A leading figure among female musicians on the alternative rock scene, Kim Deal was the bassist and occasional vocalist for the Pixies, one of the most influential bands of the post punk era. Deal's voice, equal parts fragile and ribald, offered a sense of delicacy and balance to the bullhorn shrieks of the band's singer and chief songwriter, Black Francis. Their five albums, released between 1987 and 1993, gave rise to such bands as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Weezer and countless others who employed their unsettling but often glorious aesthetic. Behind the scenes, however, Deal was locked in a struggle with Francis to get her own songs heard on the Pixies' records, which eventually led to their breakup in 1993. She subsequently formed the Breeders with her twin sister, Kelley, producing an unexpected hit with Last Splash (1993). However, the Breeders' time in the spotlight was short-lived following Kelley Deal's arrest for heroin possession, which set in motion a series of sporadic releases with several variations of the group between 2001 and 2009. During this period, Deal buried the hatchet with Francis and began touring to worldwide acclaim with the Pixies, though remained reluctant to record new material with the band. Kim Deal's tenure in two hugely popular bands from the early days of the alternative movement, as well as her fiercely independent nature, made her a role model for a generation of rockers, both male and female.
Born Kimberley Ann Deal on June 10, 1961 in Dayton, OH, Kim Deal and her identical twin sister and frequent bandmate Kelley Deal were the daughters of a radar physicist who worked at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Deal grew up listening to and often recording music while also enjoying a relatively mainstream, middle-class childhood, including a stint on the cheerleading squad at Wayne High School. By their late teens, the sisters had begun to record songs in their bedroom for a band they had formed called The Breeders. Deal put her musical aspirations on hold to try her hand at higher education, attending seven different colleges but graduating from none of them. She eventually received an associate degree in biology and worked in the cellular biology field. During this period, Deal met and married John Deal, an Air Force defense contractor, who moved with her to his hometown of Boston, MA in 1986. That same year, she answered an ad in the alternative newspaper The Boston Phoenix for a bassist whose musical interests included both the Midwestern hardcore punk bank Hüsker Dü and folk icons Peter, Paul and Mary. The ad introduced her to Charles Thompson and Joey Santiago, former University of Massachusetts Amherst students who were forming a band. With the addition of Deal and drummer David Lovering, who was a friend of Deal's husband, the Pixies began performing on the Boston area club scene and, in turn, helping to lay the foundation for the 1990s alternative rock movement.
The Pixies' first recording, Come on Pilgrim (1987), immediately established their unique aesthetic, which combined elements of punk rock, '60s instrumentals, the ethereal sound of '80s pop, and huge slabs of guitar riffs around the surreal, occasionally macabre lyrics of Thompson, who billed himself as Black Francis. The vocal interplay between Francis and Deal was also a key component to the Pixies' sound, with Francis' bellowing offering bullish counterpoint to Deal's plaintive tenor in a sort of odd approximation of harmony. Deal, who initially billed herself as "Mrs. John Murphy" before reverting to her given name for their breakout third release, Doolittle (1991), was largely relegated to backing vocals and bass, though she co-wrote and sang lead on one of the band's enduring singles, "Gigantic." The Pixies' first three albums established them as one of the leading groups on the alternative scene, as well as a tremendous influence on a host of later acts, including Radiohead, The Strokes, Weezer, Pavement and in particular, Nirvana, whose frontman Kurt Cobain admitted to copying the band's trademark song dynamic of loud, crushing guitars balanced by quieter instrumental passages for their game-changing single "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
But as the Pixies slowly worked their way up the music industry, tensions between Deal and Francis cast a pallor over subsequent projects. Deal longed to make a more substantial contribution to future Pixies albums, but Francis, who had placed himself as the band's leader and primary songwriter, rejected the idea. In an attempt to have her songs heard by the listening public, Deal teamed with Tanya Donnelly of the band Throwing Muses to launch a side project, which she named the Breeders after her teenaged band with her sister. The resulting album, Pod (1990), established Deal as an emerging songwriting talent, but the project put her at further odds with Francis, who fired her from the Pixies in 1990. After striking a truce with the other members of the band, she recorded their last two albums, Bossanova (1990) and Trompe le Monde (1991), which saw little to no contributions beyond voice and bass from Deal. Two years later, Francis announced the dissolution of the group, informing Deal and Lovering via fax.
Deal soon teamed with her sister Kelley, who replaced Donnelly in the Breeders, to release Last Splash (1993). A playful mix of Pixies-style noise and pop elements, the album generated a huge hit in "Cannonball," which in turn helped to make Last Splash an unqualified success. To the surprise of many, it was Deal who had become the star player from the Pixies and not Francis, who had again changed his name to Frank Black for a string of well-received but only modestly popular albums. Last Splash, by comparison, outsold not only Francis' solo work but also any of the Pixies' album. The Breeders were soon performing on the main stage at Lollapalooza, but their rise to the top was almost immediately halted by Kelley Deal's 1994 arrest for heroin possession. The Breeders then entered a period of extended hiatus, during which Kim Deal formed a new group, The Amps, for which she billed herself as Tammy Ampersand. The band's debut, Pacer (1995), was critically praised but sold few copies, and by the following year, Deal was back in a new lineup of the Breeders.
It would be nearly five more years before the public heard new Breeders material. By this point, the Deal sisters had recruited a whole new band to record their third album, Title TK (2001), which enjoyed only moderate acclaim. Three years later, Kim Deal defied industry and critical expectation by reuniting with the Pixies for a North American tour in 2004. Response from audiences, whose high school and college years had been set to a soundtrack of the Pixies, was overwhelmingly positive, and the quartet remained together as a touring unit for the next eight years. However, Deal refused to record new material with the band beyond a 2004 single, "Bam Thwok," which they initially recorded for the soundtrack to "Shrek 2" before releasing it through iTunes. Between jaunts with the Pixies, Deal and her sister released two new Breeders albums, Mountain Battles (2008) and Fate to Fatal (2009). In 2013, the Breeders' label, 4AD, announced the release of LSXX, a 20th anniversary edition of the Last Splash record. A reunion tour with that album's lineup of players was planned for the same year.
By Paul Gaita