Chick Music

Talking Shop with Kristen Hersh of Throwing Muses

by Tom Cornell

Throwing Muses guitarist/songwriter Kristen Hersh is a rock institution who's been in the business since alternative got its name. Her music strays away from what she describes as the beer commercial grooves of masculine mainstream music and draws on more abstract, emotionally charged material. Coming off the success of her solo release, Makers, Hersh is back with the Muses and has recently released a new acoustic album called University (on Sire), which is arguably their best release to date. MELVIN's Tom Cornell interviewed the genuinely nice Hersh about her new release and the problem of writing songs that don't pander to mainstream ideals.

You've got a great new album. I think it's my favorite one of yours.

KH: Aww, thank you, sweetie. Me too, it is my favorite too. And I thought that when I made my favorite record that everyone would hate it, but that is not the case.

It is great to hear you back with the Muses. And I must say, I dug the solo stuff too.

Yeah, I liked it too. It just took me by surprise.

I got the impression it was just a one-off thing for you.

Um, that's not necessarily true. I never expected to make what we would call a solo record. I didn't think they were going to write my name on the record cover.

...Well, what did you think they were going to do?

(laughs) That's what they said! "Can you think of a better name to write on the cover!?"


I dealt OK, but I am kinda old to be learning new tricks.

Oh, come on now!

Well, it felt like that, anyway. I am used to walking into the studio and telling everybody what to do, knowing what should be done by when...and I had to start making stuff up, I didn't know anything about making an acoustic record. And then I had to play sitting in a chair to a bunch of people who were sitting in chairs. Nobody was drunk or yelling!

((PULL QUOTE: I had to play sitting in a chair to a bunch of people who were sitting in chairs. Nobody was drunk or yelling!))

And they are all clapping politely after the songs...

Yeah, except they talk, because the vocal mic is eq'ed for speech at an acoustic show. You can talk to them and they don't go, "What?!" So you have conversations, and it was actually really cozy. It was like just having a lot of people in my living room except I was getting paid.

Well that's a nice perk. Did you bring anything back to Throwing Muses from the solo experience?

Not really, because both records were recorded at the same time. I still wasn't taking (the solo record) seriously. I didn't think I'd be taking the time to tour it and promote it. So I just did it in a couple of weeks and went back to work, but University had to be put off for it.

I see. So University, the recording of it was happening, what, a year and a half ago?

Yeah. It was good, though, it meant that we had a long time between making and mixing the record, which usually gives you a less nit-picky perspective. We mixed it long distance. I had to get the tapes mailed to me on the road. So we'd get a tape and we'd have to pretend to be shopping for speakers. We'd say, "We have to listen to this tape!" (laughs)

That's a different way of mixing an album, I suppose.

Yeah, we couldn't really talk to each other while the mixing was going on.

And do you think that helped the record?

(laughs) Well, I don't really have anything to compare it to.

Was University an easy album to record?

We played live to give it a real feel, so you don't think anyone is lying about who is in the room playing what. On top of that, these songs are so delicate, a lot of production, a lot of detail. They're not fragile songs so they don't fall apart or turn slick or anything like that, but we had to spend a lot of time being self-indulgent about creating sounds and entertaining ourselves and bringing the character out of every passage. It was just us and the engineer, and we would hear something and it would just go down on tape. It's hard to be ungraceful if you don't have to go through too many rings.

So it worked well to produce this one yourselves.

Yeah. We also produced Red Heaven. That record had to imitate the impact of a live set, and we didn't just play live, we had to recreate the effect of live sound. It involved more production, but it didn't really differ song to song.

So University was a bit more involved then?

Yeah. Well, we were all living in a big house down in New Orleans. So we'd just get up in the morning and have coffee and then we'd go into the living room and that's where the record was recorded. It was pleasant.

What a great way to record.

Yeah, you're in New Orleans so...

There's plenty to, ah, keep you busy...

(laughs) Yeah. We actually had to work on that for a while, the basics were getting sloppy and they sounded fine. (laughs) So we took about a week off of the New Orleans party scene and then went right back to it.

Yeah, it is hard to stay away from partying when you are down there.

It is just like hiking in Colorado, but it's drinking.

The Interview Continues...