Splashdown! The Breeders’ Cannonball-Like Re-Entry
On the 20th anniversary of their iconic 1993 breakthrough, now reissued as an expanded package titled 'LSXX,' the Breeders' definitive lineup reunites and AMANDA PETRUSICH dives in, talking with all the key players and supporters who helped make 'Last Splash' one of the most exhilarating albums of the decade.
In 1990, Kim Deal, bassist for the Pixies, and Tanya Donelly, singer-guitarist in Throwing Muses, ganged up for a new project with Deal as frontwoman and rhythm guitarist, enlisting help from bassist Josephine Wiggs of noisy British guitar-pop band Perfect Disaster and drummer Britt Walford of Louisville, Kentucky art-punks Slint. Pod, their Steve Albini-produced debut as the Breeders, was released by 4AD later that summer, and followed up in 1992 by the four-song Safari EP, which also featured Kim’s twin sister Kelley on guitar. Walford and Donelly ultimately moved on and the remaining trio poached drummer Jim MacPherson of the Raging Mantras, a local band from the Deals’ Dayton, Ohio hometown. In June of ’92 — as the “alternative” era of disaffection and distorted guitars enjoyed its cultural apex — the Breeders headed out on their first tour, opening for Nirvana.
See our full Breeders photo shoot here.
Ivo Watts-Russell (co-founder, 4AD Records, Pixies’ and the Breeders’ label): If you’ve met Kim, you understand why a record where she got more of a focus than she did in the Pixies would be fun to do. She’s an eccentric woman, very individual. I wouldn’t say that anything she decided to do would have been okay, but pretty much anything she decided to do would have been okay.
Kim Deal (vocalist, guitarist, songwriter): Pixies fans didn’t know about the Breeders. Maybe they did in England, but I don’t know. Josephine said, “Because of the goodwill Kim had from the Pixies, she went ahead with Breeders.” And I don’t recognize that. I don’t think Pixies fans knew. For the longest time I don’t think people realized I was the same person.
Ivo Watts-Russell (co-founder, 4AD Records, Pixies’ and the Breeders’ label): Maybe the idea was that the first [Breeders] album [Pod] was gonna be Kim’s and the second album was gonna be Tanya’s songs. But then Tanya probably just got fed up with waiting, so she and I started talking. But it was gradual, okay, Tanya’s gonna do something on her own. There was nothing tumultuous about it.
Josephine Wiggs (bassist): When it became clear that Tanya [Donelly] was going to leave in order to make her own band, which was Belly, we were like, well, who are we going to get to play guitar if we don’t have Tanya? And it was then that Kim said, “I’ll ask my sister to play.” And then she said, “She doesn’t actually know how to play, but she can learn.” It took longer than we thought it was going to. I would say it took about 20 years, actually. Her performance at these last shows, it’s been the best she’s ever played.
Kim Deal (vocalist, guitarist, songwriter): I was always mortified, in a way, that the Breeders weren’t one of those bands that had four members who all grew up as friends, formed the original lineup, and stayed together till the end. We had a lineup change after the first record. Back then, it was strange to be in one band and then to be in a different band. Nowadays, Canada has a band of ever-revolving members. The whole nation.
Kelley Deal (guitarist): I quit my day job in June of 1992. I was a technical analyst for a defense contractor. I was never the type — I liked my job. I worked third shift. I had top-secret clearance. I was a little bit sad to give it up. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was, like, “Oh shit, I’m giving up a paycheck to go tour around.” It was a little scary. I’m a girl. I don’t need to get onstage to get laid.
Kim Deal: Being from the Midwest and Ohio, I’ve been in basements when I was 17. No girls allowed in the band, definitely. I heard a lot of mustachioed riffs. I love Black Sabbath. Kelley’s always been really melodic. She can repeat things exactly. There are people who can do that. And then there are people who really know how to work a fretboard and have spent years in the bedroom learning “Black Dog.” I prefer melody. If I had to choose between a simple melody and a really complicated rudiment sitting in the middle of a good song, I would prefer a simple melody every time.
John Slough (engineer, Cro-Magnon Studios): Kelley was really anxious to learn and do some basic stuff, but she made quite a few mistakes. Luckily, Kim was pretty smart — she didn’t overwhelm her. The parts that Kelley played, even if there was a mistake, it just made it a little punky. Kelley was the opposite of pretentious. She was pointing fun at herself and not taking herself too seriously. She would smile a lot, she was pretty, she could get away with anything up there.
Kim Deal: Josephine and I knew that Britt [Walford] wasn’t gonna be playing drums with us anymore, so we went to Canal Street Tavern [in Dayton, Ohio] and we saw this band there, and we just looked at each other like, ‘We should get him.’ After the show, we got Jim’s number, and we asked him to come over and practice. He was 22 or something. I think one of the first shows he ever did with us was the Nirvana show in Ireland. We practiced a lot, but I think that was only our second show. He’s got a story about asking Krist Noveselic, “What’s this food doing here?” And Krist was like, “You can eat that, that’s called your rider.” It was the first time Jim had played outside of Ohio. He told me he went onstage to say hi to Dave Grohl, and he looked at where he was supposed to set up his drums, and there were these big black boxes. And he says to Grohl, “Hey, what do you do with these?” And they were the drum monitors. Jim had never played with monitors.
Jim MacPherson (drummer): It was the first time I was out of Ohio, the first time I was out of the country. It was just unreal for me. I remember looking over to the side of the stage and seeing Kurt getting his ass kicked by the security guards. He’d come out onstage with no lanyard or pass. Then he fired all the security guys — he told them he wasn’t going back out until all of them were gone.
Josephine Wiggs: It took off so quickly. We were playing to sold-out clubs right away. The first album had been out and people really liked it and knew about it, and it had never been toured. But it had gotten quite a lot of critical acclaim. People were interested. We had a toe in the door. And people knew Kim.
Josephine Wiggs: Those two shows with Nirvana — that was before things really changed. They were small shows. When we played with them again — on a long tour, the In Utero tour — that’s when it felt like something had really shifted. You could feel it. It had changed.
Kim Deal: “Alternative” was a word coined by the media, to get more money for their advertisers. We were like, “What’s up? Nobody calls us ‘alternative.’ Why do they keep putting it on the cover of magazines?” Actually, you know who said “alternative music”? My mother. And everybody else in Dayton, all the truck drivers and the cowboys and stuff, they’d go, “I’ll tell you what it’s alternative to. Good music.”
Carrie Bradley (violinist on early demos, Pod, and Last Splash): It’s odd that this particular era, defined by “alternative visions,” ended up as a recognized music genre. But I think the DIY element and the massive influence of video carved a line around the category, even though it was so diverse. The air was kind of clearer then — pre-“ironic,” as we know it now, with an attitude that was anti-commercial but intentional, political without being cynical, with room for both fun and gravitas. Then things changed all over again.
Janet Billig-Rich (manager, 1991-95): It was very much a “buckle up” moment. I was in the eye of the storm and a bit of a vacuum, working with Dinosaur Jr., the Lemonheads, Hole, Walt Mink, Nirvana, the Breeders. They all felt huge and exploding to me — it was just such a busy time, all the bands were working so much, making records in the studio, touring. It never felt like [there was] an exact moment where things turned and changed. I was relatively young and didn’t have much to compare it to. I just assumed that this was how it worked. It was only in retrospect that I realized it was a revolution.
Kelley Deal: I didn’t have any knowledge of any of that — I was from Dayton, Ohio. I wasn’t in the “music business.” We’d done Safari, the EP, the previous year, and we’d played. I didn’t know of any sea change.
Ivo Watts-Russell: It isn’t that Cobain changed anything. It was an Easy Rider moment in the music industry. Easy Rider made millions and millions of dollars. So movie studios started giving millions and millions of dollars to great directors to start making films for a new generation. And that’s the same thing with the music industry. All they cared about was what sold, and suddenly these people in plaid shirts were selling records. So that was a huge change, but it also wasn’t, really — it just meant that the cool stuff was now being marketed like every other piece of crap.
Prior to the official sessions for Last Splash, the band recorded a series of demos at Cro-Magnon Studios in Dayton, Ohio, with the then-23-year-old engineer John Slough. A few months later, the Breeders went west, to Coast Recorders in San Francisco, to finish the album.
John Slough: [Cro-Magnon Studios] was in a warehouse that was built sometime in the 1800s to service the railroads that came into Dayton. It was a very old building with wood floors. It smelled like a barn. We had outfitted it with carpet and stuff. But we would record in the hallways and in the bathrooms — these are public bathrooms. The men’s bathroom had the best acoustics, so we had mics going all the way down the hallway, which was probably at least 100 feet. And guys would come in who worked in the machine shops, and just go ahead and take a pee while the girls were here singing — like it was no big deal. Kim liked to record in the women’s bathroom, too. The women’s bathroom is where she saw the line “motherhood means mental freeze” [from “No Aloha”]. The writing process was very slow, very methodical. The lyrics were almost always last. A lot of times there were no lyrics — it was just a scat, just a hum, maybe a few words here and there. Kim could be a little bit too critical of her lyrics. I’m not sure she had a whole lot of confidence in them, and she’d change them a lot. I thought they were fine — great, even.
Jim MacPherson: I remember when we got done at Cro-Mag, me and Kim just sat in the booth with John [Slough] and turned up the speakers. It sounded really cool. I was really proud of it.
Josephine Wiggs: We had a bunch of songs that Kim had written, and we had worked on them quite a bit, playing them live before we went in to record them. And I think there wasn’t any sort of portentousness about what might happen or what kind of an album we were making. We were just making an album. Because we had no idea — no one had any idea what was gonna happen.
Kelley Deal: If you’re present in what you’re doing, you don’t think about the impact it’s gonna have. If you’re in a studio recording and thinking, “This is gonna be an epic record! We’re doing something here!” then you’re a douche, and you need to stop right now.
Kim Deal: We went to Coast Recorders, in San Francisco. I picked it. I made kind of a mistake. It had a nice board and gear and everything, but the actual room specs — I’d assumed it would be a nice room. They used it for a lot of jazz sessions. I guess jazz rooms are small and dry like that. We knew we didn’t like the drum sound there; it wasn’t doing certain things, there was no ambient on the mics. And we even rented out a different studio to try and get drum tracks, so we had two studios going at one time. Can you imagine?
Janet Billig-Rich: I organized the recording sessions [at Coast Recorders] and I remember it was very intense — very late nights and very focused. And also very chaotic at the same time.
Andy Taub (assistant engineer, Coast Recorders): I’d heard that [the Breeders] were coming to town. I had done a few sessions with Coast and I knew the assistant there, who was kind of a Luddite, and I called the owner of the studio and said, “Hey, you got this band and they’re really cool, I’m a big fan, you should hire me to do it.” So I went down and did it. It was a good move for the studio to hire me. I’d worked on a few records there prior to that: Love and Rockets, Paul Westerberg’s solo album after the Replacements, Mr. Bungle, Faith No More. Metallica worked there. It was a good studio — old, too. A lot of ’60s bands recorded there.
Kelley Deal: It’s best to start with a room with action and atmosphere. To start with a room that’s dry, you either have to have really crispy, dry drums or add reverb on everything and nobody wants to do that. We also rented out a place called Brilliant Studios right around the corner, and did some drum tracks there when we felt we needed to. It was very expensive to make records then. It was high technology. It was very pricey. We wanted to know our parts and arrangements as best as we could.
John Slough: I remember they called us from San Francisco because they couldn’t get the tones to sound like we did [at Cro-Mag]. It was a big studio, they were paying probably at least $200 an hour, but they couldn’t get what we got in a little warehouse.
Kim Deal: Bands like us, we couldn’t build things in the studio. To write in the studio you needed to be Yes or Pink Floyd. You needed huge label money to spend a couple months in a studio writing songs. Like most bands, we played out and we had a set, and we played that set. When we got enough money to record an album, our album was our setlist.
Kelley Deal: Interpersonally, it was fine. Who was up all night doing coke? I don’t know. I was just drinking. I did not see anyone doing [hard drugs]. I’m sure Kim was smoking pot, but I was just drinking at the time. The one thing I always feel like I need to say is that there are plenty of lawyers and doctors who do drugs. It’s not just a rock thing, people using drugs and alcohol.
Kim Deal: I was tired. It was hard. The drive out, rehearsals, loading in. Back then, in San Francisco, the Mission District was rough. To get from our hotel to Coast, we had to walk through the Mission, and every day you had to steel yourself for it — they’re social bums there, extremely talkative.