Throwing Muses
Kristin Hersh
Get Involved!
"Cracking Up Is Hard To Do: The Break-ups (And Breakdowns) Of Throwing Muses" by David Shirley, Nov/Dec 1991 (originally published in Option Magazine, edition #41)

  • Kristin Hersh = KH
  • Tanya Donelly = TD
  • David Narcizo = DN
  • Leslie Langston = LL
  • Fred Abong = FA
  • Throwing Muses = TM
August, 1991. It's been a hectic year for KH. In June, she returned to her Rhode Island home after a gruelling six months on the road throughout the U.S. and Europe just in time to give birth to her second child and witness the break-up of her band, TM, and her ten-year partnership with TM's other frontperson, Tanya Donelly. As KH tells it, both events had been in the works for the best part of the year.

Ryder James, KH's second son, was born on July 16, about a month early, but without any other unanticipated complications. The demise of TM, however - precipitated by TD's decision to start her own band - turned out to be a bit more complicated. David Narcizo, TM's longtime drummer, is the only member to continue playing with KH; and the band name was a source of serious debate. "Dave and I were all set to start all over ourselves and had decided to call our new band Khuli Loach" says KH - a name they borrowed from a small, worm-like fish. "And then one day we were looking through this Oregon music directory and there was an ad for a band named Khuli Loach! You'd think there'd be another Throwing Muses somewhere, but Khuli Loach?!"

So KH, DN and a bassist to be decided on later will go on as TM. "Besides," says KH, "it seemed rather self-indulgent to be changing our name at this point. And since we already have our own bin in most record stores, it really wasn't that smart of a move to begin with."

The name TM, according to KH, who was a philosophy major in college, had come from a passage written by the late German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger. At the end of their final tour together last spring, TD and KH said they had recently been bothered by the Heidegger association. Lately, bookshop philosophy shelves have been crowded with a dozen or so books taking the philosopher to task for his apparently active support of the Nazis. KH and TD are resolutely intolerant of bigotry. "T.S. Eliot was anti-Semitic, "TD said, "and that breaks my heart because I just can't deal with that at all. I just won't deal with racism of any kind. How can you be that talented and that blind at the same time? Sometimes you'll meet these incredibly beautiful, intelligent and otherwise wonderful people, but on this one subject it's literally like they've had some part of their brain die."

Bad politics aside, the Heidegger connection is appropriate. Whatever else he may have written or said, the man did spread the not-so-good news that human beings are thrown unmercifully into existence at birth; that each one of us spends his or her entire life in mourning over the certainty of our deaths, whether we choose to admit it or not; and that the best and truest thing a person can do is to let himself or herself be an instrument on which "being" (however you choose to define it) can play. Peel away a layer or two of jargon and pretension and you get to the core of KH and TM. (Besides, even if the Heidegger-as-soulmate theory is stretching things a bit, the association with a loud, grungy American rock'n'roll band would have irritated the hell out of the arrogant, elitist philosopher - a fact that should have given TD and KH at least some satisfaction.)

TD, KH, DN, and original bass player Leslie Langston all grew up together in Newport, Rhode Island. The three women had been friends since they were about eight years old, and began playing music together at 15. At first inspired by groups like the Beatles, they later discovered the Velvet Underground, Violent Femmes, X, and Husker Du - their more obvious rock'n'roll antecedents. DN joined a couple of years later, and TM stayed with that original lineup until LL's departure two years ago. The band made its initial mark in Providence as part of the same scene that had given the world Talking Heads.

TD's departure isn't all that surprising. Always limited basically to two cuts per album, her writing and singing had grown stronger and more confident with each new album, reaching a peak with "It's Not Too Soon," the highlight of TM's latest album, The Real Ramona, and the band's most recent video. And her involvement with Pixie Kim Deal in the Breeders suggested she was aching to branch out. KH insists, however, that the parting was amicable and carefully considered. "We had decided to dissolve the band last year when we were recording The Real Ramona," she says. "The Throwing Muses Co. - the business part of things - had gotten a lot bigger than any of us wanted it to be, and it just wasn't fun for any of us anymore."

TD has not yet settled on either a name for her new band or a label (although the TM's label, Sire, is still a possibility), but she may be joined by the TM's most recent bassist, Fred Abong, who hasn't yet decided whether he will keep playing or go back to college. KH has been working on new material since the tour ended, and she and DN start recording their latest project in October. Joining them will be TM's original bassist LL, who, according to KH, probably won't be coming back to the band full time. "Dave and I have been the core of the band for ten years now," KH says, "and as things stand now, it's just the two of us. We'll hire a new bass when we need one."

I first spoke with KH and TD in New York last May, on the day of what would have been their last performance together as TM. Neither talked openly about the move they were privately planning, though the conversation, in retrospect, seemed somehow laden with the suggestion. Asked later why they hadn't been more forthcoming, KH puts it bluntly: "Basically we lied." At the time, KH and TD attributed their undisguised musical frustrations to their exhaustion with being on the road for six months. KH, who was seven months pregnant at the time, obviously had more than her share of reasons for complaining.

Touring pregnant in a rock'n'roll band is a less-than-enviable accomplishment, one that only a handful of women have cared to match. Chrissie Hynde, Exene Cervenka and Tina Weymouth (who toured all the way into her eighth month) come immediately to mind. "But Patti Smith didn't do it," KH said. "She decided not to release her record. We were talking to Arista at the time, and Clive Davis' only real pitch to us was, 'Hey, if you get pregnant, I won't make you tour.'"

KH and Td had just arrived in Manhattan for the last date on a virtually nonstop tour of Europe and the U.S., much of it spent crammed in the back of their new tour bus and barrelling across the country with the other members of the band, drummer DN and bassist FA. The two women were the kind of tired that takes the seriousness out of even the most pressing concerns. Propped dutifully on opposite ends of KH's hotel bed, the two unofficial TM spokespersons ("Sometimes we make the boys do the interviews," KH admitted) were trying their best to bemoan the terrors of touring, but their hearts just weren't in it. Even their most chronic complaints were punctuated by joking and laughter.

"We wanted an airbrush painting on the side of our bus," KH sighed in mock despair. "You know, one of those great scenes with a sunset or surfers or something like that. But ours is brown; it's this fucking brown bus!"

"We'd probably just get sick of the design anyway," TD conceded. "What we really need is one of those changeable, rolling signs on the side, so ewe could have a different airbrush image every day."

KH, normally as petite as Td, was majestically swollen with what would be her second child (5-year-old Dylan was mercifully conceived and born during an extended homestand fro the band), and the long days and nights ere beginning to take their toll. "It's a good thing I was born thin," she laughed, "because I haven't slept in weeks. I'm too fat to sleep. It takes me an hour just to roll over."

Collapsed against her pillow, she recalled a recent and particularly harrowing predicament on the road. "The other day was this really pregnant day and it was 100 million degrees outside and our bus has no windows. It was so hot and I wanted to go home so badly." After the band's performance that night, "I finally found my way offstage and found a couch to lie down on backstage. I had shut my eyes and was just drifting off. And people kept coming over and poking me, saying, 'Can you sign this? I don't have a pen.' I was really woozy and thinking to myself, 'Who are you people? Why would you do this? I would never do this to anyone! Why can't everyone just leave me alone?"

"The first time I was pregnant I was really, really sick," she continued. "I had to quit school, and I was just nauseous all the time. But then we would play, and for that time we were on stage, I would just feel nothing; everything would just go away. And it's been the same way this time. There were a lot more things to feel this time, but playing has been fine."

Anyone who saw TM on the last tour, or has listened to their latest album The Real Ramona, knows that the musical changes were much broader and more substantial than Hersh's occasionally errant guitar licks. Compared to the band's other Sire releases, House Tornado (1988) and Hunkpapa (1989), the latest songs are simpler and less fragmented (if no less cryptic lyrically: "Pour dimes in diamond jim, two months to fill him in"), and the production is more ambient, even pretty. Many of the songs rely further on the swelling, overlapping arpeggios, two-string vibratos, and other dual guitar techniques for which KH an TD were already known.

That new sound, KH said, was not so much a departure as it was a deliberate return to the simpler, more basic sound of the TM's earliest live material. "I think the production reflects an earlier attitude that we had somehow lost," she said. "It sounds live and it sounds raw. But the songs are very solid and open, and a lot of our other songs hadn't really asked to be treated that way. They hadn't really asked for solidity or space. But these do. So they're a lot easier to listen to."

TM had reached something of an impasse with the strained, complex compositions of their most recent pre_Ramona efforts; the sudden stops and starts, and the often convoluted counter-tonal arrangements of that material had peaked on 1988's brilliant, but at times gratuitously difficult, House Tornado. "Much of our earlier music was a lot more mathematical," TD recalled, "and very, very busy. We just played a lot of notes very, very fast. The new stuff is a lot more traditional guitar-wise."

"And a lot easier to play than the math stuff," KH agreed. "Before the new material, we had just been trying to push the limits of each of our parts on every measure of every song, which to us was fascinating, but to the listener, I think, began to sound like we were all playing a different song. And if each performance isn't exactly right in time - if you haven't written the perfect counterline to everybody else's parts - it all sounded" - she laughed - "you know, just too complex to be groovy."

Anther apparent reason for the new sound was the addition of bass player FA, who replaced former bassist LL after LL moved to San Francisco two years ago and got married. (LL got together with her former bandmates during one of the TM's West Coast dates and, according to KH, was doing well and looking forward to working on her own material soon.) FA, a former drummer, brought a much more linear and percussive feel to the band's rhythms. "Fred's playing is so appropriate to the new material that I wouldn't really know how much effect it's had on our music," said KH,. "I think LL was a very flowery player, where FA is a very punchy player, having been a drummer. But he was also a fan before he joined the band, so I think he understood what kind of parts we needed."

All the changes had brought DN's drumming more to the front. An amazing vertical, almost wristless drummer, on stage DN looks like he's trying to hammer his kit into the floor. His jagged, explosive attack always kept even the band's darkest and densest numbers on the verge of frenzied dance ability. "DN had never played a set before he joined the band," KH explained of the origins of DN's style.. "He was in a marching band and was this very talented snare drummer, which really has worked well for us, although DN and I kind of ended up playing the same part on different instruments for almost all the early songs. He had worked without cymbals for a long time, so he was forced to develop interesting patterns and not lean on just the same old backbeat."

Before their split, TD and KH had begun to reflect on the impact of gender on their music; after all, they'd added a second male member to balance what was originally a female-majority lineup, and it had altered their sound significantly. KH attributed the earlier music's difficulty to its distinctly feminine sound. "House Tornado especially is very intense, in a small, unmeshed way," she said. "It's a very female record. The parts fly off in all different directions; they don't follow any straight line. The strength of it - and I think it's a very strong record - comes from detail and solidity."

"It was scatterbrained," countered TD. But KH and TD never set out to make a female record, any more than they had ever tried disguising the fact that they are women. "We don't sit around thinking about what gender we are and what gender we're not - and two of us are men, of course," KH said. "But I'm gradually coming to think that there is probably a lot of stuff that comes naturally to TD and myself that is literally feminine - and our guitar lines are part of that, and our vocal lines are part of that, and our song structure is part of that."

Over the years, apart from their normal fans, TM had attracted a rabid, almost frightening cult, which had become a major worry for them. The responses of some of these fans were troubling and often intrusive - particularly to KH. With lines like "my hands are cupped and full of blood," and the rumours of her Delphic approach to her dark, brooding monologues, more than a few fans have turned to KH and the rest of the band as mentors in the arts of suicidal angst and romantic self-pity. KH is disturbed and bewildered by what she insists is a complete misunderstanding of her work.

"We just have a lot of fans that I can't connect with, who completely misread our music," she complained. "And I wonder why that is. Lately, I've come to hate myself - at least that image of me obsessed with poetry and suicide - as much as people who hate this band hate me. I think that a lot of the people who do this - who come up to me, expecting this angst-ridden poet - are really self-involved, and they project that onto a lot of things, including our music. Sometimes that's necessary, I know," she admitted, "sometimes you just have to do that. But encountering it all the time makes me very, very tired."

Some TM fans have gone to pretty desperate lengths to seek an audience with the band, including posing as music journalists wanting an interview. "Most of our fans are great," TD insisted, "it's just the ones who approach you like that. I, for one, would never do that to a band - you know, walk backstage, introduce myself and just start up the way they do. But the people who approach us are kind of desperate sometimes - the ones who approach KH anyway. It's really a small fraction of the people who listen to us, of course, but they're the ones who are always in your face." Both women were guardedly optimistic that The Real Ramona would discourage the more morose misconceptions of their music. "Maybe everything will change," KH said. "Maybe we new have this whole slew of fans who are happy, wonderful people, and not self- involved at all."

KH has undergone her own periods of mental struggle between herself and her work. At first, she was guarded and reluctant to speak about it - "The one thing I don't want to talk about," she said, "is poetry and suicide." But soon she became quietly reflective - and then surprisingly candid. KH and TD, who are half sisters, began writing songs together when they were about 15 and, according to KH, "you just learn the craft the best that you can. As that process went on, and we became better songwriters, it started to kind of happen by itself. Songs would write themselves without me having anything to do with it, or having any say in it. And they started to be about these fucked-up things. They'd have these images, and I couldn't figure out what they were... just these scary images. I just became this kind of empty vessel for the songs."

By the time KH reached her late teens, things started to get out of hand. "The songs would make my life do these things I didn't want to do," she said. "And it made me feel crazy, actually. I just thought, I'm only existing for the songs and they're killing me in the process. If this is what Art is, I don't want anything to do with it. But it wouldn't stop. I just kept writing songs and the songs were beautiful. So I thought, if this is sublimation, then I should just be writing songs and not let it kill me. because I couldn't stop the process anyway."

KH isn't sure how, finally, to define her experience with the music. In an interview early this year, she matter-of-factly identified her condition as "bipolarity." It's a self-diagnosis that could be taken as a euphemistic acknowledgement of manic- depression (which is sometimes referred to as "bipolar disorder"). More likely, the comment was an attempt to identify herself with the wacky, often irresistible psychology of Julian Jaynes (author of The Origins of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind), who pleads for each of us to listen patiently to the voices in our own head.

Either way, KH seems either unwilling or unable to let go of her inner voices, with which she insisted she had learned to live more comfortably. "I'm not sure it's inspiration," she concedes. "I'm not sure what it is. And it's taken me up until the last few years to say, "I'm gonna live my life next to this. I'm not thinking that it's gonna come and kill me, and that everytime I sing it's gonna kill me a little more. Now I just say, I'll give you this space in my brain; I'll give you this time in my life. But you can't touch my body, you can't touch my family, you can't touch my mind. My songs write themselves still, but now it makes me happy instead of crazy."

Whatever it all means, some level of belief in the possibility of "inspiration" - of drawing from outside of her personality and point of view for the material - remains crucial to KH. "The songs seem like the truth to me," she says, "but not the truth that i'm going to live out in my life. I mean, I wouldn't presume to write about just myself and ask anybody to care about it. But there's something that I share with other people that's beneath my personality and my life, hopefully."

Having gone through such a difficult period of adjustment together, the members of TM are understandably offended by anyone, including well-intentioned fans, attempting to romanticize misery and emotional distress. "I'm really, really anti-craziness," insists KH. "I have no idea why anyone would find that attractive." "It's insulting to people who really are disturbed," adds TD. "And it's insulting to life," concludes KH. "You're asked a lot just by being alive. You're asked to be a lot and make a lot of yourself. And to sit there wallowing in misery and poetry just seems backwards to me."

As the first American band signed to the English cult label 4AD, success came suddenly and intensely for TM. It wasn't a financial success, but success in terms of their being able to play the kind of music they truly wanted to play for a relatively sizable audience. It has been only recently that the members of TM have begun to question what they're doing at a quarter of a century old and still "playing" in a band. "It all happened really quickly at first," says TD. "We've had a strange progression because none of us has had to work since we were 18 or 19." Says KH, "In the beginning, we didn't have any long-range goals or plans; we were just very driven by the moment. And the music itself was just very important to us. And the music is still important to us, although it gets more and more watered down."

Watered down? "The music's fine, it's just that it doesn't have the same hold on our lives anymore. It's not that the music has lost its focus, it's that we're less focused on the music."

This "watering down" process - fuelled in part by the departure of LL, the pregnancies and childbirth, the growing hassles of touring, and the unceasing birthdays - had led the individual TM to begin defining themselves outside of TM, to think of the band as either a less permanent or more part-time project. "This is the first time we've all said, 'So then you make another record and then you tour, and then you make another record and then you tour, and then you make another record...'" says KH. "I mean, how old can you get? So maybe we'll have to find another way to do this." TD agrees. "I would always want to do this in some capacity," she says, "but this is the first time that I'm feeling maybe I want to be a mother and an archaeologist instead." TD majored in archaeology. "Can't you just see me digging around in my go-go boots?"

While TD contemplates parenting and desert ruins, bassist FA has taken up carpentry. For KH, however, the door to philosophy and "high art" seems soundly shut, as she illustrates with a story about the end of her college career. Shortly before her scheduled graduation, concurrent with the end of her first pregnancy and the TM's first recording sessions, KH enroled in an art therapy seminar on relaxation. "I thought, 'Great, I need to relax alright.' And they were all drawing these animals to help them relax. So I drew this little blue blowfish with a horn on it. Everyone else had drawn these unicorns in these beautiful lush forests. We were supposed to be drawing an animal that represented us, and I had this ridiculous-looking little thing lost in the middle of this huge page.

"Everyone was going, 'Kristin, that makes me feel so sad. It's like you have no environment. Don't you feel grounded in any way?' And I thought, 'Yeah, I feel like an abandoned blowfish.' So I didn't graduate. It's the last thing I ever did in college."