We trace the cultural imprint of the alternative rock group’s quintessential song, via major films like Fight Club and mournful piano covers in adverts
At the tail-end of 1987, the Pixies’ Black Francis (vocals and guitar), Kim Deal (bass and vocals), Joey Santiago (lead guitar), and David Lovering (drums) entered Q Division, a Boston recording studio, with an up-and-coming recording engineer called Steve Albini. Together, they spent ten days committing to tape one of the most influential debut albums in alternative rock, Surfer Rosa, which, paired with the group’s 1987 debut mini-LP, Come on Pilgrim, was given a 30th anniversary deluxe reissue in September.
For all its blistering surrealism and tangential college rock, Surfer Rosa had only two obvious singles: the masterful “Gigantic”, penned by Kim Deal, and “Where is My Mind?”, a dreamy ballad penned by frontman Black Francis. As Francis explained to Select magazine in 1997, “Where is My Mind?” was inspired by an actual swimming experience in the Caribbean, “having this very small fish trying to chase me” while snorkelling in Puerto Rico. Although “Gigantic” won out in the end, “Where is My Mind?”, which kicked off Side B of Surfer Rosa, stood out both as an introspective centrepiece on the album, and as an indie anthem that has steadily emerged as the band’s quintessential song more broadly.
But why has a simple, mid-tempo song, with a wacky, clear-as-dishwater refrain of “With your feet in the air and your head on the ground / Try this trick and spin it,” resonated so strongly over the years?
Joey Santiago, the band’s lead guitarist, has one suggestion. He co-founded the Pixies with Black Francis back in 1986, back when his University of Massachusetts Amherst roommate was known by his birth name, Charles Thompson. “Let’s just go by the phrase ‘Where is My Mind?’ alone,” Santiago says. “It relates to disenfranchised people, and there’s certainly a lot of them, so it unites them. It’s like, you’re not the only fucking disenfranchised one, you know? It validates your feelings of being not alone, as someone else is singing about it.”
It’s a solid theory from someone who knows the song better than most. Since the Pixies reformed in 2004 (they previously went their separate ways in 1993, after long-brewing tensions between Francis and Deal came to a head and the former broke up the band by fax), “Where is My Mind?” has retaken pride of place as a live favourite. Night after night, city after city, the band peer into a sea of faces, chanting those four words, united in the knowledge that, ultimately, none of us have it all worked out. “We’re lucky to have such a song that takes us around the world,” says Santiago, now 53. “It’s one of the wheels on the bus.”
Since cutting his teeth on Surfer Rosa, Steve Albini has become a recording heavyweight, producing albums for the likes of PJ Harvey and Low, not to mention the obvious, Nirvana, on their studio swansong, In Utero. But on Pixies’ debut, he found himself having to think on his feet. “That session was one of the first I’d ever done for a band who weren’t already friends or acquaintances of mine,” Albini says. “I was nervous and cocky, and probably went out of my way to try to sound like I knew what I was doing, while the truth was that I was pretty much still learning on the job. It was something of a mile marker in my progress as an engineer, being a record somebody I didn’t know had asked me to make, and it came out well. That was pretty satisfying.”
Much like the rest of Surfer Rosa, whose vocals and overdubbed guitars were largely recorded in Q Division’s reverberant bathroom, there’s a wonderful ad hoc quality to “Where is My Mind?”, manifested in the song’s misleading intro and elongated outro. “There was a false start at the beginning,” reveals Albini. “Kim went ‘Oooh’, and Charles said, ‘Stop!’ It sounded cool, so we kept it. As for the outro, the song ends abruptly because the tape ran out, and we extended Kim’s vocal past that with an edit. I thought the abrupt ending was charming, and Kim’s voice persisting beyond that had a nice defiant quality that served the notion that her voice existed outside the song.”
Francis’s E major chord progression, paired with Santiago’s eerie, minimalist lead, drives “Where is My Mind?”. “I intentionally made it monotonous,” Santiago says. “I did it on the first try and was like, ‘It’s done. Next!’” But the essence of the song is the interplay between Deal’s ‘Oooh’ and Francis’s solemn ambiguity. “It was obvious that Kim’s voice was meant to be a kind of pedal, a tonal center, and Charles’s was more of the personality,” Albini says. “I tried to present them in that way, where Kim’s voice was read less as a person and more as a sound.” Although Francis’s role in the band often restricted Deal’s creative contributions (something that originally led to her forming her own group, The Breeders, in 1989), even he has singled out her presence on the song in the past. As he told IGN back in 2009, “Even though Kim barely sings on it, there’s something about her singing that little haunting two-note riff.”
“Let’s just go by the phrase ‘Where is My Mind?’ alone. It relates to disenfranchised people, and there’s certainly a lot of them, so it unites them” – Joey Santiago, Pixies lead guitarist
Everyone from German folk group Milky Chance to English pop crooner and human sedative James Blunt have offered up their own version of “Where is My Mind?” over the years. Placebo’s rendition is one of the most faithful, racking up almost as many views on YouTube as the original (“I remember they did it justice,” Santiago recalls), but New York alt-rock band Nada Surf took it in a different direction, recording a drum and bass-influenced interpretation in 1999. “As is the case with any cover of a favourite band’s song, one is faced with a choice,” Nada Surf frontman Matthew Caws says. “Play it like they play it and enjoy the ride – even though it won’t be as good as their version, because how could it be? – or gamble on a different approach.” Nada Surf opted for the latter, and delivered a definitive, genre-warping gem that still honoured the original.
Four months after Nada Surf’s cover spearheaded a Pixies covers compilation album, the aptly-titled Where is My Mind? A Tribute to the Pixies, “Where is My Mind?” got its most famous lease of life via the big screen. Its use as a musical cue in the iconic climax of David Fincher’s Fight Club – just as the Narrator, played by Edward Norton, delivers his immortal “You met me at a very strange time in my life…” line – ushered in a whole new era of Pixies fans. But Santiago recalls feeling crestfallen at the time. “I remember the Pixies had broken up,” he says. “I heard it in a preview. I went to the movies for something else, and I saw the trailer for it. I was like, ‘Shit! We’re still relevant, and we broke up. That’s too bad.’ I was shell-shocked. I left the theatre and didn’t bother watching the movie. It put me in a bad mood.”
In more recent times, the song has become almost omnipresent in film, TV, and advertising. From the original version appearing on shows like Veronica Mars, Californication, The 4400, and Criminal Minds, to covers from the likes of Telepathic Teddy Bear and Sunday Girl soundtracking Galaxy chocolate and Thomson Holidays ads, it has trickled into the public consciousness as a modern pop standard. But it’s a tear duct-bothering solo piano version of the song by French composer Maxence Cyrin that has cropped up more than most, appearing everywhere from HBO drama series The Leftovers to techno thriller Mr Robot (against all the odds, WWE wrestler John Cena has even given Cyrin’s rendition a blast). For a song that lyrically blurs the lines between pure freedom and internal disassociation, Cyrin’s sparse instrumental perfectly captured its innate ambivalence and beauty.
“Taking a pop song and making a solo piece is not so easy if you don’t want to sound like a piano-bar player,” Cyrin says, “so I had to make some littles changes. It’s in an E major scale – major means happiness, but I play it very slow and minimalist. One day, I sent the video to Frank Black, and I was very honoured that he liked it. We met in Paris a few years ago and shared good wines together.”
Far and away the most prestigious usage of “Where is My Mind?” came on April 13, 2004 (the same date as the first Pixies reunion show), when NASA used the the song to wake up the team working on the Mars rover, Spirit, following a successful software transplant. Though the rover’s last communication with Earth was back in 2010, the honour doubled up as a victory for the band. “That is the coolest by far,” enthuses Santiago over the phone. “What’s cooler is that there must have been a vote for a song – so we finally beat Britney Spears, or something. It’s like, let’s not go with ‘Oops!... I Did It Again’, you know?”
Perhaps above all else, “Where is My Mind?” proved that a song needn’t be entirely logical for it to hit home. Both musically and lyrically, it mined depth from simplicity, and power from ambiguity. And while the likes of “Here Comes Your Man”, “Monkey Gone To Heaven”, and “Debaser” remain equal gateways for Pixies’ newcomers, everyone has their own take on why the single-that-never-was became such a classic. “I think it’s a combination of elements,” Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws says. “It’s a pretty tried-and-true one to shoot for, but it’s hard to pull off, and even harder to really knock out of the park. It’s something like: unique sonic stamp, arresting melody, existential lyrics that are relatable but vague enough to be just out of reach, simple and strong chorus statement – or question, as is the case here. I hope people write a lot more songs that tick all those boxes. I sure love listening to them.”
“The title of the song says it all,” Cyrin says. “It fits very well with the cover that I made and my personal state of mind, this very melancholic part of myself that need to be expressed with music.”
“It’s the surrealism of it,” Santiago adds. “It’s just a wacky song, man. Swimming in the Caribbean, the fish saying hello to you. It’s just crazy, instead of ‘Dear diary, this is what actually fucking happened.’ I don’t want to relive me walking down the street. Put me in the ocean, where the fish are saying hello to me. Make me trip out. Get me out of myself.”