Shaping the sound of alternative rock
Joey Santiago is the Pixies’ secret weapon, the unostentatious man who quietly added the perfect sounds to his friend Black Francis' songs so that Francis and Kim Deal could shine on the front line. With a Les Paul on his back, Santiago shaped the alternative rock sound that would conquer the world in the 1990s thanks to Nirvana and Smells Like Teen Spirit, a song that emerged, in the words of Kurt Cobain himself, from "a blatant rip-off of the Pixies' sound.”
Santiago was born in Manila, Philippines, on June 10, 1965, but in 1972 his parents emigrated to the United States, first to New York and finally to Massachusetts. In his native country he had already discovered the Beatles, although his favorite song of the band was far from being one of their greatest hits: it was Savoy Truffle, which he loved because Harrison used his guitar to emulate a dentist's drill. At the age of nine he started playing the guitar and at 13 he attended the concert that marked him the most, one by AC/DC. Santiago went to where they were playing to see if he could sneak in and meet Angus Young, but when he was kicked out of there he discovered a library where they had a record player and a number of records to listen to. There he would discover Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass, drawing on their work to create his own style.
Eventually Santiago discovered punk and bought himself an Ovation Viper but when he graduated from high school and started classes at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1983 he didn't take it with him. He didn't expect to find many like-minded souls there, but he was wrong. His roommate, a chubby kid named Charles Thompson, had an acoustic guitar and was starting to write his own songs. The two connected immediately and Santiago introduced him to punk and Bowie. The next semester his Ovation was with him and they started playing together, Thompson writing the songs and Santiago ‘coloring them in’ with his guitar, an arrangement that would continue for the rest of their lives. From these early days came the well-known U-Mass riff, but in 1985 Thompson left to study Spanish in Puerto Rico. After six months without hearing from him, Santiago one day received a letter: "We have to do it, now is the time, Joe, we have to pursue our dreams" it said - and The Pixies were born.
After Thompson’s return they both left university and went to Boston, where in January 1986 Santiago opened a dictionary on a random page and gave them a name after reading the definition of Pixies, "mischievous little elves". Soon after they put the mythical ad in which they were looking for a bass player who liked "Husker Dü and Peter, Paul & Mary". The only one who answered that ad was Kim Deal who recommended David Lovering for the drums. It was in Lovering’s parent’s garage where they began to practice, and soon they were playing around the bars in the area. Thompson decided to find a pseudonym, something like Iggy Pop, and changed his name to Black Francis. He also bought an American Standard Telecaster from the 80's, ahead of Santiago who also wanted that guitar since he had seen it on the cover of Born To Run. So Santiago chose a Mustang but when Kim Deal took a 70s Les Paul to one of the rehearsals, Santiago started playing it and was fascinated by its vibrato, he had found his guitar, but Deal got hers back and Santiago bought the cheapest one with the thin neck he liked, a Goldtop Classic. When he plugged it into his Peavey Special the band (and all of alternative rock) found their definitive sound.
In a meteoric rise in one of those first concerts someone saw enough potential in them to record a demo, The Purple Tape, which would make its way to the boss's table at 4AD. It was March 1987 and from there would come their debut EP, the influential Come On Pilgrim. That album opened with Caribou, which is like a mini representation of everything that made the Pixies great, the quiet/loud dynamics (which would later be appropriated by Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead on Creep), Francis' surreal lyrics, Kim Deal's incredible back up singing and, of course, Santiago's excellent guitar work. His Les Paul provides wonderful textures to the song during the verses, giving it the edge and bite in the chorus. The Ep also contained other classics from the band such as Isla De Encanta, Vamos or Levitate Me, a song, which according to Santiago, was his particular way of sounding like Don't Fear The Reaper; of course that would be if Blue Oyster Cult were a punk band from outer space...
It might sound strange but that exciting sound had an audience. In the UK, the country where the EP was released, it was a considerable success, and the band would go on to find a much more receptive audience in Europe than in their home country. The next thing they did was to lock themselves in the studio for 10 days with Steve Albini as producer and record their first full-length album, the landmark Surfer Rosa. For this album, Francis had written a new batch of songs, one of which was so special that as soon as he finished composing it, he called Santiago to come and listen to it. There, in Francis’ apartment, he played the chords of Where Is My Mind? – and without thinking about it, Santiago plugged in his Les Paul and the first thing he played were those few recognizable notes that give the song its angular character. They had it, there was no need to give it any more thought. When they recorded it with Albini, Kim Deal introduced those incredible singing notes and the song already sounded like the alternative anthem it always was, with that brief and effective solo in which Santiago plays the minor scale on a major chord.
But Surfer Rosa was much more than its most remembered song, it was a masterpiece from beginning to end. From the incredible riff that opens Bone Machine around Deal’s hypnotic bass line, to the solo of the new version of Vamos, in which Albini took several phrases from different takes, and in which Santiago tried to draw on the adventurous spirit of Hendrix from Star Spangled Banner; by even throwing tennis balls at the guitar to try different ways of taking advantage of the feedback; the mark of Santiago's guitar is present all over the album. But, despite all this, or having songs like Gigantic, with Deal as co-composer and vocalist, or River Euphrates, the album still did not make waves in the USA. But, with less than two years of life, in 1988, bands began to appear that were indebted to their style, and the story of the Velvet Underground seemed to repeat itself; few people bought their records but all those who did ended up forming a band inspired by them.
In late 1988 the band returned to the recording studios for the third time in less than two years to record their third album, Doolittle; the band's masterpiece. It is the work in which their most pop and melodic sound, with clear examples such as Here Comes Your Man and Monkey Gone To Heaven, is best combined with their most raw and aggressive side, as can be seen in Tame or Dead, it is as if the producer Gil Norton was trying to achieve commercial success and they were trying to sabotage him. The album is so incredible that, after listening to it, you feel like buying an electric guitar and forming a band. The most complicated part would be finding a batch of songs like Debaser, Here Comes Your Man, Monkey Gone to Heaven, Wave of Mutilation, Hey or Gouge Away, or getting the sound from that guitar to be as original as Santiago's. Hendrix's influence can be heard on the agresive Tame again, while in Hey Santiago makes his guitar sound as if he were singing without words and in the version of Wave Of Mutilation that appears on the B side of Here Comes Your Man, a new influence appears that would be extended on the next album, Surf.
The album was the biggest commercial success of their career, making it into the top 10 in the UK and slipping into the top 100 in the US for the first time, but relationships within the band had worn so thin that when the tour was over, they decided to take a break. The main source of friction were the rows between Francis and Deal, with Santiago remaining in the background. Many have decided that this friction and the reduction of Deal's role in the band represented a downturn in their production, but I think Bossanova is still at the incredible level of their early albums. Here mutilations and incest give way to UFOs, aliens and surfing, and Santiago's guitar finds new sounds by diving into this latter genre, but the songs are still a marvel, as Velouria, the song that has made the best use of a Theremin beyond Brian Wilson and Good Vibrations, well demonstrates, Dig For Fire, his particular tribute to the Talking Heads, or Ana, a beautiful song in which Santiago returns to surf music with his winding guitar lines, four years before Tarantino brought it back into fashion with Pulp Fiction. The Les Paul is still his favorite guitar, and he now has a Black Beauty, but he has also added a Gibson ES-345 with BigSby to his sound arsenal, in addition to switching to Marshall amps.
In 1991 came his fifth work in five years, Trompe Le Monde, a much more aggressive album in terms of sound, as evidenced by the tremendous Planet Of Sound or the new take on U-Mass. It is another success for a band that seemed unable to come down from their remarkable high, but just at the time when their sound took over the world and their heirs began to sell records to millions - we are talking here about Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and Weezer - Black Francis decided that he had had enough and decided to end the legendary band by sending a fax to Deal and Lovering to communicate it. The only one he called personally was Santiago and, faithful to his anti-histrionic spirit, when he hung up the phone he said to his wife, "the Pixies have ceased to exist" and went on with his life.
His guitar would still appear on Francis’ - now Frank Black - solo albums, and he would be the hero in the shadow again when they met in 2004, but if you want to look for the key to his tremendous influence look at those first five Pixies albums and see how his work ‘in the shadows’ influenced an entire generation of guitarists. And when people say that a song sounds like the '90s, you will know that it's probably because it reminds them of something that Joey Santiago's Les Paul did in the '80s…