The Head of the Cult

Post-rehab and on sabbatical from the Breeders, Kelley Deal is still in search of bliss.

"When I was 16 I saw The Song Remains the Same--that's when I decided I wanted to do music." Kelley Deal takes a drag on a Merit Ultima 100 and looks to the rest of her band, flopped over furniture around her St. Paul living room. "Who didn't? Hello?"

"Umm," the interviewer ventures tentatively, blurrily recalling the movie's 23-minute version of "Dazed and Confused"--"it just put me to sleep."

The Kelley Deal 6000 erupts into disbelieving hoots. "YOU'RE NUTS!" mocks their ringmaster, the once and future Breeder, all flat Ohioan accent and teasing grin, "John Bonham is an artist--he paints with his sticks!"

"I just couldn't handle the fantasy sequences," the writer backpedals.

"I love those," bassist Marty Nedich says softly, peeking from the depths of a couch like a glam elf.

Suddenly the scene shifts into focus: Ah, yes, this band would be enamored of a load of magical-mystical goofery from some blissed-out riff merchants. Not only does their band name refer to an obscure New York-gone-Hawaii psychedelic cult (more on that later), but the group's debut album, Go to the Sugar Altar, traffics in addictive, intensely sensual visions with the cunning of a playground drug dealer (an egregious metaphor--more on that later as well).

These songs, in other words, are a couple cranks looser than the Breeders' usual friendly and far-out fare: born of the same family, sure, but a bit less tame, rather more impulsive, and definitely sexier. When the 6000 hit the 7th St. Entry stage for their CD release party, Deal announced that they would play the entire new album in order; "some of these songs," she warned, "you're never gonna hear live again, 'cause they're too weird." She didn't mean "Canyon," with its scarily imperious chorus, but guitarist Steve Salett exited his stuttered, broken solo laughing anyway. She probably did mean the souled-out "Sugar," which in its recorded version features luscious Hammond organ, treated fade-ins, and multi-tracked Deal vocals. Even so, Deal rode Nedich's and drummer Nick Hook's silky rhythm at the Entry like a spacey Bonnie Raitt, and before long the boys were yelling, "Kelley, Kelley, Kelley!"

The story of how the 6000 album came to be is also an account of how Deal found and solidified her simpatico band of non-native Twin Citians. For her first solo project outside of the Breeders, Deal entered Minneapolis's Terrarium studio last summer with St. Paul guitarist Jesse Roff, Grifter David Shouse, and Jimmy Flemion from the Frogs. Later, Nedich (born in Vienna, raised here) and Hook (Boston by way of Uganda) joined Roff and Deal to make Solid State. Contrary to previous reports, Deal did not steal Hook from locals Adjustable Boy; Hook's previous band had already self-destructed. Although, deadpans Deal, "I kinda liked that whole idea myself, that I come into town, take all these good musicians, break up all these bands--nice! Unfortunately, it just wasn't that dramatic."

Ditto this year's replacement of Roff with sweetly scruffy East Coast guitarist Salett (of local band Deformo). Solid State's original guitarist left, Deal explains, because he was more into jazz music and staying at home than playing and touring with a warped pop band; meanwhile, Salett still leads Deformo, a band that has since "stolen" from Deal by recruiting Hook. All these changes (including the compulsory abandonment of the already claimed "Solid State") inspired Deal to head back to the studio and redo things. "I almost put a chart here," she smiles, holding up the CD artwork, "of who played on what song and who recorded it and mixed it at which studio. Because it got real confusing."

For all the varied assistance, Go to the Sugar Altar is very much a Kelley Deal project. It's her pantheon of voices--little fairy choruses, big hollers, low growls, and sneers--that wrestle with each other across the songs. It's her mischievous delight in sound textures that sets the album's tone. "What are words?" she demands roguishly. "Yah da yah da yah. With music, you communicate far more with a guitar note not played, a guitar note hung just so long."

In the dining room of her house, 180 red velvet bags await promotional CDs: Deal has sewn them up to present her album to the world, like dresses for a girl's coming-out party. Which this is, in a way. Deal only came to Minnesota--sorry, was stuck on a plane and dragged here--to recover from a well-publicized heroin addiction. But sobriety has rapidly become less the main plot than the background to a thicker, knottier story.

"I didn't plan any of this at all!" Deal yelps huskily. "I had written one song in my life by myself, and that was when I was a teenager, and it was awful. When I was in treatment, I brought my acoustic guitar, and I started writing songs--songs that I actually liked and wanted to see how another guitar part would sound. Like, 'Oooohh, what would the drums be on that?' And I actually had lyrics that didn't make me think, 'oh god, this is so stupid!'

"I think I was able to focus more," Deal says, tapping out another Merit. "I don't know why it was really a big deal for me to do these things myself. Partly probably 'cause of having Kim for a sister--she's so talented. Maybe I never needed to do it, because she was doing it, and I did it with her." Deal's brassy voice quiets for a moment. "When she wasn't around, I did it myself. And that's good."

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