Tuesday, July 28, 2015

FEATURE - Breeding New Art: A Conversation with Kelley Deal of R. Ring

Mike Montgomery and Kelley Deal of R. Ring (Photo by Chris Glass)

Those of us who came of age during the '90s Alternative boom will surely never forget the first time we saw The Breeders' “Cannonball” video on MTV. After the initial “what was that?” response to the visuals wore off, we were left with one pretty amazing song etched in our minds. Fronted by twin sisters Kim (of the then-disbanded Pixies) and Kelley Deal, the "Cannonball"-era lineup of The Breeders became one of the most successful and celebrated bands of the era. In addition to continuing her work with that group (which has sporadically reformed and released music since halting as a full-time unit in the mid '90s), Kelley has spent the last handful of years releasing some absolutely brilliant music with fellow musician Mike Montgomery (Ampline) under the name R. Ring. (Fun fact: Kelley lives in Dayton, Ohio, while Mike lives in Dayton, Kentucky.)

The R. Ring story dates back to 2010, when Misty Dawn Briggs of No More Fake Labels hit Kelley up to be a part of a Guided By Voices tribute record she was putting together called Sing For Your Meat. With fellow Ohio musicians The Buffalo Killers backing her up, she went to Candyland Studios in Cincinnati to lay down a cover of “Scalding Creek.” While there, she struck up a friendship with the studio's co-owner, Montgomery. Before long, the two were writing material together – giving each an opportunity to explore new things outside of their regular band environments.

“This is definitely our chance to do things that we can't do with our other bands because there are more people in our other bands,” Kelley explains. “The minute you get more people involved, it's just different. With this thing... it's like a mobile assault unit where you can just do quick stories and come back and make decisions really fast.”

One of these decisions was to present R. Ring's limited-edition releases in fascinating ways. While some artists are happy just to simply throw their tunes up on Bandcamp, R. Ring have released music housed in (among other things) wood blocks covered in grip tape (their cover of Devo's “Mr. DNA”) and Kelley-crocheted CD slip covers (Naked Salt). The band's more recent releases include split seven-inch singles with Kentucky-based garage rockers Quailbones and the Detroit-based band Protomartyr. Although Kelley has no problem with buying and distributing music online, she feels there is still a place in this word for something beautiful you can hold in your hands.

As she says, “Having music online and being able to download it at a moment's notice is great. It's sharing music, but's it's not really sharing art, is it?”

Of course, exploring the esoteric is nothing new to Kelley. While she is best known for her work with The Breeders (including their 1993 smash Last Splash), her history of unexpected side projects is downright mind-boggling. For example, did you know she once recorded a cover of Willie Nelson's “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” with Kris Kristofferson? It gets better: In 1996, she formed a supergroup called The Last Hard Men with Jimmy Flemion of The Frogs ( “the best guitar player I've ever seen,” she says), Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and none other than former Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach. As you'd expect, the band's lone eponymous album (initially released independently in 1998 in a 1,000-copy pressing and later reissued in a drastically altered form by Spitfire Records in 2001) is a gorgeous mindfuck. (Take a listen to their covers of Alice Cooper's “School's Out,” Rodgers and Hammerstein's “I Enjoy Being A Girl” and The Scorpions' “In Search Of The Peace Of Mind” or tracks like “The Most Powerful Man In The World,” “I Hate The Way You Walk” and “Spider Love.”) The band came to be while Kelley was spending time in Minnesota after a stint in rehab. She was flipping through a copy of Spin one day and came across a “where are they now?” article on Hair Metal bands that featured an image of Bach. Looking for a way to go outside of her comfort zone and work with new people, she got the idea to get in touch with the singer and pitch him the idea of doing something. Before long, the two were getting music together with Flemion and Chamberlin at Minnesota's Pachyderm Studios.

“It was super fun,” says Kelley of working with Bach on the album. “He's very charming, very enthusiastic. His voice is an amazing instrument. He's got a phenomenal voice; he really does.”

One time, Bach was on the phone with a friend when he handed it to Kelley.

“He goes, 'That's Slash,'” she recalls. “I said [to Slash], 'Are you still a junkie?' He said, 'No. Are you still a lesbian?' I said, 'What?' because I'm not. Where does that come from? But he was a very nice guy. It was a very funny conversation.”

Looking back, Kelley lovingly refers to the Last Hard Men project as “some quirky fucking art with four really sad people in a room together – four odd people who should not be there together playing music.”

Kelley's music trajectory is made even more exciting when considering that she was a basically a novice on guitar when she debuted with The Breeders on the Safari EP in 1992.

“I still have a problem playing open chords!” she says with a laugh. “The first time I ever played barre chords was for the video of 'Safari'! I'm looking down and going, 'Oh! Now this seems easy! This I can play!”

Although it has been seven years since The Breeders released a full-length album (2008's Mountain Battles), various musicians from the band's history continue to cross paths for interesting projects. Last year, Kelley joined up with Kim and original Breeders drummer Britt Walford (Slint/Squirrel Bait) to record the Steve Albini-engineered song “Biker Gone” as part of Kim's 7-inch singles series. The recording gave Kelley a new opportunity to re-connect with Walford, one of her favorite collaborators.

“[Britt's] always such a gentleman, and always such a gentle person, whenever I see him,” she says. “He's super supportive.”

She also remains intrigued by Walford's unique drumming style.

“It's not like a rhythm instrument; it's like a melody instrument with him because of what he plays and his selections in how he hits,” she offers. “He's playing repetitive drum melodies. He really sings on the drums. It's crazy. His choices are beautiful and simple.”

In addition to R. Ring's touring schedule, Kelley has been meeting up with the other members of The Breeders' Last Splash lineup (Kim, bassist Josephine Wiggs and drummer Jim Macpherson) as often as possible to work on new material.

“I know we're going to have an album,” she shares. “It's just a matter of when.”

For Deal, these get-togethers serve as brilliant reminders of what made this particular incarnation of the band so successful.

“We can't wait to see each other,” she says. “When we go to practice, we have to allocate an hour before we even start working because we're just going to talk... We really are tickled by each other and enjoy each other's company.”

As for R. Ring, Kelley says she and Montgomery plan to keep the music, art and fun coming.

“We both have degrees; we both could go get a job somewhere doing that kind of 9-to-5 thing and relegate any of this stuff that we love, are passionate about and makes life worth living to the weekends or nights,” she says. “We could do that, but I don't want to do that, and I know he feels the same way.”

R. Ring performs tonight at O'Brien's Pub in Allston, MA. More information is available here

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com