The Breeders Are Still America’s Best Basement Band
Kim Deal talks about being all in with the alternative icons' first album in ten years, 'All Nerve.'
Kim Deal’s basement is, as she describes it, “where the magic happens.” Or more specifically, it’s where her band, the Breeders, make their music happen.
Despite being a full-fledged indie rock icon, Deal moved back to her Midwest hometown of Dayton, Ohio, in 2003 to help care for her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Her twin sister and bandmate, Kelley Deal, lives just down the road from her. But it’s Kim’s basement that doubles as Breeders HQ, and it seems like right now she wouldn’t want it any other way. Because after so many years of uncertainty, the Breeders that everyone remembers are back, with their first new album in a decade.
The “magical” Deal family basement has served the band well over the years. “Back in the 90s, Jim [MacPherson, drummer] and I put insulation in the ceiling,” she says over the phone outside of a Starbucks. “The bass guitar is a bit of a problem, though. The long waves they generate can move through soil, so we have to watch our bass volume. People around here know we’re in a band. They don’t know much about it, but they’re pretty cool with us. But I would hate to wake up a kid so I can sing my song. Years ago, we did get a complaint, so we’ve tried to keep it down.”
That the Breeders rehearse in a basement isn’t just out of convenience. It’s also the only option they have living in Dayton.
“We were thinking of looking for a rehearsal space that we could rent because I don’t have a front-of-house PA,” she explains. “But there’s nothing like that here in Dayton. There’s not even a band rehearsal space here. There’s none of that. It’s either someone’s garage or basement.”
Dayton lacks many things, but it is where three-quarters of the band, not to mention their lo-fi juggernaut pals Guided By Voices, call home. Jim McPherson, whose spouse helps care for Mrs. Deal, spends his days working as a carpenter.
“Jim has been working all day in Clayton, Ohio, which is a 40-minute drive away,” Deal says. “After he works, he then comes over and rehearses. The key thing here is that the drummer lives in town, man! A drummer who lives in town is key. So Kelley, Jim, and I live in town, and Josephine [Wiggs, bassist] is in New York. She drives in every six weeks or so and stays for a week.”
Having all four members of the Breeders within a drive’s distance has been vital in keeping what is referred to as the “classic” lineup together—because there have been many Breeders over the years. At the peak of her time playing bass for Pixies, Deal co-founded the band in 1989 with Tanya Donelly of Throwing Muses just for some fun. Wiggs soon signed on to play bass, and they released a debut album, 1990’s Pod and the subsequent Safari EP. Not long after, Donelly left to form Belly. With the band membership in flux, it wasn’t until Kelley Deal and Jim McPherson joined that the Breeders really, ahem, made a splash.
In 1993, this version of the band released their second album, Last Splash, which unexpectedly became one of alternative rock’s seminal albums—not only critically, but commercially. On the back of their hyperactive single, “Cannonball,” Last Splash sold more than one million copies alone in the US in its first year, and another million or so elsewhere in the world. All of a sudden, the Breeders were bigger than Pixies ever were; they were touring with Nirvana and Lollapalooza, gracing magazine covers, and dominating both MTV and modern rock radio. But it just wasn’t meant to last. Right as they were planning a new Breeders album, Kelley was arrested for heroin possession, and soon after entered rehab. Kim forged on with McPherson’s help, and released an album in 1995 under the short-lived moniker the Amps. This version of the Breeders seemed to be over.
Flash forward to 2012 and the Breeders were three years removed from their last release, the self-released 2009 EP, Fate To Fatal. Kim Deal had her own struggles to keep sober over the years too, but she and Kelley rebounded to make two Breeders albums—2002’s Title TK and 2008’s Mountain Battles—with the completely different rhythm section of Jose Medeles and Mando Lopez. Deal nicknamed that version of the band the East Los Breeders, but it wasn’t built to last. In 2012, she upped and left the reunited Pixies as they were starting their first new album in 23 years, and released a series of seven-inch singles under her own name.
“There were no plans to do any more Breeders stuff. I was doing the solo stuff,” Kim says. “Kelley was the one who suggested reuniting. I was sitting on her couch and she said, ‘Kim, do you know that next year is 2013? That’s the 20th anniversary of Last Splash. Maybe it would be cool to call Jim and Josephine and ask if they would play a couple of shows with them as a celebration.” And they were into it.”
At first, it was easy getting the gang back together. But they quickly lost control of the idea to keep it small. Simply playing a few anniversary shows was never going to happen, and in no time the four members found themselves in full reunion mode.
“4AD found out and said we could put something out,” Kim adds. “I have had an artist-friendly deal with them since the 80s where they can’t just repackage stuff and put it out. I think a lot of times doing that is just a money grab. But with this, most people hadn’t heard the B-sides to the singles or heard the Safari and Head To Toe EPs, so there was a lot to put in there that a lot of people never had a chance to listen to. So 4AD said they’d do a box set, and that snowballed.”
Demand for the Breeders’ LSXX anniversary tour was so high that it carried over into the next year, which as Deal points out, “is no longer the 20th anniversary, man! People didn’t care. They just wanted us to play. So then we could take out songs from the set that we hated, like ‘Mad Lucas,’ and put in a new song instead. And people were saying we should record more songs. We had ‘Walking with a Killer’ from my solo series, and we played it in the basement and it sounded really good. So we stuck it in the set and said, ‘Man, we should record this.’ Even if we didn’t make an album, we could just record a song.”
What began with one song, gradually blossomed into one after another. Encouragement to keep writing was coming from all over: fans, friends, and even unlikely sources like their booking agent. “He never says anything nice,” she giggles. “He’s always Mr. Negative, like, ‘You’ll never do anything.’ But this time he told us, ‘You guys really need to put another record out.’ It’s nice when everyone is excited about us. We were all on board to put together another album.”
Ten years on from Mountain Battles, the Breeders have returned with their long, long-awaited fifth LP, All Nerve. Sessions for it began at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio in Chicago, where the band has recorded for each album save Last Splash. The first two tracks to lay down were the title track and “Skinhead #2,” which had already made their way into the band’s set list.
All Nerve is the most adventurous Breeders album since, no surprise, Last Splash. There’s a cover of Krautrock lords Amon Düül II’s “Archangel Thunderbird” that makes complete sense. Wiggs takes lead vocals and inhabits a dead-serious tone on the macabre “MetaGoth.” And obvious disciple of the band, Courtney Barnett, provides backing vocals on“Howl at the Summit.”
Deal says most things came to them organically. For example, songs began to pop into her head that she’d come up with years before. Bits of “Howl at the Summit” and “Wait in the Car” were both originally conceived around the time of Title TK, while album opener “Nervous Mary” first appeared to Kim during a shower—in the 1980s.
“Yeah, that one started in the 80s,” she says with vivid recollection. “I would get in the shower and go, ‘Waaaa, waaa, waaaa!’ The working title of it was ‘Shower Scene,’ and Kelley’s guitar part was labeled ‘Psycho’ [mimics the Psycho music]. So it was the Psycho guitar for ‘Shower Scene.’ For better or worse, I get an idea in my head and it blooms. I don’t like doing it on purpose, but it will come to my mind.”
That All Nerve arrives 25 years after Last Splash is pure coincidence, but the significance of that quarter century isn’t lost on Kim Deal. Upon mentioning it, she’s quick to add that this album really should have been the third Breeders album.
“It’s exactly what we should have been doing in nineteen-ninety-fucking-five,” she declares. “Really. I don’t know what happened. I’m looking at Jim right now in the car and… here’s what I think. I think if I had to say I have one regret, that was it. Jim and I just continued going. We went right into the Amps like, ‘We’re not stopping.’ But Kelley and Josephine, for various reasons, they needed a break. Maybe in retrospect Jim and I should have stopped too and let the girls regroup, and then we could recoup.”
Two seconds go by. “Jim’s shaking his head no,” she adds with laughter.
For now the Breeders seem as solid and stable as they’ve ever been. Since reuniting for LSXX, the Deals, McPherson, and Wiggs have been a functioning unit longer than they were in their original run. Tours are planned to follow the release of All Nerve, including summer festivals, and they’ll likely play live into 2019. This thing they have going is really good, something for which fans should be grateful. However, it’s impossible not to ask if she thinks this good thing could continue once All Nerve is put to rest.
Kim snickers before answering, “We were sitting around and somebody asked Josephine that. She said [in exaggerated English accent], ‘For God’s sake! It’s not even out yet!’ It was funny. But no, right now, our talks are more about who is gonna play this part in ‘Spacewoman.’ We are enjoying just playing at the moment.”
Then she adds in a whisper, “Though I have a Christmas song that I think Josephine will enjoy playing. I’m gonna talk to her about it sometime.”
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter.