photo by K. Lyle
Kristin Hersh interview
by Peter Crigler
Kristin Hersh is an icon; one of the queens of indie rock, and revered for being so influential. Starting the Throwing Muses in the eighties and beginning a solo career in the '90s, she blazed her own path and never looked back. She is definitely one of the forerunners of the Riot Grrrl movement and should be bowed down to by all female alt rockers.
PSF: When did you become interested in playing music?
KH: When I was 9, my father gave me his guitar. I haven't really put it down since.
PSF: What caused the formation of the Muses and what was the music scene around you like at the time?
KH: We were 14-year-old kids, so the music scene didn't affect us, which is a good thing. I wanted us to invent a language, not make an impression. But they let us play and that was so kind of them. We opened for our heroes and built an audience of art students. "The sea of glasses" we called it. Luckily, we were also on hardcore bills, so we had a following of kids who liked noise too.
PSF: How did you develop your songwriting style?
KH: It developed itself after I sustained a double concussion in a car accident. I've heard songs ever since.
PSF: How did the band come to hook up with 4AD and later Sire?
KH: Ivo, the president of 4AD, somehow heard a demo of ours and started calling our apartment in Boston, saying that he didn't sign American bands. Then he did, for some reason. After that, we were courted by all the majors. That was gross, to tell you the truth, but Ivo and I are still close.
PSF: What was it like working with Gil Norton for the first record?
KH: Gil was getting shocked a lot in the studio. He kept jumping around and yelling, then sticking his fingers in his mouth and looking at us accusingly. I'm sure there was also some production happening, but I mostly remember that.
PSF: Was there any pressure to keep the songwriting and recording pace up and did it cause any stress on the band?
KH: I've always had way too many songs.
PSF: What was 'success' like?
KH: I can't say that I remember anything I would call "success" except bringing the next song to fruition.
PSF: What ultimately caused both Tanya and Leslie to leave and how did you and David deal with it?
KH: No one left, really. Leslie couldn't tour any longer and I dissolved the band while we were making the Real Ramona because I hated the corporate approach to selling music so much.
PSF: What was it like recording Red Heaven?
KH: Dave talked me into making Red Heaven or, as he put it, "being a band that doesn't give a shit about anything but being a band" and Leslie wanted to be a part of that, so she came back for that record, just couldn't tour it. We were a trio but Les wasn't signed to Warner Brothers.
PSF: Did you have any apprehension starting a solo career?
KH: That seemed nuts to me, like the math didn't work out. But it taught me important lessons about the pencil sketch approach to music as opposed to the loud colors of a band painting.
PSF: What was it like working with Michael Stipe and Lenny Kaye on the Hips record?
KH: Nice people. I actually only work with nice people. Kindness is (almost) everything.
PSF: Was there hope at Sire that University would be a bigger 'unit shifter?'
KH: University was our biggest record and it performed through word of mouth alone. Mostly great radio backing it. Sire never lifted a finger to sell Muse's records. They told me that we were signed to help them sign other bands who were more willing to play the suck-to-succeed game. Which was fine with me. I just wanted to be left alone to play.
PSF: What ultimately caused the split from Sire?
KH: I bought myself out of my contract by trading them my first solo record for my freedom.
PSF: How did it feel to be a full independent band again?
KH: Indie is where we belong. Not sure why it took me so long to figure that out. It seems pretty obvious.
photo by Andrew Catlin
PSF: What caused the initial 1997 breakup. Was it amicable?
KH: I don't think we ever broke up; we just don't always have the money to be on the road or in the studio. Everything in my world is amicable. I love my bandmates too much.
PSF: Have you been pleased with how your solo career has proceeded?
KH: As long as my songs are telling me what to do and I'm listening, I'm happy.
PSF: How did you feel transitioning into writing with Ratgirl and your ode to Vic Chesnutt?
KH: Songs are speaking music, books are speaking English. And not everyone speaks music, so the opportunity to communicate is interesting. Still fairly esoteric in my hands but that's because the truth is impressionistic.
PSF: What is the current status of the Muses?
KH: We're in the studio in LA.
PSF: What are you currently up to?
KH: Just got home from a two year tour supporting Wyatt at the Coyote Palace which means I'll be catching up on bills and kids for a bit. Then back in the studio with the Muses and 50FootWave. There's a book on the table I'm halfway through writing, but that means getting up at 4AM for a few months and I'm not QUITE ready for that.
PSF: Do you think of yourself as a kind of alt rock female icon?
KH: "The Godmother of Grunge"
No. I think of myself as someone who's so shy she's scared to go to the grocery store.
PSF: What do you think of the impact of alternative rock in the '90s?
KH: It never really hit; not across the strata of the scene. Which means it's still going strong. Lots of voices that weren't extinguished trying to sell out.
PSF: What do you ultimately hope your musical legacy will be?
KH: I hope we'll be beyond the idea of musical legacies soon and more about a collective voice that moves musical literacy forward one listener at a time.
Also see Kristin Hersch's website
...and our 2005 interview with Hersch
...and Peter Crigler's blog
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