Deal With It
Though she's lived life as both a post-punk pioneer and an alt-rock heroine, Kim Deal's got her doubts about her latest work. "Nobody's gonna like the record," she says of Title TK, the album she's been trying to release for eight years. "Why would anyone like it? It's slow. It's not a party record."
At least her perceptive skills haven't dulled: Title TK, the new Breeders album, is the year's noir-rock masterpiece, a slowly unwinding spool of disjointed guitar lines, murky bass bubbles and smoky vocal harmonies that slip in and out of key like plate tectonics. If all you remember of the Breeders is "Cannonball" and women in sunglasses and dresses running around having a good time, you've got some catching up to do.
"I feel like I do the music all the time," Deal says when I try to catch up myself. Last Splash, the hit album that housed "Cannonball," came out in 1993, and since then all we've heard of the Breeders is a motley collection of rumors about drugs and aborted studio sessions and wayward band members. We're sitting in a bar in New York, and Deal's smoking and avoiding my question. "I just couldn't find anybody to play with; there was nobody that would actually just hang out for four hours and play songs."
Especially the people who'd already done that. After touring Last Splash for about a year, the band that had made the album--which itself was different from the one that had made Pod, the Breeders' 1990 debut--promptly dissolved, bassist Josephine Wiggs leaving to form Dusty Trails with ex-Luscious Jackson keyboardist Vivian Trimble, drummer Jim MacPherson joining Guided By Voices and Deal's twin sister, Kelley, entering a mandatory rehab program to kick the heroin habit she'd developed. Deal found herself alone and with a handful of songs she wanted to record--something like the position she was in when she formed the Breeders with Throwing Muse (and future Belly front woman) Tanya Donnelly in 1988, when she was playing bass in the Pixies and wanted an outlet for the tunes Black Francis was vetoing.
So she did the natural alt-rock thing: formed another group and made an album. Deal released Pacer, that record, under the name the Amps in '95; the songs sounded like Breeders songs, only roughened up to approximate the permanently garage-bound rock Deal had grown up with in her native Dayton, Ohio. The album presented an exciting change in direction from Last Splash, but it was a direction that didn't move much in the next half-decade. Deal swears she tried to make progress during those years--she demoed songs endlessly in a series of recording studios and searched vainly for new bandmates, giving Kelley the time she needed to get well. In New York in early 2000, the ball finally started to roll.
"We were on tour and we were at a bar one night," new Breeders guitarist Richard Presley explains, referring to a show he played with the latest incarnation of Fear, the long-running L.A. punk band, "and Kim walked in by chance. We struck up a conversation and she invited us to a studio her friend owns, and we jammed with her the rest of the morning."
"I thought these guys might be the roadies," Deal says of Presley and bassist Mando Lopez. "When we were talking on the phone after that night, I was still figuring it out. But that morning I said, 'Oh, where do you guys live?' And Richard says East Los Angeles, and I said, 'OK, I'll go out there and we can jam some more.' And that June I drove out there with my U-Haul attached to the back."
She did, and the Breeders got going again. Presley introduced Deal to his drummer friend Jose Medeles, Kelley began making trips out to L.A. from Dayton, and by December of that year this notoriously slow-moving band was ready to play its first proper show in years. True to form, they picked a tiny dive bar on a Tuesday night and didn't bother to announce the gig.
"It was our first show," Deal says with a shrug. "I didn't wanna have it listed and actually charge money and shit. It was at 8 o'clock, before the real band started. I thought we'd be playing in front of six people, and it was fucking packed."
No surprise there, considering the cliffhanger Deal had dealt fans six years earlier. What is surprising is how quickly the stalemate resolved itself; it makes you want to believe Deal when she says she was just looking for people to play with. The following March the band headed to Chicago--Deal says she drove there with the U-Haul attached to the back again--to try recording the songs they'd been playing with Steve Albini, the notorious indie-rock engineer who'd recorded Pod and the Pixies' Surfer Rosa and had worked on Pacer. Deal complains that so much of the time she spent in studios in New York in the late '90s was wasted on arguments with engineers over the use of ProTools and other digital tools; at one point she tells me a 10-minute story about a metronome that I'll never forget if I can ever figure out what she was talking about. In Albini she found the partner she'd been looking for.
"When I got to Steve's studio, I was unloading the stuff, and I asked him where I should put the sampler," she says, laughing. "He pointed to the dumpster and said, 'How about there?'"
Many jokes later and the Breeders had finished what they started--they'd made a new album. Though Deal's beyond right when she describes Title TK as "not a party record," it's hard to say if no one will like it. It's gotten a lukewarm critical reaction--apparently, by making a record as shaggily gorgeous as this one the band really wasn't using its downtime properly--and no one but the suits at Elektra is really paying attention to the sales, since the momentum "Cannonball" built has sort of died down. But it's a stunner, and maybe the kind that just takes its time to do its thing. It wouldn't be the first time Deal's done it.
"If this is supposed to be my huge disappointment, I already did that," she says with a sigh, remembering the last time she tried to follow up Last Splash. "I already made the band the Amps, put out a record, nobody bought it, nobody listened to it. Will it happen again?" She exhales a lungful of smoke and laughs. I doubt Kim Deal cares.
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