While on tour together with their primary acts, Pixies guitarist Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly of Throwing Muses forged the idea of forming a side group. Calling themselves The Breeders and adding bassist Josephine Wiggs and temporary drummer Shannon Doughton, Deal and Donelly recorded the band’s debut full-length, Pod, fleshing out demo tracks the two had previously presented to the label 4AD. Its follow-up, the four-track Safari EP, saw the addition of Jim MacPherson on drums and Kim’s twin sister, Kelley, on second guitar. It also saw the departure of Donelly, who went on to form her own vehicle, Belly.
As a four-piece, The Breeders became more defined around Deal’s center. With successful tours in the US and Europe, including opening slots for Nirvana, they were poised to begin their ascension to the top of the alt-rock heap. With the release of Last Splash in late 1993, they landed squarely on top of the mountain, with the single “Cannonball” effectively becoming the group’s Edmund Hillary moment. The stay at the top was a relatively brief one, with this lineup releasing only a couple more EPs and a live album before the rapid ascent to platinum sales, co-headlining Lollapalooza, exhaustion, and personal turmoil took their toll. Following Lollapalooza ’94, The Breeders decided to go on a break that eventually amounted to a breakup. Though Deal would revive the name with various lineups in the late ’90s and 2000s, none included Wiggs or MacPherson.
This year marks 20 years since the release of Last Splash. To celebrate the milestone, 4AD will reissue The Breeders’ landmark album, and the Deal sisters, Wiggs, and MacPherson, will hit the road for a brief tour, marking the first time in 19 years that this lineup has played together. Consequence of Sound recently had the opportunity to talk with Josephine Wiggs about the upcoming anniversary, playing together again after so long, and her own career outside of The Breeders.
In 2005, you played a couple of shows with the group at an event commemorating 4AD’s 25th anniversary, and you were called in at the last minute for the final three shows of the group’s 2009 tour. I understand the 20th anniversary of Last Splash is a milestone, but aside from that, what do you think it was that got all four of you back together after so long?
Well, I think it was a couple of things. When we did that show in 2005, it was the 25th anniversary of 4AD, and in order to do that, we went to London and were in a rehearsal space in London. So, basically what happened was that the songs that we were doing from Pod and Last Splash were the ones that I played. It was kind of a split evening in that the lineup of The Breeders as it existed in 2005 played some songs, and then I played the songs from Pod and Last Splash. When I first arrived and we were in the rehearsal room running through the songs, Kelley turned to Kim and said, “Oh, my god, it sounds just like the album.” I think we all were just amazed at what it was like to play together after… at that point, it was 11 years [laughs] since we had played together. But that was also with a different drummer. It wasn’t with Jim.
So, I think that that put the idea in our minds that maybe one day in the not-too-distant future we might play together. And then of course when 4AD announced that they were intending to re-release Last Splash to commemorate its 20th anniversary, that was then the thing that made Kim think, “Well, if they’re releasing the record, then maybe we ought to play some shows.” They were going to do it anyway. They were planning on doing this regardless of what we were or weren’t going to do. So it was really that. It was the combination of us having played together in 2005, and it being such a great experience, and the fact that they were re-releasing the record. It just seemed like it would be the thing to do.
Was there ever any effort to do something like this when Pod’s anniversary came around?
There wasn’t, no. I mean, I have no idea. I should ask Kim, actually, whether she had any thought about that.
There are no issues with Tanya [Donnelly]…
No. How can anyone possibly have an issue with Tanya? She’s the prettiest thing on the planet. [Laughs.]
I just wanted to be sure. Obviously, Last Splash is a far bigger album for the band, so I can see 4AD’s incentive to do that.
“Cannonball” is arguably the band’s most recognized song. Kelley revealed in the box set’s liner notes that your bass that provides the song’s intro was actually played flat, but everyone liked the sound, so it was kept. Can you elaborate on that?
When we were in the rehearsal space in San Francisco… I think maybe we rehearsed for a week out there before actually going into the studio. It had maybe been a couple of months since we had played together because I had been in England. At that time, I was flying back and forth. So, it had been a while since we had played together. And then when we came to play “Cannonball”, it’s a pretty big slide on the low E on the bass guitar, and playing high on the neck of the bass is not something that one often does. I had made a mistake about which note I was supposed to be sliding to. Because I’m playing on my own there, you can’t tell that it’s the wrong note.
It was only when the guitars come in that I realized that I was a semi-tone flat and immediately corrected the mistake to play the song in the right key. I did it repeatedly. I kept doing it for some reason every time we came to play the song. It must just be that’s where my hand is most comfortable, high up on the neck there, and I didn’t want to push myself to have to go one fret higher, I expect is what it was. We all just thought it was hilarious and thought it sounded really great. It kind of sets up a certain expectation, and then your expectation is changed because all of a sudden it’s in a different key. It was clear to us at that moment that that was the right thing to do, to keep the wrong note in there.
You have writing credits on just three songs in The Breeders’ catalog. “Metal Man” off Pod is credited to both you and Kim, while two other songs appeared on EPs: “900” from Cannonball and the title track off of Head to Toe. Considering your songwriting post-Breeders is rather extensive, why do you think your song contributions with the band were so few and far between?
It’s partly a function of, you know, Kim was a prolific songwriter. She had a lot of songs that we were working on, and obviously every once in a while someone would come up with something. She just was writing more songs than I was. Plus, I really enjoyed playing the songs that she was writing. I didn’t need it to be about me, if you see what I mean.
Did you just feel more comfortable playing bass at that time rather than songwriting?
It may also be that at the same time, let me think, it would have been 1990 through ’91, I had just released an album of my own songs. The album is called Nude Nudes. It was on a Manchester label called Playtime Records. So, I had just released the songs that I had been working on for the last four or five years. It wasn’t as if I had a huge back catalog of stuff that I was dying to work on. I just released all the songs I had been working on, if you see what I mean.
You said that you wrote “Head to Toe” in 6/8 but that Kim suggested playing it in 4/4 only twice as fast. Did you ever try it at 6/8?
Why bother changing it in the first place?
You can find it online if you want to compare the two. That was one of the songs that I did record in my other project that I did with Jon Mattock from Spaceman 3.
The Josephine Wiggs Experience?
That’s right. So, it already existed in 6/8, and I had played it for Kim, and we had gone into the studio to try and record it. We never finished it. We ran out of time and didn’t finish it. And then in the intervening time, Kim had the idea to turn it into a hardcore song, or like a punk rock song. Which, as soon as we did it, she immediately really liked doing it like that instead of a more slow, melodic version, which is what I had written it as.
Why did you feel the need to get Kate Schellenbach to arrange it? Were you guys uncomfortable arranging it in such a style?
No, I think we did it as a joke. I expect Kim said something along the lines of, “Let’s try doing this much faster, and instead of having it in 6/8 time, let’s play it in 4/4.” And I expect at the time I was disgruntled at this suggestion and thinking to myself, “I don’t want to do that. I like the version that I’ve got already. Why’ve we got to change that?” And so in order to avoid me having to do it in a disgruntled mood, I just asked Kate to do it. [Laughs.] You know, because she was a hardcore drummer. She was the original drummer for the Beastie Boys. That incredibly fast, straight-ahead, hard drumming, that was part of her background, and that style is so not a part of my musical background, so it just seemed like the thing to do, to get her input on it.
Head to Toe was the final album that this lineup made, and you had J Mascis producing it. He commented on the EP’s songs saying, “They did a GBV toon (sic) [“Shocker in Gloomtown”] and a Sebadoh song about Lou hating me [“Freed Pig”].” Is it true that he didn’t recognize the Sebadoh song when you all first began playing it and actually encouraged the band to record it?
No, it’s not true. Kim already knew that she wanted to record that song. We had already decided before going into the studio with J that we were going to do that song, so we didn’t need any encouragement, if you see what I mean.
Why would you record a song slamming Mascis when you had him producing the album?
I think it was sort of a coincidence in a way. It just so happened that that was one of the songs that Kim wanted to record when we were going in to record, and J had been invited to produce it. It was a coincidence, oddly.
Did you know at the time of recording that the band was going on hiatus, or did that not become evident until after Lollapalooza?
We had no idea. We had no idea that that would be what would happen at all. Because, after we finished Lollapalooza, I think we were going to take some time off. It was September. We were probably going to take time off until after Christmas. That was the idea.
In an old interview conducted by Billy Corgan with you and Jim, you implied that the rest of the band must have forgotten the stresses associated with a festival like Lollapalooza, because they had played it the year before you did. Considering most festivals today are stationary, do you think that an older-style Lollapalooza is possible today, and would you ever want to re-experience that kind of touring?
Gosh… I don’t know. I do think Lollapalooza… it did have its own particular stresses, and pitfalls, and things that were difficult about it. It was largely because you were kind of trapped [laughs], if you know what I mean. A lot of the time the event was taking place in a field in the middle of nowhere. You would arrive after doing an overnight drive on the bus, and you’d wake up in the morning in the middle of nowhere. It’s not like you can walk around town or go and get coffee somewhere. It was a very odd way of living for two and a half months or whatever it was.
More so than when you are just doing a tour yourself?
Yes, for sure. Noon would be when the first band would start playing, and it would just be continual noise from noon until after midnight. Then you’d get on the bus and move on to the next place. It was uniquely wearing on the soul, I felt. The first month was really fun, I have to say, because it was a bit like camp. There were so many bands that you would see everyday, and it was kind of fun, but then the second month, it got to be a little bit tiring. I think these days, if one were faced with doing it again, I think you would have the benefit of hindsight of knowing that this is only going to go on for two months, and then it will be over. Whereas when you were in the middle of it, you were like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe that we’re doing this for another day.” [Laughs.]
In that same Corgan interview, he made mention of how making videos is boring. I don’t know if you agree with that sentiment or not, but if you do agree that making videos is boring, working with Kim Gordon [director, “Cannonball” video] had to make it a little less so, didn’t it?
Oh, for sure. Yes, it did. I think that that was a really inspired idea on Kim Deal’s part to ask Kim Gordon to do it. It was so interesting to see. Even if somebody else had come up with the same ideas, you might have felt differently about them. But because it was Kim Gordon coming up with them, you were naturally predisposed to think, “Oh, that’s a good idea.” You know what I mean.
Totally. Yeah, they are kind of gods in their own little way.
What kept you from returning to The Breeders when Kim revived the name in the late ’90s?
It was a combination of things. By that time I had been living in New York for a couple of years. I made another album of my own. I recorded that album for Vivian [Trimble] and Jill [Cunniff] called The Kostars [actual title Klassics With a K; band is Kostars]. I set up a home studio and was very involved in recording my own stuff and was starting to get the idea for doing Dusty Trails with Vivian. It was partly because the last thing that we, that The Breeders, had done together was the Lollapalooza tour, which had been kind of stressful for all sorts of reasons, which are well-known. I was already thinking about doing other things and the idea of returning to that, and the possibility of that sort of lifestyle, and that set of stresses… I had moved on and was doing other things is really the answer.
Dusty Trails seems to be the post-Breeders project that’s gotten the most mileage, but I’ve noticed that you’ve also worked a lot with soundtracks and scoring. What draws you to create music for visual media?
I just really enjoy doing it. I really enjoy having a visual component to it and marrying the tones, and textures, and movement. It’s something that I get a huge amount of pleasure working with. In fact, I have just finished the soundtrack to a documentary. Literally, like, last week was the sound mix for that. That’s going to be in film festivals throughout this year. It’s called Built on Narrow Lands, and it’s a film about a group of modernist houses that were built in Wellfleet on Cape Cod from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. That’s a project that I’d been working on for about two years.
Your song “Order Coffee” from Dusty Trails’ self-titled album was written for and features vocals by Emmylou Harris. How did you connect with her?
It was because when Luscious Jackson recorded an album with Daniel Lanois, one of the sessions they did took place at his studio in New Orleans. He has a residential studio there, and Emmylou Harris was there at the same time that they were there. Vivian had met her, and she described to me how she would get up in the morning and have her cup of tea in the morning, and she could hear Emmylou Harris in some room in some distant part of the mansion, just singing.
I don’t know if she was doing vocal warm-ups or if she was practicing a song or whatever, and Vivian just thought that this was such a magical thing that it inspired her to write a song with the idea of asking Emmylou to sing it. That’s probably a gap of maybe two years or so before we worked on that song as part of doing Dusty Trails. At that, Vivian was like, “Should I call her? Should I call Emmylou and see if she’d be willing to come to New York and come to our studio and record it?” And I said, “Yeah, why not?” And so we did, and she did.
Did it take much convincing?
No! She asked us to send a tape of the song, which we did, and the next time she was in New York for whatever reason, she came by and spent the afternoon with us recording it.
From this conversation with you today, I’ve taken that you don’t like to necessarily look back and repeat things that you’ve already done. You’re a forward-thinking person. Have you ever entertained revisiting old projects like Honey Tongue or The Josephine Wiggs?
What do you mean by revisiting?
Maybe making another album or doing something with those people again.
Well, every time I see Jon Mattock, I see him two or three times a year when I go back to England, he says, “We should make another album.”
It’s almost 20 years since the last one. 1996.
Let me think, it was ’96, that’s right. Yes, I do think about it, and it’s always such a pleasure to work with him. He’s such a great person. Occasionally we’ll Skype, or he’ll send me an email and be like, “Isn’t it time we made another record together?” So I don’t know. [Laughs.]
After all this time, too, I can imagine, with the experiences you two have collected independently, that coming together would be a totally different result than 1996.
I’m sure that’s true. That’s exactly right.
So, are you excited to head out on the road for the Last Splash tour?
Is there any new music, potentially, for the band?
I don’t know of anything, no. [Laughs.] That is so not what anybody’s talking about right now.