Q&A With The Breeders

It’s been six long years since the last Breeders album—2002’s decidedly underwhelming Title TK, which resulted in Elektra dropping them almost immediately following its release—but let no one say that co-founder Kim Deal hasn’t been plenty busy in the interim. The former Mrs. John Murphy rejoined the much-beloved Pixies for one of the most anticipated (and successful) reunions in alt-rock history, penning the band’s 2004 single “Bam Thwok” and spending the next several years playing old favorites and obscurities on a seemingly endless world tour. During various stolen moments on tour and at home, Deal wrote the songs that would eventually become the much-improved Mountain Battles, perhaps the most eclectic body of music she’s recorded to date. Ranging from sophisticated twilight-time pop (“Night Of Joy”) and souped-up Tex-Mex (“Regalame Esta Noche”) to faux-country (“Here No More”) and flat-out, overdriven rawk (“Overglazed”), Mountain Battles zigzags from one stylistic locale to the next without blinking an eye. In the process, the record turns longtime engineer Steve Albini’s bare-bones production work into a virtue and spins Deal’s ADD-afflicted worldview into gold.

MAGNET phoned Deal at her Dayton, Ohio, home and found her in a typically garrulous frame of mind.

Let’s start with the recording process for Mountain Battles, the Breeders’ first album in five years. How did this one come together? Was it all fairly recent material?

In 2001, I used to go to a bar in East Los Angeles; it was across the street from the police station, and all the detectives would hang out there. You could still smoke. They had a jukebox with some songs in Spanish—it was the barrio, after all—and we discovered one called “[Regalame] Esta Noche” and we played it over and over again. That was like in 2001, when we began learning it. We even went in 2002, when Title TK came out, and did a demo of it in a studio in East L.A. called the Ship. And then in 2002, “No Way” got started on my four-track.

So these songs have been around the block.

Right. Those two come to mind, but “Walk It Off” started in 2004 during a Pixies tour. “Bang On” happened last spring, we were in the basement in Ohio with Jose, our drummer. “Night Of Joy” was from last spring as well.

One of the things about your work that doesn’t get as much credit as it probably should is your strength as a songwriter. I can think of a bunch of songs I’ve loved over the years that you’ve written and recorded (“Gigantic,” “Invisible Man,” “When I Was A Painter”), but “Night Of Joy” might be at the top of that heap.

You know, I was just talking with [ex-Breeder] Josephine Wiggs and she likes that song, too. Thanks a lot. It was particularly challenging because there’s like a major/minor play in one of the phrases, and then a different major/minor play on a different phrase. I really wanted to fit both of them into the same song, but it was very difficult. That was a triumph to figure out. It’s cool when you work on something so hard and it works out. It’s like the song is actually tricking me.

Mountain Battles may be one of your strongest collections of songs, but they don’t necessarily fit together in any logical way. “Regalame Esta Noche” is in Spanish; “German Studies” is in German; some songs lean toward country, others are flat-out rock. “Night Of Joy” is perhaps the loveliest ballad you’ve recorded. It’s basically 20 pounds of ideas in a 10-pound bag!

[Laughs] Is that good or not? For me, it’s good. I kind of liked the idea that if we were going to record a mountain song [“Mountain Battles,” the album’s title track], that it would really sound like a mountain song, you know? I didn’t want it to sound like a rock band just covering “that mountain song.” [With “Regalame Esta Noche”], I didn’t want it to be us covering the song, I wanted to capture the qualities of sadness and depression that oozed from that bar in East L.A., but also project some of the vulnerability, too. Anyway, my point is that I always thought it was cool, but Ivo Watts-Russell—the owner/founder of 4AD—when I played him the first songs from the album, some were demos, some were a little more mixed and mastered. I sent it to him in Santa Fe, and eagerly awaited his response. I never think of shit like this, but the first I heard back from him was [imitates British accent], “This doesn’t sound like a band making a record. It’s just someone’s songs. It won’t do at all.” But he’s come around now. The first time I heard that, I thought, “Oh my god, he’s right!” It’s not like an AC/DC album or something.

Or the Ramones, either. That so-recognizable “Hey, this song is one from the Ramones,” all slices of the same pie.

But I love the Ramones. The pie is so tasty!

But not everybody has to cook that same pie, right? Or eat it, for that matter?

Right, totally. I mean, I don’t know if I wanna take that pie out on tour the rest of my life, either. Another thing I don’t quite get is that even though the tracks have their own personality, they’re all based on the guitar. So there might be a Casio on one of them, or something else for flavor. But that’s it. All around us, bands are doing crazy stuff like putting albums together, making songs with camel poop for a snare drum. You know—sounds that don’t even exist! It’s weird that these guys can use everything but the kitchen sink on every single song and stack them all next to each other yet, organically, I stripped it down to using a real strict set of parameters that use no outside sounds at all. Rather than thinking about whatever hard-hitting genres are happening on that particular day, we thought, “Maybe [simple] is good.” Maybe people don’t hold these other guys to that sort of limitation: “Wow, is that even a rock band?” In a singles-driven market, people don’t seem to even look at that.

Let’s talk about the Pixies for a minute. Black Francis’ recent solo album, Bluefinger, in many respects turned out to be the lost Pixies album that wasn’t, right? The songs seem to have the same edge you guys carried throughout the tour.

I don’t know so much about Bluefinger—he’d have to talk about that—but I do know that when we first started playing, it was so nice that everybody was so happy to see us, you know? And then the offers came in: “Hey, do you wanna come to Spain? We’d love to have you here.” And we were like, “Oh god, that would be great, yeah!” It wasn’t about us getting back together as a band—at least not for me, anyway. It was about doing some shows. And once those shows happened, and people could see us, it was great. But sadly, it eventually ends and becomes “over,” and that’s where we’re at now, I think.

I imagine that there’s a certain amount of living up to the pressure of what the Pixies created that’s part of your life now. Courtney Taylor-Taylor from the Dandy Warhols, wrote that song “Cool As Kim Deal” about you. I’ve met many women in bands or solo artists who’ve basically said “the Kims [Deal and Gordon] are the reason I’m a musician.” Once upon a time, we used to see these ridiculous stories in the rock press about “women in rock” and we don’t anymore. Know why? We don’t need to! People like you helped inspire bands like Sleater-Kinney who inspired the Gossip and now we’re in a completely different place. It just makes me wonder what your take is on all the expectations that come with the territory.

[Pause] I dunno. It’s interesting. I wish I had something more articulate to add. You know, I don’t really like the whole “women in rock” idea as a weird kind of genre thing.

It used to be like some weird affirmative action program, some alt-rock ghetto. I had to laugh about the Dandys song – that’s Courtney’s tribute to you as a Pixies fan, but also, there is something “rocker girl” about it.

Well, I never asked him what it was about. I’ve not talked with him about it. The Shangri-Las and all those cool girl bands in the ’60s, that was really a happening time. I used to notice that I would be included in those “women in rock” articles, but it didn’t seem to be about the music. It was more about whether the newspaper or magazine needed a running hook for their Sunday piece, or whatever. It’s a media tool to get something published. It was never about what amplifiers women liked, or pictures of women hauling all this gear around. It was more like motorcycle posters of outlaw biker girls, or something. That is what’s being referenced there, rather than a serious discussion about the state of women in music at that time, or any time.

It seems like there’s a never-ending supply of stories about brothers in rock – Oasis’ Gallagher brothers, the Davies brothers from the Kinks, the Allman brothers, the guys from the Black Crowes – and yet I never see much about sisters. You and Kelley must have a unique story to tell but I’ll be damned if I’ve seen much about it in print.

I think it’s cooler to hear about the brother stories. It’s big fights and all that. The Davies guys, I dunno about fights in the Allmans or not.

The Allmans were more about picking themselves up from the bloody, drunken heap on the floor. And then the whole “tragic deaths” angle. Like the Kennedy curse or something.

[Laughs] That would be mighty telling, yes. Being able to pull yourself up from the bloody, drunken heap on the floor. Maybe that’s our story.

Maybe the next thing you guys could do is a four-part song like something from a Yes album in the ’70s—a song constructed in parts, one that takes up one whole side of a disc. Total prog.

Dude, wouldn’t that be cool? Because it’s nice to be able to work off a theme. There’s a few things on Title TK that come from that idea—a song we used to call “The Groove.” So the first song could be “Monster” and then track number four would be “Son Of Monster.”

Then track five, “Return Of The Son Of Monster.” One thing I’ve always thought about the Breeders’ music is that it’s very informed by music from other cultures: Hawaiian, Spanish. The song “Istanbul” reminded me of that, too.

It started with this chant I couldn’t get out of my mind! I was reading a book about the Crusades and it mentions that Istanbul means “To the City.” [chants from the song – “Where ya goin’? To the City. Where ya goin’? To the city! Istanbul!”] I couldn’t get it out of my fucking head! I can’t even stop doing it right now!

Well, that bodes well for touring on it, right?

I don’t think we can do that song, it’s too fucking hard! You have to have these stick clicks, then I feel like I need to be in my basement at my desk or something – sitting down with one hand on my keyboard, then a guitar part, we’d look way too prog!

That’s probably too complicated an athletic endeavor for a Breeders show.

It is for me, anyway!

—Corey duBrowa