During the question and answer session following a screening of their movie at the Independent Film Festival of Boston, documentary filmmakers Steven Cantor and Matthew Galkin related the following story about their subjects in the movie loudQUIETloud: a film about THE PIXIES: while sitting with the band in a café negotiating permission to film them on their 2004 reunion tour, Cantor and Galkin noticed a group of teenagers at the next table over. All were wearing shirts celebrating the Pixies. None of them recognized the band sitting mere feet away.
I imagine this sort of thing happens to them a lot.
To call the Pixies a little mysterious or slightly under the radar is like saying Britney Spears is sort of white trash. Formed in Massachusetts in 1986 the band churned out four ground-breaking alt-rock albums that gained barely more than a cult following (but countless imitators) before disbanding in 1993. No one has the full story on why the band split, but the accepted explaination is tensions between front man Charles "Black Francis" Thompson and bassist Kim Deal. They don’t talk about the split, or much else, to the press, and since their music was never about their image, it’s not surprising a cluster of hardcore Pixie fans have no clue what their idols look like.
I count myself among them—hardcore Pixie fans, that is—and I had never seen an image of them until last night’s screening. When the band reunited for a “warm-up” tour in 2004, filmmakers (and hardcore fans) Cantor and Galkin saw an opportunity to shed some light on the mystery that is The Pixies. Following them through Europe and the U.S., the film captures a band reacquainting itself with the road and each other. Their crowds are bigger than ever and their music still sharp; yet old patterns surface and new neurosis emerge. In the end, loudQUIETloud depicts the triumphant return and simultaneous disintegration of a band.
The film opens with the briefest of recaps on what each of the band’s members have been doing the past 11 years. Side projects abound: Thompson records a dozen mildly successful albums under the pseudonym Frank Black, lead guitar Joey Santiago takes on family life and movie scores, Deal hits rehab, and drummer David Lovering pursues metal detecting and magic. All of them could use some money—and renewed creative expression.
Their first awkward rehearsal reveals hope for the reunion and fear that the musical chemistry they had all those years ago might be gone. Once they bound a few humorous hurtles (Thompson knocking over a mic stand, Deal consulting her ipod to remember their tunes), it’s clear that they still have it.
Looking their forty-something years—more substitute teacher than rockstar—the band hits the stage of their first sold-out show wearing t-shirts and mute expressions. Santiago shuffles unobtrusively while turning out mind-blowing guitar riffs, Deal chain smokes behind a mic stand and smiles like she can’t believe she’s really there, Lovering bounces happily in the background, and Thompson—bald and fighting a losing battle of the bulge—whales and screams like the apocalypse has arrived. It becomes all too apparent that in this show—unlike so many current bands worshipped for their ability to take a pretty picture—music is the star.
Early in the tour we get a glimpse of what might have initially torn the Pixies apart. We see the four waiting backstage before a show, keyed up and silent. Nervous smiles are exchanged and rituals ensue (Lovering beats out a rhythm with his drum sticks while Deal clutches cigarettes in one hand and an O’Doul’s in the other). At first I thought this was a unique occurrence, the picture of a band silenced by their delight to be back on top and their fear of jinxing it. But silence, it appears, is the currency of the Pixies. Riding in separate buses, separated by hotel room walls, the four don’t know what the others are thinking—and none of them has the impetus to ask. As Thompson put it during one (solo) phone interview, “We don’t really talk to each other that much.”
Could it be that unlike most bands, whose egos and larger-than-life personalities drive them to fiery blowouts, the Pixies were slowly picked apart by introversion and silence?
Perhaps. But as we get deeper into the film, it becomes clear that silence is not their only enemy. As the tour progresses, each band member’s quirks and neurosis is intensified. Deal clings to her twin sister and fellow Breeders band mate, Kelly, for support. Without the crutches of drugs and alcohol, she finds comfort in the addictions of family, cigarettes, and non-alcoholic beer. The death of Lovering’s father sends him into a spiral of depression and denial as he turns to popping pills and drinking to dull the pain. Bad shows and band resentment ensues. Santiago—the most reserved of the bunch—sees Lovering’s imminent self-destruction, but refuses to speak up about it, expecting Thompson to step up to the plate. A wife and toddler at home, and his second child born while on the road, Santiago’s family longings also take a toll. Finally, Thompson is torn between the benefits of being a front man and the pressure of its responsibilities. Slightly resentful his solo career didn’t have greater success, he wants the Pixies to start recording new material, but can only drop passive aggressive hints to that effect.
Of course, loudQUIETloud wouldn’t be palatable if it only focused on the quiet self-destruction of its subjects. Interspersed between illuminating scenes of doubt and tension is footage of some amazing shows. Just when the dysfunction of the group seems like too much to bear Cantor and Galkin take you to bliss at the foot of the stage. The pounding rhythms, passionate wailing, and soft melodies of songs like Hey, Debaser, and U-Mass hit you like a beautiful jolt. The crowd sings along and the music flows, unrepentant and unafraid. It’s in those moments that the memory of backstage tension melts away, and we have hope that the Pixies will be lead by what they all have in common: the sweet, sweet music.
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