Paz Lenchantin has a hell of a laugh. It’s a throaty, full-bodied laugh, the kind that starts big and then gets even bigger as it takes over. It’s also the kind of laugh that can mean a lot of different things. When I start to ask the former bassist for A Perfect Circle and Billy Corgan’s Zwan—who joined the Pixies for a tour in 2014 before becoming a full-time member this year—about how her newest band goes about figuring out their set list for each show, her laugh clearly means “let me stop you right there.”
“We don’t. We don’t do that,” she says. When I express disbelief, it turns into more of an oh-god-let-me-tell-you kind of a laugh.
“I guess sometimes we do set lists, but that was part of joining—I had to learn every single song ever written by the Pixies, because there’s usually no set list. They’ll start playing a song, and I start playing along.”
“You mean, like, Black Francis just starts in on anything, and then you join in?” I ask, in disbelief.
“Or he’ll call something out. There’s a couple of signs, too, with your hands. It depends on who starts the songs.”
Now I am beginning to wonder about the reliability of our phone connection. “Did you just say you guys have signs? Like baseball?”
Lenchantin chuckles, and this time it sounds a little embarrassed. “You know, like ‘Monkey’s Gone To Heaven,’ you sort of itch yourself under your armpit a little bit.”
Listening back to our interview on my recorder, I’m not sure now why I was so dumbstruck by all of this, but I certainly was.
“You do what under your armpit?”
“You know, like … scratch,” she says, and her laugh blows up into pure joy, an embracing-the-ridiculousness-of-it-all kind of laugh.
And, really, why shouldn’t Lenchantin embrace it? After all, her most important moments with the Pixies so far have been marked by a certain amount of cosmic absurdity. First, there’s the fact that her connection to the Pixies actually goes all the way back to 1997—sort of. A virtually unknown L.A. musician at the time, two years away from playing her first show with A Perfect Circle (who in 2000 would release an album that still holds the record for first-week sales of a rock-group debut), she got a call out of the blue from the Pixies’ legendary guitarist, Joey Santiago. The Pixies had officially broken up four years earlier, after releasing groundbreaking alt-rock records like 1988’s Surfer Rosa and 1989’s Doolittle. They had splintered off into solo projects—lead singer and chief songwriter Black Francis (nee Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV) changed his name to Frank Black and established a solo career, bassist and vocalist Kim Deal found success with the Breeders, drummer David Lovering played with Cracker and developed a solo act as a science-based magician, and Santiago formed the Martinis with wife Linda Mallari. That was the project Santiago asked Lenchantin to audition for a tour with when he called in 1997.
“When I got the call from Joey, I couldn’t believe it, you know? I was like, ‘are you kidding me? I’m a nobody and Joey Santiago is calling me?’” she remembers.
She got the gig, and after a tour up the coast of California, she and Santiago parted ways. They never spoke again, in fact, until he called her in 2014 to ask if she’d be interested in auditioning again—this time, for the Pixies, who were looking for a bass player to replace bassist Kim Shattuck, who had replaced Deal in 2013, a decade after the Pixies first reunited. Lenchantin went to the audition telling herself that “no matter what, I would have fun, even if was just this one time that I got to play these amazing songs with one of the greatest bands in the world. I was going to enjoy every second of it.” She got the gig, and the lesson may well be that if you ever get a call from Joey Santiago, definitely take it.
The circumstances were even stranger surrounding her first writing contribution to the band, the song “All I Think About Now,” which she sings on the Pixies’ new record, Head Carrier. Inspired by mishearing another song they were working on in the studio, Lenchantin played an idea to Black Francis, who said she ought to flesh it out, and sing it. She said she would, if he would write the lyrics, and he asked her what she wanted to sing about. The song ended up being a tribute to Kim Deal.
“There was this silence in the room, it was like 11 at night. I thought what do I want to sing about? And it hit me that it made sense to sing about Kim, to explore that. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t even be in this room in the silence with Charles wondering what to sing about,” she says.
The Pixies play the Catalyst in Santa Cruz at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 25. Tickets are $37.50, catalystclub.com.