Photo: Monica Alford

The Breeders’ Kim Deal Gets Technical at SXSW

The highlight for me on day two of our SXSW adventures was getting to sit in the same room as the iconic Kim Deal as she fielded questions from audio engineer and frequent collaborator Steve Albini. Deal, the former bassist for the Pixies (her backing vocals on “Where Is My Mind?” are among the most memorable in the soundtrack of my youth) and frontwoman for The Breeders, was refreshingly honest and funny to boot during her one-hour chat with Albini on March 14 in Austin.

The two have known each other since the late 80s, when Albini worked with the Pixies on their 1987 album Surfer Rosa, and are clearly good friends in real life. Albini’s wife Heather, also a close friend of Deal’s, was side stage the entire chat and chimed in a few times, including to answer an audience member’s question about what Albini made her for dinner most recently.

This level of intimacy was captivating, and the packed conference room lived vicariously through the pair’s personal jokes and random asides, giggling along with them (the best was the music geek in front of me whose laugh was a literal “Hah-HAH” that definitely belonged to a Family Guy character). Much of the conversation felt like it could’ve just been the two of them in the room, rather than a SXSW panel. One memorable moment of banter came when Albini said, “I don’t know what the f–k you were doing in New York” in the middle of a question, and Deal replied, “Drugs, probably.”

Witty quips aside, for those of us who love her music but don’t spend time in the studio, the conversation got a little technical after about 20 minutes. Albini started with biographical questions, weaving from Deal’s childhood in a West Virginia “holler” (including a heartbreaking story about her mom being bathed in lye as an infant and dropped in a shoe box on someone’s doorstep) to her move to Boston with her “transient” husband to her roles in the Pixies (she was the epitome of amicability when discussing the band’s split and her working relationship with Black Francis) and later, The Breeders.

But at a certain point, the chat became more about sounds they created together in studio, or questions they had for one another on the same topic. Not to say that wasn’t interesting, but I think some of us in the audience were hoping for a little bit more about her life and career – the kind of stories that make famous musicians and rock icons more relatable to their fans.

It was fascinating (to me, anyway) to hear about Deal’s sister Kelley (also in The Breeders) bringing her sewing machine into the studio, which led to the song “S.O.S.” beginning with the sounds of a zipper stitch. And later, a self-deprecating Albini saying how mortified he was by how many of his fingerprints you can see on Surfer Rosa (the two were discussing the Pixies’ intentional chatter between tracks on the album, something Albini had pushed for). He said he’s learned since then to remove his aspirations from other people’s work, but Deal dug his lasting impact on the record: “Thank God you did that [i.e., worked on leaving less fingerprints] after our album.”

But conversations about metronomes and other more technical topics left my eyes glazing over, even though it was still bucket list for me to be there. At the end of the hour, the pair answered some lackluster audience questions and Deal had some kind words to say about Albini. All in all, I was thrilled to be at the panel, but would love to see Deal speak again if the opportunity presents itself – this time, hopefully with more details about her experiences outside of the studio.

Learn more about Kim Deal and her music projects here.