“I hate the sun. I hate the beach. I don’t lay out. I don’t like to be hot,” says Kim Deal dryly. The singer-guitarist and co-leader of the Breeders is sitting on a couch in a basement of her record label’s Soho offices, having just flown up from Florida, where she spends the better part of each January. The annual ritual started as a family vacation, but as her parents have aged, it’s turned into a solo retreat. “It’s on Summerland Key and it’s gorgeous,” she says. “And I take my 4-track and my guitars and microphone stands and mics and all my cables. And then I just work.”
Deal is in New York to promote the Breeders’ new album, All Nerve, the band’s first in 10 years. It’s also the first recording in more than 20 years made by the Breeders lineup that recorded the 1993 alt-rock landmark Last Splash: Kim and her twin sister Kelley on guitars, Josephine Wiggs on bass and Jim MacPherson on drums. In April, the bandmates will head out to promote the new LP with a series of dates that will take them through the summer. Considering their chaotic history, it’s a small miracle they’re here together at all.
All Nerve combines the surfy shudder and offhand energy of Last Splash with a vulnerability that can be heard on more recent albums like 2002’s Title TK and 2008’s Mountain Battles. The most powerful moments on All Nerve – songs like “Walking With a Killer” and “Blues at the Acropolis” – have a quiet sense of isolation that’s uncharacteristically personal coming from Deal, an alt-rock icon rarely known for being overly introspective.
When I ask Kim how she would describe the new album, she responds tersely, “Guitar rock. With drums.” Kelley Deal is only slightly more philosophical: “To me it’s bass, drums, guitar and vocals, you know? But at a certain time as things come around and re-come around, that can be a very fresh sound.”
This “classic” version of the Breeders first came together in 1992 shortly after the breakup of Kim’s first band, indie-rock icons the Pixies. After releasing a debut LP, Pod, and a quick follow-up EP, Safari, the Breeders broke out unexpectedly with Last Splash and its MTV hit “Cannonball.” They played the mainstage at Lollapalooza, and Pixies/Breeders superfan Kurt Cobain brought them on tour as an opening act.
But the band also had a unique gift for self-sabotage. The Breeders were affectionately nicknamed “the Bangles from hell,” with the Deal sisters at the surly center of the band’s drama. Journalists excited by the story of an ex-Pixie suddenly enjoying mainstream popularity eagerly showed up for interviews to find their subjects stoned, hungover, aggressively unresponsive or some combination of all three. At times, it seemed their main reaction to success was bored disinterest. It’s telling that, when prompted, the first Cobain memory that comes to Kim’s mind isn’t some glass-clinking rock-star moment but a random 1992 studio hang where she spilled Mountain Dew on a recording console owned by iconic avant-garde composer Philip Glass. “Can you fucking imagine?” she says, still horrified. The original run of the Kim-Kelley-Wiggs-MacPherson incarnation of the Breeders ended before they could even make a follow-up to Last Splash.
These days, that desultory image couldn’t be further from reality. “Josephine had a good way of describing it,” says Kelley. “She felt like she really would have liked to have worked on that album – what we would come up with after Last Splash. She thought it would’ve been great to make an album that sounded like a cross-section of Pod and Last Splash. And she feels like this album has done that.”
The path to this full-scale reunion began in 2013, when they all reluctantly came together for a tour to coincide with a 20th-anniversary deluxe reissue of Last Splash. By then, Kim hadn’t had a drink in more than a decade and Kelley was out the other side of heroin addiction. MacPherson was a dad living in Dayton, Ohio, and gainfully employed as a carpenter. Shocked by how easy it felt to be together again, they decided to get in the studio for the incident-free sessions that produced All Nerve. The bandmates were back out on the road this past fall – a highlight was a day off in Syracuse, New York, where they had no responsibilities beyond catching up on laundry. “We saw a movie,” says Kelley. “We went to the mall and saw Thor.”
As they travel, Wiggs is collecting photos of some of the best (and worst) venue showers they’ve encountered and is compiling a memoir about the tour. “You have a different perspective when you’re a bit older,” she says. “You’re kind of aware of the fact that things don’t last forever. Even the uncomfortable parts are only for a few weeks, and then there will be a different thing that’s uncomfortable.”
“Showering in all the venues is a real challenge,” adds MacPherson, “especially when you have to hold the handheld shower. I’m sure 20 years ago it wasn’t that big an issue.”
They still have their arguments. According to Kim, at one soundcheck Kelley got mad enough at her sister that she put down her guitar and walked out of the venue as Kim yelled, “I’m sorry!” after her. But for the most part, these musicians, who are all in their fifties, have mellowed and learned to get along. When they’re not on the road, Kelley and Kim FaceTime each other almost every day, to chat, play each other bits of songs or just watch the news together.
Kim, who built a rep in the Nineties as a bit of a pot-stirrer, speaks warmly about her bandmates. One of her favorite songs on All Nerve is “Metagoth,” written by Wiggs, who also plays lead guitar on the track. In the studio, Kim was happy to step out of the spotlight and pick up a bass. “Me and Jim like playing together,” she says. “Bass and drums have a different sort of relationship with each other than guitar.”
Kim’s entire worldview seems filtered through her associations with music gear and production equipment. She speaks fondly of the sense of omnipotence she felt recording the first few Breeders albums. “I thought it was funny,” she says, “like standing at the board and switching things on and off to sound like it’s been produced – like the hand of God.”
After Deal quit smoking years ago, her voice got a little more pure, but she knows it won’t last forever. “When the vacuum tube is about ready to go and it’s sputtering and sputtering, I think a guitar amplifier sounds so good. My voice will one day soon sound like the voice of a dying amp.”
Now, as the Breeders head out for their spring tour, it’s highly likely they’ll cross paths with some of their Nineties alt-rock peers, what with everyone from Guided by Voices to Belly either still going strong or making a timely comeback. I ask the band members if they feel like the current wave of Nineties nostalgia has any effect on how people might approach their music. “For me, that was the last great era of rock music before things changed,” says Wiggs. “I think there was a real shift. I really think that the early Nineties was a bit of a watershed moment.”
Kim is a little more ambivalent. “I think it’s already been played out a little bit,” she says. “I’d love to get popular again if that’s what’s happening. Are we popular again?”