Sunday, November 28, 2004

Gigantic Steps

It took money troubles to get the celebrated Pixies back together. But no one could have predicted the large and passionate crowds that have greeted the band on its first tour in more than a decade.

It began, like so many life changes, with a joke. Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Frank Black, a.k.a. Black Francis, born Charles Michael Kittredge Thompson IV, was asked by a radio host if there was any chance his former band, the Pixies, would ever play together again. It was the summer of 2003, and Black – newly divorced, homeless, crossing Europe in a rental car trying to stretch a two-week solo promotional tour into six for lack of anything better to do – made a crack, inspired by a stunt George Harrison used to pull on journalists.

He announced on the radio that the foursome regularly gathered at his house for impromptu jams.

Within hours the Internet was flooded with rumors of a Pixies reunion. The next day Page Six of the New York Post printed an item about the Pixies' secret sessions. Industry insiders began phoning band members to ask if the stories were true.

“I was like, 'Oh, well. OK. Maybe we should,' ” says Black, chatting recently in the lobby of the W Hotel in Chicago, where the Pixies were in the middle of a five-night run at the Aragon Ballroom that sold out in one day. “Maybe that ridiculous joke, and everybody knew it was ridiculous, was a way to get my feet wet with the idea.”

The idea required no small amount of getting used to. For those unversed in alternative rock lore, a brief history: The Pixies formed in 1986 in Boston when UMass-Amherst dropouts Charles Thompson and Joey Santiago placed a now-legendary ad in the Boston Phoenix soliciting a bass player in. uenced by Husker Du and Peter, Paul, & Mary.

That turned out to be Kim Deal, who recruited her friend David Lovering, a drummer and electronic engineering student at the Wentworth Institute of Technology. Six years and five records later, in one very quiet, very hostile gesture, the Pixies imploded via Black's fax machine.

In between they changed the sound of rock music.

''Reagan was president. Somebody like Michael Jackson was number one. Everyone in Boston, including me, was playing jangly pop," says Gary Smith, owner of Fort Apache studios. Smith attended one of the Pixies' first live shows, at the Rat in Kendall Square, and soon after produced ''Come On Pilgrim," the Pixies' debut EP, released in 1987.

''Here was this kid screaming at the top of his lungs, then bringing it down to something very calm. There was something almost shamanistic about him. It was totally new, and I thought they were it."

So did Kurt Cobain, who routinely claimed that the loud-soft dynamics of Nirvana's breakthrough hit ''Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a blatant Pixies rip-off. Radiohead's Thom Yorke, another grateful fan, agreed to headline last spring's Coachella Festival, he said, because the Pixies would be there.

The band's cryptic, artful mash of pop hooks and jagged noise never broke through to the mainstream, at least not in the United States. It took five years for the group's most successful album, 1989's ''Doolittle," to go gold.

But hindsight confirms that the Pixies, who perform on Tuesday at the Mullins Center in Amherst and the following two nights at the Tsongas Arena in Lowell, were creating a sonic blueprint for the alt-rock explosion that followed. And the rapturous affection with which the Pixies reunion is being greeted -- audiences in many cities are 10 times bigger than they were the first time around, and they're overflowing with a new generation of fans -- is testament to the interest and regard that's grown steadily in the band's absence.

''In every group of friends there's one guy who's cool about music, who's the font of knowledge, and Pixies are one of the bands he talks about," explains Steve Albini, the indie-rock studio guru who produced the Pixies' 1988 full-length debut, ''Surfer Rosa."

''It's a kind of received wisdom, and you tell your friends when you go off to college, and leave your records to your little brother and sister. That's how they developed a momentum and enthusiasm among a fan base who'd never seen them and weren't even conscious of them the first time around."

And yet the Pixies' story is more convoluted than a simple case of a seminal act finally getting its due. It's a modern fable with a happy middle that fuses rock 'n' roll mythology with the far-less-glamorous reality of adulthood.

Older, wiser, and on a crash course with middle age, all four members of the band, who are in their late 30s and early 40s, unabashedly acknowledge (this band is nothing if not unabashed) the financial lure -- especially as the offers ballooned with every passing concert season.

Still, despite interest from record companies who want to put out a new Pixies album, there are no plans beyond this tour.

''There's a lot of potential for this to go wrong if we continue," Black admits.

Harmonious orbit at the Aragon Ballroom, where Spanish pillars and spilled beer combine to create this city's premiere concert ambience, the only plans for the future involve tonight's concert.

Santiago, who gets nervous before shows, is enjoying an impromptu massage from the production designer's wife.

Black (looking very much the expectant father he is in a button-down shirt and Brooks Brothers sweater vest) and Deal (who proudly displays a set of pillowcases she's embroidering for her twin sister, Kelley) sing scales in the stairwell.

Lovering, who's made his living as a professional magician for the past six years, kicks back on the sofa with a new deck of playing cards.

The musicians move in a detached but harmonious orbit. They hardly ever hang out. Neither do they butt heads. The chemistry is almost exclusively musical.

As the tour manager hands out set lists and fruit platters sit embalmed in plastic, a documentary film crew -- which recently recruited Kelley Deal for her unparalleled access -- pans the calm scene, hoping to capture a defining moment.

What the filmmakers get is one more dressing room nondrama. Seven months in, the Pixies' 2004 US tour is not only an unqualified success in the foundering touring industry, it's a model of gentility, a testament to family values, and, most critically, gainful employment.

''Why not be honest? It started to get pretty crappy for me, being freelance in LA," says Santiago, who grew up in Longmeadow and formed a band, the Martinis, with his wife, Linda Mallari, following the Pixies' split. Santiago has spent the last few years trying to break into film and TV composing; Mallari recently gave birth to the couple's second child.

''This tour has its perks for college funds," Santiago says. ''I can breathe."

Likewise for Lovering, a Burlington native who hung up his drumsticks to pursue magic full-time. He says he ''jumped into the air" when he got the call from Santiago, a North Hollywood neighbor with whom he'd remained close.

''I was in one of the worst times of my life," says Lovering. ''The timing couldn't have been better. If you think being a musician is tough. . . . This was like a lost love coming back."

There was never any love to lose between Black and Deal, whose strained relationship was at the root of the Pixies' split. Creative conflicts, ego entanglements, and tight quarters (this time around Deal has forsaken the tour bus for her own RV) were exacerbated by plenty of booze and drugs.

By the end of the Pixies' final tour, opening for U2, Thompson and Deal weren't speaking. Of the fax he sent to the band's manager on New Year's Day 1992, Black explains, ''It was very brief, very nonemotional. It said something like 'I leave.' I did it in a very evasive, super-nonconfrontational way and it probably could have been perceived as a little cold."

Black went on to release a string of modest-selling records with his band the Catholics. Deal has stayed busy if not exactly flush with the Breeders, the quirky rock band she formed in 1989 as a creative outlet outside of the Pixies. The two had no contact for the next 11 years.

Back with Black
When Deal, who lives in her hometown of Dayton, Ohio, received the heads up from Santiago, ''I was mystified," she says over coffee in her hotel room. ''But Joe said it was important to him, a life-changing thing for him. So I said I'd do it.

''I called Charles and said, 'I heard we might be getting the gang back together.' And he said, 'Yeah.' And I said, 'The first thing we'll do is get in a room and practice and if it feels stupid we'll say, ''OK. We tried." ' "

Deal smiles beatifically throughout the entire set at the Aragon, even when she's singing. Her signature bizarre duets with Black -- he screams, she coos -- reach a ghostly peak on ''Debaser," one of the Pixies' most gleefully demented singles, where Black fumes mightily and Deal just throws her head back and glows.

At her request, the Pixies tour is dry, and everyone agrees that a little sobriety goes a long way toward keeping both the peace and the music intact.

And it's impossible to overestimate the restorative benefits that come with the simple passing of time.

''If you want to enjoy it and do a good job you have to kind of grow up," says Black. ''Ms. Deal and I had one little heartfelt conversation in her car and another out by the railroad tracks behind the rehearsal space. You start to use your imagination and fill in the blanks when there are a lot of blanks, and I think both assumed that the other one was angrier than we really were.

''We had to bury a little hatchet," he says, pinching his finger and thumb together. ''About this big."

Black recently relocated from LA to Eugene, Ore., to live with his girlfriend, an art history graduate student, and her two young children. These days his life revolves around ballet-class carpool and bedtime enforcement. Surging crowds of young fans may revel in the second coming of Kurt Cobain's teachers. But from his vantage point, with a baby on the way, Black's take on the Pixies reunion is remarkably uncluttered.

''We've had this chip in our back pocket for a long time, and it keeps going up in value," Black explains. ''We're cashing it in this year."

Thanks to Joan Anderman at The Boston Globe:

Sunday, November 14, 2004

The Goal Is Soul

U2: The Catharsis in the Cathedral

DUBLIN -- THROUGH the windows of Hanover Quay, the rehearsal and recording studio that U2 has called HQ for the last two decades, streetlights made rippling patterns on the Liffey, the river that runs through Dublin, matching the shimmering overtones coming from the Edge's guitars as the band ran through songs from its new album, "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" (Interscope).

Gearing up for a year of promotion and touring to follow the release of the album on Nov. 23, U2 was methodically at work, translating multilayered studio creations into songs that would allow four musicians to rock arenas again. U2 is to play a handful of small-scale shows this month, including an appearance Nov. 20 on "Saturday Night Live," and will start a world tour of arenas and stadiums on March 1 in Miami.

The Edge had two dozen guitars at his feet, and an assistant noted which guitar, which effect and which setting would be used for each section of each song. Larry Mullen on drums and Adam Clayton on bass were scrutinizing rhythm tracks, trying to strip away clutter without losing swing.

As the band plunged into "Vertigo" and "All Because of You," the sound of early U2 - the Who's power chords blasted into U2's own domain of spaciousness and yearning - was merged with an added 25 years of experience, experiments and world-beating success. Standing with one leg forward and one behind him, Bono rocked back and forth and belted, "I'm at a place called Vertigo/It's everything I wish I didn't know/Except you give me something I can feel."

Tensions between intellect and passion, and between pragmatism and faith, drive the songs on "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb"; so do burly guitar riffs, galvanizing crescendos and fearlessly emotional vocals. The album easily stands alongside the best work of U2's career - "Boy," "War," "The Joshua Tree" and "Achtung Baby" - and, song for song, it's more consistent than any of them.

U2 is almost alone now among rock bands in its determination to merge lofty ambition and pop impact. With songs that determinedly blur divine and earthly love, seeking grace as often as romance, the band doesn't pander to vulgar impulses. Yet U2 has no interest in being a hipsters' cult band; it has always aimed for audiences that can fill arenas, where its music is most at home. "At our very best, at anyone's very best, the great rock bands could always make a pop 45," Bono insisted.

Since the release of "Boy" in 1980, U2 has gone through musical phases that coincided with the decades. The group arrived with a wide-open, pealing sound that immediately separated itself from punk rock and metal, and has been imitated ever since. Next came an infatuation with American blues and country. Then, in the 1990's, U2 swerved from rootsy to futuristic, deliberately setting aside its old sound to toy with distortion, funk and electronics. Each metamorphosis produced at least one superb album.

"It's really more my fault than Edge's, the putting on of blinkers and going in a different direction," Bono said. "I felt that the spirit of the group was so strong that you could destroy it, that you could burn the flesh of it and still know who it was, and that's what we did through the 1990's."

In 2000, with "All That You Can't Leave Behind," U2 decided to stop fleeing its past and let its music ring more clearly. The four songs that start the album became anthems of hope and determination, particularly after Sept. 11, but the rest was anticlimactic. "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" also embraces the open chords and resonant spaces of early U2, but it has more punch, more abandon, some genuine grandeur and some glimmers of humor.

While the Edge's tremolo-picked sustained notes and arpeggios are familiar, the music is by no means a retreat to the chiming marches of early U2; instead, it encompasses grunge pugnacity, glam-rock stomps and the sudden benevolent fanfares of "Abbey Road"-era Beatles. The music scales dynamic peaks and dives into abysses and whirlpools, only to resolve into the next chorus. Every song is memorable.

As usual, the songs don't bother with petty topics: Bono sings about mortality, the meaning of life, social justice, fame, science and the heroic intimacy of love. For much of the album, particularly the slow-building ballads "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" and "One Step Closer," the lyrics reflect on Bono's admiring and contentious relationship with his father, who died in 2001.

Many of the songs ponder faith. The album's finale, "Yahweh," is nothing less than a prayer. When Bono was singing nonsense words to come up with a melody for the song, he found himself singing "Yahweh," a Hebrew name of God.

"There's cathedrals and the alleyway in our music," Bono said. "I think the alleyway is usually on the way to the cathedral, where you can hear your own footsteps and you're slightly nervous and looking over your shoulder and wondering if there's somebody following you. And then you get there and you realize there was somebody following you: It's God."

Bono's mother was a Protestant and his father a Catholic, and when he was a schoolboy he was severely beaten up when walking through a Catholic neighborhood in the uniform of his Protestant school. Speaking just days after the American presidential election, which might have hinged on the votes of evangelical Christians, Bono said: "I don't talk about my faith very much, because the people you might want to talk with, you don't want to hang out with.

"To have faith in a time of religious fervor is a worry. And, you know, I do have faith, and I'm worried about even the subject because of the sort of fanaticism that is the next-door neighbor of faith. The trick in the next few years will be not to decry the religious instinct, but to accept that this is a hugely important part of people's lives. And at the same time to be very wary of people who believe that theirs is the only way. Unilateralism before God is dangerous."

"Religion is ceremony and symbolism," he added. "Writers live off symbolism, and performers live off ceremony. We're made for religion! And yet you see this country, Ireland, ripped over religion, and you see the Middle East. Right now, unless tolerance comes with fervor, you'll see it in the United States."

That night, Bono was off to his other job, as freelance do-gooder. "Saving the world is now a daily chore," he joked. He was going to Madrid to appear at a fashion show for Edun, a company he and his wife own; the clothes are made in Africa from textiles manufactured in developing countries, a practical symbol of Bono's conviction that poor countries need trade as much as aid. He was wearing a pair of Edun jeans along with his ubiquitous sunglasses, a black sports jacket and a dark blue shirt, unbuttoned to reveal a wooden cross around his neck.

While the album was being made, Bono was juggling his political missions - among them debt relief for poor countries and getting AIDS drugs to Africa - with his duties in U2, which has always written its songs cooperatively. That left the Edge more time to work up structures and arrangements to await Bono's melodies and lyrics. "It turns out I'm much better in small doses," Bono said. "I don't need to be around for the mining," he added. "They put on these helmets with lights on them and they go into very dark places, and they're crawling around looking for a break in the plumbing or fixing wires. I have to go to a dark place also, but it isn't, ah, technical. It's a place of honesty. Call it soul, call it spirit, but it's the place where you're really living."

The other band members say they don't mind Bono's comings and goings. "I wouldn't trade my place with him for a billion dollars, not in a million years," Mr. Mullen said. "I make music, that's why I joined a band."

"When Bono's away there is a different chemistry," Mr. Clayton said. There's much more contact and interaction between the three of us than perhaps when Bono's there, because he has certain needs and demands. It can be like a benevolent dictatorship. But he works so hard on the band's behalf, and just because he's not in the room it doesn't mean he's having a better time."

While Bono was meeting with world leaders, the Edge was stockpiling aggressive guitar parts. "The album started off with a throwdown from Edge," Bono said. " 'O.K., you want rock 'n' roll? This is rock 'n' roll.' He had a whole bunch of guitar riffs up his sleeve, and believe me, that is not always the way. Him turning up with rifferama is just, 'Hello! Stop press!' "

U2 started working with the producer Chris Thomas, who had made albums with the Sex Pistols and Roxy Music, but the results didn't satisfy the band. "We wanted that directness, but in the end it felt too one-dimensional," Bono said. Early this year, U2 turned to Steve Lillywhite, who produced the band's first albums. "He understands how we improvise," Bono said, "and we went back to the playpen." As the album deadline neared, U2 also brought in some of its other past producers - Flood, Daniel Lanois, Nellee Hooper - and hooked up with a young keyboard programmer, Jacknife Lee.

Although it took a long time to work out structures for the songs, many of the performances were recorded quickly. "The paint is fresh, even though it took a while," Bono said. "It's just that there's a lot of mixing the ink." The vocal for "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own," a song Bono had struggled with for years, was recorded in a single take during a visit to the studio from Jimmy Iovine, the chairman of Interscope Records.

A conversation with Bono inevitably takes broad leaps from personal memories to economic theories to music, the state of U2 and the state of the world. More as citations than as name-dropping, Bono mentioned his discussions with, among others, Ethiopia's prime minister; Wim Wenders's cinematographer; Beyoncé Knowles; Johnny Cash; and Steve Jobs, the chief executive of Apple Computer. Apple is manufacturing a black-and-red U2 iPod with the album stored on it, and later this month its iTunes Music Store is releasing "The Complete U2," a digital album of 400 songs, including 25 previously unreleased. To inaugurate the band's partnership with Apple, U2 and its song "Vertigo" appear in an iPod commercial for which, Bono said, the band was not paid.

"My idea of selling out is when you do naff things for money," he said, going on to define "naff" as very embarrassing. "That's subjective, but I think it's quite clear: don't embarrass your fans, they've given you a good life. Our audience are thrilled about the Apple thing. They can't believe their band has its own iPod.

"I have a very strong sense of survival," he added, "and I know that 'Vertigo' is not the biggest pop song in the world. I know that riff has to be hammered home to become a pop song. With the commercial, we had a rock video coming on during the baseball playoffs in a way a record company could not afford.'"

U2's other response to the age of downloading is to offer a collectors' item for fans who want something more than a CD: a special edition of the album with a bonus DVD and a hardcover book including paintings by Mr. Mullen, photographs by Mr. Clayton, odd Internet finds from the Edge and handwritten lyrics and manifestos by Bono. One explains how to dismantle an atomic bomb: "Don't build a bomb!"

Before heading to the airport, Bono eased the band into "Original of the Species," a love song that also observes, "Some things you shouldn't get too good at/Like smiling, crying and celebrity." With a chuckle, he said: "I might try a little guitar - don't get upset. There's a very good reason why I'm the singer." He didn't disgrace himself, though, and after he took his leave, a visitor noted the neat lettering on the pickguard of his vintage Gretsch guitar: "The Goal Is Soul," it read.

Thanks to Jon Pareles NYT