Throwing Muses are an Alternative Rock
band, formed in Newport, Rhode Island in 1980 by step-sisters Kristin Hersh (vocals, guitar) and Tanya Donelly (vocals, guitar) while they were still in school. The original lineup solidified with the addition of Leslie Langston (bass) and David Narcizo (drums); Narcizo, who had classical training in the snare drum but had never played a full kit before, inherited a cymbal-less drumkit from the band's previous drummer and decided to go with that
. Hersh was the main songwriter and is now the only one; Donelly also wrote songs, and was lead singer on her own material until her departure in 1991.
Not long after the band formed, the teenage Hersh was seriously injured in a car accident, and after that began to present symptoms which were initially diagnosed as schizophrenia but later rediagnosed as bipolar disorder. Later in life, after she was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, she turned out also to have dissociative disorder: she had a split personality, and the other one was the one that did the music. (For years, she had no memory of writing or performing any of her own songs.note
The treatment for PTSD also seems to have dealt with her dissociative disorder.)
In any case, it was in the wake of Hersh's accident that her songwriting in particular began to present themes of disassociation, mental breakdown and panic using eccentric song structures and intricately worked arrangements that mixed up Jangle Pop
, Funk Rock
, Country Music
and Folk Music
, all dolloped with healthy amounts of lyrical Angst
. In view of Donelly's later success with her somewhat Lighter and Softer
, commentators sometimes remark on how relatively conventional her songs were compared to Hersh's, but on the early recordings at any rate, the difference was in the subject matter rather than in feel; Donelly's tortured, boiling songs were usually about love ("Green", "Reel") whereas Hersh's tortured, boiling songs were usually about free-floating self-hatred ("Call Me", "Hate My Way").
The two guitarists formed a Vocal Tag Team
, and the band's constant touring and self-recorded demo cassette got the attention of College Radio
when they were still in their teens. In her 2010 memoir Paradoxical Undressing
(published in the US as Rat Girl
, because according to Hersh her US publishers felt that the original title had too many syllables), Hersh noted that the Muses in their early days were too young to drink in the venues that they played, and if they happened to go for a stroll before a gig, they got used to club doormen refusing them entry to their own shows on account of their age.
Between 1985 and 1986, the period covered by Hersh's book, the band signed a deal with UK label 4AD
; Hersh was hospitalised following a suicide attempt; the Muses recorded their first album
, and Hersh got pregnant. Throwing Muses
earned them critical respect but not exactly massive sales. In the US, the band signed with Sire, but over time they realised that their US label, unlike their UK one, had signed them in order to attract other alternative bands that it was more interested in.
A 1988 joint UK tour with the Pixies
in support of their second album House Tornado
made them darlings of the UK independent music scene, which was charmed by the dissonance between their friendly and self-deprecating offstage demeanour and their intense, even frightening stage presence: a Pitchfork writer once asked
'Does Kristin Hersh have the most terrifying voice in rock?'
In the late 80s and early 90s, the Muses released a series of albums which helped codify Alternative Rock
, even if (as they today concede) they very briefly succumbed to Executive Meddling
in an attempt to make their music more radio-friendly — Hersh refuses to play "Dizzy", the main single from Hunkpapa
, on the grounds that she didn't like it then and doesn't like it now. Their self-belief was justified in that once they stopped trying to make their music more accessible, they did better and better commercially: 1995's University
got to No 10 on the UK Albums Chart.
Langston left in 1990. In 1991, Donelly left amicably to be bass player in The Breeders
and then formed her own band, Belly, which went on to have chart success: "Feed the Tree" got to No 1 on the US Modern Rock Track chart.
Hersh kept the Muses going as a three-piece with new bassist Bernard Georges, but in 1993 her debut solo album Hips and Makers
marked the beginning of her solo career, with a minor UK hit single in "Your Ghost", featuring the then-king of moody alternative Jangle Pop
, Michael Stipe
. Throwing Muses went on hiatus in 1997; Hersh said that they simply ran out of money. She pursued a solo career, which has yielded nine solo albums from Hips and Makers
to 2010's Crooked
, possibly the first album ever to be issued as a book.
In 2003, the Muses got back together with a second Self-Titled Album
(featuring the return of Donelly, but only on backing vocals.) In 2004 Hersh formed hardcore trio 50 Foot Wave, which has been described as 'Throwing Muses, if they were faster, meaner and also swore a lot'; the band pioneered the now-increasingly-commonplace pay-what-you-can scheme for its recordings. In 2013 another Muses album appeared, minus Donelly, who was restarting her own musical career after spending several years focusing on her other career as a doula. Purgatory / Paradise
got glowing reviews. Since then, the reformed band has toured the USA and Europe with Donelly as support.
Hersh is one of the pioneers of direct distribution of music over the internet, forming CASH Music in 2008 with Donita Sparks of L7
as a way of bypassing the mainstream music industry.
The band is now entirely audience-funded, operating under Hersh's Strange Angels patron scheme, whereby a quarterly subscription entitles members to new CDs in advance of the release date, downloads, namechecks in liner notes, spots on the guest list for gigs, etc.The Other Wiki
can tell you more.
Throwing Muses' studio discography:
- Throwing Muses (1986): Debut album, produced by Gil Norton; spacey, disturbed Jangle Pop wound up to an extreme level of intensity. Every song is a winner; in the opinion of many fans, one of their finest albums.
- House Tornado (1988): Very much in the same vein as its predecessor. The UK version has an interesting arty cover; the US version has an alternate cover chosen by Sire, with a photo of the band suggesting that Sire wanted to market them as a more wacky version of the Bangles.
- Hunkpapa (1989): The band stumbles slightly in an attempt to be more commercial ("Dizzy"), but it also features the terrifying "Mania".
- The Real Ramona (1990): Praised by Rolling Stone as their most successful attempt to make a pop record. Less murky-sounding than previous releases; the first post-Langston album. A good place to start; by turns goofy and harrowing.
- Red Heaven (1992): First post-Donelly album, and first with the current Hersh/Georges/Narcizo lineup. Blistering rock fury, including a duet with Bob Mould.
- University (1993)
- Limbo (1996)
- In A Doghouse (1998): Compilation of the band's 1985 demo cassette, debut album, Chains Changed EP and some early songs recorded by the 1996 lineup. Also a good place to start, giving a vivid picture of the whole Rat Girl period.
- Throwing Muses (2003): Known to fans as the "Uses" album because that's the bit of their name you can see on the front. Hailed by Pitchfork as 'triumphant' return after seven-year hiatus; much ass-kicking rock.
- Purgatory / Paradise (2013): Released as a book and CD, with 32 tracks and much downloadable extra material. Sprawling, experimental, epic and intimate.
Their work provides examples of:
- Brown Note: Subverted in that Hersh has claimed that her own songs are these for her. When an idea for one comes along, if she doesn't knock it into shape and put it out there, 'I get sick.'
- Captain Obvious: 'A kitchen is a place where you prepare and clean up!'
- Careful With That Axe: Often combined with Mundane Made Awesome to terrifying effect.
- DVD Commentary: Hersh and Narcizo provided a commentary as a free download to anyone who bought Purgatory / Paradise. It consists of 70 minutes of them teasing each other, going off on tangents, telling stories and basically doing almost anything except talk about the album. At one point Hersh actually takes a phone call from the engineer who mastered it, who in turn is a bit surprised to find himself asked to contribute to the commentary track.
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: Hersh and Donelly, schoolfriends who became step-sisters when their respective parents all got divorced and the father of one married the mother of the other one; they liked to describe themselves as 'step-twins'. Narcizo and Hersh have been close friends since grade school and perhaps qualify as Platonic Life Partners.
- I Am the Band: Hersh is generally regarded as being this, although she tries hard to avert it, never missing an opportunity to heap praise on the other members.
- The Insomniac: Hersh is one, as described in detail in Rat Girl. At first it was because she was bipolar; later it was because she was bipolar and had kids.
- Long Runner Lineup: Type 1, until Leslie Langston quit; Type 2 since Bernard Georges has been on board.
- Lyrical Dissonance: Throwing Muses run on this trope. The lyrics of "Sunray Venus" are about a day at the beach. The song sounds like it's a day at the beach IN HELL.
- Miniscule Rocking: Purgatory / Paradise is all about this, with 32 songs, some of them only a minute and a half long.
- Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness: Violently subverted. Musically they range from 1 to 4, periodically going up to 5 from Red Heaven onwards; in terms of emotional intensity and lyrical content, they go up to 10.
- Mood Dissonance: One of Throwing Muses' most beloved tropes. Only Kristin Hersh can sing a chorus like 'Open your mouth, you're blessed for the moment / Kisses all around' and make it sound like a threat.
- Mood Whiplash: Kristin Hersh loves to do this mid-song. "Vicky's Box" starts out as, apparently, a mid-tempo narrative about a self-hating gay man, then halfway through it turns into a one-chord noise fest, then it ends up as demented Psychobilly.
- Ms. Fanservice: During the late 80s their US record label tried to make Hersh and Donelly into these, to their extreme annoyance.
- Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly: This is actually a fair description of their sound.
- Perishing Alt Rock Voice: Hersh slips in and out of this as the mood takes her, having several voices; at other times she sings in a quavery mezzo-soprano, a kind of untempered Sprechgesang, a terrifying scream and/or a harsh, gravelly roar, sometimes all of them within the same line. Averted with Donelly, who has a beautiful voice.
- Precision F-Strike: The chorus of 'Stand Up':
Break your arm, it ain't no face
Wear shoes, jealous, fuck you, stand up.
- Rapid-Fire "No!": 'America (She Can't Stand Up)'
No more backs
She can't say
America can't say no
She can't stand up
I can't say
I can't say
- Shout-Out: "Hate My Way" mentions mass murderer James Huberty, while "Ellen West" on The Real Ramona is about Ellen West, a turn of the 20th century Viennese woman who suffered from anorexia.
- Slasher Smile: Hersh tends to sing with one, when she's not giving the audience a Kubrick Stare. Early in the Muses' career, a film crew shot footage of them for a documentary and when Hersh and Narcizo watched the footage, they were horrified to see what they actually looked like while performing.
- Soprano and Gravel: When Tanya Donelly was in the band they were a rare two-female version of this, with Hersh as the gravel, at least some of the time (see Perishing Alt Rock Voice, above.)