A Work of Obsession – Kristin Hersh/Throwing Muses interview

Kristin Hersh performing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, 16 August 2011

Five years ago, before the blog, I pretty much knew no musicians. Musicians were people who played on stage and disappeared by back doors. Despite getting know a good number of Scottish bands in recent years, there still seemed a huge gap to the bigger names. So, not that long ago, the notion of speaking to Kristin Hersh at all, never mind about Throwing Muses, seemed very remote.

Yet, last month at a nice hotel in Edinburgh’s West End, that’s exactly what I was doing, with Andy in tow.

The golden rule is never to meet your heroes (or heroines) but even though the word has always been that Kristin is the exception to that rule, we were still nervous about meeting Kristin. In fact Andy admitted afterwards that he was pretty much struck mute for the first five minutes of the interview.

However Kristin’s reputation is entirely deserved and, warm, funny and charming, she quickly put us at ease. Over the course of almost an hour she answered everything we threw at her and and had plenty of interesting things to say. Here are some of them.

A quick rewind, first, though. Whilst it’s unlikely anyone regularly reading MPT has no idea who Kristin is, it still seems polite to introduce her. She first came to prominence as singer and songwriter with her band Throwing Muses, formed when she was just 14. When the band could no longer function as a full-time concern, even after releasing 7 critically acclaimed LPs, Kristin embarked on a prolific solo career before forming another band, 50 Foot Wave.

But the Muses were never far from her thoughts and a further LP was released in 2003. Since then Kristin has split her energies between the three outlets, albeit that the Muses are generally only sighted in rare live outings.

However, one of the band’s infrequent bursts of activity is about to be heralded by the release of the long overdue retrospective ‘Anthology’ on 4AD next week (19th September). Starting off by talking about that record, Kristin admitted that the release was largely instigated by the band.

“I think it’s something we’ve been telling people to do, and people have been telling us to do, for about 10 years. I just dropped it in my drummer’s lap, and 4AD’s, and said you guys come up with something. Because I don’t want to listen to old stuff!

“My booking agent also said if we could play a release start to finish then we could do a tour. So we chose songs we could still play!”

Kristin’s role in the track selection for the record was slightly unusual.

“My role was more negative, I was saying, not this one, not that one! But I do have a few favourite moments, mostly ones I think of as unheard moments from our career and I had to throw those in.

“Like ‘No Way In Hell’ from ‘University’ has my favourite pedal on it, that’s just screwed up enough to distort at the top of the wave and get muffly at the bottom. It just sounds so awful that everyone hates it. I knew no-one would put that song on.

“So I don’t think I was much help, I was a little bit demanding.”

The timing of the release coincides with an increased interest in Throwing Muses as a result of Kristin’s intense memoir of the year in her life leading up to the recording of the first Muses LP (‘Paradoxical Undressing’ in the UK/’Rat Girl’ in the States – but the same book).

“I think a lot of people read my book and weren’t familiar with Throwing Muses so this is an easy way to find us without listening to the stuff that we don’t like! (laughs). We have quite a big catalogue and I can see people going to the record store and not ending up with the right one.”

Kristin though isn’t expecting ‘Anthology’ to lead to a proper re-issue series of the Muses catalogue, even though a number of less well known peers have been reissued, some even twice.

“I think it’s just a one-off. I don’t think that anyone cares enough to do it again.”

Rather than looking back to the Muses’ past Kristin is very much focussed on the band’s future, a future at one point she didn’t think existed.

Regular Kristin watchers will know that a number  of the songs originally released as part of  the ‘Speedbath’ project such as ‘Slippershell’ and the title track didn’t make the eventual ‘Crooked’ record. However the good news is that some of these are slated to make the new Muses record. Kristin admits that she initially recorded these songs as solo songs due to the uncertainty surrounding the band.

“I didn’t think that I had Throwing Muses, I didn’t think that my Throwing Muses songs were going to go anywhere. So I was recording them and not having them work right. They ended up not making the record because they’re not what they should have been. That was me trying to force them into a round hole and they were diminished. Because they’re Throwing Muses songs!

“Dave (Narcizo, Muses drummer) will tell me ‘Quit giving my songs away’ and I’m ‘We’re not a band as far as I can tell!’. But somehow we are and we got a chance to record most of them.

“We’re now listener supported so we don’t have record companies to interfere. So we’re making this record that has thirty eight songs on it because there’s no-one to say ‘don’t make a record with 38 songs on it!’ (laughs)

” We’ve been working on it for 2 years and now we’re trying to raise the money to mix it. So all we’re thinking about is the real record. We figure that if the anthology is out of the way then the old story is over and we can start afresh.

” It’s a crazy record. It works as a piece – a bridge from one song will show up in another one as an instrumental then another with different lyrics as a chorus.

“The first time my drummer heard the demos he said ‘my mind is fractured too!’ (laughs). And we both meant it and said this is the time for fractured minds, let’s make them both work together.

“It’s a work of obsession, we think it’s the best thing we’ve ever done. But we’re very precious about it and that’s why it’s taking so long to get it perfect.”

It’s been 8 years since the last Muses record. By most artists’ standards, 38 songs would be a reasonable output over that period. Except in that time Kristin has also released two solo LPs and approximately 30 songs with 50 Foot Wave. And astonishingly, that’s almost the tip of the iceberg.

“We have about 100 songs really, but I cut it down to about 38! And some of them are sort of short so I don’t think anyone will hate us for it.

“I would say that there are about 20 realised songs that didn’t make it and another 50 that couldn’t even get their foot in the door because, again, we ran out of money.

“There were a few that it just kills me to lose, like the song ‘Gin’ that I wrote in Australia. I know it’s a Throwing Muses song but we just ran out of time. But maybe that means that we’ll make another record some day.”

Kristin confessed that, even setting aside financial constraints, it’s not always easy to tell initially which songs fit which project.

” I write solo songs on my Collings guitars, Throwing Muses songs on my Strat and Telecaster and 50 Foot Wave songs on my Les Paul. My drummers tell me that’s a really bad system, that I make mistakes (laughs) but it’s working for me so far.”

The release of ‘Anthology’ will be followed by the first proper Throwing Muses tour in Europe and the UK since 2003.

“It’s lovely. We continue to play in America whenever we can and 50 Foot Wave opens for Throwing Muses. But it’s not really touring, it’s playing shows.

“But it’s hard to even get excited about it because it’s just home, it’s the way that everything should have been all along. So in that, it’s the best thing that could ever happen. But for something to make you thrilled, it’s out of your comfort zone a little bit. “

Which seems a perfect place to end this part of the interview since it pretty much mirrored our experience of meeting Kristin. Initially, we were a bit out of our comfort zone, but only for a short while.

4AD release ‘Anthology’ on Monday 19th September and the collection will be available as a double CD limited edition and single CD edition. Buy it here (U.K.) or here (U.S.)

Throwing Muses tour Europe and the UK in October/November with a date at Oran Mor in Glasgow on Monday 7th November (tickets).

To support Throwing Muses making their new record then head here where you can also hear a dozen demos for the new record.

Part 2 of the interview with Kristin is here.