Guitarist Kristin Hersh is the most down-to-earth, tireless, bipolar rock ’n’ roll entrepreneur polymath around. Founder of seminal art band Throwing Muses when she was 14, Hersh also cranks out jagged soundscapes as part of power trio 50 Foot Wave and as a prolific solo artist. When not writing and recording music, she’s pioneering new music-industry funding and distribution models by developing CASH (Coalition of Artists and Stakeholders) Music. When she’s not doing that, she’s writing books— Rat Girl was one of my favorite books of 2010—playing shows, being a mom to her four sons, or posting fresh demos and writing essays to accompany them. PW caught up with Hersh just before kicking off her latest tour here in Philly. Between outbursts of joyous laughter, we caught up on all her new projects, her favorite guitar gear and the fine art of playing lead without sounding like the soundtrack to a beer commercial.
You have a lot of different projects going on, as usual. Where to start? Are you writing another book?
I signed a two-book deal with Penguin. I only had the one book, but I wasn’t really thinking about it at the time. I was turning a diary into a nonfiction novel, so all I could think about was how to figure out how to do that without looking stupid. And now I’m realizing that a two-book deal means that you write two books [Laughs]. But I was still getting up at 4 a.m. again … writing Rat Girl 2, then wondering why. [Laughs] So I dropped that. I started writing movies that I wanted to see that nobody had made yet. So that’s the book that I’m hoping doesn’t suck.
How far along are you in that process?
About halfway though. And if this one sucks, then I’ll go back to Rat Girl 2.
In the meantime, in my real world, I leave for the studio in a few minutes, and I have a new solo record that the listeners have supported through CASH Music, like the [new Throwing] Muses record that is mixed and about to be mastered as soon as we can sequence 33 goddamn songs!
And there’s a 50 Foot Wave record that’s almost finished.
Where is the new Throwing Muses record at right now?
The active work we’re doing is sequencing the record, which doesn’t sound very active. But it’s a record where a piece of the song appears in other songs, and it has to work together as a fluid piece that doesn’t sound … repetitious, but sounds repetitious enough that you get the themes that are running through them.
You can’t back up and look at it like you would a painting. You have to sort of live through it the way you would a show. So we’re building a 33-song set list.
You have to keep immersing yourself until it seems smaller and you can see the moving parts.
You can’t be overwhelmed by it. If you are, it’s a reflection of your top-heaviness, and you shouldn’t make anyone pay attention to that! It’s supposed to be the work that you can die after releasing. You know, we all want to die real bad, so we want to feel finished. It has to be perfect.
What about your guitar gear? What are you working with these days?
I like using more the character of the amplifiers than any pedals. But one pedal I’m really in love with is the Electro-Harmonix fuzz-wah. But they have to be broken or they don’t sound right, so that’s fairly hard to come by. And I use them more in 50 Foot Wave than I do with the Muses. Luckily, I had access to a lot of really beautiful amps.
I had to learn a new way to play leads on this record. Usually a lead will follow the same path as a play or a book or a movie: There’s a peak and a denouement. There’s just a way to play a lead that makes sense to your hand and to anyone listening. And they just sounded so lame on this record! It was like this guitarist walked in that had no idea what was going on. [Laughs]
We just had to figure out what the songs wanted and what they wanted—this sounds so silly—is a kind of noodling. Not like the Grateful Dead! But these leads that just don’t go anywhere. They’re often these double or trip leads, so there’s interesting melodic contrast, but they just don’t go anywhere.
You’re making me picture a homeless lead guitarist, like the sexy sax man who just walks in and plays the same thing on whatever song.
But that’s what I was doing! My guitar playing is much more standard than people would guess about me. They can’t hear that because it’s in a song with unusual chords or unusual structures or other things that don’t sound normal. But the head of [record label] 4AD came in to listen to me put down Throwing Muses leads, and I said, ‘Watch. I’m going to try to play something experimental, and the more takes that go by, it’s just going to evolve into a lead that sounds like a beer commercial. Kind of bluesy, but also really white.’ And that was exactly what happened, of course. So thank god this record shook me out of that pattern, because that was just ridiculous.
So, 33 songs. Is it all one huge record?
We just can’t do without Caribou