Paz Lenchantin powers the Pixies

(Image credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

In the summer of 1997, Argentina-born, Los Angeles-raised Paz Lenchantin was just beginning to put herself out into the music scene at age 24 when she received a call from guitarist Joey Santiago of the Pixies. He invited her to audition to play bass for a quick tour with his side project, the Martinis. Born to a family of musicians and already an accomplished violinist at that point, Lenchantin was thrilled when she landed the gig and trekked up the Pacific Coast on her first actual tour. At the time, she had no idea that this brief, three-week engagement would eventually lead to the biggest opportunity of her career.

At the conclusion of the run, Lenchantin got a call from guitarist Billy Howerdel and singer Maynard James Keenan, who asked if she would join their new alternative rock project, A Perfect Circle. She agreed and contributed bass, strings, and vocals to their 2000 debut album, Mer de Noms, and gained a level of fandom thanks to her immaculate playing, angelic vocals, and her ability to thrash onstage wearing stilettos. Knowing that APC’s time was limited due to Keenan’s role in Tool, she decided to leave APC and join Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan in forming Zwan, a successful yet short-lived outfit that released one album (Mary Star of the Sea, 2003) and disbanded.

Paz remained busy and in-demand over the next decade, contributing bass and violin for Queens Of The Stone Age, Melissa Auf der Maur, Ashes Divide, and others before finding a home with the psychedelic rock trio the Entrance Band. But in January 2014, Lenchantin received a call from her old friend Joey Santiago. Pixies co-founder Kim Deal had left the band in 2013, and after the quick departure of Kim Shattuck, they were looking for a touring bassist. Once again she auditioned, and once again she got the part. This time, the Pixies would eventually invite her to join as a permanent member.

The July announcement came at the conclusion of the recording of the Pixies’ sixth studio album, Head Carrier, which featured her playing and singing. In an effort to honor the spirit of the band, which has now spanned three decades, Paz made a conscious decision to pave her own path and not attempt to emulate her predecessor’s bass style. This is evident on a song Lenchantin co-composed called “All I Think About Now,” where she plays a charging bass line while belting lead vocals that pay homage to Deal. With the album release on the horizon, Lenchantin is already settled into her new position, a dream gig that was 19 years in the making.

How does it feel to be an official member of the Pixies?

It feels wonderful. I’ve been a fan of their music for a long time. I got Doolittle [1989] right when it first came out, and then I followed all of their records after that—which makes it such an honor to be a part of this band now, having been into their music for so long. I’ve been touring with them for a while now, and we’ve grown close through all of our travels, so it made sense all around.

What was it like when you got that call?

I already felt like a part of their family, but when it became permanent, it felt like they were asking me to marry them. There is a difference. Even though we were already pretty much living together from touring so much, it definitely felt like a proposal.

How did you woodshed to learn their catalog?

Luckily, I had broken my foot right before the first tour, and I couldn’t do anything except sit in my room and listen to all of their songs. Just playing their catalog once through took over three hours. I had to really pay attention and listen to it over and over. I sat in my room for three weeks with my leg in the air, my headphones on, my bass in my hands, and I just played away. My foot is all healed now, but I was still limping when we played our first show. I didn’t feel any pain once we got onstage, though. I was a little nervous; it was our warm-up show and there was no set list, so we could have played absolutely any song they called out. When we got together to rehearse for the tour, we didn’t really practice, because they wanted to record a B-side called “Women of War.” It was fun, except when I realized that we didn’t rehearse at all and I had my first show coming up. But after the first one, I knew that everything was going to be just fine.

How did you approach playing Kim Deal’s parts?

It was new for me to play someone else’s bass lines, but I knew a lot of her work already, and those songs were fresh in my mind. It turned out to be a really fun process. And now, it’s exciting making a new record and taking it to the next phase of the Pixies and contributing my own bass lines.

Do you match her parts exactly, or do you put your own stamp on them?

On the older songs, I stuck with exactly how they sound on the records. The only little difference is that I changed some themes in “Indie Cindy” a little because she used a Moog Taurus [pedalboard] synth, and I prefer to play those parts on bass. I felt a lot more freedom [playing] that record because it was a newer recording, whereas the older records had been established for so long. Also, for live performances I’ve added some vocal parts that are different.

What about singing? Do you try to replicate her style?

I’ve never been in a situation like this, so I was open to try to sound like her. On the first few shows, I found myself trying to sound exactly like Kim, but something just wasn’t working. It was really bugging me, and then one night I had a dream, and I know this is going to sound strange, but she came into my dream and whispered into my ear, “Paz, if you want to be like me, don’t be like me.” Meaning if I just be myself, I’ll actually be more like her, because that’s what her spirit is. She’s unique and has her own voice, and that spirit is part of their sound. When I first came in, I was confused, because everyone was expecting me to sound like her, but it didn’t feel right. After that dream I realized it’s most important for me to be myself, and the energy that comes from that is more important than me trying to imitate someone. She would never do that, so why should I?

Have you ever spent any time with Kim?

Only in that dream [laughs]. I’ve never even talked to her before, but that dream was enough.

What was it like collaborating in writing Head Carrier?

Every song had its own story. My first writing collaboration with them was “All I Think About Now.” The song came from me hearing some ideas that [Black] Francis had written in the studio when we were starting preproduction. He sent me a rough recording to my iPhone, and it was mixed with Joey’s guitar really loud, and the sound was all distorted, and I couldn’t hear any of the chord changes. I just heard this looping, high, twinkling guitar part that overpowered everything else. So I wrote this intricate song over these guitar parts, and I was really proud of it. Then when I went to record, I told Tom [Dalgety], our producer, that I was totally ready to jump in. I started playing, and I was so embarrassed to realize that I was in the wrong key and I was playing this completely different song. I was a little upset, because I really liked it how I played it, so I asked Francis if he wanted to hear my version. I played a full song with a different structure and a different bridge, and it was the first time I had ever showed him an idea I had, and he told me I should sing on it. I agreed, but I told him he had to write the lyrics, and he asked me to come up with the concept of the song.

(Image credit: Jason Squires/Getty Images)

So what did you decide on?

I had to contemplate that if I was going to debut my voice and my playing on a Pixies record, what would I sing about? And then I realized I wanted to sing about Kim! She had been a phantom in my heart through this whole experience, and I wanted to sing her a thank you letter for everything she had done. I fell in love with her in this process, having listened to every single note she had played throughout their history. She was such a big part of the reason why I’m making the most important record of my life. So Francis went upstairs to his room, and the next day he came down and said the lyrics kind of just wrote themselves. It was the last song we had written and recorded on the record, and it turned out beautifully.

How did you write your bass parts for the album?

If Francis starts playing, I’ll start playing. That’s about it. I don’t over-think things, and I don’t take home tapes to carefully study. I love allowing mistakes to happen. Usually I’m more inspired by my mistakes than I am by my predictable choices. I try not to ask what chord they’re playing or what time something is in. I just jump right in, and I might hit some wrong notes, but those notes might be beautiful. I always follow my instincts, but I allow for mistakes to happen. That’s an important part of music.

You seem to be using your Fender Precision exclusively.

I love my P-Bass, and that’s what I’ve been using with the Pixies for everything. It has a great neck and it just sounds beautiful. When I was living in Chicago around 2002, for Zwan, I was on the search for my soulmate in a bass. With APC, a very specific bass sound was needed, and I knew moving forward with Zwan and other projects that I could create my own sound. I wandered around Chicago with a 10" Peavey combo amp to try out different basses, until I found that P-Bass. It made that little amp sound so good, and I just knew it was the one. Of course, it was the most expensive bass I looked at, but I knew I had to get it. I even named her Sun Flower, and she’s been with me ever since. I keep a fake flower on the headstock that a friend gave me after a show I played. At home and in my other projects, I play my signature Luna basses, but for Pixies, Sun Flower seemed like the obvious choice.

How did you track your bass parts?

We would all record live together and sing all the parts to help get the drums recorded right. Then once the drums sounded like we got the best take, I’d go in and focus on getting the bass locked in. I pretty much did just one take of every song, and then Tom would have me do another take for good luck. I really believe earlier takes are better, as long as you’re focused. Earlier takes have an energy that comes from the excitement of playing the song, and that might not occur on the tenth take. I focus to try to make the first take the best take possible.

Are you exclusively using a pick?

 I’m not using my fingers at all, which is saving my hands and fingers by causing way less calluses. Prior to A Perfect Circle I was a fingerpicking purist—I had never used a pick. Then I went in to play the song “Thinking of You,” which is obviously a picking song that sounded weird when I tried to use my fingers. At that point I was such a purist, I almost cried knowing I had to use a pick. I went home and sat in my room for 16 hours straight with maybe one water break. When I left that room I was a picking queen. I was so into it. I love doing everything you can do to get different sounds out of the bass. To me it feels right for what I’m hearing with Pixies; the music isn’t asking for my fingers. The guys will let me do whatever I want, but the music really wants a pick. I still use my fingers in the Entrance Band and my solo work, and other projects. I have no objections to any type of playing technique, and I’m open to trying anything. However, I have never ever approached slapping or been in a position that required me to slap.

Have you been working on any new techniques?

I’ve just started using a really fun technique that I can’t stop doing when I’m by myself. I use my fingers on the strings—my thumb, middle, index, and ring, like a flamenco guitarist—while playing chords, and it makes the bass sound almost like a harp. I’ve been enjoying the sounds that come out of fingerpicking. It makes for some atmospheric landscapes.

It seems like you’re constantly learning and expanding your abilities.

With the life of a musician have come a lot of journeys, a lot of experiences, and a lot of playing with a lot of different people who have taught me so much. The planet of music offers me a great deal, and I’m constantly learning. The Pixies have taught me a lot about writing. My personal playing keeps me learning, too. I play a ton of violin at home to keep it at par with my bass playing. It’s like my violin and my bass are siblings, and they both need constant attention. My bass playing helps me with my rhythm on the violin, and my violin helps me to write melodies on the bass I wouldn’t have thought of if I didn’t have that practice. They influence each other, and they both grow from each other.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned so far from playing in the Pixies?

Sometimes with music, I can get uptight where I want to play every note perfectly, and I feel satisfied at the end of the show when I feel I’ve played flawlessly. But it’s like the perfect haircut, where something too perfect makes it imperfect. I got a lesson in this during a show when we were playing a song called “Planet of Sound,” which is the only song we play where I drop my string down to D. Usually we play it at the end of the set or as an encore, so I drop my string down and that’s it. But this one show early on in my touring with the Pixies, Francis puts this song in the middle of the set, followed by “Where Is My Mind,” which is one of their biggest hits. I, of course, did not remember to tune my bass back up to standard, so we go into this song that everyone knows, and the crowd is getting out their phones to record it, and here I am still in drop playing the wrong notes. I’m frantically trying to tune the string up to as I’m playing, while also trying to transpose it to work, but I was making a mess. The whole time I’m looking over at Francis and he has this big smile—a huge smile on his face. After the song was over, he came up to me and said, “Welcome to the Pixies, Paz!” I realized he had been dying for me to mess up, because it’s okay, and sometimes some of the most beautiful moments come out of chaos and mistakes.


Bass 1970 Fender Precision Bass, Luna Paz Lenchantin Signature
Rig Ampeg Classic Series SVT-CL, Ampeg SVT-810, Mesa Boogie Walkabout Scout 15" combo
Pedals Moog Minitaur
Strings Ernie Ball Slinky Mediums

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