Interview: Throwing Muses

Douglas Wolk

By Douglas Wolk

on 11.27.13 in Interviews

Throwing Muses didn’t break up after their 2003 self-titled album — they just kind of quit the music business. They kept touring, intermittently; singer/guitarist Kristin Hersh kept writing new songs for the band, as well as for her solo projects; she and Throwing Muses bassist Bernard Georges also started a punk trio, 50 Foot Wave. In the late 2000s, Hersh co-founded CASH Music, an organization that connects artists to their fans, which provided a way for her listeners to support her new projects directly.

Purgatory / Paradise, the band’s first new album in a decade, is unconventional — even for them. Hersh, Georges and longtime Throwing Muses drummer David Narcizo went into the studio with 75 new, mostly fragmentary songs, of which 50 were recorded, and 32 ended up on the album. (Only six tracks pass the three-minute mark.) But the album’s physical form isn’t a CD, as such: It’s a book of Hersh’s lyrics and commentary on the songs, designed by Narcizo, with a CD tucked into it. There’s also a version of the album that’s an e-book-and-music app.

These days, Hersh spends half her year in New England and the other half in New Orleans. Freshly returned to the States from a brief UK tour that marked a major change for her (as you’ll see), she talked with Douglas Wolk about her struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, replacing record companies with social networking, and whether or not this is her last record.

One really striking idea in the Purgatory / Paradise book is that these are recordings that you made for yourselves, and then decided to release them. Have you made a lot of finished recordings that aren’t for anyone’s ears but the band’s?

I don’t know if I’d call them finished, but yeah. We decided a long time ago that if we were being continually being asked to dumb down our product by this industry, then we were morally bound to no longer participate in it. And music has nothing to do with the music business, so we kept going. We played, we toured, we released an anthology and we continued to write songs, because songs continued to write themselves; we just wanted to redefine what a working band is. You play music. It’s honorable to support your habit with a day job, as any passionate junkie knows, so until we became listener-supported through CASH, that’s how we defined music for ourselves. It might sound a little idealistic or idiotic, and it’s both of those things, but what we ended up with was sort of unfiltered music. No one has an ear to the marketability of what we do. In fact, if we presented a “marketable” product to our listeners, it would be rejected!

Well, your longtime fans get what you do.

They want the raw truth from us, and they want to be mildly confused, and they want it to be… Our pet name for Purgatory / Paradise is Precious/Pretentious. Now we’re too old to even apologize for that. Editing is a big part of any work that you’re going to publish: You don’t want to alienate anyone, and you want to keep your work unstuck in time. We’re pretty good at erasing, because we’re humble! That’s actually part of the reason why it’s a book as well. The more you take away, the more holes you have. I like holes in a work, but this meant that I had the opportunity to speak English at people and fill in some of the holes. Without actually completing anything — you wouldn’t want to complete anything, because that’s the listener’s job.

Some of the Purgatory / Paradise songs have been around for a while, in different forms—a few of them appeared online as part of the Speedbath and Crooked albums you released through CASH music back in 2007 and 2010.

I write Throwing Muses songs on my Tele or my Strat, and 50 Foot Wave songs on my SGs or my Les Paul — heavier guitars — and my solo songs on the Collings guitar. So I knew that those particular songs were [really] Throwing Muses songs, so I was sort of bullshitting by having them fake their way onto a solo record. They sounded so bad, and I knew it. Dave is so smart — he hears a Muses song, and he goes, “Oh, give me that! That’s mine and I know it!” He’s always right.

What’s the part of the apparatus around music that you would keep, given the option?

I would just mail songs out if I could. I knew when I was 14 years old that there was no other life for me, and this is as close as I have come, although having to replace record companies with social networking is difficult for a shy person. I had to grow new balls, and…it’s better. My life used to be dressing rooms, hotel rooms, tour buses. Now I speak directly with my listeners — and I would like to hide, I really enjoyed hiding — but I have to admit I’m a bit humbled by their brilliance. The listeners that I speak with are incredible, warm, brilliant people. I’m honored to spend any time with them. I should be moved, and I am.

You’ve talked recently about having undergone EMDR treatments. Do you feel like those have affected your music?

It’s been very recent. I made this record before that. I was told that I wasn’t bipolar, that I had a split personality, and music was one of the personalities. That’s why I had no memory of writing songs or performing them. That’s why, if somebody asked me what a song was about, I had no idea. That’s why I am so nice and shy and the music is so not shy. I only got EMDR because I had posttraumatic stress disorder, but what it did was expose the fact that all the trauma had gone into the other personality, the music personality. I didn’t know what would happen when I went to London last week on this promo tour, [to play] for the first time since those treatments. All my life I have suffered from debilitating stage fright, and that no longer exists. It was the me with the name that was afraid to go on stage, because I didn’t play music — it was the other personality. And now I’m both. And I have no stage fright; I’m completely calm and in control. I play, I remember playing. I really thought I was going to have to tell my bandmates, “I’m not a musician anymore, they cured me,” but that’s not what happened. I’m a shaky, raw person, but as a performer I think I’m better for it. I’d give it all up to just calm down a little bit, but it is amazing to do the music as myself.

What does the future of Throwing Muses look like to you?

I’m fully prepared to never work again. Dave says we can be anything we want — he says we can put out cookbooks if we want. I think he wants us to be a collective, and to not determine the output of the collective, and he’s always right. I always know exactly what we have to do when we get in the studio to work, I know the reverbs, I know how to break the instruments and put them back together again to get the exact sound I want — and I’m always wrong. Completely wrong. So off-base that it’s crazy. And I love that! He’s always right, and I’m always wrong. Bernie is always right, too, but he doesn’t talk about it.