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The SPIN Interview: Kim Deal

Kim Deal / Photo by Jason Frank Rothenberg for SPIN

After 20 years, Kim Deal has made her peace with the fact that the rock lifestyle and stable relationships might not go together. “Maybe it’s because I look like a guy,” she deadpans. “I’m just like, whatever, friend zone is cool.”

Past its drab downtown center, Dayton, Ohio, gives way to suburban sprawl — ranch houses on quiet, tree-lined streets. Kim Deal lives in one of these — with her parents. The Pixies bassist/Breeders leader/indie heroine has owned her own place, just around the block, since 1990; that’s the house cluttered with recording equipment and guitars, the house where she writes songs with her twin sister, Kelley, who herself lives just a couple minutes away. But since their mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2003, Kim has moved in with her parents to help out, and drove back and forth to Chicago in 2006 to record Mountain Battles, the first Breeders album since 2002’s Title TK, with über-indie producer Steve Albini.

Picket-fence Midwestern domesticity aside, the Deal sisters have indulged in their share of rock’n’roll excess — Kelley was busted for heroin possession in 1995 and has since gotten clean, while Kim went to rehab in 2002 and relishes her anonymity out here in the burbs. After a quick tour through town in her ’95 Volvo on a brisk January afternoon, Kim, 46, throws a Duraflame log into the fireplace at her house, sips a mocha, and speaks — candidly, self-deprecatingly, self- effacingly — about her 20-year journey from rock’s favorite kid sister to its favorite wacky aunt, in a gregarious, lived-in voice that’s huskier than her distinctive baby-girl vocals. She begins: “Let me tell you, missy… ”

Even though you’ve spent time all around the world and have lived in Boston and L.A., you still call Dayton home. Why do you prefer here to bigger cities like New York?

There’s too much for me to do in New York. I just get there and do every drug I can get my hands on. I have no idea how to set up a life there — the idea of, like, hitting a café and having brunch in a summer dress, maybe with a hat. I just go there and go to studios and then hook up with the drug dealers. But I don’t do drugs anymore.

It’s been six years since you released Title TK, and you’ve toured extensively with the Pixies since then. Have you felt added pressure with the new Breeders album to reestablish yourself with your fans?

No. When I got into music, I never thought anything I did would sell — ever. Maybe growing up in Dayton had a lot to do with that, too. You know, a big thing around here is Reba. I got hit pretty hard by Whitesnake and all that stuff. That was before the Internet, when I got music passed to me on cassette. My sister knew somebody who lived on the coast, and I knew somebody who lived in England. That’s how I first heard James Blood Ulmer and the Undertones. Since Dayton’s not a port town or a coastal town, there’s not a lot of different types of music, so anything I did, nobody had the slightest interest in, and I never expected them to. I came to understand that I simply do not have it in me ever to do anything that will be of any interest to these people. And I feel really good about that. When me and Kelley first started playing, guys here wouldn’t play with us, because it’s not cool to have a girl onstage in a rock situation. And to tell you the truth, I actually had never seen a girl in a rock situation who did that well. I guess the Pretenders did well, and that was cool. Blondie — but she was a singer, she actually never played. I didn’t really care about the frontperson; I liked the playing. Talking Heads — [Tina Weymouth] played. But in Dayton, there wasn’t a lot of that.

I’m jealous that guys who made the same career decisions I did have children and a woman making them dinner. I need a wife.

But you turned out to be a role model for many female musicians, and at the same time, a sex symbol of sorts — the cool girl among a bunch of geeky indie-rock guys. How did you deal with that attention?

Very well. The people who knew the music were never creepy, because they were like, “Oh my God, I loved it when you did that la la la thing,” and you know what they’re talking about because it’s always about something. The weird ones, they’re not actually fans, they’re just fans of celebrity — the idea that I might be in a magazine: “Oh my God!” That’s when it becomes awkward, because there’s nothing really to talk about. It’s like, “Yep, I know.”

How did you and Kelley work together on this record?

It’s very collaborative. Can I finish with that? Or else I’ll get in trouble with her.

Is it ever competitive between the two of you?

No. Not musically, anyway. I feel more competitive toward her husband. Like, if we were playing a game, I’d really like to beat the shit out of him at that game. Not her; I don’t really care. It’s because Todd is so fucking competitive, he’ll try to beat me — like with pool or a computer game, anything. I’ll just want to smash him in the face with it, because he’ll want to beat me so bad.

With the Breeders’ lineup changing so much, plus the fact that you made an album in 1995 as the Amps, why not just record under your own name?

You know, when the Pixies were in Japan a few years ago, a guy asked me, “Why don’t you do solo stuff?” He was annoyed, I think, by this whole Breeders, Amps, and then back to the Breeders-but-with-a-different-lineup thing. Maybe not annoyed, more just confused. You know, why don’t I just go solo? It makes me nauseous thinking about it. [Whispers] “Kim Deal.” I don’t know, I like bands. And I used to have no problem going out with an acoustic guitar and playing out three sets with my sister. But I’m sick of it. I like bands.

Why do you prefer them?

I think somebody has to be really good to be solo at something. I mean really good. Remember, this is Dayton — there have been a lot of fucking singer/songwriters around for years. And they’ll play at the drop of a hat for ya, for a really long time. Please, if I ever do that, shoot me in the face. I guess I could if I did it like [’70s singer/actor] Mac Davis. There was a Mac Davis variety TV show, and at the end, he’d sit in the middle of the crowd and yell out things like “Green!” and somebody else would yell out “Hat!” and right there, he’d have to make a song about a green hat. He would do verses, and they would usually be amusing. So I would be a variety-show person. Do you think people would enjoy watching that for an hour?

The Breeders’ “Cannonball” was a huge hit in 1993. Do you find people just want you to make songs like that, over and over?

It’s great that somebody even likes the song, or any song I’ve ever done. They don’t even know it as “Cannonball,” they know it as “the one about the bowling ball!” It’s really weird, because I’ve never done interviews — through the ’90s and Title TK, even — where anybody cared that much about the Pixies. Around here, I was the person in the band that did “the song about the bowling ball.”

So people in Dayton know you more for the Breeders than the Pixies?

I don’t think either one. Probably Kelley’s drug bust. Which is fine, whatever.

You were married when you started in the Pixies, and you were credited as Mrs. John Murphy. Do you ever regret not having that simple, domestic suburban life?

Why do you torture me? [Pretends to weep] Yes, I’m lonely. Yes, I’m single. And yes, I’m childless. What more do you want? Yeah, of course. But I can’t do anything about it. I was married briefly to a nice guy, but he wouldn’t quit dating. Awkward.

But you bounced back — you were in relationships after that.

Not a whole lot. I was busy. I read this article on a plane, in, like, Newsweek, about women breaking through the glass ceiling in business. It was an editorial where she was saying, “I have regrets, and one is that I waited so long and I’m now childless.” It reminds me of a Roy Lichtenstein shirt: “Oh my God, I forgot to have a baby!” Well, I was in my early 30s when I read this, and I thought, “Note to self: Got it. Won’t let that happen.” And here I am.

Was it hard to slow down?

No, I felt like I was available. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I look like a guy — it’s true! You know, they like girly-girl people, for real, and I can’t — I’m just like, whatever, friend zone is cool.

Does that bother you? Looking back, would you have done anything different?

It used to. Now it’s just too damn late. But in the late ’90s, it was really bothering me. I was using a lot of drugs. You know, I think I was available, but maybe I wasn’t. Obviously. But I’m really jealous that guys making the same career decisions I made find themselves with children running around their house and a woman making them dinner: “Honey, no, you go work. You’re an artist, that’s what you do. You’re a poet.” Sometimes I think I need a wife.

After the success of the Pixies reunion tour, did you make any extravagant purchases?

No. I’ve got my ’95 Volvo out there, and I’ve had this house. We were just going to do a few shows, and we were out for fucking years. I think it’s over now.

Was it a good experience?

It was so cool. People were so excited we were there they were freaking out. Young kids — for the first time, girls actually came to the show. They knew every song.

Then wouldn’t you want to do it again?

Good God, no. Me and Kelley and Todd went to Indianapolis to see Van Halen. That was awesome. They came out, and I just wanted to cry with the excitement. So what I’m saying is that we’re not as big as Van Halen, of course, but it was so exciting to see them — and somebody was happy to see us play a particular set of songs that they knew.

The documentary from the Pixies reunion tour, loudQUIETloud, showed how the four of you are pretty awkward around each other. Do you think letting the world see that side of you helped explain why the dynamic was hard to maintain?

That’s a good question, and yeah, it’s probably true. But I don’t know, because I’m on the inside. I just see [the filmmakers editing it] to create that particular situation — although I’m not saying we aren’t awkward. We’ve already talked all that we wanted to with each other. But I think it’s cute that it’s awkward. I think [the filmmakers] had an idea that it would turn into [the 2004 Dandy Warhols–Brian Jonestown Massacre doc] Dig!, with the hard drugs and the intense emotions, even though we told them we’re really boring. When we turned out not to be like that but also not like the Monkees or the Beatles or blink-183 or whatever they are — pallin’ around and clownin’ around — then they needed to explain it somehow.

Even during the periods when you were having problems, you’ve always seemed to have a great time onstage. Do you think other musicians can sometimes take themselves too seriously?

It’s sort of back to the acoustic guitar thing, isn’t it? It’s a little out of my personality to have an acoustic guitar — “Wait a minute, I swear to God, check it out, watch.” [Grabs guitar, adopts sarcastic, suave voice] “You know, I’ve been working on some things. Let me play them for you, just to see what you think.” Dude, please! That’s why I hide my guitar in the bedroom whenever anybody comes over, to make sure nothing like that happens. I just get mortified for people. You’re going to fucking make somebody endure that? Just watch out for anybody who has an Ovation guitar. That’s your clue right there that something bad is about to happen.

Do you remember the moment you knew you needed to get to rehab?

All Tomorrow’s Parties — Shellac curated it in 2002. It was that spring we were in England, and the Breeders played, and I thought, “Oh my God, I’m going to die!” They have stronger beer over there, and I was still drinking the same amount, so I would wake up and I actually had the shakes. And you feel it inside, too; your organs shake. It feels very sick — sickly, like, hospital sick, not a cool junkie sick. I put myself into rehab over Christmas break.

How did cleaning up change your perspective on your music and relationships?

Rehab’s so boring to talk about. Actually, you know, if I was reading this before I got sober, I would think, “Oh, they’re sober — it’s more exciting when they do drugs.” And it’s okay that anyone might think that. When I was drinking, it was like, go to the bar for eight hours or get the 12-pack at the house. It was exactly the same thing over and over again every day — it was the most boring thing. If it was really fun and exciting, I would still do it. I would have the idea that I should probably work on something, but the short-term memory was so bad, I never really did anything. In the beginning, it was just weird to be sober. I was stunned by the length of the day. You just wake up, and you’re like, “Okay,” and then ten hours later, you’re like, “Is this ever going to fucking end? God, what do people do with their fucking day, man?”

Did you fear that sobriety would affect your ability to make good music?

Oh yeah. Not doing drugs had such a bad connotation for me: If you didn’t do drugs, you were boring. But now I find it so much more interesting not to do drugs. I find it way more fraught with danger — in a good way. Every time I go up and talk to somebody, it’s like, “Hello, this is going to be awkward and weird in a few seconds because I’m fucking part of it.” Which is way more interesting than it was before. It’s strange and I really like it. And it’s ugly — it’s so awful and ugly every day.

Do you miss any part of yourself from before you got sober?

No. I was skinnier — I think I miss that.

Discography: Kim Deal
A mildly opinionated guide to her non-Pixies output

The Breeders
4AD, 1990

Manna for Pixies fans who craved an entire record like Surfer Rosa’s sweet and bludgeoning “Gigantic.” “Hellbound” and “Fortunately Gone” suggested Charles Thompson might only be the second-best aggro-pop songwriter in his own band, while Deal’s continued marginalization made the Pixies’ dissolution both inevitable and perfectly okay.

The Breeders
4AD/Elektra, 1992

Before Tanya Donnelly left to form Belly, she contributed to this four-song EP, as did Kim’s twin sister, Kelley (even though she could barely play guitar). The raucous cover of the Who’s “So Sad About Us — like Pod’s “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” — shows a reverence for classic rock that would have seemed out of place in the Pixies’ insular, oddball universe.

The Breeders
Last Splash
4AD/Elektra, 1993

Or maybe it should have been called Last Laugh? Deal — now with Kelley playing a passable guitar— rebounded from the Pixies’ messy divorce with a bona fide crossover hit. “Cannonball” remains one of the era’s most indelible singles, and follow-ups “Saints” and “Divine Hammer” were nearly as memorable.

The Amps
4AD/Elektra, 1995

With Kelley on the shelf after a heroin bust, Deal abandoned the Breeders name and, influenced by fellow hometown-drunk-made-good Bob Pollard, birthed this shambling set. By barflies for barflies, the up-tempo “Empty Glasses,” “Mom’s Drunk,” and “Tipp City” don’t groove so much as swerve into oncoming traffic.

The Breeders
Title TK
4AD/Elektra, 2002

Now with Fear’s Richard Presley and Mando Lopez on guitar and bass and Jose Medeles on drums, Deal’s first album in seven years is, as its name indicates, a little unsure of itself. A reprise of Pacer’s rave-up “Full on Idle” feels like an admission that the creative coffers weren’t exactly spilling over during the hiatus. STEVE KANDELL