The Making of Surfer Rosa
One of the finest oral histories of our time is Fool the World, Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz's oral history of The Pixies. Here we present a short excerpt from this essential volume concerning the 1988 production of Surfer Rosa, perhaps the band's most well known album. You can purchase Fool the World here for only $11.
KIM DEAL: Ivo suggested we go into the studio with this engineer called Steve Albini. And I had heard Big Black, "Heartbeat," the Wire cover they do, but that's all I had heard from them. But it sounded cool, so, okay. So Albini came out and we recorded Surfer Rosa in eleven days, in Boston, at a place called Q Division. I think it was eleven days. Maybe it was nine days. I don't know. Was it sixteen tracks? I don't know, it could have been sixteen tracks.
GARY SMITH, head of Fort Apache Records: They were booked to do Surfer Rosa with Albini in our studio and I was trying not to show my tears and just be the good guy who wanted the best thing for the band. They decided to go elsewhere because I didn't want to give them some super-friendly deal. I wanted to give them our standard studio rate because I had done the other one for almost nothing and they had a record deal! It's one thing to giive somebody a good deal because they're poor and they're talented, it's another thing entirely when they have the means and they don't want to spend it. So that led to a brouhaha between Ken and I, and Ken saying, "I just can't have them in there with bad vibes or that kind of an attitude," or something, and then he decided to pull the project. Then I came into the studio one day and Paul was speaking in whispers.
PAUL KOLDERIE, cofounder Fort Apache studios, later Radiohead producer: I was just the engineer, I wasn't the producer of Come On Pilgrim, Gary was. Everybody was pally-pally and we agreed to do the record on spec, and then Gary turned around and said, "Look, I want a piece of this, I produced the records for free, I paid for the recording sessions myself, and I want royalties. And the Pixies, especially Kim, had a bad attitude about it. I don't want to say too much because it wasn't my business at the time, but things got kinda ugly.
SMITH: So it was all kind of blowing up in my face and I was the asshole who didn't want to give them the deal. Had I given them the deal the second record would have been made at Fort Apache, but instead they went to Q Division, which was another studio in town. So off they went. They didn't take Paul with them, they used some engineer from Q, I suppose, and Albini.
IVO WATTS-RUSSELL, cofounder, 4AD Records: The suggestion of Albini to work with the Pixies was from someone who worked for me at 4AD. Just a guy at the warehouse, Colin Wallace, who now doesn't work in the warehouse - he now manager Liz Fraser of Cocteau Twins and works for Rough Trade. So that came from him at 4AD and Gil [Norton] came from me. Colin said, "You should get Steve Albini to do it. The Big Black records sound great." And that was that, really.
STEVE ALBINI, recording engineer: Their English record label had approached me about working on their first album for 4AD. Ivo sent me a copy of their cassette. Come On Pilgrim had not yet been released, but their cassette was what the songs on Come On Pilgrim were culled from. The songs that particularly impressed me were "Caribou" and "Down to the Well," which was a song that I don't believe ever made it onto a proper record, but it had kind of ghostly quality to it.
Basically, their manager, Ken Goes, who had been communicating with me a little bit and coordinating the American side of the relationship, had me come down to a dinner party, I guess you'd call it a cocktail hour, at David's house in Boston and that's where I met the band and we talked about how they wanted to go about making the record. And we were in the studio the next day. We had about ten days or two weeks booked into the studio and, to be honest, we didn't need all that time. We couldn't knocked that record out in a week, in four or five days even, if we were pushing it. But because there was time available we ended up goofing around a lot. We ended up trying more experimental stuff basically to kill time or to see if anything good materialized.
This was one of the first times that I'd actually been sort of hired to go elsewhere to be in charge of a session for strangers. I guess that's the key - it was for strangers. And I probably went a little bit overboard in terms of taking charge. I think I got paid like a thousand bucks or fifteen hundred bucks to do that record.
I was the guy that Ivo thought they should work with, and probably their manager had heard my name. Honestly, I think what it boiled down to is they wanted to do this record. 4AD said, "We'll do the record, why don't you work with this guy Steve?" and at that point if Ivo had said, "Why don't you saw off one of your legs and give it to me?" their manager would've said, "Well, okay, I'll be right there." Because they weren't operating from a position of popularity at that point. They were some unknown band from Boston, right? And they weren't really in a position to say no to these professionals who were acting on their behalf. So if things had come out differently, they could have said yes to something that would've fucked them really hard. And as it turns out, Ivo is a good guy and he had their best interests at heart and I was capable of helping them make a good record. But neither one of those things was a given at that point. And I think their blind trust in their manager and their manager's dumb luck put them in that position.
DAVID LOVERING, Pixies drummer: It was just the next step for us. Ivo suggested Steve Albini, and we went into an even better studio, it just kept escalating. The progression of the songs, how we went from Come on Pilgrim to this new batch of songs - I was really proud of those.
WATTS-RUSSELL: I don't know if they would have worked with Steve Albini again, but I know Kim swears by him, their personalities seem to really click. He's so good at what he does. It's just ridiculous, his vision for recording naturally is just quite extraordinary, and his ability to record guitars out of fade so you get this extreme left and right pan if you really want your guitar to sound like it's coming out of one speaker. He didn't then want to be credited as a producer. I still think that's his approach, he sees himself as an engineer and as an engineer he is a genius. Our working relationship was always incredibly straightforward. He is the ideal man to hire to work with a band. He tells you how long it's going to take, how much he is going to charge you, and he does it. The albums didn't cost very much money at all. Surfer Rosa was ridiculously cheap.
JOHN MURPHY, Kim Deal's ex-husband: Kim worked with him two more times. She liked him. There was a point when he was a big asshole. He's very opinionated. I mean you listen to the recordings, you can kind of tell he's going to be over the top. At the time, there was an anchorperson who shot themselves in the head on live TV. As soon as it happened they cut the feed, but Albini goes, "I have the videotape, the cameras kept rolling, I have the whole thing." He's this skinny little guy!
DEAL: I picked up Albini and would give him a ride to the studio, because I had a car, and Joe and Charles didn't have a car. David did but he was coming down from Burlington.
JOHN LUPNER, Surfer Rosa studio assistant: Black Francis was wearing some white overalls, I remember, and Kim was wearing jeans and boots. They struck me as a bunch of kids from Amherst, super-unaffected, mellow and friendly. It felt like the band vibe was one thing and the producer vibe was completely different, almost comically so. Steve was so hard-edged and the band came across as very soft.
KOLDERIE: Steve Albini used to really like to fuck with the studio. They would stay 'til two or three in the morning and then he would just like, leave, and leave all the doors open, lights on, and not lock anything. It really freaked them out.
LUPNER: Steve had this big Rapeman poster up, that was his infamous band. We had different sessions in the day and the evening. So this poster was up and the day client was kind of offended by that, and he got pretty bummed out they ripped it down.
KOLDERIE: He was a very angry person. He's just one of those guys, this little, short, skinny guy. He wore big boots and tattoos and shaved his head and he was pissed. He never did anything bad to me, if you could relate to him on technical level he was fine. He was just someone who has a lot of anger. He was very smart, very opinionated. I don't blame him, I mean, in a lot of ways I guess the Pixies kind of were pussies. I try not to judge my clients. And Steve at the time was kinda living a hardcore credo, what he considered artistically relevant and important. And the Pixies to him were probably the farthest extreme that he could make himself do. I mean, you've heard Big Black records, right? That's the music he makes from his soul. So "Here Comes Your Man" - well it's always over to that aisle in the store.
ALBINI: I think in their earliest stages they were still trying to discern how they wanted to play music rather than trying to do it well. I think they were still sort of getting their aesthetic together and it was more scattershot. After their first couple of albums, there started to be a discernable Pixies style and sound - like there was a degree of density and there was a degree of complexity and there was kind of a loping verse and then the shouting part. That hadn't really formed yet.
I respect them and I certainly have high regard for Kim as a singer and I think Charles is a good guy. I never really liked their music in the way that I liked my favorite bands' music - like the Jesus Lizard, Television, Public Image, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, Suicide, Kraftwerk, unique and brilliant bands that I loved, I never really got that level of interest with the Pixies. It's awkward for me to say because I feel like in some way I'm peeing on their birthday cake here. I do geniuinely like and respect the people in that band. I think David Lovering is a great drummer. I think Joey is an innovative guitar player. I think Kim is probably the best singer ever, and I think Charlie is a talented and unique guy. But the things that I like about that band, it's not really the music.
LUPNER: I sort of felt like there was a real difference in the vibe of the band and Steve recording them. At the time I remember them being very mellow, and Steve was very sharp and sarcastic. I think that from a musical point they were together, but from a sense of humor point...one of the things I really remember because it makes it onto the record was the whole "you fucking die" thing. He had running tape from the beginning, on a quarter-inch two-track, and anytime they were all out in the main room he wanted to be running tape to get snippets to use between songs.
It was a concept he was going for to get some studio banter. Basically what happened was that Black Francis said, "You fucking die," and then Steve knows perfectly well what's going on, but he's kinda playing them in a way by going on the studio mic and being like, "What did you just say to me?" acting like he is being called, and then Black Francis is totally backing off and being like, "No, no, I was talking to Kim," kind of explaining, you know she said this and I said that.
MURPHY: That (mp3) was just Kim going out to smoke a butt or something, and she was saying, "I'll be right back," and then just before she left the studio she said, "If anybody touches my stuff," - which is from that movie Stripes - "I'll kill ya." and then Charles startes saying, "I'll kill you, you fucking die, if anybody touches my stuff." And then Albini thought he was mad at her, and said, "What's going on?" Charles goes, "Nothing," he tries to explain it. That's why you only hear Charles' end of it, because Albini's talking in the mic back to him, saying, "What are you talking about?" He goes, "Nothing, I was just goofing with Kim," he goes, "Well, what'd you say that for?" and he goes, "You know, I was just finishing her part for her." That's how it worked out. You just don't hear the Steve part of it because it's only a one-way conversation because Charles is the only one being recorded. Kim's gone, she left the room.
JAMES IHA: I also love those weird snippets on Surfer Rosa, the like, "Oh my God!", "All I know...all I know is that." Those little stories are so charming but fucked up. It's so irreverent that they would just put those on a record. But it's totally genius because you kind of get their personality besides the music.
ALBINI: It's on their record forever so I think now they are obliged to say they're okay with it, but I honestly don't know that the idea would've ever come up if I hadn't done it. There are times when things like that are revealing and entertaining and I kind of felt it was a little bit gimmicky on this record.
LOVERING: Steve kind of does that Led Zeppelin-y thing by miking the room. You mike all the instrumentation but you have room mics up also. And that gives a live feel to it. And then you use metal picks, and that gives it the edge. That was kind of his little thing that he did - ambience.
DEAL: I think he desires, when he engineers a session, to engineer a band that's playing, and to mike the live performance of that recording, and record the live performance. Not poorly. Have isolation, if it needs to happen.
LUPNER: Steve was very picky of how heset up drum mics and used unusual miking techniques, the way he recorded the room. It's called mid/side, or MS. It's a way of setting up stereo mics in a room to be very realistic. When that record comes on, I often recognize the room more than the song. I worked in that room for fifteen years, it has a sound, and that was the sound Steve captured on the album: completely huge but in a corporate rock huge way, in a "your own house" way. Steve was much more interested in head room than noise. He printed his levels real low. I think it was because he had a good ear for when things were distorting even the tiniest bit. He was interested in a certain kind of clairty. It predates a lot of records in terms of, it's not in any way a lo-fi record because it's so well-recorded, but then again it's not conventionally recorded in any way.
MURPHY: For Surfer Rosa I was there a lot. I remember them taking the amps down to the bathroom so they could record the large, large sound for "Gigantic." Albini didn't like the studio sound so they took all the Marshalls and all the cables and they brought them down to this bathroom which was completely made out of cement, and that's where the big echoey sound comes out of it. He didn't want to use studio echo, he wanted to use real echo.
LUPNER: There was this bathroom in the back, it was the kind of room that was all cement. There was echo everywhere, we were in a factory building and it was this giant urinal for, like, a hundred guys, and we carted a drum kit in there. I can remember there was some definite funniness going in there, they were playing around, talking into a super-reverby chamber. I'm 23 and the guy who is representing Q Division late at night, and these guys are making all this noise in a part of the building that was near the neighbors. Screaming into the mic in the bathroom, "I am a caveman!" So I sweated that. I think that the vocal from "Where Is My Mind?" (mp3) came from that bathroom.
ALBINI: There was a degree of reserve that everybody carried. Like, Kim has a bouncy personality. She always seems to be having a great time. I don't know if she was or not, but she was constantly smiling and constantly seemed to be having a good time.
MURPHY: In the end of "Where Is My Mind?" the tape runs out. That's why it ends abruptly. The tape actually ran out, and then they extended Kim's vocal past it. The tape started to go click click click and they went, "Well, we got most of it."
LUPNER: I remember "Gigantic" was recorded through a mic that I never think of as a vocal mic. It was a Sennheiser 421, it has a knob on it for music or speech, and I never even think of that knob except "Why does this sound so bad - oh someone accidentally rolled it over to speech," because it basically pulls out all the low ends. And that's the sound of the vocals in "Gigantic." It was a very weird choice and I would have never thought of it. It was one of the cheapest mics in the studios. It gives it that super-intimate quality. I think that the field hockey player story on the album was the story of what "Gigantic" was about. "He was into field hockey players...It was so hush-hush, they were so quiet about it and then the next thing you know..." She was talking about how all the field hockey players were enamored with this guy.
JIM SUPTIC, The Get Up Kids guitarist: I've heard "Gigantic" is about a penis. I don't know if the story is true, but I like it more if it is. I heard it was about Kim Deal's boyfriend's penis at the time.
"I'm Amazed" - The Pixies (mp3)
"Where Is My Mind?" - Nada Surf (mp3)
"Vamos" - The Pixies (mp3)
"Where Is My Mind?" - Placebo (mp3)