There are obvious career signposts that tell you your band has made it. In the case of Boston's '80s outfit the Pixies, for example, their current sellout cross-country tour — re-creating their classic third album from '89, Doolittle, in its entirety plus B-sides — is a fairly favorable omen. Especially given the fact that the band officially broke up way back in '92.
But frontman Black Francis (born Charles Kittridge Thompson IV) can cite another feather in his multi-plumed cap: After all these years, he's got his own special-edition Vans skate shoe, with "Death to the Pixies" emblazoned in hightop and slip-on.
"I'm still waiting for my pair, although they probably won't fit me because my feet are too wide," says the teen-goofy 44-year-old. "I dunno how that deal went down — these merchandising companies you license your stuff to are always trying to cook up something new. But Vans is special. I used to wear those when I was 14, living in Southern California and riding skateboards and stuff."
Re-forming for the Doolittle Tour, Francis, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago and David Lovering aren't doing anything half-measure. The elaborately designed stage set will feature a series of 11 films, projected onto huge screens, that complement individual songs like "Dead," "Debaser" and "Monkey Gone to Heaven." Concurrently, the group is also releasing a deluxe catalog-encompassing box set called Minotaur, which includes a live DVD and reinterpreted artwork by original 4AD Records designer Vaughan Oliver.
But sneakers spell success?
"I accept it, and I like it," asserts Francis, who recently wrapped a self-billed jaunt covering tracks from his 18 solo releases. "For a lot of years, I kept hearing, 'Oh yeah, the Pixies — they're kinda like the Velvet Underground. They had a more obscure career when they were around, and over time now their records have achieved a certain kind of cachet.' And I used to think that was too easy of a metaphor, too easy of a comparison. I wasn't sure I bought it — are we really as cool as the Velvet Underground? Do we really have that kind of status?'
"But now I'm starting to think that maybe we do. Because there is a kind of devotion to the music, and it isn't borne out in massive record sales or anything like that. It's steady, but it's modest — people keep buying our same five records, over and over and over, and it's very cultish, very finite, as well. Five records with the B-sides — what are we talking about? 75 songs, maximum?"
Indeed, it's taken time for those records to find their audience; Doolittle, Black points out, took five years to go gold, while Surfer Rosa took 17. But along the way, the Pixies have been cited as a major influence by Blur's Damon Albarn, Weezer's Rivers Cuomo and Nirvana's Kurt Cobain.
The bandleader should be proud. Along with the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Pixies squelched the '80s synth-pop movement with gritty, guitar-based rock. But Francis is humble about it all.
"I think the Pixies were less about production and more about the types of chord progressions and quirks that the songs had," he says. "And we didn't have any kind of visual image, either — we were very real, not manufactured or concocted, and I think people could see themselves in us."