Kelley Deal and her twin sister, ex-Pixie-turned-head-Breeder Kim Deal, are anomalies among alternative-rock royalty: They enjoyed popularity in high school and positive relationships with their parents. So why would the lesser-known of the sisters be the focus of one of the past year's more publicized descents into drug abuse--a slide that culminated in a felony charge and a deliberate intervention? In an effort to dismantle a particularly popular stereotype, Deal asserts, "Addiction has no demographic. So-called well-adjusted people just try harder to keep up the facade."
Stories of musicians staggering into and out of rehab have become redundant in light of heroin's current vogue and ubiquity. The details, though, float in a realm of rumor, lending said performers an aura of torment and fragility. Few choose absolute sobriety as an ending for this well-worn rock-and-roll script, and fewer still attempt to demystify the process. Kelley Deal represents a different breed; she lacks the vanity that leads others to glamorize narcotic oblivion. But there's a price to pay for her approach. The monkey on her back has received more attention than Deal's current band, the Kelley Deal 6000.
"Isn't it awful?" she winces when asked about the horse ballyhoo. "What's weird about the drug publicity is that I didn't do any of it. I didn't orchestrate anything--nothing was premeditated. So I'll do what I want when it comes to answering questions about it.
"People know me from the heroin arrest and from playing in the Breeders," she continues. "That's all they know me from, just like people knew Kim from the Pixies. What else are we going to talk about? My tennis abilities? They don't exist. Drugs were a big part of my life, and recovery is a huge part of my life right now, so you couldn't get more relative."
The same can be said of Go to the Sugar Altar, the Kelley Deal 6000's debut--and fortunately, the sheer quality of the album (it surpasses the recent platter by the Amps, Kim's side project, in terms of scope and strangeness) should give people something else to talk about with Kelley. In a strange twist on the myth that drugs open the gates to creativity, Deal's residency at Minneapolis's acclaimed Hazelden rehabilitation clinic furnished the stimulus for the project. The combination of sobriety and isolation there proved providential, for once Deal's chemical and psychological fog cleared, she says she discovered a wellspring of verve and the focus to channel it.
After Hazelden, Deal moved to a halfway house in St. Paul, where she met drummer and guitarist Jesse Colin Roff and shared with him the songs she'd written in the privacy of her clinic room. Shortly thereafter, she joined Roff, the Grifters' David Shouse and Jimmy Flemion of the Frogs in Minneapolis's Terrarium recording studio. Sugar Altar was consummated within the month, and Deal followed up its completion by touring in her dad's RV with the Grifters and Red Red Meat and recording "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" with Kris Kristofferson for a Willie Nelson tribute album, Twisted Willie. As a kid, Deal thought Kristofferson "was cute, but he was too old for us even at the time. But my mom--oh, my God, she thought my singing with Kris was the best thing in the world. We were doing it in L.A., and she lives in Dayton. But I remember telling her, and I remember her seriously saying, 'Oh, you know, maybe I could go to L.A....' This from a woman who hates to fly."
Although Deal is an avowed fan of Nelson's, she musters just as much enthusiasm for the Frogs, whose music she characterizes as "beautiful songs, beautiful instruments, songs dealing with prejudice and stereotypes." She concedes that the band is an acquired taste; for example, the tune "Hot Cock Annie," from the Frogs' first disc, It's Only Right and Natural, features the lines, "She's the one with the cock and vagina combined/Get her from behind." Still, she's so committed to the combo's vision that she plans to issue Racially Yours, a CD that gives racism the same controversial treatment that homosexuality received throughout Natural, on her own Nice Records imprint. (Nice is also putting out Sugar Altar; Deal opted to handle it herself, even though Warner Bros., Rykodisc and Sub Pop each offered her a contract.) "I want to be your tour guide when you go check them out," Deal begs. "You have to take the Frogs gently and keep an open mind."
A friend of Flemion's for years, Deal recounts their initial meeting in a club. "This guy--I offered him a drink, and he said he didn't drink. So I started talking to him about the fact that he didn't smoke pot, drink or do drugs, because at the time that just blew my mind. I was like, 'What do you do?' Especially to find out that there was this underground of people who didn't do drugs--are you kidding me? That's not possible. You do drugs to be wild and crazy, and here are these people who are totally sober and they're still insane: talented, off-the-wall, creative, and did what they wanted."
The list of adjectives she reserves for her heroes could also apply to the Kelley Deal 6000. Unlike her sister, whose smokey, girlfriend voice we've come to love despite its limitations, Kelley's multiple vocal personalities buck expectations; she can croon a smooth R&B come-hither, launch a ragged caterwaul or sound just like Kim when the hook demands it. The music, meanwhile, encompasses an even greater range of incongruent oddities, including slide guitar, a sleazy organ and a tinkling music box. Without trying too hard, Deal is carving out her own niche, all the while wandering like a lost child on the midway. "There was this one riff that I was doing on the bass, but it started to sound like 'Pacer' [by the Amps], so I haven't really done anything with it," she reveals. "On the other hand, I was writing a song the other week, and I found myself rewriting 'Easy Come, Easy Go,' by Bobby Sherman, and I was singing something in Cher's voice. I thought, 'Oh, my God! I suck so bad!' I'm not just super-sensitive to sounding like Kim. It's if something reminds me of anything I've heard."
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Lyrically, Deal touches on certain aspects of her drug ordeal, but not from the angles one might expect. The sweat-slinging "A Hundred Tires" references an unsavory job she was delegated at the halfway house, while the Pixies-colored "Canyon" reminisces about a crack addict Deal met in jail; at the time of her arrest, the young woman in question was found passed out on the floor, a dog eating an unswallowed sandwich from her mouth. As for "Head of the Cult," a transcendent, bass-bouncing number that sports a spooky, ethereal refrain ("Arica... Arica..."), it draws from a convergence of cult information. "I was reading the Illuminatus trilogy, which you should not do if you go to treatment, because it talks about smoking pot and having sex a lot," she says. "So I didn't get very far, because it was too depressing. Then, in the halfway house, I met this guy whose brother started the Arican cult. They have the chakra centers of oth, poth and koth, and different states of awareness, and basically free love and smoking a lot of pot. I thought, you can have a cult about anything, can't you? On the lyrics, I made sure not to put 'god' in capital letters, because it's so arbitrary."
The daughter of an atheist physicist and a Pentecostal hausfrau, Deal initially balked at the twelve-step program's religious precepts. "I looked around at all this God stuff, and I was just like, 'Where am I? Get me out of here! Are you people nuts? Some big cult?' It took me a long time, even after the halfway house, to get a handle on the higher-power thing. I had to think in my mind of this big misty cloud. Now I really don't have a definition. It's not God, per se, but a concept that's vague but workable."
Deal's personalized version of a greater plan has benefited her musical career both by giving her a leg up on her self-described "pesky addiction" and by providing perspective. "One idea that really made an impact on me is that it's my time to bloom, grow and die. If you think of it in those terms, everything that I do and everything that you do is so insignificant. We're on earth for how long? Whoop-de-shit, you know? Are you having a good time? Do you have great relationships? It makes you try to achieve your goals, keeping in mind that the journey needs to be as fulfilling as the destination."
The Kelley Deal 6000, with Zoe. 10:30 p.m. Saturday, July 28, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $6-$7, 294-9281.