Joe Shooman meets Paz Lenchantin, veteran of many amazing rock bands and currently holding down the bass with the seminal Pixies.
Let’s get it out there from the start: Paz Lenchantin isn’t interested in replacing a legend, but she sure as hell is enjoying the Pixies ride.
The Argentinean-American bassist and multi-instrumentalist has been touring with the legendary indie noisemakers since December 2013. Relaxed and in friendly mood before a gig in Istanbul, Paz tells Bass Guitar Magazine how it all came about.
“I knew Joey Santiago, the Pixies’ guitar player, from way back, almost 20 years ago,” begins the bassist. “Before [one of Paz’s first bands] A Perfect Circle, he called me when he was doing a side project with his wife called the Martinis; he was looking for a bass player.
“We played a few shows in California a long time ago. Then I started doing the rounds with A Perfect Circle and would see Joey around with Pixies at festivals and such, so we’d always say hi and talk about music.”
Fast forward 20 years or so, and original bassist Kim Deal’s departure from the Pixies was followed by an ill-starred stint in the band by te mporary touring bassist Kim Shattuck. When the latter parted company with that band, Santiago had one person on his mind.
“Joey called [drummer] Josh Freese from A Perfect Circle to try and get my number. Josh was definitely a big part in making all of this happen. Joey gave me a call basically saying the Pixies needed a bass player. They gave me a bunch of songs to learn, I showed up and I played them,” laughs Paz, in the understatement of the century.
That coveted bass slot requires an in depth knowledge of Pixies songs, confirms the musician. “We don’t really have a set list so I really never know what we’re going to do. It’s like, ‘Oh wow, we’re playing that song now, I love that’. You’re kept on your toes, without a doubt. I really enjoy it when it’s free like that. There are not many bands that play so spontaneously. It’s refreshing.”
Paz has appeared on oodles of other people’s projects, playing everything from violin to Indian flute, strings and vocals. Names such as Melissa Auf Der Maur, Queens Of The Stone Age, Silver Jews, Entrance and Zwan pop out alongside her two solo albums. “There’s a breath of fresh air about it when you have fewer responsibilities and are part of doing what’s best for the song that is already written. It is a great challenge,” she says of guest appearances.
“With Pixies it is a great journey – especially those classics, which have been heard over and over by the fans – to come in and use the spirit of it. I think there is a spirit to music, it’s not so much about the notes as it is about the spirit of what you’re doing. I am not a copycat, but I do understand the spirit of where something comes from and how it can reach someone.”
Paz tells us she first got involved with a love for bass playing at the age of 12. “My first bass guitar was an acoustic six-string guitar that was just around the house. It was actually my grandfather’s on my mother’s side,” she reveals. “I just picked it up and started playing it like a bass, listening to songs I liked at the time. I never met my grandfather; the acoustic was from Argentina, really thin, quite an old guitar that still had some original strings on there. Nothing special, but it was an authentic guitar which looked quite hand-made, but not by my family. I just fancied it; I don’t know why. It’s a strange world and I wish I could know exactly what it was that motivated me to do it but I just know I did it and I kept doing it.”
She developed her skills by listening to the radio and seeking out acoustic performances of songs to play along with. “Any time I would hear a radio show with a singer-songwriter, without a bass, I’d get my bass out and jam with that person through the radio. I really loved doing that, because you are not following anything,” she continues.
“You just start following a song you are familiar with that doesn’t have a bass, because they are playing an acoustic version of it. Then you are playing along to one of your favourite artists doing a rendition of a song without a bass, live on the radio.”
It’s all about creating your own lines as well as being involved in what she terms ‘the evolution of music’.
“I do love preserving music but I also want to evolve it, take it somewhere. That’s what being in a time is, doing something today not just repeating something that was done yesterday. You can learn from the past but there’s a point where you have to take off the training wheels and just go on your own. That’s when you learn a lot about yourself,” she confirms.
In those early days, Paz was a fan of Simon Gallup of the Cure, New Order’s Peter Hook, and more. “I was also listening to Can and definitely more in the gothic area in my early teens. There was obviously also the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix – Billy Cox was awesome. I just kept playing along to people until I found my own style. I didn’t know what I was doing; I wasn’t using a pick until way later when I started with A Perfect Circle. I was fingerpicking until my early twenties.
“Early on when I was playing along with Peter Hook songs, he would use a pick while I would not. I would just be interested in the melodies they were creating. But later I realised that there was also a sound [profile] to this melody that definitely sounded better if you just pick it. At the beginning I was a purist for fingerpicking for some reason, as it just seemed like using your fingers had a much more natural feel. Later on, I revisited some of the songs I was playing when I was 12, 13 from bands like Joy Division and the Cure, and got myself using the pick, and within a week or two I was quite the pick player. I’m talking about non-stop playing; I was a little bit obsessed with the bass and I never stopped playing.”
Alongside perennial favourites John Paul Jones, Rick Danko, Billy Cox et al, Paz namechecks Tim Koh of Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti as a contemporary with cracking chops plus the “super, super awesome” Eyadou Ag Leche from the Malian Saharan Tuareg rebel band, Tinariwen.
Between Pixies and Entrance tours, Paz Lenchantin hasn’t been home for the last year. She says she’s looking forward to some rest before writing again in earnest. “Just to see where I am as an independent music maker. I have been really enjoying playing solo as well. I did a tour where I was playing violin, bass, and singing and I enjoyed that a lot,” she adds.
Gear-wise, Paz keeps it simple – a 1970 Precision that she’s been playing for 15 years, generally with an Ampeg SVT through an 8×10” and with a Taurus Moog pedal, which is used only on ‘Bag Boy’ and ‘Silver Snails’ from the new Pixies album Indie Cindy. On smaller stages, Paz uses the Mesa Boogie 15” Walkabout combo.
“It has an awesome DI, is easy to carry around for smaller shows – it’s super, super light and sounds great. People always say it sounds great but they can hardly see anything on stage. I love, love, love that amp,” she smiles.
Even better, thinking back to those early days as a would-be bassist, she’s designed her own signature Luna bass, which is inspired by the Precision but has practical qualities. “It definitely has the P-Bass feel but lighter and less intimidating if you’re starting out – for the teenage girls out there starting out who want to play bass,” she reveals.
Any other advice for young bassists starting out? “Playing bass is something you can do in your room on your own all of your life if you want to but I recommend playing along with music that doesn’t have bass and making your own bass-line to songs you really love. Go to shows and play with other people. Everyone has his or her own style and there’s a sort of freedom in not learning too much about how to do something ‘right’.
”Do what sounds good – and don’t worry about being right or wrong. It’s your right, which is more important than anyone else’s right when it comes to making art.”
Images by Leo Bert, Klubb Lottarox Florence