Kim Deal Is Still a Punk

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“I’ve never managed to make New York successful for me,” says Kim Deal, shaking her head. “Whenever I went to New York City I just ended up in the cellar doing drugs.” This was earlier this winter, at the singer and songwriter’s hotel on the Lower East Side, where she and her Breeders bandmates — Kelley Deal (Kim’s twin sister), bassist Josephine Wiggs, and drummer Jim Macpherson — were staying for a few days in advance of the release of their new album. The original plan was to do something Kim loves to do in New York. Except, now that she’s sober, she doesn’t love to do anything in New York besides stay in her hotel room, eat snacks, and watch Rachel Maddow with her sister. That’s an off-the-record environment because, as good Ohio girls, they know better than to talk politics in front of a reporter. So instead, here we sit in two fancy armchairs arranged on a sheepskin rug in a sleek little wood-paneled nook in the hotel lobby, with a clear view of Sara Delano Roosevelt Park, where Kim could very well have scored back in the day. “For decades I’ve been thinking, Why is it that everybody thrives in New York,” she continues, thoughtfully. “But I just end up in a cellar doing drugs. Why is that?”

Kim is dressed in her signature, almost aggressively nondescript manner: dark shirt, jeans, running shoes, no makeup, glasses at the ready for reading the texts on her phone. “Kim is simple in her pleasures and deep in her work,” says her friend and longtime collaborator Steve Albini, who has known the artist since she emerged in the late ’80s, first as a member of the Pixies, and then as founder of the Breeders. In addition to engineering and mixing the Breeders’ latest, All Nerve, Albini produced both the Pixies’ debut album, Surfer Rosa (1988), and the Breeders’ debut, Pod (1990), two albums that contain the genetic code for Deal’s identity as the most casually cool rock girl of her era: a mischievous weirdo with a disturbed angel’s voice who’s remained uniquely mesmerizing for going on 30 years now. And — while it’s hard to address this without giving into the most reductive ideas of “hot” and “not hot” — in addition to her maddeningly easeful musical abilities, Kim stood out as representing an alternative model of rock-girl desirability. She was a crush object counterpoint to the status quo cute indie bassist in a miniskirt and vintage go-go boots, a look inhabited with empowered grace by many of her contemporaries (then and now), but also easily coopted by Urban Outfitters and reduced to a cliché of nonthreatening sexiness. You could say Kim was proto-normcore, but I won’t do that to her. Just know that on a forum called RoadBikeReview, of all places, there’s a thread called “I still have a mad crush on Kim Deal.” Her status as a cultural and musical force holds. “There are bands where you’re like, my life was never the same after I found them and for me the Breeders are like that,” says Eva Hendricks, front woman for Brooklyn-based bubblegum punk band Charly Bliss. “Kim changed everything.”

It makes sense, Albini says, that Kim just can’t abide New York City. He describes the “ego soup” of “coastal media centers” as creating a banal loudness. “Everybody is trying to get noticed or establish themselves above other, equally driven people,” the producer, also a die-hard midwesterner explains. “I don’t have anything against New York particularly, but it’s easy to see how that aspect — the grasping, self-important, aspirant mentality — could grate on someone who just wants to follow a muse.” There’s an aimless silliness New York doesn’t really make room for, an element crucial to Kim’s existence. (People have done actual covers of the hilarious inter-song banter between her and Frank Black on Pixies records.) “She genuinely enjoys the goofy, lighthearted aspects of her life, and she indulges all her interests un-ironically,” explains Albini, pointing out that Kim, Kelley, and Albini’s wife Heather Whinna have made pilgrimages to Crime Con, a true-crime festival. Kim is a punk in the middle-fingers-raised sense, an irreverent, antiauthoritarian outsider — but she’s also a punk in the baser, more infantile, “you little punk” sense. You could easily imagine egging cars with Kim, who is 56, at two a.m. on a warm summer night in Dayton, where she still lives, mere blocks from Kelley, their parents, and their brother. When I asked Kim what she would make me for dinner if I came over for the holidays, she said “I’d make you clean my house,” then nearly fell off her chair laughing.

Deal’s naughty type of innocence would feel like a welcome antidote to the grind of being human in pretty much any era, but it was particularly refreshing during the irony-obsessed, sardonic early ’90s, when Troy Dyer and Jordan Catalano were pinups, and liking Guns N’ Roses and R.E.M. was against cool-kid law. The Pixies were as indie credible as you could get, perfect examples of the ’80s imperious college radio underground. Frank Black’s lyrics were brainy and deranged, literate and surrealist, which made Kim — with her knowing daffiness, like indie rock’s Lucille Ball — an irresistible foil for a bandmate who was one of rock’s most enjoyably cantankerous geniuses. “We would be playing and I would say to myself, I’m doing all the work. She’s smoking a cigarette and the crowd is loving her,” Black once told Spin. “She’s like, ‘Hi.’ And the crowd goes crazy. Or ‘Gee, it’s hot.’ And they just lose it.”

Kim formed the Breeders on a kind of whim, during a break in the Pixies tour schedule in 1990; when the Pixies broke up in 1993, she began to put all her creative might into the band, and it became clear that Deal was much more than the Pixies’ secret weapon. She radiated both the integrity and DIY ethos of the world from which she came and the natural, flashy magnetism of a rock star. “She lets you in in so many different ways,” Hendricks says. “With women in any form of entertainment there’s so often this desire to put us in a box like, oh, you’re the bad girl or you’re the girl next door. Kim is someone who defies categorization — she doesn’t neatly fit into anything.”

“I’ve never been to a museum in New York City — never!” Kim says, as she leads the charge excitedly to the hotel’s main lobby. We’re late to meet the rest of the band for the walk over to the New Museum, where they’re showing an exhibition on gender. It’s less than a ten-minute walk, but by the time we arrive, we’ve discussed The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, America Ferrera’s general awesomeness, and the perfect winter hat, i.e., one that can transition from Dayton’s tundraesque winter to New York’s merely frigid one. “I love to talk about the weather,” warns Kelley.

A few minutes later we’re sizing up an installation by the artist and musician Justin Vivian Bond. It includes a mock living room with a turntable — the headphones for which are not working. Kim immediately starts to tinker with the gear. “Let me see if I can fix this cord,” she announces, and plops herself down on the floor, cross-legged. It’s “the Ohio,” she explains. Kim’s not particularly handy, she swears, but she did grow up splicing cables onto which she’d solder her own plastic tips to make cords, as instructed by her older brother, Kevin. “In Ohio, people just think differently,” she says, shrugging. “You don’t want to waste money buying cables.”

The Deal sisters came from a super-tight family. Their father Ed was a physicist at the Wright Patterson air force base; their mother, Ann, was a teacher. The girls grew up singing country songs at truck stops for fun, and Kim was always writing music, but she found it tough to imagine things evolving much beyond that. In Dayton in the mid-’80s, revisionist hair bands counted as cool rock and rollers. “They were doing covers — they would do Pat Benatar but instead of singing, ‘Put another notch in my lipstick case’ they would sing, ‘Put another notch in my guitar case,’” Kim recalls. “I would just think, You don’t have any idea how bad this is. Yet they would never play with me because they wouldn’t demean themselves.” She rolls her eyes.

Kim knew this wasn’t her scene, but it didn’t really occur to her to plan an escape. After high school she hopped from college to college and only wound up moving east — where she eventually met the rest of the Pixies — because “I had married somebody,” she says, with another Daria-worthy eye roll. Her husband was “a friend of my brothers’,” who also worked at the air-force base and happened to be from Boston. When he went back, she went with him. An ad in the Boston Phoenix seeking a “female vocalist for high harmonies, no chops,” cracked her up, so she answered it. Kim’s Pixies bandmates were the first male musicians she’d ever met who were willing to play with her.

Kim and Kelley may be the only blood relatives in the band, but the entire Breeders crew is a family. Kim has known Josephine — or Jo, as they call her — since 1988, when Jo’s then band the Perfect Disaster supported the Pixies on tour in the U.K. By that time, Kim had already started messing around with Breeders-destined material, writing songs with the Throwing Muses’ Tanya Donnelly, who was an original member of the band. They thought they might make a dance record because, you know, they both liked to dance.

The Breeders sonic signature is unmistakable: Kim’s almost simperingly sweet voice set against the backdrop of roiling, primal guitars. “The two elements always at war in Kim’s music are prettiness and decadence, the deb and the dirtbag each holding a ladder for the other,” says Albini. “She’s got an internal sense of timeless musical beauty that fits in the continuum from Édith Piaf to Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton. She just wants to do it on a Les Paul through a Marshall.”

The band’s music feels, to this day, dangerous in the most pleasurable and rare of ways. Describing how she’s been inspired, Charly Bliss’s Hendricks explains: “I want to play with how close my voice can go from being super sweet to the point where it becomes sour, cloying, almost, but then also with these massive sounding, we-will-kill-you guitars … I want to play with girliness as strength, as violence.”

Yet the Breeders’ approach to making records is as unmoored and diffuse as their sound is direct and defined. “Me and Kelley did stuff by ourselves in Dayton, and then I moved to Boston, got in the Pixies, and then me and Tanya and Josephine started doing stuff,” Kim summarizes. (Stuff is one of her favorite words.) From their debut, Pod, through their last album, 2008’s Mountain Battles, through the Pixies split, through addiction and divorce and the death of friends and hiatus and reunion, the only truly consistent element of the Breeders has been Kim and her commitment to a defiantly whimsical, adolescent aimlessness in her craft.

“I don’t know, that’s a good question,” she said when I asked what it is that makes the Breeders channel in her brain distinct from all the others. “I’m thinking of Ed Sheeran,” she continued. “I read an article about him — or was he on Howard?” Kim is a big Stern fan. “Anyway, he said, and I’m paraphrasing, but he said that he had all the titles for this trilogy of albums he was doing already worked out and stuff. And I thought, Wow, isn’t that interesting? That someone was able to conceive of something so early on and then accomplish it.”

“I did this embroidery of dolls for my mom,” Kim begins. We’re standing on another floor at the New Museum, examining an array of three-dimensional knitted wall hangings, which appear to portray female genitalia. “It seems like this image is the essence of it,” Kim continues, gesturing to one of the pieces. “You know: labia. They got rid of the rest of the doll and just did labias. Next time I’ll do that.” Kim’s mother is still alive, but was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2003 and can no longer speak or walk. These days, Kim says, “there’s a sweetness” to her mom. “There’s not a lot of action but there’s something that creates a positive love impact with each other,” she explains. “If you walk into the room, she’ll light her face up and she’ll rub her little toes together.”

All Nerve began like everything Kim has ever written, with her in her room in Dayton, Ohio. It’s not her childhood bedroom anymore, but it’s not far off. Her house is a mile from her parents’, “down the hill” from Kelley’s and on the same block as her brother’s. Kim bought the place with Pixies money back in 1990 after someone told her that it’s good to own something tangible. She picked this house “because it’s five doors down from my brother,” she says. “And because there’s a good school system for my children that I’m going to have.” Kim does not have any kids. “No, couldn’t work that out,” she says, quietly. Then she smiles, recalling how her nieces, her brother’s kids, regularly mess with her Wikipedia page. “They add things, like, ‘She has a child! A son named Joe!’” she says, laughing. “It’s not true.”

When making this record, she and the band drove “one hour and one minute,” from Dayton, Ohio, to Dayton, Kentucky, to record at the closest analog studio. There was also some time spent with Albini in his Chicago studio. And then they mixed in New York City, “in — what’s it called Bo Town?” she says. Noho, I suggest? “No, there’s a b in it. Dumbo!”

From the very first few notes of the opening track — delicate, naked guitars that hold the sonic space for a few seconds before the delicious throb of those guitars arrives to break the spell — the record feels like a shot of something you only realize as you hear it that you’ve been desperately missing. It’s just pure guitar rock, made by an artist who is at once utterly familiar and eternally mysterious.

A few weeks ago, the band released “Wait in the Car,” the first single off All Nerve. It’s a relentless, propulsive rock track that hits all the Breeders’ sweet spots. “Good morning!” Kim sings brightly, drums and a single guitar her only accompaniment. Then, as a second guitar and bass kick in, she implores the listener: “Consider — I always struggle with the right word.” The guitars gnash for another moment, as you wait, breath bated, for whatever pearl of wisdom she’s about to deliver. And then it comes: “Meow meow meow meow meow meow.”

Kim Deal Is Still a Punk