ROCK: Going underground

Kim Deal found fame with the Pixies and the Breeders. Then everything fell apart. Ben Thompson hears what happened
WAY BACK in the early Eighties, before she sold her soul to rock'n'roll, Kim Deal used to be a biochemist, analysing bodily fluids for a living. "I couldn't go back to that now," she says gingerly, "too much blood." First with Boston's warped and mischievious Pixies, then as leader of her own great group, the Breeders, and now with the life-affirmingly raucous bar-band the Amps, Deal has been a key figure in American guitar music over the past decade. There's been too much blood in that field too, recently.

Two years ago, the Breeders were touring with Nirvana, their brilliant second album, Last Splash, was on its way to selling over a million copies, and America seemed to hold all the musical aces. The subsequent rise of Brit-pop, however, coincided with an era of disintegration on the other side of the Atlantic, with Kurt Cobain's suicide only the highest profile of a number of grisly drug-related demises. The complexities of the Breeders' current situation - Kim and drummer Jim Macpherson together with two home- town pals in the Amps; bassist Josephine Wiggs off making records with her girlfriend, Kate from Luscious Jackson; and Kim's twin sister Kelley just emerging from judicially prescribed drug rehabilitation after a major heroin bust - are symptomatic of a general state of disarray.

If there's a message in the gleeful 33 minutes of melodic fuzz that is the Amps' debut album, Pacer, this is it: sometimes you've just got to put your faith in electricity. Kim Deal's excitement veritably crackles down the phone line from Hamburg, where the Amps are about to play their fourth headlining show. "The tour's going great," she enthuses in an emphatic nicotine-roughened drawl not a million miles from Lucy in Charlie Brown. "Last time we came to Europe we were playing in big places that were sold out, you know - we had merchandising, we were in buses." An ecstatic pause. "Now we're in a van!"

Van nostalgia is, on the face of it, an unlikely concept, but a lot of underground American bands don't seem to have been too comfortable about going overground. "I'm glad you noticed that," Deal affirms. "I thought it was just me ... I don't think it's direct - this happened, I reacted - it's just the way things turned out." It is probably no coincidence, though, that much of the most interesting American rock music made since Nirvana unwittingly turned the alternative into the mainstream has been wilfully obtuse.

Deal doesn't quite bracket the Amps with the murky "lo-fi" sound pioneered by groups like Sebadoh and Guided By Voices - "We're more medium-fi," she observes - but the band's fuzzy attack is definitely a reaction to the generic crispness of so much current American rock. "I think the main problem is that when something becomes popular, record companies will sign anything that sounds remotely like it."

What does that mean for the layman? "The production style is always very punchy, very organised. When the guitars come crashing in, they do it in a way that's almost ..." A pause follows while Deal strives for the right word, finally settling on a telling two-punch combination of "anal" and "military". Another pause. "I just thought that maybe something that didn't have so much muscularness would sound refreshing." Caught up in the breezy momentum of Pacer - the cheery swagger of "Bragging Party", say, or the Beach Boys chug of "Dedicated" - it is easy to hear what she means.

The Amps' album started out as Kim Deal's solo record. She was going to play everything on it and even taught herself rudimentary drum technique. Demos were recorded alone in Kim's basement in the no-horse town of Dayton, Ohio (now the world-renowned home of the Bosnian peace accord!). Then fate stepped in, in the awkward guise of Kim's twin sister's drug problem. "I thought, 'I should get her involved because then she won't want to do drugs anymore because she'll be too busy in the studio' ... Well duh! Like that's ever gonna happen."

Kelley Deal was shipped off to a 12-step programme, and local hell-rasiers Nate Farley and Luis Lerma were brought in to make up the numbers. Thankfully, the bond between the sisters seems to have survived this potentially fatal blow. "Yesterday was Thanksgiving, so I called her and she's doing great - she was making green beans in a pressure cooker and all her recovery friends thought she was gonna explode the house. She said, 'There's one crack addict, one alcoholic and three heroin addicts' - and I said, 'Oh, it's a salad of recovery people'."

Just to make things even more complicated, Kelley apparently likes her recovery friends so much that she has started a band with some of them. Is the plan with the Amps to carry on as long as it's fun and then see what happens? "There's not really a plan," Deal admits, somewhat ruefully. "Actually that sounds like a good plan - what you just said."

! 'Pacer' (4AD, CD/LP/tape) is available now. The Amps tour this week: see Going Out, page 92.