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Throwing Muses

Throwing Musesinterview by Frank Andrick

I didn't realize how bored and frustrated I was because it (the previous line-up of the Muses) wasn't doing exactly what I wanted it to. And I didn't even know it. I had slowly stopped caring, lost some of my focus and some of my emotional involvement.

--Kristin Hersh

At the time of their debut release, the eponymously titled, Throwing Muses, the band's line-up was Kristin Hersh: 19 years, pregnant, plays lead guitar, lead singer most of the time, junior in college, philosophy major, psychology/art minor, swims all day long, lives in Newport, Rhode Island; David Narcizo: 19 years, drums and percussion, played in a marching band, has no job as yet, lives in Newport, has two insane basset hounds and is a cowboy; Leslie Langston: 23 years, was discovered in the corner drugstore deli, awesome bass player, once lived in California, now lives in Boston, once played in a punk band, funk band, Portuguese polka band, reggae, orchestra, hardcore group and acid rock group, etc; and Tanya Donelly: Called Tea, lives in Boston, plays guitar and percussion, backup vocals, sings songs she writes, works at a bakery.

If for no other reason, this Boston/Providence quartet will have earned a place in music history for being the first American band ever signed to the exclusive British 4AD label. An eclectic blend of jerky guitar pop and Kristin's hiccuping singing, Throwing Muses bears no resemblance to any other group or artist in recent memory. Their first album is startling; attribute the uniqueness to Hersh's remarkable vocals on "Hate My Way," "Green" and "America (She Can't Say No)."

Truly one of a kind. With fewer twists and turns than the songs on the preceding album, the four tracks on Chains Changed somehow have even more impact. College radio airplay and critical acclaim prompted Sire Records to sign Throwing Muses and release The Fat Skier. Six songs on one side and a nearly-nine-minute seventh ("Soul Soldier") on the flip. With one-time Violent Femmes producer Mark Van Hecke behind the board (the first two records were produced by Gil Norton), the record is considerably less striking than the band's prior output, though it is still distinctive.

House Tornado amplified the problems of The Fat Skier, as songs run into one another with a minimum of musical variety. What was, upon inception, avant-garde had become static and predicable. As we'll see in the following interview conducted recently in San Francisco with founder and chief songwriter Kristin Hersh, there was a reason for those particular Muses records not quite being there. Now, with a fresh lineup and a renewed sense of musical mission on the current Red House, the Throwing Muses are back on track with a great record. The band now consists of Kristin Hersh on guitar and vocals, as always; David Narcizo, the original drummer; and former roadie Bernard, on bass. Tanya Donnelly left, was briefly in the Breeders, and now has her own band, Belly, which has released a 4-song EP on 4AD. The album has been recorded and will be released in early '93. Leslie Langston first joined Wolfgang Press, then went back to the Muses and recorded Red Heaven, and now she's in Belly with Tanya.

Throwing MusesWe interviewed Kristin on the Throwing Muses tour bus outside the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco. It was before their sound check and Germ and I shared orange juice and tea with Kristin, her husband Billy O'Connor, drummer David Narcizo, a teddy bear and a baby.

Q: How did this tour with Bob Mould's Sugar come about? I understand you've also been doing smaller club dates on your own with the Flaming Lips opening for you.

KRISTIN: We started on our own tour and just met up with Bob Mould for the West Coast leg. We’ve had the Flaming Lips open for us all over the United States prior to the West Coast, and we will hook up with them again in New Mexico. We did England and Europe first because records happen so quickly and die so quickly there. We brought Pond (along with us on that tour)—they're a new Sub Pop band (the Seattle label that launched Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney...), three kids from Alaska, real great, actually good songwriters. We wanted to make sure we hooked up with Sugar for a while so that we could play great places along the West Coast.

Q: On the new album Red Heaven Bob Mould duets with you on the song "Dio." How did that come about?

KRISTIN: I had written "Dio" and knew that it needed another sound—I think I start to produce things in my head soon after they're written. I guess I figured it would be some crazy fuzz-boxed guitar swimming through the song. Something to give it a little loose energy, you know. Bob (Mould) showed up at a video shoot of ours, and I thought, "Ooh, that's what it needs."

At the time I wasn't expecting to be in a band. The machines in my brain were still working on the songs. Then, when it all came together and I realized that we were doing another Throwing Muses record, I just called Bob and asked him if he did stuff like that. I had never heard him sing on someone else's material. He has such a raw, literally acoustic sound to his voice.... Well, the voice is obviously an acoustic instrument. It's almost as if he sings chords and his voice just flies all over the place. I really wanted that sound on that song. He was actually excited about it, which I didn't expect because he's shyer than I am, usually. He just walked into the studio, kind of turned it on and turned it off again. He was so good that I had to recut my own vocals so he wouldn't show me up on my own record.

Q: Every time I give or play the new CD to someone, the song "Pearl" really stands out and gets noticed and mentioned by women. Can you tell us how that song came about? What suggested it?

KRISTIN: I was with the band on tour in Vancouver, Canada. We actually booked a camping trip and we wanted to camp outside. We were real excited about it. We sent our roadies—Bernard, our new bass player being one of them at the time—we sent them driving our equipment on ahead and we were going to fly and meet up with them later for the next show. So they dropped us off in Vancouver where we were going to go camping. As we were waving good-bye we realized that our tent and all our camping equipment was still on the truck. So, we were stuck for a week in Vancouver for no real reason at all. I wrote "Pearl" over the course of three days. It was driving me crazy, I couldn't figure out why there were two people talking about each other. I couldn't figure out what they were trying to say. I just couldn't get the song out (in a way that it] stayed together and made some kind of sense. The label manager at Sire Records, which just happened to be my future husband, coached me through three days of this song, saying things like, "Forget about it. Stop thinking about this song and it will just happen." Then, I'd scream stuff: "Well, in order to stop caring, I have to care enough to stop caring, and I can't make it happen." Eventually, it did happen, but it didn't end up on the next record or the one after that. It finally came together with this one. I think it needed a power trio treatment.

Q: What was it like going into the studio for you with this Muses record with a really changed personnel? Previously, the band had had a very stable lineup.

Kristin HershKRISTIN: It actually didn't feel very different, and at the same time it felt like I had started a band because I started the band so many years ago it was something that I had gotten used to. I didn't realize how bored and frustrated I was because it (the previous line-up of the Muses) wasn't doing exactly what I wanted it to. And I didn't even know it. I had slowly stopped caring, lost some of my focus and some of my emotional involvement. I saw things go down on records that I didn't agree with, and then didn't do enough about it. The band kind of fell apart, and that's what should have happened. In the course of a year or two that happened—and getting married and having a baby and pulling my life back together. I put the band back together, and it was the same band. I just needed a kick in the ass of losing what had turned ugly to make it clean and very beautiful again.

Q: There are reports of a live Muses record that was recorded in October for release in November that we read about in September....

KRISTIN: Yeah, that's right. It's called The Curse and it was recorded over two nights at the Grand Theatre in London. We didn't have a whole lot to do with it. We played it, but it was mixed in England. We got a Shinto Akito cover, which we're very excited about. He's a beautiful painter. He's one of the few artists I know of in any medium who has a great sense of humor without being goofy. I mean, he's a little goofy, I guess, but not in a [clownish] kind of way. I find him truly funny and real. He's got all these little pieces that he does, too. He's really great.

Q: The Muses used to call Boston or Newport home. Where do you live now, Kristin?

KRISTIN: We don't live anywhere right now. We live on this tour bus. We'll settle down eventually in New York, I think. That's were Billy (her husband and manager) is from. But basically we travel most of our lives. It's a nice way to live, in a way. The bus is great, we're lucky to have it. It's a nice rhythm to be in. It's very simplified, you think about sleeping, eating, and playing.

Q: The artwork on Red Heaven is attributed to a woman named Christine and to yourself. Can you tell me how that came about?

KRISTIN: We usually develop our own imagery for the covers. I built the woman and the backdrop for the woman. That's what usually happens with our covers, and then we send the artwork to the art director, Christine, at Warner Bros. So I didn't actually work with Christine, but I guess we collaborated over the phone. I'm the one that said, "OK" a lot (laughs). And then I saw it just before it came out. That's as much of a collaboration as they usually are.

Q: Do you get much time to paint or do assemblages anymore? Is music the primary outlet for your creativity these days? I somehow see you doing spoken word performance, and also indulging your visual prowess concurrently with your musical endeavors.

KRISTIN: I think I would be very mediocre at anything else I tried. I could never be anything but mediocre. Sound pictures I'm really good at because I know how to have nothing to do with it. I know how to keep my craft honed and remove myself from the process. Anything else, I have a hard time removing myself from it. I can't achieve the necessary distance from it to just let it go. I have taste.... Do you know what I mean? You know, like "I like that kind and not that kind." Whereas music, I know when it's true. That's it. It's very clear, you don't have to think about it.

Q: There's a British limited edition CD of the Red Heaven record that comes with an additional CD featuring thirteen Throwing Muses songs performed acoustically by you at a club in Hoboken, New Jersey. Is that something we can look forward to seeing more of in the future?

KRISTIN: That was from a show that I had done at Max's in Hoboken before the record The Real Ramona was released. I did a month-long acoustic tour with my husband, just in a car around America to raise money so we could get married (laughs). I haven't done it since, but we're developing a whole different acoustic career which will incorporate recordings and touring. I just haven't done it yet. I play acoustic on encores, and I do in-stores, and radio shows and the odd acoustic show, but I don't really have a body of work, of material that's solely acoustic, but which I would like to have in order for it to be very removed from Throwing Muses.

Q: Yeah, I understand that. The need for separation of idiom, and of course, the thrill of a new medium. I've got to say, though, that the opportunity to hear songs such as "Pearl" stripped bare, or perhaps in their infancy, is as equally exciting to me as a listener.

KRISTIN: That's funny, the other reason that I did that tour was to see baby pictures of the songs because the band was falling apart. I got to a point where I didn't even know why I had started it. It felt bad instead of good. I had to look at the songs themselves to see that there was a reason for this all to happen. I found that the songs did make a difference, and I like them for that.

Q: Can you expound on this acoustic car trip across America? I knew nothing about this at all.... It's quite interesting.

KRISTIN: We just sort of drove around America. We'll do it again for real. I didn't know, I wasn't sure, that there was an audience who would be willing to just sit and listen to me! To me all by myself for an hour. I couldn't imagine that. Of course, I hadn't been to anyone else's acoustic shows, either. But they did come out. They did. There definitely is an audience for that—quite a big one, actually. It means getting people there who are there to really listen. Which is something you don't always want when you're in a "rock band." You want people to jump around and freak and have it hit them in the spine. This way, it kind of hits them in the heart and the stomach. Listening becomes a good thing. It moves them just as much. I hadn't really realized or articulated that, so it was just as much of a learning experience for me.

Q: What about the live set that you're doing now on tour? How do you go about choosing songs?

KRISTIN: We, actually, are finally able to do older material, which I couldn't do as a four-piece. Material that just didn't sound good live at the time. It sounded like a wall of sound. It was so thick it was difficult to bring out the dynamics. But as a trio, we have much greater control of dynamics, a lot more point/counterpoint dynamics can actually be heard. We're able to do songs from the first few records which were just going to be lost otherwise. There's more power to them and those songs need that in order to happen. Live, from Throwing Muses right now you're hearing a few songs from each record, I guess—there isn't all that much from the new record, Red Heaven, right now—just enough so that we can pick and choose from the other records anything that adds to that sound.

Q: How about the three-piece scene freeing you up for more guitar excursions? With all the new holes, you must really enjoy playing.

Kristin Hersh

KRISTIN: That's really great. It feels like the three of us are playing with something else, an undefined thing, instead of just playing with each other as a four-piece. It now seems so clear what we ought to be doing. It's just this strong but always-changing, triangular structure. We all know everybody else's parts and it just happens, instead of working at it. I think as a rhythm guitarist and Dave as the drummer, we were always trying to hold... and now it just holds itself together. A lot of it, I think, is due to Bernard, who I think is the best bassist we've ever played with. He's got a very melodic sensibility and he's very tight. You usually don't see those qualities happen at the same time. He was our roadie from Boston, who of course was a musician as well. I had done all these soundchecks with him when Leslie didn't show up for sound check. I hadn't really paid attention at first. I didn't know he was so good.

Q: Kristin, we're coming up on Christmas soon.... What does that mean to you now as mother, singer/songwriter and experienced, well-traveled person?

KRISTIN: Going home, for one! We get Christmas off, anyway. On Thanksgiving we had to be in Texas, between Houston and Dallas. But Christmas we are going home. We'll see our six-year-old again, Dylan, he's just great.... Yeah, really great. The baby is on the road with us now. He's one year old, his name is Ryder, and just to keep it in the family, his Aunt Leslie is taking care of him. He's having a great time. He's been to more places than most grown-ups.

Q: The last time I saw you on tour with the Muses you were seven months pregnant with Ryder. You were on stage every night. It must have been tiring.

KRISTIN: Oh, yeah! I don't recommend that. We got off the road thinking that we had a whole lot of time just to be pregnant at home. Not a chance. We had the baby immediately, almost as soon as I got home. A full-sized baby. Thank God I had him then, or I would have died. Oh, but he's a beautiful, healthy kid. My six-year-old is very dark, he's a big, brown-eyed, beautiful kid, but he looks very, very sad and dark. He's very quiet. Dylan is the definition of introverted. For him, what's going on inside is the most important planet in the world. You can tell sometimes when he looks at you that he's really not seeing you. He's taking a good look at what's going on back there. Now Ryder, the baby, is this blooming, tan, blond, blue-eyed little lifeguard who is a complete extrovert. You can't walk down the street in Manhattan without people talking to him. Every single corner we come to, we can't cross the street. It's exhausting! He talks to everybody and engages them in conversations and grins all the time. The two kids are just opposites and they adore each other. That's really the best part. We are really very, very lucky.

Q: Kristin, it's really great to see you like this, and to get to see the smile that your children put on your face. Of course, I've brought Benjamin along to see you and hopefully meet Ryder, too. (Benjamin Tristen Peterson is the author's teddy bear and almost constant companion. He has toured with the Throwing Muses, the Cure, U2, Wire and Nirvana, finding friends both human and bearish with all. he is also an art aficionado and has been known to display a poetic bent.)

KRISTIN: Hello, Benjamin! Look at Benjamin's outfit today! It's so special! He's really rocking! You know, we have a picture of Benjamin framed and on our wall. A picture that you took of David and me playing pinball at the I-Beam club in San Francisco on our first tour to the West Coast. Benjamin's just sitting there on the machine, with this big grin. We all have the same expression—me, David and Benjamin!

Q: Have you any thoughts of playing Russia sometime in the next year? The HIP (Hits In Progress) radio program—hosted by Germ and myself, produced in the KUSF studios, and marketed by Artist Publications has played Throwing Muses a lot on Russian radio.

KRISTIN: Oh, I'd love to! I really would. It would be so great to be able to do that. My father is going over there in a few weeks for the second time. Right now, we can't afford to, but that doesn't diminish our desire to do it. We're about to attempt Japan and Australia, which we've never done before. That's hard enough to pull off for financial reasons. But, looking beyond that, if the opportunity presents itself, we would love to tour Russia. I think that you and Germ are really doing a great thing over there with your Hits In Progress program. They're really lucky. Your show is better, and certainly more innovative, than most radio here in America. I'm sure we'll treasure these tapes of your show. Thank you.

Q: Well, Kristen, those words—creative, innovative—those are just a few of the words people use to describe Throwing Muses, also. Thank you!

KRISTIN: No, thank you!


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