Perfect Sound Forever

Kristin Hersh

Interview by Billy Hell
(February 2005)

The first time I heard Kristin Hersh on the radio, she was backing up Tanya Donelly on the song "Green" (from the first Throwing Muses album). The late John Peel said that Kristin's voice spooked him, and that he couldn't listen to her songs. When Kristin sings, she stares as if she's burning holes into the back of the room with her bright eyes. She is one of the most original, brilliant, funny and tragic songwriters you'll find.

Now that Throwing Muses can only afford to exist on an occasional basis, Kristin keeps the fire burning with 50 Foot Wave, her new, hard rocking power trio with Throwing Muses bassist Bernard Georges and drummer Rob Ahlers. Counting her solo career, Kristin now has three outlets, for three different kinds of songs. 50 Foot Wave kick up enough of a garage storm to back up that tsunami-brag of a name – taking a much more direct approach to drumming than Throwing Muses – and with a two records out in 2004, the songs just keep crashing ashore.

The first part of this interview originally appeared in the 09/24/2004 issue of Manchester Metro News, a free weekly newspaper. The questions are mostly standards asked of every interviewee each week. It is reproduced here with the permission of the editor.

PSF: What would be your perfect day?

KH: My boy Bill, plus old movies, our babies, guitars, apples, coffee, and it'd be Autumn and we'd be in Seattle.

PSF: What is your greatest extravagance?

KH: I think waste basket liners are unnecessarily fancy – you know, the thing you put in the garbage can so that no garbage actually touches the can? – so I don't use them indiscriminately.

PSF: What is the most exciting thing you ever received through the post?

KH: A couch, all the way from New Mexico. It arrived during a blizzard and it was carried on the back of a former circus performer (really). I mean, he didn't carry it all the way from New Mexico, but what I saw out my window was pretty wacky. He was big and muscle-y and bald and he had gold earrings and no coat and he was...I may have said this, but he was carrying a couch on his back.

PSF: What's your idea of a perfect meal?

KH: Vietnamese summer rolls and Sierra Nevadas.

PSF: Do you have a favorite hangover cure?

KH: See above.

PSF: What vehicle do you own?

KH: I have a bike and a scooter and a big fast dog, and a bus and two cars.

PSF: What was the first job you ever had?

KH: I worked in a health food store, where I sat in the back room and weighed bran – and you now what? Bran doesn't weigh anything! – because I was afraid of the customers and their various ailments. The store didn't seem to attract healthy people, only sick ones who wanted to be healthy.

PSF: Do you have any irrational fears?

KH: All fear is irrational. And yes.

PSF: What is the oldest item of clothing you still wear?

KH: A blue T-shirt with a picture of happy squirrels at summer camp on the front.

PSF: Who do you love?

KH: My boy Bill, plus our babies, plus all my band-mates past and present.

PSF: Who, or what, do you hate?

KH: I hate heat, I hate itching, I hate the smug and the selfish.

PSF: What newspapers and magazines do you read?

KH: I've been effectively boycotting popular culture for a while now, as soon as I realized that it was all ephemeral knowledge. If I miss something cool or important, let me know though, okay?

PSF: What would be your desert island book?

KH: Natalie Angier's Beauty of the Beastly.

PSF: What is your favorite TV program?

KH: Green Acres, circa 1966.

PSF: What was the first record you ever bought?

KH: X's Under the Big Black Sun, maybe?

PSF: Where do you go to relax?

KH: Home.

PSF: What is your most annoying habit?

KH: Apparently, when I talk, it doesn't make any sense.

PSF: What is your favorite journey?

KH: The drive from San Francisco to Seattle (or vice versa).

PSF: What is your favorite part of Manchester?

KH: The Britannia. Many weird times were had in that weird place.

PSF: What is your ultimate ambition?

KH: I'm not particularly ambitious.

PSF: Which person has most influenced you?

KH: The aforementioned husband being kind, being nasty, being deathly serious, being deathly funny...being there I guess, with the understanding that he might not have been.

PSF: What is your greatest achievement?

KH: The aforementioned babies. I'm obsessed with music, but the children are the real reason I'm here.

PSF: Choose three people, dead or alive, to invite to dinner?

KH: Shirley Jackson, Myrna Loy and my old biology teacher, Ms. Carmen DeWitt.

PSF: Do you believe in God?

KH: I was raised Buddhist, so all I know about God the Guy is that believing in him seems to make other people mad at each other.

PSF: Do you believe in love at first sight?

KH: happens in old movies and I like old movies. I'm gonna say yes but I probably don't really.

PSF: Do you know who is number one in the charts?

KH: Absolutely not.

PSF: Do you support the death penalty?

KH: Tribal rule doesn't seem to translate on a grand scale.

PSF: Do you understand how to work a video recorder?

KH: I've pushed a few buttons in my day.

PSF: Do you sing in the bath?

KH: I never sing.

PSF: What would you like to be your epitaph?

KH: You can write whatever you want. See...I'll be dead.

The following interview happened at Liverpool University, just before 50 Foot Wave kicked 'scouse student ass on the 28th of September 2004.

The big Kristin Hersh band and family bus was late arriving in Liverpool, so there wasn't much time for an interview – there was a lot more I'd have liked to ask!

PSF: In the interview you did for Manchester Metro News, before this Autumn 2004 tour, you mentioned a favorite book, Natalie Angier's Beauty of the Beastly, and I was curious about that, as I haven't heard of it.

KH: She's a science writer for the New York Times. It's just a collection of her articles. It's really great.

PSF: You said in that same interview that you are obsessed with music, which is fairly obvious, but did you mean your own music?

KH: Any music, I think. Great music! I don't listen to my own music. [chuckles]

PSF: Except when you're playing it!

KH: Yeah, but I don't put it on in the house!

PSF: What music do you listen to in the house?

KH: Nothin'! I hate music! If it's good then it moves me, and I don't want to be moved! I just want to live my life and think about that, and if music's bad it makes me angry, so...I don't really put on music on purpose.

PSF: But you're obsessed with music...

KH: Uh huh, that's why! [chuckles heartily]

PSF: There must be other music you like.

KH: Oh yeah, but it moves me too hard to put it on in my house. I'd rather just have a normal day than be moved that hard.

PSF: You must like some of the bands who supported you in the past, such as Come, Pond and Pixies?

KH: Yeah, and Vic Chesnutt. I grew up loving bands like the Meat Puppets, Violent Femmes, the Minutemen, Hόsker Dό and X.

PSF: Although those must have influenced your music, there isn't anyone I can really compare it to, and I can't say that about many bands!

KH: Really? I wouldn't know. I wish that I had been more derivative, maybe. Just so the vocabulary didn't seem so strange. We didn't mean to ever be strange. I guess we were because everybody says we were. It's almost like speaking your own language. I find we kept people out of our world by doing that.

PSF: Especially earlier on, many of your songs such as "Delicate Cutters" and "Mania" deal with very intense feelings. "Mania" seems especially hallucinogenic – was that song something like a bad trip?

KH: It was what a manic state feels like, or did to me. Some people feel happy during the manic state, but that never happened to me. It was just this burning energy that I couldn't stand. It was far worse than any depression, but I barely remember it now, to tell you the truth. It was a very long time ago. I still play it but...

PSF: You aren't playing any Throwing Muses songs with 50 Foot Wave are you?

KH: No, it never really came up. We did one solo acoustic song of mine because we ran out of encores. We did a month long stint at the Silver Lake Lounge in Los Angeles when we started. We only had six songs, so we had to play long instrumentals and double choruses. In the end they asked for one too many encores, so we had to play "Your Ghost."

PSF: You played that a few nights back in Manchester too, with the full power trio.

KH: Yeah. It's a little unrecognizable, but it sounds cool. It's never really come up. We always write another song to add to the set! We're a new band, so we only have fourteen songs.

PSF: Another song I've always loved is "Two Step," and I always wondered, were the lyrics and the atmosphere of that song inspired by a dream?

KH: It sounds kind of dreamlike. I started out writing from dreams when I was very young, because that's an easy route to the unconscious. But it doesn't discern between the collective unconscious and the personal unconscious, so you could be really into a song that speaks to you, but to nobody else, if you go that route. I find its better to keep your dreams and empty out every bit of psycho garbage you've got to carry around with you, and then you can hear songs. By the time I wrote "Two Step" I wasn't writing from dreams anymore, but it's a very similar state to be in – to be overdosed on sleeping!

PSF: Do you think music could link its fans subconsciously?

KH: Well, if you're going to write a song, you're hoping to key into something else, hopefully something bigger and smarter than you. I would assume that the listener's doing their work to be in that world, where that song is supposed to exist. Joe Henry says it's like a conveyor belt going by, and you reach up and grab a song!

But it also entails what feels like going into a different world. Vic Chesnutt was the first person to make me feel better about that than I did; it was always like a bad trip to me, there was nothing I could do to stop it happening. Vic has a better attitude about doing things like jumping off of cliffs. He just has this, "Wheee!!" reaction to it. [chuckles] He taught me it was OK, as freaky as it can feel, because you get a song at the end. Now I feel it's as much a blessing as a curse.

PSF: There was something Neil Young said, about his more intense music with Crazy Horse; he said that if he played like that all the time, it would destroy him.

KH: Yes, exactly.

PSF: But surely you feel driven to play music with Throwing Muses, or 50 Foot Wave?

KH: Yeah, I wouldn't want to live like that though. That intensity is necessary and is beautiful, and feels like a great celebration as long as you confine it to the right atmosphere, and the right time. I wouldn't want to be that kind of person. I think it probably sells records to act like that kind of person.

You know, when I was on Warner Brothers they were always telling me to either dumb it down or play it up. Playing stupid music definitely works, but so does being melodramatic and pretentious. And I refused to do that! Certainly the music could be seen as melodramatic and pretentious if people wanted it to, but I was never going to go out there and act that way and try to be this mysterious dark rock star.

It would be very easy for them to sell that – they've done it hundreds of times. I think it's kind of important that that kind of intensity comes out of normal people. I wouldn't trust somebody who was acting like a rock star to write me any songs!

PSF: You said you'd been boycotting popular culture as much as you possibly can.

KH: Which you can do!

PSF: I never watch TV, except videos other people show me occasionally.

KH: Really? I love old, old '50s and '60s TV. Most of the TV we watch is black and white. TV is a great medium. You definitely have to pick and choose or you can get a pretty dark glimpse into popular culture! I learned in the desert that if you don't watch it, it doesn't exist. Those trees can fall all they want and you don't hear 'em! [Laughs] And it's a nice place to be because the knowledge you get from human nature and animal nature is much more important. That's the stuff you can take with you.

PSF: You like animals a lot, snakes and squirrels...

KH: Yeah, I was going to be a scientist. I majored in biology and psychology. I didn't want to be a musician at all!

PSF: I studied biology at this university (Liverpool). I didn't finish.

KH: Nor did I - pregnant and signed!

[Kristin's oldest son Dylan arrives to tell us our time is up]

PSF: You have a song called "Fear," and you were asked if you have any irrational fears and you kind of dodged the question by saying that all fear is irrational, and "Yes." What do you fear?

KH: I'm so witty! This is my oldest son. As soon as I had him, I became afraid of everything, and before that I was afraid of nothing. [to Dylan] Hey, you're going to blame me for a lot! I can blame you for that!

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