The subterranean gnash of the Pixies famously inspired Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and helped usher in the alt-rock revolution. The Pixies themselves kept it like a secret. During their initial run between 1986 and 1993, they dodged interview questions about their not-especially-fascinating personal lives — if they decided to do press at all. They downplayed the more fantastical claims in their press releases, supplied lyrics that were surrealist verging on nonsensical, never appeared on their album covers, hated making videos and turned down appearing on the inaugural Lollapalooza. They boiled over with intraband tensions and fans could only guess at the causes.
Both onstage and off, the Pixies had an energy that leader Charles “Black Francis” Thompson once accurately described as “very East Coast, very introvert.” They were the least “rock” of all the rock bands that paved the path to Alternative Nation. Distinct from the arena-ready stomp of Jane’s Addiction and Soundgarden, the Pixies were nervy, claustrophobic, imploding.
Unlike the refracted heavy metal of Living Colour or Faith No More, the Pixies’ power was strangled, dissonant, arch and slightly unhinged. They weren’t wild showpeople like the Red Hot Chili Peppers or hardcore-weaned muckmakers like Sonic Youth but Beatles fans who forged a game-changing sound through cheap amps, powerful dynamics, abstract imagery, ethereal harmonies, surf-skronk and drums that sound like they’re punching their way out of Steve Albini’s bathroom.
By the time they broke up, they were the perpetual next-big-things that never got to be the big things. They could headline a night or two at any rock club in the country, grab a Letterman appearance and hold camp on the Modern Rock Tracks chart. They were huge in Europe but America never truly caught on. That changed between their final show in 1992 and their reunion in 2004, when the Pixies snowballed from awkward scene leaders to full-fledged legends that could do eight shows at New York’s vaunted Hammerstein Ballroom and nab a big font on the Coachella poster (right under avowed Pixies fans Radiohead).
Here, the mystique of “the Pixies” as an organization is somewhat pulled away as they work out their excitement, trepidation, fears, song arrangements and finger blisters.
The 2006 documentary “loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies” provides a document of that moment, not only an intimate look at a cryptic band but — more importantly — a rare view of one of the coolest bands ever doing one of the un-coolest things possible: reuniting. Here, the mystique of “the Pixies” as an organization is somewhat pulled away as they work out their excitement, trepidation, fears, song arrangements and finger blisters. The mysteries of Black Francis, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago and David Lovering are left to the viewers’ imaginations. A reporter pressing Thompson with normal interview questions gets shut down with, “We don’t talk to each other that much. And it’s not because we don’t like each other. It’s just the kind of people that we are.”
Kelley Deal, Kim’s sister and Breeders co-conspirator, says: “You know, I’ve never seen four people not be able to talk to each other. You guys are the worst four communicators ever.” Throughout, it’s obvious that they are four islands that convene onstage. This dynamic makes the live performances on “loudQUIETloud” absolutely transfixing. Lovering is the only Pixie who plays outward and extroverted, like he’s in a rock band. Thompson, Deal and Santiago all approach the stage like they’re busy having their own internal conversations. Songs like “Wave of Mutilation,” “Cactus” and “Hey” aren’t pyrotechnic; instead, they are smoldering coal. When “Something Against You” falls apart onstage, the tension rises, but the band’s emotions remain elusive, vacillating among confusion, bemusement and anger.
It’s a stunning juxtaposition between the band’s inward-looking stage presence and the audience completely flipping out. The Pixies are a band of quiet, mellow, sardonic, polite, somewhat aloof people and, on this tour, they were being absolutely adored. Ultimately this incarnation of the Pixies would last longer than the original run — Deal would leave in 2013. “loudQUIETloud” shows one of alt-rock’s most discordant bands at one of its most harmonious moments.