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Throwing Muses' Kristin Hersh on Performing: 'I Call It Disappearing'

'Purgatory/Paradise' is band's first record in a decade

Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses performs in London.
C Brandon/Redferns
November 29, 2013 1:00 PM ET

The title of the first Throwing Muses record in a decade is Purgatory/Paradise, but frontwoman Kristin Hersh has another name for it. "Our pet name is Precious/Pretentious," she says with a laugh. Speaking from Aquidneck Island in Rhode Island, where she was raised, she says that while the title does not reference Dante – it's actually a reference to an intersection of roads on the island – she's happy to have escaped the inferno of making the album.

"It took us five years to make this record and we are absolutely obsessed with it," she tells Rolling Stone.

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Close to three decades ago, the indie-rock innovators issued their self-titled debut. Full of dark hooks, acerbic and personal lyrics and Hersh's cutting vocal style, the 1986 LP laid the foundation for a unique strain of alt-rock the band would revisit on several albums before disbanding after the release of their 1996 album Limbo. They reunited in the early 2000s, issuing another self-titled record in 2003, and now – a decade later – they're putting out Purgatory/Paradise.

The new record, which comes out Tuesday, features all the unpredictable nuances Throwing Muses have made their calling cards. It contains 32 tracks, many of which last under two minutes, and it is also available as an art book featuring photos and designs by Muses drummer David Narcizo and commentary by Hersh about each track. The band have already shared the album with crowd-funding donors (whom Hersh calls "Strange Angels"), but the book release features additional downloads, such as instrumental versions of all the tracks and audio commentary by Hersh and Narcizo. And even though the frontwoman says she has a double solo album and a record by her other group, 50 Foot Wave, in the works, her passion for revisiting Throwing Muses comes through in the project.

"I don't think I could have played this music or written this book without the deep respect, love and sweetness that I feel for my bandmates, who work so hard for so little," she tells Rolling Stone. "This is a very sweet band. I have lived on buses with them for 20-some-odd years, and there hasn't been a single moment where I haven't been honored to be with them."

The last Throwing Muses record came out in 2003. What took you so long for you to make another?
Well, we started out with 75 songs for this one. We worked on editing those down, and we are very good at editing. If we would have had any more time to make this record, then we would have erased the entire thing.

How did you know when to stop?
There comes a "pencil down" point where you run out of money completely [laughs]. Also, it was time to master the album. In fact, we mastered it twice, because we wanted this to be the one release that we were happy with. We have never really been completely happy with a record before.

Why did you make a book to go along with this record?
I had released my last solo record [2010's Crooked] as a book, and I liked that it was something you could hand somebody. You were doing more than just handing out a piece of plastic.

The Purgatory/Paradise book and the album are almost different projects, even though they are being released at the same time. The book had to reflect all of the tangled ins and outs of this record, where a song might show up two or three times in different guises on the album. I passed the songs' morals and dramatic currents on to Dave for the visuals.

At first, I didn't think I could do it with this record. So I put it off for a few months, just grumbling. I was like, I made this fucking record – leave me alone. There are 32 songs. Then when I finally sat down and put the record on . . . I just sort of wrote along with it. I tried to balance the prose and poetry, which can be a little esoteric.

What is it about the three members of Throwing Muses that keeps you coming back?
We all have big muscles when it comes to this shit, and we are so nice you would think we were doormats. Something about the pairing of balls and kindness is what attracts me to these people. They have had to physically protect me over the years.

When have they protected you?
Well, our lives are very brutal. We live in squalor, and audiences can get crazy, and I am small. I have bigger muscles than they think I do, but there have been times where I have had to be hustled out of exits and raced up fire escapes.

You have used the word "ballsy" to describe the album's music. What do you mean by that?
It is fragility, actually. Tape some balls to your most breakable features, and you will end up sounding like Throwing Muses. I really like vulnerability. There is a huge amount of strength in it. It may come from anger, and that sounds like a negative word, but that is why I use "balls" instead. But when you are vulnerable, it can make you furious, and that is what we capture. There is tangled fragility, there are a lot of small movements and no one can feel your racing pulse, but it can make you kick the daylights out of someone – it can make you weep for them. There is a lot of potential in that. That is really what we work from, no matter how long the song is. Even if it is just 15 seconds long.

The music press over the years has painted Throwing Muses' music as serving as something like a therapy session for you. Is that true of this one?
I have never thought of my music as cathartic. I actually have no memory of writing my songs or performing them – the music part of me is not the part of me that I call Kristin. That is why my stage presence is so glassy-eyed and removed. I call it disappearing. I am just not there. There is just a focus there that is so intense, I suppose, that there is nothing left.

When you are in a song, you are presenting your idiosyncratic version of a universal story. I don't know how cathartic that is. As a human being, I suppose there is a lot of release: I move my muscles to get the songs out. But I don't feel like it is just me. I feel that it is everybody, and that helps me get away with saying things that are awfully embarrassing.

Do you ever regret being so open?
Oh, dear lord, yes. I had my husband cry at my feet. I made my drummer cry, and we have been best friends since we were eight. I don't want to say this shit. It wasn't me that said it. I didn't even know I said it. These dear people will come to me and say, "What have you said? What have you done?" I say, "Let me play the song and see what you are talking about." It is a very strange phenomenon.

When have you hurt David Narcizo?
There was a song, "Listerine," on my solo record Sunny Border Blue [in 2001], and it had a line in it that hurt Dave's feelings. I said something about my band leaving me one by one. It is a very sad song – it's such a sad song that it comes close to being self-indulgent. He said, "If that is what you think happened, then we need to talk." I didn't know what he meant. I told him to start the song over and to stop it when he wanted to talk about something, because it is so removed from my personality. I almost have no relationship to my songs unless I am in them, and then I am that glassy-eyed person who I don't know very well.

Was it easy for him to understand where you were coming from?
Yeah, like I said, we have been best friends since we were eight years old. There are very few people more important on this planet to me than Dave. He is brilliant and kind. I don't know what I would do without him. The same with Bernie [Georges, bass] and Billy [O'Connell, Hersh's manager]. It is a very small universe, but it a universe nonetheless. I haven't had an easy life, but they have kept me going for many years. It makes them seem magic to me.

Looking back on 30 years of music, what are you proudest of?
It is going to sound stupid: the musical successes, not the business successes, but the moments where the songs would shine even if no one ever heard them. Music really is a religion for me, whatever that word means. There are some moments on my solo album, Sky Motel, that just glow for me that way, some of Sunny Border Blue, some of the little short songs like "Sleepwalking 1" on this record. They lift you above.

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