“Have you ever hung out at a party when someone starts picking up a guitar and playing blues riffs?” Kim Deal asks, describing one of her pet peeves and worst musical nightmares. “I would hide my guitar in the bedroom so no one could pick it up and start playing blues licks.”
The Breeders singer-guitarist is phoning from “beautiful, sunny Dayton, Ohio,” to talk about the curiously strange and enigmatic songs on the band’s fifth album, All Nerve, which was released in March by their longtime British label, 4AD. The record is The Breeders’ first full-length release since their epically moody 2008 opus, Mountain Battles, and it also marks the reunion of the group’s quintessential lineup — bassist Josephine Wiggs, drummer Jim Macpherson and Kim’s guitarist-sister, Kelley Deal — who last recorded together on their 1993 breakthrough album, Last Splash.
This reunited version of the band has been touring together since 2012, but All Nerve indicates that The Breeders’ new tour — which starts with a show at the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood on Thursday, April 5, followed by a concert downtown at the decadently elegant Theatre at Ace Hotel on Friday, April 6 — will be more than just a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
What got Kim Deal riffing about blues-noodling dilettantes torturing their fellow humans at parties is the new track “Blues at the Acropolis,” which, despite its title, doesn’t sound anything like the blues. “Drunks take a piss where heroes once bled out,” she sings solemnly in the song’s muted verse before the band kick in to a thunderous grunge-pop chorus.
“The song itself is about walking up to the Acropolis and being dusty and thirsty, and you finally get there, and it’s drunks and junkies and hearing some guy play Midwest Ohio 1979 blues licks. It was horrible,” she says about her first visit to the ancient ruins on a hill in Athens. “It’s also the tomfoolery of looking at something that’s gorgeous and tries to remind everybody about the majesty of mankind — and the junkies are right in front of me. … Mankind ain’t all that when I’m looking at the Arc de Triomphe.”
Ever restless, Deal tends to cut off her own sentences as she digresses from her own digressions, moving swiftly from the decline of Western civilization back to her Dayton hometown. “In Ohio now, fentanyl has hit. The morgue was considered too full to hold any other bodies, so they had to get the state to open up other places to hold bodies. These were just healthy people taken out by fentanyl.”
In spite of that grim reality, Deal still likes living in Dayton. Although former The Perfect Disaster bassist Josephine Wiggs commutes from New York, the rest of the group reside in Dayton. “Jim can ride his bike to my house, and Kelley lives just down the hill,” Kim says.
Coincidently, All Nerve was recorded in both Dayton, Ohio, and Dayton, Kentucky, along with several tracks that were engineered by Steve Albini (Big Black, Nirvana) in Chicago. “We started in Dayton, Ohio, and in one hour, one minute, drove across the river to Dayton, Kentucky,” Deal explains.
While The Breeders were recording in Kentucky, they were visited by Australian singer Courtney Barnett, who ended up adding backup vocals to “Howl at the Summit,” a dreamy but surging midtempo rocker. “We did a conversation with each other for a podcast and became pen pals,” Deal says. “She was playing a festival in Ohio, and we were in the studio in Dayton, Kentucky, and said, ‘Swing on by.’” Barnett dropped in and was game when Deal said, “Do you mind if we put a couple of microphones up, and we could try it?”
“Skinhead #2” is another song that belies its title. Rather than being a fast hardcore rant, the song is a slow but heavy contemplation powered by Wiggs’ hard, skeletal bass. “I need spit to crush these beetles on my lips,” Deal sings mysteriously before adding a few lines later, “Tough kids love sad songs.”
“I was thinking about … you see punks in a movie, and the credits will say ‘Skinhead No. 2.’ It’s the conformity of nonconformity, trying to show creative expression, but it can be reduced to being a typical punk or nonconformist,” Deal says. The former Pixies bassist and leader of The Amps admits to having “a gooey middle — I love sad songs; I cry over them. Even with a rough exterior, a punk can still be moved by a sad song.”
There are a few sad songs on All Nerve, including the romantically determined title track and the languidly poignant “Walking With a Killer,” as well as the achingly beautiful guitar shimmers of “Dawn: Making an Effort,” a spectral, enchanting ballad that bursts through the cold soil with the insolent rebellion of “raptured flowers.”
Most of the remaining songs rock harder, such as the sinuous “Wait in the Car” and the driving album opener, “Nervous Mary,” which concerns a woman who “runs for the exit, but she never got away.” About “Nervous Mary,” Deal says, “The melody was something I’ve been singing since the ’80s.” With ex–Guided by Voices drummer Macpherson’s starkly funky intro and Kim’s and Kelley Deal’s fuzzy stop-and-start chords, “Archangel’s Thunderbird” sounds like a vintage Breeders tune, but it’s actually the record’s one non-original song — a cover of German prog-rockers Amon Düül II’s 1970 psychedelic raver.
“Mostly, I bring everything in. Josephine brought in the music for 'Skinhead #2,’” Deal says about the songwriting on All Nerve. The British-born Wiggs sings lead amid the post-punk shadows of the aptly titled “MegaGoth,” intoning “Can’t come close” as if it’s a whispery, witchy imprecation. “Everybody thinks she’s saying, ‘Cunt, come close,’” Deal points out.
Deal decided that she wanted to play the foreboding bass part on “MegaGoth.” “I knew she would be cross with me,” Deal says about the song’s co-songwriter, Wiggs. “I handed her my Gibson guitar and said, ‘You can sing it.’” Apparently, Wiggs figured out the ruse and, according to Deal, said, “You were just doing it so I wouldn’t be mad at you.”
In addition to former Breeders guitarist Richard Presley, who collaborated on “Wait in the Car,” Deal worked with another songwriter on the loopy glam-pop baseball reverie “Spacewoman” — Whispertown’s Morgan Nagler. “I was living on Lyric Avenue in L.A., and … we would write together,” Deal says about Nagler. “She wrote about the ‘beach ball in the stadium,’ and it was just gorgeous. She heard what I added, and then she added more.” Reminiscing about a past Breeders tour with Whispertown, Deal says, “They had the shortest short-shorts ever onstage. I think she’s a really good singer.”
People sometimes forget that The Breeders were based in L.A. for a spell in the 2000s, when Kim and Kelley Deal were accompanied by guitarist Presley, bassist Mando Lopez and drummer Jose Medeles, so it’s perhaps fitting that they’re starting their tour with two consecutive shows in this city followed by a third concert in Santa Ana.
The Breeders appear with Cherry Glazerr and DJ Elijah Wood at the Fonda Theatre, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.; Thurs., April 5, 8:30 p.m.; $40. Also with Post Pink at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, 929 S. Broadway, downtown L.A.; Fri., April 6, 8:30 p.m.; $40. And with Post Pink at the Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana; Sat., April 7, 8 p.m.; $29.50.