Kelley Deal is talking to the Scene via phone, and it's easy to tell that she's cool. Obviously, she's going to be cool — she's the guitarist for The Breeders, arguably the coolest cats of the alterna-rock era — but there's an unmistakable nonchalance about her that confirms it. The Breeders were never a band with a lot of pretense — their biggest hit, the generational high-water mark "Cannonball," is all fuzz and flat notes, crude solos and power chords — but it would be tough to begrudge them if they put on airs, considering that they are celebrating the 20th anniversary of Last Splash, one of modern rock's most enduring albums. But no airs here, no weirdness, no pretense. Deal is actually feeding her friend's sick dog as we talk — displaying just the same nonchalance that has kept Last Splash in rotation for 20-odd years.
What you likely already know but is clearly borne out by LSXX — the expertly executed, exceptionally thorough box set that hits streets May 14, the same day that The Breeders play Last Splash in its entirety at Cannery Ballroom — is that Deal & Co. were in fact the coolest. Where so many of their peers were brooding and self-righteous, where so much of the rock charts were annoyingly narcissistic, and where so much of the underground was hung up on being total blowhards despite their Clinton Era privilege, The Breeders, it seemed, could hardly be bothered to give a fuck. It becomes clear over the collected demos, singles, live tracks and liner notes that this was a band stumbling gracefully through the process of making records. This was a band making the most of an odd moment in musical history, one where the slacker rebels were still allowed to run things.
"At our first concert, basically, Jim [Macpherson, Breeders drummer] asks, 'What are the black boxes?' " says Deal. "Isn't that hysterical? I didn't know that at the time."
Macpherson, it seems, was asking about the venue's monitors — those onstage speakers that allow a band to hear itself. Macpherson was recruited to play for The Breeders in 1992, and shortly thereafter, they went on tour opening for Nirvana.
"I'd known Jim, he was a player," continues Deal. "He was in a ton of local bands around town [Dayton, Ohio]. I had no idea he didn't know what a monitor was, what a drum wedge was. 'What do you put in there?' 'The band!' And I can just see Dave [Grohl] saying, 'the band,' just like that."
Spanning from 1992's Safari EP to '94's Head to Toe EP — the latter of which features a scorching punker of a lead-off track, not to mention Guided by Voices and Sebadoh covers — LSXX captures the innocence and naiveté of the anything-goes indie-rock explosion. Breeders frontwoman and Kelley's sister Kim may have been in the Pixies, but the Pixies weren't the all-caps, OMG-THEY'RE-LEGENDS Pixies in 1992 and 1993. They were just a sorta successful indie band taking an indefinite hiatus. The fact that Last Splash would go on to become a platinum record was hardly a given, but it's easy to see how it happened.
From the moment album-opener "New Year" shifts from lethargic to explosive, the album slides between hooks and noise, earworm choruses and crazy feed squeals, mountainous overdrive and sweetly ethereal vocals. It captures the most exciting elements of the early '90s, distilling the zeitgeist into perfect alt-pop nuggets on tracks like "Divine Hammer," "I Just Wanna Get Along" and "Saints." (Though it should be noted that the single version of "Saints" — the one from the video — is far superior, and for the nerd taking notes at home, it's included on LSXX.)
"These songs, we had been playing them and working them up — most of the songs — for a year-and-a-half," says Deal of the initial recording process. "Demoing them. It's not like we found these songs in the studio. It was a process, you know? It's work."
And that may be the best thing about LSXX: You can watch the evolution and the craftsmanship in what comes across as one of the most aloof records. You come to realize that the nonchalance and effortless cool were practiced and polished, and that all the chaos was carefully considered. And not in the "Let's send it to the focus group and see if it makes the album" version of "carefully considered" — the kind of careful consideration that pollutes the contemporary rock charts with a humorless, heartless, Ameri-tronic mess of MOR pabulum. (Last Splash, mind you, was issued right around the time when major labels began doing customer surveys in their new releases, which was essentially the beginning of the end for intuitive music promotion.) Last Splash is the last gasp of alternative music as an actual alternative to the mainstream, and LSXX celebrates that with a candidness, affability and sense of fun that is uniquely The Breeders' own.