The Head of the Cult

"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."

As Deal tells it, the pattern of who led and who followed--at least musically--was set in her family early on. Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, she says, "Me and Kim used to go to truckstops and bars, saloons; she played guitar, and we sang. We played Hank Williams songs, we played Bonnie & Delaney songs, we did an Elvis Costello song, we did lots of [Kim's] originals." Then Kelley went to L.A. to work as a computer analyst for Hughes Aircraft, where Kim planned to join her. Instead, Kim married, moved to Boston, and answered an ad that led to the Pixies.

As legend has it, Kelley learned how to play the guitar in the month after Kim called her up about a vacancy in her own band, the Breeders. Who, though they've been on hiatus since Kim harried her twin into treatment, are still very much a living entity. Kelley spent a week in April touring with Kim's garage band the Amps out in California, hanging out and singing with her sister. "The Breeders aren't broken up," she states firmly. "The Breeders are not broken up. Kim and I are talking about doing some writing soon. The Amps are doing festivals in Europe the month of July, and then in August we'll maybe spend a couple weeks in Dayton to play with [Jim] MacPherson, the drummer, and Josephine [Wiggs, the Breeders' bassist]."

Meantime, the Kelley Deal 6000 has an album to support and a summer West Coast tour set up with Cakelike. Has there been any readjustment of power within the Breeders camp, now that Kelley has her own publishing deal? "It's interesting that you should ask that," drawls Deal. "Because, I kind of tested those waters this past week"--she pauses for comic effect--"and the answer would be 'no' on that." The band laughs; Deal smiles ruefully. "And it's OK--it really is OK--I just have to see how that's gonna work for me and put it then in its place."

But she will be writing with Kim? "Yeah, if I'm there and want to do that. I don't know. I felt like I cowrote with Last Splash but... apparently, she didn't. We were down in the basement for a year; I mean, I wrote parts and stuff like that. You write a solo, and she takes it and uses it for the melody--I think that's cowriting. I don't know, maybe it's not."

Watching the 6000 practice in Deal's St. Paul basement, the writer guesses that the Breeders' commander-in-chief may eventually run into a smidgen of insurrection. Because Kelley--without being boorish about it--is quite clear about what she wants to hear. She instructs relative newcomer Salett on his guitar and effect settings, straightens some confusion about a particular song structure, cheerleads the band through the set. "It's really weird," muses the benevolent dictator, "when you work with people that are really good, they have really great ideas, but it's almost like, 'OK, save that... this is something different.'

"They have so many ideas, we have a problem practicing the set," Deal says affectionately, "'cause we always start messing around." Future 6000 compositions, she jokes, will have quicker tempos, because Hook and Salett are erstwhile punkers and Nedich is a recovering--"Can I say it?" she asks and gets a nod--crackhead. "So they're up here, and I'm this: 'Waaaiiiit, let's just slow down more,'" she says, her voice going bourbon syrupy.

At this point, the interviewer can only shake her head, amazed at how up-front Deal is about a subject that even rock & rollers like to keep out of the newspapers.

"Why wouldn't I talk about it?" Deal wonders earnestly. "What would it be saving? Ohhhh, drugs?" she oozes archly, channeling Greta Garbo, "I don't wanna talk about it. That would be more of statement--using it as some sort of personality thang or piece of mystery. Where it's not about that at all. It's about"--she starts slapping her knee in time with the words--"I am a drug addict, I love drugs, loved 'em since I was 14, been arrested, felony, sent to treatment. I've had a lot of consequences. I'm not that precious about it."  

So what's a pragmatically sober person doing naming her band after a hippie cult, which, as Deal describes it, seems to focus on attaining "higher" spirituality through drugs and free love? "In the halfway house, I met somebody who used to be in the Arican cult. And when I was in treatment, especially at the beginning, AA seemed like such a fucking cult thing--there's all this God stuff everywhere. My dad is a physicist, my mom is Pentecostal Holiness, the two do not meld. I don't have any idea about God. I'm just so confused about the issue. So for me to just open my heart up to 'God,' or 'how you understand it'... thing is, I don't understand it, don't want to really."

"But, in Arica there are states of ecstasy?" the interviewer asks, seeking a connection.

"Yes, states. Very good," praises the singer, in schoolteacher mode. "State three is like total serenity."

"Solid state three," corrects Salett.

"Well, I just put 'solid' on there," Deal admits.

"Oh, wow!" the guitarist exclaims. "I've been telling that to everyone!"

"Whoops. They go up to state 6000, although I don't know" she ponders sardonically, "Is it per bag of pot smoked or something?"

"So state 6000 is bad?"

"Yeah, actually," grins Deal, resembling a less bitter (and thinner) Roseanne Barr. "I just found out that 6000 is the ultimate state of pettiness."

The Kelley Deal 6000 cracks up. CP

The Kelley Deal 6000 perform at First Avenue Friday; see Music Notes (p. 28) for details.

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