Counting Backwards: Throwing Muses Interviewed

As they prepare to tour Europe with their career-spanning release, the three Muses talk to John Freeman about the moments that defined one of America’s finest guitar bands and how they’ve come to a record a new 38-track album

In late April of 1988, in the now-defunct Manchester International One venue, I stood wide-eyed and shocked as a band from Boston tore through a set of songs which scorched their way into my heart. That short Pixies support set would become enshrined in folklore. Minutes later, another group of Massachusetts musicians took the stage as Kristin Hersh’s Throwing Muses attempted to follow the incendiary scream of Black Francis. They managed that and more – the Muses’ urgent, jagged indie rock was both beautiful and intense and Hersh performed as if exorcising her darkest fears. My teenage self was captivated.

Fast-forward twenty years and Kristin Hersh made a connection with me on an entirely different level. Then, my four-year-old son was critically ill with a life-threatening brain haemorrhage. At the time his favourite story was ‘Toby Snax’, Kristin’s charming first foray into children’s literature. As he lay in the Intensive Care Unit at the Manchester Children’s Hospital – only a few hundred metres from where the International One used to stand – my son kept asking his mum to read the book to him. It is about a mother rabbit suggesting adventurous day-trips to her boy. As my boy clung on to life ‘Toby Snax’ was a particularly heartbreaking tale.

A couple of days later, with my son having undergone yet more complex brain surgery, I sent Kristin a befuddled, emotional, late-night email telling her about him and how much ‘Toby Snax’ had helped. Her response was instant and amazing. She kept in almost constant contact over the next few weeks, as we swapped photos and messages of love and support. A few months later, when Kristin was on a short UK solo tour, we all met up in a library in Burnley. Kristin was wonderfully sweet with my son, who sat wide-eyed while she soundchecked. More than that, her next solo album, Crooked, contained a beautiful surprise – it was dedicated to “the mighty Finlay Freeman,” as well as to the memory of her dearest friend, Vic Chesnutt, who had died shortly before. I’m still utterly overwhelmed by Kristin’s gesture.

So, as a disclaimer, I have a rather big soft spot for Throwing Muses, the 2011 version of whom are currently knee-deep in nostalgia. They now tend to operate in sporadic bursts (only Hersh is a career musician) but are about to undertake a European tour to promote the recent release of the excellent Anthology retrospective. Next year should herald brand new material in the shape of a 38-track (that’s not a typo) album – their first since 2003’s Throwing Muses and only their second in 15 years.

When I catch up with them they are on a travel day after a tour-opening gig in Athens, Georgia, for which they borrowed amps from R.E.M. (whose equipment will now be permanently open to loan offers). Bassist Bernie Georges describes the show as a “warm and casual affair”. According to drummer Dave Narcizo, they are currently “in one of the Carolinas”, although he isn’t sure which.

Minutes before speaking to Kristin, she tweets the following flash of insight: “In a van with the Muses, on a dark highway, listening to Big Star. Got my life back.” I ask her if that’s how she feels about her band. “Yeah. Every minute I’ve spent with Dave and Bernie has sparkled – I’ve spent many laughing, a few crying, but most frozen in place by aesthetic arrest. We are very much a bubble. I wish I could live there, on that planet.”

That “bubble” released Anthology to coincide with the 25-year anniversary of their debut album, but if the record label wanted a greatest hits compilation, the band was happy to disappoint. The first disc covers the back catalogue, and is wonderfully skewed towards their early, embryonic form (with such gems as the storming ‘Garoux Des Larmes’ from the mini-album The Fat Skier), while a second disc showcases B-sides (such as the wonderful ‘Cottonmouth’) and other rarities. “For me personally, back in 1986 there weren’t a lot of bands that sounded like us,” Dave explains. “I wanted to choose the songs that, still today, you listen to and cannot really pinpoint the reference for. We mainly wanted to frontload Anthology with those. I was thinking about music fans who genuinely love music history but haven’t been exposed to us.”

Dave and Kristin have been friends since they were eight years old. Although her music has been part of my life for a quarter of a century, I cannot picture Kristin as a child. “I remember going to her house – she claimed to be magic because she was opening a garden gate by looking at it,” Dave tells me. “That was my introduction to her. From as long as I could remember, she and [stepsister] Tanya [Donelly] were always creating. There was always something going on – they were putting on plays or writing things.”

When they were both 15, Hersh and Donelly started a band, which was news to Narcizo. “One day I was practising for a drum recital in a music room at our high school. I heard someone playing piano in the next room and it really captured my attention. It was Kristin. That’s how I found out that they had a band. A few weeks later, their drummer left. Kristin called me and said they were going to be recording a demo and could I play drums for them. I had never played a drum kit before – all I’d played was marching drums and concert drums. We found somebody whose kit we could borrow, but it arrived without cymbals. I learned to play on it without cymbals, which then became my trademark early on.”

Indeed, Narcizo’s remarkable drumming style would underpin the unorthodox shifts in rhythm and time signatures that courses through the Muses’ finest work. After releasing a couple of EPs, the band eventually signed to 4AD (“I signed with them because [owner] Ivo [Watts-Russell] was funny and goofy, and that was about it,” Kristin recalls) during a tumultuous 12 months for Hersh in which she also gave birth to a son and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (her wonderful Paradoxical Undressing memoir spans the period in question).

“The early days, though I played up their sweetness in Paradoxical Undressing, were shaky ones,” Kristin admits. The following years would spotlight their unique sound (on records like 1988’s seminal House Tornado) and bring international acclaim and that tour with their fellow Bostonians the Pixies. Kristin describes House Tornado in vivid hues: “It’s a universe. It’s when we were still allowed to be on our ‘own’ planet and not so tangled up in speech that you can’t listen.”

That first incarnation of Throwing Muses burned out in 1991, fuelled by the hellish creation of the album The Real Ramona and Kristin’s refusal to sully her art for commercial gain. Donelly, who had ventured outside the band to record The Breeders’ Pod the year before, left to form Belly, while Hersh struggled both artistically and personally. “I was busy with a child custody battle I was going through, I was halfway through a root canal that I couldn’t afford to finish and I was in unbearable skull pain,” she tells me. “We were living in this horrible apartment block with the worst of Hollywood around us and it was so hard seeing beauty being made ugly that way. It was definitely not what it was supposed to be like. When the band broke up, it was because my sister Tea wanted to be more involved with the industry and I wanted nothing to do with it. We all loved each other, but Warner Brothers took away my faith in music.”

At the time, Bernie was the band’s bass and drum tech and watched the untangling from the outside (“I felt for Kristin”). Dave’s memories are clouded by battles with producer Dennis Herring, who wanted a cleaner sound for the Muses. “When it was happening it was emotionally raw,” he says. “But, there was closure before we even finished the record and everyone seemed in a good place. There were parts of the recording that brought their own tension and that’s what I remember. There was abrasiveness with the producer. Kristin may not agree with me, but I think he did a really great job and worked really hard. But, of all our records it had the most treated sound, which – as she has demonstrated over the years – Kristin has never been a fan of. She felt she lost control of the reins on that record.”

When she was 16, Hersh suffered a head injury from being hit by a car; afterwards, she would “hear” fully formed songs which required fleshing out for real. In the months after the Muses were no more, the music kept coming. “Dave would come over and play with my kids and listen to my four-track and that was music to us,” she recalls. “We just listened to it and talked about it. One day he turned to me with his headphones around his neck and said: ‘Why don’t we just be a band who doesn’t give a shit?’” Dave remembers the conversation well. “At first we started off talking about being a different band and we had names picked out. One of them was Kuhli Loach.” We both agree that Kuhli Loach is a seriously good name for a band.

So the second phase of Throwing Muses would see them begin again as a trio of Kristin, Dave and long-time bassist Leslie Langston, who would subsequently be replaced by Bernie. The transition for Bernie from roadie to band member was “a natural progression – having been the bass tech, I felt like I already had my apprenticeship.” However, when initially exposed to Throwing Muses, it had taken him a little while to acclimatise to their serrated song structures. “When I first got to meet the band they were great, but when I watched the shows they were strange; it was captivating but I couldn’t get into it,” he admits. “But a week in, it just clicked and I started falling in love with it. As the drum and bass tech, I would watch Dave and Leslie playing for two years. I still think Leslie is one of my bass heroes.”

In the beautiful sleevenotes accompanying Anthology, Kristin depicts Dave as her “twin” (“there are definitely a lot of things we don’t have to say,” he reveals) and describes Bernie as “humble with big balls” (“I read that and had a good laugh,” he says. “With Kristin, you have to know that she takes some creative licence”). This line-up would go on to produce some of the Muses bestselling records, including 1995’s University and 1996’s Limbo. “Bernie is kind, with an

unwavering sense of what is right in this world – that’s what I meant by ‘big balls’,” laughs Kristin. “When we reformed as a band that would not play the game, I got my balls back. University and Limbo were solid, realised moments in our career.”

However, as the finances required to keep a touring band viable began to dwindle, the Muses slipped into self-induced hibernation. Kristin used an advance from a solo album to fund 2003’s full-bodied Throwing Muses, but since the birthing of the CASH (Coalition of Artists and Stakeholders) Music project in 2008, she been producing some of the most exciting work of her career. The CASH concept allows fans the chance to access all of Kristin’s art (be it the Muses, her power-punk band 50 Foot Wave or her solo work) for a small quarterly fee. The money goes directly to Hersh; the music goes directly to her fans.

Earlier this year, CASH bought just enough studio time for the band to crack through a colossal set of new songs. The early demos streaming on the Muses website point to a band breathing light and fire. “Kristin initially had 25 songs and then she added a few more and a few more after that,” says Bernie. “Initially it seemed overwhelming but the record just seems to come together naturally; it is beautiful.”

Kristin describes CASH as “a circle of gratitude where the sponsors have no vested interest in the marketability of the product.” And the humungous new album? “Yeah, the new album will be 38 songs, if I don’t write any more. Nowadays making a record is like making a film; we raise money at every juncture. The recording, for example, is finished so we’re trying to raise money to mix it.”

If Kristin is – as Black Francis once described her to me – a “music lifer,” Bernie and Dave have other lives to lead. But the call to reignite the Muses is unquenchable. “I’ve known Kristin for 20 years now, and when she sends me music it is sometimes disruptive to my life but it is hard to for me to say ‘no’ because it is what I love,” Bernie admits. “My practical brain will say, ‘You’ll have to juggle this and that,’ but then I receive the music and I cannot help myself. It is a great pleasure and an honour to play.”

I ask Bernie if he thinks the Muses are growing old gracefully, and he replies: “I’m biased, but I don’t think Throwing Muses are growing old at all. We are timeless.” Kristin is slightly less bombastic: “We haven’t aged yet. I have no idea why, but none of us has changed, even to get smarter.”

It would seem that in 2011, Throwing Muses are in a good place, their existence profoundly entwined in Kristin’s soul. “Very nicely put,” she says when I proffer my woolly summary. “I’m so deeply grateful to these people for helping to bring song bodies to fruition and dress them up right, make them powerful and attractive enough that others might want to adopt them for their soundtracks – which is, of course, the highest honour a songwriter can achieve.”

As I finish chatting to Kristin, she asks me how my son is doing. I tell her he’s well but has developed into an extremely cheeky six-year-old. I ask the mother of four boys how to deal with his uncontrollable impudence. “I’ve no advice,” she laughs. “Six-year-old boys are supposed to be cheeky.”

Somehow, I knew she’d say that.

Author’s note: In the two years since this article was written, I still get regular emails from Kristin enquiring about my son. He’s now eight years old and healthy – if even cheekier.

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