2(b). The Breeders

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Dudes to the back: The Breeders play for Snub TV while making Pod in Edinburgh, January 1990

As origin stories go, it’s a good one. Tanya Donelly and Kim Deal are drunk at a Boston club one night, dancing to music playing before the Sugarcubes come on, and decide to make a disco record.

On the Throwing Muses/Pixies tour in spring 1988, Deal and Donelly “were the girls,” Kristin Hersh recalled in the Pixies’ Fool the World oral history. “Leslie [Langston] and I were the vegetarians, they were the girls, the other ones were the boys.” For Donelly, whose social life had greatly consisted of playing rock clubs with her step-sister [see Quartet No. 2], Deal’s friendship was a new adolescence. “I never had girlfriends like her in high school,” she said (Deal had been a cheerleader and on the gymnastics team). “She was my first ‘I’m gonna braid your hair!’ kind of friend.”

Each second place in their respective bands, Deal and Donelly mulled ideas for a solo project, possibly using the two Dave drummers (Narcizo and Lovering). Their “disco queens” concept went as far as working in a rehearsal space, trying to cover the likes of “Tell Me Something Good.”

“We sucked at it,” Donelly told Spin in 2004. “We didn’t have the funk. We were thinking, we’ll have this organic dance band—no machines, no loops, just guitar and drums. It was dumb. So we decided to have a regular old band.”

Not Quite a Regular Old Band: Classes of Breeders

Here are the Breeders, a band whose sole constant is Kim Deal:

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The First Breeders: ca. 1978-1982. In Dayton, Ohio, teenage Kim and Kelley Deal play around town and record songs in their home studio.

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Arty Breeders (aka “the Tanya Breeders”): ca. late 1988-spring 1992. From the first Tanya Donelly/Kim Deal rehearsals through Pod (1990) and the Safari EP (1992). Donelly and Deal are joined by Josephine Wiggs (bass, late of the Perfect Disaster) and Britt Walford (drums, Slint). A mayfly-lived quintet expansion with Kelley Deal is documented on the “Safari” video and a few photo shoots.

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(Kevin Westenberg, 1993)

Pop Breeders (aka “the ‘Cannonball’ Breeders”): summer 1992-late 1994. Kelley replaces Donelly; the band gets a new drummer, Jim Macpherson (his name about as often spelled with a capital P). The Breeders as remembered by most, with their platinum-certified Last Splash, their MTV hit single, and their 1994 Lollapalooza stint. It ends messily.

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Chaotic Breeders (aka “the Amps Breeders”): 1995-1999. Period of strife, with various members quitting or in rehab. Many fruitless recording sessions. The only album of this era is the Amps’ Pacer (1995), cut by the Dayton-based quartet of Kim Deal, Macpherson, Luis Lerma and Nate Farley: a Breeders record under an assumed name.

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Recovery Breeders (aka “The West Coast Breeders”): 2000-2010. Years of sporadic sessions with the Deals, drummer José Medeles, bassist Mando Lopez and guitarist Richard Presley result in Title TK (2002) and an appearance on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (starts 18:00 in). Presley leaves, restoring the Breeders to their proper quartet state. More sporadic sessions yield Mountain Battles (2008) and Fate to Fatal (2009). This incarnation’s last bow is ATP New York in September 2010.

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(Marisa Gesualdi, 2018)

Reunion Breeders: 2013-present. Pop Breeders, together again (All Nerve, 2018).

Treehouse Plans: The Deal Sisters

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Who knows who originally scanned these (via here)

Kim and Kelley Deal are identical twins, born in Dayton in 1961. Their parents were from West Virginia, where their father had mined coal in his youth (“my brother’s the only male Deal that never worked in a mine,” Kim said in 2004. “My father doesn’t have his front teeth from a hammer ricocheting off the side of a mountain.”) Like many white working-class families in mid-century America, the Deals prospered via suburbia, the GI Bill, and the Cold War: Robert “Ed” Deal became director of mission avionics at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s aeronautical laboratory.

Growing up in Huber Heights, a newly-made Dayton suburb (“America’s Largest Community of Brick Homes”), the Deal sisters were popular, athletic, accomplished at school, and bored. “Just poring over the record collection,” Kim said of her teenage years. “Smoking pot. Snowing, constantly snowing, and doing drugs.” The sisters loved music—Kim was an adept guitarist by her early teens—but learned “no guy would play with us in a band,” Kim said in Fool the World. “It was uncool to have a chick in the band.” All that female musicians were good for in Dayton at the time, she said, was to sing “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” then gaze at the lead guitarist for the rest of the gig. “We didn’t know there was indie rock. It was just spandex here.”

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Reeling in the year: the Deals’ senior (1979) yearbook at Wayne High (Huber Heights, OH)

So they built their own scene. By 1978, they had a home studio with a mixing board and an eight-track recorder. Kim even spliced the electrical cords. They played open mikes, biker bars, the Ground Round, truck stops: Kim on acoustic guitar; she and Kelley harmonizing on Hank Williams (“I Can’t Help It”), Neil Young, and Little Feat songs. Among their originals was one called “Do You Love Me Now?

“These tough big macho biker guys…you could make them cry. You really could,” Kim recalled in 1993. “It’s a lot different to college-age-type kids who just think ‘there’s no fuckin’ way we’re going to sit around listening to this shit.'” They played under the name “The Breeders.” Kim had heard it was gay male slang for heterosexuals. “It’s like ‘yeucch! they’re breeders!,’ like a ripe, stinky thing,” she told Melody Maker. “It could also be men’s attitude towards women, and women about themselves.”

She thought of going to Nashville to be a songwriter; Kelley became a systems analyst for a defense contractor. Kim met John Murphy, a Massachusetts native working at Wright-Patterson. They married, she moved back to Boston with him, got a job in a doctor’s office, answered a “bassist wanted” ad in the Boston Phoenix [see Quartet 2(a)].

Once she’d joined the Pixies (originally billed as “Mrs. John Murphy”), she and Charles Thompson split the air fare for Kelley to come to Boston to audition as the band’s drummer. Kelley turned the Pixies down, later saying that she’d only ever wanted to be in Kim’s group.

Gestation

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Donelly in Hollywood, April 1989 (KH Archives)

During late 1988, Donelly and Deal hung out at the latter’s house in Boston and worked on songs. Carrie Bradley, a violinist and singer in the Boston alt-folk band Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, got involved. As did the latter band’s manager and Deal/Murphy friend, Ray Halliday, who played bass and co-wrote a few pieces (“Doe,” “Glorious.”) “Kim is a perfectionist, so she redid some of his parts,” her now-ex-husband Murphy said.

Using various drummers, Deal and Donelly demoed most of what became Pod, including “Only in 3’s“, “Doe” and “Lime House,” along with “Silver” (soon recorded by the Pixies on Doolittle), “You Always Hang Around” (later turned into “Divine Hammer”) and a song that would appear on Last Splash: a cover of Ed’s Redeeming Qualities‘ “Drivin’ on 9.” 4AD’s Ivo Watts-Russell, entranced by the demos, gave Deal and Donelly $11,000 to make a record.

Label politics meant a compromise. The first Breeders album would be Deal’s songs; the second would be Donelly’s. The American debut of the Arty Breeders was a single show at the Rat in Kenmore Square, on a date that no one seems able to recall (winter 1989? spring 1990?). “It was billed in the Phoenix as a Boston girl supergroup,” Murphy said in Fool the World. As there’s no footage of the performance, it’s as legendary an evening as the one Donelly and Deal dreamed up a group together.

When Iris Sleeps Over

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Rehearsed near London and recorded in Edinburgh, Pod was made in three weeks in January 1990. It was a sleepover of a session—Donelly, Deal, and Josephine Wiggs often wore their Marks & Spencer pajamas while tracking and mixing. Deal compared it to summer camp, or rather “winter camp in Edinburgh, winter camp for a collection of losers.”

She’d met Wiggs not long before. Wiggs’ father was a British environmental activist who founded the Anti-Concorde Project; the Wiggses lived in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, in the then-dilapidated Fairfield House, which had fourteen bedrooms and reportedly a library that contained every edition of the Guardian and Times issued since the mid-Sixties. “Whenever you go there, it’s really hard to leave,” Wiggs told Rolling Stone in 1994. “It’s got this Twilight Zone feeling about it.”

As a child, she learned cello. As a teenager, she went to her local in Baldock wearing a red-lined Dracula cape (a period (much) later honored in “MetaGoth”). Upon getting a masters in continental philosophy, she joined the Perfect Disaster, who opened for the Pixies in London in 1988. After a Pixies gig in Frankfurt the following summer, Deal asked Wiggs for a lift, only to realize she didn’t know where she was staying. Deal had to return to the bar and reassemble shreds of a napkin upon which she’d written her hotel’s name. Helping to achieve this feat, Wiggs was in.

In the Breeders, she was an ambassador of eccentric order; her basslines are an elegant, firm subscript. In band photographs and videos, she has the expression of Tenniel’s Alice when encountering a talking chess piece. “She lives by strict codes,” Rolling Stone‘s Karen Schoemer wrote of her in 1994. “It is said about her that if she is driving a car and she winds up in the right-hand turn lane, she will turn right, no matter which direction she would rather be going.” Wiggs photographs wild mushrooms wherever she travels, reportedly has never eaten meat in her life, and came out as a lesbian in the mid-Nineties. When visiting Dayton, she often stayed with the Deals’ parents, to whom she related more than their daughters. She is, and always has been, the coolest member of the band.

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Wiggs, in a quartet that won’t be part of this series: cycle’s gotta end at some point

To produce, Deal picked Steve Albini (she only had phone numbers of producers she’d worked with in the Pixies). Wiggs thought he got the nod “because Kim needed someone to fight with.” She was impressed with the American efficiency of these fights. Albini and Deal would yell at each other for five minutes, then quietly work on a take together. Albini would tell Donelly she didn’t need to do another overdub, she’d stomp upstairs hollering that she couldn’t live with such a lousy guitar part, and by the next morning she’d usually agree with him.

Deal saw in Albini someone who, despite the occasional abrasive moment (like telling Donelly “if he drank my bathwater, he’d probably piss rosewater,” the latter recalled), hadn’t condescended to her while making Surfer Rosa and could get the sounds that she had in her head, which she thought the demos had failed to do.

The drummer was his suggestion: Britt Walford, from Louisville, Kentucky, who was in college at the time. Only nineteen, Walford already had played in Squirrel Bait and cut an album with his friends in Slint. His time in the Breeders was akin to a witness protection program, with Walford billing himself as “Shannon Doughton” (and later, “Mike Hunt”) and appearing in few band photographs.

“The songs weren’t finished when I joined the band,” Walford told Modern Drummer. “We all kind of worked by consensus, so it made things pared down a lot. If one person didn’t like one thing, it was gone.” Wiggs later recalled Walford having a “self-assuredness that comes only with youth. He was an authoritative, hard-hitting drummer and so behind the beat you almost felt like it belonged in the last bar.”

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A rare Walford sighting in the Breeders, 1992

Albini’s Pod mixes are vast, darkened rooms in which a handful of instruments work against each other. Foremost, Walford’s gargantuan-sounding kick and snare (on the debut Slint album, he’d asked Albini to “make the bass drum sound like a ham being slapped by a catcher’s mitt.”) The secret, Deal said, was that “there’s so much empty space for the drums to ring out. Poor Dave [Grohl, on In Utero] had all these guitars and bass playing all the way through.” The rest of the cast is Deal’s distorted acoustic guitar, Wiggs’ sloping basslines that could at times pass for guitar figures, the occasional violin, and Donelly’s leads, which she often ended on a note or chord that, to Wiggs, sounded as if she was asking a question. Some ideas came from Joe Harvard’s demo remixes, such as putting Deal’s vocals in “Lime House” through a Scholz Rockman “for a compressed, chorused fuzzbox effect, then running it through a noise gate to be triggered during certain sections,” as Harvard wrote.

The First Breeders had been a two-part harmony act, and Deal had a strong co-vocalist in Donelly, but Pod wasn’t a harmonies album. Albini hated intricate vocals and thought the album worked better with Deal’s single- or double-tracked voice. Comparing the demo “Only in 3’s” to its Pod version finds Donelly diminished in a song she co-wrote. (Instead Pod is Donelly’s development as a lead guitarist: the high-pitched repeating figure in “Glorious,” the power chording in “When I Was a Painter.”)

Many Pod tracks are more languid than their demo versions. They’re cleaner, more raw-sounding (when Deal’s voice breaks in “Oh!,” it’s like a saxophonist bruising a high note), and usually go at slower tempos. It’s as if the Breeders are working towards a proper take that never appears, so the songs remain these great unincorporated territories.

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The only record of the Breeders’ debut in London, with Albini lurking around like John Wilkes Booth (NME, 27 January 1990)

Pod was cut so efficiently (Wiggs: “if we made it through the song from beginning to end, that was the take which made it onto the record”) that there was time in Edinburgh for promotional bits: a John Peel session; a performance for Snub TV that’s the only video footage of them. After a brief coda in London, where they played live (reportedly twice, documented once), and despite a vague plan for a surprise set at Glastonbury that summer, that would be it. By the time Deal and Donelly promoted Pod in May 1990, they were in California working on the Pixies’ and Muses’ next albums.

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Westenberg, 1990 (as with other Pod shots)

Deal narrates Pod (“a bunch of ugly, stinking gross songs”) in the smiling voice of someone telling a campfire ghost story: it’s her Night Gallery. In “Doe,” two schizophrenics on Thorazine run around setting fields ablaze, saying everything tastes salty and chanting the title word (“like Bambi,” Deal said in 1990). “Hellbound” is an aborted fetus that “lives despite the knives internal” (“it’s like a heavy metal hymnal—we’re all hellbound”); “Oh!” is from the perspective of insects being squashed; “Fortunately Gone” (a First Breeders “truck stop” song) has a girl in heaven yearning for her lover to die. “Iris” is a ripening ghost who comes to visit, perhaps forever (a play on a book from Deal’s childhood). In “Glorious,” a woman gets stoned on mushroom tea, leaving the windows of her house open to the rain and wind. “Lime House” is Deal as Sherlock Holmes, strung out in an opium den (“it’s about being in the warm dark place with pillows, daydreaming 24 hours a day.”) Lots of sex, too: the astral projection/wet dream of “Opened”; the ménage à trois in “Only in 3’s”; the sticky fluids of “Metal Man” (“that’s hot,” Wiggs deadpans).

Pod has the gauziness of quickly-fading dreams, a few sleep-crumbs left behind: it’s so salty Tammy!, robin flies again, on my own on Saturdays. It’s what Deal conveys in a harsh phoneme (hellbownd hellbownd, ow!er by ow!er!, I’m in a lime howse) or a wordless hook: ah-HAH-huh-huh, down-de-down-de-down, go!go!go!, the sighing “Oh!s” heard across the record. And the wonderful opening of “Doe”:

Trumpets:  DA DA   DA DA   DA DA DA

Not Girls Who Miss Much

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Covering “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” was Watts-Russell’s idea. Deal was skeptical until she listened to the Beatles track and thought it was as dirty as the other songs she was cutting.

John Lennon once said of “Warm Gun” that it was “a sort of history of rock ‘n roll” he’d pieced together from bits. It’s a set of fetish objects: velvet hands; mirror-tipped boots for a creep’s upskirt viewing; a soap impression of his wife that a man swallows and shits out. The warm gun itself, worshiped like a girl in a Fifties song, a Peggy Sue or Donna with blood on their hands. Variations on hunger, abasement and death that rumble between, in one section, 9/8 and 10/8 time.

The Breeders don’t attempt the Beatles’ studio perfectionism (“Warm Gun” took the latter nearly a hundred takes to complete). They hold the song to its ugly promises, darkening its spots. Wiggs and Walford, a thrown-together rhythm section of general opposites, fuse into a colossus. And they scrap the ending. The Beatles had closed “Warm Gun” as a grotesque joke, Lennon reviving a mock doo-wop voice that went back to his art school days (see “You’ll Be Mine”). Instead Deal quietly sings “happiness is a warm gun” a few times, as if holding it to her chest. She’s gotten her fix; she’s still going down.

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Donelly said of the Pod-era Breeders that “it was like this little capsule band, it had a beginning, a middle, and an end, at least this record…this perfect little episode.”

Pod was released five months into a decade that it would quietly influence. Kurt Cobain was in awe of it, calling Pod one of his all-time favorite albums (“it’s an epic that will never let you forget your ex-girlfriend.”) Courtney Love listened to Pod “24/7” while making Live Though This. It’s a key reason why Polly Harvey sought out Albini for Rid of Me. You hear it echo down through the years—in some of Lucy Dacus’ work, for instance.

Wiggs once said that when first hearing a band’s songs, she usually could guess what they’d been listening to and what they were trying to do with it. But the Pod songs surprised her. She could find no point of origin—she had no frame of reference for them. Deal’s songs on Pod seemed to have arrived, fully-formed, out of nowhere.

Off on Safari

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Breeders honor the Sabbath on “Safari,” 1992.

As their Snub TV performance of “When I Was a Painter” winds down, Donelly moves towards the Marshall stack. She starts to boogie, enough for Deal to crack up. It’s their organic dance band at last.

“It made me feel like an individual musician,” Donelly told the Los Angeles Times of her work on Pod. “That I wasn’t just part of the Muses microcosm…I don’t get nervous anymore.” She left Throwing Muses after their spring 1991 tour. But although she and Deal demoed in Boston what was supposed to be the second Breeders album, Deal would stick with the Pixies for another year, touring most of the time. It was too long for Donelly to wait, so she moved on [see Quartet 2(c)].

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The end of the Tanya Breeders is the Safari EP. Spacemen 3’s Jon Mattock was recruited to drum on the fantastic title track, which sounds in places like an early draft of “Cannonball” (Kim: “it’s about ookie boys…cry babies”; Donelly: “it’s mean and has a sexual element”). Safari was a transition piece, the mixes pushing up vocal harmonies and downplaying basslines. A cover of the Who’s “So Sad About Us” was a breakup song; a revival of the First Breeders’ “Do You Love Me Now?” a sign the band was, again, becoming a family affair.

Not that Kim, once she decided the Breeders would go full-time, gave up easily on Donelly. “She tried to coerce me and subtle and not-so-subtle ways to come back,” Donelly recalled in Fool the World. “One night, we were in Dayton and she locked us in the bathroom of this bar we were in.”

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One of the Pop Breeders’ first gigs: Glastonbury, 26 June 1992

With Donelly and Walford gone, the Breeders were no longer a supergroup but a (mostly) Dayton-centered gang of misfits. Kim wanted her sister in the band. It took some convincing, as Kelley Deal is one of few who struggled with leaving their corporate job (“I had top secret clearance. I was a little bit sad to give it up”) to play in a rock group signed to a major label.

Once she was in, she went fully in. Kelley wanted to be on lead guitar, despite having never played before. The months before the first Breeders shows in summer 1992 found the band publicly wondering if she could achieve competence in time. “I asked her to play the drums, but she said no, she wants to be the fucking lead guitarist,” Kim said. “Josephine is like ‘isn’t it wonderful?…is she or is she not going to be able to do it?’ But it’s getting old, man. I just want her just to learn it and play.” (Wiggs in 2013: “I would say it took about twenty years, actually.”)

A decade later, Kim said she’d been lucky to have an anti-ace lead guitarist. “I would rather listen to a bad player than someone who plays stock blues riffs with flair,” she told the Guardian. “And Kelley is so musical. She creates new parts; most guitarists just repeat everything they’ve ever heard.” Kelley, recalling cutting the lap steel part for “No Aloha,” told Amanda Petrusich “do you know how patient they had to be? Any one of them could’ve done it so much faster than I was able to do it…[But] there’s something about somebody who doesn’t know. They don’t add any finesse, there’s no affectation to their playing.”

For a new drummer, Kim found Jim Macpherson, of Dayton’s Raging Mantras (he’d put flyers for their upcoming gigs in Kim’s mailbox). Macpherson was a wildly physical player, looking as if he was jogging in place while at the kit. “I can paradiddle [so] fast until my hands fall off!” he once said (like the Muses’ Narcizo, he was in drum corps in high school). He was so new to touring that Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic had to tell him what drum stage monitors were and that he was allowed to eat the food backstage. Having stripped his kit down to a five-piece, he locked in well with Wiggs, who found his timekeeping “impeccable”—see any Breeders performance of Aerosmith’s “Lord of the Thighs,” which Wiggs sings like a Martian empress.

In the Shade…In the Shade

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It started out with me, I was borrowing my brother’s harmonica microphone and screaming at a Marshall amplifier. [Adopts grandma voice] Back in those days you just didn’t do that to get on the radio, son!

Kim Deal, to the AV Club, 2009

In January 1993, Kim was in a San Francisco studio when her sister came in to say she’d heard the Pixies had broken up. Kim shrugged and went back to working on a song she was calling “Grunggae,” a cocktail of grunge and reggae (the latter, she thought, was heard in the guitar accenting).

It became “Cannonball.” Three chords: two rotating in the verse, the third (an A-flat VII chord) to kick up the refrain (“can-non-ball“). A guitar riff to honor Black Sabbath (“I’m a metal girl from Ohio,” Kim once said). An intro of Kim singing through a bullet microphone that she’d plugged into her Marshall, making a shroud of feedback that sounded like a fax machine waking up. It was her attempt to sound like Gibby Haynes on Ministry’s “Jesus Built My Hotrod.”

And the bassline, in part inspired by Mick Allen’s work on Wolfgang Press tracks like “Louis XIV” (“warm and oozing, up and down the fretboard,” Deal said.) Wiggs has said she’s bemused by various “here’s how you play the ‘Cannonball’ bassline” videos on YouTube, because these instructors are usually wrong. Her opening slide is a mistake that she “corrects” the second time.

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The error had happened during rehearsals in Dayton. “It had been a while since we had played together. And then when we came to play “Cannonball,” it’s a pretty big slide on the low E…and playing high on the neck of the bass is not something that one often does,” Wiggs told Consequence of Sound. “I had made a mistake about which note I was supposed to be sliding to. Because I’m playing on my own there, you can’t tell that it’s the wrong note.” Would-be “Cannonball” bassists also often miss that Wiggs used a pick, and did quick lift-offs and mutes to give her lines more snap.

“Cannonball” is an anticipation of a song, packed with noises: stray yells, Macpherson’s stick work, swirled harmonies, Kim’s Seagull S6 acoustic guitar routed through a Marshall JCM 900 (also done for “I Just Wanna Get Along” and other Last Splash tracks). “I don’t mind acoustic guitar when it’s fuzzed up—the low end can be really terrifying,” she said. “I kind of have a problem with clean acoustic sounds, like the Dan Fogelberg thing.” A pure single, “Cannonball” is a set of hooks offered wholesale, like the muted guitar fill answered by Macpherson’s drum fill (and, critically, these swap positions in a later refrain).

Kim’s lyric, mocking some would-be Marquis de Sade, is an excuse for a run of glorious phrasings: wissh-ing well; the pileup of hard gees in bong…reggae song; her and Kelley’s emphatic distinction between “in the shade” and “in the shade.” How Kim sings “last splash”—first, insouciant; later, with a blissed-out “lassssst splaaaassssh.” All building to her refrain hook, screamed through the bullet mike, this great locomotive of sound: WANT YOO KOO-KOO CAN NON BALL!

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Breeders, ecstatic to attend the MTV Movie Awards, 1993

“Cannonball” peaked at 44 on the Billboard Hot 100, a ranking that diminishes how omnipresent it was by early 1994, thanks to a Spike Jonze/Kim Deal-directed video that aired every third hour on MTV (rolling cannon-bowling-ball, Kim underwater, funhouse shots of the Deal twins in multiple mirrors). Wiggs’ dentist, during a cleaning, said he recognized her from television.

And it fueled sales of Last Splash, which went platinum in June 1994. Cut over three months in two San Francisco studios, near-simultaneously (one for vocals and guitars, one for drums), Last Splash “was very anal, and I was very anal in how I produced it,” Kim told J. Eric Smith in 1997. “I wanted the production to sound like the hand of God just came down and flicked a bunch of the buttons. It was very headphone-oriented. I mean, all of the sudden in the middle of a song, the vocals would go like [makes a sound akin to a light saber cutting through a bleating sheep]. I wanted it to sound very manipulated like that, chimes, tapes, loops, whatever.”

One of the great stoner albums (commemorative reissues should come with rolling papers and loose seeds in the sleeves), Last Splash was the emergence of Kim Deal as stubborn studio perfectionist, one fixed to a limited spectrum. No string sections, few synths, no sound du jour. It’s more wanting a track like “Flipside” to sound like a thrice-overdubbed cassette. To make sure the drums walloped, that the guitars have teeth in them, that each track has something new in it or, rather, something old that’s been warped into novelty. The opening of “S.O.S.” is Kelley’s sewing machine miked through a Marshall. She wanted the lead guitar on “Mad Lucas” to sound as small as possible, so engineer Mark Freegard ran it through a tiny nine-volt battery-operated Tandy speaker, routed it through the board out to an Auratone speaker miked in the studio bathroom “and filtered that over again.”

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Wiggs recalled the Deals spending a day battering a new cymbal to make it sound like an old cymbal (one idea was to throw it out of a window). They sang into open grand pianos (e.g., the intro of “Do You Love Me Now?”), in stairwells, hallways, bathrooms. Carrie Bradley said the master take of “Drivin’ on 9” only happened once the band got packed into a single room “all kind of sweating…pinned to our live stations like marionettes, like our own bittersweet concert.”

Last Splash was also the harmonies album Pod wasn’t. Kim and Kelley’s voices, though Kelley tended to take the higher harmonies, are similar enough in tone that their multi-tracked vocals sound at times like a single voice that’s been broken up and pieced together again.

Tipp City Limits

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Pinkpop Festival, May 1994

You didn’t leave Dayton all winter?

Well, when I did leave it was just to go to Guided by Voices shows and that was frustrating too, seeing them. They’re in a band, they’re playing together, they’re having shows…We’re like, the bass player lives in England, Kelley may go to jail…

Kim Deal to Spin, 1995

The Breeders were now one of Elektra’s great “alternative” hopes. In Martin Aston’s 4AD history, Kim claimed Elektra and her manager pushed her to sign a contract that meant bigger advances (“like a couple of hundred thousand dollars for the next album”) but tied her to Elektra for longer. Watts-Russell compared the post-Nirvana years to the post-Easy Rider years in American film. Again corporations, startled by an unanticipated success and fearing they were missing some generational shift, threw sacks of dollars at anything remotely hip-seeming.

She stressed that the success of “Cannonball” was likely a one-shot. “I told them, ‘I might make a tuba record next, I’m from the Midwest, I’m just a normal person,'” she told Aston. “I didn’t want to present myself as a fraud, to take the money and then not make the record they wanted…I’ve tried, but I don’t have the killer spirit in me to generate chart sales for the sake of it.”

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One sign to not expect “Cannonball II” was the sole Breeders release of 1994: a vinyl-only EP single (at a time when vinyl was near-extinct in record stores), Head to Toe. Its title track was co-written by Wiggs (as per Kim, it began “really slow and maudlin, in fuckin’ 7/17 time or something” [Wiggs: “6/8 time”] until Wiggs’ girlfriend Kate Schellenbach “put a hardcore beat to it and that suited us better.”). Other new tracks were Sebadoh and Guided By Voices covers.

It’s the one angle people have on the band. There’s no sex and violence in the Breeders, so I guess it’s got to be drugs. If it wasn’t that, you would be asking me how it feels to be a woman in rock.

Kim Deal, to the Guardian, 2002.

Some musicians use drugs and keep quiet about it. Others once did, are now sober, and now go on about it. And then there are those who say they use drugs and that, hey, it’s pretty fun.

The Deal sisters were of the latter bunch, admitting in a number of interviews that they’d been drinking, smoking pot, doing ecstasy, coke, opiates and God knows whatever else since they were teenagers. “Drugs have always been just an integral part of my life,” Kim told the NME in 1994. At her desk job, Kelley would show up to work still rocked on the ecstasy she’d taken the night before.

Once Kelley joined the band, she got a reputation as the Breeders’ Keith Richards (“Kelley is a rock ‘n roll animal,” Wiggs said. “She’s far more rock ‘n’ roll than all the rest of us”). In Dayton in November 1994, upon signing for a package that held more than three grams of heroin, Kelley was arrested. She pleaded guilty, underwent treatment in Minnesota in exchange for charges being dropped. After rehab, she stayed on in St. Paul (“I didn’t know anyone in Dayton who wasn’t always shit-faced”) and formed a new band, the Kelley Deal 6000.

Kim wouldn’t continue the Breeders without her sister, so she fashioned a new identity: Tammy Ampersand and the Amps, a band with Macpherson and other local musicians, guitarist Nate Farley and bassist Luis Lerma. The Amps’ album Pacer was “mostly a love song to Kelley,” Kim said. “I was feeling love, anger, worry, resentment, and grateful that nothing worse had happened.” (See “Dedicated” and “She’s a Girl,” among other tracks.)

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Amps to Breeders: on Conan O’Brien, 1996

“Frankly, I was really struggling to deal with Kim’s lo-fi,” Watts-Russell said of Pacer. “I couldn’t tell if it was truly a demo or if it was the sound she was trying to pursue. It was alike to Syd Barrett: she’s got this unique language to making music, but I didn’t understand the story and I couldn’t give any input, except to be encouraging when she’d call.” Kim would send Watts-Russell one demo at a time, each cassette wrapped in a Polaroid. “I really did feel that I’d dropped the ball and the project lacked direction.”

Reeves Gabrels once said of Tin Machine that they took Michael Jackson money to make a Pixies album, which is a good way to piss off a record label. Now Kim took “Cannonball” money to make a strange, short, distortion-fogged album, recorded in six studios across the country and a seventh in Dublin, and which was marketed well beyond its ambitions: full-page ads, scads of in-store promo. I recall seeing stacks of Pacer cassettes and CDs during fall 1995, relatively few of which sold—reportedly around 25,000 copies.

Touring Pacer into early 1997, wanting some Breeders songs in the sets, and oddly concerned that Amps fans might be confused by this, Kim christened the band the new Breeders. Soon she hired Freegard to record the next Breeders album, to be made by the Amps and, when ready, Kelley. Wiggs, correctly sensing things were still unsettled on the Deal front, declined to take part.

Relocating to Battery Park City, the Amps Breeders started out at the Magic Shop, where Kim hated the drum sound. She went around Manhattan auditioning studios. Reportedly while at Avatar, she spent a full day working on a click track. An anonymous engineer told the New York Times in 2002 that Deal was consumed by ”all these technical hoodoo things that no one would ever hear or know—but that she heard in her head.”

As per engineer John Agnello, Deal and the now-revolving-door Breeders (one prospective drummer left after a half-hour) spent roughly $340,000 in recording costs in 1997. “Even after seven weeks, and a studio cost of two thousand dollars a day, we had nothing to hear,” Freegard told Aston. At one point Kim vanished for a week to Nantucket while the band was sitting around in the studio. “Kim got totally lost. She was taking substances and not wanting to go to bed, but she wouldn’t let the other musicians play. I had to give up on her.”

The band dropped off, one by one: Deal came downstairs in Dayton one day to find Macpherson’s drum kit gone. He said he thought Kim had changed, that the band no longer felt like the Amps, let alone the Breeders, and there was no place for him. He soon hooked up with Guided By Voices; he and Kim wouldn’t speak again until 2012.

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Back to two: The Deals at Lounge Ax, Chicago, 11 July 1999.

1998 “was a lost year, and a lot of fun,” Kim recalled (it helped that, along with her advances, she’d gotten a boatload of cash from the Prodigy sampling “S.O.S.” on “Firestarter”). “I’d been touring consistently since 1987. So what was the worst that could happen?”

All that emerged from this era is a 7″ single issued by a Breeders zine and a James Gang cover used in a 1999 Mod Squad remake. For much of their audience, the Breeders had essentially disappeared after the summer of 1994. As with Elastica being stuck in limbo (for similar reasons), it added to a sense of dissipated potential in the last years of the last century. It was as though the late Nineties we got was a second-tier one, the one in which the understudies and opportunists took over.

Choppered Out Of Sea Life

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“This doesn’t work because it’s a democracy. It works because we share enough of Kim’s vision.”

Wiggs, 1994

The revival of the Breeders starts with drums. Kim went home to Dayton and taught herself to play them.

She’s drumming on “The She,” “Forced to Drive” and “Too Alive,” the sisters-only tracks the Deals cut in 1999 (Kelley sang harmonies, played a little guitar and bass). It’s a performance that you can’t imagine her tolerating from another player. Her drumming is scrappy, clunky, ambitious; it has character. It reminds me of Paul McCartney’s drumming on his first solo album. A studio obsessive looks up to see no one left in the room except family, and has to start from square one. “I got used to/ nobody riding in the back,” she sings on “The She,” over a Farfisa drone.

She recorded the tracks at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio in Chicago. “The sessions were slow, she wasn’t sober yet and she was basically rebuilding a lot of parts of her life simultaneously,” he told Uncut. She’d finally done something she felt worthy of releasing, but didn’t push on to make an album. The Breeders were a band, so she had to create them again.

One night in New York in March 2000, at the dive Motor City Bar on Ludlow Street, Kim met two members of the storied punk band Fear, guitarist Richard Presley (allegedly related to Elvis, and Hope Sandoval) and bassist Mando Lopez. She asked them at closing if they wanted to jam in a nearby rental space—they played until morning. Within months, Kim moved to Presley and Lopez’s home, East Los Angeles, where they recruited drummer José Medeles. Kelley was in East LA soon enough. Kim called Albini, said she had the new band.

Much of Title TK was recorded at a clip compared to the wilderness sessions of the late 1990s. It was a three-stage album: the 1999 “solo” tracks, the core set of pieces done at Albini’s studio (“London Song,” “Put on A Side,” “T and T,” “Off You” etc.) and tracks that emerged from full-band jams, one of which was cut in Hollywood (“Sinister Foxx”).

I Land to Sail

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CMJ, 20 May 2002

Title TK was what she’d first wanted to call Last Splash; it was a sharper joke now. Here, at last, was the album that was always just about to appear, a scratched-out entry in various 4AD upcoming release lists.

Where Pod got instant cult-classic status and Last Splash sold enough to buy everyone in the band a house, Title TK appeared to modest, indifferent reviews and was soon forgotten (it didn’t crack the top 40 albums in the Pazz and Jop of 2002, didn’t make the Pitchfork Top 200 Albums of the 2000s nor Rolling Stone‘s, etc.). But it’s as strong a record as its predecessors, as aurally distinctive, as sharp and strange. The sound of a band being willed back to life, in a disjointed way.

Its move back towards the sparseness of Pod was part of Kim’s growing analog purism. “Digital production had burned through recording studios like crack,” she said to Aston. “Everyone was densely layering everything, making keyboards sound like guitars, and I’m so reactive…it’s more about drums and clean guitar. I worked really hard to keep it that hard and basic and people said it sounded unfinished!”

Albini dubbed it the “All Wave” philosophy, his parallel to the Dogme 95 movement in film. Everything done analog, from vocals to drums, with no digital manipulation, “through the entire production and mastering process, including mixing, editing, sequencing, post-production and…an all-analog direct-metal master for the vinyl LP version of the album.” (While I’m far from an audiophile, I think you miss something substantial if you hear Title TK via streaming instead of in its LP form.)

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Title TK is a ferocious band being penned back, breaking through at times, getting erased. Guitar and bass blink in and out during “London Song,” and it takes nearly a minute for “Little Fury” to introduce them—until then, it’s Kim and Kelley’s stereo-split voices over Medeles’ drums. The guitar wedges its way in, winds up sulking by itself, gets cut off at a seemingly arbitrary moment. In “Put on A Side,” queasy verses are sung over Lopez’s upright bass figure, which slides up and down like the marker in a carnival game of strength. Guitar is heard in bursts and rumors. One drum roll, then nothing else.

It sounds as if little mistakes have been left in (see the synthesizer blurt in “Off You”) but as Title TK goes on, it’s more that the songs have clustered to life around these quirks. An album of absences, of potential, of empty squares and squiggled lines. It closes with the full band swinging from grunge instrumental straight into the single “Huffer.” The Breeders are finally here, now they’re gone again.

Then there’s “Off You,” among the most beautiful tracks Kim ever made. Built on acoustic guitar and upright bass, it’s a song of retreat and exile (possibly inspired by her going to ground in Nantucket during the chaotic 1997 sessions) but also a yearning for friendship and love, a determination to keep moving. She reaches her island only to sail away from it, tacking back to the mainland.

Come Home, Come Home

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The late 2000s Breeders, at the annual Breeders convention

The Pixies reformed in 2004. For the rest of the decade, Kim alternated between her old band on the road and her other band in the studio, often in Dayton (she and Kelley had moved back once their mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s).

Mountain Battles, pieced together between Pixies tours, has some of the odder moments in the Breeders catalog: a reverent cover of Roberto Cantoral’s Mexican standard “Regalame Esta Noche“: a song about Istanbul done as a cheerleader chant; a track that the Deals sing in German. Its heart is the Kim/Kelley-centered songs: the mountain waltz “Here No More,” “We’re Gonna Rise,” and “Night of Joy,” a shadow piece with one of Kim’s eeriest vocals.

The 2009 EP Fate To Fatal was the Breeders’ first truly indie venture. One track was cut and mixed in two days; the Deals even pressed the records. “I don’t even know if music sells anymore, or that bands exist as they used to,” she told Aston. “People no longer look at a band, their life, their reality, the sub-culture they’ve created, as 40 minutes’ worth of their time. I don’t even know the value of music anymore.” She handed over one track for Mark Lanegan to sing.

A Happier Ending

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Yes, it is true that I am not a Daytonian, Ohioan, nor even American, but I like to think of myself as an honorary denizen of Montgomery County. Oh the time I have spent there, often at Woodland Cemetery or in Patterson Park looking for mushrooms, awaiting the universal signal that rehearsals are about to start—a text that Kim is “at Starbucks.”

Wiggs’ “Dayton Diary,” 30 April 2015.

Ohio was flattened by the last recession. “All these little Main Street towns you’d go down, 35 miles per hour and a couple of stop lights? The towns are still there, but everything’s shut down,” Kim told Uncut in 2018, while Wiggs noted “all these awful decrepit strip malls, seventy percent empty but with a couple of incredibly sad businesses, a grim-looking sushi restaurant and maybe a taekwondo studio.”

Dayton went for Trump in 2016, by a sliver of a percentage. Since the early 2000s, its population has grown older and poorer. The Deals and Macpherson are still there, in houses near to each other’s, living in relative anonymity.

“If you heard that the Breeders were coming into town you [normally] would go, ‘Oh that’s that chick from the Pixies.’ But here they don’t do that,” Kim said of Dayton in 2009. “They’ve never heard of the Pixies, and they’ve never heard of the Breeders. So where I live, the fact that there’s a Pixies rejuvenation, how it affects the Breeders—none of that even exists.”

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Ben Rayner, 2018

The Pop Breeders reunited due to an anniversary—Last Splash hitting twenty in 2013. The Deals and Wiggs had never fallen out. While she found it weird to hear the “West Coast Breeders,” she played with the Deals at a 4AD anniversary show in 2005 and, marvelously, wrote the press release for Mountain Battles. As for Macpherson and Kim, each had thought the other hated them until “the minute I saw Jim, I said ‘Jim, I’m so sorry,’ and he said, ‘No, Kim, I’m so sorry.’ And to this day we still don’t know what happened,” she said last year.

One day in Wales in spring 2013, Kim recorded with the Pixies, paid for dinner, and told them she was done. She’s never gone into why she quit. Perhaps it was her deciding that if she was making a reunion album, it would be her band’s. As Kelley once said, “when people were talking about the Breeders being a one-off, I was like, no, actually, that is her. The Pixies are a side project.”

The Reunion Breeders tours have been “a chance to replace the memory of how the Breeders ended so oddly. It’s a much happier ending this time,” Wiggs told Aston. It was her and Kim singing “Metal Man” for the first time in twenty years. It’s “Cannonball,” more disheveled than ever. Even Donelly showed up, joining in on “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” one night in Boston.

All Nerve, the album they recorded in the mid-2010s in a few of the surviving analog studios in the US, is on the same second tier as Mountain Battles. That’s not to knock these records, more a testament to how imposing the peaks of the Breeders catalog are. A tight thirty-four minutes, complete with an Amon Düül cover, All Nerve is best savored in moments—Macpherson’s snare figures on “Walking With a Killer” and “Archangel Thunderbird,” Wiggs on “SuperGoth,” Kelley’s lead playing, Kim’s voice, hardened by time, still infused with a private delight. It’s the Breeders sounding like themselves and that’s a fine thing, as the Breeders are fun and lovely and strange.

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Gesualdi, 2018

“The one thing that remains constant is [Kim’s] absolute persistence in trying to achieve the sound in her head,” Albini once said. “She is always aiming for something, and it’s often something nobody but her would recognize.”

In 1994, she was talking about “Divine Hammer” to Rolling Stone.

It’s mainly about looking for something so hard through your life that people said was there. When I grew up and went to Sunday school, they said that it was going to be really great, and God is love, and God is good. I believed everything everybody told me. And that’s why I’m so pissed off now…I believed all that stupid shit about marriage and everything. And then to find out, oh my God, marriage is just a lineage tracing system. It’s like ‘Goddamn it! You mean I saved my virginity for that shit?’ Or tried to? It was important to me, you know? The racking guilt of not saving yourself for marriage. And then you find out that it’s a crock of shit…I just thought it was gonna be better. Just…life. I thought it was gonna be better.

She’d later cringe about this, say she’d felt pressed to divulge “some deep stuff.” But her work with the Breeders reckons with this disillusion. If the world as you were taught it is a con, the way to something of actual value is to make it. Don’t look for it in some guy on stage, she said. Not the dudes in spandex or the snobby hardcore boys or the drips with their acoustics (“watch out for anybody who has an Ovation guitar,” Kim warned in 2008. “That’s your clue that something bad is about to happen“).

“I think rock is more within and you have to bring it out of yourself,” she told Charles Aaron in 1995. “The music is within and the love for it is from within, not without.”

The Breeders are desperately bored teenagers in Dayton. The Breeders are second fiddles in Boston who need something of their own. They’re in every corner of MTV, they blow a small fortune in New York, they hide out in East LA. They are mostly four, sometimes five, eternally two. They’re the neighbors. “Music is all we do, when we’re in Ohio,” Kim said. “Jim works and comes over almost every night of the week. We do this all the time.”

In the past quarter century, she could have released albums under her name (in the mid-2010s, she put out 7″ indie singles as such). She’s Kim Deal, after all! Songs are named after her. But her music has “The Breeders” on the spine and the label.

“I like bands, I don’t know why,” she said last year. “I romanticize them. I’ve always just wanted to be in a band.”

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“The Breeders AMA” on Reddit, 2018

 

6 thoughts on “2(b). The Breeders

  1. as a lifelong megafan born and raised in huber heights, ohio, this piece brought me to tears with its eloquence, empathy, and the huge amount of respect it displays for its subject, my very favorite band in the world. thank you.

    Like

  2. That AMA excerpt at the end is so poignant and beautiful it hurts. Thank you for getting at what makes this band so special.

    Like

  3. I hope this doesn’t sound pissily pedantic amidst the praise, but it might be worth noting that the James Gang cover is more a cover of the Three Degrees cover of said song. Having said that, you’ve led me to give Title TK more than the cursory glance I gave it back then, and so far, I’m pleasantly surprised…
    I’m also quite psyched to realize there is a Throwing Muses section under all this, as I loved them maybe more than the Pixies…maybe an index of the band sections would be good for site maneuverability? Kind of odd to have to scroll endlessly and hope you notice when it flies by… thanks for doing these…

    Like

  4. If push comes to shove, the Breeders might be my favourite band of all time, and this piece more than does them justice. Thank you Chris, you have an incredible gift. Heading to Patreon now.

    Like

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