Photo Credit: Peter Mellekas
Hot on the heels of recent interview with Lee Ranaldo we had a chance to catch up with Kristin Hersh (50 Foot Wave, Throwing Muses) another artist who needs little introduction for anyone that lived through the golden age of indie rock
I’ve read that on this new album you play all the instruments yourself, notably ones that weren’t previously ‘available’. Can you tell me more about some of those handmade tools, and on possibly which tracks we can hear those sounds?
My favorite of the Frankenstruments involved wrapping piano wire around the body of an unstrung guitar and attaching a buttload of finger cymbals over the sound hole. Then I played slide leads back through an amp and let it resonate from a few inches away, miking the cymbals, not the amp, so the natural delay thickened the leads. I mean, the thing’s not pretty, but I needed to hear it. And it was better than feedback.
The leads were wailing but they weren’t textural until I layered the playback with this ugly, naked tambourine guitar that looks, I dunno, kinda S&M. The less said about the kazoo monsters the better, though I like what they add. Kind of misfit toys without an island. And then many, many drums without heads filled with beads and bells. Cello strings on an African balafon… You can hear them all best on the last song, “Shotgun.” That instrumental outro that never, never ends.
On “Wyatt at the Coyote Palace” and it ‘seems’ a lot of the music that has come from you in recent years is very much a reflection of a life lived on the road. Do you find the road a comforting place at all? Or not at all?
The road is like jail with a view. Or like being a barfly. Your clock is other than – noon to 4 a.m. – your energy is dead until it explodes. We get shot at and cheered for. Hungry, unwashed, hungover, lost, you feel like a wandering ghost. And strangely giddy. Comfort comes from those beautiful cheap motels and their American hiding. Overseas, we’re too busy keeping our eyes open to get too lost. Then, comfort comes from alert interest, hoping to see something you’ve never seen before.
These days how do you differentiate where to place your songs? In other words, at what point to you is a song for you, Throwing Muses or 50FootWave?
I write solo songs on my Collings guitars, Muses songs on my Strat and Tele and Fippy songs on my SG’s and Les Paul. I know how dumb that sounds, but it’s true.
You have been awesomely lucky to have your ‘Strange Angels’ (quarterly ‘subscribers’ to your work) helping you out! Since you decided to have your audience be your backbone as far as most financial support, how have you found traditional barriers being broken between artist and “fan” has benefited your work?
Music is free, sharing it isn’t, and there are different aspects to offering a quality product. I can decide not to emotionally manipulate early on in the musical process and that doesn’t cost anything. But if I avoid fashion in my production approach – as fashion is essentially manipulative – that could be construed as an expense. It alienates trendier listeners and makes marketing more difficult for publicists and radio.
A timeless, honest sound won’t insult the musically literate, however. So that’s audience I don’t alienate. Similarly, high quality studio output invites the listener into the room with you in a way that home recording doesn’t. It’s a balancing act, determining how much effort and expense will help you see return customers and a sustainable career. Listeners who help pay my studio costs get the music free, both recorded and live. So we exchange investment. I invest in the idea that there is no lowest common denominator and they invest in music that isn’t for everyone, but specifically for them.
Going way back, when 4AD first approached you based on hearing a demo with Throwing Muses, were you aware of what they had done in the past, and how did you feel about that — if anything, being so stylistically different from the usual label fare? Was that a non-issue?
I had heard some 4AD stuff and I did notice that we were nothing like that ethereal sound and smooth production. They were gauzy reverb; we were goofy and scary. But so was Ivo and it was his label. I trusted him, still do. Style is sometimes substantive but always an indicator. Removed from our subculture, the British seemed to take us at an odd face value, as if we came from outer space. Whereas in America, we had precursors to our sound like the Violent Femmes, X and the Meat Puppets. So it wasn’t a non-issue, exactly, but we had the Pixies up our sleeve to make us less lonely on 4AD.
I admire that you have your children and their obvious positivity scattered throughout your work. I remember specifically the sound of your first child on an extended take of “Soul Soldier”, then hearing (I believe) Ryder on the title track of “University”. Later as well, hearing your children actually performing with you on “Murder Misery and Good Night”. Have they always enjoyed being a part of the music experience with you?
You’re so kind to have picked that up. “University” was called haunting and even disturbing because of the echoey toddler voice embedded in that instrumental. I think an aspect of child rearing that’s foreign to those who aren’t parents is the inherent melancholy and fear in what is essentially a life or death situation every day. And sweet sadness for the loss of every baby that disappears to become child, teenager, then adult.
Wyatt, my third son, danced onstage at 50FootWave’s first show and upstaged us terribly. He is an incredible dancer. You can see a little of his dancing in the “Clara Bow” video.
But letting my kids play and sing along with murder ballads? That was child abuse.
Lastly, I am an enormous fan of Throwing Muses, and am quite familiar with that band’s music. What one track do you feel best represents that band?
My favorite Muses track is “No Way in Hell.” Radio hosts are always baffled when I request it, but I like that it’s underplayed and still moving. A humble song. I really, really like the no-drama-no-melodrama aesthetic. Thanks so much again! 🙂 Thank you!