Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago on their latest album, Doggerel

Many guitarists have played good roles. But few have watched as these parts have resonated with a wider audience, bringing fame and, on occasion, fortune. Even fewer have changed the way we understand and enjoy music. Joey Santiago is one of them.

Whether it’s the ringing leads Where is my Mind? or degraderthe gossamer surrealism of Monkey gone to heaventhe galloping melodies of Dead or the boat saw craze of bone machine, the lead guitarist for Pixies, owns a special corner of alt-rock history. Along with his college buddy and the band’s chief songwriter, Charles Thompson IV – commonly known as Black Francis or Frank Black -, bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering, he spent the late 1980s and early ’90s chopping up expectations throughout he released albums that were as confrontational as they were suspenseful and pop. That loud-quiet-loud dynamic you love? Pixies were one of his architects. Just don’t try to tell him he deserves some carelessness.

“There are moments when I feel so comfortable on stage, where I start to feel the imposter syndrome,” Santiago says from a hotel room in Manchester during the band’s European tour. “I’m like. ‘Oh shit. This is too easy.’ I’m just thinking about all these horrible things you can’t think of while you’re up there. I’d rather feel a little incompetent than have to prove every day.”

Some of that energy is in his approach to Pixies’ new album Doggerel. It’s their fourth LP since resuming as a recording group almost a decade ago – just like the number they did during their imperial phase – and their third with bassist Paz Lenchantin, who took over the reins of the late great Kim Shattuck of the 2014 band Muffs took over. Deal, as she has been throughout this run, is outside and happy there. It’s also another chance to prove that this iteration has something valuable to say to the band, beyond sets that remind everyone how many classic songs they have to choose from.

Since the release of Indie Cindy Eight years ago there were critical stickers and accusations of irrelevance to contend with, something pixies didn’t have to heed at the time. Doggerel, but has enough about its planning and execution to suggest that this is still a band willing to push themselves to feel like they’re learning again. Francis got his turn early in the process with 40 songs, leaving his bandmates with a lot to figure out.

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For Santiago, that meant starting an engine that’s been humming on and off for four decades—his ability to find space amid the many twists and turns of his friend’s writing. “There were some songs that I understood,” says Santiago. “But there was one song where I was just like, ‘Where are the parts?’ I could not understand this arrangement at all. And then I finally got it while pursuing my own guitars. Like, “Oh, Jesus! It’s a lot easier than I thought.’ That was The Lord came back todayand that’s my favorite man.”

Elves - Doggerel

This song is a piece of old Americana that lyrically references Neil Young hey hey my my. There’s a noticeable seam from this stuff Doggerel, who at times feel like some of American music’s great disruptors, building something on their most well-known foundations. It’s there on the sombre, foreboding riff of vault of heavenand the patient, sad westernisms of thunder lightning. It’s there, to be honest, even if Santiago doesn’t see it that way. “American? Yeah, we don’t care,” he says.

Doggerel was recorded in the dead of winter at Guilford Sound, a beautiful Vermont studio, with producer Tom Dalgety, who also directed in 2016 headgear and its sequel in 2019 Under the eyrie. For some stretches the band was snowed in and rehearsed at their accommodation before hitting the live space. “I lived in Los Angeles,” begins Santiago. “I guess when you’re inspired, you’re inspired by everything, right? It doesn’t have to be music. So I just looked out the window, like, ‘Whoa, look at that’. It was just freshly driven snow. Trees are dying but it’s beautiful. You can lapse into thoughts of mortality. Really dark shit. It’s like the blues playing in my head. We’re all going to die!”

In a short documentary accompanying the album’s announcement, Santiago says, “I was always in full music mode with this album. My headroom was a lot of Better.” When that sentiment is thrown at him again, he’s not quite sure if he got his point across. “When I heard that, it sounded like I wasn’t in full music mode on the other records,” he says “It’s like ‘Yo, this time I’m going to stop going to the zoo.’ What I meant was I was really, really just in there 24 hours a day.

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Joey Santiago from Pixies
Joey Santiago from Pixies. Image: press

“Sometimes I just needed to take a break, you know, blah, blah, blah. But this time it was winter, we had heavy storms, blizzards and stuff, so it kind of made you more focused. Making music has always been important to me. Sometimes there is such a thing as caring too much, to the point where it hurts. I shouldn’t do this. It gets a bit codependent here, you know?”

Again, there are some firsts for Santiago. He lets his Virgo Pixies write credits for the music dregs of the wine, and the lyrics to the title track. “You know, it was really just for fun,” he says. “I have this guitar, this beautiful ’54 Martin. It wasn’t the guitar I was looking for – I was actually willing to spend more knowing how much my dream guitar would cost. But this one ended up on my lap because it just felt best on a couch. It was the pandemic, I didn’t think about the stage at all. I was talking about the couch. I’ve just started writing. I started playing chords and my girlfriend secretly recorded me. She made me listen, really made me listen. Then I had to refine it, sort of like a fun jigsaw puzzle.”

Born in Manila, Santiago moved to the United States with his family in 1972, settling first in Yonkers, New York, and later in Massachusetts. Like so many of his contemporaries, his interest in guitars was sparked by the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. “Who’s the best band? For real? They’re the damn Beatles,” he says. “You will never leave me. day trippers was the first thing I learned.

Image: press

“I had this acoustic guitar, my brother said he bought it from Radio Shack, an electronics store that has no business making guitars,” he adds. “They make speakers, receivers, cables and tools to cut cables. She got smashed, and then I got this fake Les Paul. The action was so bad and the fretboard had just like raised wood. It was just awful. But that’s a good thing, so when you get a real instrument it’s like, oh yeah, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

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Having played a Telecaster throughout Pixies’ tenure, Francis has always been interested in making a difference and often favored a ’57 Les Paul Custom Reissue. “Guitars have their own sound, you know? The first thing I do with a Tele is just some double stops and country stuff. To be honest, the Les Paul feels like pen and paper to me.”

Once he was in the studio to work on it Doggerel, Santiago embraced what he calls “the AC/DC vibe.” “I’ve never heard of them doubling up with a Tele, fuck it,” he says, laughing. His goal in Vermont was a guitar modeled after a Les Paul Goldtop by luthier Pavel Maslowiec, who has built instruments for everyone from Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour to Social Distortion’s Mike Ness. “I have to give this guy props,” Santiago says. “This guitar is hanging on the wall and I said, ‘Yeah, I have to have that.’ And he didn’t want to sell it because it was like the first version. But it’s 200-year-old mahogany. And it resonates on the B note. Everything, the neck, everything. So it just rings.”

Doggerel feels like the sum of its parts in a middle-aged sort of way. It doesn’t effervesce and crackle with weird energy like Pixies’ songs did over 30 years ago – instead, it’s muscular and conscious. It has a balanced feel, which will put off some long-time listeners, but there’s just something about the balance this band’s modern-day iteration can achieve between no-frills rhythm work, Francis’ proselytism and the zany gravitas of Santiago play.

on the opener, no matter day, we get the relationship in miniature as Francis sings by storm and Santiago responds succinctly without derailing the song. The solo is simple but captivating – you can imagine him staring dead-eyed into a camera as it unwinds. “You want to be heard, but if the listener wants to focus on something else, they can do that,” he says. “But when they focus on the guitar, they’re like, ‘Holy shit!’ That’s the fine line. You can’t really stand in the way. A lot of guitarists do it really well – those are the ones that get played on the radio. The others just stay in the garage.”

elves Doggerel will be released on September 30 via Infectious.

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