The Breeders Stand Apart With the Musical Vision and Free Spirit of Kim and Kelley Deal - Rolling Stone
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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 1994 kim deal kelley deal

The Breeders

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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.”

Looking at her life now, Kim certainly can’t complain. Her band is successful. Her record is doing well. In the past year she has visited exotic places like Japan, New Zealand and Australia, and she’s currently sitting in a posh hotel room overlooking downtown Honolulu. Kim doesn’t like to complain. She doesn’t talk about her traumas or admit to the obstacles she faces every day. There are things that even her sister doesn’t know.

But every once in a while, when the rare mood strikes her, Kim reveals a streak of real vulnerability. It is this quality that gives her work such depth and resonance. The day after the group interview, Kim is hanging out in the hotel room. She’s wearing an Astro Boy T-shirt and yellow pajama pants; her hair is clumped and ratty, sticky with black shoe polish. She lights a cigarette and inhales a few deep, pensive breaths. She inhales again, and her face sets into a hard and sturdy frown.

The Breeders are Kim’s chance to get herself straight with the world. “It’s not fair,” she begins, “that folk singers preach a happy message and the goodness of living off the land and ‘if I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning.’ That doesn’t exist. That’s what I’m saying in ‘Divine Hammer.’ 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.”

Kim’s voice is almost breaking. “Yeah, I know now,” she says. “This is a bunch of shit. And maybe I feel a little stupid because I fucking believed it in the first place. 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. It pisses you off. It’s a fucking waste of time.”

Kim stubs out her cigarette, stands up and walks onto the balcony. Honolulu stretches below her under a bank of thick gray clouds, just another dry, industrial city full of high-rises, warehouses and waterfront refineries. She comes back into the room and sits down listlessly. “I just thought it was gonna be better,” she says with a shrug. “Just . . . life. I thought it was gonna be better.”

At times like this, when things start to get her down, Kim knows she has the rest of the Breeders to fall back on. She didn’t choose her band mates lightly. She picked people she liked and trusted, musically and otherwise. Even though she’s the leader of the band, she still feels it is essential that the Breeders retain a group identity. This extends from superficial matters like interviews and photo shoots to more crucial things like arrangements and contribution of musical ideas. For as much as it is Kim’s vision that fuels the Breeders, it’s the rest of the band’s subtle and idiosyncratic touches that make the songs truly memorable. Think of Macpherson’s tiny ticking drum noise that kicks off “Cannonball,” Wiggs’ wrong bass note that suddenly jumps up to the proper key, Kelley’s sensual, droopy guitar line. Whether on record, onstage or in person, each of the band members has an individual personality that always manages to make itself felt.

Macpherson is the backbeat, the spine of the band. He’s good-natured and unflappable; he loves being in the Breeders. He loves visiting strange places and meeting new people and eating free food. Most of all, Macpherson loves his drums. He still plays the same kit he bought in high school with money he and his dad won in a local lottery. When he was a teenager, Macpherson’s mom wouldn’t let him have pictures of girls on his wall, so he had pictures of drum kits. Instead of Farrah Fawcett and Cheryl Tiegs, Macpherson stared at Phil Collins and Rush.

Macpherson is not intimidated being the only guy in the Breeders. “I had three older sisters,” he says with a shrug. So did that prepare him for the Deal sisters? “Well, no,” Macpherson says. “Nothing could prepare you for the Deal sisters.”

Wiggs is the polar opposite of Kelley. Where Kelley is rambunctious and extroverted, Wiggs is cool and restrained; Kelley blurts out whatever she’s thinking, while Wiggs is cautious and considers everything she does and says. Wiggs and Macpherson function as counterpoints to the Deal sisters; as bassist and drummer, they provide a solid foundation so that the sisters can go nuts.

Wiggs grew up rather unconventionally in England. “We live in a big house in Bedfordshire, which is about 50 miles north of London,” she says. “My dad can trace his family back hundreds of years to that area. The house has 14 bedrooms. And it’s very dilapidated as well, really run-down. Whenever you go there, it’s really hard to leave. It’s got this Twilight Zone feeling about it.”

Wiggs grew up playing the cello, and she has a master’s degree in philosophy. Her parents raised her to be a vegetarian; she has never eaten a piece of meat in her life. She hasn’t worn a skirt since the age of 9. She is also a lesbian. She lives by strict codes. 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. This is one of the reasons she functions so well in the Breeders: They supply her with a lawlessness she can’t come up with on her own.

“Kim is one of the most unpredictable people I’ve ever met,” Wiggs says. “On the one hand, it’s kind of refreshing, but on the other hand, it’s exasperating. ‘Cause it means that if someone comes up to you and asks you a question, I have no idea whether it would be the kind of thing that Kim would say yes to or absolutely no to. Because on any particular occasion, it could go in either one of those directions. And I have to say, most of the time Kim is right.”

The secret to the Breeders’ success is that they know they are a great band. They know that with Last Splash, they have made a record that doesn’t sound like anything else in the pop universe right now – alternative, mainstream, whatever you want to call it. Kelley, Wiggs and Macpherson know that nobody writes songs the way Kim does. Nobody comes up with such strange, twisted and utterly original combinations of punk and pop, feedback and melody, power and prettiness, sweat and soul. The Breeders love her for that. They know that in Kim, they have a leader who is dose to a genius.

Macpherson says she has “vision.” Kelley, ever conscious of her built-in sibling bias, shies away from using the word genius herself, but prompt her with it, and she says: “I knew that when I was 17. 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.'” And Wiggs says that Kim was an idol of hers long before she joined the Breeders; along with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Kim has helped redefine the potential of women in rock music. “When Sonic Youth came to London in ’86, I was very struck by how cool Kim Gordon was,” Wiggs says. “Then the next thing was seeing Kim [Deal] play in the Pixies in ’88. In a way they were self-effacing. They were just getting on with the job. At the same time, you could see that both of them had enormous charisma. But they weren’t showing off. I was quite impressed with that. You knew that they knew that they were cool, but that was enough for them. They didn’t have to shove it down anyone’s throat. They didn’t have to make a statement about it.”

LSXX: ‘Last Splash,’ Anniversary Edition

Kim, in her own understated way, knows that she is damn good at what she does. And it is rewarding to her that the Breeders are succeeding purely on their own terms and on their own merits. “I think that what honestly, honestly, honestly matters is the album and how you feel when you listen to the music,” she says. “If I could make music that makes me feel like when I listen to ‘Gimme Shelter’ – you get weak. That’s the cool thing. You don’t want to have to tell people that you’re good. You just want them to fucking know.”

The Deals, who are 32, have always known they’re good. They grew up outside Dayton in the midst of a suburb that claims to be one of the largest planned communities of brick homes anywhere in the nation. Mr. Deal is a physicist; Mrs. Deal works with small children. From an early age, the twins exuded cool. “We were so fucking cute,” says Kelley the next day, when her hangover is gone and she’s more capable of speech. “I’ve seen pictures of us. My mom dressed us alike. We had these little pixie dos. When we were 4, my mom had to paint our toenails to distinguish us.”

Kim and Kelley had no problems adjusting while they were growing up. For one thing, the family never moved; they live in that same brick house to this day. The parents never divorced. The twins got along well in school. “We were totally successful in high school,” Kelley says. “Totally popular. It’s so uncool, especially in alternative music. ‘Oh, I was a real geek, I was a real loner, man, no one understood me.’ Bullshit. We’re social animals. We were fine. I think a lot has to do with your parents. We had a good base. We felt OK about ourselves.”

Nevertheless, the girls had troublemaking tendencies. Kim says that her sister was “the type of person who didn’t lie, and she didn’t try to. ‘Where you been?’ ‘I’m caught. Punish me.’ I was like ‘Um, I just walked around the block.’ ‘I smell smoke on you.’ `No, no, the person I was with was smoking.’ Kelley would be like ‘Yeah, I was smoking.’ She felt it was stupid to lie.”

By the time they were juniors or seniors in high school, though, things were starting to get a bit surreal. Kim and Kelley were like the Laura Palmers of Dayton: popular by day but leading wild double lives outside of school. “I knew I wanted to experiment with drugs,” Kim says. “Absolutely, definitely. I can’t imagine not wanting to experiment with drugs.”

“We would glom onto outside people and be friends with them,” Kelley says. “White-trash friends who were older. He was like 26, which tells you what a loser he was. This is a guy, he’s missing half a finger and a thumb from shooting Demerol in his hand. The other guy was an ex-con who had the tear thing.” She traces tears down her face. “In Sing Sing it’s supposed to mean how many people you killed. I don’t think he killed anybody or anything, he was just, I don’t know, drugs or something.”

A year or two after high school, however, Kelley quit messing around. “Why did I do it?” she says. “Just for the experience of it. There were no traumas in my life or Kim’s life at all. Our parents were great. Our house was great. High school was fine. We barely studied. Everything was great. We wanted to be soiled. We wanted to walk on that wild side. It was really immature. It’s really stupid. Most people have traumas in their life. They don’t go looking for shit to happen.”

Meanwhile, Kim had discovered music. Weaned on ’70s AM radio, she wrote her first song when she was 17 and learned how to play guitar in college. She and Kelley were a country duo that played truck stops and bluegrass bars; Kim played guitar, and Kelley harmonized on Delaney and Bonnie and Hank Williams songs. Still, Kim seemed intent on finding herself a respectable life. “She took a two-year technical thing at a college for biology,” Kelley says. “She graduated with honors from that. She really hates that she didn’t do a four-year thing. I’m surprised she even got through two years, because all she wanted to do is music.”

When Kim was 25, she made another stab at respectability: she got married. She and her husband, John Murphy, moved to Boston, where Kim eventually answered the ad that landed her in the Pixies. (She’s credited on the first two Pixies records as Mrs. John Murphy.) Kelley offers these speculations on her sister’s motivations: “I think it was a stupid thing, but I think they both used each other for what they needed. She wanted to get the fuck out of Dayton, and she wanted a new experience. John really liked music. He liked to drink, and he was fun. So why not get married? I think that she had ulterior motives.”

Although the marriage lasted only a few years, Kim took it quite seriously. “I always thought I was going to be married for life,” she says. “I did. I really did.”

When the Pixies were getting together, Kelley toyed with the idea of joining the band. She owned a $60 bass and flew to Boston, but by the time she got there the only position left was drummer, and she wasn’t interested. So back to Dayton she went. At the age of 30, it was ironically Kelley who was wrapped up in a nice, respectable career. “I was a technical analyst for Litton Computer Services,” she says. “They do defense contracts in Dayton for the Air Force. I loved my job. Absolutely loved it. It was a real, real difficult decision to leave.”

But it is a measure of Kim’s near genius that she had the sense to invite her sister to join the band. When Kim has her darker moments, there is always Kelley right by her side. When Kim needs to retreat inward, Kelley is there to help pick up the slack. Asking Kelley to join the Breeders was one of the smartest decisions Kim ever made in her life.

Kelley’s guitar playing has come incredibly far in two years. Her style may be somewhat primitive, but it’s instinctual and gutsy, and since she’s not playing by the standard rules, she tends to come up with leads that are ingenious and unconventional.

More importantly, Kelley’s just fun to have around. With the possible exception of Keith Richards, few people in rock & roll history have ever demonstrated themselves so infinitely tailor-made for the rock & roll lifestyle. Kelley goes completely wild on a regular basis. She gets drunk and socializes with whoever crosses her path. Sometimes she has a few too many mudslides, and then she gets rude, and the next day she feels hung over and she acts even ruder, but somewhere in between is a perfect angel.

The night after her wicked hangover, Kelley is back at it again. During one of the radio-station visits, the owner of Honolulu’s Hard Rock Cafe called up and invited the Breeders to come on down for a free dinner. Kelley thought that sounded like a fine idea. She corralled as many people as she could. “Come on,” she told them. “It’s free!”

At the Hard Rock, Kelley gets the royal treatment. Here, she is a Major Star. She sits installed in a corner booth, a giant mudslide in front of her, and all night long fans come up to the table, asking for pictures, wanting to say hello. Kelley talks to every one. She doesn’t see them as an intrusion; rather, she includes them in the ongoing party that is her life.

Kelley is having a grand old time. And to think that two years ago she was working a computer job. Ordering up a fresh cocktail, she contemplates the pros and cons of her new career. “Security – not much security in it. But then, if you want security, don’t do it. The pay is not real good, but I’ve got a platinum album coming up here, so it should be good.”

She grins a devilish grin. “What’s not to enjoy? The hours?”

This story is from the May 19th, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.  

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