The Breeders are in London on a brief European press tour, ostensibly to discuss All Nerve. The night before we meet, they play to a packed Electric Ballroom, and then the next morning head to BBC 6 Music to perform new single “Wait In The Car” and 2002 fan favourite “Off You”. Meeting Uncut in the private basement of a restaurant near Broadcasting House, they insist on being interviewed together as a four-piece, bickering and joking as if the years apart never happened. Later, Uncut speaks to them individually from their homes in Dayton, where they are each able to offer a more measured view on their extraordinary tale.
It prompts all manner of memories along the way; some more favourable than others. Kim remembers one incident from January 1993, when The Breeders hired a U-Haul van, piled their equipment into it, and drove alone across one of the most mountainous areas of the United States.
“We had to take this box truck through the Wyoming mountains, over the Rockies, to record in San Francisco,” she says. “We went through the little pass that everybody died at, like we were gonna eat each other and shit… Snowstorm, roads closed… Me and Kelley were clinging onto Jim screaming when we were going down these mountains – it was like a sled!”
“I was white-knuckling the steering wheel,” says Macpherson. “We had to stop because our van was sliding. It was scary.”
If this was a rocky initiation for Macpherson, who had just joined the band, it would prove to be a fitting preparation for what was to come. The Breeders’ 1990 debut, Pod, had been recorded in Edinburgh over two weeks with Albini, who had helmed Pixies’ Surfer Rosa three years before. The idea was that Pod would feature only Kim Deal’s songs, with the follow-up written completely by guitarist and former Throwing Muse, Tanya Donelly.
“I remember we were in our pyjamas a lot as our rooms were upstairs from the studio in a big, beautiful old house,” says Donelly. “We were both in the identical position of becoming more prolific songwriters in bands that simply couldn’t accommodate two busy writers. Finding support in each other at that time was liberating and exciting for both of us, and I’m extremely grateful to have been part of the first round.”
Released in May 1990 and featuring the sublime, moody “Doe” and a deconstructed cover of The Beatles’ “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, Pod found favour with Kurt Cobain and impressed Albini. “I have worked with a lot of great musicians, but I’ve only worked with a couple of people who listen with the kind of precision Kim does,” he says. “I’ve described it before as listening through the music to the thing behind the music, and she’s relentless in pursuit of that, the evocation of meaning. The slightest thing can break the spell, and only she can tell when she’s achieved it.”
When Donelly departed after the “Safari” EP to form Belly, Kim, Wiggs and new lead guitarist Kelley recruited Macpherson – veteran of any number of Dayton bands – as permanent drummer. Then came their treacherous drive across the Rockies to record Last Splash; once in the studio in San Francisco, things didn’t improve, with Kim booking a second studio because she didn’t like the drum sound. “I literally thought I was going to die in the studio during Last Splash,” she says. “‘Oh my God, this is so much work.’”
It paid off, though – less than a month after Last Splash’s release in August 1993, The Breeders were on the couch talking to Conan O’Brien on Late Night: “We gave hickeys to each other last night,” Kim explained to the host. “We got drunk at four o’clock in the morning and we thought, ‘Ooh, we’ve gotta go on national TV, let’s give each other hickeys.’ And this morning it didn’t seem so funny.” A few seconds after, Wiggs jumped up and gave O’Brien his own love bite.
The Deal sisters were now something of an indie sensation, helped along by the infectious, ecstatic “Cannonball”. They toured extensively with Nirvana and played Lollapalooza, while Last Splash soon sold over a million copies in the US alone, and reached No 5 in the UK. By 1995, though, the limelight didn’t seem so appealing: Wiggs was concentrating on other projects, Kelley was in rehab after her brush with the law, and Macpherson and Kim had formed The Amps. The ‘classic’ lineup was no more.
“I was just a fucking wreck,” Kelley says, looking back to her younger days. “If there was not drugs or alcohol or partying to be had, I wasn’t interested in it. ‘I’m hungover and I’m sleeping late, and I’m gonna get up sometime later, eat something shitty and then start drinking again.’ That’s how I spent that time!”
The Amps similarly found their partying was getting out of control. A typical example took place in Dublin during 1995, where they were finishing off what became their only album, Pacer. “I went to the same hospital twice in one week,” Macpherson recalls. “I was with Kim at a bar, and there was a big piece of jagged glass sticking out that stuck me right in the arm. That was on the last day of recording…”
“Good timing, huh?” laughs Kim. “I was drinking a lot, smoking a lot of pot.”
“Then we did a show there in Dublin, after we recorded,” continues Macpherson. “I trashed my drumset, then I went to throw the floor tom down, and the leg was sticking out and it ripped my head open. At the hospital, they did not wanna work on me, because it was the same doctor who knew me from a few days before. And I was wasted. I ended up getting 14 stitches.”
After touring the album, Macpherson told Kim he was leaving. “I don’t remember him saying anything,” Deal admits today. “I probably just came to – ‘Where’s Jim?’”
News of these events was trickling back to Wiggs – seemingly the most sensible of the quartet – and she didn’t like what she was hearing. “Kim was, I thought, blowing off steam, doing a punk record or whatever,” she remembers. “But of course, titbits of information were filtering back to me in New York. And then when I got a call from The Breeders’ management saying that Kim wanted to resume doing Breeders stuff; it just sounded like a nightmare to me, and I said I didn’t want to do it, because life is too short to spend it like that.”
Wiggs said she’d sit that album out. Macpherson joined Guided By Voices for 1999’s Do The Collapse and 2001’s excellent Isolation Drills, but was told to reduce his drinking by GBV’s leader Robert Pollard. “When Bob Pollard is telling you you should not drink so much, you know…” Kim comments.
After a few years of false starts, the Deals regrouped, with guitarist Richard Presley and an LA rhythm section – Jose Medeles on drums and future Morrissey bassist Mando Lopez – for 2002’s Title TK, produced by Steve Albini. A fine follow-up to Last Splash, it contains some of Kim’s best-loved songs, including spectral ballad “Off You” and the grooving, psychedelic “The She”.
“I thought, ‘You know what, it’s weird that we can only play Amps songs live’,” Kim says. “‘This is not working for me, I need to be able to play under The Breeders, because I can’t not play Breeders songs…’ It was just confusing.”
“Kim was coming off a troubled personal period, then wasted a year or so trying to record a record that went nowhere,” says Steve Albini. “I was both pleased and surprised when she contacted me, because I kind of assumed she was through with me. The sessions were slow, she wasn’t sober yet and she was basically rebuilding a lot of parts of her life simultaneously.”
The eclectic Mountain Battles, another strong set, appeared in 2008, with both sisters now straight. These albums’ appearances were less pleasurable for the band’s former members, though. “Hearing the new Breeders records coming out was like a knife in my gut,” recalls Macpherson.