isIn 2013, after Kristin Hersh’s 25-year marriage ended, she found herself broke and without health insurance. The songs she wrote afterwards “were about drowning in one way or another,” she says. She wants it literally and metaphorically.
Hersh was relaxing by the water’s edge in California and – because she was taking the prescribed Klonopin tranquilizer – nodded. The tide came and she woke up in the water. “I’m a triathlete, so I’m a really good swimmer, but that surf just wasn’t moving to shore,” she recalls. “I was swimming as hard as I could, but the shore didn’t come close and I started to pass out.
A bystander called for help and a rescuer arrived. “He’s starting to realize that we can’t get out of the flow and we’re not moving,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is ridiculous, I’m drowning with a rescuer. His eyes were rolling back into his head and he was coming up to breathe but coming back down. Suddenly we were brought down by the current and made it ashore.
The songs she wrote afterward became Sun Racket, the 10th album by Throwing Muses, the Hersh band formed with her half-sister Tanya Donnelly while in high school in Rhode Island. He deftly marries courage and grace – with arrogant, riff-rich tracks such as Dark Blue bleeding in the woozy melodic drift of songs such as Bywater. “I write songs that haven’t happened yet and then it happens,” she says. “I don’t think I should be telling stories unless I have lived them.”
Few artists understand the intensity of living his art like Hersh. At 16, she was knocked off her bike by a car and a head injury caused a strange auditory side effect where ambient noises she heard in everyday life swirled around her brain and often mutated into specific musical words and sounds. . She described the sensation as musical epilepsy – but it became the model for the songs of Throwing Muses.
By the time Hersh was 19, these songs had filled a self-titled debut album and Throwing Muses were the first American band to sign on UK independent label 4AD. Hersh was also pregnant, misdiagnosed with schizophrenia – soon to be incorrectly re-diagnosed with bipolar disorder – and had survived a suicide attempt. “I don’t know why anyone would listen to it,” Hersh says of this album. “It sounds psychotic to me.”
Several years later, Hersh realized she was suffering from PTSD; once treated, it turned out to be a dissociative disorder. She feels that the music that ran through her head as a teenager was another personality, exacerbating her lack of memory and connection with her own songs. She dubbed this alternative personality Rat Girl (the title of her 2010 memoir). “I don’t think it’s so unusual to disassociate,” she said now, feeling healed of the disorder. “It’s by slowly infiltrating our culture that we sometimes disappear.”
This supposedly psychotic debut album remains a very beloved piece of work and it sparked a long career mixing post-punk, indie, college rock, pop and alt-folk. Their idiosyncratic sound is driven by Hersh’s voice, which can change from a gargle of broken glass to a tender song. Until 1991, she was also embellished by melodic harmonies and Donnelly’s second spiral guitar, before she left to form Belly. Drummer Dave Narcizo’s preference for omitting cymbals from his drum setup – due to his teenage fanfare background – resulted in deeply rhythmic compositions with erratic time signatures, punctuated by the throbbing and twisted basslines of Bernard Georges.
Nonetheless, the band fit perfectly into 4AD’s roster, merging pleasant harmony with overwhelming discordance. “The label was like family,” says Narcizo. “They were so sincerely involved in what we were doing. It was a real community of groups. Their Pixies touring mates soon followed them by signing to the label, and then came the explosion of alternative rock and grunge.
The common narrative of the time is that Nirvana exploded and the big A&R labels came to wave their checkbooks in any underground guitar band, marking a decade where oddities like Butthole Surfers and Jesus Lizard struck deals. General public. But Throwing Muses preceded all of that, Narcizo says. The band’s concoction of crisp guitar and harmonious melody – along with Hersh’s distinctly personal but obtuse lyrics – initially led US labels to think of the band as the next big thing in the late 1980s. a binge eating on the part of the majors, ”says Narcizo. In the end, they signed in the United States with Seymour Stein’s Sire records, with 4AD taking care of all other territories. “Seymour came to us and fell asleep but still made an offer. “
It was Sire’s list that was the attraction. It was home to Talking Heads and the Ramones, as well as many British bands such as the Smiths and the Cure, but the label’s parent company was Warner and they didn’t find the same family-style experience there. “Seymour signed us, then put us in the lap of Warner Brothers,” says Narcizo. “On the first day of our meetings, they took us from office to office to meet all of these department heads. Half of them had no idea we were coming or who we were.
The group has never sought to be “willfully obscure,” says Narcizo, but says that “of all our peers, we’ve always been the hardest to sell.” Yet while the band could listen poorly to listeners avoiding easy wins and big choruses, they were hardly esoteric: The Real Ramona from 1991 is a tense and contagious mix of rock and pop while the album that brought them down. brought down in the United States, The University of 1995, presented some of their most brilliant and accessible work. In a sense, their trajectory isn’t too different from their REM friends – just without the mega-hits.
Yet Throwing Muses proudly and defiantly remained on the outskirts. “We didn’t want to be a cult band, but I think we became one,” says Narcizo. “Kristin has a singular purpose and sees the devices people use to have fun with a larger audience as a threat to that singular purpose. There is a running joke in the group that Kristin’s favorite flavor is simple. She always advocates undressing – any adornment. ”
Hersh felt disheartened to see so many artists of their time chasing the appeal of the general public. “It was disappointing that fashion and ambition replaced focus, but that’s what happens to a genre of music,” she says. “It starts out as this black hole of intense, raw, very concentrated energy, but it’s unpleasant – it’s dangerous and it’s uncomfortable. Then to sell that they imitate it, dilute it, shape it, reduce it and then it dies. This is where it infiltrates the culture.
She also sees her refusal to assimilate as a moral obligation “not to participate in an industry that wants certain things from women and manipulate them”. She develops: “I was not going to turn my back on my sisters. All the women you throw under the bus when you play this game kissing a rich white cock is not harmless. It is turning your back on your own humanity. This philosophy has roots beyond the rock boom of the early 90s: “I raised my little brother and had a baby when I was a teenager. This small group of organisms that I was taking care of gave me a different kind of muscle. It meant that the bullshit was rejected early on and ultimately it served me well.
Almost 35 years later, Throwing Muses’ status as a cult hero looks more like fate than misfortune. “I knew right away that integrity would pull me down into the gutter,” Hersh laughs. “But I lived in a gutter. I like the gutter. Yet she is not still. After swearing she would never sign to a record label again – for years Hersh used a fan-backed system to fund her solo work and her other band, 50 Foot Wave – Throwing Muses’ new album is on Fire Records. Why this change? “I don’t want to be a rigid thinker,” she says. “Rigidity does not serve open-mindedness.”
It is a state of mind that has led to a reassessment. The label’s new situation leaves more time to create in the studio – a place Hersh calls her “church” – and she has embraced a heightened sense of awareness. “I never thought of myself that way, but this record is very much about survival,” she says. Fortunately, she hung on: a new relationship was imminent, with Hersh now engaged to former Throwing Muses bassist Fred Abong. “There’s a lot of sweetness and a lot of sadness in the record,” she said, “but there’s also less anger than usual because it captures the penultimate step before peace. “
• Sun Racket is now available on Fire Records