Label of Love – Me and 4AD: Part 3 Off Centre Strawberry

What is it about the start of Cannonball? How can something so quiet and unassuming make people lose it? Whether it’s a crowd of scenesters at a gig or a cabal of middle aged caners at a house party, the response is always the same. Why does Josephine Wiggs’ bass sound so good? How does that little percussive rattle make me shiver in anticipation? If any song was ever more than the sum of its parts, then it’s this one. And each part is fucking brilliant. Big indie hits from the 90s are overplayed. There was a time when the opening few bars of Smells Like Teen Spirit made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Heard it too many times now. There was a time when Killing in the Name Of made me want to start an actual revolution. Heard it too many times now. There was a time when Kill Your Television made me want to slam dance with the nearest grebo. Yep. Heard it too many times now. That hasn’t happened with Cannonball. It was on MTV all the time in the 90s. It got played at every indie disco in the land. It was played in my SU bar every day for three years. I play it at home at least once a month. It’s one of 6 Music’s sacred cows. Every fibre of my music snob existence wants to resist it and move on. I can’t do it. It’s too fucking good. It’s better than any Pixies song. The Breeders are better than Pixies. There, I’ve said it. My name is Fraser and I am a Breeders addict. Thank you.

By the time I bought Last Splash, I’d moved from tapes to CDs. So, the sleeve was a bit bigger this time. More to look at. This time, instead of a big central planet, there’s a slightly off- centre strawberry. It’s glistening red clashes and glares against a green familiar to anyone who used to drink Mad Dog 2020’s various dayglo fuckup juices. They are colours that are at once suggestive of a corporate grab at shelf space and sight lines, but also a clear attempt to satirise this very process. A sort of meta-marketing. The strawberry at the front is sharply defined. It’s red is speckled by black seeds and lit up the glare of an imagined flash bulb. It’s a strawberry but it could be mistaken for a sentimental heart from Valentine’s day or an organ plucked straight from a warm body. It’s friendly and frightening. It says come on in and it says I’ll fucking kill you. Behind the strawberry is a blurry and phantasmagorical miasma. It is as shapeless as the foreground is clear. As with Bossanova, the visual and the auditory are playing with each other. Last Splash is this same tug of war between commercial power chords and woozy psychedelia. Its clarity always sits against fuzziness. The two qualities swap places and then bleed into each other.

Perhaps more that any other bands talked about here, this blend of the strange and familiar is evident in Breeders’ videos. As I’ve already mentioned, Cannonball was a staple of mid 90s MTV running orders and the video is probably pretty well known by any indie kids of my increasingly rarefied vintage. On the surface, it seems nothing special really. It looks like little more than a filmed performance with some de rigueur alt-rock mucking about chucked in. But then you remember it’s directed by lo-fi whiz kid Spike Jonze and Sonic’ Youth’s dissonance-maker-in-chief Kim Gordon and your Spidey senses start tingling. Yes, it’s the band performing and having a chuckle at the same time but why is there a quick bit with Kim singing underwater? Is this about drowning in adulation? Motherhood? Addiction? Ooh, look now there’s an actual cannonball rolling down the street. Is this just literal or am I missing a metaphor? Or is this some kind of double bluff? Hang on, now that I’m thinking about it all, is this actually a triple bluff? A triple bluff running out of control down a road? Whaaaat? Ah, good, now we’re back to the band performing, I can deal (sorry…) with that. Wait, what’s happened to their clothes? Why is Kim’s hair doing that? Is the fancy dress some kind of comment on the new rules of performance in the newly corporatized indie world? But this is a well-financed video so how fucking dare they make such a smug comment while being guilty of the very same thing? Is this meta? I wish I hadn’t been so hungover in my last theory seminar. Come back triple bluffing cannonball. I preferred you after all.

The Cannonball video is certainly playful but, to get to the brilliantly offbeat heart of Breeders style humour, you need to watch what they did for Safari. The title track from the 1992 EP, Safari is a fucking magnificent piece of music. Kim’s vocal and her opaque lyrics sit against a rhythmic ebb and flow built on infectious bass and layers of deceptively complex but decidedly filthy guitar. It is hypnotic and it is rocking. It is funny and it is sexy as fuck. It’s meaning is ambiguous and it is clear as day. During an (excruciating) interview on MTV’s 120 Minutes that same year, Kim said that the song was about ‘love hunting’, adding that she was ‘probably the hunter, maybe’. It’s also, pub quiz fans, the only release by the band in which Kim’s twin sister Kelley plays alongside original Breeders member (and Throwing Muses co-founder AND leader of Belly) Tanya Donnelly (much more on Tanya in a bit). This is where the 4AD family tree gets all tangly. When Kim joined Pixies, Kelley was asked if she fancied being the drummer but turned it down and opted to stay in Dayton before going to LA to work as a computer programmer. Tanya joined Kim in the Breeders (as a side project to her Throwing Muses and Kim’s Pixies) and then, when she left to form Belly, Kelley became a full time lead guitarist. Except, and this is my favourite bit of 4AD trivia, she couldn’t actually play the guitar. No, she was a drummer.  A good drummer too. But she was hopeless at guitar. She was also working hard as a high security clearance level computer programmer and, in her own words, ‘a functioning alcoholic’ and someone ‘who had been shooting up heroin from the age of fourteen’. Quite a full to-do list, one imagines.

So, the video. It’s an indie museum piece. It has a line-up that would never be repeated. It has three members of 4AD royalty out front and, in Josephine Wiggs, one of the label’s most iconic bass players grooving along behind. It’s also a piece of high parody that shows that the band love rock n’ roll while also finding it all fucking hilarious. First of all, Kelley is in her work clothes. A grey suit and smart shoes. It wasn’t a prank or some sort of comment on art as labour. She had come from work. She carried on working while the band were touring with Nirvana. She was doing heroin and working in an office and playing guitar for the Breeders. Kelley Deal is hardcore.

The video is a parody of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. In the original, Ozzy and his pals take themselves very seriously. They play on a white circular space that has a big phallic pathway coming out of it towards the viewer. They are in front of a green screen that shows pictures of a scared looking bald figure with heavy eye makeup alternating with trippy close ups of the band members (double Sabbath). The foreground of the screen alternates superimposed close ups of band members being serious and a bit metal (triple Sabbath). It is reminder upon reminder upon reminder that rock music is serious. Musicians are a serious bunch. For a band that were fuck-a-doodled ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s remarkably po-faced. The Breeders don’t add much really. The set-up is the same. The relative positions of the band are similar (albeit with an extra Tanya thrown in). Kim’s stance is the same as Ozzy’s. Their performance has the same stilted quality. Kelley and Tanya look ever so serious about their guitars and Josephine looks like she might kick off any minute. It’s pretty much a carbon copy. Except that it’s really funny. The difference is Kim. She looks like the beginning of a smirk and the start of a chuckle are seconds away. It’s a pisstake and they all know it. Plus, their background has images of big gorillas on it. It’s homage and satire. They are a fucking great rock band who make fun of fucking great rock bands. It’s an insider joke and evidence of being on the outside. It’s serious and stupid. Those juxtapositions and blurred sensibilities so evident on 4AD sleeve designs are there in the video. You never quite know where you are with the Breeders and this makes them brilliant. Tanya’s guitar solo is a case in point. It’s the sort of sonic mess only a great musician can pull off. I am shit at the guitar and always sound shit. I could try to make a sonic mess and people would ask me politely to shut up. Tanya’s sonic mess is elegant and weird. It is both a piece of virtuosity and it is a pisstake of macho axe stylings. It comes from a place of originality yet speaks to deep knowledge of alternative culture. It’s glorious.

So, it feels like I’m getting closer to unpacking that plastic bag now. My relationship with 4AD is authentic because their take on music combines with my own hang ups and cultural sensibilities. I love rock music but also find it all ridiculous. I can’t stand anyone taking it too seriously. I hate anyone who doesn’t take it too seriously. I am a music snob but always want to tell music snobs to fuck off. All of this conflict means that, at my core, I am allergic to anyone who claims to get it. There is no single ‘it’ to get. I revel in subjectivity to the point of contrarianism. I change my mind minute by minute and change my story almost as often. There is no absolute truth out there and no musician, writer or punter can tell me otherwise. Everything is shades of grey. And green. And all of the other colours. It’s all a liminal blur and I love it that way. Binaries bleed into one another and things make sense as much as they are confusing. This is what 4AD communicate. Their sounds are artful, gentle, punkish and brutal. Their artwork is progressive and sentimental. It speaks to the comfort of familiarity and the terror of the new. It is all of these uncanny sensations that speak to me and mean that no two experiences are the same. I put on Bossanova and it sounds newer and stranger than the hundreds of other times I’ve heard it. I listen to Cannonball and hear a new gap in the song that I flood with ambiguous certainties. It speaks to the eager child in me as much as the exhausted adult. Its heroes are both of the everyday and of the rock n’ roll fairy tale. Tanya Donnelly more than most.