The Breeders on kicking drugs, Kurt Cobain and life after Pixies

The beloved Last Splash lineup are back with their first new album in decades. Here, they reflect on the 90s alt-rock scene and the cocktail of drugs, disappointments and bust-ups that saw them break up

‘If I could even remember what we were fighting about …” Kim Deal’s memories of the 90s are often incomplete, but she remembers that during one particularly chaotic tour, with her post-Breeders project the Amps, she and drummer Jim Macpherson fell out so badly that the two did not speak for 15 years. “That tour was … Oh, my goodness gracious,” Kim continues. “Wasn’t that the first time I blacked out on stage? First time ever? I blacked out on one song and came out on another?”

“Yeah,” Jim sighs.

“Drink,” says Kim, simply. “I think it was pretty horrible.”

Josephine Wiggs, the Breeders’ original, British bassist, says she found an old laptop recently, with some mid-90s correspondence on it. There was an email from the music writer Michael Azerrad. “He’s writing to me about being at one of those shows and just being like: ‘Oh my god, I’m fearful for their safety.’”

“I’ve not heard this before,” says Kim.

“It’s all going in the book, Kim,” Josephine smiles, wryly.

Given the Breeders’ history, there should be plenty for her to draw upon. They formed in 1989 as a side-project for Kim while her other band, Pixies, were on a hiatus. But they soon became much more than that. With 1990’s Pod and 1993’s Last Splash, the Breeders released two of the most iconic albums of that era’s alternative rock explosion. But their success was messy, too. It’s taken a long time for the four people here today to get together again.

Back with a blast ... watch the video for new single Wait in the Car.

In Kim’s living room, in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio, the Last Splash lineup – Kim, twin sister Kelley, Jim and Josephine – are sitting around, discussing texts and calls and emails and shows, working out a timeline of how it all snapped back into place. “There’s something about this sound that really feels like home,” says Kelley, warmly. Spending time in their company is like being at a family get-together. They tease each other, they bicker over song titles. They chat effusively about current affairs and why it might be that so many serial killers are from Ohio. Kim has always lived here, on and off, but moved back permanently in 2003 to help take care of their mother, who has Alzheimer’s. She and Kelley’s parents live at the end of the road.

With a new Breeders album and tour on the way, Josephine gave up her apartment in Brooklyn and moved into Kim’s attic. Kelley lives a couple of streets away; the sisters have an older brother, who is just around the corner with his family. Jim cycles over to rehearse in the basement, when he has time off from his carpentry job; his wife helps take care of Kim and Kelley’s mum. Kim gives me a tour of their rehearsal space in the cellar, where the band have been practising since she first moved in, in 1990. Brilliantly, they sometimes get noise complaints from the neighbours, particularly if the bass is too loud. They play me some new Breeders songs, the first with this lineup since 1993. As we’re listening, the Deals move to sit right in front of my face and stare at me, closely, with jokey intensity. “It’s really comfortable, isn’t it, listening to someone’s music while they’re there,” teases Kelley.

The Breeders backstage in in 1994
First splash ... the Breeders backstage in 1994. Photograph: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty

Kim and Kelley had always played music together, starting out at the truck stops around Dayton. “It was the daytime, so not as cool as Urban Cowboy and all that stuff,” says Kim. They did weddings, too, and played in a lounge band that occasionally did disco covers. The twins do simultaneous jazz hands as they stage-whisper their formative band’s name: “Track Five!” The group was made up of local sisters, recalls Kim. “A couple of them were getting old so they needed girls to be backup singers. We had outfits, we had dance moves on the stage. Men would buy us sloe gin fizzes. I remember driving there on acid, and the snow was coming, and I was getting ready to sing and I was fried …”

It was Kim’s desire to make a disco song that eventually led to the Breeders, in a way. Kim had moved to Boston with her then-husband, and in 1986 answered an ad to play bass in the band that would become Pixies. By 1989, she was at a loose end, so she and her friend Tanya Donnelly, from Throwing Muses, had the idea of playing together. “Both of our bands were not doing anything for a while,” she recalls. “Kristin [Hersh] was pregnant at the time, I think Charles [Pixies’ Black Francis] was driving to LA or on a solo tour or something.” The disco idea didn’t stick, but the band did.

Josephine was recruited to play bass after first meeting Kim when her group, the Perfect Disaster, supported Pixies in Europe. “I was like, ‘Why do you want me to play bass? Why don’t you play bass?’”

Kim shares the Christmas 1993 Melody Maker cover with fan Kurt Cobain
Big Deal ... Kim shares the Christmas 1993 Melody Maker cover with fan Kurt Cobain. Photograph: PR

So why didn’t one of rock’s most famous bassists want to play bass in her own band? “I’m a guitar player!” Kim protests. “I’ve played guitar since I was 13. I don’t have anything against playing bass, but if I was gonna play something or write something I’d play guitar, cos that’s what I play.” Pod was recorded quickly in Edinburgh with producer Steve Albini. It’s a masterpiece of both songwriting and production. Kim describes it as “just magic”. In a 1992 issue of music mag Melody Maker, Kurt Cobain named it as a record that changed his life. “The main reason I like them is for their songs, for the way they structure them, which is totally unique, very atmospheric. I wish Kim was allowed to write more songs for the Pixies, because Gigantic is the best Pixies song and Kim wrote it,” he said.

The Breeders ended up touring with Nirvana in the early 90s. By this point, Kelley had left her job to play guitar, Jim had joined on drums – he knew Kim from flyering her house in Dayton with leaflets for his band’s shows – and Tanya had left to form Belly. Jim remembers their first show in Dublin, opening for Nirvana. “I was playing and Kurt walked up. I was like, ‘Oh shit, there he is.’ He didn’t wear his lanyard, and one of the bouncers just got up on stage and beat the shit out of him. He just thought it was a punter. So Kurt fired every single one of them and said he wasn’t gonna play the show until they got a whole new security.”

“They were awesome,” adds Kelley. “I feel like I know Krist [Novoselic] the best, and then Dave Grohl was always really nice. Kurt seemed really nice, but with my knowledge of what addiction does and shit like that, he seemed super-addicted. Quiet. Probably high, I don’t know.”

It’s hard to grasp the sheer magnitude of that scene, particularly looking back now. Kelley says she doesn’t think there will ever be anything like it again. At the start of 1993, Pixies broke up, with Black Francis allegedly sending Kim and drummer David Lovering a fax to inform them of the news (Kim told Spin she actually found out when Kelley informed her during the Last Splash sessions). But that same summer, the Breeders released Cannonball, an insanely infectious single that became an instant classic. On YouTube, there is a treasure trove of rambunctious MTV interviews with the band from that time. But there’s an element of wild-eyed chaos to the fun and, with hindsight, a Rolling Stone profile from 1994 hints at what was really going on: Kelley spends most of the interview with her back turned, asleep. She had been a heroin addict for a while, and in 1994 she was arrested for possession. She went to rehab a few months later. Kim, meanwhile, had her own problems with alcohol. Despite various attempts at writing and touring, it would be eight years before another Breeders album, Title TK, appeared. Neither Jim nor Josephine had stayed around.

Kim Deal performs with the band at Lollapalooza in 1994
Guitar heroine ... Kim Deal performs with the band at Lollapalooza in 1994. Photograph: Steve Eichner/Getty

Both say it was odd for them to know that there was a Breeders album coming out without them on it. “It was weird,” shrugs Jim. “But I was the one who told Kim I was leaving, so it was no fault of hers.”

“I have no memory,” Kim says. (Kim stopped drinking in 2002 and, like Kelley, is now completely sober.) “I had no idea you told me that. I’m sorry, Jim.”

Josephine, like Jim, is similarly understanding. “On the one hand, you’ve heard what was going on [during this period], and I did not want to be involved in that,” she says. “It sounded like such a nightmare. I thought: ‘I just don’t think I can do it, for my own mental health.’ But at the same time I was feeling slightly nose-out-of-joint that there was a record with the Breeders name on it and I wasn’t part of it.”

Kim asks if it’s like seeing an old partner happy with someone new, even though you dumped them. “I think it makes your gut feel the same,” says Jim.

Amusingly, this incarnation of the band ended up on an episode of Buffy. The Deals were fans and had started to incorporate the theme tune into their live set, which earned them an invitation to play on set at Buffy’s fictional nightclub The Bronze in season seven. “I have a coffee cup that says The Bronze on it. I remember I got yelled at,” Kim smiles.

The Breeders enjoy the quiet life in Dayton, Ohio.
Hiding in plain sight ... the Breeders enjoy the quiet life in Dayton, Ohio. Photograph: Amy Powell/The Guardian

“For smoking?” asks Kelley. “Me too. (Stern voice) ‘You’d better hope Sarah [Michelle Gellar] doesn’t come back and see you. She’d be really mad.’”

The two of them love TV. Kim has a Walking Dead calendar hung up in her kitchen, and at 6pm every night, the sisters FaceTime so they can watch the news together and discuss events.

A fourth album followed in 2008, the introspective, winding Mountain Battles. By this point, Pixies were four years into their reunion, to the initial surprise of fans, who had thought their initial split too acrimonious. “The Pixies were doing those tours which, by the way, were fantastic,” says Kim. When there was serious talk of recording a new Pixies album in 2011, she decided it was time for her to step away. “I didn’t really want to do [an album] anyway and I had been pretty vocal about that. Then when it was actually like: ‘We’re gonna do it’, I was busy, we had this going on and the solo stuff, so I’m pretty good. And they’re doing really great.”

Kim and Kelley wanted to commemorate Last Splash’s 20th anniversary with some shows and had begun to talk about how it might be to have Jim and Josephine back in the Breeders. Kelley chips in: “There was talk of some more [Pixies] shows in 2012 and I was like, ‘Noooooo! You’re booked!’”

Many say Pixies are not the same without Kim Deal. She’s a trailblazer and a hero to a generation of rock fans who had never quite seen a woman like her in their favourite band before. But she is dismissive of any talk of reverence. “Just look outside my window,” she says, nodding to the porch that looks out onto her quiet street. “Nothing. Nobody recognises us or knows us at all.”

Kelley tells a story about how the Breeders were playing a festival in Austin, and Exene Cervenka [from LA punks X] was there. “And she’s like the cute guy in the room that you are watching without watching. I clocked her every movement. I knew exactly what she was doing at all times.” She mimes following someone around, agog, and looks at her sister. “So the fact that you are that to somebody, I totally can get that.”

Later, Kim and Jim drive me to Dayton’s record store. A man comes up to Jim and thanks him; when they were younger, Jim turned him on to Pixies and let him borrow his albums. “Well,” says Jim, slightly bamboozled, “here’s Kim.” Kim smiles, says hello, shakes his awestruck hand. She’d been standing there all along.

The Breeders’ new single, Wait in the Car, is out now


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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