It has to be one of the most iconic bass lines in alternative rock. As played by Josephine Wiggs, the opening salvo of the Breeders’ “Cannonball” – the sound of a solo bass riffing high and low in search of the correct note – made the song an instant classic when it was released in the early 1990s.
“Cannonball,” bolstered by a video kept in heavy rotation on MTV, was the centerpiece of “Last Splash,” the Breeders’ sophomore release that became their commercial breakthrough.
Prepare to feel old: That album turns 20 this year, and the Breeders lineup that played on it has reunited for a tour, including a sold-out stop at Royale on Thursday.
“I know. Think how [old] we feel,” says Wiggs, laughing, earlier this week from Dayton, Ohio, where she, guitarists (and twin sisters) Kim and Kelley Deal, and drummer Jim Macpherson were holed up in a final round of rehearsals. Wiggs has played a few shows with the Deals in recent years; otherwise this is the first time the “Last Splash” band lineup has toured together in 19 years.
The tour, on which the group will play “Last Splash” in its entirety, along with other songs, coincides with a deluxe new reissue of that album. Christened “LSXX,” the box set includes the original record; four EPs (“Safari,” “Cannonball,” “Divine Hammer,” and “Head to Toe”); a collection of demos, rarities, and radio sessions; and “Stockholm Syndrome” (a live album from 1994). It’s available as both a three-CD package or one with seven vinyl LPs.
Kelley Deal, also reached in Ohio, where she was doing laundry, says she was surprised upon revisiting “Last Splash” in preparation for the tour.
“I think the album has aged fantastically,” Deal says. “If you wanted to look at particular songs, you could cram them into certain genres, but the album as a whole, I don’t hear a genre. So much new music is dated so immediately. Whether or not this album is your tea of cup, it certainly doesn’t sound dated.”
The Deals, Wiggs, and Macpherson only recorded “Last Splash” together before disbanding in 1994. Wiggs insists there was no bad blood at the time: “It was just circumstances. It wasn’t planned. We took a break and never got back together again.”
Kim and Kelley would later recruit different personnel and release more records, including the band’s most recent full-length, 2008’s “Mountain Battles.” Could this reunited lineup lead to new music?
“Well,” Wiggs says, pausing. “You never know.” (That’s a squishy sentiment that Deal also espouses in her own interview.)
As popular and era-defining as “Last Splash” was, Deal says it didn’t necessarily become the Breeders’ albatross, the masterpiece they never surpassed.
“It didn’t because of a couple of reasons. The songs on the record are so good, that to think poorly of them, I just can’t,” Deal says. “It’s not like I’m traveling with [Mötley Crüe’s] ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ and thinking, ‘Oh, I have to perform that song again tonight.’ But the other thing is that I knew [critics] weren’t comparing our other albums to ‘Last Splash.’ They were comparing them to ‘Cannonball.’ ”
As for why “Last Splash” broke the band instead of its 1990 debut, “Pod,” back when the Breeders included founding members Kim Deal (who was still part of the Pixies) and Throwing Muses’ Tanya Donelly, Kelley Deal says that’s a mystery. She admits something jelled for the band on its second outing.
“I’m gonna say me, obviously,” she says, laughing, before making a distinction about how the two albums were made. The songs on “Pod,” which was engineered by Steve Albini and had an arid, minimal production, were never played live. That cemented the “closed-room kind of immediacy of that record,” Deal says. “Last Splash” was its flipside: The band made demos of the songs and played them live before recording them.
Deal also credits the album’s timing.
“At that time, it was when this kind of music was indeed taking over the charts. There was a whole new paradigm in music. No longer was it Paula Abdul and Michael Bolton. And then this groundswell from the people started moving from the college charts to the mainstream charts. We did indeed ride the tide of what was happening then.”
Wiggs says the band had no idea that “Cannonball” would blast off as its title suggests.
“During the mixing of the record, which is the final stage before the record gets released, that song was still called by its working title: ‘Grunggae.’ It was a joke about how the song was grunge but had a reggae lilt to it. Even at that late stage, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we’ve got this great song that should be the single.’ We didn’t know until it happened.”
For her part, Wiggs is downright modest about how legendary her riff became.
“The bass line is really just following the chords,” Wiggs says. “I’ll tell you what it is: It’s not very often in pop and rock music that you actually hear the bass guitar on its own. So when you do, and it happens to be the intro to the song, then people remember it.”
That riff, by the way, wasn’t planned. When Wiggs was first learning the song, she had forgotten the notes and accidentally didn’t go quite high enough on the neck of the bass and ended up a semi-tone flat. When the guitars came in, she noticed she was off and corrected the note, which gave the effect of a key change.
“That was something that straight away everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s great.’ We decided to incorporate that into the song,” she says.
Wiggs was amused when she recently discovered a treasure trove of YouTube videos of people playing the intro to “Cannonball.”
“I watched maybe 10 or 12 of them, and only one person was playing it right! There are so many ways to get it wrong, you wouldn’t believe it,” she says, adding that she even thought about making her own video to demonstrate the correct way but then reconsidered: “Why should I? It’s my secret.”