Mind games

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.

"I'll sit around and play mind games for hours, playing music over and over again and separating it, then putting it back together in my head. And then you begin to play games in your head so much you begin to know the melody before the song's over with. When you start doing those game things, you become intrigued by it. That's what happened to me. I had to know if I could put it together. The first song I wrote I just sang at 16 years old. I still know how it goes.

"I figured everybody could do it. I thought I was, like, late in knowing how to do it. I thought, 'Well, everbody must know where the bass guitar goes.' I just assumed everybody was doing it."

Kim Deal was always the Pixie in the middle--known as "Mrs. John Murphy" instead of by her real name, relegated to only the occasional turn in front of the microphone, allowed the rare songwriting credit. She was the bass player in every sense of the phrase, neglected and ignored despite the fact her "Gigantic" was an early highlight on the album (1988's Surfer Rosa) that launched the band into the college-radio spotlight and made the Pixies the indie stars of the moment.

Her voice, so oddly atonal, wasn't really beautiful; her phrasing wasn't really striking; and her lyrics weren't all that compelling. But when taken as a whole, when you considered her nerve and shlumpy rock charisma, she was a hell of a good Deal.

The Pixies were, for a brief moment, the most important rock-and-roll band of the post-rock period (post-rock meaning, in this case, rock made by musicians who knew the genre so well, all they could do was destroy it). They turned the music inside-out, distorted and perverted songs until they became sounds barely clinging to the skeleton, set fire to the building and warmed their hands over its embers.

Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, which followed in 1989, and the next year's Bossanova sounded like everything you had ever heard--surf, rock, punk, metal, pop--in no way you had ever heard it before. Like Robert Christgau wrote at the time in The Village Voice, the Pixies were "in love with rock and roll--and they don't know why."

The Pixies were the launching point for Nirvana, the kick-off for PJ Harvey, the parents of Weezer and the Toadies. They got to the major labels early, and yet their recording career spanned only four years, they barely made a dent on commercial radio, and when they toured, they never played the "hits." This was a band doomed from the get-go, but you never remember the pioneers, anyway.

Kim Deal actually struck out on her own a year before the band called it quits: She hooked up with then-Throwing Muse Tanya Donelly (herself a background player, forever stuck playing second everything to half-sister Kristin Hersh) and Perfect Disaster bassist Josephine Wiggs for the debut Breeders record, Pod. Most of it was dull and vaguely annoying, like so many records on 4AD--a label that could find "art" in a fart and usually does, especially if it's British and sounds like the Cocteau Twins.

But delete the opening and closing throwaways and the half-hearted "Happiness is a Warm Gun," and there is some real magic to be found at the middle of Pod: "Hellbound" is a powerful rock-and-roll anthem of an aborted fetus that lives ("in mi-ser-eeee," as Deal sang it like she meant it), "When I was a Painter" is caught between a deafening electric guitar and a stirring violin, "Fortunately Gone" splits the difference between a snappy pop song and a quirky love song, and "Iris" gives the testicular-impaired a pretty good idea what it means to menstruate.

An EP and full-lengther later, and the Breeders had become a bona fide band--radio stars, even, thanks to a single that wouldn't have been in a pre-Nirvana age ("Cannonball," which stops and starts more times than the Texas Rangers and wavers between Go-Go pop and Pixie punk). The Breeders' Last Splash, released in 1993, isn't a cohesive record: Songs fade in out of nowhere, stop in midchorus, sound cut into a dozen pieces until they resemble a choppy home movie.

"When I'm writing a song, I'll even call a certain riff something that reminds me of something else," she explains. "Like, I'll call something 'the Black Sabbath section.' The Black Sabbath section is actually in the song 'Saints' [off Last Splash] when it goes"--she begins singing the introduction. "Now, I didn't intend to do this, but 'War Pigs' goes"--and, again, she sings the melody line that's instantly recognizable as both a Black Sabbath melody and a Breeders riff.

"I don't really make a song that sounds like Black Sabbath, but I do understand that riff to the point where I can say, 'Let's start from the Black Sabbath riff and finish it off.'"

But that's the signature attraction to the Amps and the Breeders (and, guilt by association, the Pixies)--the way in which Deal's bands have always been able to take the oldest bits of pop and recycle them till they're unrecognizably new. Deal is almost like a kid who dismantles an old car then rearranges the greasy metal into a twisted sculpture; you know where the parts came from, but they no longer resemble the original structure one damned bit. It's rock, all right, but no rock you've ever heard.

"I knew I wanted to do this because music makes me have goose bumps," she says. "That's the only reason why you do it. The best thing is to sit in a rehearsal with a new song and have it played for the first time, and it sounds really good and you get goose bumps. That's still the same. I'm in it for the goose bumps, really."

The Amps performs April 19 at Trees.

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