“We were lucky. Well, we weren’t just lucky—we chose to be on 4AD,” Kelley Deal says from Austin, one of the first stops on The Breeders’ current tour supporting their new Mountain Battles. Signing to a respected indie label right off the bat afforded The Breeders enormous creative control and freedom from lowered expectations.
“When you’re on a major label, you have a responsibility to appeal to everybody. Sex sells, so get ready to pose; get ready to smile; get ready to show some skin,” Deal says. “What I think is weird is if you’re on a major and you complain about that [responsibility], then you’re full of shit because you know what that means. It’s not brain surgery.”
Such straight talk might seem arrogant as hell, but when Kelley Deal—who kicked heroin and inspired sister Kim to drop the bottle—issues acrid opinions, she’s just being brutally honest. Forget the grain of salt. This is life, baby. Plus, she can take anything critics might shoot back.
In response to nitpicky reviews of Mountain Battles attacking her and Kim’s failure to nail German and Spanish-language tracks, Kelley scoffs and says, “As far as the ‘Regalame Esta Noche’ track, that song has been done a trillion million times, and the version we like is the one we discovered in a bar in East Los Angeles. We tried to do it in English, but it just didn’t translate.”
To wit, “My pillow is cold and embarrassed without me” doesn’t have the same romantic ring in English. Kelley and Kim Deal did make a few changes to the Mexican standard, incorporating jazz-based instrumentation and whittling down its three-part harmony. “We could only use one singer,” Kelley says. In the studio, so she took over lead vocals, all the while imagining “a smoky bar where nobody is listening to the singer. She’s singing her guts out and no one is giving her the time of day.”
Kelley typically sidelines her singing to backup vocals, allowing Kim to take the spotlight. “I do love to sing, I really do. But when the show arrives, I’m really glad that I’m playing guitar and not singing,” she says, adding that “exhausted is such a diva word,” but that lead vocals are a big responsibility. “I get to sing and play guitar. That’s the sweet spot—that’s Kim’s spot in the Pixies, and I think she digs it.
Of course, Kim Deal does a fine job leading The Breeders. On Mountain Battles, she summons the appeal of past works, applying her scratchy, girlish coo to a wildly eclectic palate—from the echo-effected rallying cry of “Overglazed” and the dreamy “We’re Gonna Rise” to more controversial tracks including the jittery “German Studies” and aforementioned “Regalame Esta Noche.”
And while certain elder statesmen critics have panned Battles as a weak carbon copy of The Breeders’ excellent ’90s output, most of the naysayers come across as bitter old farts who can’t handle the band popping on and off the radar with ease and authority. Yeah, the music industry has changed leaps and bounds, but The Breeders are resilient. It doesn’t hurt that 4AD attracts the kind of people who keep track of the label’s roster no matter how much time an artist takes off. “They are actually music fans and they buy music and they listen to music other than ‘Cannonball,’ which was such a fluke,” Kelley Deal says. “Plus, we’re playing the same places we played last time around. We are really kind of the same—who knew that would be a benefit.”
The Breeders also have remained loyal to their raw recording ethic known as All Wave, which is just a clever way of saying “analog.”
“Steve Albini [who produced part of Battles] said something about when you get four people in a room together and they play, that there is this thing that happens,” Deal says. “We wanted to record ‘that thing that happens,’ whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. That is what’s missing from your pro-tools.”
Kelley Deal, who says she likes computers but not where rock music is concerned, has major issues with digital recording.
“Why would you take out any human feel? Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. What about when the drummer gets tired and he slows down. I want to hear him slow down,” Kelley says. “If you put an auto tuner on Billie Holiday she would be unrecognizable. She never hits the note exactly. She is consistently flat.” And Kelley wouldn’t want it any other way.
“We’re just trying to keep it about people getting together and playing.”
THE BREEDERS w/ The Montana Boys @ The Depot: 400 W. South Temple, Tuesday May 27, 8 p.m. DepotSLC.com