With their oblique, short and often brutally noisy songs, the Pixies reinvented rock music at the turn of the '90s, and influenced almost everyone who picked up a guitar in the following decade. Producer and engineer Gil Norton helped them to shape their breakthrough single.
Punk, heavy metal, surf rock, pure pop, screaming guitars, manic vocals, abrupt stop-starts, short song structures, strange, often disturbing lyrics about almost everything under the sun: from their 1986 inception to their 1992 disbandment, the Pixies combined all these elements to stunning effect, and in so doing paved the way for the indie/alternative/grunge explosion of the early 1990s.
Formed in Boston by guitarists Charles Thompson and Joey Santiago, and swiftly augmented by bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering, the quartet signed with the English 4AD record label in 1987 and released their uniquely eclectic debut album, Surfer Rosa, the following year. While this earned the Pixies critical plaudits and some commercial success in the UK, along with plenty of American college radio exposure and a Stateside deal with Elektra Records, the band members surprisingly opted to part ways with engineer Steve Albini before embarking on their much-anticipated follow-up, entitled Doolittle. Albini had played an intrinsic role in crafting the band's rasping, guitar-dominated sound, but Thompson, who was now going by the name of Black Francis, was keen to experiment with new ideas, and so Gil Norton was recruited to take his place for the Doolittle album.
Norton's engineering career had begun in 1980 at Amazon Studios in his native Liverpool, where he'd worked freelance with Echo & the Bunnymen, China Crisis, OMD and members of Teardrop Explodes, Dead Or Alive and Icicle Works, often on demo sessions.
"It was a good education," he says. "We'd start at 10 in the morning and have three songs finished by six in the evening. That's how we did things, and there'd be a different band each day. For me, just learning to mix was very educational, because we were working eight-track — the kit went down in stereo, and then you'd have a bass track, a guitar rhythm track, a keyboard track and maybe a bit of percussion, and all that went down to a stereo pair. You'd have to pre-mix that down, and then you did vocals and any little bits of glitter on top of that, so you had to learn how to balance things. There were no second chances. You were pre-mixing straight away. The kit was the kit — it wasn't like the bass drum or snare were separate — and after that the entire backing track was done. You'd put the vocals on, along with the harmonies, keyboards, bits of string and whatever else you'd want to do, and you were mixing as you went along, which I quite liked and I still like doing. Especially with Pro Tools, which I use a lot now."
By 1983, Norton was also producing, and soon he was being managed by John Reed, who takes care of his career to this day. Work with Throwing Muses in Boston led to Norton watching their support act, the Pixies, perform at a hip local punk club named The Rat (formerly the Rathskeller).
"They blew my brains away," he recalls. "The first time I saw them, Kim wasn't involved. One of her family members was ill, so she didn't play bass that night, but the other guys were amazing and I was just totally knocked out by the whole vibe and the energy. You see, I grew up with punk music — I was 16 in 1977 — which was basically high-energy pop music, and that had all disappeared in England by the time we got to the 1980s. We had the New Romantics and then we were into electronic music, and the high-energy rock and roll bands had either disappeared or weren't doing all that well. So, to go to America and see a band that had energy and a vibe, playing guitars and singing and coming out with melodies as well as plenty of attitude — it was quite startling, really. And it was also a bit anti-climactic then seeing Throwing Muses after I had seen the Pixies — it was a whole different vibe."
When the Surfer Rosa album failed to produce an obvious single, Gil Norton was approached to redo 'Gigantic', the Black Francis/Kim Deal composition about sex with a well-hung guy, featuring a rare lead vocal by Deal (credited on the record as Mrs John Murphy). Norton happily obliged, with Al Clay taking care of the engineering, and when Clay then got involved with the recording of the Rain Man movie soundtrack, Norton both engineered and produced Doolittle. This still featured abrasive sounds, disjointed songs and bizarre lyrics, but it also boasted a degree of polish and textural sophistication that helped broaden the Pixies' appeal and made them counterculture heroes before the likes of Nirvana came along.
"The way I work with bands is I do a lot of pre-production, and I make sure everybody knows what they are doing," Norton explains. "I think you've really got to understand how you're recording, why you're recording and what is important about a specific performance in terms of what is good and what isn't. I try to get a band to think about that as much as possible, because I can tell them that something's good or bad, but if they don't understand that then they're not going to do anything different, because they're just thinking that everything's great. So, there's a lot of playing with arrangements during pre-production, and by the time we hit the studio everyone's got an understanding of what they're supposed to be doing. Whether or not we achieve that is a different matter. At least it isn't confusing. I don't like my approach to be confusing to artists.
"In that sense, I think the band understood more about what they were doing when we did Doolittle, just because we had worked hard in the pre-production area and we had the arrangements sorted out. We never messed around or overdubbed a lot — the band played live, and while certain things such as vocals were overdubbed, pretty much everything was done in that vein."
Pre-production took place in a rehearsal room normally used by singer-songwriter Juliana Hatfield, with the band set up in a circle. The Doolittle songs had mostly already been demoed with Gary Smith, the producer who had discovered the band in 1986 and taken them into his Fort Apache Studios to record what became the eight-song Come On Pilgrim mini-album.
"Some of the songs on Doolittle were newish and others they'd had for a while," Norton says. "For instance, they'd had 'Here Comes Your Man' for quite some time, and the version that appeared on the album was the third time they had recorded it. I listened to the different versions and came up with that arrangement of the song.
"I remember thinking that I didn't want to go straight into a rehearsal room with the whole band. So, having been put up in a really nice flat in Boston, I asked Charles [Black Francis] to visit me there with an acoustic guitar so we could talk about the songs and work out some arrangements. That way we could go back to the band and say 'Look, this is basically what we're thinking,' and fine-tune everything from there rather than have everyone immediately just blasting away. That would have been a bit insane. So, Charles came over and we had two days where we just went through the demos, and that was when we really got to know each other properly in an artistic sense.
"Charles would have all of these little ditties — minute-and-a-half songs consisting of verse, chorus, verse, beat-beat-beat-bang, out, we're finished. I would go 'Uh, this is really short. Can we double this bit and can we do this again?' and he'd say 'Why? Within that minute and a half I've said everything I'm gonna say.' We had this ongoing thing when we first worked together, where I'd be trying to transform the raw material into song arrangements and he'd just go 'Look, I'm not going to play that twice.'"
Hence the need for 15 songs on the Doolittle album, only three of which make it past the three-minute mark. "We'd usually work on 22 or 23 songs for a Pixies album, and some of them would end up as 'B' sides and others would be scrapped halfway through," Norton states.
That meant a lot more pressure on Black Francis to come up with a variety of material... "Yes, but I now try to approach things from the punter's point of view, and when I'm in the rehearsal room with any band and they're playing a song there's a certain point at which I think 'I'm bored now. Do something else.' Whenever I get to that point, something's got to happen, something's got to give. You know, a verse is 16 bars long and it should only be eight, or the bridge is eight bars and it should be four. Then there are times when there's no intro and I'm being set up for the mood I'm gonna get into, or I'm coming out of the chorus and I'm just thrown straight back into the second verse, where it would be better if I had a brief musical interlude just to get away from the vocal.
"I'm still producing from the point of view of what I would like to listen to, and I think that's an important thing to do. Some people don't care, and that's fine, too. But I think that if you're aware of your market, where you're trying to aim things and who's going to be listening to this, it's important to remain within their attention parameters."
As the Pixies' chief songwriter, Charles Thompson was very insistent that their songs should not outstay their welcome, a point which led to much discussion with their producer. "As a producer, the whole [pre-production] process with Charles was very educational for me," says Gil Norton. "It made me think about why you want an artist to do things — if you do something twice, can you make it different? Can it grow? What can we do with it? How can we approach the whole element of dynamics, and what can we introduce to make it better and not have it sound like we're just doing the same thing over and over? I think things should develop, and that's an approach I've taken throughout the rest of my career up until now — 'OK, I've done that on the first verse. What's going to happen on the second verse? What's going to happen in the middle? Is a harmony going to come in or should it remain the same?' I think there are a lot of questions you have to ask yourself to make sure you come up with the right result, and in that pre-production area there are lots of things that you can try out as well.
"I mean, sometimes it is good to just repeat exactly the same thing — it's more hypnotic that way, and there aren't as many things being forced on the listener and interrupting the vibe. There are no rules and regulations as to what you should do. However, I remember the second afternoon I spent with Charles, after we'd gone through this process of me constantly trying to lengthen the songs from a minute and a half and provide them with more complex arrangements, he said 'Let's go for a walk,' so that's what we did, and we went into a big music store where he picked up a copy of Buddy Holly's Greatest Hits and handed it to me. He said 'Gil, look at the times on these songs.' And when I looked at them, they were nearly all under two minutes.
"Very few Buddy Holly songs were over two minutes, and that was an amazing thing for Charles to do, really, because how could I argue with him? Some of the best, most classic songs that anybody remembers are the Buddy Holly songs, and they were short and sweet, bang-bang-bang. That was very educational for me on so many levels, and it increased Charles's trust in me when he could see I was taking that on board."
Following two days of routining the material and familiarising themselves with one another, Gil Norton and Black Francis went into the rehearsal studio with the rest of the band and worked on the drums, bass line and guitar parts for each of the numbers.
"The most important thing with the Pixies — and something I still try to retain — was the word 'portable'," Norton says. "A song had to be portable. They didn't want 15 guitar parts on there, because they couldn't play them live. So, as a producer that was what I had to stick to — I had bass, drums and two guitars, and then the vocals. Those were the parameters I was working within, and that made it good, because at least on that level I had to restrict what I was going to do. There weren't going to be a lot of guitar overdubs or loads of vocals. Whatever we recorded, the band had to be able to reproduce live. And that was a concern with 'Monkey Gone To Heaven', because we went outside the usual parameters by putting strings on there. We weren't ever going to do that on a Pixies song."
If one song best encapsulates the Pixies' aforementioned melding of pop, punk and surf sensibilities with Black Francis's frenzied singing and Kim Deal's more sensuous backing vocals, it's this characteristically offbeat paean to ecological disaster.
"The whole idea of adding strings occurred during the recording process," Gil Norton continues. "I love strings. They were part of getting back to where I came from. At college I was classically trained in music, and for a long time I used to play trumpet in a youth orchestra, so I grew up with sonics around me as much as I grew up with rock & roll. I've always liked those textures. I do like strings and I do like different instrumentations, but I don't want to inflict these on rock & roll bands. However, with 'Monkey Gone To Heaven' Kim was playing a grand piano in the studio, picking the strings with a plectrum while the track was playing: 'Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding...' I just thought this sounded great, so I broached the idea and we ended up putting that on the chorus. Then I thought 'Let's add strings to that, they'll sound fantastic,' and that's how the whole string thing came about.
"Since we had under three weeks to record, most of Doolittle was a song a day, and we managed to keep to that except for 'Monkey Gone To Heaven'. It was a case of 'Oh, it would be great just to try putting some strings on that,' and because we didn't have enough time in Boston, we had to wait until we got to the Carriage House in Connecticut."
Before that, the recording sessions proper took place at Downtown Recorders, where the control room housed an MCI 636-28 console and MCI JH24 tape machine, in addition to a quality assortment of vintage microphones. "They had nice equipment there and the assistants were really, really cool," recalls Norton. "One of them was Dave Snider, who was really helpful and knew his way around the studio. When you're an engineer, you don't know your way around a studio and you've got a limited amount of time, it always makes life easier to have someone cool working with you.
"There were certain starting points I always had when it came to miking. For instance, I would definitely have a [AKG] D12 on the bass drum, although the snare sound on 'Monkey Gone To Heaven' was a toy snare, a little five-inch Premier snare that you couldn't do anything with. You couldn't tune it, it just came as it was and produced that sound, and that's the sound you hear on 'Monkey Gone To Heaven'. I just loved it. I thought it was great. It had an innocence about it. These days I mic snares top and bottom, but back then I never did that — normally I just used a Shure SM57 or an AKG 414, while for the toms I'd use a Sennheiser 421, a [Neumann] KM84 on the hi-hat, a D12 on the kick, and a 414 or Neumann U87 overhead — if I wanted a bit more of a hard-sounding cymbal, I'd use a 414 fairly close, whereas for more of a room sound I'd use the 87 a little bit higher up."
With the rhythm section set up in a live formation, Dave Lovering's kit was positioned at the far end of the studio. Standing nearby, Kim Deal's bass was DI'd and miked with a U47 on the cabinet, while the guitars were amped with Marshalls or Peaveys — sometimes a combination of the two, split and then mixed together — and miked with 57s or 414s.
"For 'Hey' everything was done live, including the lead vocal, and that's because otherwise it would have felt disconnected," Norton remarks. "The song's emotion meant that it needed a performance, and I don't think it would have felt very good if it wasn't done in a live situation. Normally, depending on whether or not he'd finished the lyrics, Charles would do some sort of guide vocal or some sort of reference, but on 'Hey' he did the real thing and I put him in a cupboard at the back of the room for separation. I can still picture him with his left arm up around his head, playing his guitar while he was singing the song. It's one of my favourite songs on the whole album just because of that, and the fact that Joey got to the end of his solo without making a mistake was phenomenal. I remember halfway through it, saying 'Go on, Joey! You can do it, mate!'
"Charles was always very easy to record. I'd just stick a mic in front of him — sometimes it could be a 58 and sometimes it could be an 87 and then sometimes we used a 47. It depended on whether he wanted to hold it or whether he wanted to scream his head off. Normally, we'd record three or four takes and then just comp. Sometimes, one take would be enough and it would be downhill from there, whereas at other times takes three or four would normally be it, and then there might be another line that we would get from take two just for freshness. Really it was a case of running through it a few times to get the mood, and then once you were there, you were there."
"What excited me about the Pixies — and Doolittle was a stand-out in this respect — was that it was always like going on a rollercoaster ride with them. You sort of got on the rollercoaster and there was no way you were getting off until it stopped. They had so much personality, and Charles was such a character, ruling through all his ideas — for me it was always great to have so much material to work with and so many different types of songs. You know, it all made sense, it always sounded like the Pixies, but there were never, say, 12 or 15 tracks of just rock songs. There'd be quick little country songs or jazzy-type numbers, and stylistically the record would go through quite a few different moods, and that's why it was like a rollercoaster — you could go left, right, up or down at any given moment.
"When I began working with the Pixies, I was never really given much information as to what they were looking for in terms of the sound or the direction. After I'd seen them live, they just wanted me to reproduce what they'd do to the best of my ability, and that's part of the job of a producer. It's a very ambiguous role, really, but it's definitely to bring out the best in a band, and on 'Monkey Gone To Heaven' I just wanted to capture the song's innocence and angelic beauty. That's why I wanted to use the strings — it had to be quite powerful, but there also had to be a purity to the power. What with the guitars and the dynamics, the song started with a mood and an impact, and then the guitars dropped out on the verses to make lots of room for Charles to start telling his story.
"Although I thought strings would be great on the song, there was this whole thing about keeping it 'portable', we didn't have the budget to record strings, and I also wondered if they would make the sound really un-cool. But then I thought about the song's innocence, and I knew that if we just got a quartet in there would be a certain innocence. Rather than sounding pompous it would have that chamber thing about it, and it would be a bit more in keeping with the live performance. So, I just used two violins and two cellos — I wanted plucked strings, not to be overpowering but just to be in there as a texture. If you listen to the song, they're not a big feature. The cellos sort of go along more with what the bass line is doing, and the song works with or without the strings, but I think they're a nice enhancement. That was an important part of being a 'portable' song."
Not that Gil Norton had an arrangement when the string session took place at the Carriage House Studio in Stamford, Connecticut, with violinists Karen Karlsrud and Corine Metter, and cellists Arthur Fiacco and Ann Rorich.
"They were from a local orchestra and they were really cool," remarks Norton, who in addition to producing and engineering the Pixies' two subsequent albums, Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde, has since worked with artists such as James, Del Amitri, Counting Crows, Foo Fighters and, most recently, Gomez. "They had just done a show and they were still in their tuxes and gowns. I sang to Arthur what I wanted to be played and he just sketched it out for me. Then we fine-tuned it, because without an arrangement we needed to find out if it was going to work or not, and the musicians began playing, and within two hours we had the bits that we wanted."
"Having engineered the whole record, towards the end I just thought it would be great to get a fresh pair of ears on this as well, because sometimes when you're producing and engineering it's nice to get a fresh perspective on the mix. So, I asked Steven Haigler to come in and help me with it, using the SSL at the Carriage House. At that point, I was used to mixing on SSL — I didn't mind what we recorded on, although I still don't really like recording on SSLs. I'd much rather be on a Neve or a Trident... or an MCI, or whatever, just to get another character in there, and then I do like mixing on SSL. To me, it's just like driving a car. It's very easy, you sort of know where you are, and I also quite like that sort of sound it gives at the end of it. If you've got all the bottom end and you've got what you want, it finishes it off nicely."
While Steve Albini had captured the hard edges of the Pixies' sound in a fairly uncompromising way, Gil Norton and Steve Haigler retained some of this edge while using reverb and compression to smooth things out and place a little more emphasis on the band's pop sensibilities. These, after all, were sensibilities that Norton himself shared.
"I love pop music," he says. "People sometimes turn their noses up when they hear the words 'pop music', but popular music is what we're doing, and if you don't want people to like it then you should just do your own little thing and play it for yourself in your bedroom. Once you get to the point where you're putting things out for the world to hear, the reason to do that is hopefully people will get what you're doing and like it.
"I love a hook. I'm a glutton for it, and I love '60s pop music. I just think some of the best songs ever were in so many different genres of music during that era. It's what I grew up with, and at the end of the day I'm a pop producer. That's what I want to do, and that term 'alternative producer' always used to freak me out, really, because I never set myself up to be an alternative record producer. I just want to produce good records, and I never knew what it meant to be alternative to whatever. All I wanted was for the Pixies to be the biggest band in the universe. I don't think we went into any of the stuff that we did thinking 'We want to be quirky and arty and not have anyone like us.'
"One thing I do is pay a lot of attention to detail. It's important to me to get these little things right, the things that other people might not think are important, and I think that sort of excites Charles in a certain way. He's got quite a weird mathematical brain and he likes things that excite him. He likes detail and he likes things that sound simple but are not. So, in a working situation we got on well together. I helped him bring out his pop sensibility to a certain extent, and he helped me on a quirky level as to where and how you choose to do things; how to avoid doing the obvious but do what you normally wouldn't do and make things more interesting.
"I think within every genre of music the best songs can be played on an acoustic guitar and they've got a great melody. That was the case with Doolittle. It was routined on an acoustic guitar and all of the songs work on an acoustic guitar. I think that's the way to start, and then how you shape things after that is the art of making a record, really, or being a good band. The song has to work on its own, it has to stand up, and you have to be able to play it. You can't rely on bells and whistles to make things work, it has to be already there within the structure of the song, and that was certainly the case with 'Monkey Gone To Heaven'.
"Charles hated choruses, he didn't want anything to have a chorus on it, and we had to be very subtle about anything we used. Charles liked organic, he didn't like trickery, and I don't think anything too obvious would have gone down very well. If Charles had heard a big delay or something, he wouldn't have liked it, although he didn't mind a bit of reverb, so we got away with that. It just depended on what we were trying to do, really. And I quite liked that as well, because it kept things honest to a certain extent. I mean, there isn't a lot of trickery on that record — the odd little delay or a bit of plate and a little bit of spring, because I like spring reverbs, but there wasn't a lot of anything really. We tried to keep it simple. Simple did the trick."