Love and Revolution – Kristin Hersh interview (part 2)

Finally, here’s the second part of my interview with Kristin Hersh conducted in Edinburgh back in August. Last time out I focussed largely on our chat about Throwing Muses. In the second section of the interview below expect to read about 50 Foot Wave, the record industry and her future plans. But most importantly about love and revolution.

Given the length of the interview I’ve put a split in part of the way down. So if you’re coming at this via the home page then there’s more to be found by clicking on the [more] link!

Whilst understandably a lot of the focus just now is on the Throwing Muses compilation and tours, in actual fact the only new music that Kristin has released in 2011 is the rather brilliant 50 Foot Wave E.P. ‘With Love From The Men’s Room‘. It’s fair to say that her ‘other’ band means rather a lot to Kristin.

“50 Foot Wave is just all love. It’s all not making the mistakes that the Muses made – that I made. It’s just perfect, it’s what it should be. It’s almost a co-operative, about 10 people volunteering their time and energy and effort.

“What comes out of that, there is no reason to do anything but be good. Which sounds ‘duh’ but it’s so not. Within the industry, everything is a reason not to be good. There’s no reason to be good unless you can rely on your own integrity and 50 Foot Wave has got nothing else! Just integrity. So we go and we know that it’s going to be great and that’s our passport to heaven.

“If nobody else gets to hear it then at least we weren’t lying, we weren’t trying to fool anybody, we never sucked. I swear that 50 Foot’s never going to suck and we haven’t yet.

“This record ‘With Love From The Men’s Room’ is for Vic Chestnutt who couldn’t maintain until the revolution. And he deserves it, he deserves a tribute like this.”

As a band that effectively just records, only playing occasional live dates to supplement other activities (such as Throwing Muses shows), Kristin admits that things haven’t worked out for 50 Foot Wave the way originally planned.

“It’s heart breaking that 50 Foot can’t work. We started as a live band and the idea was that we would stay on the road 150 dates a year and make an honest living. At that time I had no idea that there was no such thing any more. You can’t live on the road any longer, you can’t sell CDs.

“You need the day jobs to live and you can’t just quit the day jobs to do a tour if it’s not going to pay your rent. “

The constraints that Kristin and her bands face inevitably leads the conversation round to the music industry – and Kristin has strong views.

“I was happy to see the recording industry collapsing as I had only seen music suffer at its hands. People who succeed in that world are willing to dumb down their product or already have a product that’s sort of dumb. Or is more style orientated than substance. And I think that robs a whole generation of its soundtrack.

“At least this way we’re beginning a revolution where people’s ears are being trained to look underground, to look next door, to look in their bars, their churches and homes and friends’ garages for their soundtrack, rather than what a corporation tells you is cool right now.

“People are not educated musically and people still think that bands that corporations decided to market are the most popular or the best or the coolest. But that will go away, it’s already going away, it’s just not gone yet.

“You can be a quiet musician and it’s valid, having a day job makes you a hero. It’s the bullshit we want to get rid off and the bullshit happens when you introduce money into the equation, when you introduce ego, greed.”

By not playing the game, Throwing Muses didn’t advance their careers in the way that some of their peers did. But Kristin has few regrets.

“I’m not Prince, I’m not complaining that they took all my money, I complain that they don’t do their job. They don’t sell records. They’re goddamned record companies! They wouldn’t get off their ass and do their jobs while we were doing ours. It’s really frustrating. I still don’t understand why a record company wouldn’t sell records. But that’s what they’ve done every time I’ve put one out!

“At Warner Brothers we were a boutique signing so that they can say to other bands ‘We’ve got Throwing Muses, just sign with us.’ But they didn’t need to work our records so everything we got, we got on our own. We were just somebody they wanted on their roster, not someone they wanted to market.

“I’m talking about America. 4AD were always really good to us when they were around. It’s a different company now, I don’t know anybody there any more. But just being on Warner Brothers in America, my experience of the recording industry is one of confusion, pimps. They make their money, they take your money and they don’t try to sell anything but the stuff that’s the most inane fashion sound.

“I used to have arguments with them. Some of them are smart and were good music people. They would fill their office with good music and sell crap. It’s like ‘Do you know that you’re evil? Do you know this is our religion? Why do you sell crap?” and it was ‘Because crap sells’.

“That’s what I want to go away. The fact that we could let corporations decide what we like when everyone has an idiosyncratic taste in music. I think that there are plenty of people on earth to listen to music. Nobody needs to sell millions of records. You just need to survive.

“I’m ranting again! (laughs) I rant quite a lot!”

Kristin agrees that there’s a tension between this ideal and somehow making a living from music.

“What happens when you get a paycheque, you get bloated, you get lazy. We were always hungry. We never got bloated, we never got lazy, we never started sucking. So we’re broke but at least we can face ourselves in the mirror.

“We’ve lost the best to this, we lost Vic Chestnutt. And my kids went hungry, it’s not easy, it’s almost impossible. Yet, what are you going to do about it? Suck? That was never the answer.

“It’s not like I didn’t know how, I mean I did suck once, because I thought that they would sell the record if I gave them a terrible single. And they did but I’ve regretted it ever since. I regretted it immediately before I gave them the record.

“It’s easy to figure out how, you act like a bimbo and write terrible songs. But then what? What’s your life then? You’re a bimbo with terrible songs in public. And then you’re out! If you’re in one year then you’re out the next and you have no career. At least I’ve been in the corner all this time barely surviving but I’m playing. When you pick up an instrument you don’t think anyone’s going to want to listen to you play it, it’s such an honour when they show up.

“To listen to a recording more than once is also an honour. I still feel blessed – as much heartbreak as there’s been, I can’t believe that I’m allowed to play music every day.”

At this point in proceedings I confess that I’m pessimistic about the future. In an era of globalization, I fear that a small number of people are increasingly going to determine the ‘corporate’ soundtrack with perhaps a  “classic” songbook, perhaps chosen by someone like Simon Cowell, Meaanwhile at the same time music becomes just another marketing accessory. I do worry that musicians are being forced closer and closer to the margins because they’re not in the approved club. Kristin though counters my pessimism.

“But that’s the death throes of the industry. And they are dying. And they’re trying to keep getting their pay cheques until their corporations die. They’re going to keep getting worse and worse and it’s already so ludicrous that they’re taking themselves out of the picture by being ridiculous. There are people left over who don’t know that yet but that won’t be the case for ever.

“I know that there were some people who tried to infiltrate and change the system from within. My husband was one of them and we felt like Mulder and Scully at the FBI when we were at Warner Brothers together. And we were just killed, they have no patience for that and there is nothing you can do to move the machine in the right direction. It’s better just to be … vigilantes, like us (laughs).”

Kristin’s talked many times before about how her songwriting changed after her accident but I was curious about her early experiences in music.

“My dad taught me to play guitar when I was nine, because he told me not to touch his guitar. And so I was obsessed with it! He taught me all the chords he knew but he was like a hippie and he didn’t know that many! He could play every Bob Dylan song, every Neil Young song but I wanted more.

“So he gave me the guitar and I started inventing my own chords. I ended up taking up classical guitar and learning everything I could as if it was a beast that needed taming. When really what I should have been doing was trying to find the sound that I would have invented had I never heard anybody else’s sound. And the accident seemed to trigger that.

“Before that the songs I wrote were, um, not alive, I guess, is my only way of putting it. I could be influenced by other people. They would change stylistically according to the year that I wrote them, like anybody else would.

“The accident seemed to trigger hearing something that wasn’t going to change according to earthly values. That’s a kooky way of putting it, but do you know what I mean? It was always inventing itself and I didn’t seem to have anything to do with it.

“I’m not sure it’s a great idea to be that idiosyncratic. I can hear musicians that want to sound like others and I can list who they want to sound like. And I think well, that’s not hurting anybody, but I don’t think that their music is very timeless.

“And then I hear musicians who have found their own voice and they can’t shake it, they don’t seem to have an ability to adopt an influence, like we couldn’t. Like the Moore Brothers from California, they sound like the Everly Brothers on acid or something. And you know that you’ve never heard anything like that before.

“Hearing Mission of Burma soundcheck, well ,they made the Mission of Burma sound! But I don’t know that it’s a great idea because none of us are ever very successful (laughs).”

In terms of the future, beyond the Muses tour and then the new LP (hopefully in the New Year), Kristin has plenty to keep herself occupied. In fact the problem appears to be that she has just too much to do – such as a follow up to her last solo LP ‘Crooked’.

“It’s written but it hasn’t been recorded yet. Now because I’m listener supported I just book the studio when I can and when I’m in town because my favourite studio’s in New England and I’ve been living in New Orleans and now Los Angeles. So, it’s sort of kismet that brings about another recording. Or someone saying ‘free studio time’ and I can race in and get something done.”

The long mooted follow-up to ‘Murder, Misery and Goodnight’ is also on the radar.

“Yes, that’s still there, I just haven’t been able to afford it. I’m sounding so pathetic! But there’s a lot of material. Most bands put out a record every couple of years and I’ve got the follow-up to Murder Misery and the straight solo, 50 Foot and Throwing Muses -making 2 records gets expensive. It’s obviously my fault! (laughs)”

It seems entirely appropriate to finish on a laugh as Kristin laughed a lot during the interview (far more times than I’ve recorded!). I suspect that her good grace in the face of adversity is something that most people who meet her will be struck by. Two months on and I still feel it was a privilege to meet her and I’m very grateful to Kristin and husband Billy (who set up the interview) for their help with the two pieces.


Throwing Muses are currently touring on mainland Europe before heading over to the UK for a tour next month (full list of dates) that includes a date at Oran Mor in Glasgow on Monday 7th November (tickets).

Although copies of the initial 2 disc release of ‘Anthology’ are close to sold out, there are still copies from Kristin’s own web store or from 4AD. A single disc version of ‘Anthology’ is released in the UK on 7th November.

Part 1 of this interview.