a bigger splash
With a brilliant new album, All Nerve, due this month, THE BREEDERS and their closest confidants look back with Tom Pinnock on the music, friendships and troubled times at the heart of their remarkable saga. “I don’t know how other people do it,” says Kim Deal.
KIM DEAL IS REFLECTING ON THE SIGNIFICANCE of Dayton, Ohio, in the story of her band The Breeders. As with much of the American Midwest, Dayton has been hard hit in recent years and is in search of an economic turnaround.
“The recession was pretty devastating over in the middle of States,” Kim recalls. “All these little main-street towns you’d go down, 35mph and a couple of stop lights? The towns are still there, but everything’s shut down. But let’s be positive about it. We have a friend who has a pool, he invites us over. We have the Cincinnati Reds baseball team, we go to Reds games. We watch football at each other’s houses – that’s an all-day big deal.” The band’s bassist Josephine Wiggs, who is originally from Bedfordshire, has an outsider’s perspective on Dayton’s decline. “Building shopping centres in the suburbs of Dayton killed the city centre,” she says. “But now there are all these awful decrepit strip malls, 70 per cent empty but with a couple of incredibly sad businesses, a grim-looking sushi restaurant and maybe a taekwondo studio.”
All the same, Dayton – other famous alumni: the Wright brothers, Martin Sheen and Guided By Voices – is central to the music, and lives, of The Breeders. Deal still lives there, as does her sister, lead guitarist Kelley and drummer Jim Macpherson, while Wiggs splits her time between Dayton and New York. Macpherson, meanwhile, works as a master carpenter when he’s not behind the drums; his wife cares for the Deals’ mother, who has Alzheimer’s. When they’re not rehearsing or recording, the Deal sisters also get ice cream with friends, organise barbecues and delve into the grisly shows on the Investigation Discovery network.
“They’re profoundly goofy together,” says Steve Albini, the band’s longtime producer. “Kim and Kelley are both really into true crime – they can blow an evening on killers and murder gossip easily.”
While basements are often the scene for just the kind of macabre crime depicted in these shows, Kim’s is reserved instead purely for acts of a musical nature. It was there, for instance, that the quartet put together All Nerve – The Breeders’ first album since 2008 and the first with the ‘classic’ lineup since 1993’s Last Splash. Just 11 tracks and a compact 34 minutes, it includes a bolshy cover of Amon Düül II’s krautrock gem “Archangel’s Thunderbird” and runs the gamut from sweet (the crystalline “Dawn: Making An Effort”) to caustic (the glowering “Nervous Mary”).
Despite their pedigree, The Breeders still operate like something of a cottage industry, self-funding their records, with no personal assistants or day-to-day managers involved; it’s admirable, but in Dayton it’s also something of a necessity.
“We’re in Ohio,” says Kim, “there’s no business management or music management – or even an accountant that does books for bands. The idea of a personal assistant out here would be like, ‘Fuck you, I got my own shit to worry about!’”
The idea of a Breeders reunion seemed unlikely a few years ago. To get there, they patched over a lot of hurt. When this lineup splintered in 1995, English bassist Josephine Wiggs had long gone, lead guitarist Kelley Deal was in rehab in Minnesota after being arrested for heroin possession, and Jim and Kim had formed the hard-drinking, shortlived Amps. With help from the band, long-time producer Steve Albini, engineer and technician Mike Montgomery and co-founder Tanya Donelly, Uncut pieces together The Breeders’ tale of long estrangements and renewed friendships, drug abuse and sobriety, and some of the finest rock songs of the last few decades. Along the way, conversations take in Deal’s final departure from Pixies, and the torment of creating finished records. “I mean, all of them are just so hard, you know?” Kim laughs, when Uncut asks if any of The Breeders’ albums have been a breeze to make. “They really are! I don’t know how other people do it. I wish I did.”
THE BREEDERS are in London on a brief European press tour, ostensibly to discuss All Nerve. The night before we meet, they play to a packed Electric Ballroom, and then the next morning head to BBC 6 Music to perform new single “Wait In The Car” and 2002 fan favourite “Off You”. Meeting Uncut in the private basement of a restaurant near Broadcasting House, they insist on being interviewed together as a four-piece, bickering and
joking as if the years apart never happened. Later, Uncut speaks to them individually from their homes in Dayton, where they are each able to offer a more measured view on their extraordinary tale. It prompts all manner of memories along the way; some more favourable than others. Kim remembers one incident from January 1993, when The Breeders hired a U-Haul van, piled their equipment into it, and drove alone across one of the most mountainous areas of the United States. “We had to take this box truck through the Wyoming mountains, over the Rockies, to record in San Francisco,” she says. “We went through the little pass that everybody died at, like we were gonna eat each other and shit… Snowstorm, roads closed… Me and Kelley were clinging onto Jim screaming when we were going down these mountains – it was like a sled!” “I was white-knuckling the steering wheel,” says Macpherson. “We had to stop because our van was sliding. It was scary.” If this was a rocky initiation for Macpherson, who had just joined the band, it would prove to be a fitting preparation for what was to come. The Breeders’ 1990 debut, Pod, had been recorded in Edinburgh over two weeks with Albini, who had helmed Pixies’ Surfer Rosa three years before. The idea was that Pod would feature only Kim Deal’s songs, with the followup written completely by guitarist and former Throwing Muse, Tanya Donelly. “I remember we were in our pyjamas a lot as our rooms were upstairs from the studio in a big, beautiful old house,” says Donelly. “We were both in the identical position of becoming more prolific songwriters in bands that simply couldn’t accommodate two busy writers. Finding support in each other at that time was liberating and exciting for both of us, and I’m extremely grateful to have been part of the first round.” Released in May 1990 and featuring the sublime, moody “Doe” and a deconstructed cover of The Beatles’ “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, Pod found favour with Kurt Cobain and impressed Albini. “I have worked with a lot of great musicians, but I’ve only worked with a couple of people who listen with the kind of precision Kim does,” he says. “I’ve described it before as listening through the music to the thing behind the music, and she’s relentless in pursuit of that, the evocation of meaning. The slightest thing can break the spell, and only she can tell when she’s achieved it.” When Donelly departed after the “Safari” EP to form Belly, Kim, Wiggs and new lead guitarist Kelley recruited Macpherson – veteran of any number of Dayton bands – as permanent drummer. Then came their treacherous drive across the Rockies to record Last Splash; once in the studio in San Francisco, things didn’t improve, with Kim booking a second studio because she didn’t like the drum sound. “I literally thought I was going to die in the studio during Last Splash,” she says. “‘Oh my God, this is so much work.’” It paid off, though – less than a month after Last Splash’s release in August 1993, The Breeders were on the couch talking to Conan O’Brien on Late Night: “We gave hickeys to each other last night,” Kim explained to the host. “We got drunk at four o’clock in the morning and we thought, ‘Ooh, we’ve gotta go on national TV, let’s give each other hickeys.’ And this morning it didn’t seem so funny.” A few seconds after, Wiggs jumped up and gave O’Brien his own love bite.
The Deal sisters were now something of an indie sensation, helped along by the infectious, ecstatic “Cannonball”. They toured extensively with Nirvana and played Lollapalooza, while Last Splash soon sold over a million copies in the US alone, and reached No 5 in the UK. By 1995, though, the limelight didn’t seem so appealing: Wiggs was concentrating on other projects, Kelley was in rehab after her brush with the law, and Macpherson and Kim had formed The Amps. The ‘classic’ lineup was no more.
“I was just a fucking wreck,” Kelley says, looking back to her younger days. “If there was not drugs or alcohol or partying to be had, I wasn’t interested in it. ‘I’m hungover and I’m sleeping late, and I’m gonna get up sometime later, eat something shitty and then start drinking again.’ That’s how I spent that time!”
The Amps similarly found their partying was getting out of control. A typical example took place in Dublin during 1995, where they were finishing off
“This is so much work”: backstage at the Catalyst in santa Cruz, CA, October 10, 1994
Love bites all round on with Conan O’brien, september 23, 1993 Late Night