Mind games

Kim Deal puts her rock together all wrong, all right?

At first, Kim Deal ignores the constant interruptions caused when someone keeps trying to click in on her call waiting; she says to forget it, that it's probably not important. But soon she can't get a word out without getting cut off. "Hang on for a second," she groans, and then is gone for a couple of minutes, replaced by silent static.

"That was Kelley," Kim says when she returns, referring to her twin sister and band mate in the Breeders. Kim says Kelley just recently left California and moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where she has her own band, Kelley Deal 6000, which she started with a guy she met during drug rehab. Kim says, with a tinge of disappointment, she hasn't heard her sister's band yet.

For now, the two sisters are content to talk long-distance over the phone (Kim is still in her native Dayton, Ohio), content to wait it out till Kelley's ready to rejoin her sister and make another Breeders record. Kim gave her sister a shot at playing guitar in the Breeders though Kelley had no real experience, so she's a patient woman.

This leaves Kim solo for the first time in her career, fronting a band, the Amps, that was never going to be a band in the first place. Rather, the Amps began as a side project, a time-killer while Kim waited for Kelley to kick her drug habit. But "three weeks here and three weeks there" turned into months, and Kim needed something to do between Breeders records. "Treatment takes a lot longer than that," Kim says of her sister's predicament. "It's like three months in a halfway house and shit."

Eventually, Kim decided to go solo for real--this time as a one-woman band called Tammy and the Amps. When she began writing the songs last year, she knew only that her own record would be more lyrically driven, that there would be no instrumentals (the Breeders' 1993 album Last Splash featured two); and since it would be only her behind the microphone, behind the guitar, behind the drum kit, she would have to act more like a front person--hence the name Tammy and the Amps.

"I made fun of myself naming the band Tammy and the Amps, because when you listen to that kind of group, you can picture it in your mind," Kim says. "There's a front singer, a lead singer, and she's the girl who doesn't do anything. She doesn't play any instruments, she just sings. She's, like, ditzy--Tammy, Debbie, Candy, Missy, Barbie. Like Josie and the Pussycats, Katrina and the Waves--those are front people, girls who don't touch any instruments and don't touch the gear and don't carry anything. They just dress up.

"Even though I don't really sit down and plan it, it just kind of comes together, and I go, 'Oh, wouldn't it be funny if I was Tammy and the Amps? I'm Tammy, and who's my band? A bunch of amps in my basement!' It's very 'nobody knows what I'm talking about.'"

The Amps--which now features Breeders drummer Jim MacPherson and two Dayton music-scene regulars, Nate Farley of the Method and Luis Lerma of the Tasties--last year released the debut Pacer, which at once recalls the Breeders (and Deal's first band, the Pixies) and manages to sound completely different. It's a rock record in only the vaguest sense that it "rocks," yet it sounds all wrong, as though everything about it is just slightly crooked even when it appears straight to the naked ear. It's frenetic, loud, catchy even, but it only slacks toward a rush; and for a 24-track recording, done up professional-style, it recalls the high end of lo-fi.

Deal initially figured she'd record alone, then Kelley and MacPherson came in to lay down some tracks. Kim figured it might help her sister ease away from drugs if she was eased back into the studio. They stopped in the middle of recording Pacer, finishing with enough material for a 30-minute live set. Kim then brought in Lerma and Farley to play a few gigs, learn some new songs, then complete the record.

That was a year ago, and since then the Amps have played a handful of gigs--including a last-minute showcase at South by Southwest last month--so what began as a one-off has evolved into a real band. Yet, if anything, Pacer showcases the real Kim Deal without anyone else running interference. If her work as a Pixie was overshadowed by Black Francis, and if her spotlight as a Breeder was always shared by either Tanya Donelly or sister Kelley, then the Amps is her own show from start to finish--the final step in the evolution of a woman who began writing songs as a teen-ager as nothing more than a game.

"When I was listening to music when I was young, I started to play games with the music in my head," she explains. "I started to guess when they're going to go next and figure out how it's put together. Then you start to figure out what the bass guitar sounds like, then you try to follow the bass guitar through the entire song. This is before you even know how to play anything. Then you see if you can separate the different parts in your head.

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