A Breed Apart

Powered by the musical vision of Kim Deal and the free spirit of her sister, Kelley, the Breeders bring soul and sass to punk rock

The Breeders
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
May 19, 1994

Kim and Kelley Deal are bickering in a playful, sisterly kind of way. It's an overcast, muggy afternoon in Honolulu, and three of the Breeders – the Deal twins plus bassist Josephine Wigs – are on their way to a radio-station interview. Wiggs sits in the front seat of the van, demure and restrained, while Kim and Kelley tussle in the back.

The object of their mutual desire is a ragged copy of People magazine with Tonya Harding on the cover. Kelley had been bumping happily along, reading an article called "Leona, Free at Last," when her sister managed to steal the thing away from her.

"Kim, give that to me," Kelley demands.

"No," says Kim tartly, slouching down with her knees propped up on the back of the seat.

"I'll kill you!" squeals her sister.

"No," says Kim, apparently unmoved by the threat.

"Then tear a page out," Kelley whines.

"Here," Kim smirks. "You can have the book reviews." Kelley retreats into a corner with her page. She knows she has been licked. For now.

The Breeders are in Hawaii to play a sold-out gig in support of their now near-platinum second album, Last Splash, and, later, to take a few well-deserved vacation days. Today's promotional activities in advance of the concert are fairly low-key: just a couple of visits to radio stations, a live-via-satellite call-in radio show and a group interview back at the hotel. Jim Macpherson, the band's drummer, has the morning off and is presumed to be sightseeing. The van pulls up at a station known as Radio Free Hawaii. It looks more like a basement-rec-room meeting of the Honolulu chapter of the Breeders fan club: Staff members scurry around wearing I LOVE KIM, I LOVE KELLEY and I LOVE THE BREEDERS stick-on signs; smacked up on the wall between posters for Belly and the Cure is a poster for the Breeders' first album, Pod.

Kim and Kelley saunter in, looking like variations on a theme. Kim wears a bright green jacket with the words NATURAL HIGH printed on the back, shorts and a T-shirt. Her shoulder-length hair is tangled and matted, an effect she achieves by not washing it very often and by regularly applying black shoe polish to cover up her gray. She carries a little vinyl sack with the Japanese cartoon star Astro Boy on it, and her shoes are clunky J. Crew luggers, which she buys in a men's size. Kelley also wears men's shoes: black, ragged Florsheim ankle boots, one of which has duct tape wrapped around it to keep the sole from flopping open. She carries a clear zip-lock baggie with her Carlton cigarettes and a few wadded bills in it. Her dyed black hair, which used to be cut exactly like her sister's, is now a shorter bob, and she wears a green T-shirt and a red, crinkly miniskirt that unapologetically shows off her hefty thighs.

Kim Deal and the Breeders Splash Back to the Nineties

Kelley is sinking deeper by the minute into the throes of a wicked hangover. She was running rampant through Honolulu last night, sucking down mudslides and shooting pool. Kim was out drinking last night, too, but as the lead singer, songwriter and de facto band leader, she seems reasonably more organized and together today. During the on-air interview, Kim and Wiggs do most of the talking. Afterward, Kelley goes out to the parking lot, scores a hit of pot off a fan and passes out in the van to the hotel with her head on Wiggs' shoulder.

An hour later, the entire band is scheduled to convene in the hotel lobby for a group interview. Everyone shows up except for Kelley. Macpherson has returned from his morning off. He stretches out in a puffy, pastel-colored chair in the hotel's Mahina Lounge and makes small talk while the band waits. He's packing a copy of Modern Drummer with Nirvana's Dave Grohl on the cover, and he thrusts it forward. "Look!" Macpherson says excitedly, flipping to a page where Grohl lists his personal favorite drummers. "That's my name!" – evidence of the Breeders' cachet in the alternative-rock pantheon.

Finally, Kim gets impatient. "Macpherson," she orders, "go call her. She knows she's supposed to be down here."

Macpherson lumbers away. He comes back in a few minutes looking nervous. "She's on the house phone," he tells Kim. "She wants to talk to you."

"Why does she want to talk to me?" Kim says angrily. "I'm not talking to her. We're all here, and we're going to do this now. Tell her to get her butt down here."

Macpherson slinks away, the unhappy messenger. Kelley appears in a few minutes. Her eyes are bright red and bleary; she's holding onto a pillow as if for dear life. The hangover has hit her full-force. "Why are we doing this now?" she hisses at Kim. "What is it that you're doing later that you want to do this now?"

"Fuck yourself," says her sister. But Kelley has won this battle. She lies down on a couch and spends the entire interview asleep with her back to everyone.

When Kim Deal asked her twin sister to join the Breeders as lead guitarist two years ago, people thought she was a little crazy. Kelley had never been in a real band before. She had never even played guitar before. At the time, Kelley was happily ensconced in a career as a computer systems analyst in the band's hometown of Dayton, Ohio.

But Kim does everything by instinct and nothing by the rules. Less than a year ago, the Breeders were just another blip on the alternative-rock horizon. They had released Pod on 4AD/Rough Trade in 1990; the lineup at the time included Kim on guitars and vocals, Tanya Donelly (then of Throwing Muses) on lead guitar, British bassist Wiggs (from Perfect Disaster) and drummer Britt Walford (now a member of the Palace Brothers). The Breeders were perceived as a kind of alternative-rock supergroup. Back then, Deal was still playing bass for the Pixies. Everybody thought that was her real band.

Deal felt differently. In mid-'92, after a somewhat disastrous tour opening arena shows for U2, the Pixies went on hiatus. The Breeders released an EP, Safari, then Donelly split to form Belly. Macpherson, from a Dayton band called Raging Mantras, joined as the new drummer. Kelley came in as guitarist and got a one-month crash course in the Breeders' repertoire. In June '92, the band opened for Nirvana in front of 6,000 people in Ireland. "When we first started out, I felt really protective with Kelley and Jim," Kim says. "They'd never toured, ever. I'd be like 'This is the backstage area. Do you see those signs on the wall where it says BREEDERS, and it has an arrow? That's where our dressing room is.' Oh, it was so cute. They didn't know anything. They were like `Do we get to eat this food?' It was so sweet."

At the end of the year, the new Breeders were busy in San Francisco recording their follow-up album when the Pixies called it quits. Kim barely noticed. Last Splash, released on 4AD/Elektra in August 1993, has far surpassed the Pixies' wildest commercial dreams. The album's first single, "Cannonball," an angular, brilliant pastiche of pop niceties, punkish feedback and weird sound effects, became a surprise MTV smash; Elektra suddenly found itself in the unusual position of having radio stations play the song without having to be begged. The Breeders did a tour opening for Nirvana, then headed to Australia for the Big Day Out festival. "Divine Hammer," the new single, is also doing well, and this summer the band will put the finishing touches on their bid for world domination by playing Lollapalooza.

Much of what makes the Breeders work can be credited to Kim's arcane, inventive sensibility. Her songs are subtle, fractured stories that draw from influences as varied as punk, heavy metal, glare rock, surf music, Beatlesque psychedelia, girl-group pop and Zeppelin-style classic rock – sometimes all within the space of a few verses. Her lyrics never give much away: Meanings must be gleaned from between the lines, in the buzzing guitars, the funny distorted voices, the inexplicably angelic harmonies, the unexpected stretches of dead air. The meaner Kim's sentiments get, the sweeter her voice seems to become: She's a master of layering textures, of double- and triple-entendres, of things that seem to be what they are not. Last Splash is pure sonic ecstasy.

Kim explains that her sensibility derives from a variety of influences. "In Ohio the main type of songwriting that you listen to is country & western," she says. "Country & western is storytelling music. 'I walked into a bar, and I saw this song on the jukebox, I played it, and it reminded me of you.' I've grown up with so much storytelling that it doesn't seem very challenging. Then you listen to T. Rex, and they just go, 'Telegram Sam, you're my main man,' it's, like, cool! What does it mean? I kind of like that, too. Slogan rock. So, I like it both ways."

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