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Music

The surprising key to Kim Deal's bass playing in the Pixies

@TylerGolsen

The Pixies were a band made for deconstruction. Throughout the four albums of their contemporary run, the Boston quartet helped bridge the gap between punk, alternative rock, and grunge with their eclectic mix of aggressive musical attack and pop-adjacent hooks. The band’s uncanny ability to switch dynamics on a dime became the blueprint that the 1990s were built on, even if the Pixies themselves weren’t quite able to achieve the same level of success as the next wave of bands who took direct inspiration from them did.

Front and centre in the band’s sound was the piercing shriek of singer Black Francis, whose atypical songwriting style kept the Pixies far away from rock cliches. That was necessary, considering how the band had a legitimate lead guitar monster in Joey Santiago. Drummer David Lovering pulled from genres as disparate as jazz and bossa nova, reinterpreting them through a hard-hitting punk lens. Holding down the ensemble was Kim Deal, whose basslines became some of the most legendary in alternative rock.

Even though the low rumble of ‘Gigantic’, ‘Gouge Away’, and ‘Here Comes Your Man’ are instantly identifiable, Deal had absolutely no interest in standing out. Like the rest of her bandmates, Deal was allergic to rock and roll cliches and found solace in keeping things simple, which she explained during her appearance on the BBC miniseries Seven Ages of Rock back in 2007.

“A lot of it is our limitations,” Deal said. “If the end of the song is coming, I don’t know if we’ve ever gone…” Deal then proceeds to play rapid-fire Van Halen-style notes before one final dramatic hit, the kind of ending that most rock bands find natural. “Honestly, this is one of five times, on a hand, that I have done this in my life. I think I did pretty good. I felt good,” Deal jokes, even if her sentiment is true to life.

Deal adopted a no-frills approach to bass playing: no complicated fills, no diversions from the form, and no changes. Her basslines were static, driving, and completely unaffected by what her bandmates were doing at any given time. One of the all-time greatest examples of Deal’s restrained style comes in the bass part for ‘Where Is My Mind?’, which Deal turns into a masterclass in self-control and minimalism.

Throughout the entire four minutes of the track, Deal never wavers from her bass line once. Always sticking to the root notes of the song’s chord progression, Deal doesn’t even adopt the rhythms that Santiago and Lovering are adding to the arrangement. She just plays quarter notes on the bass and that’s it – something that she rightly points out is actually incredibly difficult for so-called “real bass players”.

“But you can’t believe how some people cannot do that and will not do that. Especially ‘real bass players,'” Deal explains. “What they’ll do is… they want to help push every little movement, you know? They want to be involved. They won’t just peddle through something.” Deal attempts to play along to the same rhythms that Santiago’s guitar line plays, but it’s clear how unnecessary it is to the song’s overall impact.

Even though her style would have been looked down upon by “real bass players”, Deal’s style soon became an essential element to the more reserved playing styles of bassists like Krist Novoselic and Colin Greenwood. As the alternative rock boom spread throughout the ’90s, certain bands couldn’t understand why they weren’t sounding like the Pixies. One of the secrets was that they were doing too much – Kim Deal never once went big on a Pixies bass line, and their music was elevated because of her assistance on restraint.

Watch Deal break down her bass technique starting at the 27:08 mark of the video down below.