"Good Intentions Evaporate Under Hot Lights": An Interview with the Breeders

Jeffrey Thiessen

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.

The Breeders


Label: 4AD
US Release Date: 2013-05-14
"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'.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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