When she’s not playing lead guitar in The Breeders, one of the seminal bands of the 90s, Kelley Deal is part of R.Ring, a two-piece band with Ampline guitarist Mike Montgomery. Deal is also famously the twin sister of Kim Deal, lead singer of The Breeders and former member of the Pixies.
A native of Dayton, Ohio, Kelley Deal worked a 9-to-5 job while her sister’s music career took off with the Pixies and then the Breeders in the late 80s and early 90s. Despite declining a chance to join the Pixies, as well as a chance at being an original member of The Breeders, Deal says she has no regrets. She eventually jointed the Breeders in 1992, right before its EP “Safari” and the album that launched the band to super-stardom, “Last Splash.”
A heroin addict since her teens, her drug use became public and problematic in 1994, after the success of “Last Splash” and extensive touring. A year later, Deal was involved in a drug bust, which put the Breeders on indefinite hiatus.
In rehab, Deal began writing her own songs and after rehab, formed The Kelley Deal 6000, which put out two albums before The Breeders returned in 1997. Since then, Deal has been sober and a consistent figure in The Breeders and since 2011, has also been playing with Montgomery in R.Ring, who will play The Empty Bottle on May 1.
The Chicago Ambassador recently chatted with Deal about R.Ring, The Breeders, and how she fell in love with knitting.
Interviewed by Bob Chiarito for The Chicago Ambassador.
CA) You return to Chicago May 1 to play The Empty Bottle. Any spots in town you like to hit?
DEAL) We usually are kinda stuck in a recording studio, usually in (Steve) Albini’s studio (Electrical Audio). But we also try to go to Second City. There’s a really good tamale truck near Albini’s place. There’s not a lot of food I want to eat. I’m really kind of boring when it comes to that. I’m not a foodie. You guys have really good thrift stores, so I scrounge around there.
CA) Did you record anything with R. Ring at Steve Albini’s studio?
DEAL) No, we have not. Mike visited and met Steve a couple times but we haven’t recorded there.
CA) R. Ring has been around since 2010. How did it come about? Did you know Mike Montgomery?
DEAL) There was a tribute album being done in honor of Guided By Voices (Sing for Your Meat) and I did a song called scalding creek. I used a local Ohio band called Buffalo Killers and we did it together. They knew Mike. We went to the recording studio to record it and Mike was there and over the course of working with them, he had some great ideas. He was easy to work with, funny and very charming. He can talk anyone into anything. He said something about playing a solo acoustic thing for a friend’s party and I said, ‘Oh, you should ask me.’ I didn’t actually mean it. Well, I kind of did but that was as far as it went. Then he was asked to open for a band that he knew and asked me to play with him. We played six songs, some were his and some were mine. When we first sent me his songs, the name of the artist was R. Ring. I asked ‘who is that guy?’ and he said it was a concept that he had for a long time about right-ring fingers, like on fingerprint identification cards, the right ring-finger is R. Ring.
CA) One thing I found interesting about you is that you’re really into knitting and even wrote a book about it. What’s the story behind that?
DEAL) I was on tour in Amsterdam in 1996 and I was sober, and I was so bored. This was before you had the Internet and smart phones and computers, and even good TV. There was rugby on one channel and something in Dutch on another channel that I didn’t understand and I couldn’t read anymore. I remember we were on tour with the Radar Brothers and the drummer’s girlfriend was knitting and I asked her to teach me. She did, and that became my new obsession. Especially on tour, it’s something fun to do and keeps your mind occupied.
CA) You sell some of your knitted items online, correct?
DEAL) I have an online store and I sell scarves. It’s kinda freaky, I go and find old sweaters and take them home. I tear them apart and wash them and shrink them and then I cut them apart and sew them back together and sell them as scarves. I name them so each one has this weird name, for example, one of them is called “Justine’s track marks” (laughter). It’s weird. People do weird shit.
CA) I guess that’s part of what makes you interesting.
DEAL) When you’re doing it, it seems so normal. But yeah, you’re right. People have all types of things that they are into.
CA) You were born and raised in Dayton, Ohio and you still live there. On your website it says that you’re a native of Dayton and ‘that’s all one needs to know about you.’ Is that more important to you than your music career?
DEAL) I don’t know. I think, without going into a bunch of stuff, it’s really like a beginning of a conversation about me.
CA) You and your sister Kim both had an opportunity to join the Pixies in the mid-’80s, with Kim on bass and yourself on drums. Kim followed through while you opted to move to California where you worked as a computer programer. Did you ever regret that?
DEAL) No. To be fair, it was to be their drummer because I had played drums all through junior high and high school. You can’t just sit down, at least I can’t sit down and play. You really have to practice. I didn’t feel confident enough that I could support a band with my drumming skills.
CA) When you joined The Breeders, they wanted you initially to play drums, but you insisted on playing lead guitar instead of drums when you really didn’t know how to play, correct?
DEAL) That’s correct. I don’t know, for some reason… with lead guitar, the scrawnier and stranger it is, the better it sounds to me. With drums, you can’t do that. You’re supporting a band.
CA) You actually had the chance to join The Breeders when they were making their first album but you couldn’t get time off work, right?
DEAL) Yes, that’s right. The second time I did.
CA) That was for which album?
DEAL) Safari, the EP. It still had Tonya (Donelly) and Britt (Walford) on it. I was an addition to it.
CA) I read that initially The Breeders felt like nobody would be into their music. Is that the same attitude with R.Ring? The reason I ask is because you’ve put out really limited releases of somethings — such as releasing 100 copies of a cover of Devo’s “Mr. DNA.” –Why such a small number?
DEAL) Because I’m in a rock band that’s a full band (The Breeders) and Mike Montgomery is also in a rock band (Ampline), when we come together and do our thing, it’s really kind of a quieter moment, in a weird way. We like to touch each item, we make all of those covers. Like, one thing that we did, Mike hammered out with little nails, ‘R.Ring’ on these CD cases. We also made these interesting liner notes. It’s more personal and hands-on.
CA) The fans probably appreciate that.
DEAL) I hope so. I don’t know what people like or don’t like. There’s so much music out there now.
CA) For people who only know you from The Breeders, what would you tell them to expect if they are going to see R.Ring?
DEAL) In Chicago we’ll have a drummer with us, but it’s very paired down. We are trying to make as much emotional, sonic music that we can, using the least amount of instrumentation. That can be be loud, however. In fact, we do a cover of “Ghosts” by Shellac… on acoustic guitars. We do odd things like that.
CA) The Breeders wrapped up a tour in 2014 and recorded some material. Any plans for an album release?
DEAL) We have all kinds of things. It’s not like it’s planned but we love getting together and making music. There are successes to that, there are some failures to that. We are working together on new music, yes.
CA) Does R. Ring get put on the back-burner if The Breeders start touring again? Does one group get precedence?
DEAL) It’s kind of worked out so far. R.Ring did a couple years of a lot of good stuff and then I had a year and a half with The Breeders. I feel like I get the best of both worlds. With The Breeders there’s a certain expectation and I’m a side man in that band. I play guitar and that’s it and I like that. I don’t lead the band. There’s a wonderful thing about that. With R.Ring, I take lead on a lot of songs. I’m more involved somehow. If something sounds weird, the only person I can look at is Mike, we have no one else to blame.
CA) You guys have release the EP “Rise” and the 7-inch “Fallout & Fire.” Any new releases coming up?
DEAL) Yeah, we have two things coming up. We have a spit single with a band called Protomartyr from Detroit. We also did a spit single with a band called Quailbones from this small little town called Murray, Kentucky, that has the coolest music scene. Everybody is in each other’s band, they write amazing songs and it’s really a vibrant scene there. I’m shocked every time I go there.
CA) You basically put out your own music.
DEAL) We are not looking or interested in signing with a label. Everything that we do is one-off. We do a record. There’s no point to it anymore, unless I’m missing something. Let me know if you find out what I’m missing. I don’t know what the point is, at least for what I want to do, which is to put out cool things and play interesting shows where we don’t have to rock people’s faces off. We just go and have a good time.
CA) You’re currently 53?
DEAL) Goddammit. Let me think about that..yes, I am 53.
CA) Seems like you’re ramping up instead of slowing down.
DEAL) I’m going along and feeling pretty good about things but sometimes I look around and say ‘Gee, where are the other 53-year-old ladies doing this?’ Besides Kim Gordon and my sister, there are not a lot of ladies doing this anymore. Sometimes I just go, ‘Am I doing anything inappropriate here?’ But then I think maybe I am but that’s ok too.
CA) I was going to ask, do you really care?
DEAL) No. As long as I’m having fun, I’m ok with it.
CA) Is it easier that you’re sober?
DEAL) Oh, hell yeah. Kim and I talk about this a lot. We ask each other, ‘Do you remember when we did all this? How did we do it all so impaired?’ It’s so much easier now, it’s really weird.
CA) Is it any more rewarding?
DEAL) I don’t want to negate the idea that it wasn’t fun. It was hugely fun, I had a great time. I’m not denying that. But I’m not looking to have that type of fun again. I had it, it was great, I’m done.