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Kelley Deal's Personal Best

02 October 2023, 10:00
Words by Alan Pedder
Original Photography by Richie Downs

Band photo by Kevin Westenberg

In celebration of the 30th anniversary of Last Splash, Kelley Deal looks back with Alan Pedder on five milestone songs from her career in The Breeders and beyond.

“Our people love us, and we love our people,” Kelley Deal says with a smile.

As one-fourth of The Breeders – together with her twin sister Kim, bassist Josephine Wiggs and drummer Jim Macpherson – Kelley Deal knows how lucky she is to have such an invested and enduring community of music lovers around her. Although she didn’t officially join the band until after their breakthrough album Pod, eventually stepping into Tanya Donnelly’s shoes as lead guitarist, it’s hard to imagine The Breeders without her.

At the time of Pod’s release in 1990, Deal was working as a contractor for on a military base in California and had never really played guitar. She’d auditioned as a drummer for the Pixies a few years earlier, shortly after her sister was hired as their bassist, but lacked confidence in her playing and decided against it. "I didn't really want to be in [Black Francis’s] band, I wanted to be in Kim's band,” she told The Guardian in 2008, but it wasn’t until quitting her job and moving back to the Deals’ hometown of Dayton, Ohio, that she felt ready to do it.


This time around, she didn’t let a little thing like near total inexperience hold her back. Having been singing and performing with her sister since the age of eight, and writing songs together since their teens, Deal knew she had a certain melodic nous and a feel for the emotional conversation of music. With guidance from Kim, all that knowledge and instinct became accessible through the guitar, and Deal went from zero to hero in the space of little more than a year.

Speaking to Best Fit from Dayton, where she still lives, Deal describes that time an incredible learning experience. With this year’s 30th anniversary of Last Splash – The Breeders’ classic second album – it’s a period in her life that, lately, she’s been musing on a lot. But just as she says she never gets tired of playing the Last Splash songs live, she brings the same energy and enthusiasm to talking about them. “It’s always really fun to play that record from beginning to end,” she says, thinking ahead to the anniversary tour that’s now in full swing.

The Breeders by Kevin Westenberg

“Songs like ‘Divine Hammer’ and ‘Cannonball’ are a blast and we play them all the time, but I’m loving the chance to play other songs that we don’t play much, like ‘Mad Lucas’, ‘Flipside’ and ‘Roi’. I actually kind of can’t believe how much people appreciate all of the songs. I mean, ‘Mad Lucas’ is a five-minute dirge, but when we play it it’s like you could hear a pin drop. It’s beautiful. People appreciate it and get it, and I’m always like, ‘God, I love our people.’”

While her focus for the time being is firmly on The Breeders, Deal says she has learnt to keep her own personal relationship with music going outside of the band – as well as becoming the face of the indie rock knitting community. Already this year she’s put out an album with her duo project R.Ring, cris-crossed the US as a touring member of Protomartyr, and guested on records by new band Young Eyes and queer indie stalwarts Your Heart Breaks.

To honour not just Last Splash’s big 3-0 but Deal’s unique path in music as a whole, we asked her to talk about the five songs she’s most proud of. Fuelled by her morning coffee, she runs through them energetically, stopping for questions only at the end. “I was really struggling with how to choose these songs,” she admits in a rare pause for breath. “But, in the end, they all have something that they represent to me. They are all markers for me, in some way.”

“Do You Love Me Now” by The Breeders (1992/1993)

KELLEY DEAL: This one is a marker for me because it’s the first song that I got to co-write on officially for The Breeders. It’s a song that Kim and I originally wrote when we were around 17, around the time that we would be out playing as a duo at The Ground Round and this local bar in Dayton for maybe 50 bucks a night.

At the time, I don’t think I recognised how different we were. I mean, maybe I did but I don’t think I really gave it enough weight. The main thing being that a lot of people played those nights but almost nobody did original songs. They would mostly just do a lot of covers, but Kim and I didn’t. At least half of the songs we played would be our own, and “Do You Love Me Now” is one of them. I didn’t really appreciate how unusual that was.

BEST FIT: That’s interesting, because there’s been some speculation on the internet that this song is about Kim’s divorce in 1988, the year before she started The Breeders. But the timeline doesn’t add up, so we can officially put that idea to bed.

Yes! I have never heard that idea, actually.

Another thing that this song represents to me is that it’s from the last Breeders project with Tanya Donnelly, who was in the middle of leaving Throwing Muses and starting her own thing [with Belly]. At the time she said she wasn’t going to be available to do the Safari EP, and we were like, ‘Okay, we get it.’ But when we started to rehearse the songs in our basement in Dayton, Tanya happened to be in Tennessee or Kentucky, which is a state or two away from Ohio, and she ended up not being able to stay away and hightailing it up to join us. It was kind of quick, just for a day or two of running through what we were going to do. But she did end up appearing on that EP, which we recorded later in New York.

Before Tanya arrived at the basement, I remember Kim and I trying to bring “Do You Love Me Now” up into a rock song with guitars and drums, which we’d never done before so we were really just trying to figure out how that would work. Remember, I was very new on guitar at the time. Although I had done demos and other stuff by that point, the Safari EP was going to be my first official recording in a studio. But, you know, Kim has always been so good at including me. She’d be like, “What do you want to play, Kelley?”, which I always really appreciated because I think it meant she thought that I had good ideas or whatever.

I remember singing the tremolo part to her and saying, “This is what I want to play but I don’t know how to make it happen,” and she would just teach me how to play the part on the guitar. That was really neat to see, and all of it was such a learning experience for me. It was all so new, this process of having ideas for melody in my head and figuring out how to play them on guitar.

As well as the versions on Safari and Last Splash, there’s another version – “Do You Love Me Now Jr.” – from the Divine Hammer single, featuring J. Mascis. Which is your favourite of the three?

My favourite one is the one that sounds the coolest [laughs]. I think it’s probably the one on Safari. It’s so slow, isn’t it? Like, it’s incredibly slow.

I think what I like best about this song is that it could completely be this saccharine kind of moment and we just took it somewhere else. Britt Walford is drumming on this song, and the way he cracks the snare and hits the rim every time just feels like an assault. Also, the Safari version is the first time we recorded it, and Tanya was there, so, yeah, that is probably my favourite one. But they’re all good, you know? They’re all my babies.

We still play this song a lot, but one of the things that we don’t do is to play it as slowly as we would like. I think the song requires a cooler kind of absence of sound that you’ll never get in a live version, so it does need to be a little bit faster, and I do miss that slowness.

It’s also just one of those things that when you are playing as a four-piece, we’re not able to exactly replicate the recorded versions. It’s sometimes kind of hard to pick out which parts I want to play the most, but it’s a challenge I actually like. The challenge of figuring out the narrative and when I should abandon one little figure to go to another one because it’s more in service of the song and what’s getting ready to happen. It’s like, what are the anger issues right now?

The breeders safari

“Trixie Delicious” by The Kelley Deal 6000 (1996)

KELLY DEAL: Being a drug addict and an alcoholic from a very early age, of course I absolutely crashed and burned when I had all the time in the world to partake of drugs and alcohol and not have to, you know, show up at work at 8 o’clock in the morning. I ended up in rehab early on, and I’m actually really frickin’ glad, you know. If I’d been working as a technical analyst or something and been an alcoholic, just sucking down vodka in the morning, it would have taken me so long to burn out. It would have taken years. So, in a way, I’m kind of glad that I just exploded.

It was in rehab that I realised that I couldn’t join back up with my sis, for myriad reasons. I’m not saying anything against her, but I just knew that if I went back to the people in the crowd that I hung out with in Dayton, I was not going to be able to stay sober. And I really wanted to. Instead I stayed in Minneapolis and St. Paul and started to think, ‘Well, why don’t I start to write some songs of my own? All by myself, not as a co-write.’ And that was a really big deal for me.

If you’re not familiar with the band Grifters, you need to check out their Eureka EP. There’s a song on that record called “Slow Day For The Cleaner” that I was listening to at the time and I found it really inspiring. I started to wonder if [Grifters frontperson] Dave Shouse would come up from Nashville and help me to record the songs that I’d been writing. Which he did!

At the time, I was also really good friends with a guy called Jimmy Flemion from The Frogs, so I invited him as well and the three of us went into a recording studio. It was one of those times where you sort of just turn up and other people turn their eyes to you and say, “So, Kelley, what are we doing?,” and that really helped to understand, have sympathy for, and empathise more with Kim. It’s actually really hard to have people looking to you for direction and creative leadership. It’s like walking a tightrope, because you want to really see your vision through but you also want to stay collaborative and really enjoy the creative endeavour.

I think “Trixie Delicious” is a really good example of that process. I’d say things like, “Let’s not have percussion, let’s have a Japanese clapping game as the rhythm track,” and they’d be like, “Sure, great idea Kelley!” They were just being super supportive, and I think it’s a really cool song.

Another thing I remember is that I really wanted the song to have this sort of texture track of mania to it. Like, something upsetting or a narrative of sadness happening. Some unknown threat or weariness or whatever. We got that with the guitar track. We had Jesse Roff come up. He’s mainly a drummer, and he did play drums on Go To The Sugar Altar, but he’s also an amazing guitar player. I had him go into a room and I said, “Here’s the key you need to play in, but I want you to play the most douchebag guitar that you can play. Just overplay everything.” And he did. He played every bro-ish blues moment, every god-awful thing that a guitarist can play, and he did that for five minutes, just playing anything that came into his head. And I think it was really effective.

BEST FIT: I love that. This song has so much imagination and energy to it. Can you talk a bit about the writing process?

This one is something that Jimmy Flemion and I wrote together, and then Dave Shouse helped us with later. It’s kind of about one of the fellas who worked at the halfway house that I went to after my rehab. He was a really nice guy. When he’d do his morning rounds, he always had to sign off on each room to show that the bed had been made, etc., and he would sign his name as Trixie Delicious. This was back in 1995, and I remember saying, “What the hell is that?” and he goes, “That’s my drag name!”

I ended up talking about this idea of a fabulous drag queen with Jimmy and what that was all about. Then I guess the writing took over. Narratively, it’s not like it’s saying, “Why are you lying? You’re a man not a woman!” It wasn’t meant like that at all, for god’s sake. I just want to say that because, well, the climate is all so fraught now, isn’t it?

Did you ever hear from the guy from the halfway house after you put the song out?

I wish I had. I have thought about him since then and wondered how he’s doing.

Kelley deal 6000 sugar altar

“Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” by Kelley Deal and Kris Kristofferson (1996)

KELLEY DEAL: I was contacted by a guy call Randall Jamail, who ran a record company called Justice Records [out of Houston, Texas]. He was putting together a tribute record to Willie Nelson, called Twisted Willie, and the idea he had was to take a bunch of alternative rockers like L7 and Supersuckers and have them do Willie Nelson songs, but a different take on them. He had read of my travails and thought about the song “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” for me to sing. Now, I’m a Willie fan, but I don’t think my vocal style is really suited to reinterpreting classics like this song. But, you know what, I just made it really fucking dark because I had been through some really dark stuff.

One of things that I had been doing a lot at the time, and that I like to do, is to sew. We had used a sewing machine in the recording of Last Splash, and I liked the idea of it. I knew this was going to be a duet with Kris Kristofferson – if you can frickin’ believe it – and, thinking about him and his harmonica singing about hobos and trains, I thought it would be cool to have a sewing machine sounding like a train in the background, providing the rhythm over which we’d lay down these kind of plaintive moments of tone. So that’s kind of how the song started. We just made it really sparse.

Kris’s strong suit is that he’s an amazing harmonica player, so I made sure that we had that on this track. In terms of harmonising with him, I did find that difficult because he has such a unique voice. For me to try and sing like him – for us to sing together – I think it would have felt gross. Like I would be adopting a style that I was too weird for. It wouldn’t have been honest for me do that. We do kind of co-sing a little bit, but it’s at the end. Recently I was reminded that Randall put me down as a producer of that track, which was a really unusual thing and I think it was a big deal at the time. I didn’t know that producing was what I was doing, but that was really neat for me.

There’s one more thing about this song, and I can’t believe I ever thought about this but it made sense at the time. At the time I think Kris was on his fifth marriage so, knowing his history, I had this crazy idea that it would be great if we had a domestic quarrel right in the middle of the song. You know, a bit like when someone in television breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the camera. We got into the studio and I explained this idea to Kris fucking Kristofferson, and he was so game to try it, which I appreciated.

I started laying into him, saying things like “I waited up all night for you, where the hell were you?” and “Goddamn it, next time...,” and he’s just looking at me, totally silent. He carries on looking at me, so I just stop yelling and go, “Well, fuck you!” and he starts laughing and says, “You know what? This is too much like my real life.”

So, obviously that didn’t work out, but it was really fun and I will never forget it. He was a dreamboat to work with.

BEST FIT: That’s an incredible story, thanks for sharing.

It’s my pleasure. Okay, so here’s a related story. Randall Jamail worked very closely with Supersuckers, who were also on the Twisted Willie record, and they asked me to come into the studio and sing on a track called “Hungover Together”, which is on their album Must’ve Been High. I always remember that because it was such a big deal for me to be asked. It was the first time I was flown in like actual talent to appear on someone else’s track. I was so freaking nervous and my voice was tight, so I was just hoping it was okay. But it turned out great and I felt good about it.

This song is me going in straight as a country singer. I’ve got a little country twang and everything. And, you know, Kim and I used to do a lot of country songs when we were a duo. We did a lot of Hank Williams and stuff like that.

Were you raised on that kind of music at home?

No, my mother and father were from West Virginia, from the mountains of Appalachia. My mum hated that kind of old country and bluegrass music. She really hated it. She grew up with it and didn’t want to hear it. She loved to dance, so she listened to a lot of big band and rock ‘n’ roll music. My dad was more of a jazz and blues guy. They were not into country. Although my dad did love Willie Nelson. He was into cool music.

Various artists twisted willie

“Fallout and Fire” by R. Ring (2012)

KELLEY DEAL: After doing the Kelley Deal 6000 stuff, I got back with Kim and did more Breeders stuff, as you know, but then Kim got really busy with the Pixies and was gone a lot. During that time, I realised that my relationship with music had just been moving through Kim and through The Breeders and I was like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, I know what I’m supposed to do here. I need to have my own relationship with music again!’ That’s how I became open to saying yes to things, and that’s how I met Mike Montgomery and we started to work together as R.Ring.

“Fallout and Fire” was our first single, so this song represents for me a new kind of era of working with Mike at his recording studio in Dayton, Kentucky ­– I live in Dayton, Ohio – and just having a wonderful time there and experimenting a lot. We made a beautiful record called Ignite the Rest, and “Fallout and Fire” was the first song that we did together so it means a lot to me. It feels like it’s of no genre, in a really cool way, and to me that’s what that whole record feels like. It’s not a rock record or a blues record. It’s like it’s just some gallery pieces that you can walk around in.

It’s really interesting to me to look back and see where we’ve gone since then. We just released our second record in January, called War Poems, We Rested, and I also love that. It’s been a really beautiful relationship.

BEST FIT: What were some of the things that you were thinking about at the time of forming R.Ring, in terms of how it would be set apart from your other musical projects?

You know, in my lifetime I’ve spent a lot of time in studios. Being in Kim Deal’s band, as I’m sure you can imagine, there’s been a lot of studio rat time. I do love that but I really didn’t want to do that with R.Ring.

The thing is, I wanted to learn how to play open chords on a guitar better and Mike wanted to sing more, because he’s always been in instrumental bands, so that was kind of where it started. We just got together to see what we were going to create, and to do whatever we could that sounds good between two guitarists and two singers. We wanted the songs to be able to stand with just two guitars and two vocalists, and still be able to play rock and other stuff that we like.

I think writing in that way is a good exercise, because one person is usually playing a more rhythmic thing and the other is playing something else, and it becomes about the trade-off. We were also really cool with adding textures and other elements using things like reverb and delay. Like on this song. We put my vocals through an amazing, haunting reverb.

I’ve always wondered what this song is about.

Well, it’s kind of about a period of time when my mum had Alzheimer’s and getting more and more closed up, and I think my dad was lonely. It’s not literally about them, but there are things about him and her in there. It’s a song about how people come to an end.

R ring fallout and fire

“Wheel of Fortune” by Protomartyr feat. Kelley Deal (2018)

KELLEY DEAL: We do a lot of touring with R.Ring, and it was while on tour that we met a band called Protomartyr. They ended up coming to [Mike Montgomery's studio] Candyland to record, and we did our R.Ring thing with them on a track called “Blues Festival”. Later, we got back together with them and worked with them on an EP and I ended up co-writing this track, “Wheel of Fortune”.

What’s so interesting about this song is that Mike and I took the kind of recording techniques that we use with R.Ring and applied it to Protomartyr’s music. For example, at Candyland, there’s an intercom in the street out front and Mike recorded through that and affected it in a really cool way so that it became these sort of ghostly interludes that you can hear in that particular song.

Applying what we’d done with R.Ring to their music made me feel like things had kind of come full circle, in a cool way. And this song absolutely bangs. The lyrics are so cool.

BEST FIT: One of our writers did an interview with Joe Casey earlier this year and he talked about how, during the dark days of the pandemic, it was speaking with you on the phone that kind of pulled him out of the funk that he was in. And you ended up joining the band as a touring member. Tell me more about this ongoing partnership that you have with them.

Did Joe say that? That’s cute. That makes me feel good.

So, this part of the story goes back to December of 2019 when Lil Bub died. Greg [Ahee, from Protomartyr] is a guitarist like me and he and I both enjoyed Lil Bub, and cats in general, and we both know Lil Bub’s human. So, when she died, he texted me and asked if I had heard.

At the time I was looking at the next year of Breeders activity and was thinking in the back of my mind, ‘Gee, what am I going to be doing?’. I asked Greg what those guys were getting ready to do, and he said that they had a new album [Ultimate Success Today] out in May and they had some touring starting in March. I was like, “Oh, that sounds fun…,” and I remember having my phone in my hand and sort of stopping myself.

I kind of rolled my eyes at myself thinking, like, ‘Is this gross? I don’t care, I’m going to do it’ and I wrote to Greg, “Okay, well, if you ever need an awesome singer, an okay guitarist and a terrible keyboard player, let me know and I’ll join you and the band.” I was just waiting, and then he came back to ask if I was serious and I said, “Fuck yeah, of course!” and that’s how it started.

We were on the road when everything started shutting down. We had lots of plans, so I’m glad we were able to rally. It’s so nice for me to hear that Joe said that, that I’d helped him, because Greg and I were originally the ones behind that story.

Do you think you'll do some more recording together?

I really don't know what the future will hold, but I hope so. I bet we do. We need to get them back up to Candyland.

Protomartyr consolation

The Breeders’ Last Splash (30th Anniversary Edition) is out now via 4AD.

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