In A Basement In Ohio, The Breeders Came Back To Life

Ahead of their new album's release, Kim and Kelley Deal and Josephine Wiggs discuss "All Nerve," deleted recordings, and life amid the opioid epidemic.
The Breeders still know how to take a cool publicity photo.
The Breeders still know how to take a cool publicity photo.

The Breeders have always sounded like a work in progress, a joyful if at times tumultuous experiment conducted by singer and guitarist Kim Deal. In the early days, Deal deconstructed the Beatles and cooed over wobbly towers of thick bass and guitar fuzz. On the song “Safari,” Deal used her breath to dramatic effect. For their biggest single, “Cannonball,” a song from 1993’s “Last Splash” that’s both totemic and gloriously loopy, Deal blows a whistle over her guitar riffs. None of her ideas ever sounded like novelties. And “Cannonball” made the Breeders stars (or at least earned them main-stage billing on a Lollapalooza tour).

That was in the mid-’90s, way back during President Bill Clinton’s first term, when bands were still expected to release singles on cassette. The Breeders lineup that recorded “Last Splash” ― Kim and her twin sister, guitarist Kelley Deal; bassist Josephine Wiggs; and drummer Jim Macpherson ― eventually disbanded over reasons no one quite remembers; even the date of their split is hazy. The Deal sisters battled addictions. Kim Deal went years before releasing a new Breeders album with a different lineup.

As the Breeders began doing reunion shows to packed clubs in 2013, the band members started thinking about recording a new album ― a belated follow-up of sorts to “Last Splash.” On Friday, the band will release “All Nerve,” an album whose very existence has been treated as big news. In the runup to the album’s release, the band has been profiled in The New York Times and The Guardian, and has had its every promotional twitch covered by the online music press. The album’s release is such an event that the author Neil Gaiman wrote an essay for the occasion.

A few weeks ago, I talked to Kim and Kelley Deal and Josephine Wiggs about their recording process, what inspired their gorgeous, experimental new album, and living in the epicenter of the opioid crisis. As they tell it, even the story of how they got back together to make the album feels like a work in progress.

When did you decide to make a record?

Kim Deal: Do you think, Josephine, [you decided] in an instant like that? Didn’t the idea evolve sort of organically?

Josephine Wiggs: I feel like it was a fairly discrete moment at the end of the reunion tour that we did in 2013. We did eight months of shows all over the place, and actually, we redid places as well, didn’t we? We went back and did the cities that we’d done in the beginning, which was pretty cool.

Kim: We added more material. We started playing all of “Last Splash” and all of [the Breeders’ 1990 debut album] “Pod.”

Josephine: As that was dwindling down, I think my recollection of it is that somebody said, you know, that this had been so much fun, that we enjoyed playing together so much that we’d like to figure out a way to carry on doing it. Maybe some bands just carry on doing nostalgia, but I think we thought it would be more exciting to try and make another album together. That’s my recollection.

Kelley Deal: I’m going to sign on to Jo’s recollection.

Maybe the ideas behind the record were more gradual, the creation of it came together more organically? I read in The Guardian that you, Josephine, decided to move out of your Brooklyn apartment and live with Kim to make the record. How did you make that decision?

Josephine: That’s only partially the truth. Basically I’ve been living in New York since ’93. I’ve been living in the same apartment in Brooklyn for, I don’t know, 15 years or something. It was partly a financial decision, because it’s so expensive to live in New York, and I also felt I knew we were going to be touring the new record ― although I thought we were going to be touring it last year, I have to say... [inaudible in-jokes among the band members] So I somewhat got the timing of it wrong, but my plan, as it was, was to give up my apartment when we were due to leave to tour. But then that kept getting pushed back because the release of the record kept getting pushed back for various reasons.

When I described to Kim what I was intending to do, which was basically travel around and visit all my friends after having given up my apartment ― and being like, “Hey! I was thinking of coming to stay with you!” ― Kim said, “What, like Queen Elizabeth, where basically you move from one stately home to another and eat them out of house and home and then move on to the next one?” And I said, “Yes!”

What was it like living together? How did you acclimate Josephine to the Dayton suburbs?

Kim: Every time when we get together, Josephine will drive out. When Josephine comes out, she usually drives so she can pack her car with her bass and some gear. I have room and we practice downstairs in the basement at my house in Ohio. We’ve had this setup for quite a while, so whenever she comes out, there’s a bed and she’ll stay there. When we say she moved out to Dayton, we don’t at all mean to imply she’s moved to Dayton. She’s visiting. Much like she’ll visit you, so you’ll see what it’s like, Jason.

How did the recording process go? Kelley, would you just come over to Kim’s house?

Kelley: Whether Josephine was in town currently or not, the drummer, Jim Macpherson ― him and I and/or Josephine would get together, go in the basement and just, you know, just play new things. We actually have amplifiers and pedals and a PA system that Kim sings through, and we go over parts over and over and over.

Kim: We don’t actually start with a computer in front of us sending files.

It’s kind of awesome. You are going back to how all bands kind of start ― working through songs without the pressure of hitting “record.”

Kim: I said to somebody before, like excitedly, in my excited voice, “With the drummer living in town, what more could you want?”

When was the moment where you felt like this was the right decision to reunite and make a new album? Was there a particular song that clicked?

Josephine: It wasn’t like that.

Instantly comfortable?

Kelley: You don’t get together and say in a handshake, “OK team, dominate on three. One, two, three, dominate!”

Josephine: I don’t know what that means, by the way.

Kelley: It’s a football thing... I knew kind of in my mind there’s both the excitement and the thrill of it, and there’s the other person in your head going, “Holy fuck, what did I just get myself into?” So both of those things happened, where you know it’s going to be the best time and the worst time at the same time.

Josephine: Yeah.

Kim: So I was doing my solo stuff. I drummed on some of them and I had other people drumming. So then Jim Macpherson, the drummer, comes downstairs in the basement. And I got these little ideas for a song, you know? And Jim sits behind the drum set and he plays, and it’s like, holy shit, he’s got such a fucking heavy foot, man. It’s like, oh my God, regroup.

Kelley: I’m looking at Kim saying, “Hey, babe, this is not a solo thing.” Jim plays loud.

Did that come through with “Walking with the Killer”? Because, Kim, you recorded that solo and later recorded that for this album.

Kim: “Walking with the Killer” was one of the early songs that when we were playing “Last Splash” material, Kelley and Josephine had heard that song and liked it and said we should try that song live. And then we played that song live and that was one where, holy crap, for me this sounds better than the solo record recording. I thought it was beautiful how we were playing it. That was an indication that this was something to aspire to ― the transformation of that song, into something so luxurious and big and beautiful and heavy at the same time, was something that I really liked.

What a great way to describe your sound ― luxurious and heavy, delicate too. What inspired you at 27 and what inspires you now?  

Josephine: The sort of records that inspired me were Joy Division, Gang of Four, the Cure. I thought those records sounded, to me, so cool that they made me want to be involved in something that could be that cool. I’ve been playing with people since I was 15 or 16, and there’s something about the sound that we have, even though sometimes I’m like, oh my fucking God, this is going to kill me. But the plus side of it is that in a way, it kind of fulfills that ambition that I had as a young person to be involved in something that’s greater than the sum of its parts, [like] “Unknown Pleasures” or “Seventeen Seconds.”

Kelley? What do you think?

Kelley: No, you go first, Kim.

Kim: I was just meditating on the question... I like Kitty Wells and Curtis Mayfield. Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” ― that entire record. And then, like, Iggy Pop, the first side of “Fun House.” Not that I didn’t like the second side. But the first side you could just play from beginning to end. It’s just one incredible song of filth. And the Velvet Underground ― talk about fragile.

[Kim goes on to mention Can, Billie Holiday, the Philly Soul sound (“talk about lush”), and then back to Curtis Mayfield.]

Kelley: I feel like I respond really more to, like, sonic noises. Everything other than the actual song, if that makes any sense. Pink Floyd ― the album “Animals.” I mean, I remember plugging that thing in and just listening to that. That was like the first time ― was that ’77? ― that was the first time I remember hearing other things being incorporated into a symphonic rock record. They got dogs barking. But listen to how that sounds next to this guitar. It was the first time I realized that all noises were noise. Like it all could work.

Josephine, you alluded to some up and down moments. Was there a particularly memorable struggle?

Josephine: We spent most of 2014 working on one song.


Josephine: Because I was there, just periodically, we would get to the end of the session really thinking we’d made some progress, and then I would come back three weeks later and Kim would be like, “Yeah, I [cut] what we did last time.” This kept going on and on and on, and I was just like, oh my God, kill me with an ice pick right now.

Kim: The song didn’t land on the album, by the way.

Josephine: I said to [Kim], “I don’t ever want to hear the title of that song ever again. Don’t mention it ever. I don’t want to see it on a list.”

Kim: Sometimes we would put it on the list... She really isn’t exaggerating. It’s like an ice-pick-under-fingernails sort of thing.

How do you get stuck in those moments and how do you get out of them?

Josephine: I say, “Stop! Walk away!” If it’s not working by now, there’s something wrong with it.

Kelley: I feel like, if we had had some better ideas, I think we still would have gone at it. I think we ran out of ideas for that.

Josephine: You know, we did a “college try,” as you people say.

A full year. It’s like two semesters’ worth of tries.

Josephine: I’m exaggerating. It just felt like a year. In my world it was a year.

Kim, how do you know when you get to a point where you are satisfied? Where you are like, OK, the song’s done?

Kim: It’s probably like when you’re writing something and the beginning works good and flows well and you don’t cringe, and the ending, you’re not cringing. But there might be a section where you’re just like, “That is not a successful thing that I just did.” You know what I’m saying?

Is there any song on the new record where you think every element works? “We nailed that song, it’s perfect.”

Kim: There’s several songs I feel like that about.

Josephine: Yeah.

I thought “Blues at the Acropolis” was just a lovely, bittersweet way to end the record. I thought it was monumental, in a way. Was the song based on a real experience?

Kim: I did go to the Acropolis... Junkies tend to congregate at the ― and beggars, drunks ― all tend to congregate at the most beautiful monuments that are honoring mankind. Time after time of going to see these beautiful creations and then being swarmed by junkies just sleeping all over it and stuff like that. It’s just a cynical observation.

Ohio is experiencing a lot of the worst of the opioid epidemic. Has it hit home for you?

Kim: When I was at home recently, this past fall, I think, MSNBC had this special on the opioid crisis. The trailer for that special was Montgomery County, which is the county that I live in and Kelley lives in, that Josephine has moved to [laughter], featured as one of the number one counties. We don’t have space in the morgue. The coroner has to put the deceased in other places because we don’t have any space. It’s a real problem all over.

Kelley: I got a text last night from a friend. She runs a drug lab at a rehab/detox place. She texted, “That guy I hired and had to fire died yesterday from a drug overdose.” She had to fire him, I guess because he relapsed and now he’s dead because of fentanyl. This is not heroin, by the way. This is fentanyl.

Kim and Kelley, you both have publicly gone through your own struggles with addiction. I’m wondering how you support each other.

Kelley: For me, I’m in a 12-step program that I highly recommend it if anybody’s interested. One of the things about that is that I can only do me. I’m responsible for my own recovery. There’s several people that are sober or are in recovery when we go on tour. It’s not just me. There’s many people. I feel really grateful that I’m not using right now, or I would be dead.

Josephine: Kelley will sometimes send me the daily reading if she thinks it’s pertinent to me. And I really enjoy getting them, and I think it’s really interesting. I try to do meditation and I try to practice mindfulness, as do a lot of other people now. There’s actually quite a lot of overlap between the things that people in the 12-step program are encouraged to think about and mindfulness.

You had time to make the record you wanted to make. Did that help make the whole process somewhat easier and less stressful?

Kelley: When [you] don’t have any artificial parameters, like “Let’s try to do the album in a year” ― those parameters can reach into three years.

Kim: I really had a great time doing it. I loved doing it. I was happy when I knew Josephine was coming out. It got everybody excited. It was fun having Jim come over, and Kelley. I really did enjoy it. It was quite an accomplishment.

I have a feeling there are plans for another record.

Kelley: You know what I think ― I want to get back to that song.

[More, really loud laughter]

Kim: Controversy already...

Josephine: No! You are such a troll!

Kim: So we’ll keep working on it, Jason.

This post has been edited for clarity and length.