Kelley Deal talks band chemistry, sobriety and never getting tired of the ’90s
On “Glorious,” the first song from the first Breeders album, 1990's Pod, singer/guitarist Kim Deal briefly sets a specific scene in a downbeat rock tune that's otherwise short on details. “We were tired from the tea/Scrabbled and we slept/Through the window came the rain,” she sings.
After playing the song for a couple of decades, Kim's twin sister, guitarist/singer Kelley Deal, noticed something. During live shows, Kim wasn't fully singing the Scrabble line. “She always mumbles over it,” Kelley said recently by phone. “I was like, ‘Why aren't you saying that line?' And she's like, ‘Cuz it's stupid.' And [bassist/singer] Josephine [Wiggs] and I are like, ‘It's the bestline, Kim!' And she's like, ‘Oh, OK.' She always felt stupid singing it. But it's the best line! Sometimes the person doesn't know that.”
Being a supportive presence to the person fronting the band is something Kelley is more mindful of in the 2018 version of the Breeders, which is currently touring in its “classic” lineup that dates back to the band's 1993 album, Last Splash, and includes both Deals, Wiggs and drummer Jim Macpherson.
“Whoever's got the mic kind of has the control, in terms of, ‘I can sing this song this fast. This is what I need. This is my emotion,'” Kelley said. “It has got to feel good to them or the whole thing is inauthentic and it's not gonna work. So it really has to start there.”
In the early days, the Breeders didn't always approach band dynamics with such a wizened perspective. “Part of that is just being young and being in a rock band: ‘I don't have to get up for work in the morning — woohoo!' You play a show, you drink and have fun, you get up the next morning and rinse, repeat. You let a lot of things go,” Kelley said. “I wasn't present for a lot of it. Now, I like to know what's going on. … I'm present in the band.”
Plus, if she hadn't made the journey to sobriety, not only would the Breeders not have been able to reconvene for new album All Nerve, Kelley Deal said she wouldn't even be around. “If I wasn't in recovery ... I wouldn't be alive today to even have this conversation with you. That's where I go when I use,” she said. “I was never a casual user. It was never something I did for fun or to party with. I was that person at the party who was always drunker than anybody, staying up late looking for the cocaine, doing too much stuff and obsessed with it all the time. So I would be dead, for sure.”
Before All Nerve — an excellent, never-missed-a-beat addition to the band's catalog — the Breeders hadn't released new music in a decade. But in 2013 the band reunited for a Last Splash 20th anniversary tour, so when it came time to record the new album, the chemistry and camaraderie were still intact. “We didn't have to clear out any cobwebs,” Deal said. “It was more like a four-sided see-saw. There is a new balance.”
Aside from the Breeders, Kelley has kept plenty busy co-fronting the duo R. Ring with Mike Montgomery of Ampline. More recently she has embraced a behind-the-scenes role in the studio, producing an album by Columbus musician Cole Vargas at Russian Recording in Bloomington, Indiana.
Back in 2015, Deal also collaborated on a split single with Protomartyr, singing on the post-punk act's A-side single, “Blues Festival,” and filling the B-side with R. Ring track “Loud Underneath.” Earlier this year Deal again partnered with Protomartyr on the band's Consolation EP. “It's weird to say producer, but it is kind of producing, because I'm not in the band,” she said. “I'm not playing anything, but I'm singing on stuff and making up melodies, working on arrangements.”
But the Breeders will probably always be the first thing with which Deal is associated — particularly the '90s, peak-grunge version of the band that produced the instantly recognizable, previously ubiquitous radio single “Cannonball.” To this day, while on tour, fans often ask the band about Seattle, Nirvana, Kim Deal's role in the Pixies and so on. And Kelley is OK with that.
“You never really think about that kind of stuff. You don't sit around going, ‘Wow, I really lived through an iconic period of time.' But as we were doing the 2013 Last Splash shows, we all kind of said, ‘Wow, that was such a big deal — the Seattle thing, the early '90s,” she said. “I don't get tired of talking about it. It really was something. It was like people talking about Woodstock. It was that big.”