The Breeders: Together Again
In Meet Me In The Bathroom – Lizzy Goodman’s book on the early 00s New York rock’n’roll resurgence – Aaron Dessner of The National discusses how the image-conscious bands of the era contrasted with the more humble musicians he’d admired while growing up in the Midwest. “In our little corner of Ohio there’s a self-effacing tradition in indie rock. I think of Kim and Kelley Deal, who were accidental rock stars as opposed to intentional leather-jacket rock stars. Those were the kinds of bands we idolised.”
Certainly, the twins cut low key figures in 4AD’s offices today, clad in black and muted stripes respectively, trading quips with The Breeders’ bassist Josephine Wiggs and drummer Jim Macpherson. “I don’t know about rock star at all, but I know I don’t feel I’m super leather jacket-y,” Kim concurs jovially. Kelley continues: “There aren’t any rock stars in Dayton, south western Ohio. Except for Bootsy Collins. And he’s from Cincinnati.”
There’s always been an unpretentious vibe to The Breeders. Indeed, Kim famously joined her former band Pixies by replying to a newspaper ad for musicians that specified “no chops”. Unwittingly or not, the Deal sisters became integral figures in the 90s alternative rock scene – alongside famous fans Kurt Cobain and Steve Albini – infiltrating the mainstream with their 1993 masterpiece Last Splash and its juggernaut of a lead single Cannonball. The band has featured a revolving cast ever since, but today’s configuration revives the classic Last Splash line-up, which was put on hold following a gruelling Lollapalooza stint in 94. “It was 30,000 weeks long,” Kim recalls of the tour, with a sigh.
Putting The Breeders on hiatus, Kim began working on a solo project. But she soon enlisted Kelley to help her focus during her addiction battles. The project evolved into The Amps, for which Deal also recruited her Breeders bandmate Jim on drums. Kelley was arrested for heroin possession in 1994 and subsequently entered rehab. Kim was struggling with alcoholism, and when The Amps eventually disbanded, she and Jim weren’t on speaking terms. “It wasn’t really acrimonious,” Kim reflects, and Kelley interjects in a mock stage whisper, “It was repressed.” “It was more like, ‘Oh, I think Jim’s mad at me.’ I was drinking…” Kim continues. Jim concedes: “I was my own worst enemy back then too.”
Seeing the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr reforming for anniversary shows, Kelley suggested the band regroup in 2013 to celebrate 20 years of Last Splash. The idea was met with no resistance and – with everyone now sober and getting along – the reunion tour was so successful it subsequently spilled into 2014. “I realised how much I like playing loud rock shows,” smiles Josephine, who now creates film scores and soundtracks to art installations outside of The Breeders.
At the beginning of 2014, Josephine began commuting to Dayton from New York one week out of every four, to complete recording sessions for what would become The Breeders’ first album in a decade – and fifth in total – the aptly-named All Nerve. Kim self-deprecatingly cites the process as them “writing in the hope that we might perhaps have enough songs that didn’t suck.” The power balance within the band is summarised by Kelley as, “Whoever wears the others down enough is king for the day.”
“A lot of serial killers come from Ohio. Presidents and serial killers”
Alongside nine original Breeders songs, the record features a cover of Archangel’s Thunderbird by pioneering Krautrock collective Amon Düül II, and a new version of Walking With The Killer, which was originally released as a limited edition 7” solo single by Kim in 2013. The latter’s breezy guitars, mellow vocals and rolling percussion, are at odds with a tale of homicide, sung from the perspective of the victim. “I feel like a creep,” Kim says of the song, laughing. “It’s so psycho-sexual, isn’t it? It reminds me of the cornfields in Dayton, just walking down the side of the road and having someone drive past, screaming out, ‘RAPE VICTIM!’ A lot of serial killers come from Ohio. Presidents and serial killers.”
Also striking is MetaGoth, which finds Josephine intoning the ominous mantra, “Can’t come closer, might fall and drown,” with clipped diction over scorched guitars and a pulverising bassline. The menacing lyrics are taken from a poem her mother wrote about her father, which Josephine and her sister discovered shortly after their mother’s death.
In its juxtaposition of gallows humour and real-life trauma, muscular riffs and the Deal sisters’ cooing harmonies, you could say All Nerve picks up where Last Splash left off, even if the industry surrounding them is practically unrecognisable. “I feel like the early and mid-90s was the apex of popular music,” Josephine explains of the disparity between then and now. “The breakdown of the mainstream versus the alternative, and it becoming more fluid, all of a sudden bands like us could be in heavy rotation on MTV. I don’t know, I feel like it’s been a slow decline since then.”
“I do sense that stuff changes, but it never occurs to me that the scene’s changed,” Kelley muses. “I remember when we first started doing this together – even then, people were romanticising the past, like, ‘Oh, back in the 80s man…. Everything’s over now; punk rock is all over now.’ So I don’t think I’ve ever put a lot of stock in that attitude.”
Is All Nerve a one-off reunion, or can we expect a follow-up? “No clue,” Kelley retorts, cheerfully. “This album’s not even out yet!” chides Josephine, laughing, “But it’s been really great, I have to say.” Certainly, there’s no trace of the simmering tensions or substance-fuelled drama that derailed The Breeders at their 90s peak. “I haven’t had a drink since 2002,” Kim confirms. “And as the group of us four, it’s nice. There’s a better word for that, sorry… But I’m having a good time.”
Photography: Ellis Scott
All Nerve is out now via 4AD