Just because a band forms in a certain region does not mean all of its members’ musical roots are in that region, of course, especially in and around Boston since Berklee College of Music, Boston Conservatory at Berklee and New England Conservatory unite musicians from all over the planet.
And a perfect example of such cross-border partnerships is The Breeders, often labeled misleadingly as an “Ohio rock band” while in fact its co-founders had been in internationally renowned Boston-based bands years before The Breeders were born – Pixies and Throwing Muses, respectively – and one of them hailed from the Ocean State, some 600 miles from the Buckeye State.
Among the most popular, distinctive and critically acclaimed acts rising from the mid-to-late-‘80s indie/alt-rock revolution that produced Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails and Dinosaur Jr., The Breeders’ balance of ever-shifting dynamics – a Pixies hallmark – and pared-down arrangements – a Throwing Muses hallmark – made their first two albums bellwethers of the genre.
Though Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly initially formed the band as a side project, the group has been together for 35 non-consecutive years, has produced three EPs and five LPs and – like Pixies – has appeared live on every continent but Antarctica.
First, some pre-Breeders history. Deal was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1961, began playing guitar around age 13, moved to Boston in 1986 and was Pixies’ original bassist, playing from the band’s formation until leaving in 2011. Pixies recorded two albums before The Breeders existed.
Donelly was born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1966, met her future stepsister Kristen Hersch at age eight, started playing guitar around age 13, formed Throwing Muses with Hersch at age 15 and moved to Boston in 1985. The band recorded three albums before The Breeders existed.
Now, the rest of the story. In 1988, when Pixies toured the UK and Europe with Throwing Muses as the opening act, Deal and Donelly talked about collaborating at some point in the future. The following year, when Pixies and the Muses had some coinciding downtime, they recorded a demo with violinist Carrie Bradley, bassist Ray Halliday and drummers Mickey Bones, Carl Haarer and Throwing Muses’ David Narcizo, playing their only gig (at the Rathskellar, with Narcizo on drums) billed with supreme swagger as Boston Girl Super Group.
Signing with 4AD
They sent the demo to Ivo Watts-Russell, co-founder of English label 4AD, who had signed Throwing Muses in 1985 and Pixies in 1987 – and he took the as-yet-unnamed band on board immediately, the only confirmed full-time members being Deal and Donelly. Watts-Russell joked that the demo sounded like “the Bangles from Hell,” similar to how David Bowie once called Pixies “the psychotic Beatles.”
With a studio budget of $11,000, Deal and Donelly chose the name The Breeders, the same one Deal and her twin sister Kelley had used in a previous band. Deal recruited bassist Josephine Wiggs of The Perfect Disaster, whom she met when that band opened for Pixies in London in 1988. Steve Albini, producer of Pixies’ debut album and eventually four of the five Breeders’ LPs, recommended recruiting drummer Britt Walford of Kentucky-based rock group Slint.
In early 1990, the original Breeders lineup of Deal, Donelly, Wiggs, Walford and violinist Bradley rehearsed tracks from their debut album at Wiggs’ home in England, recorded them in Scotland and 4AD issued the finished product, Pod, in May. They played their first post-release gig in London.
Critical, Commercial Reception
Reviews were generally positive, with The New York Times’ Karen Schoemer calling it “smart, innovative and edgy” but Piers Clifton later writing the LP off as “plodding” in The Rough Guide to Rock (Rough Guides, 1999).
The most glowing praise came from Kurt Cobain in a 1992 interview with Melody Maker, when he said the album “changed my life” and was one of the most influential to Nirvana’s sound. Pod didn’t chart in the US, but it reached #22 in the UK and, after playing one post-release show at the Rathskellar and two in Dayton, Deal returned to Pixies and Donelly returned to the Muses.
Safari, Nirvana Tour
The Breeders lay dormant for the next 18-odd months while Pixies recorded and toured supporting Bossanova and Trompe le Monde and the Muses did the same with The Real Ramona. In late 1991, Deal, Wiggs and drummer Jon Mattock recorded Deal’s song “Safari” and Deal, Donelly, Walford and Deal’s sister Kelley recorded three more, all without violinist Bradley, who left the band after recording Pod.
The result was the EP Safari, issued by 4AD in April 1992 and followed by a European tour opening for Nirvana, a dream gig at the time for any indie/alt-rock band on Earth. Donelly didn’t join the tour, however, having left the group after recording the Safari tracks to form Newport-based Belly, and Walford walked away soon after the tour, replaced by Jim McPherson.
In January 1993, Pixies broke up (only to reunite about a year later) and Deal wasted no time moving forward with The Breeders, recording the band’s second full album, Last Splash, that same month. 4AD released it in August to broad critical acclaim and commercial success, the infectious single “Cannonball” hitting #2 in the Billboard Modern Hot Rocks chart.
The album went platinum, establishing the group as a formidable alt-rock force with broad, commercial-pop appeal, and once again they toured Europe supporting Nirvana. In 2013, 20 years after it release, Pitchfork’s Lindsay Zoladz called the album “one of alt-rock’s most enduring masterpieces.”
Head to Toe, Lollapalooza, Hiatus
In 1994, The Breeders recorded a second EP, Head to Toe, produced by Dinosaur Jr. co-founder J Mascis. Released by 4AD in July, it includes a cover “Freed Pig” by Massachusetts-based Sebadoh, formed by Lou Barlow after he left Dinosaur Jr.
After landing a top spot on the 1994 Lollapalooza tour, The Breeders were on top of the alt-rock world – professionally but not personally. Behind the scenes lurked serious and ongoing substance-abuse issues, Kim with booze and Kelley with heroin. In November, Kelley was arrested for possession and entered rehab, the start of a six-plus-year hiatus for the group.
Hiatus Activity, The Mod Squad
During the extended break, Wiggs formed The Josephine Wiggs Experience and Dusty Trails, Kelley formed The Kelley Deal 6000 and The Last Hard Men and Kim formed The Amps, recording the album Pacer, issued by 4AD in October 1995. In 1996, The Amps played shows billed as The Breeders, including appearances at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston and The Living Room in Providence. In 1997, McPherson left, replaced by Tyler Trent, and in 1998 the band recorded a cover of Ohio-based The James Gang’s 1969 song “Collage” for the film The Mod Squad.
Reformation, Title TK
In 2000, Kim and Kelley played their first gig together in over six years with a completely new Breeders lineup: guitarist Richard Presley, bassist Mando Lopez and drummer Jose Mendeles. The group recorded sporadically through 2000 and 2001, resulting in their third studio effort, Title TK – a journalism term meaning “title to come” – which dropped in May 2002. The supporting tour included a show at The Middle East in Cambridge.
From 2003 through most of 2007, Deal kept The Breeders on ice as she recorded and toured with Pixies, and the group became a quartet with the departure of Presley.
Mountain Battles, Fate to Fatal
In late 2007, the band recorded its fourth LP, Mountain Battles, which 4AD issued in April 2008 and The Guardian praised as “a quintessential example of art punk,” and 2009 they released their third EP, Fate to Fatal, on their own label, Period Music.
In 2011 – in a move that surprised virtually nobody given rampant, longstanding rumors of its imminence – Deal walked away from her Pixies gig instead of joining the band on a new LP. “I didn’t really want to do [an album] anyway and I had been pretty vocal about that,” she told The Guardian in 2017. “Then when it was actually like, ‘We’re gonna do it’, I was busy.”
First World Tour, LSXX
Free from Pixies, Deal led The Breeders on a months-long tour of North America, Mexico, South America, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand in 2013. The multinational barnstorming coincided with the 4AD-issued box set LSXX, a 45-track collection from the band’s Last Splash period including unreleased demos, studio recordings and live material.
All Nerve, “His Name Is Alive”
After nine years out of the studio, The Breeders recorded their most recent album, All Nerve, which 4AD released in March 2018 to the most effusive reviews since Last Splash 25 years before. Mojo magazine put it at #10 in its “Top 75 Albums of 2018” lists and Alun Hamnett of Record Collector wrote that the band “took their sweet time” but “nonchalantly knocked it out of the park.” After another three years of studio silence, in March 2021 4AD released the band’s cover of The Dirt Eaters’ 1992 song “His Name Is Alive” on the 4AD compilation Bills and Aches and Blues.
“It Really Does Matter”
Asked in a 2018 interview with The Guardian what she thought when Kurt Cobain said The Breeders’ debut album changed his life and was a formative element of Nirvana’s sound, Deal spoke about the power of music. “Something like that makes you realize that music is so impactful,” she said. “Whether it’s me or somebody else, it changes people’s lives. Sometimes it all gets so cynical, or I’m just doing my own thing, and I forget that music really is powerful – it really does matter.”
(by D.S. Monahan)