In 2013, after Kristin Hersh’s 25-year marriage came to an end, she was left broke and without health insurance. The songs she wrote in the aftermath were “about drowning in one way or another”, she says. She means this literally and metaphorically.
Hersh was relaxing by the water in California and – because she was on the prescribed tranquiliser Klonopin – nodded off. The tide came in and she awoke in the water. “I’m a triathlete so I’m a very strong swimmer but this surf just wasn’t moving toward the shore,” she recalls. “I was swimming as hard as I could but the shore wouldn’t get any closer and I started to black out.”
An onlooker called for help and a lifeguard arrived. “He starts to realise we can’t get out of the current and we’re not moving,” she says. “I thought: ‘This is ludicrous, I’m drowning with a lifeguard.’ His eyes were rolling back into his head and he’d come up to breathe but then go down again. Suddenly we got shot out of the current and made it to shore.”
The songs she wrote afterwards became Sun Racket, the 10th album by Throwing Muses, the band Hersh formed with her stepsister Tanya Donnelly when they were in high school in Rhode Island. It deftly marries grit and grace – with swaggering, riff-heavy tracks such as Dark Blue bleeding into the woozy melodic drift of songs such as Bywater. “I write songs that haven’t happened yet and then it happens,” she says. “I don’t think I should tell stories unless I’ve lived them.”
Few artists understand the intensity of living one’s art like Hersh. At 16, she was knocked off her bike by a car and a head injury resulted in a strange auditory side-effect where ambient noises she heard in day-to-day life would swirl around her brain and often mutate into specific musical sounds and words. She described the sensation as like having musical epilepsy – but it became the blueprint for Throwing Muses’ songs.
By the time Hersh was 19, these songs had filled up a self-titled debut album and Throwing Muses were the first American band signed to British indie label 4AD. Hersh was also pregnant, incorrectly diagnosed with schizophrenia – soon to be incorrectly re-diagnosed with bipolar disorder – and had survived a suicide attempt. “I don’t know why anyone would listen to it,” Hersh says of that album. “It sounds psychotic to me.”
Many years later Hersh understood she was experiencing PTSD; when treated this was further revealed to be dissociative disorder. She feels the music that ran through her head as a teenager was another personality, exacerbating her lack of memory and connection to her own songs. She dubbed this alternative personality Rat Girl (the title of her 2010 memoir). “I don’t think it’s going to turn out to be that unusual to dissociate,” she says now, feeling cured of the disorder. “It’s slowly seeping into our culture that we sometimes disappear.”
That supposedly psychotic debut album remains a greatly adored piece of work and it set the band off on long career melding post-punk, indie, college rock, pop and alt-folk. Their idiosyncratic sound is led by Hersh’s voice, which can shift from a broken-glass gargle to a tender croon. Until 1991 it was also embellished by the melodic harmonies and spiralling second guitar of Donnelly, before she left to form Belly. Drummer Dave Narcizo’s preference for omitting cymbals from his drum setup – due to his teenage marching band background – resulted in deeply rhythmic compositions with erratic time signatures, punctuated by Bernard Georges’ throbbing, twisting bass lines.
Nevertheless, the band slotted neatly into 4AD’s roster, merging pleasing harmony with riotous discordance. “The label was like family,” says Narcizo. “They were so sincerely involved in what we were doing. It was a genuine community of bands.” Their tour mates Pixies soon followed them in signing to the label, then came the explosion of alt-rock and grunge.
The common narrative of the era is that Nirvana exploded and major-label A&R folk came waving their chequebooks at any underground guitar band, marking a decade where oddballs such as Butthole Surfers and Jesus Lizard wound up with mainstream deals. But Throwing Muses predated all that, says Narcizo. The band’s concoction of crunchy guitar and seamless melody – along with Hersh’s distinctly personal yet obtuse lyrics – initially had American labels thinking the band were the next big thing in the late 1980s. “It was a feeding frenzy from the majors,” says Narcizo. In the end they signed in the US with Seymour Stein’s Sire records, with 4AD looking after all other territories. “Seymour came to see us and fell asleep but still made an offer.”
It was Sire’s roster that was the pull. It was home to the likes of Talking Heads and the Ramones, as well as numerous British bands such as the Smiths and the Cure, but the label’s parent company was Warner and they didn’t find the same family-style experience there. “Seymour signed us and then just dropped us onto Warner Brothers’ lap,” says Narcizo. “On our first day of meetings they had us go office to office to meet all these heads of departments. Half of them had no idea we were coming or who we were.”
The band never sought to be “wilfully obscure”, says Narcizo, but he says that “of all of our peers, we were always the hardest sell”. Yet while the band could wrong-foot listeners by avoiding easy pay-offs and big choruses, they were hardly unlistenably esoteric: 1991’s The Real Ramona is a taut and infectious blend of rock and pop while the album that got them dropped in the US, 1995’s University, featured some of their most sparkling and accessible work. In some sense, their trajectory isn’t too dissimilar to their friends REM – just without the mega-hits.
Yet Throwing Muses have remained proudly and defiantly on the periphery. “We weren’t aiming to be a cult band but I think we’ve become one,” says Narcizo. “Kristin has a singular focus and sees devices that people use to ingratiate themselves with a wider audience as a threat to that singular focus. There’s a running joke in the band that Kristin’s favourite flavour is plain. She’s always advocating for stripping down – the least amount of adornment.”
Hersh felt disheartened at seeing so many artists of their era chasing mainstream appeal. “It was disappointing that fashion and ambition replaced focus but this is what happens to a musical genre,” she says. “It begins as this intense, raw, very focused black hole of energy but it’s unpalatable – it’s dangerous and it’s uncomfortable. Then to sell that they imitate it, dilute it, fashion it up, dumb it down and then it dies. That’s when it seeps into the culture.”
She also sees her refusal to assimilate as a moral obligation “not to participate in an industry that wants certain things from women and to manipulate them”. She expands: “I wasn’t going to turn my back on my sisters. All the women that you throw under the bus when you play that game kissing up to rich white dick is not harmless. It’s turning your back on your own humanity.” That ethos has roots beyond the early 90s rock boom: “I raised my little brother and had a baby when I was a teenager. This little group of organisms that were under my care gave me a different kind of muscle. It meant that the bullshit was dismissed very early on and ultimately that served me.”
Almost 35 years on, it makes Throwing Muses’ status as cult heroes seem more like destiny than misfortune. “I knew right away that integrity would pull me down into the gutter,” Hersh laughs. “But I lived in a gutter. I like the gutter.” Yet she isn’t immovable. Having sworn she would never sign to a label again – for years Hersh has used a fan-supported system to fund her solo work and her other band, 50 Foot Wave – the new Throwing Muses album is on Fire Records. Why the change? “I don’t want to be a rigid thinker,” she says. “Rigidity doesn’t serve open mindedness.”
It’s a mindset that has prompted some re-evaluation. The new label situation allows for more time creating in the studio – a place Hersh calls her “church” – and she has embraced a heightened sense of awareness. “I never thought of myself that way but this record is very focused on survival,” she says. Luckily she did cling on: a new relationship was around the corner, with Hersh now engaged to ex-Throwing Muses bassist Fred Abong. “There’s a lot of sweetness and a lot of sadness to the record,” she says, “but there’s also less anger than usual because it captures the penultimate stage before peace.”
• Sun Racket is out now on Fire Records. This article was corrected to amend a picture caption of Throwing Muses behind the scenes at Glastonbury in 1989, not 2001 as previously stated.