, I heard a piece of classical music that I was very drawn to, [French composer] Gabriel Faure’s ‘La Sicilian’. We’d purchased a share of the publishing for ‘Cecilia Ann’ from this guy, Steve Hoffman, and over the years, I got to know Steve. In 2006, I recorded ‘La Sicilian’ [adapted as ‘The End of the Summer’ from his solo album Fast Man Raider Man], and Steve thought I’d done it deliberately, because ‘Cecilia Ann’ was a play on ‘La Sicilian’!”

 

‘Rock Music’ 

Charles: “The rhythm guitar progression sounded cool and exciting, but Gil kept nagging me to sing on it. I liked it without.”

 

Gil: “Charles would go to a café next to Master Control, to write lyrics. He’d say ‘Yeah, yeah I’m getting there…’

 

Charles: “Finally, one day, I said. ‘OK, I’ll do a fucking lyric’. Gil and I had argued about something, and I was still young enough to act cocky, and maybe he was deliberately pissing me off - producers have these tricks, you don’t know you’re being manipulated! I made up a lyric on the spot, something minimalist, following the sound of syllables and consonants, like “your mouth’s a mile away’ and ‘encantuse’, a Puerto Rican phrase I’d heard a lot, meaning ‘don’t fuck with me’. It was nonsensical, and I wondered if Gil would be disappointed that I didn’t put much effort into it.”

 

Gil: “Charles put down ‘Rock Music’ in one take, he was so angry! I thought it was brilliant.”

 

Joey: “‘Rock Music’ just hangs on to one note, it’s really stupid and simple. That’s what rock music is! Dumbed down. At the end, I think Charles says ‘You slag!’, an English term. I like that.”

 

Dave: “I love ‘Rock Music’ especially because of the drum part. At the time, my drum kit was getting bigger and bigger, with too much percussion, but I turned it down for the recording. It’s a rocking song to play live, a lot of hitting and power. It’s got such energy.”

 

‘Velouria’ 

Charles: “The Rosicrucian Order was a cult in California from the early 1900s onward. They published weird books, including one about the lost continent of Lemuria, which was the Pacific retelling of Atlantis. They claimed that the Lemurians, after their world had sunk, had settled inside Mount Shasta in Northern California, which they thought was hollow. Lemuria was a play on the lemurs of Madagascar, which somehow got me thinking about fur-covered people, which sounds fetish-y, but like a beautiful catwoman. The name Velouria came from skin like velour. To me, it’s a love song to Jean, my ex-wife. She was my muse.”

 

Dave: “It’s a great song, a very Pixies song. But it was a hard song for me to work out until I finally got it. I’m trying to hold the ride, a regular beat while hitting the toms, doing a fill, which I hadn’t ever done before. After 30 years, I’ve finally got it down!”

 

Joey: “It’s an interesting song. It has a lot of half-step progressions, and that stuff scares the shit out of me because it’s hard to come up stuff like that. We had a theremin in there too, but I missed that session, dammit!”

 

Gil: “Because of the subject, I thought it would be great to have a theremin on ‘Velouria’. I rang the musician’s union in LA to ask around, and this guy [Robert F. Brunner] turned up in white trousers and red T-shirt, looking like he was a Butlin’s holiday camp entertainer! Charles played him the song on an acoustic guitar, and explained the chords, but when he said it was a C, the guy said he was wrong: it was a B. Charles was adamant, but it turned out we’d tuned the guitar down, and it was a B - the guy had perfect pitch. But he loved the song and really got involved.”

 

Dave: “I’m a huge synth fan - I later owned a theremin - so I was all for having this futuristic sound. Robert told us that he also played the theremin part on [TV theme] My Favourite Martian – cool! He was such a pro. You have to have a certain ear, an understanding of pitch, to be able to play a theremin.”

 

‘Allison’ 

Charles: It’s Allison as in [jazz musician] Mose Allison. When Pixies were starting out, I’d hang out with a friend whose record collection was vastly cooler than mine. He said to check out Mose, and I’ve been listening to him ever since. I don’t know if it’s particularly poignant, but in the spirit of the music, the lyric is short, like a ditty. I’m into ditties because they don’t have to be serious.”

 

Dave: “‘Allison’ is fun, fast and busy, busy, busy. It’s like a little power punch. I really enjoy playing it because it’s what I like about playing drums.”

 

Joey: “‘The chord progressions are very poppy. It was our accountant’s favourite song! He loved the tune rather than it would make us money.”

 

Gil: “I love the high energy of ‘Allison’, which for me looked back to early Pixies, these quick verse-chorus-verse-we’re-done events.”

 

‘Is She Weird’  

Charles: “That’s a song about Jean. She had very white skin, like alabaster. It’s not a serious song, it’s a tribute to the young-goth-girl version of herself, who she was when I first met her.”

 

Joey: “I spell out my favourite chord at the beginning. They call it the Jimi Hendrix chord, or the ‘Purple Haze’ chord, so it was a bit of a homage. I don’t know what the chord is officially called, I only know its shape. I’ve used it on almost every Pixies album. It’s very dissonant, these two notes together. It’s sometimes called ‘The Devil’s Interval’. Wagner was one of the first to compose with it, and he is associated with evil shit.”

 

Gil: “It’s one of my daughter’s favourite Pixies songs because I sang backing vocals on it. You can recognise the Scouse accent!”

 

‘Ana’ 

Charles: “It’s stoned 3am songwriting, about a fictional surfer girl. ‘Ana’ is short for anagram, but the first word of each line spells out S-U-R-F-E-R-G-I-R-L, which is an acronym, so ‘Ana’ should be called ‘Acro’!”

 

Dave: “It’s not a full-on rock song. I use lighter drumsticks now when we play it live, but at the time, I used regular sticks: I’m more educated now! Out of the 80 songs we can currently play live, ‘Ana’ gets picked regularly - maybe every other show - because it represents a different side of Pixies, and I get to use the brushes I should have used first time around!”

 

Joey: “I’ve always liked short songs. Gil would say, “This song is too short’ and Charles had a good point to make, that one song in particular, The Box Tops’ ‘The Letter’, clocks in a little under two minutes. Come on! What more do you need?” [When Charles tells the story, he cites Buddy Holly’sGreatest Hits as the example of brevity]. 

 

Gil: “Charles’ life at that point was inspired by outer space and surfing, and big panoramic images that conjure up a storyline that you can imagine and buy into.”

 

‘All Around The World’

Charles: “‘All Over The World’ was total spontaneity, just screaming and jumping around, and the end section goes into a whole other song. Gil was really pissed because he didn’t know what was going on. But I didn’t either! And in the end, it was his favourite song.”

 

Gil: “I don’t recall being annoyed by ‘All Around The World’. I’ve only ever been annoyed with the band when Charles didn’t finish the lyrics.”

 

Charles: “My inspiration was a 1970s paperback, a biography about Warhol model Edie Sedgwick, which talked about Californian biker gangs. I mixed it with something I’d read by Hunter S. Thompson, about a chronically ill biker who decided to end his life riding off a cliff in California, a romantic last act. ‘All Around The World’ is sung from that character’s perspective, between life and death.”

 

Gil: “I think ‘All Over The World’ is still the longest Pixies song they’ve recorded. Charles would never have done that on Doolittle, so it was good to see him expanding as a writer. I really like the journey it takes.”

 

Dave: “We don’t play ‘All Around The World’ live anymore. I think I had a problem with the length of those different sections, until I figured it out, as we hadn’t rehearsed it beforehand. Dynamically, it moved really well.”

 

Joey: “It’s one of my favourite tracks on Bossanova. It’s kinda ‘act one, act two, act three’. And it just goes everywhere. I think initially Charles might not have liked the way I played the fast solo, which was me making fun of the LA heavy metal scene, the how-fast-can-you-play players. There might have been a little discussion, but it wasn’t changed.”

 

‘Dig For Fire’ 

Charles: “It’s a David Byrne rip-off. I’m not even trying to hide the fact I’m trying to be Talking Heads. But I’m talking in David Lynchian phrases.”

 

Dave: “We really worked on the song. I don’t think we’d had a beat like this before. I remember we used samples for the kick drum alongside mine, to create a heavy-duty kick. If I recall, there is a fill in it, which I think is great, and I don’t think I’ve been able to reproduce it to this day! We don’t play it much anymore, but when we did, I have come pretty close. Maybe Gil put it in, to make it a little trickier. It’s got a little turnaround in it, which made it an interesting song. It’s another dynamic for the album, but it’s still a Pixies song.”

 

Joey: “The beginning of ‘Dig For Fire’ is the first and only time I’ve heard music in my head, whilst I was showering. It has a tricky time signature, which means it’s difficult to play live, but it’s a good song. It might have been kicking around for a while. At the end, when Kim says ‘Dig For Fire!’’ you hear where she’s from, from her pronunciation.”

 

Gil: “It’s one of the songs Charles already had. I tried to push them into doing something different with ‘Dig For Fire’, to make it a bit more ‘90s, more contemporary, to break away from it all being too organic. I think I went a bit mad with all the reverb! I like the vocal interaction with Kim.”

 

Charles: “When we play ‘Dig For Fire’ live, I’d say half the time it sounds shit, and I think, this isn’t a good song. But other times, for some reason we get just the right groove, the audience loves it and we love it, and I guess it is a good song! It has the weird Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde vibe for me.”

 

‘Down To The Well’ 

Dave: “It was, if not the first song Pixies ever played, then the second. We played it incessantly early on, and when I listen to the original [found on The Purple Tape], I’m really overplaying, but we did on everything then. We were just looking for other songs for Bossanova, and as it was a favourite of mine, I voiced it: I also pushed for ‘Boom Chicka Boom’, another song from back then, for every Pixies record. These were songs from when I was young, and they meant a lot. I don’t think it was because Charles lacked songs, though. It was something we could throw in, and it was wonderful to revisit. Though personally, I like the original version better!”

 

Charles: “I’m not sure why we re-did this. Maybe it’s just that you have your whole life to write the first album and six months to put together the second. And then the third. It’s not like we made demos with Bossanova the way we did with Doolittle. They [Charles didn’t specify 4AD, US licensees Warners, or both] just wanted more and more tours and records, which became crazy. Though I do like hanging out in the studio, it’s what I do. With Bossanova, I finally had the freedom to hang out a bit and obsess, to tinker, create and destroy, which is not necessarily good for record-making, but you have to get it out of your system. ‘Down To The Well’ is sort of drug-referenced: it’s a faux Velvet Underground song, like the way Lou Reed drops plain-Jane names, like Lisa and Joe. We’ve started playing it again after many years, and it feels a lot better than I thought it would.” 

 

Gil: “As one of the older sogs, ‘Down To The Well’ was a cornerstone of the album. The newer songs, we were still developing them. They were our babies that we were trying to turn into teenagers.”

 

‘The Happening’

Charles: “I like sci-fi but I’m not a buff. It started when I was a little kid, with cheesy 20th century pulp non-fiction, which is really fiction. I used to read lots of paperbacks, like on the Bermuda Triangle. There’s a sub-culture of UFO conventions, with crack-pot people on late night shows, like The Billy Goodman Happening. Billy talked about this stuff from 11pm till 2am once or twice a week. I’d drive around in my Cadillac, smoke pot and listen in. Whether I believed it or not, it was interesting stuff. The Happening is about aliens landing in Vegas, where Billy was based. It’s all about the drive of the singer, who’s desperately crossing the desert to get there, like, it’s happening! Something is being revealed, a calling.”

 

Dave: “I can’t even remember how that goes! We don’t play it. I remember its context, but doesn’t strike a chord for me.”

 

Gil: “I love the blues-iness of ‘The Happening’, the atmosphere at the start and Charles vocal, which is menacing in a cool way, and the crazy Pixies-esque backing vocals.”

 

‘Blown Away’

Charles: “I’d written ‘Blown Away’ on the road earlier, in Spain, in a hotel room. Things between Kim and I were frosty, and we were on this fancy bus, all cooped up, and we had a few days off, we were heading to a party place where there’d be loads of drinking and drugs. I told the driver, ‘You know what, drop me off at this smaller town, I’ll stay there’. It was this huge soulless hotel, but quiet. I check in, and then who comes down the walkway with her suitcase, it’s Kim! Great, so much for taking a break. And since we’d got off the same bus, they put us in rooms next to each other! To be fair, I didn’t see Kim again during our stay.” 

 

Dave: “Charles knew about Hansa’s history, about Bowie and Iggy recording there, so the studio had a lure. It was a thrill being in Berlin, and Hansa was an awesome studio. We’d been there before the wall came down, so things had changed: I collected pieces of the wall, with graffiti on it, I later gave them away as presents. What great presents!”

 

Charles: “One of the cassette tapes I bought at a truckstop was Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man - I’d never listened to Leonard before. There was something about isolation on there, which had an impact on ‘Blown Away’. My lyric was trying for a romantic, ethereal mood, using the imagery of the cosmos, a traditional rock’n’roll vocabulary, though Leonard’s music was more sophisticated than that. There was something elemental and primal and universal about his use of language too.”

 

‘Hang Wire’

Charles: “The [Rolling] Stones had a song called ‘Hang Wire’ that I discovered after I’d written mine. Heh, no biggie! There’s something about that I like. Theirs was probably better. When I hear it back now, I’m not drawn to it: there’s a little too much mass, in the way that the bars are broken up, it’s not straight four-four, four, more two-four, a little jerkier, which takes you off balance. I have lots of songs that do that, like ‘Gouge Away’, but that one’s more subtle. I probably thought it sounded groovier, but I think it’s lacking the groove I was seeking.”

 

Dave: “It’s another song that doesn’t click with me. I know we played it in the tour supporting Bossanova, but it did wane over the years, and I don’t think we ever played it after the Bossanovatour.”

 

Joey: “This has nothing to do with the song, but an album cover [Victims of the Fury, 1980] by Robin Trower - the Jimi Hendrix of England - is of a burning wire. That’s the only thing I can relate to on that song.”

 

‘Stormy Weather’

Charles: “It’s bitty and minimalist, something like [The Beatles’] ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road’. There’s no specific reference in the title ‘Stormy Weather’. Every present moment has its tensions, and at that time, that seemed like it, but it wasn’t ‘I must write a song that expresses these times’: that’s not my blueprint or aesthetic. The effect that appeals most is dictated by the music rather than me dictate to the music.”

 

Dave: “I hate to critique it. The song was OK but it wasn’t my favourite Pixies song.”

 

Joey: “The verse goes four times, but the bars change, it’s six, then five -we really have to be on our toes playing it live, but I love the song. You wouldn’t be able to tell, but there are moments where I thought I was playing Keith Richard-style, with a laziness to the tempo.”

 

Gil: “‘Stormy Weather’ feels like a song to end a gig. I like too the way it sets up ‘Havelina’ for the last song.”

 

‘Havelina’

Charles: “I’d written this surf instrumental, but I wanted at least a little something, maybe a sung chorus of just one word and a little middle eight. The lyric has its root in walking in the Arizona countryside, and coming across a little javelina [“a medium-sized pig-like hoofed mammal” according to Wikipedia] which scared the shit out of me!” 

 

Joey: “It’s a beautiful song. I like the simplicity of how Charles came to write it.”

 

Dave: “Charles wanted me to be adding fills as it went along, in odd places. I’m still trying to get my head around it! We’ve played ‘Havelina’ a bunch since the reunion. It’s a good representation for a nice sweet Pixies song, though it’s not my favourite Pixies song because I don’t know how to play it correctly.”

 

Gil: “It’s another of Charles’ cinematic songs. You can imagine being in Arizona and a wolf howling in the background. It’s an environment you can immerse yourself in. Those are the best songs.”

 

Charles: “In my mind, I wrote ‘Havelina’ for Mat Murphy, a friend of my brother, who passed away from AIDS. It was the emotional note that I needed. You have this beautiful cinematic Wild West surf-guitar track, and this ‘Havelina’, sung with a Slim Whitman falsetto, so want something with some meat on it - though I’m already pissing on ‘Havelina’ by naming it after a little wild pig running around the sage bush!”

 

THE ARTWORK

After the arresting and original imagery adorning the preceding Pixies albums – Come On Pilgrim’shairy-back man, Surfer Rosa’s topless flamenco dancer and Doolittle’s haloed monkey– the ringed planet that Vaughan Oliver chose for Bossanova was less startling: to the point that I never asked him to explain his design, including the four ‘satellite’ images circulating the planet –images of a doll, a mole, a frog and a circle of barbed wire that resembled a crown of thorns. Might they represent the four Pixies? At least I knew that the image on the back cover was a mop of blonde hair (shaped into a heart) belonged to Vaughan’s then girlfriend (Vaughan liked the shaved-head look that he also sported). But since Vaughan sadly passed in December 2019, I can no longer ask him for details, which are provided by his design associate, Chris Bigg. 

 

Chris: “For Bossanova, Vaughan conceived this Pixies world, and the globe referenced those lovely old 1940s film titles, such as Pathé News. His design also referenced ‘All Around The World’ and outer space in ‘The Happening’ so we had this otherworldly feel, but also ‘Velouria’, where Charles talked about the mystical island off the coast of California, so if you look closely, we had the US with a tiny island off the West Coast.”

 

Charles: “Vaughan was an arty guy, with opinions, so as far as I’m concerned, whatever he was going to come up with was going to be decent, stimulating, provocative and with some sort of soul. We gave him carte blanche because it was cooler to have it someone else you like do the artwork. The image mirrors the music in the sense that the three album sleeves before Bossanova has a graininess and roughness in the graphic but as the music gets gradually more produced, or maybe more shimmering, shiny and slick, so does the artwork. Charles: “I find the image a bit scary too. The deep red-orange is very lava-like, like hot embers. Digging for fire? I think so.”

 

Chris: “We had the model of the globe built – God knows where it’s gone – and then it was photographed by Simon Larbalestier, who shot all those early Pixies covers. The brief was to shoot it in colour rather than the dark, evocative, monochrome world of Come On Pilgrim, Surfer Rosa andDoolittle, to being more to the table, something that was easier on the eye. But it wasn’t meant to be red! In [4AD compilation] Lilliput is what it should have been [a paler orange planet with a purple-blue background]. Simon hadn’t worked much with colour film and didn’t process it right, so it came back this glorious red, and Vaughan thought it was brilliant, so he chose the happy accident. Vaughan gave the hair to Simon to photograph, which he did, beautifully, on a piece of velvet and next to a piece of fishing wire, a bit menacingly.”

 

Charles: “Bossanova was the first record sleeve with photos of the band [in the internal artwork rather than the front cover], which was Vaughan’s idea. I don’t know if he felt like it was time, or there was a particular photographer that he was paying homage to – maybe Richard Avedon?” 

 

Chris: “It was Richard Avedon. In those black-and-white shots [by Kevin Westerberg], there was nowhere for them to hide! I especially love the image of Charles, pulling his head to the side, sort of like he’d had enough. It said a lot about him during that time, when things were so hectic and things were getting fraught.”

 

The Four ‘Satellite’ Images

Chris: “I don’t think Vaughan intended the four images to be the band.”

 

Charles: “I don’t think they represent the band. Knowing Vaughan, he was much more about presenting characters, from the songs or what he perceived to be characters in the songs, or your songtitle. That’s my hunch, I could be wrong. Ok, so, the crown of thorns… is it me? Joey believes that all singers are either Kung Fu or karate - it’s all about the more physical leaning, like Elvis or David Lee Roth - or a preacher man, like Dylan. Is Joey the mole? I’m taking a guess. Kim would be the doll. That makes sense to me."

 

Joey: “I would be the frog. People used to lick frogs in order to hallucinate. Kim is the Velouria doll, that’s the only definite female. The barbed wire crown is what Jesus wore, and Charles is into religious music. I don’t know if the mole is Dave. But he was always into scanners, to listen in on people’s conversations, or the police. He gave me one but I couldn’t listen, it was invading someone’s privacy!”

 

Dave: “The doll has to be Kim, the only female. Maybe the crown of thorns is Charles, because of the different images that he draws on - more so a frog or a mole! Out of those two, I think I’m the mole and Joey is the frog, because he can jump around on stage whilst I can’t. So, I’m the mole. I’d say because I’m a metal detectorist! I dig in the ground.”

 

Gil: “Kim would be the Velouria doll. The crown would be Charles as he’s the leader. Is Dave the mole, because he’s the drummer, at the back? He’s a bit more underground than the others. I don’t know why Joey would be a frog. Kiss him and he turns into a prince?”

THE SINGLES

Joey: “I suck at picking singles. To this day, I don’t understand why people love ‘Monkey’s Gone To Heaven’. But ‘Velouria’ made a good single because it was a departure for us, a grown-up kind of songwriting. “

 

Charles: ‘Velouria’ and ‘Dig For Fire’ weren’t my choices. The record company and the plugger can work out whatever shit they want. All I’ll say is their choices were always too predictable, and that they were asking us to punch above our weight. Like, you’re dealing with highly commercial radio, so how can we trick everyone into thinking that Pixies fit? I always felt that we should embrace who we are and don’t try and turn us into some microwaveable pie you can buy at the service station. Let’s have more fun with it and less analysis. I’d have gone for ‘Rock Music’ and ‘Ana’: one loud and one mellow.”

 

THE VIDEOS

‘Velouria’

The video was shot in a disused quarry outside of Manchester by Peter ‘Pinko’ Fowler, co-founder of the acclaimed music series SNUB TV.

 

Gil: “The plan for the ‘Velouria’ video was to turn them into manga cartoon characters - Charles was a big comic and sci-fi fan. It would have been incredible, and groundbreaking for a rock band. But for whatever reason, it didn’t happen and Charles was really upset, to the point that he didn’t want to much promotion after that. The video was really cool but when you think what it could have been….”

 

Charles: “It started as a commercial, a minute long and 4AD would experiment with TV advertising. Pinko said he wanted to shoot us running toward him in the quarry. OK. In the editing suite, we were standing around, smoking spliffs, and he suddenly played the sequence, in slow motion, and I was just stoned enough to think, that’s a video. Slow it down and spread it over the length of the song, so it becomes a three-minute clip. I think it’s the best video that we ever did, a simple artistic idea. Videos usually bore me or drive me crazy. I love film, I love music, but rock videos? No thanks, it’s not a good format.”

 

Joey: “TV absolutely hated the ‘Velouria’ video. In turn, we loved it!”

 

‘Dig For Fire’

What WAS going on here? The band were shown getting dressed in combinations of leather before being driven on motorbikes by Hells Angels to an empty football stadium (in the Netherlands) where they performed a live version of ‘Allison’. 

 

Charles: “It was another stoned idea, to hook us up with someone hip and let them do whatever he wants. I don’t want to disrespect the director but I don’t know what his vision was or what to make of the video: the whole thing was weird to me. What I really wanted was to play ‘Allison’, so they threw me a bone. At the end of ‘the video, we play ‘Alisson’ live in the football stadium, us with wireless instruments, running around the pitch.” 

 

THE CONCLUSION

In my book Facing The Other Way: The Story Of 4AD, I described Bossanova as “one of the era’s most compelling, fiery rock records.” But then I felt ‘Blown Away’ and ‘Hang Wire’ “showed Thompson was now also writing by numbers” (as if he should be expected to keep reinventing himself without falling back on past successes) and could have been a more concise 12-song set instead of 14. But revisiting Bossanova for this Foreword, it has really grown on me, and hangs together terrifically, swooping through varying moods and timbres, with short volleys and longer journeys...Quite the complete Pixies album, in fact. 

 

Dave: “Pixies songs aren’t all that long, so 14 songs keeps up the minutes. But I know what you mean, I’m an advocate of less-is-more, quality over quantity.”

 

Charles: “I don’t think 14 songs is too long. Doolittle had 15, and that worked out. But I’m very aware now of ‘lean and mean’, a nice tight album of ten songs that kicks ass, like The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed. But our album is called Bossanova, which doesn’t sound lean and mean. The word associates with Brazil, a country with different kinds of music and food and people. It’s a mosaic of a place, and a big place. Think of Bossa Nova and ‘60s Brazilian music: it’s not played by a four-piece band. Bossanova was at attempt to serve up something varied and more complex, more of a journey. An album with oddities and flavours. Longer albums are good, but you don’t necessarily want to listen to the whole thing in one go.”

 

Joey: “Bossanova is my favourite Pixies album, for the sonic quality. I’d just bought a new guitar, a 1965 345 Gibson, and I had to use it. Before, all I had were Les Pauls that were more about power, and I discovered that the Gibson’s speciality was cleaner sounds. We didn’t discuss the sound that we were aiming for, that wasn’t how we worked, it was whatever came up. I think the songs called for a cleaner sound – it’s not like I forced it in there. I had dirty sounds in there too, like ‘Rock Music’ and ‘Velouria’, but overall, they were more sensitive-sounding sounds, and slower tempos, which don’t usually call for big guitars.”

 

Charles: “Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde are my two least favourite Pixies records, but at the same time, they have moments. They reflect a new kind of situation, sitting around and tinkering, which is a slippery slope because you’re not capturing a moment, you fiddling with that moment over and over. But it can have a great effect too, like part of tinkering is coming up with new songs spontaneously. The more labour-intensive songs are ‘All Over The World’ and ‘The Happening’. The longer tracks that are more like prog rock, with more left turns, are harder to put together. That’s okay but can you keep everyone entertained for the whole journey, is it epic and great or too fucking long and boring as shit? It’s a tug of war.”

 

Dave: “I’m an advocate of pre-production, to fine-tune everything. Not just rehearsing beforehand but playing songs on tour before recording if possible, So, I’m amazed that pulled it off in the studio with such little time. Looking back, Surfer Rosa is still my favourite Pixies album but I think that’s because of nostalgia: we were young then, and it made a big impact. Interestingly, since we reformed, we’ve been playing a lot of songs from Bossanova. I think it’s compares well to both Surfer Rosa andDoolittle, and it’s a progression following both.”

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