Kristin Hersh: ‘When I called this a supergroup we laughed’

Kristin Hersh is thoroughly enjoying her first concerts in more than two years. “It’s been wonderful,” she says on a crackly phoneline from Edinburgh. “Musicians are like muscular dogs who have been pent up for a long time. Now we’re finally getting to run around the world again.”
Kristin HershKristin Hersh
Kristin Hersh

There’s been a lot of catching up to do. During the pandemic Hersh’s long-time band Throwing Muses released their 10th album, Sun Racket, and last month her noisier side project, 50 Foot Wave, also brought out a record titled Black Pearl. She also released her second memoir, Seeing Sideways.

“We had about half a dozen tours cancelled as a collective – Throwing Muses and solo and 50 Foot Wave – so this touring band, which is Fred (Abong) from the Muses and Rob (Ahlers) from 50 Foot Wave and me from me, when I called this a ‘supergroup’ we laughed, but now we’re using it as an excuse to play whatever the hell we want.

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“I don’t feel trapped in the record cycle any longer, in other words. It’s just when you want to work and if the recorded material is asking to be released then you can start pitching it around the world. Other than that, we don’t really let anybody tell us what we want to do.

“When I’m doing readings, they will inform the musical material and hopefully bring a little literacy to my set,” she chortles, “but if I’m not feeling a song I shouldn’t be playing it because I can’t use it as a sort of syringe of memory to bring to...I don’t want to say an audience, but another human, I won’t be a carrier of anything, I’ll just be sitting there mouthing the words like an actor and that’s not my thing.”

Hersh has found gig-goers’ enthusiasm to be much the same as before the pandemic. “Everybody just got together, there was really no mention of the break, it was kind of like old friends, because this isn’t much of a performance, we offer focus not really dancing around and asking everybody how they are,” she says. “We work really hard but only with intensity, not tap dancing, we don’t do a lot of selling, so in our case it’s not so much of a show as a getting together, we pick up where we left off like old friends.”

It’s been six years since 50 Foot Wave’s last album, Bath White. Hersh sees the trio – which also includes Bernard Georges on bass – as a different creative rabbit hole to her the Muses and her solo work. “The material asks for it, the songs tell me what to do, that’s why this band happened at all,” she says. “I had these songs that weren’t Throwing Muses songs and they weren’t solo, and Bernie and I wanted to redefine musicians as a co-operative, people who donate their time and if there’s any money to be made, it’s not because we think music is for sale but because we showed up with our bodies and earned it with our effort.

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“So 50 Foot Wave became more of an ideology than we realised but it was necessary because the industry was failing and falling and even the low-hanging fruit was all taken up. We were losing some of our best soldiers through all sorts of things including suicide, and we thought that the symptomatic response should have shown itself earlier due to the contagion attention, which is the currency, the commodity and the problem. We wanted to be a band that didn’t seek attention and that took the dollar sign out of the equation. So the relationship between musician and listener would be determined by mutual support. We do the work, they do their work, and we released a record called Free Music for this reason, we made it for free but also we gave it away and we did two million downloads of that and Billboard Magazine called me all freaked out saying, ‘Who are you? We need catalogue numbers and copies and we need to know how much money you made’, and I said, ‘We don’t make any money’, they said, ‘Oh, never mind’. I said, ‘I knew it – you were just counting dollars’ and they were like, ‘Well, yeah, of course’.

“So while it was initially a response to the songs themselves, it became a method of determining what the contagion is, and we figured it was attention. Old Hollywood figured out that money is a problem, the spotlight being trained on as a bought-and-sold cue for attention is a misapprehension of art and entertainment, but what do you do about that? No-one has really been able to solve that problem. It’s still moving pieces and I am not rigid in any way, in fact we as 50 Foot Wave first said no record companies, now we’re using Fire because we don’t have to earmark listener funding for production, distribution and promotion, it’s a team effort with these people who actually care about music.

“I initially left the industry 30 years ago saying ‘I’m not going to play a part in this. You’re sending the message that women have to be part of this child pornography ring playing product, this is music, these are human beings and I’m not going to participate’. They wouldn’t let me go, it was that bad; it’s taken me this long to say I’m not going to take myself out of the industry.

“I would like others to become musically literate, but unless they’re going to play their own material it’s difficult to put them in touch with what lying is versus what honesty is. Honesty, it seems, is confusing, unscripted, at best a diamond in the rough, but the only diamonds they know are draconium. It’s not a new story but it’s a new way of trying to live.”

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Asking if there were particular inspirations behind Black Pearl elicits more laughter. “Jeez, I’m not good at answering that question,” Hersh says. “I always have another song when I pick up the guitar. Throwing Muses songs are written on my Tele(caster) or my (Fender) Strat(ocaster), 50 Foot Wave on my (Gibson) SG and on my Super Baritone and sometimes a Les Paul, but that’s how I know what band my song is written for. I was in New Orleans riding out the pandemic in the neighbourhood called the Black Pearl and these songs were so slow and the vocals were so soft, I thought I had picked up the wrong guitar, this can’t possibly be 50 Foot Wave.

“But if you infuse that with heaviness, the soft vocals become a kind of waking up on somebody’s floor, not weakness but wrecked-ness, not destroyed just a little ‘ah, it’s early’, and then the slowness just becomes heavy. In this case when production kicked in, it got kind of trippy. I was surprised. I thought someone with three entities is maybe more at risk of keeping them in little cages. If I had the one band I would say, ‘This is our next move’, so I let them make this next move although it’s a little out of character for the band.”

Having said in the past she felt dissociated from the song-writing process, and that tracks just appeared, today Hersh finds herself much more actively involved in their creation. “I was treated to PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) that I suffered when my son (Wyatt) was taken away when he was a baby and the EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) which they used to treat PTSD is so effective that it’s almost too sudden,” she says. “It’s a snowballing effect that I wasn’t really prepared for. It messed with my music for sure. I had compartmentalised to such an extent that it was not in Kristin the person who could be a really nice lady all the time. I’m still a really nice lady but you can tell I’m more like the songs now and I don’t hear them any longer, but when I pick up a guitar I just know the song.

“Not that there isn’t craft and work involved but the inspiration is no longer hidden from me. We’re not allowed to hide from life, so I’m not allowed to hide from life or music.”

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Throwing Muses may only have released three albums in the last 25 years but Hersh continues to see the band as very much an “ongoing entity”. “We don’t feel like it’s necessary to record everything we play, we’re literally not about the business even though we probably should be. This is going to sound either stupid or pretentious, but we see music as a river and you’re lucky if you can grab a piece of it. So we have these musical pieces because we like to hang out in that river sometimes and some of those pieces are for other people or for capturing. It’s not a qualitative difference, but some songs are more social than others, some songs are better played once or kept in the dark. So when we make a record it’s because there are a bunch of songs that wanted to go out and make friends and then we can tour all of them.

“Sometimes we’ll go out on the road and people don’t know any of the songs we’re playing because we don’t put them on records, but they can be captured in a moment in a room almost effortlessly because if it’s your own effort it sort of gets in the way, it should be very fluid. We’re looking for that fluidity. It’s a conundrum. I don’t think the industry is in any shape to consider what music itself is, which is an energetic, and if people have lost touch with their own form then it’s a tough sell to say this should be spiritual, this should be grounded, not fancy, not flashy, it should be like your body and it should be like God. Can you put those things together? OK!

“50 Foot Wave is similar. We just are always playing, we’re a road band so we’re touring all the time – or at least we were. So it isn’t really a record that gives us the opportunity to tour but these pieces of the river that want to be played out loud. And if you consider the venue itself, it’s not for people showing off on a stage, it’s to facilitate the listening process. So when musicians are onstage the spotlight should not be on the people, it should be on the music. If you want to see how that’s played then you can watch the people but it’s not because people should be selling their images or their names or being bigger than others, of higher status to the low status audience, it’s a real f***ed up equation we’re working with right now and I’m still grappling with how best to display that, to make it available without seeking attention, without fashion, without showing off.”

After the 50 Foot Wave tour is completed, Hersh aims to continue with her 12th solo album. “I’ve recorded about half of it,” she says. “It takes me years to make a record, it’s part of is why being listener supported is so handy. I just have this idea that it could be perfect and I owe them that. By perfect I sometimes mean producing until it’s overproduced as an experiment and then erasing, erasing, erasing, just constant experimentation until the real piece shows itself. That can take a long time. I don’t want to be a big baby but I am so obsessed with this idea that it might be perfect someday, even if perfect means a big mess.

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“Since Black Pearl is released I can focus on that when the tour is over next fall. I also signed on for three books which is another example of what a bad planner – and also a bad sleeper – I am.”

Kristin Hersh plays at Hebden Bridge Trades Club on Wednesday May 11.

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