'It used to be about music. Now, without the drink, it's good to go back to that'

Revered by Nirvana, Blur and Radiohead, Kim and Kelley Deal of 90s indie sensations the Breeders are rock survivors. Now, after years of struggle with drink and drugs, they're addicted to good food - and music

In a drab hotel lobby in Dayton, Ohio, an ordinary city in the American Midwest, there are pictures of the extraordinary people who have come from there. On one wall is a dusty photograph of Orville and Wilbur Wright, the two pioneer pilots flying across the prairies. An old poster of the young Martin Sheen beams from another, a smiling, hometown hero.

And then there's another Dayton star - the bassist who inspired Kurt Cobain to form Nirvana and Damon Albarn to form Blur. She bounces towards me in unconventional celebrity clobber - a waterproof anorak and beanie hat - and beckons me outside. "Get in the back, quick - me and the sister are arguing." Her twin pouts at me from behind the steering wheel. "Don't listen to the baby - she just can't give directions. Get yourself out of the cold and let's go walk the dog."

Kim and Kelley Deal, the very ordinary twins behind the extraordinary music of the Breeders, are not your typical rock stars. Yet at 48, they are more active than ever. Following the critical success of last year's comeback album, Mountain Battles, they have just released a new EP, "Fate to Fatal", and they have curated the sold-out weekend festival for All Tomorrow's Parties that takes place later this month.

Kim will still be best known to many as the bassist of the Pixies, the Boston-based band that made four seminal albums around the late 80s. They are so influential that Thom Yorke refused to let Radiohead follow them onstage at 2004's Coachella festival because "[it would be] like the Beatles opening for us".

Despite the Pixies' success, Kim formed the Breeders in 1989 when cracks in the band started to show. By showcasing her rough, urgent songs, sweetened by her soft, girl-group vocals, she emerged as a new kind of female rock star, neither flaunting her sexuality nor overdoing her coolness. Her sister, Kelley, the older twin by 11 minutes, joined five years later, shortly before the band's drug and alcohol abuse would lead to their meltdown. Only rehab and family illness would alter their lives and offer them a fresh start.

The sisters are lively today, bantering like teenagers as we walk around Dayton with Kelley's bull mastiff, Carter, before going to her house. Kelley lives here with her husband, while Kim lives partly in her own house in Dayton, and partly with her parents, to care for her mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer's. They have always been close. As children, they would sing folk songs together and enjoyed cheerleading and dancing. "Although I was already smoking weed at 14," says Kelley, before tutting. "And I was drinking then, too," says Kim, apologetically.

Music only hit them in their late teens, when they started swapping mixtapes with friends. They fell in love with Elvis Costello, XTC and Gang of Four. But even though this was the late 70s, Dayton missed punk completely. "It was a town of hair metal and we hated it," explains Kim. "Girls were supposed to be sexy whores in white pants - they weren't allowed to rock." Did this spur you to make music? "Yeah, sure! We played in bars and ignored what people said. After all, we knew that the people who thought they were badass didn't rock at all!"

Soon after, the sisters' fledgling band broke up when Kelley began working as a defence contractor. ("I wasn't the best employee - I'd be at top-security meetings at 8am, in high heels, still high on ecstasy".) Kim moved to Boston with her husband, John Murphy, where she read a newspaper ad for a bassist who liked hardcore band Hüsker Dü as well as 60s folk trio, Peter, Paul and Mary. She met Charles Thompson, the man who would call himself Black Francis in the Pixies and now calls himself Frank Black, and the Pixies began in 1985.

At this point, Kim had never played the bass properly, so why did she go along? "The thought just excited me. That I could pick up this thing and go, ooh, it's got four strings! This one goes all the way up there! And all the way down there! I also liked the idea of making music that sounded as real as I could, without any frills."

When Kim formed the Breeders with her friend Tanya Donnelly of Throwing Muses in 1989, the Pixies' first three recordings - 1987's "Come On Pilgrim" EP, 1988's Surfer Rosa and 1989's Doolittle - were starting to excite critics. But by then, her relationship with Frank Black, as well as her marriage, was falling apart and none of her songs features on the Pixies' last, and least-loved, albums, 1990's Bossanova and 1991's Trompe le Monde. But somehow it didn't matter. The Breeders released their thrillingly raw debut album, Pod, in 1990, and it was instantly praised. Kurt Cobain later called it one of his all-time favourites, leading him to bemoan how sad it was that Kim wasn't allowed to write more songs in the Pixies.

I have been asked not to talk about the Pixies today, though they're playing music festivals this summer and new material is rumoured. I can't resist a question. When the Pixies reformed to tour in 2004, and released a single, "Bam Thwok", written by Kim, did she feel vindicated? Her cheeky smile reveals nothing. "You know what - the past is dead and gone," she smiles. "It was fun. In the beginning, it was all about the music and so now, without the drink, it's good to go back to that."

Kim talks instead about the strange, macho early 90s. "It was a very boy-oriented time. Hardcore was big again in America and girls weren't allowed into it. I found it odd that something that took its roots from punk, which was about the two sexes doing stuff for themselves, could turn into that." She also found it a time when men were being exploited. "People talk about girls being asked to put their fingers in their mouths in the name of pop, but no one looks at the Red Hot Chili Peppers' picture with socks on their dicks and says anything." She shrugs energetically. "This girl-and-boy thing is way more complicated than that."

But in 1993, the year Frank Black broke up the Pixies by faxing the other members to tell them, the Breeders broke through. By now, Kelley had replaced Donnelly, who had left to form Belly, and the Breeders' bright second album, Last Splash, started to sell. Its lead single, "Cannonball", was particularly successful, becoming single of the year in both the NME and Melody Maker end-of-year polls.

How do they remember that time? Kim recalls making fun pop videos. Kelley sees it as "a bit of a blur". It's an unsurprising remark, especially as Kelley was arrested for heroin possession in 1995. Kim formed a new band, the Amps, while her sister was in rehab, and also got impressive royalty cheques after the Prodigy's "Firestarter", which sampled a riff from her Breeders track, "S.O.S", became a huge hit.

The rest of the decade would see Kim, a committed perfectionist, even learning the drums to get the right sounds. Why? "I just got faked out," she laughs. "I got sick of people prizing computers and programmed beats to make terrible songs that went monkey butt, monkey butt, cha-cha-cha! I mean, I have nothing against electronic music - damn, Kraftwerk, they're just the best - but too many people let technology override the communication of a personal experience." Kelley high-fives across the room as her sister continues. "To my mind, there is a reason that music is there and it's about being human."

Kim then started recording properly again, moving to east LA in 2001. 2002's Title TK got good reviews, but party life on the west coast didn't help. In 2003, Kim entered rehab herself. "Best thing I ever did," she says, hammily. "But seriously - food is my drug now. Mmm, lovely food. I don't even smoke any more and God, I could smoke. Now, I eat, I drink coffee. And dammit, I need coffee." She looks over at Kelley, who jangles her car keys in reply. Ten minutes later, we're on Starbucks macchiatos and Kim praises sobriety. "What people don't tell you is the energy it gives you. It reminds me of when me and Kelley first started playing the bars, or when me and the boys first started the Pixies. Feeling the energy in your bones when you started writing a song, getting to practise without already being drunk and high."

Kelley agrees. "What everyone forgets is that the musicians we always associate with being drunk or high - Jim Morrison for instance, or Jimi Hendrix - it's often their sober album that people loved the best." She drains her cup. "After all, smoking a joint doesn't make you make reggae. It's the desire to do it that makes it."

Their openness is refreshing. We stop off briefly at Kim's place, where she gleefully shows me a basement full of musical equipment. Then, we end up at the twins' childhood home. Here, their father offers a cheery hello, as does their mother, a petite, pretty woman who is, nevertheless, struggling to understand what is happening around her. She asks me if she has met me before and 10 minutes later, as her daughters continue chatting, she asks me again. Kim rubs her back firmly, while Kelley winks at her warmly.

I ask the sisters if their parents have any pictures of them as children to hand. They do and soon the table is groaning with faded photographs. In them, Kim and Kelley do the splits, hug each other and gurn happily at the camera. In many ways, it looks like their lively spirit has never wavered. But then again - I now look at their mother, holding her teacup delicately in front of me - they did used to look like such ordinary teenagers.

Everyone laughs and then something wonderful happens - Mrs Deal's face lights up and her smile could fuel rockets. "That's one thing about my girls," she laughs. "They were never ordinary. They were always extraordinary."

The Breeders' festival highlights

The Breeders' ATP Festival will be held at Butlins Holiday Centre, Minehead Somerset, on 15-17 May

Bon Iver Wisconsin singer-songwriter Justin Vernon broke hearts and topped critics' polls last year with his debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, which was recorded in a remote wood cabin and ached for lost love.

Foals The Oxford mathsrockers have a reputation for wild performances - riotous guerrilla gigs in fans' houses were an early speciality - but last year's debut, Antidotes, also revealed them to be sophisticated songwriters. Both aspects will be in evidence at ATP - elaborate riffs deployed with punkish energy.

Teenage Fanclub Stalwarts of Byrdsian guitar pop, the Scottish group celebrate their 20th birthday this year and have influenced several generations of melodic indie bands during their career.

Blood Red Shoes The Brighton-based duo apply the White Stripes' guitar/drums template to the sounds of early-90s America, all grungy guitar riffs, sharp-edged melodies and thunderous drumming. Live, they deliver the volume of a band three times their size.

Holy Fuck Career-sabotaging name aside, the Canadian quintet appear to have achieved the perfect formula; the mantric feel of dance music and driving beats of krautrock allied to gleaming melodies of the purest pop.
Ally Carnwath


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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