The Popdose Interview: Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses

Written by Music, Popdose Interviews

In the last few minutes of the commentary track for their new album Purgatory/Paradise, Throwing Muses singer/guitarist Kristin Hersh and drummer David Narcizo trade memories of the L.A. apartment building where they (along with the Pixies, and “the cast of Ghost Dad, everybody but Bill Cosby”) lived during the recording of their 1991 album The Real Ramona. There’s talk of making gazpacho in a hallway with their prostitute-neighbors, grilling orange roughy by the pool with “those heavy metal guys and the Playboy-model wannabes,” sleeping on mirrored Murphy beds, laying down vocal tracks while halfway through a root canal, drinking five-dollar champagne in hot tubs, and getting by on 30 cents a day – and it all sounds terribly glamorous, equal parts brutal and magical.

The first Throwing Muses album in 10 years – and the ninth full-length release since the band formed as 14-year-old kids in Newport, Rhode Island – Purgatory/Paradise is both brutal and magical too, and full of weird stories. The lyrics are poems about real-life things like motorcycle crashes and couches that can swim and the night that Hersh had a seizure while drinking a soda outside a convenience store, and the music shifts between hitting hard and rough like really violent weather and feeling as lovely and sweet as a lullaby. Some of Purgatory/Paradise‘s 32 songs appear in different incarnations throughout the album, and the effect of their repetition is disorienting and hypnotic, like remembering pieces of dreams and trying to put them back together and sometimes getting that cool thrill of figuring out what those dreams are actually supposed to mean to you.

Along with the commentary track (which also includes discussion of the self-regenerative properties of the human thumb, Andy Warhol, Harold and Maude, Hersh’s “bumpy pomegranate” vocal intonation, death, seashells, beer, brownies, RC Cola, and off-brand Cheerios), Purgatory/Paradise comes with a photo-and-essay book that’s part diary, part tour journal, and part exploration of the stories behind the songs. The book’s sometimes heartbreaking but written with unimaginable warmth and such goofball humor, a perfectly imperfect encapsulation of what makes Hersh’s work so fortifying even as it devastates. “Funny and sad seem to have a lot to do with each other in my head,” she writes in Purgatory/Paradise‘s introduction. “But I will say that as sharply troubled as some of these songs get, they are without a plan, so they are without an edge of frustration. And in that, I believe they’re hopeful.”

What was the inspiration for creating the book to go with the new album?

I got sick of thinking of music as little pieces of plastic. I think everyone else did too. We don’t value little pieces of plastic, so I wanted to back up what is so infused with texture and meaning to us. And I can write, so I wrote. And Dave is a graphic designer, so he added the visuals.

For us the music and the visuals and the essays are all similar – mainly that we are island people, sort of hidden away, but at the same time we’re traveling the world. The images Dave used were photographs we’ve taken on the island and also all around the world on tour, and the essays bounce back and forth between these very introverted and very extroverted moments. That’s sort of what the songs do too. There’s a lot of contrast on this record. Even though we tried to sequence it so it’s complementary rather than jagged, there’s still a lot of extremes – which sort of reflects how, to us, music is a volatile substance.

For me, I listened to the album a few times and was very much hooked in by it, and then I read the book and felt even more connected to the songs.

Oh, that’s good to hear! Some people don’t like to have their soundtrack turned into anything but their soundtrack, which I absolutely would like to honor. And I did honor it, by keeping the essays more prose-poetry and sort of within the atmosphere of the song, or by using them to tell a tour story. I didn’t want to remove any dimension from the experience of listening for anyone.

Did you find that writing the book component changed your own relationship with the songs?

Yes, absolutely. When I was tasked with it, it sounded impossible because it was 32 songs and the essays had to come to some kind of point, and I also had to reflect the visual and auditory elements, production-wise and stylistically. I let a month go by just thinking “Nobody could do this!” And then I realized it’s not me really doing it: the songs know the deal, so I just kind of sit next to them and scribble. The songs are always in charge.

Is writing a big part of your life in general? Writing other than songwriting, I mean.

I find it hard to sit still. The only time I can write is if I get up at two or three in the morning and there’s nothing else to do and the dogs are just sitting there and staring at me. I’m working on writing scripts right now because [Hersh’s 2010 memoir] Rat Girl might be developed as a TV series. And I also have a few books that I’m trying to write. I figured that some of them would suck and then I would just write the one that didn’t suck, but they’re all sucking about the same right now. So I’m still writing three or four books at once, which is not a good way to get anything done.

Are they nonfiction, fiction..?

Yeah, everything. I have such a problem with fiction, though – I think it’s a brain thing. When someone tells me they write fiction, I’m just like, “Oh, so you lie.” I did a lot of literary events around the release of Rat Girl and went all over the world. And I’m supposed to be smart, you know, but then I’ll talk to a writer – like Colum McCann, who wins the National Book Award all the time and is just really brilliant – and he tells me he writes fiction and I’m like, “Well, why should I read it if you just made it up? You just told me it didn’t happen!” So he sat me down and said, “What I do is I walk in another man’s shoes.” And he’s very good at walking in women’s shoes too. But yeah, I wanted to try it. And I found it very freeing, although I haven’t quite left the truth. I keep using the truth. But Colum said that’s okay.

I read Rat Girl pretty recently and loved it so much. Even though it’s nonfiction it has a dreamy quality to it that makes you feel like you’re just entering some whole other world.

Well, I wanted to turn it into a nonfiction novel. Otherwise I didn’t know what the point would be. Some people were disappointed – they wanted me to be mean and write something like a Throwing Muses tell-all. I’m unfamiliar with the idea of anyone having even heard of us, so I just thought, “What would I tell? We’re all so nice!” I only had this one diary, and it was sort of a closed circle of a world, but I had to stay true to the diary – it would be wrong of me to try to make it more than it was. The temptation to make it a better book was great, but at the same time it wouldn’t have been a better book. It had to be that kid’s diary.

I read an interview that you did recently were you said some of the new songs were originally written for 50 Foot Wave, but then you realized that they were really supposed to be for Throwing Muses. What makes them Throwing Muses songs?

Really I always know because I write 50 Foot Wave songs on my SGs or my Les Paul, and Throwing Muses songs are written on my Telecaster or my Strat. So I know right away – I just try to sneak them off onto the wrong record sometimes. And my drummers can always tell, and they always get pissed off. And they’re always right. So I had to take a few songs that I had wrecked by trying to put them on other records and give them back to the Muses. Dave was just like, “Damn straight! Those were always mine, what were you thinking?” But that’s all it is, the only difference is the guitar I reach for. I think when you first hear a song and you’re just in it, that’s when you know the most about it. And that’s why I trust that moment of the guitar making that choice.

Can you talk about what inspired “Clark’s Nutcracker” [a track that borrows its title from a bird that, as Hersh explains in the Purgatory/Paradise book, “is capable of planting entire forests. It can stash 30,000 seeds in one season; a huge surplus that, if not eaten by something else, will eventually germinate and grow into trees”]. I thought that was so cool, reading that part of the book.

I don’t know what inspires songs. I don’t know why they happen. I hear them. I was told I was bipolar, and in the last year I was treated for [post-traumatic stress disorder], and it erased all my bipolar symptoms. So the therapist decided I was never bipolar, that I have split personality. That causes such anxiety that it mimicked mania. And it causes depression too. It’s often misdiagnosed first as schizophrenia because you hear voices – in my case it was music – and then bipolar because of the depression and anxiety. And so I was treated for split personality, because the music was a different personality.

That’s why I was so different from the music. I’m very nice, I’m very shy, I’m sort of the opposite of what all that trauma sounds like. So that’s why I heard songs – it was the other personality playing music and it wasn’t really me. This is all very recent, so I have no memory of having written any of my songs ever. I have no memory of performing them either. If you ask me what they’re about, I don’t know. I can play them and sort of be in the spirit of them. I get them, but that’s all I know about them. That’s how the essays were written. The personality was me, but me in the listening mode. So I can’t really help you any more than the essay. I don’t really have much more to say about it than “Hey, there it is.”

All throughout the album there’s a really strong sense of place. Do you find that living on the island shapes your music?

Probably. The island’s so beautiful and so grim and so perfect and so broken. But I don’t really know much else – we were started here when we were 14, and our sonic vocabulary hasn’t really changed all that much. We just sort of speak this language and don’t know much else.

What were the early days of the band like? Where did you guys play?

We played in Dave’s parents’ attic. We spray-painted the walls to try to make it cooler. He has such a nice family. His parents would sit at the bottom of the stairs and listen for some reason. It was very sweet. It’s a tiny island and sweetness has always been a very important part of what we do. Anyone who’s ever been in this band has always been very kind. If you want your product to be a gift, you can’t inflict it on people. There has to be something that’s nice about it. Even if it’s an expression of something very ugly, you should do your best to make it beautiful – even if it’s never going to be pretty. You’ve gotta go for sweet when you can.

Who were some of the first bands that inspired you?

I think we started our band before that happened. We just had this music and then it helped us understand other people’s music. Throwing Muses made us fall in love with X and the Violent Femmes and the Minutemen. Up on the Sun by the Meat Puppets was my soundtrack to our first record.

I love that part in Rat Girl where you guys had to pay to get into your own show.

That happened to us all the time! My editors didn’t believe me; they wanted me to take it out because they said it couldn’t have happened. But it happened constantly. They hated us.

What was it like being so young and being in a band and taking care of everything on your own?

Well, the car was my car, the Silver Bullet. We just jammed everything into the back and all sat up front. We were real losers. But we had to work hard. You load out, if you’re headlining, at about two or three in the morning. We had to drive home and then get up for school at six. We were sleeping two hours a night.

Rock clubs back then tried really hard to be scuzzy. They didn’t even have to try, but they did anyway. It was good to be sort of inducted into squalor that way because you learn fast what it takes to survive. It’s not safe, it’s not clean, it’s not healthy, and it’s where music has to happen. It was good for us. We had that boot camp and then went to Boston, where the scene was just so supportive. Everybody was supposed to sound like themselves. I don’t remember there being headliners – we all just played. It was such a celebration. As soon as were signed and started touring around the world, we were kicked out of that scene. They celebrated us still, but we could tell we weren’t local anymore.

I read another recent interview where you talked about packaging your music in a way so that it’s not too strange for the listener. What’s that packaging process like?

You don’t want to allow your work to be stuck in time. And you don’t want to alienate anyone. And those are kind of the same moves – you alienate people by trapping yourself in time. It’s good to be able to erase, to keep cleaning up. If you’re going to step back from your lump of clay and try to peer into its heart and see what it wants to look like, then you have to have the balls to keep cutting away and cutting away. It doesn’t matter if you work on a part for a week, you’ve gotta have the balls to erase it if it’s best for the piece. That’s how we end up with these skeletons. And if what you add is anything but viscera, then you’re sort of called upon to tear it away. Songs don’t want makeup – they don’t even want skin. They want bones and they want guts and then they’ll last forever.

In the intro to the Purgatory/Paradise book you talk about hoping that the new songs reach the few ears they’re truly meant for – who do you most want your music to be heard by?

That’s been my new M.O. after all these years of telling everybody they should listen to my band. Now I’m saying, “It’s probably not for you.” And it drives them crazy. They’re like, “No, it is! I get it, I get it! Gimme gimme gimme!” But you can tell. If you make a mistake in public, if you publish a song that’s bullshit, you’ll get listeners who are liars. And they don’t always know it, but they don’t see clearly, they don’t hear clearly, there’s no connection made. But if you publish a work that resonates, you feel it. You don’t always have to look into their eyes – you can talk to them on Twitter and you know that the song is doing its work. I think anybody who’s ever been moved hard by me expects that high again. Usually those people are funny, I gotta say that. Kindness and sense of humor imply a lot when it comes to musician and listener – or maybe any human being, actually. But this is how I relate to human beings.

I love that line in Rat Girl about how Throwing Muses is good for you like spinach.

Yeah, we were so healthy. And you weren’t supposed to be healthy, you weren’t supposed to be nice. And we’re so nice! We were always such losers.

What do you think makes music good for you?

It has to taste really bad and you still get it. That’s why it can be ugly and beautiful but never pretty.

What music has been good for you in your life?

It depends on what I need. I treat it like medicine. Some Vic Chesnutt songs have been really good for bringing me back to Earth. And there’s a Ry Cooder record, Paris, Texas, the soundtrack to the movie. I’m not even a Ry Cooder fan but there’s something about the atmosphere that will shift time for me. During the hurricane last year, I was evacuating my children – it was me and my kids and my dogs, and I shoved us all in the car with some food and blankets. The Coast Guard turned us around because of a fallen power line; they said it would take 20 minutes to clear it. But after 20 minutes the roads were no longer passable because the water level was rising. I thought, “Oh my God, my kids are gonna drown,” but instead of saying it out loud, I just turned Paris, Texas on and suddenly the windshield wipers weren’t wiping away a hurricane – they were just percussion. And the Coast Guard foghorns blowing were just part of the Paris, Texas atmosphere, just reverb. And everybody got it, everybody calmed down, and we just drove back home. I stopped the car, put Paris, Texas on in the house. It was like, “Okay, now the hurricane is medicine too.”

Are your kids into music?

They are, but they hide it because I’ve made it very clear that they’re not allowed to be musicians. I say, “You’re not allowed to play music, you’re not allowed to think about music. Music is not safe.” And they go, “Okay, Mom,” and then they learn to play instruments behind my back. And they’re all really good.

Do you have any guidance for people who feel really drawn to making music, about how to deal with it being so unsafe?

All you can do is not suck, really. Because that’s all you have control over and otherwise there’s no point. Maybe that’s not good advice but it’s all I got.

So after Purgatory/Paradise, you’ve got a new solo album coming out as well?

Yeah, it looks like I made two. I didn’t mean to. I thought I was making one. But I said for a year I’m going to put a song up every month, and then for the Strange Angel supporters [fans who help financially support Hersh’s work], I put a secret song up. So if you do that math, you end up with 24 songs, not 12, which is two records. I also have a 50 Foot Wave record in the can. So people are gonna get real tired of me real soon. But that’s okay. Just do as much as you can before you die, right?