P1 — Pixies
Guest jukebox contributor Matt Baxter takes a trip down band logo memory lane with Chris Bigg, designer of Pixies’ “vintage sci-fi” meets “US motor graphics” logotype.
If you’re anything like me – and you must be a bit like me, because here you are strolling around a website which delights in music and design – you’re probably a hoarder of musical treasure. Tickets from amazing gigs, old flyers from bonkers club nights, pin badges, yellowed magazines, dog-eared posters. And, of course, t-shirts. Screen printed mobile billboards to proudly trumpet your musical tastes to the rest of the world.
There’s one such t-shirt which has lurked doggedly in my bottom drawer since 1991. Now a little faded and softened with age, it’s a black tee with a huge two-colour letterform emblazoned on the front. The time-worn print does nothing to diminish the graphic strength of the design: a ludicrously, gloriously winged uppercase P, simultaneously conjuring American hotrod graphics and Buster Crabbe-era Flash Gordon. It’s like an outrageous monogram designed for Ming the Merciless (assuming Mr Ming's first name is Pete or Percival).
Fast forward through the 27 years since I first wore that t-shirt, and here I am chatting to its designer in a university café in Brighton. Funny old lark, this graphic design.
“On most projects, we were just left to our own devices. They gave us time and space to do good work. Our brief was the music and off we went,” explains Chris Bigg, former designer at the seminal British music label 4AD and, with colleague and business partner Vaughn Oliver, the man responsible for the unique graphic language of the label’s releases through its era-defining years.
“The ‘Trompe Le Monde’ campaign for Pixies was a bit different. It was all a rush. 4AD wanted to get the lead single ‘Planet of Sound’ released quickly, so we had to move fast. Instead of the usual playback, we were summoned to a recording studio somewhere in north London where Charles (Pixies iconic singer Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV aka Black Francis) sang the new songs about four inches from our faces.” Chris pauses to sip his coffee.
“There was a strange atmosphere with the band at the time. It’s a famously troubled period of their history. Charles and Kim (Kim Deal, Pixies’ peerless bassist) weren’t getting on. I think Charles put all of that inter-band turmoil into his performance of the song in this tiny recording studio in front of us. It was terrifying.”
If you’re familiar with Black Francis’ vocal style — two parts primal scream therapy, one part giant yelping baby — you’ll know exactly how Chris felt. I ask about the elaborate graphic style of the wordmark for the Trompe Le Monde album.
“A lot of that came from Charles’ lyrics I think. He’d moved on from the biblical themes of their earlier work. ‘Trompe Le Monde’ was quite Lynchian, with lots of overt sci-fi references and Joey Santiago’s surf guitar sound too. That look — vintage sci-fi mixed with US motor graphics — came from there.”
Did the band have much direct influence in your process or provide feedback, I ask. “Not hugely. Once we'd heard the music and listened to the lyrics, we were on our own. We'd often present work on the fly in odd locations. In a car park after a gig, or back stage somewhere.”
With this, Chris digs into a bag and presents a little bit of alternative rock history: the original artwork for the Pixies logotype we’re discussing. Pasted onto mount board, its slightly yellowed bromide surface is dotted with blobs of white-out ink.
“This was drawn before Adobe Illustrator,” laughs Chris, examining his artwork. “I’d take three or four days to draw something like this. French curves, Rotring pens. You really got a feel for the typography and the hand-drawn technique allows for imperfection and weirdness. I loved working like that. Pixies have never really had a logo as such. But this is as close as they got.”
Chris Bigg is a senior lecturer at Brighton University. Continuing his working relationship with many bands from the 4AD stable, in 2018 Chris has worked on a new graphic identity, cover designs and motion graphics for The Breeders’ new ‘All Nerve’.