How the Breeders Finally Learned to Get Along

There’s a reason the career-making lineup of the Breeders didn’t talk for more than a decade. But no one quite remembers what it is.

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How the Breeders Finally Learned to Get Along
, New York Times

There’s a reason the career-making lineup of the Breeders didn’t talk for more than a decade. But no one quite remembers what it is.

There was a fight, of course, between Kim Deal, the songwriter, singer and guitarist who co-founded the band, and the drummer, Jim Macpherson, sometime after Lollapalooza in 1994 — the year after the song “Cannonball” cemented their status as alt-rock heroes. Not long after their album “Last Splash” went platinum, Macpherson quit the band in a sudden huff.

“I don’t even remember him quitting, I just came downstairs and his drums were gone,” Deal said.

For 15 years, “Kim thought I hated her, and I thought she hated me,” Macpherson said.

He was sitting, looking over at her, in the Breeders tour bus before a gig last fall at the Bowery Ballroom. Twenty-five years after they broke out with “Last Splash,” that foursome — including Deal’s twin sister Kelley Deal on guitar and vocals, and Josephine Wiggs on bass — have reunited to record an album. They were together in the studio for the first time since the days of “Beavis and Butt-Head” and “Alternative Nation,” an era when they so impressed Kurt Cobain, he had them open for Nirvana.

For “All Nerve,” due March 2 from 4AD — the label involved with all four of the band’s previous releases with various lineups from “Pod” in 1990 to its most recent record, “Mountain Battles” in 2008 — some things were the same, like Kim Deal’s songwriting and the reverb-laden peels of her guitar rubbing against her voice, muscular and sweet. The Breeders still recorded live to tape, an analog throwback. And, Kelley said, “We still butted heads. I could get mad at Kim. I could always get mad at Kim.”

What was new was how those fights were resolved — or really, that they were resolved at all. They “have to, otherwise we wouldn’t be here now,” Kelley, 56, said. Her bandmates, all in their 50s, nodded along beside her. Their album title’s dual meaning — bristling confidence, and exposed vulnerability — neatly sums up their creative state. In the bus they teased each other pointedly, but at the show their joy at playing together was palpable. There were no backing tracks or video screens to divert fans from the foursome pounding it out onstage. Kim blew an actual lifeguard whistle for “Cannonball,” and emerged grinning.

“I have seen her work with a lot of different lineups of the Breeders and with nobody else in the room at all,” the recording engineer Steve Albini, who worked on “All Nerve,” said in an email. “The one thing that remains constant is her absolute persistence in trying to achieve the sound in her head.” He recalled a track she sang through a guitar amp to match what she’d achieved in her basement rehearsal space. “She is always aiming for something, and it’s often something nobody but her would recognize. I’ve learned to trust her instincts.”

Kim cocreated the Breeders while she was the bassist for the Pixies, and their most infamous disintegration followed a rock ‘n’ roll template: Kim struggled with substance abuse; Kelley drank, developed a heroin addiction and went to rehab. Wiggs moved on to other bands. The Deals did too, including several versions of the Breeders, which never achieved the acclaim of the “Last Splash” group.

So the other difference now is sobriety. After some relapses with opiates, Kelley has been clean for eight years, she said, and the partying that dogged other band members has subsided. Seeing Kim “descend into a kind of pop star abyss of drugs and unreliability at the height of her success was pretty depressing,” Albini wrote, “and that whole deal could have turned out almost infinitely worse, but she came back from the precipice, built a substantial body of work and is making some of her most stunning music right now in full maturity.”

For the first time, a melody came to Kim in a dream. She said she woke with “a dude in my head, singing,” sounding like the synthy ‘80s hit “Tainted Love.” She lost the synth, and the dude, and it became the title track for “All Nerve,” which careens from plaintive to forceful over an insistent rhythm section. After the spacey explorations of “Mountain Battles,” this album is shorter, punchier. Kim didn’t have a grand explanation for the shift: “The fact that we’re playing, is where the meaning is,” she said.

But reuniting post-drugs can also be fraught, said Patty Schemel, the drummer for Hole, who chronicled her own addiction and recovery in a recent memoir, “Hit So Hard” (Da Capo Press). “In my band, getting back into the same room, that old dynamic comes back,” Schemel said. Musically, too, crutches may remain. “Writing songs, if you’re hitting a wall and you’re not just finding it, getting high kind of helps, in your mind,” she said, “and so you want to fall back into those habits.”

In a second interview without Macpherson and Wiggs, the Deal sisters talked about their old ways. Hearing a song arrangement, “Sometimes I think, God, if I could just smoke a nice joint and listen to this, critically, I would be able to identify any inauthentic moments better,” Kelley said. “Then I sigh and think, I don’t know if that’s really true or not. Me wishing for an easier way to do something, doesn’t necessarily make something true.”

Kim recalled making music, around 1999, after taking hallucinogenic mushrooms. “I was never a hallucinogen person,” she said, “but these mushrooms were incredible. And I have a tape of my art that I created and it’s like an hour, 90 minutes, of me going —” She made a low, indistinct moan. Took a breath. Continued low, indistinct moaning.

Kelley laughed and said, “See, if you give that to me, and I smoke a big fat joint —”

Kim finished her thought: “You tell me what the authentic part of it is.” She laughed. It sometimes takes the two of them to piece together one story from their heyday. “Opening the doors of perception,” with drugs, Kim said, “you can really only open the door once. It doesn’t need to keep getting reopened all the time. That was something that I realized.”

The “Last Splash” lineup reunited in 2013, on a 20th anniversary showcase for the album. The last time they’d toured, the Deals would be absent until moments before they were due onstage, Wiggs said, and would disappear again afterward. “It was pretty alienating,” she said. (She had enough downtime at Lollapalooza to learn how to six-pin juggle.)

With sober bandmates, performing “was so delightful, because they were so present, and they’re delightful people when they’re present,” Wiggs said. “It’s super fun to hang out with them.” On their tour bus, they joked and marveled at the enthusiasm of their fans. “We were in D.C. last night,” Macpherson said. “It was a theater and nobody sat. I would’ve sat.”

The women in his band, in unison, pointed out the obvious: “You were sitting!”

The Deals and Macpherson live within a few miles of each other in Dayton, Ohio, their hometown; they get together to watch ballgames, and their state loyalty runs deep: on the bus, Kim wore socks emblazoned with a picture of Johnny Bench, the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Famer. Wiggs drove west from her home in Brooklyn for rehearsals in Kim’s basement. “All Nerve” was recorded nearby, in Dayton, Kentucky and at Albini’s studio in Chicago. (Their tour for it begins in Los Angeles in April.)

Even after all these years, there were revelations in how they did things: Kim’s recording process, “it’s not going to make sense to me,” her sister said. “Her process is her process, and I can either join her, or I can say ‘no, thank you,’ and split. That was huge for me, to understand all that.”

The twins started singing together as children; by 13, Kim had taught herself guitar on her father’s acoustic, and they turned up to harmonize at open mic nights. Kim always invited her sister to join her bands, but she always stayed the leader. “I really feel for Kim,” Kelley said. “She is the narrator of the story, she is the mouth, the frontperson for this whole thing.” She looked over at Kim. “It’s not a compliment or anything,” she said. “It just is a lot to do.”

As a duo, they’re somewhere between petulant teens and too-smart adults who can’t help but (affectionately) bicker — like Lady Bird and her mom, Wiggs said at a Breeders event in January. Kim was so mouthy in the ‘90s, Kelley recalled, that she had to put gaffer’s tape over her face to remind her to rest her voice between gigs. She’s still liable to tear up performing “Drivin’ on 9,” the country-tinged ballad from “Last Splash.” “It’s just so [expletive] beautiful,” Kim said.

Their music has won over another generation of fans. “When I was making my last album I was listening a lot to ‘Last Splash,'” said Courtney Barnett, the 30-year-old Australian indie rocker. “I liked that there’s a humor in there that doesn’t seem like totally obvious or up at the surface. And weird sounds that stick out on the album.” (The deadpan wit continues: On “Wait in the Car,” the ripping single off “All Nerve,” Kim sings, “I always struggle with the right word,” and then, to prove it, she meows.)

When Barnett and her band were passing through Ohio, the Breeders invited them to drop by a recording session, and added their background vocals to a track; the Deal sisters also sing on Barnett’s forthcoming record, “Tell Me How You Really Feel.” That’s Kim, adding the oohs-aahs to the feminist first single, “Nameless, Faceless.” To have the Deals’ voices supporting her, Barnett said, is an unexpected link to the artists that inspired her.

At the peak of alternative rock, that the Breeders were a female-led band “was important to me,” Schemel, of Hole, said. “I liked Kim because she just is what she is” — no artifice, onstage or off; she still dresses like a ‘90s skate punk. “She took control of what she wanted to put out and how she wanted to make it.”

For “All Nerve,” Kim took Macpherson to a show by Il Divo, the classical vocal group, because she wanted his drums to sound more orchestral. “It was a really big learning process for me, to try to capture what she had in her mind,” said Macpherson, who also played in Guided by Voices and still has his day job as a carpenter. He resisted at first. “But then I thought, you know, try it. Like Kelley said, I can leave or I can try it.”

Kim, too, is making an effort. “I’m relearning working with people and being kind,” she said. “Every tour, it’s like, [deep breath] patience. Have patience.”

The Breeders knew their chemistry was rare before, they said; it’s even more valuable today. “Having lost playing with these people once, and now having a chance to come back to it, I appreciate it more,” Wiggs said. Onstage, she finds herself locking into tempo with Macpherson, allowing the sisters to etch their own wild rhythm.

“Often I feel like, it’s right on the verge of falling apart, and then it doesn’t,” she said. “And there’s something super-exciting about that.”

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