Remaking the Band

Will the Pixies 2.0 thrive like Mission of Burma or stumble like Urge Overkill?

Zeke The Agora Theatre Thursday, April 29
They're roughly twice as wide now: The Pixies, way - back when.
They're roughly twice as wide now: The Pixies, way back when.
The bulging floodgates of the '80s indie-rock reunion racket have finally burst open, with the biggest wave yet poised to hit the shore: the Pixies. But even die-hard fans seem uncertain whether the experience will leave them invigorated or just soaked.

While seemingly no more important in their mid-'80s heyday than, say, Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies, in one of those subtle switcheroos, have since attained top-tier influence through their continually rewarding records and numerous Cobain, Cuomo, and Coldplay interview name-drops. And unlike many of their "college-rock" contemporaries, the Pixies actually sold a fair amount of records (especially in trend-setting England), aiding their rise to "Beatles of Alt-Rock" status.

Still, news of their reunion tour and a new best-of disc arouses considerable apprehension. Dispiriting visions of fat graybeards forgetting chords arise quicker than hopes; many Pixies devotees worry that this is all about the dough. But though it usually is, it doesn't have to be. So while we await the outcome of the Great 2004 Pixies Experiment, the comeback conveyor belt has already pumped out a few K-car-era models to consider.

How to re-form successfully
Mission of Burma started doing occasional reunion gigs two years ago and officially released a fine new album, appropriately titled ONoffON (Matador), two weeks ago. This Boston band predates the Pixies, toiling in the burgeoning DIY scene of the early '80s, long before college rock made anyone a dime. "We came from a musical mentality where sales were absolutely irrelevant," explains drummer Peter Prescott. "I mean, no one formed a punk band to make money. You did it purely out of self-interest, I guess."

While releasing only one proper album, a few EPs, and a live record (all on small labels), MoB never enjoyed the Pixies' profile. But the band is arguably just as influential. The "Academy Fight Song"/"Max Ernst" seven-inch -- minted back in 1981, with its perfect blend of Brit post-punk chops and Yankee garage oomph -- laid down the template for all smart rock since. Mission of Burma was the Velvet Underground of its time -- few people bought the records, but everyone who did went on to make their own.

So now MoB offers another template: how to resurrect a long-gone band.

First off, keep the initial breakup fairly civil. "There was no bad blood," Prescott says. "It was just time for people to move on and try something else. And Roger [Miller, guitarist] had tinnitus, which was the biggest factor."

Second, keep working. Prescott has stayed active with three different bands, the best-known being Volcano Suns. His band the Peer Group initially brought MoB's three members (bassist Clint Conley rounds out the group) back together, opening for Wire in late 2001. "So the three of us were onstage for the first time since '83," he says. "And I think when Clint saw that Wire had re-formed and hadn't embarrassed themselves, his reticence to do anything Burmese was broken down."

Furthermore, don't rest on your laurels. "Another big factor was, Roger was completely uninterested in playing again unless we wrote new songs and were active like a band," Prescott says. "Otherwise, it's kind of stale."

But nothing else matters if you can't deliver both the old and new material live. Thankfully, a recent N.Y.C. Mission of Burma gig was fiery as hell, despite Prescott playing behind a clear fiberglass wall and Miller wearing huge airport-noise-blocking headphones to ward off increased hearing damage. No, they don't try to slash around the stage like 24-year-olds, but their instrumental chops chopped off each other in classic Burma fashion, while the new, slightly more melodic songs fit in fine. So though one might expect a stoic bunch waiting for someone's eardrums to bust, instead the band members all smiled and wailed away freely.

There's no grand plan for MoB, but the three are smart enough not to approach it as a mere nostalgia-trip time-killer. "We still don't plan much beyond a few months ahead of time," Prescott says. "But we had 20 years off. You sort of refresh your brain about it. When you're constantly in a band, the point of why you're doing it can be lost. So for us, all that crud was removed, and all that was left was enjoying one another."

How to re-form unsuccessfully
Refreshed brains don't come to mind when conversing with guitarist Ed Roeser of the recently re-formed Urge Overkill. This reunion paints a much fuzzier picture: The band's Boston-meets-Botany 500 blueprint hasn't proved particularly influential, and while it enjoyed a '90s alt-rock moment of Rat Pack revivalism -- and, to its credit, didn't settle for lame surf-rock covers and cheesy tiki imagery -- Urge's ironic stadium-rock reinvention (best captured on 1993's much-loved Saturation) didn't cut many new edges itself.

Like the Pixies, Urge Overkill garnered modest sales and stuck around for maybe one record too many (namely, Exit the Dragon) before breaking up in 1997. In fact, the reunion might've arrived a little too soon. No matter the question posed, Roeser quickly drifts back to the initial breakup, seemingly still a little stunned. "Part of it is just the amount of time that goes by, where one is able to cool off," he says. "I physically couldn't be in the same room with those guys. Exit the Dragon was like the soundtrack of us falling apart, sliding into depression. I decided what people love about the band is not really there anymore. It was a horror show. So 10 years go by, and you sort of forget about those physical and mental reactions that are so strong."

Roeser's less-than-convincing reasoning arises partly from UO's simple MO: These guys always just wanted to rock the party. And Saturation's success (along with a Pulp Fiction soundtrack cover of "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon") brought too much in the way of hype and touring expectations down on the band's lampshade-covered heads. The Pixies developed in a pre-"Teen Spirit" era, when 50,000 copies sold was dreamsville for labels like the Pixies' 4AD. By Saturation's day, Urge was eventually expected to pack arenas. And truth is, the band just wasn't that great, unable to consistently coalesce underground art and radio hooks.

Thankfully, this reunion comes with down-low anti-fanfare. "Yeah, I was tentative and aware of our legacy or whatever," Roeser says. "That's why we didn't make this huge announcement. It's like word-of-mouth, in terms of people even knowing we're back together. There are people coming to the shows saying, 'I just found out yesterday that you were back together,' and they, like, drove five hours from some other state to the show. So the reaction's been good. It's our opportunity now to just show people out there that we're rocking, and that's generally the consensus."

So all this sounds unassuming enough: just pals giving it another go. Good for them, but maybe not for the fans who pay $20 to see it. A recent Columbus gig was a bit of a mess, including weak vocals and a still-shaky rhythm section -- the blood is still bad with original drummer Blackie Onassis, so the new drummer and bassist are still settling in. The body is creaky, and it's hard to assess Urge's long-term mindset, since this reunion sprang up only within the last six months. The goals are blurry, to say the least. But cats like Roeser and frontman Nash Kato are lifers who, even though their post-Urge side projects fizzled, retain their unwavering intentions to rawk.

"I guess the reason why one would want to get back together in a situation like this, besides the fact that it's an entity that has some commercial potential, is that the chemistry, I feel, is still there," Roeser says. "It has more of a magic to it than I had with any other musicians. After every show, I'm talking to people, and you can tell we really made their day. They loved it. And that makes me feel like this is extremely worthwhile. For the faithful who are there -- and there may be only 30 of them at every show -- this is their kind of music. And I don't think a lot of bands are capable of doing that."

How to re-form successfully with huge expectations
So what might these alt-rock revamps mean for the Pixies? It's understandable that fans might expect the worst, just because critics and tastemakers have pumped the band up so intensely. Artistically, Burma has gained an almost academic influence, a sound debated in record-collector circles that fuels mainly fringe bands. The Pixies are now considered the band that forged everything from the million-selling loud/quiet grunge formula to the esoteric lyrics and yowls of every little art-school indie rocker to this day: a far heavier mantle to bear. But that mantle is also durable. The mystery of how these four midwestern dorks pulled together for pop's biggest leap forward in the last 20 years has inflated to the point where it would take a mighty sharp needle to pop it. The fame that ultimately burns them out may still exist -- witness Frank Black's recent resigned "blues" records and the last, uninspired Breeders album.

So yes, this could all be a mess -- soiling the image and so forth. But so what? What was so ingenious about the punk paradigm shift is that it allowed bands like the Pixies to be an admitted mess in the first place. Urge Overkill went the radio route, with snarky jackets, big blown advances, and pro production, and the chance for the reunion to tarnish the band's old indie-boys-get-big legacy looms large. But the Pixies catalog is different -- for one thing, it's still great. The Rolling Stones have sucked for 20 years, and Exile on Main Street ain't tainted.

Actually, a disastrous Pixies reunion tour might do everyone some good. Digging on cool music isn't about bowing down to it 10 years later. It's about moving on, making your own, and finding the next geniuses to stack the canon. Even if you have to plow through the old geniuses first.

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