LEFT OF THE DIAL The first rule of interviewing former Pixies bassist Kim Deal is that you do not say the word “Pixies” while speaking to Kim Deal.
After it has been made clear to you, multiple times and in no uncertain terms, that you are forbidden from asking her about the iconic rock band she co-founded in 1986, quit, re-joined, and then quit again in 2013, it would be understandable if you were slightly apprehensive about said phone interview — worried, perhaps, that Deal might be cranky or unpleasant regardless of your following the rules, or else that you might suddenly develop a very specific and unfortunate case of Tourette’s that leads to you uncontrollably shouting Frank Black’s name or Pixies album titles into the phone as epithets.
All of this anxiety would be for naught. Kim Deal, 53, is in great spirits when she picks up the phone at home in her native Dayton, Ohio. She’s hilarious, actually. “Hellooo, how are you?” she drawls in an overly perky telemarketer accent of sorts. Then, laughing, before switching into her unmistakable real voice: “Sorry, I don’t know why I’m talking like that.”
If anything, she’s in a bit of a silly mood because she’s been cooped up in rehearsals. It’s about two weeks before she heads out on tour with The Breeders, the band she co-leads with her twin sister Kelley, whose nearly identical voice blends with Kim’s sultry, sharp-edged alto in a way that creates addictively salty-sweet harmonies — and a band whose chart-topping contributions to the Steve Albini era of early ’90s alt-rock are so significant that only co-founding a band like the Pixies, as Kim did, could relegate it to “secondary reason for fame” status.
Anyway: The Breeders have been rehearsing in Deal’s basement, like old times. Getting on each other’s nerves, like old times. Bassist Josephine Wiggs was convinced there was a weird sound coming out of her amp last night when they were practicing. “I swear I can’t hear what she’s hearing,” says Deal, like a stand-up comedian launching into a routine about his wife’s cooking. “It’s an 810 SVT bass amp, so it sounds like a big fucking bass amp. It’s distracting you? Scoot over and you won’t hear it anymore.”
“She’s British, though,” concludes Deal with a sigh.
And how about working with her twin sister day in, day out?
“I love her more than anything in the world, but she was bothering me so much at practice the other day that I took a lamp and put it between us so I didn’t have to look at her while we were playing,” Deal says cheerfully. “Once somebody starts doing something that annoys me I kind of get a red light around them. The lamp has moved around each day as we all [get annoyed at each other]. It’s subtle.”
They might piss each other off from time to time, but if there were any doubts about the place the Breeders still occupy in their fans’ hearts, last year’s wholly sold-out 60-date tour, in honor of the 20th anniversary of the band’s biggest commercial success, Last Splash, should have laid them to rest. (Two nights at The Fillmore last August saw the band playing the entirety of that album – which was recorded in San Francisco, then rode the same angsty wave to national fame Nirvana saw that year, propelled by its most catchy and most delightfully inane song, “Cannonball.” Then they left the stage for 10 minutes before coming back to play the entirety of Pod, the band’s 1990 Kurt Cobain-influencing debut, as an encore. Deal, who had just quit the power play of the Pixies for the second time, was noticeably exuberant as a frontwoman, and seemingly could not stop smiling.)
Still, not counting last year’s 20th anniversary reissue of Last Splash (LSXX), it’s been five years since the Breeders put out new material (though it’s been a much less dramatic break than the seven-year hiatus between Last Splash and Title TK, during which time the band famously imploded in part due to Kelley Deal’s heroin use).
In lieu of new Breeders records, however — and in lieu of, er, bringing up her most recent few years with the Pixies, which, it could be noted, some of us were excited about mostly because of the chance to hear “Gigantic,” which she wrote, which is arguably the best song in the entire decades-spanning Pixies catalog — Deal has quietly issued eight 7-inch singles of solo material since January 2013. It’s something she began doing when she “couldn’t find anybody who could be in a band” with her, she says, especially living in Ohio.
“The industry dropped out of the music,” she says simply. “Musicians need jobs now. There used to be enough money in music that people who played in bands could actually make their rent. Maybe they’d sling weed on the side or do some pizza delivery, but they could hit their rent. Now that’s just not possible. Even bands that people know pretty well, they need real jobs — they design websites, then they go home to their band. Unless you’re [at the star status] where you’re, like, making perfume.”
So she started making music by herself. Though she’s brought in old friends and bandmates to play along (Slint drummer Britt Walford, whom Deal ran into at Steve Albini’s 50th birthday party, makes an appearance), the songs are unmistakably hers. Their moods shift from volatile bass-driven fuzz (“Walking With a Killer”) to cooing sing-song with an almost creepy Velvet Underground edge (“Are You Mine?”).
In an age when we’re used to artists simply throwing up a SoundCloud link and announcing “I have a new single,” she’s done something increasingly rare, as well: She released each song as an old-school single with an A and a B side, a physical product, each with its own album art. Long known for her perfectionism and attention to detail when it comes to gear and a studio’s technical specs, 2013 and 2014 were the years when Deal became entranced by the physical process of distributing music.
“It makes it more real to me,” she explains. “If I just put it out as a download, I feel like I just emailed my sister the song. Nothing even happens, it doesn’t make sense to me — I’m like, ‘Where do I put the title, the song name?'” Plus, since she self-issued Fate to Fatal in 2009, she realized she enjoyed the process of calling around to research manufacturers, assigning ISRC codes (kind of like serial numbers for songs), getting physical mail back when she sent something out.
She has no current plans to compile the tracks into an album, however — for one, each has “really different levels of production.” She feels a little like she’d be ripping people off, since the songs are all out already. And somehow she doesn’t expect “normal people” to be interested in buying these tracks, anyway, though a large portion of the Internet (and the majority of music critics) might disagree with that.
At the moment, though, Deal is in full-band mode. This current Breeders tour came about when Neutral Milk Hotel asked them to join a bill at the Hollywood Bowl; the Breeders structured the rest of the three-week tour around the gig. (In San Francisco, the band will play The Fillmore this Saturday, Sept. 13.) The tour will be a chance to try out new material, though Deal seems a little nervous about that.
“We have about four new songs right now that we can really play, and I’m working on the words for this other song Josephine wrote,” she explains. “She seems so smart, and she’s English, so I can’t just go, like, ‘ooga chooga,'” you know? I want to really say something with it.” Deal’s been reading The Power of Myth, the anthology of conversations between scholar Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, and thinking a lot on the hero’s journey. Specifically, what would happen if the hero completely ignored the advice of the gatekeeper/mentor character at the beginning of the arc.
“We’ve been working on this stuff all year, so when [Neutral Milk Hotel] asked us, even though it’s way out there, we thought ‘Hey, let’s give it a shot. And hope to hell nobody records on cell phones,'” she says.
And then there’s the act of traveling together at this stage in the game, with bandmates she’s known for 20-plus years. (After a decade or so of other members, the current lineup is the original Last Splash crew: Wiggs on bass, Jim McPherson on drums, and the inimitable sisters Deal in the center ring on vocals and guitars.)
People can get snippy on tour, says Kim — especially in Florida, “things get weird…but we get along for the most part, no one’s an asshole, that’s important. There’s just really not a rude person in this bunch.”
In the van, especially, you can always put on headphones. And if all else fails, “You get lamped,” she says. “There’s always the lamp.”
With Kelley Stoltz
1805 Geary, SF