In 1981, 16-year-old Frank Black (real name Charles Thompson, aka Black Francis) was vacationing in the Bahamas with his family. He went scuba diving in the clear blue water when suddenly he was attacked by a four-inch fish. The creature was tiny, not dangerous. But it wouldn’t leave him alone. Black thought to himself, “I have to get away from this fucking crazy fish, it’s totally freaking me out.” Six years later, he wrote a song about the experience.
I was swimmin’ in the Caribbean
Animals were hiding behind the rock
Except the little fish
Bumped into me, I swear he was trying to talk to me, koi-koi.
“Where is My Mind?” became the signature song for The Pixies. The band formed in 1986 while Black studied anthropology at the University of Massachusetts. He lived in a rented house off campus and one of his roommates was Joey Santiago, an economics major. Black and Santiago started jamming together. After two years, they dropped out of college and decided to form a band. They took out an ad looking for a bassist “who liked both Husker Dü and Peter, Paul and Mary.” The only musician who responded was Kim Deal. She was immediately hired even though she didn’t own a bass. She recommended her friend David Lovering who became the drummer.
The band needed a name. Santiago opened a dictionary and came across the word “pixies.” Everyone loved how the word translated to “mischievous little elves.”
Black wrote songs in his apartment bathroom for privacy. “One day my ex-wife was in there doing her makeup,” Black said. “She dressed quite goth, so it took a while. I was in the bedroom playing this song and she stuck her head out—and she never did this with any other song, ever—and said, ‘That’s a good one, finish it.’”
“Where is My Mind?” begins with a one-second high-pitched “hooooo” from Kim Deal interrupted by Black saying, “Stop.” Black then plays a mellow acoustic guitar riff with Deal softly singing “hoo-hoo” in the background. At the :14 second mark, Santiago comes in with his electric guitar while Lovering launches into a crisp bass-snare drum beat. The opening lyrics set a quirky tone:
With your feet in the air and your head on the ground
Try this trick and spin it, yeah
Your head will collapse, and there’s nothing in it
And you’ll ask yourself
The distorted electric guitar suddenly stops and Black sings the song’s refrain:
Where is my mind?
Where is my mind?
Where is my mind?
Way out in the water, see it swimming.
Guitarist Santiago said the distorted guitar line “was actually the first thing I tried. It’s a lazy arpeggio that sounded strong and hooky… The only rule we had was to try and get away from the standard 12-bar blues framework.”
"We didn’t know what we were doing,” Black said. “There’s something about the major to minor chord shift in the song… the dreamy side and the rockin’ side. It’s always been either sweaty or laid back and cool. We don’t know how to do anything else. We can play loud or quiet—that’s it.” (A 2006 documentary about the Pixies is called loudQUIETloud.)
The song was recorded in 1987 in a small Boston studio as part of the band’s first full-length album Surfer Rosa. (Their mini-LP Come on Pilgrim came out a year earlier.) The engineer/producer was Steve Albini, former member of Big Black. Albini took a low-key approach allowing the band to experiment.
“I suggested some Marshall amps for the big loud parts.” Albini said. “They took to that like a fish to water.”
The studio had one performing room. Albini directed Kim Deal to sing her ghostly “hoo-hoo” vocals in a communal bathroom with natural reverb.
Like all Pixies songs, “Where Is My Mind?” lacks a story arc and isn’t easy to analyze. “The song resonates with the universal sentiment of the title,” Black said. “Sonically, if you had to pick a song to sum up our band this would be it.”
“Where Is My Mind?” wasn’t released as a single and never charted. But Rolling Stone included it among its Top 500 Songs of All Time (#493). It’s been covered by Nada Surf, Coral Sea, Maxence Cyren, James Blunt, Placebo and Kelly Clarkson. It’s featured in films like Fight Club, Mr. Nobody, Big Ass Spider, Sucker Punch, The Leftovers and the tv show Mr. Robot. In some ways, the song has become a lazy trope for music supervisors to indicate a character is crazy or delusional.
The Pixies became a major influence for Radiohead, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Weezer. David Bowie said, “I found them just about the most-compelling music outside of Sonic Youth in the entire 1980s. I always thought there was a psychotic Beatles in them.”
Kurt Cobain said, “When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with them so heavily I should have been in that band—or at least in a Pixies cover band.” Cobain admitted he “tried to rip off the Pixies” when writing “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Black says he only listens to the song when it comes on in a coffee shop or retail store. “It’s funny, especially if I’m in a place filled with young hipsters and I’m just this middle-aged paunch-bellied man getting his espresso… It’s the song that pays my mortgage. I get offers once a week for another advertisement, movie or TV show to use it. I say yes to all of them.”