Life & Culture

The Surreal Secrets Behind the Pixies’ Iconic Sleeve Art

Coinciding with a 30th anniversary reissue of the Pixies’ first two releases, graphic designer Vaughan Oliver and photographer Simon Larbalestier open up about the band’s album art

  • TextAlex Denney

For Vaughan Oliver, the Pixies’ story begins with an unexpected moment of nudity. The year was 1987, and the Boston, Massachusetts band were poised to make their debut with Come on Pilgrim, an eight-track collection of demos released by 4AD. Charles Thompson aka Black Francis, the band’s frontman, had asked the label’s in-house graphic designer to put a male nude on the sleeve. When Oliver mailed him a proof featuring photographer Simon Larbalestier’s startling image, of a hirsute man with his back turned to the camera, Thompson was thrilled. “The hairy man came out of the envelope, and Charles said, ‘That’s it, we’ve got a band!’” says Oliver, chuckling at the memory three decades on. “He packed in his job that same day.”

Oliver and Larbalestier would team up again on the Pixies’ next three records, establishing a visual grammar for one of rock’s most feverishly imagined oeuvres. The iconic pairing is celebrated this week with Come On Pilgrim... It’s Surfer Rosa, a 30th anniversary reissue of the band’s first two releases. “The Pixies have been central to my life,” says Oliver of the group, who paved the way for the 90s alt-rock boom with songs of transgressive sex, violence and spiritual longing sprung in part from Thompson’s Pentecostalist upbringing. “There’s an amazing creative tension in their songs, because very often what they’re sing about is terrible, but there’s a humour which acts as a counterpoint to the horror. The energy of it just makes you grin, in a sort of Shakespearean, tragedian way.”

In their free-associative lyrics and strange, dysmorphic rendering of the human body (Bone Machine, Broken Face), the Pixies’ songbook owed a clear debt of influence to the surrealists. They referenced past masters of the genre with the sliced-up eyeballs of Debaser (a nod to Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s film Un Chien Andalou) and B-side, ‘Manta Ray’, which pays punning tribute to American surrealist Man Ray. David Lynch was another key piece of the puzzle; when Oliver learned of Thompson’s yen for the cult filmmaker, he knew they’d hit it off. “At 4AD, I would hear all the demos coming in, so before I even started I was getting a flavour,” he says. “Then I’d ask the bands for their lyrics, and the conversation would go to what else they enjoyed, who they liked in music, painting and film. With Charles I hit it off on David Lynch, and Eraserhead in particular.”

Soon after receiving his brief for Come on Pilgrim, Oliver went along to a master’s degree show by Simon Larbalestier, a fellow graphic design graduate from Newcastle Polytechnic. “I went to the show and there it was, on the wall,” he recalls. “The man with the hairy back! It couldn’t have been more Lynchian, more Pixies… It just clicked straight away.” Larbalestier’s image featured a hirsute man in hunched pose, his face turned slightly to the camera. It’s an almost primally unsettling scene, as if the viewer has been caught in the act of ogling a freak-show participant (or perhaps a denizen of Lynch’s famed Black Lodge). But Larbalestier’s inspirations for the shot reach back a lot further than that.

“I was reading Gustave Flaubert’s Temptation of St Anthony (at the time), and I was very taken with his struggles in the desert and the overwhelming sense of isolation and mental turmoil,” says the photographer, whose creative kinship with the band prompted Oliver to call him the “fifth Pixie”. “I had always been fascinated with the rich imagery of Catholicism from the early 80s, so in a sense the work I was making during my master’s degree (may have) paralleled Charles’ own interests at the same time – hence the attraction to my work.”

Thompson had a thing for male nudity, says Oliver, joking that a t-shirt of the frontman’s featuring a rather elegant dick joke outsold all of his own designs for the band. Nudity would feature on Oliver and Larbalestier’s next collaboration with the Pixies, the bare-breasted woman gracing the cover of Surfer Rosa. Inspired by the Spanish-language songs on the album (Vamos, Oh My Golly!), Oliver had the idea to feature a topless flamenco dancer. With Larbalestier, he constructed a set above a pub opposite the 4AD offices in south London, the photographer adding small but symbolically charged details like the crucifix and Picasso-like guitar fragment (the instrument belonged to Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins, according to Oliver).

The shoot for Surfer Rosa has a singular, haunting quality that’s lost none of its power today. The images derive some of their uncanny feel from a photographic technique – ‘solarisation’, where negatives are reversed in tone through exposure – pioneered by surrealist photographers Lee Miller and Man Ray. But Larbalestier says the effect was a “happy accident” caused by near-freezing temperatures in the darkroom. Says Oliver of the result: “It just had an atmosphere. There’s a mystery and ambiguity to it, but there’s also an emotive context. You don’t have to work at it.”

Invited to revisit his work for the new reissue, Oliver’s initial idea was to chuck out the old designs completely. The band’s label and management objected, calling Oliver and Larbalestier’s work “iconic”. “It’s like, ‘I’ve been looking at that for 30 fucking years, don’t make it look at it again!’” says Oliver, who had to settle for some smart tinkering at the edges instead – like the new band lettering on the inner sleeve, which looks like its been pulled from a bathroom plug. “I do think both those sleeves are timeless, though. There was the idea of, ‘What is this?’ Because nobody sang about what the Pixies were singing about.”

Pixies’ Come On Pilgrim... It’s Surfer Rosa 30th anniversary edition is out now