jeudi, septembre 30, 2004

Kristin Hersh

Waving, Not Drowning

Ex-Throwing Muses front woman Kristin Hersh is back with power trio 50 Foot Wave. She discusses doing things on her own terms, as well as the wisdom learned from getting her gear ripped off at 17.

By Charles Hodgkins. Associate Editor. September 30, 2004


Kristin Hersh is not your run-of-the-mill wife and mother of four. Now 38, Hersh's disarmingly affable demeanor masks an intense work ethic that is responsible for a discography as extensive as it is varied. Hersh formed Throwing Muses as a teenager in 1983 and signed with the highly influential English label 4AD a few years later. With her probingly personal lyrics, forceful voice, and jangly guitar, Hersh became a major figure in the college rock scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The radar of mainstream success may have never picked up Throwing Muses, but the band's standing as one of the more important groups of the pre-alternative era remains firmly in place.

Throwing Muses continued in fits and starts and even called it quits in 1997, only to reform for 2003's solid, self-titled swan song. Along the way, the ever-prolific Hersh released a half-dozen albums under her own name and even scored a modest hit with the 1994 single "Your Ghost," a duet with R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe.

20 years after starting Throwing Muses with stepsister Tanya Donelly in New England, Hersh formed a new band in 2003 with Throwing Muses bassist Bernard Georges and new drummer Rob Ahlers. Christened 50 Foot Wave, the threesome is a power trio in every sense of the term--and unapologetically so. Hersh's guitar scree and deep caterwaul careen over Georges' gurgling bass and Ahlers' ham-fisted yet precise pounding. A debut EP appeared in March 2004, and the band's intention is to release an EP every nine months, in addition to maintaining a rigorous touring schedule.

With seemingly half of her comments punctuated by bursts of laughter, Hersh continues to maintain an honest, fresh outlook on the music business, family life, staying connected with her fans, and the rigors and joys of playing in a band for a living. As she packed for 50 Foot Wave's first European tour, Hersh juggled her youngest son, along with questions about her new band, her contemporaries, throwingmusic.com, and the true meaning of "punishing."

MP3.com: Last year, you started a band for the first time in two decades. How's it been going?

Kristin Hersh: It's great. At first, I thought, "Ah, so this is why only teenagers start bands." (laughs) Because when I started the Muses, I was going to high school in the daytime and then college in the afternoon. Then I would drive to the practice space, take the gear up and down three flights of stairs--amps, drums, [and] everything--and drive the band to Boston, New York, Providence, or wherever we were playing. Then I'd try to collect our money, and I'd get guns pulled on me, we'd get our gear stolen, [and] stuff like that. Then I'd get everybody home by 4:00am and get up and go to high school again, which I didn't have to deal with this time. I just have four children now. (laughs)

It's been great to start it in the right way--in the right frame of mind.

MP3: You must feel a certain wisdom coming on by this point in your career.

KH: Absolutely. And the face of the music business is changing as well, which works for our philosophy. The music-sharing and the fact that we earn our money by touring means that we don't have to play the game. We don't have to be stupid enough to pretend that people are going to buy us radio airplay or hire stylists so as to fool preteens into liking us. So it's nice that we can offer our music to people who share our philosophy.

I tend to not trust anybody playing music who doesn't have a normal life. (laughs) I don't want any rock stars telling me right from wrong. The music should have a lot more to say than that. Being pretentious really sells. (laughs) So does being larger than life. It's the music that's supposed to be larger than life--not the people playing it.

MP3: You're extraordinarily busy and productive these days, and you're making some of your most vibrant music ever. What drives you at this stage of your career?

KH: I guess I feel lucky to be doing it at all. But that's always been the case. I started out not giving a s*** about anything but music, and you just get pushed and pulled in so many directions--from critics to labels to management. Literally, [former Sire Records chairman] Seymour Stein said to me, "Stop being so Kristin Hersh!" (laughs) And I knew what he meant...and I still know what he means. And it makes sense. But I shouldn't have tried to stop. I should've just stayed honest. And now I know--I'm right back to my desert-island self, and I'm never going anywhere else.

MP3: When did you stop being Kristin Hersh?

KH: Hunkpapa...that's where the Muses just went (imitates sound of diving plane)...just downhill. And it took breaking up the band and starting it again...

MP3: Which was a long time later, because the Muses didn't officially disband until about eight years after that.

KH: Yep. By the time we made Red Heaven, we knew that we were never going to give a s*** about the music business again. And that's a great place to be. But that said, Throwing Muses couldn't afford to be a band for more than three records. And that's OK. We were lucky to play at all.

But this time, I think the business model reflects where our aesthetics lie. It keeps us honest. It's not that I'm anti-success at all. In fact, we're trying to tap into what I consider to be a huge audience of discerning listeners. I don't want shows full of frat boys ever again. (laughs)

MP3: You had that once before?

KH: Yeah, whenever the Muses were played on the radio, audiences changed completely.

MP3: Throwingmusic.com launched in 1996, and you've always maintained a very active presence on the site. Talk about its importance to you and your fans.

KH: [Manager] Billy [O'Connell]'s really the one who decided that's how we were going to find our people. He knew that that's where the people who don't turn to Top 40 radio, Spin, Rolling Stone, and MTV were going to turn for their information. And we have a great, little community going.

MP3: It seems as if the site is a huge part of your business unit as well.

KH: As much as we say music is a right, good people want to support good music, and they turn out to buy a fistful of CDs, even though they can download whatever they want.

People who know what happened to Throwing Muses--they don't want the same thing to happen to 50 Foot Wave. So they support us any way they can. We actually had fans get together and offer to be our "record company"--more of a sugar daddy than a record company, actually. They wanted to fund future projects.

MP3: Wow. That says a lot.

KH: It certainly does. They did it because they didn't want us to become mired in the record company swamp. So we had to explain that that plan sounded just as evil as if we decided to go the record company route. (laughs) We said the better way is to record cheaply and offer the CDs for cheap.

MP3: Tour, tour, tour. Merch, merch, merch.

KH: Yeah, just to turn people on to the stuff. I'm not actually anti-major label like a lot of musicians are. I'm more anti-lazy musicians. (laughs) A lot of musicians would like to keep their cushy lifestyles going--to record in the studio and be paid for that. But really, that costs money. It's working that makes money. And it's hard to call playing music work.

I spent close to a decade on Warner Brothers. And I was impressed, on one hand, that there are companies that will give musicians money to make records. It was then my understanding that they would turn around and try to sell those records. (laughs) But it's such a big mess that they gamble on signings and then only work a few of the records. And if you're considered to be difficult or cultish, then they can't afford to turn on their marketing machine to sell your product. But that was alright. We got to make records.

MP3: You seem to have grown into a position of being considered a role model. Have you had any musical role models of your own over the years?

KH: I started so young that I was able to find my own voice before I could really be influenced by others--which I kind of wish hadn't been the case. It made me very strange. I didn't come from a background where I could take pieces of other people's musical vocabulary and put it together in a new way, which tends to be much more palatable for the listener.

But I did feel a kinship with bands like the Violent Femmes, X, Hüsker Dü, and the Meat Puppets. And that hasn't really changed.

Now I think I would add Howe Gelb and Vic Chesnutt to that list. I think Vic is a very similar songwriter to me. Even though we don't sound the same, I think there are very few songwriters who...(pause)...go to that place to get their songs. It's a place that really freaked me out when I was younger, and I would have done anything to never have it happen to me again. Vic taught me some good lessons about appreciating that. Vic would jump off a cliff, if he could. And that's what he considers the songwriting world to be. It's disturbing to him, too, but it didn't disturb the crap out of him the way it did with me.

MP3: Are you comfortable being considered a leading woman--first in college rock back in the '80s and now as a veteran performer and songwriter?

KH: I don't feel like a woman (laughs). I tend to reject that. As much as I like women, I only like 'em 'cause they're people. And I feel like more of a person than a woman.

I said no to Lilith Fair over and over and over again, because I don't believe that if you're fighting for equality, you should be into isolating yourself. I don't get that at all. There are great women out there and crappy women out there. And that's their prerogative, just like men.

I just hate the idea that men are people and women are women. And I hope that, as a songwriter, I don't come off as a woman. I hope that anyone of any shape, size, color, or age could listen to it and find something about themselves in it. Maybe that sounds goofy.

I read this great preview in the Village Voice about a solo show of mine that said, "You should go to this show if only to appreciate the cross section of humanity that will turn out for a Kristin Hersh show." (laughs)

MP3: Who do you see as your contemporaries? You started Throwing Muses so early on, and you've been playing so long now, it would be understood if you're a party of one.

KH: (pause) I guess Charles from the Pixies. I like his solo records and what he's doing by recording to two-track. It's a really good idea. I think X is great and still going strong. They all still make solo records.

My sister is also making great solo records. The new one is really pretty. I love what Tanya's doing right now. It's very stripped-down. It's great.

MP3: I just reviewed Whiskey Tango Ghosts and really liked it a lot.

KH: We played together in Vermont when she was trying that stuff out. I was really excited and was hoping it wouldn't turn into something else in the studio. And it didn't. It's real pure-sounding.

MP3: You two also have something else in common in that you both work with your husbands.

KH: I like that we have kind of a family business. Billy was my manager before I married him. He was a label manager at Sire and left to manage the Muses and the Pixies. But what he's done...he's just created business after business around what I do, which I would just do in the garage if left to my own devices. The Virtuous ticketing company, the Web site, Throwing Music as an entity, and Throwing Management as an entity... I'm just braggin' about my man. (laughs)

MP3: Did you ever expect someone would describe your songs as "punishing"?

KH: Well, yeah, actually. (laughs) I've heard something like that before. (laughs)

MP3: Musically, I mean. The 50 Foot Wave EP is pretty aggressive.

KH: It is--and that feels so great. So positive and so...fun, of all things. The band grew up around the songs themselves. That's the way the songs were coming out. I knew that they weren't meant to be played solo acoustic, certainly, and I knew they weren't even Throwing Muses songs. So Bernie and I kind of came upon Rob, and whatever we did together seemed to match these songs perfectly.

There's certainly release in what we do, but it doesn't seem cathartic to me. It seems more like emotional intensity rather than having to spew bile. It feels so positive, and people react in a positive manner. We're not dark, and the crowds aren't dark. It's interesting. I don't know why I'd associate aggression with darkness or negativity, but that's what I naturally do. And that's not how this band comes across at all.

MP3: When's the next 50 Foot Wave EP coming out?

KH: It's kind of up to 4AD and when they can clear their schedule. But it's planned for January right now. We just mastered it. It's really great. (laughs) I shouldn't say that, I'm sorry. But it's unusual to come away from a studio experience not wishing for more time. And this one just sounds great to me. It was essentially recorded live. There aren't even any overdubs, other than vocals. It's even harder than the last one. The last one sounds sort of poppy.

MP3: You mentioned you're waiting on 4AD. They're putting out this next EP?

KH: Just for the overseas release. We're on 4AD and its licensees everywhere outside the US. Right now, doing things ourselves here is the best way to survive. (laughs) We may sign with someone in the future, but right now there's nothing that anyone can offer us that we can't do ourselves.

MP3: Any plans to do another solo or Throwing Muses record, or are you just seeing what transpires?

KH: There's a solo record in the works, but it won't be recorded until the spring, and I don't know what that means as far as a release date. But I think the plan is to do three 50 Foot Wave releases and then compile them into an actual long-play release--then a solo acoustic release again.

MP3: What have you been listening to lately?

KH: Uhhhhh...I don't listen to music. I don't like music.

MP3: It's got too many notes?

KH: (laughs) If it's good, then it moves me, and I don't feel like being moved. And if it's bad, then it just makes me angry.

MP3: You don't feel like being moved.

KH: Well, yeah. I'd rather just...hang out. Be with the kids, walk the dog. I have enough intensity on the inside without it being on the outside, too. (laughs)

MP3: Beatles or Stones?

KH: Beatles.

MP3: Why?

KH: 'Cause I'm a girl! (laughs)

MP3: Lots of girls like the Stones.

KH: Really? I thought it was like the way that women like the Marx Brothers and men like the Three Stooges. Mick Jagger's a show-off.

Aside from his work for MP3.com, Charles Hodgkins also writes thrilling accounts of the San Francisco taqueria scene. His previous story was about Ambulance Ltd. and Elefant.

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