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Ordinary People: The Breeders on the Bus and Back Home

The Breeders / Photo by Frank Ockenfels

A blanket of cigarette smoke spreads across the claustrophobic back room of the Breeders’ 12-bunk, 15-person tour bus. The four band members slump in different corners—tired, a touch cranky, long since ready to get home for the holidays. And with little patience for overanalytical questions about the codependent inner child of today’s budding rock stars. “Oh, c’mon, get over it!” snaps singer-guitarist-songwriter Kim Deal, 32, ex-bassist and coolest member of the Pixies, when I suggest that alternative rock now serves as a group therapy session for kids who fancy themselves misunderstood (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just kinda boring). Kim, comfortably jock-like, is often looked on as some kind of alt-rock Mother Superior, but refuses to play the part “High school is overt” rasps identical twin sister and guitarist Kelley, comfortably moll-like—Bonnie to Kim’s Clyde—sipping a Mountain Dew and flipping aside her inky hair (she, like Kim, Magic Markers stray grays). “Get over yourself I” Kelley adds to nobody in particular, taking a long drag. Kim smiles and slides open a window, sending smoke whooshing into the overcast Ohio afternoon.

We’re somewhere outside Toledo (“Everybody smell, it’s the armpit of America!” gleefully exclaims drummer Jim Macpherson), deep into a debilitating 18-hour schlep back from Canada to Dayton (the Deals’ hometown) where the Breeders played three dates on a short break from opening Nirvana’s national tour. But they’ve got much to be thankful for. The band’s second album, Last Splash, a deceptive mix of quaint, hum-strum melodies, and harsh, staticky irony, has gone gold. Tastemaker Kurt Cobain digs ’em like an old punk record, while the aggressively glib video for the single “Cannonball” is in MTVs Buzz Bin.

And, refreshingly for an alternative-rock band gone pop, the Breeders don’t testify about everyone who ever persecuted them on the way up. Take those embattled high school years, the usual stage for rebellion. “Yeah, we were popular girls. We got good grades and played sports. You got a problem with that?” Kelley half-jokes, with a delayed grin. “Right, like we started this band just to get back at all those people who were mean to us when we were kids,” cracks Kim. “Sorry. It doesn’t work that way.”

Of course, as the ’90s mosh toward the millenium, that’s exactly how it works for so many of today’s rock upstarts. Alternamartyrs Eddie Vedder and Billy Corgan reflexively rely on their own stunted, torturous development to relate to their teenage audiences. These Generation X shock troops—middle-class, dysfunctional boys under 30—howl, “Hey, hey, we’re the mainstream, and not only do we have nothing to say, we’re, like, really stressed, so could you spare a quarter for a suicide hotline?” Unlike hip hop, where a powerful pose confers credibility, alternatively speaking, powerlessness is realness. Every spanking in the family room, every Dutch rub at soccer practice is a wound we’ll never heal.

Which is why the Breeders are such a kick. They’re comparatively well-adjusted, but still edgy and engaged —not just about the rock thing, butaboutthe life thing. Sure, they’re too sarcastic, self-proclaimed “riot hags,” as Kim puts it And pissed, or is it pessimistic? The first line of “Cannonball”—an exuberantly metallic pop rush that makes you wanna pogo, wail air-guitar, and suck on a Jolly Rancher all at the same time—is about “spitting in a wishing well.” But Kim works so many evocative sonic ideas into Last Splash that she never slips into solipsism. Plus, the Breeders’ unmitigated affection for each other infuses even their slightest moments.

That affection frees them up to mercilessly rag on each other, like they’re acting out some postpunk version of a ’40s George Cukor bitchfest—Not Born Yesterday!— starring Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford as the inscrutable Deal sisters. Tallulah Bankhead as irrepressible bassist Josephine Wiggs. And introducing Spencer Tracy as the lovable-lug drummer Jim Macpherson. Just watch the personalities converge like cats after a rat when you toss out a generic question about whether audiences and performers at alternative rock shows have more in common than their counterparts at more traditional events.

“I think that’s true,” says Kelley, the “instrumentally challenged” member, who just learned to play guitar (she’d played bass years before) after joining the band following 1992’s Safari EP.

“I don’t,” retorts Wiggs with a mock flourish. “I want to be a star”

“But my first show was in front of 6,000 people,” replies Kelley, “and what qualifications did I have?”

“Look,” says Wiggs, warming to the task, “when we finished six weeks of hard work on tour in Europe, we got together at the end and said, ‘Hey, this is really great that we can do this.’ Not just anybody could’ve done that tour.” Kelley concedes the point.

But Wiggs is just getting revved up. Generally portrayed as elegantly removed (i.e., British), she’s easily as spirited as the Deals. “No matter how much these guys talk about how they’re the same as their fans, their fans know they’re not, we know they’re not” she says witheringly.

“But I feel exactly like the audience,” persists Kelley.

“No, but you’re not!” says Wiggs adamantly, sitting up straight. “You’re the one up onstage playing guitar and they’re out there standing in a puddle of beer.”

Kim gets into it. “You know, a lot of them out there in a puddle of beer have their own bands, and they can get up onstage and do what we’re doing.”

“Of course, they can,” shoots back Wiggs, “but only certain people are any good at it.”

“You mean, only certain people get lucky,” says Kelley with a devilish smirk.

“No, that’s not what I mean at all,” says Wiggs, exhaling with exasperation.

The Breeders / Photo by Danny Clinch

The Breeders might be more marketable if the Deals behaved more like the Silent Twins—identical loners plotting cryptically in a secret Esperanto. But there’s no creepy, tabloid edge to Kim and Kelley’s relationship, no sense that one couldn’t function without the other, although they live together, and one suspects Kim drafted her sis, at least in part, as a buffer against loneliness on tour. At times, the twins switch personalities to relax: Kelley plays the sharpie, offering daunt- less assessments, while Kim sits back, taking cues. They seem intensely aware of the specific burden of being each other, and as a result, exude a strength and tenderness rarely found in rock bands—asked once to name the best birthday present she ever received, Kim replied simply, “Kelley.”

Still, the Breeders rely on Kim. “This doesn’t work because it’s a democracy, it works because we share enough of Kim’s vision,” says Wiggs definitively. That vision has been unmistakable ever since Kim wrote and sang “Gigantic,” an eerily joyful story about an interracial romance, on the Pixies’s 1988 Surfer Rosa LP. Three albums later, though, she’d only co-written one more song (“Silver” on 1989’s Doolittle). Meanwhile, the Breeders, a side project she started with Tanya Donelly (then of Throwing Muses) emerged on 1990’s Pod, an album more slyly compelling and coherent than the Pixies’ Bossanova, released the same year. When self-obsessed Pixie Charles “Black Francis” Thompson faxed her a pink slip in early 1992, it was probably a blessing.

More a redemptive hoot than an answer record, Last Splash explodes the quirky, spaceboy cloister of the Pixies and pieces together the bits into something compassionate and testy. They sketch a good-naturedly messy canvas of the Midwest as equal parts bitter industrial wasteland and suburban sweet relief—consumerism grinning itself to death—that fellow Ohio natives Pere Ubu first illuminated (though only for a closet full of devoted goobers). The Breeders reach MTV progeny, on some level, because they sound so kinetic, like rock history chain-reacting —girl-group insouciance,’70s roadhouse rock tricks,early-’80s new-wave dance beats, garage-punk chutzpah, thirdhand country sentiment. Kim never simplifies what it all means—she obsesses about it, then rocks the ineffable.

The Breeders push rock’n’roll into places where it shows its limits, and there are uncomfortable moments when the songs behave like learning-disabled children, fidgeting against the language Kim’s putting in their mouths—ironic lyrics and elliptical guitar leads. Anger and sarcasm go down easier, which is maybe why she wrote “I Just Wanna Get Along,” a punk rant in the guise of a TV-detective show theme, for Kelley to sing. The song’s cute, off-the-cuff dig (“If you’re so special why aren’t you dead?!”) might sound cheap coming from Kim.

Being ironic—leaving a winking space between what she literally means and what she’s implying — is a sticking point. “I wish I didn’t do it,” she says. “I try not to lapse into it, but I can’t help myself. I just can’t be nice.” When asked if she feels like a good person with a mean streak, she quips immediately, “No, I’m a mean person with a good streak.” When I press her again, she loses patience and issues a final, scowling verdict on irony. “I think it’s stupid. I think you’re stupid,” she says, pausing a beat before smiling.

No matter how much it bothers Kim, when the Breeders struggle to wrestle sincere emotion out of ironic distance, they’re at their most inspiring. In Breeders songs, irony gets way intimate, embraces you, tells you bad jokes, gives you a hard time, and gets you thinking. And a little irony serves the truth well in the right hands, with the right squall of feedback and a tightly wound rhythm section. As Kim and Kelley might say, in ironic unison, of course: ‘The truth is not nice.”

It’s been said about Ireland, a supposedly “magical” place rife with superstition, that if you’re literal-minded and practical, you either drink or you move. In the suburban generica where the Deals grew up, near Dayton, a place where magic would never even get lost, you either drink or become literal-minded and practical.

The Deals bend an elbow with the best of them. Backstage at a recent gig, Kelley scampered by, hyper and tipsy, loudly recruiting “dancers” for “I Just Wanna Get Along.” Onstage, she muffed her lead like a Golden Lampshade winner at an office Christmas party. In the small dressing room, Kim frantically changed into her stage clothes—blue work slacks, red polka-dot blouse, plastic dinosaur on a necklace—and vigorously appealed to her dad Ed about a stingy Dayton bartender.

Kim: “So we go in there and drink all night seven nights a week and they never give us a drink on the house. I mean, come on. That would never happen in New York. They always give you a free drink at the bars in New York, right? What’s wrong with these people?”

Dad [reading a newspaper]-. “So we don’t have a drinking problem, do we?”

Kim: “No, Dad, I was just exaggerating to make a point.”

And for all their allusive, gum-smacking irony, the sisters are restless to get to the nub of every situation or conversation.

This is obvious when I read aloud a quote by a famous pained rock star (name sounds like Ready Teller), who holds forth on how the politics of the music business wrecks relationships: “Look… I can’t make every personal decision—like, am I gonna talk to this friend—based on the business world. I refuse to be part of that, I’ll quit the whole thing altogether… Right now there’s enough people, if I made tapes out of my house and sold them for a buck apiece… I could get music out there, be real and… All the important things would still be there.”

Kelley chimes in first. “I think that’s true.” Kim turns and says, “Why do you have a problem with that?” I answer that I think if s disingenuous for a rock star to say that he’s gonna quit and still be fulfilled somehow by making cassettes at home.

“Kim would,” says Kelley. “Fuck, man, in a heartbeat.”

Wiggs demurs. “People think they can live in this tiny little bubble, and that’s just not true.”

Kim, who’s been pondering, finally asks, “I’d sell these tapes out of my house? “Yeah, probably. “But do I have to sell the tapes out of my house?” Probably. “That’s what I need to know. If I had to sell the tapes out of my house,” she says, lighting another Marlboro, “I just couldn’t do it I’d have to shop ’em around, call people up, whatever, and that’s what I would end up worrying about… the fucking tapes.”

The house Kim could never imagine going mail-order is a practical two-story, two-bedroom brick model —small front yard with room for a couple of bushes and a fruit tree, too cramped for a game of wiffleball. A yellow rocker and yellow wicker chair sit on the porch. This is a progressive planned community where parents rake leaves into piles and their kids dive in, rolling around until the leaves crinkle and get itchy—comfort confirmed. “It’s like Edward Scissorhands, but the houses aren’t pastel,” says Kelley. “It’s like all these boxes full of people doing what they’re supposed to be doing in their box,” adds Kim.

Mr. and Mrs. Deal (Ed and Ann) live just minutes away; brother Kevin was five doors down until recently. Macpherson and his wife and daughter (another’s on the way) reside in a nearby neighborhood boasting the motto “The Dream You Can Afford.” The band practices in Kim and Kelley’s basement, and Wiggs stays with the Deal parents when she’s in town. “By mutual consensus we agreed that I had more in common with Ed and Ann than I did with these people,” says Wiggs, nodding in the twins’ direction.

Wiggs and Mrs. Deal (a retired teacher with a degree in early childhood development) drink coffee, bake bread, chat about gardening. “Ann is very sweet, but sometimes you get the impression that she’s not quite operating in the same world as you are,” says Wiggs, whose mom is also a retired teacher. “You can have a conversation and it will take a bizarre turn, and you’ll lose each other. I think these two have inherited that particular trait.”

Kim and Kelley, who’ve been kibitzing, lean forward and echo my next question, “Yeah, what’s our dad like?” Ed, tanned and bear-like, is a retired physicist from Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and an alternative-rock vet, having driven the band to New York in his RV. “He calls a spade a spade,” says Wiggs. “But he’s very stoic, very reticent” Kelley jumps in: “He’s better—he’s loosened up incredibly.” “Now that he’s part of the rock world,” adds Wiggs drily. “My mom’s a starfucker, I want that in print,” says Kelley. “She likes anything that anybody claps for.”

The Deals speak proudly of their parents, and vice versa. “We were at this adult party once,” says Kim, “and my dad told one of his friends, ‘I bet my daughter can do 100 push-ups.’ It was 100 push-ups for like $5, can you believe that?” “Those guys fucking freaked out when you did it,” recalls Kelley. “I was very athletically inclined,” Kim says daintily. Both sisters took ballet became lifeguards, gymnasts, cheerleaders.

They also did time at every godforsaken rock show in Dayton’s Walter Hara Arena. Around this time, the city was building a rep as the “New Motown” or “Funken Town” (after the Slave song) because of its thriving black music scene—the Ohio Players, Heatwave, Zapp. The Deals, on the other hand, were weaned on Rush, Ted Nugent, Black Sabbath, Black Oak Arkansas, AC/DC, Triumph, Molly Hatchet, Scorpions, the Stray Cats. Did going to see those shows make them wanna be in a band? “No,” says Kim. “We saw all those shows because we wanted to be in a band.” Kim and Kelley formed a duo that played country and classic-rock covers at truck stops, steak houses, and biker bars (once opening for Steppenwolf), but college finished that. Both graduated and got real jobs: Kelley as a computer analyst with a local defense contractor; Kim as a lab technician at Kettering Medical Center. That’s when she met John Murphy.

“I was a child bride,” Kim says, as Wiggs cackles in the background. “My brother Kevin introduced us, that little shit.” The couple married, moved to Murphy’s hometown of Boston in 1986, and divorced two years later, by which time the Pixies had recorded two albums. “We could be married with kids right now!” she says, reflecting. “Isn’t it horrible?” It’s hard to imagine Kim as a nine-to-fiver or homemaker. When she sings, “Motherhood means mental freeze” on Last Splash‘s “No Aloha,” it’s not only the song’s character speaking. She resents that marriage and motherhood always seem to mean domestication—growing up by settling down. Though she’s now engaged [to SPIN Senior Contributing Writer Jim Greer], Kim still revels in the band’s jokey name — gay slang for straights.

The queue’s down the block at Bogart’s, a rock barn in Cincinnati’s university district, where the Breeders are headlining what should be a celebratory, sold-out “homecoming” show. But it’s more like a trial: the room’s horrid acoustics overwhelm opening act Luscious Jackson, the Breeders’ manager catches the promoter stiffing him on the settlement, the place is rumored to be oversold by 300 people.

Downstairs, the band is hanging out, eating homemade chocolate chip cookies and eyeing a bottle of Jim Beam. Macpherson’s nervous and twitchy, literally bouncing off walls, finally landing in a football breakdown position and shouting at Kim and Kelley’s father, placidly sitting nearby: “Mr. Deal, would you please get excited!” No response. I ask if Mrs. Deal is around.

Mr. Deal: “Oh yeah, she’s up front in the middle of all of it.”

Wiggs: “She’s the Renaissance Woman.”

Mr. Deal: “She didn’t have ID and she almost threw a fit when they wouldn’t stamp her hand.”

Kim: “Dad, I think I’m getting sick.”

Mr. Deal: “Mmm.”

Kim: “I’ve got a little bit of a fever. Here, feel my back.”

Mr. Deal: “Oh, you’re fine.”

Kim: “I hate when you say that.”

Finally onstage, Kim announces to the fire-hazard throng, “My voice is shot because I’ve talked to every fucking person in here tonight!” The band eases into “Don’t Call Home,” a sweetly mocking song about making a place for yourself wherever. Ironically, Cincinnati right now is anything but homey. The sound is mud, and Kim is enduring a series of technical snafus. Kelley is distracted, making goofy faces, playing very little. But the shimmery kerrang of “Divine Hammer” kickstarts everybody, as Macpherson flips a drumstick toward the rafters, reaches up and grabs it nonchalantly, whooping at Wiggs and Kim before pounding out the intro. Kim sings about waiting for a man or a god to inhabit her (because she’s special, you know) and fuck her brains out all the way to heaven. This is rock at its most dynamic —a place where you can wish with your very last breath for something you know you can’t have.

In Susanna Kaysen’s Girl Interrupted, a memoir of two late-teenage years spent in a psychiatric hospital, the author remembers a favorite Vermeer painting from her childhood called Girl, Interrupted at Her Music, in which a young student looks up distractedly, her teacher’s “proprietary” hand resting on her chair. “The girl at her music sits in… the fitful, overcast light of life,” writes Kaysen. Like that girl, Kim Deal and the Breeders often get distracted and interrupted by rock’n’roll’s proprietary hand. Stalked by questions about “women in rock,” they imagine a world where girls comfortably stroll onstage with guitars like it’s no big deal. A world where Kim can wish for everything she wants but can’t have, until the saints fall from the sky. And maybe, someday, she’ll be able to wish for something she can have.