They never shifted those units in Oasis-scale lorry loads but the Pixies' influence on British and US music has been far more pervasive. Anthony Thornton talks to their inspirational singer/ songwriter, the artist formerly known as Black Francis

Radiohead love them. Kurt Cobain wrote "Smells Like Teen Spirit" because he wanted to sound like them. What is the attraction of a band led by a man who looks like Shooting Stars' George Dawes? In 1987, Britain found itself without a band to rely on to dazzle and beguile after the demise of The Smiths. It was a crucial event in the history of British music because, for the first time since Elvis, the youth of Britain looked overseas for a band to sustain them through the trauma of adolescence.

That band was the Pixies. In the fallow years between the end of The Smiths and the messianic rise of The Stone Roses, this band from Boston, Massachusetts, was the most important band in Britain. This month sees the long overdue release of a Pixies "best of" spanning their career and entitled, in typical Pixies fashion, Death to the Pixies.

Noted for his reluctance to speak about the band, Frank Black, or Black Francis as he was then known, agreed to be interviewed on their lasting legacy.

He feels the role of the Pixies in kick-starting grunge has been over- exaggerated: "We started as an influence for some bands but I don't feel responsible for anyone else. I don't hear this connection as clearly as other people. Nirvana are an example: the Pixies were cited as an influence, but their talent stands on its own.

"But I'm proud to hear Radiohead cite the Pixies, because I consider them to be one of the better bands. They do it because they really like the music. And that's the way it should be."

A decade ago the twisted, unsettling sound of the Pixies appeared as if from outer space. Their debut mini-album Come On Pilgrim was shortly followed by Surfer Rosa. Both set the tone for what was to follow, containing songs steeped in violence, mutilation and death. They even contained songs sung in Spanish that weren't "La Bamba". Both had mysterious and ambiguous covers that hinted at the dark paradise inside.

Black Francis became a preacher man, speaking and screaming in tongues, whipping concerts up into near-riots. Word-of-mouth and illicit tapes spread the gospel of the Pixies.

Singer/songwriter Black Francis escaped his strict religious upbringing and quit his studies in Puerto Rico in 1986 and, together with guitarist Joey Santiago, decided to form a band. The rest of the band, bass player Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering, were recruited after Black Francis placed an ad saying he was looking for a band combining the sounds of Husker Du, then darlings of the alternative rock scene, with Peter, Paul and Mary. When the music press got wind of this, they relished Black Francis's delicious sense of humour: the very cool combined with the very uncool. But in a typical twist Black Francis wasn't joking - he loved both of them.

"They're bands I've enjoyed," he says. "I'm always interested to hear whether either an alien or someone from 1,000 years ago would see that much difference between them." This is the key to the Pixies' continuing relevance - they weren't bound by the rules and conventions of their age because they didn't know them.

With the release of Doolittle in 1989, the Pixies' reputation mushroomed. They played Crystal Palace Bowl and headlined the Reading Festival in front of tens of thousands of fans. But the cracks began to show around the time of the third album, Bossanova, with the old lyrical obsessions buried under surf guitars and songs about UFOs.

Frank Black pauses to consider the change of direction: "There was just less violent imagery on Bossanova - it was still there - it was just not as apparent. Joey and I were getting into surf instrumentals as we travelled in a Jack Nietzsche direction. It wasn't a conscious decision to change, it was just where we were... where I was anyway... and Joey."

Kim Deal and David Lovering weren't so keen. The last magnificent gasp of the Pixies was Trompe Le Monde, which was a return to the violent lyrics of the earlier albums. The Pixies appeared once more to be back on track.

The band's break-up was thus sudden and unexpected: "I was just sad and not enjoying myself. I was tired being in that band, hanging out with those people, playing all those songs. I was just burnt out on it. It had gone on too long. It probably went on a record or two too long...

"I don't know. I think some of those songs are some of the best. But when you've got everyone telling you `Hey, we've got to make another record' and `Hey, yours is the greatest band in the world,' you start to believe it and you don't edit yourself as well as you should."

Black Francis agrees that, like the Velvet Underground 20 years earlier, the Pixies were destined to be highly influential but never to threaten sales of Oasis proportions. He's not concerned: "I just want them to be known as a good band. That's the most important qualification, because that's the same status I prescribe for other bands. I'd like the general tag of a quality act and a quality entertainer."

`Death to the Pixies' is released on Monday on 4AD