The first time I saw the Breeders was on the Lollapalooza tour in August of 1994. Phoenix was the tour’s 34th stop that summer and it was blisteringly hot that day. It was my first festival ever. In fact, it was my first concert ever.
It had been a good summer for the Breeders. The Pixies had officially disbanded the year before, freeing up bassist Kim Deal to pursue the Breeders project full-time. The band’s first album Pod (1990) hadn’t sold that well, but it had been critically acclaimed in the indie market and producer Steve Albini would later consider it among his best work. When Last Splash came out in 1993, it seemed to hit at a perfect moment. A shift was under way in “alternative” music. Last Splash broke new ground—it was a ray of bright and sunny indie pop in what had been a bleak and grungy landscape.
You could hear the shifting ground that summer on the radio. Kurt Cobain was gone, but the tragedy had produced a kind of emotional watershed, a need to move beyond the uncomfortable dissonance of sadness and pretention. It was the summer of Green Day’s “Basketcase”, Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones”, and The Cranberries’ “Zombie.” Both Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden had pop hits on the radio with “Today” and “Black Hole Sun”. Grunge was, arguably, on its way out the door aided in part by the execrable copy-cat bands like Collective Soul and Candlebox. On the other hand, indie bands like Pavement and Built to Spill were finally beginning break through the popular music crust to get a bit of their due before disappearing again into obscurity. Imagine if you can a pre–Bends world—Radiohead’s only record to date was Pablo Honey and I remember thinking it was kind of lame.
Within this milieu, there was The Breeders and Last Splash which, by the end of 1994, would sell over a million copies. You couldn’t turn MTV on that summer without seeing the video for their hit “Canonball” which with was quirky if a bit too literal (Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Spike Jonze directed. I can imagine one of them saying, “Well, there has to be a cannon ball.”). But the video put a fresh face on popular rock. Not only were three of the members female (the Deal sisters and Josephine Wiggs), their group ethos was much less L7/Hole and way more thrift-store geek, an aesthetic which would come to represent the youth culture vibe in the second half of the 90s. I mean, Breeders drummer Jim Macpherson looked like he could have been your cool high school English teacher. The Breeders’s success and sound championed a number of other mildly successful bands during that era including Veruca Salt, Letters to Cleo, and that dog., and you might even say that they blazed a trail for the success of nerd-chic bands like Weezer and later Death Cab for Cutie. But more than that,
That Lollapalooza stop in Phoenix was the thirty-fifth that summer. Kim, Kelley and company had a mid-day slot before George Clinton & the P-Funk All-stars (Beastie Boys and the Smashing Pumpkins headlined). I remember a bit of fatigue and apathy on both the stage and in the crowd. They played “Cannonball” with a tongue in their cheeks and then, given the momentary rouse from the smoky crowd, they played it again nearly all the way through. Kim Deal and Billy Corgan made the news that summer over a backstage argument that neither could keep quiet about on stage or during interviews. The tour ended in early September and by 1995, the Breeders were also gone—on indefinite hiatus with news that in the mid-nineties was becoming all too common: Kelley Deal was headed to rehab for heroin.
The Breeders have been on-again, off-again ever since. The Deal sisters released records under the name in 2001 (Title TK) and again in 2008 (Mountain Battles), both with Jose Medeles and Mando Lopez. The intervening years have included Pixies reunion tours, other rehab stints (Kim too), and various side projects. I last saw Kim and Kelley at the 2009 Ellnora Guitar Festival singing and playing in Bryce and Aaron Dessner’s beautiful production, The Long Count. It was an inspiring piece and featured the Deal sisters singing and playing. I hadn’t thought about them for years, but it reminded me how much their unique sound has inspired years of innovation and art in other artists.
I’m glad they’re together again. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Last Splash, and The Breeders are back touring with the original line-up from that record. Their return to the stage, along with the reissue of the now-classic record, isn’t just a nostalgic victory lap for the band and its fans. It’s a reminder to those of us that came of age during the 90s of the moment when the popular “alternative” took a hard left turn down indie alley. It’s also a history lesson for today’s generation who, in an existential moment during Pygmalion, might look down the festival roster and wonder, “How did we get here?” The Breeders are one big reason how. Indie alley is now a six-lane highway.
Catch the Breeders on Friday night at The Canopy Club with Common Loon. They’ll be performing Last Splash in it‘s entirety, as well as other material to accompany it.