Released in March of 1988, The Pixies
' first full length album Surfer Rosa
went on to become a musicalbenchmark. With its lo-fi sparse and dry sounding textures, gritty guitars and unadorned vocals and underscored by a bevy of offbeat lyrical matter, it also went on to lay the ground work for what later became the Seattle grunge sound. Kurt Cobain
held the album in such esteem, he used it as a templatefor Nirvana
. Later Cobain
also employed the services of Surfer Rosa
's producer Steve Albini
to produce Nirvana
's 1993 outing In Utero
. In the UG's continuing classic album series, Joe Matera
catches up with Pixies
lead guitarist Joey Santiago
to discuss the making of the album and its musical legacy.
UG: Let's start by first discussing the background to the songwriting process for the album, with Black Francis having written most of the material, what sort of input did you have?
He [Black] would present to us the songs and then in our rehearsal space or practice room or David's garage, we would just bash them out. But everybody would put in their two cents worth. Guitar wise for my parts, I would go home and figure out something really simple and something that had some little trick to it. And then I would present it to the band and hope that they would like it. And if they didn't, then we would change it around. But we would do that with everybody not just with my own parts, like we would do it with Dave's [Lovering, drums] parts, and with Kim's [Deal, bass] parts. The reason I went home to work out my guitar parts, was that I didn't want to put everybody else through a looping cycle just for me.
The songs weren't your typical pop themes I mean, there is everything referenced from religion to blood lust in there. Was Black very conscious of his lyrical approach?
"We had read horror stories out there that said that some people took years to make an album. But the ten days seemed like enough time for us anyway."
I really think Black was very conscious of the lyrics he was writing. Those types of lyrics were certainly not common in the pop world at the time that is for sure.
Do you remember what the initial budget was for the album?
It was around $10,000 if I remember correctly, though I know it was shockingly low compared to other album budgets at the time. And even though it was low, we still came right on budget. That is because we had practiced really hard, and had done all our preproduction ourselves prior to entering the studio. Then we just went into the actual studio and basically Steve Albini [producer] went about archiving us in the way that captured us as a band playing in a rehearsal room.
Were there any other tracks recorded during those same sessions that didn't make it on to the album?
I'm not sure if there were any leftover tracks, but I'm pretty sure that we decided to record only what was going to appear on the album.
How long did this album take to make, recording wise?
It took us ten days, and that was a very short time. We were doing shows with these songs already, so we had already tried them out in front of the audience. But for us we didn't really have a gauge on how long an album usually took. We had read horror stories out there that said that some people took years to make an album. But the ten days seemed like enough time for us anyway. And the mixing didn't take very long either.
The album was recorded at Q Division studios. How did you and the band approach the recording sessions?
I had my Peavey Special which Steve gladly recorded and though we also had some Marshalls, we used the Peavey for the most part. I also had various distortion, overdrive, and delay pedals, and a wah wah. We just tried to bash it out live in the studio and then at some point, Dave and Kim would want to lock in so they would play together and Charles [Black's real name] and I would add on our stuff later. So we would record it live, and then at times, tighten it up once we got the arrangement down, where we would then fine tune it from there individually. I remember we did do the recording on a 16 track, one inch tape machine. I mainly played a Les Paul Goldtop, a 1960 Classic re-issue, and Charles had a Tele, a blonde 1980s American Standard Telecaster and a Vox AC-30. I also utilized an open E tuning on Oh My Golly because I had to do a slide bit and it was easier to do it in an open tuning than use standard tuning.
What did producer Steve Albini bring to the recording process?
Well we didn't know any better when it came to the studio, as whoever we had in studio, we were just glad they were recording us. From that point of view, and having said that, I do remember him being very funny and really easy to get along with. Steve knew the songs were set so didn't really do any song arrangement ideas per se. But the sounds he was capturing and that were coming out, every time we went to the mixing desk, were sounding incredible. So we were just getting psyched on all of that.
How did Steve go about capturing your guitar tones in the studio?
"A lot of people have gotten influenced by it."
Steve had these special mikes. I wasn't into recording back then, and I now wish I was so I could know all his tricks, but really I just showed up and played the guitar. But I do remember these little tiny microphones that he had, they looked like spy microphones, they weren't your typical SM-57s. And that was it.
Did Steve use a lot of experimental miking techniques?
Yeah, he recorded vocals in the studio's bathroom to take advantage of the natural reverb and often ran Charles' voice through a guitar amp to give it more of a ragged edge. He did a lot of that with the vocals, especially Charles' vocals as he loved putting them through a microphone of some sort. He also got us to do another version of Vamos which we really tripped out. For this version, Steve had me hitting the guitar in a different way. It was things like that and then he would splice these experimental ideas together on tape.
For the guitar tracks, did you do many overdubs?
We did the typical doubling of the guitars and some of the solos were doubled too like on Where Is My Mind?
Over the years there have been quite a number of urban myths regarding the sound of your guitar on that album. One of the most common beliefs is that your out-of-phase sound on the record was achieved by the rewiring of the pick-ups on your Les Paul. Is this true?
No - that is totally untrue. Maybe that myth grew out of all the doubling you can hear on the record which in many cases, does make the guitar sound like it is out of phase.
Are there any behind the scenes anecdotes from the recording sessions that you can share?
In the studio, would always watch out for those mistakes, you know, the things that should be kept. I was probably allowed to make more of them more so than the others in the band because my parts were the last sprinkling on the recording. Like with the bass and drums, you really can't make any mistake, you have to have them locked in. Whereas my stuff There are mistakes on Vamos, like on one of the choruses there is this thing I do, where I syncopated the part by accident because my headphones were a little off and so I was tapping my foot wrongly. And it turned it into more of a galloping vibe and some how it worked. It really worked. And it sounds a lot better too.
What gear did you use for the tour the band undertook for the album?
We switched to Marshalls because we were playing with these other bands at the time like the Meat Puppets and Soul Asylum, whom we were touring with everywhere at the time. And we would watch these bands and go, shit man, they're so fuckin' loud!, and sound so much richer.' So I got rid of my little Peavey and went out and got a Marshall.
Kurt Cobain was once quoted as saying that Surfer Rosa provided the blue print for Nirvana's Nevermind. How do you feel about the influential reverence accorded to Surfer Rosa over the years?
"I really think at the time, it was what was needed in the musical climate."
A lot of people have gotten influenced by it. It is in some ways, the same as how we have a high regard for The Velvet Underground and The Stooges. So it is nice to be part of that same road map into whatever you're trying to do. And in doing that, you're going to cross The Pixies in one way or another along the way. Musically, we wanted to more or less not sound like the stuff that was on the radio at the time. There were a lot of people doing the million miles per hour notes and stuff like that, so obviously I didn't want to go there, and I couldn't, as it was and is not my taste. So I kind of slowed it down a bit and made it a lot dumber. I really think at the time, it was what was needed in the musical climate.
The album is consistently placed on many lists as one of the best albums of the 1980s in any genre and to this day still sells well.
Sale wise, the album has sold like a fine jazz album. Where it still has relevance and it will never get taken off the shelf per se. I mean it has a shelf life. And it will never be out of flavor.
Did it put pressure on you to try and out do the album with each successive release?
We never had a mentality of trying to top something, as we just went with whatever we had at the moment. You can't really put that much pressure on you, not that making that stuff hasn't got its own pressure, but you can't dwell on the past otherwise you'll just never get anywhere
Interview by Joe Matera