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What happened to the Breeders?


From left to right: Josephine Wiggs, Kim Deal, Kelley Deal and Jim Macpherson of the Breeders. (Madeleine Hordinski for The Washington Post)

With ‘Last Splash’ 30 years ago, they seemed like rock’s post-Nirvana future. Now touring again, the band better understands how they fell apart — and how to keep it together.

In a cluttered suburban basement this summer, Kim Deal cupped her hands over the mic to distort her lilting voice into something like the moan of a humpback whale, and suddenly it was 1993 again.

AhhOOOOOwah! AhhOOOOOwah!

A few taps on the snare rim and cymbal stand from her bandmate Jim Macpherson. Then Josephine Wiggs came in with the bass line, that inquisitive Morse-code riff that telegraphs within a heartbeat that you’ve tuned into the biggest hit of the Breeders’ all-too-fleeting heyday.

Spitting in a wishing well

Blown to hell, crash — I’m the last splash

“Cannonball” was no mainstream chart-topper, but its delectably off-kilter riff was everywhere in the mid-’90s, making it the 22nd greatest indie anthem (according to New Musical Express), the 83rd greatest song of its decade (says VH1), one of the 500 greatest hits of all time (Rolling Stone). The Deal sisters’ cooing vocals against their scowling guitars, those impenetrable lyrics, that lifeguard whistle beckoning us … where exactly? The song was in “South Park,” over the sports highlights, on MTV. If you were filming a pitch-black comedy about bank-robbing cheerleaders, as someone actually did back then, you would definitely cue up “Cannonball” to score the madcap heist scene.

I’ll be your whatever you want. The bong in this reggae song

For many critics and fans, though, the Breeders weren’t just supposed to be the sound of 1993. They were supposed to be the future — a femme-powered vanguard of grunge that could have, should have, led the way in the post-Nirvana vacuum. But “Last Splash,” the platinum-selling album that spawned “Cannonball,” somehow ended up being the Breeders’ last act in their prime.

“Sometimes I think, God, wow, we really should have probably done another Breeders record,” Deal said dryly. “Because it really was quite popular.” Popular enough that they are marking “Last Splash’s” 30th anniversary by playing it live in its entirety, in a tour that comes to the Fillmore in Silver Spring, Md., on Thursday.

Instead, the Breeders disappeared at their peak, for reasons that are easy to itemize — the drug abuse, the writer’s block, the fights, etc. — but hard to pin on one person. Like their greatest work, their mystifying collapse was a true collaboration.

What makes a band click? The Breeders were in their fourth year and third lineup before they conjured the magic that was “Last Splash.”

Kim Deal founded the band already something of a legend for her role as the bass player for the Pixies. Wiggs was there from the start, too, a bookish Brit with a master’s degree in philosophy and multi-instrumental chops. Macpherson, who joined after 1990s “Pod,” pounded his Gretsch kit like an Ohio schoolboy raised on Rush.

But it can be argued that the Breeders didn’t really become the Breeders until 1992, after co-founder Tanya Donelly defected to start the band Belly, and Deal managed to persuade twin sister Kelley to replace her as lead guitarist.

The hitch, of course, was that Kelley — at the time, working for a defense contractor in the Deals’ hometown of Dayton — didn’t play guitar.

“I was just like, ‘what the f—?’” recalled Wiggs.

Kim had previously tried, unsuccessfully, to lure Kelley into the Pixies. But her sister passed up the chance to join the Boston band whose galvanizing loud-quiet-loud sound went on to inspire Kurt Cobain and many others who would better monetize it.

Born 11 minutes apart, the sisters were always close, both of them gymnasts at Wayne High School, where Kim was also a cheerleader. And they were always musical, Kim playing guitar, and Kelley harmonizing in their folk-rock combo that would perform at the local Ground Round and Trolley Stop, using their grandfather’s potty chair as a speaker stand.

Siblings who sing together are said to have a special sound — a “blood harmony” that has raised goose bumps again and again over the years, in acts as varied as the Louvin Brothers of bluegrass, the Bee Gees of pop and the rock band Haim. And it was the blend of the twins’ clear, guileless voices on “Cannonball” as well as “Divine Hammer” that gave those songs their spark.

“The sister-throat thing is real,” observed Donelly. “And their voices together, it’s magic.”

The guitar part would have to follow. Donelly, the former teen prodigy of Throwing Muses, had brought serious playing chops to Breeders 1.0. Kelley Deal had to learn on the fly. Producer Mark Freegard recalled having to record her sliding line in “Cannonball” one chunk at a time and piece it together in the studio.

But she quickly developed a distinctive sound, driven by vibrato and creative melody — more guitar strategy than technique, but exactly what her frontwoman sister wanted for the band.

“It’s not ‘how loud can my guitar go right now’ and ‘let me pull out my blues scale in G’ or whatever,” Kim Deal told The Washington Post during the band’s rehearsal in Dayton.

“I’ve always tried not to do that,” Kelley said.

“And you counted how many times Neil Young hit that one note on ‘Down by the River,’” Kim added.

“Yeah,” said Kelley. “Thirty-eight times. And it’s just one note over and over, and it’s the f—ing best solo ever.”

In the Pixies, Kim Deal played second fiddle to founder and lead singer Charles Thompson, a.k.a. Black Francis. But the Breeders would reflect her vision. Of the two sisters, she had been the home-studio rat, collecting equipment every birthday and Christmas — the Yamaha PA, a Tascam 8-track, an Oberheim DX drum machine. From early on, she absorbed disparate influences through her boombox or the radio of her Volvo — Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings of You,” Free’s “Lying in the Sunshine,” Billie Holiday’s “For All We Know.”

“There’s an aphorism that a junkie only gets high the first time and the rest of the time is just trying to relive that experience,” said Steve Albini, the era-defining alt-rock producer who engineered “Pod,” the Breeders’ 1990 debut. “And music is very much like that for Kim. The sensations that she has when she is animated by a piece of music enrich her so much that she will then go through whatever it takes to try to re-manifest that sensation.”

Launched with the imprimatur of an MTV “Buzz Bin” pick, lead single “Cannonball” helped “Last Splash” get classified as alternative rock. But the album defied definition by stretching into country (“Drivin’ on 9”), surf instrumentals (“Flipside”), no wave (“ROI”) and shoegaze. The latter was evoked in “No Aloha,” an echoing tragicomic ballad whose even-more-cryptic-than-usual lyrics (No bye, no aloha/ gone with a rock promoter) made fans ever more curious about Deal’s world. Was it about the Pixies? A boyfriend? Some industry sleaze? Deal still isn’t telling. She never explains her songs.

The album was packed with sonic experiments: The tape-splicing trick that warped the guitar riff on “New Year” into the sound of piano strings plucked from inside. The sewing machine pumped through a Marshall amp on “S.O.S.” Deal would sometimes listen to the daily session outtakes that Freegard sent home with her and return to the studio the next day asking if he could re-create the hiss of the cheap cassette tapes on the polished final version.

“If I listen to ‘Last Splash’ as a hi-fi experience, I’m kind of horrified,” said Freegard, who would go on to co-produce the album with Deal. “Kim was just like, ‘Mark, record it louder. I want it to distort.’ I think I put my head in my hands at the end going, ‘oh my God, this might be the end of my career.’ But in retrospect, it has this energy, this exuberance.”

Two legends have always swirled around the Deal sisters. One is about Kelley and the drugs.

Outsiders were inclined to assume that life in the Breeders ruined Kim’s sister. That, removed from her button-down world as a technical analyst and thrust into the fast lane, an innocent Ohio gal careened into addiction. In fact, Kelley Deal was pushing the limits long before Lollapalooza. Their mom caught her sneaking cigarettes in high school and tried to punish her by forcing her to smoke an entire carton. (She shared a few of the Marlboro Reds with Kim.) In her work life at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, she ended up going to meetings in the same outfit two days in a row.

“I’d done ecstasy the night before and was up all night long, and one eye was going this way and the other was going that,” she recalled. “I was having all the same addiction and drug issues that everybody was. Lawyers and stockbrokers and Realtors and salespeople.”

“There’s an aphorism that a junkie only gets high the first time and the rest of the time is just trying to relive that experience and music is very much like that for Kim.”

— Steve Albini, alt-rock producer who engineered the Breeders’ 1990 debut.

A little more than a year after “Last Splash,” Kelley Deal was at home in Dayton when she accepted four grams of heroin in an airmail package in November 1994. It was a controlled bust. As part of her plea, she agreed to go to the Hazelden drug treatment center in Minnesota. Nobody tried to hide the incident. In fact, the band mentioned it in an issue of their homemade Breeders Digest zine that was mailed out to fans.

Then there is the myth surrounding Kim, echoed in countless feature stories, books and blog posts. That she was a creative adventurer stifled during her time in the Pixies by an overbearing Thompson, marginalized like George Harrison in the Beatles.

To Deal, the theory is not just false, it’s insulting. It was Thompson’s band. She had no aspirations to take it over, and she always was free to leave if she wished. She didn’t need the Breeders to find liberation, and by 1993, the Pixies had run their course anyway.

“People liked my voice, and yes, they wanted to hear it more, so that’s nice,” she says. “But I don’t know how ‘I like your voice’ turns into ‘you’re trapped.’”

So what happened to the Breeders?

Over pizza at Marion’s — a Dayton institution, where black-and-white head shots of visiting dignitaries like Cloris Leachman and Dom DeLuise line the walls — the band breaks it down.

After rehab, Kelley Deal landed at a halfway house in St. Paul, Minn. Meanwhile, Macpherson — who learned to mix his first daiquiri at 9 — found his hard-won sobriety challenged in the beer line at a Lollapalooza show.

“I called my wife, and I was like, ‘you know, I think I’m just going to drink a beer,’” he recalled. “She’s like, ‘uh, okay.’”

Wiggs exited for reasons they still debate. Deal remembers her asking for time off to live in New York with her then-partner, Luscious Jackson drummer Kate Schellenbach. Wiggs, however, assumed the entire band was taking a break after an exhausting two years on the road. She also didn’t want to be inside what felt like chaos.

With Wiggs and her sister absent, Deal kept writing and playing in the basement. Macpherson would come over and play drums, and those songs became material for a new band, christened the Amps. After relocating to Ireland to record what would be their first and only album, Macpherson’s drinking got serious. He had two separate accidents that required him to get stitches in the same Irish ER. Eventually, he and Deal had a fight, and he walked out. They wouldn’t speak for 15 years.

“I was also abusing drugs and drinking, so I didn’t pick up what he was going through,” said Deal. “I had no insight or perspective at all. Things were hard, that’s all. And then I came back, and I went downstairs, and his drums were gone.”

The Amps album, “Pacer,” flopped, and Freegard tried to work with Deal on a new Breeders album. The band, at this point, included both Deal sisters but not Wiggs or Macpherson. Deal rolled up nearly $250,000 in studio bills and still couldn’t finish. And with the collapse of her Amps side project, her own drinking accelerated.

“She was at the mixing board with the bass in her hand going through incredibly repetitive takes of the same riff on and on and on,” recalled Robin Hurley, head of U.S. operations for record label 4AD. “And she’d be sitting there for hours on end. I’d go home, go to bed at the hotel, come back in the morning, and I’m sure things had changed but it almost looked like nothing had changed since I left.”

To term the end of the Breeders as an explosion or implosion would be wrong, the Deal sisters now say, just as it would be to try to blame anyone in particular.

“It was always just the lack of a return phone call or a nice conversation saying, ‘well, I think I’ll just skip this one,’” said Kelley Deal. “I think if there had been an implosion or something, that would probably have been healthier almost.”

The inspiration for the Breeders reunion is easier to trace.

In 2004, the Pixies famously began touring again, as their old cult following began to hit the kind of critical mass that could nudge them past their old acrimony. “I just laugh all the way to the bank,” Thompson told The Post in 2004.

Deal joined the tour, which for nine years grossed tens of millions playing to the kinds of packed arenas they couldn’t have imagined in the 1980s. Eventually, though, she had enough. She won’t go into detail about it other than to say she felt uncomfortable with the Pixies’ decision to record new music.

In the meantime, she and her sister had toured under the Breeders name and put out two records, in 2002 and 2008, without Wiggs and Macpherson. Kelley Deal, who stopped drinking in 1995, relapsed with opioids but has been clean since 2010. She said she has never been happier.

“Because of being in recovery,” she said. “Without it, I would not be alive because of fentanyl. I would actually be a dead person.”

In 2012, with the 20th anniversary of “Last Splash” approaching, Kelley told her sister they should do something with the old lineup. Kim told her she would have to be the one to ask Macpherson if he would join. Without question, he said.

Kim texted Wiggs. She also agreed. The Breeders toured again and eventually, in 2018, released “All Nerve,” the first album of original songs featuring the four of them since “Last Splash.”

This time — understanding, as many bands before them, that there is a thirst for their greatest work — they’re turning back the clock.

On the tour that continues into the fall, they play all 14 of the album’s songs. And “Last Splash,” remixed from a tape unearthed in the archives at Warner Music Group, will be reissued on Sept. 22, with a bonus track, “Go Man Go,” that was cut from the roster at the last minute in 1993, as well as a version of “Divine Hammer” sung by Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis. Olivia Rodrigo, the new pop superstar who was born a decade after “Last Splash,” announced Wednesday that the Breeders will open for her at Madison Square Garden in New York and the Forum in Los Angeles next year.

Dayton remains home for the sisters and for Macpherson, whose regular job these days is as a carpenter. They rehearse in the same basement as always, in a house Deal bought in 1990 with Pixies money, surrounded by the guitar pedals and the instruments — Kim’s Les Paul, Kelley’s Strat, Macpherson’s maple Gretsch kit — that they used on “Last Splash.”

During rehearsal breaks, Wiggs tapped away on a laptop for something else making a comeback: the Breeders Digest. Would anyone even know what a zine was anymore? Their last issue was released 28 years ago. But why not?

“How many bands get to do this?” said Macpherson. “Kim looked at me just recently, and she goes, ‘This just does not happen to every album, to every band. It’s something special.’”

correction

An earlier version of this article misidentified Robin Hurley, the former head of U.S. operations for the record label 4AD, as Robert Hurley. The article has been corrected.



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