"Good Intentions Evaporate Under Hot Lights": An Interview with the Breeders
They started out under the shadow of the Pixies, but Kim Deal's band the Breeders not only became a beloved indie-rock staple, they also broke wide into the mainstream with Last Splash, now celebrating its 20th anniversary. Josephine Wiggs walks us through the album's creation, its new live legacy, and her feelings towards that little classic known as Pod.
"People who are genuinely doing what they're doing, from a pure motivation, a real legitimate creative impulse, will be remembered and be influential. People who are doing things for other motives will be forgotten or ridiculed." --Steve Albini
It didn't take me long to do what I swore I wouldn't do ... mention Steve Albini in an article about the Breeders.
When I talked to the Breeders' bassist Josephine Wiggs about this I asked her if the constant association with him is a source of annoyance. She didn't seem to mind. "Even though perhaps he likes to think his role is transparent, his 'hands-off' approach has a pretty big influence on the way an album turns out." Well if it doesn't bother her, it shouldn't bother me.
It's also not only a quote I mostly agree with (it does seem a tad idealistic, unfortunately) but certainly applies to the circumstances surrounding The Breeders recent reformation of their Last Splash lineup to commence on a mini-tour of sorts, selling out every club in like 35 seconds or so. I gotta admit, that rabid reaction caught me off guard, but that's a testament to what Steve was talking about; Last Splash's roots exist in a space outside of genres, trends, and shifting musical movements. Certainly it has a connection to the scene that helped propel the band to Lollapalooza-heights of popularity in 1993, but the album doesn't exist in a prism unto itself, as so many releases from that time-frame seem to do. Even great records like Alice in Chains' Facelift seem to draw too heavily from their immediate surroundings to maintain the same power it launched outward upon release. Last Splash (and it's predecessor Pod to a stronger extent) has both glided along into the new millennium, losing hardly any of the power their adherents found so appealing in the first place.
That's probably because both are just so weird. I still haven't heard anything like either of those albums. Josephine agrees when I asked her about the sound on Last Splash and why they still work so well today. "I think it's because the songs are well crafted, and also a bit quirky, which means they stand up to repeated listens. I also think it doesn't sound like anything else. I do think it's pretty amazing how well the album stands up in comparison to what's around today."
That still doesn't change the fact things are a lot different than when The Breeders were turned into MTV sensations with their immensely recognizable hit "Cannonball".
Back then, every band was lumped hard and fast into a genre, at an almost comically malicious level. This did create a well-documented sense of community and healthy competition among bands popping up around this time, but it also provided brutal pigeonholing. Now we don't have that intense closeness and all the good/bad that comes out of it, bands exist in a more fluid climate. They aren't really labeled anymore on such a petty scale (except in metal of course), and Josephine seems to think it's better today, not that "pigeonholing is always a bad thing ... certainly, today, people seem more comfortable mixing genres. Good music is good music, regardless."
Since then, Pod has gotten more attention pretty much due to the fact Mr. Cobain always attributed it as a main reason he hired Albini for In Utero. It's also a stronger release than Last Splash, although at times it sorely misses the infectious nature of the latter. When I gingerly brought this up to Josephine, she was surprisingly responsive: "I know it's Last Splash's birthday and all, and I don't want to hurt its feelings, but I do have an abiding affection for Pod. Making it was a pretty special experience. As individuals coming together to work on a shared project, and with so little time, everybody was really present, thoughtful and focused, which I think you can hear in the song arrangements and the playing on that record."
That's all well and good, and I get with what she's saying there ... but as far as the live experience, playing Last Splash through its entirety is a much more appealing concept for me, and as noted in the second paragraph, seems like a pretty rad concept for a lot of Breeders fans. The stark, austere sound that Pod brought forth morphed into a more fleshed out version of themselves -- if Pod sounds like it was recorded in an abandoned bunker, Last Splash has the sound of someone who just threw open the windows on every track. I'm not sure Pod could be recreated as faithfully as the band would've liked. Like Josephine said, Pod sort of sprouted out of nowhere, like most classic albums. Last Splash on the other hand, seemed to emerge from a place that saw the group just feeding off the happiness that came as a result achieving success as together, as a collective group. When I brought this up to her, explaining that I didn't think it would be that difficult to represent Last Splash in a 2013 live setting, she immediately saw what I was trying to say:
"We're pleasantly surprised to be in the same room together playing these songs. I might even say the songs are sounding better than they ever did. In our first rehearsal, Jim and I immediately clicked -- it made me really appreciate his talent, and how fun it is to play with him. It's fun to be sandwiched between his precision and the unruly beast of Kim's guitar. Kelley has worked really hard to get the individual guitar tones for each song (though I make fun of her for the number of effects pedals she's using!). And violinist Carrie Bradley is doing a lot more than playing violin, adding sonic touches which are on the album, but which haven't been played live before. Back-in-the-day I complained that we played everything too fast, which always fell totally on deaf ears (I'm talking to you, Kim D). Now everyone says 'Oh, of course, we should play at the actual album tempos ... though I say this not having actually played a show yet ... good intentions evaporate under hot lights."
Nostalgia is a firm enemy of great rock n' roll, but like any cliché, that has its fallacies. It's simply a matter of how you approach creating new experiences out of older accomplishments. If Josephine and the Breeders saw this enthusiasm as a way to flail about idiotically trying to simulate the '90s caterwauling thrash they helped pioneer in gen-x homes everywhere, it would be a horrible and excruciating experiment. But by giving these songs new lives within the context of how they live their lives and view this music twenty years after its initial release, it can't be interpreted as a tour in the name of nostalgia, more like a noble crusade that not only allows a whole new generation of people to embrace Last Splash, but also encourages long-time fans find new and exciting ways to absorb the music. I pushed Josephine to define her band from a retrospective vantage point, and she didn't hesitate to note the inherent dichotomy so closely linked with how many of us see The Breeders.
"Well, we were one of a group of bands in the early '90s who started out as alternative (with the release of Pod on indie label 4AD), who then went on to have mainstream success. Defining us is kind of interesting ... because to some people we are an underground, cult band, and to others, we are a band who had a massive, great-sounding, hit record." I often wondered to myself if being a 'girl band' in that time frame would actually give a band certain advantages journalists don't really acknowledge, only focusing on the negatives and glass ceilings that served to squash many of their ambitions into mincemeat. I knew it's a played out topic, but I did ask her if that identity helped put them in a position where they could easily be indie-heroes and MTV darlings in the same sentence, and Josephine elected just to give me a Breeders history lesson instead of facing the question head-on.
"We never thought of ourselves as a 'girl band.' I don't think we identified with that at all, or even really thought about it. I think maybe because I came from playing in a band with guys (Perfect Disaster), and Kim came from playing in a band with guys (Pixies), we just thought we were forming a band, not a "girl band." Kim and Tanya Donelly were friends, so they played music together, and Kim and I had met each other when Perfect Disaster supported the Pixies. I was kind of smitten with her, and she thought I was "exotic," and so asked me to play with them. Then when Tanya went on to form Belly, Kim simply asked her sister to play guitar, because she thought it would be fun to have her in the band (little did we know quite how much fun...)."
So that was a Stone-Gossardish response, but that's ok, that allows us to continue to draw our own conclusions on the circumstances that allowed them such a unique place in the nineties alt-rock canon. When it comes down to it, there aren't a whole lot of reasons to over-think this. Last Splash is a vibrant, pulsating work that probably exists the most effectively in a live setting. The tour isn't attempting to reanimate a corpse; it's giving new life to something that never truly went away. The blog fuckedinparkslope probably said it best in response to the Last Splash tour announcement: "That sound you just heard was every 35-45 year old in the neighborhood collectively screaming, 'Holy fucking shit, call the babysitter!".
When it's put that way, if they're selling, I'm buyin'.