By Kevin Dunn
I have several tests of character and here is one: I casually refer to the band 50FootWave in a conversation. If the person I am talking to immediately goes into epileptic convulsions of joy, then I know they are about as rock-solid a person as I could ask for. But often there is no recognition, so I’ll follow up by explaining that it is an amazing power trio characterized by the best of DIY punk, combining a well-developed anti-corporate ethos with a massive sonic onslaught fronted by a female guitarist/singer with a brutal and haunting vocal delivery. Oh yeah, and they are also 2/3 of Throwing Muses. This last bits always throws people – understandably, as it threw me when I first realized one of my favorite punk bands was a side-project for a “college rock” band that I kept at arms length throughout the 1980s and ’90s. But for the disbelieving, I play them the song “Clara Bow”. That usually leaves them to that desired stage of epileptic convulsions of joy (if not, I hit them up with the video for “Pnuema” with Kristin’s sandpaper scream “Shut the fuck up!”).
The more I find out about Kristin Hersh, the more my respect for her grows. In the 1980s, she started Throwing Muses with her step-sister Tanya Donelly and some high school friends. After Tanya left in 1991, Kristin kept it going as a trio. She started releasing solo albums in the late 1990s, but more importantly she started taking control over her own musical output with her own label ThrowingMusic. She formed 50FootWave in 2004 with bassist Bernard Georges from Throwing Muses and drummer Rob Ahlers. They released a self-titled EP the following year, followed by the full-length Golden Ocean (2004), Free Music (2005), Power+Light (2009) and With Love From the Men’s Room (2012). All of this is available for free at http://50footwave.cashmusic.org. In 2010, she published her memoir Rat Girl.
In recent years, she has not only championed an anti-corporate approach to music-making, but has created a number of pioneering practices, including introducing the name-your-own-price for musical releases and co-founding the non-profit, open-source software project CASH Music to help empower artists and create a more viable and sustainable future for music. She is also the mother of four boys. During this interview I did all I could not to begin each question by proclaiming my undying love for her.
Kevin: After being in Throwing Muses and doing your solo work, why did you form 50FootWave? What did it provide you that you couldn’t otherwise accomplish?
Kristin: Those noisy songs told me what to do. They were not Throwing Muses or solo songs. And I knew that no band could survive the turmoil in the industry without shifting a few paradigms, so we formed a group that is essentially a cooperative; the band members, managers, photographers, videographers, producers, engineers, etc., all donating their time. We wanted to give music away, thereby removing the dollar sign from the music-to-listeners equation.
Kevin: I feel I have to admit that I was never a Throwing Muses fan, but I remember being absolutely floored (in the best possible way) when I first heard the first 50FootWave EP. Do you find that your fans fall into separate camps — those that favor your solo, Throwing Muses or 50FootWave work? What do you thing characterizes each group?
Kristin: I don’t hear about many people who prefer one over the other, but I do find that awareness is divided among different groups. 50footWave fans seem to think we’re kids from LA and Throwing Muses fans have never heard of 50FootWave.
My solo career has absolutely no demographic associated with it. In fact, the Village Voice ran a preview of a Kristin Hersh show once, urging people to attend in order to witness "the bizarre cross-section of humanity" that is my audience. Publicists have always made me feel bad about this because it means they can’t target potential listeners.
Kevin: Have you ever encountered a fan who passionately disliked one of your musical projects? And if so, how did you deal with it?
Kristin: There are Kristin Hersh fans who bring solo records to Fippy shows for me to sign and then leave with their fingers in their ears, but Muses material is so wildly diverse that that band seems to have wildly diverse fans who move easily between styles. We have about 12 releases and they’re all very different, so I have no idea what a typical Throwing Muses fan likes.
Kevin: Did 50FootWave release the live album You’re Soaking In It just to prove that you three are one of tightest trios around today? Yeah, OK, that wasn’t a real question, but I needed to put that out there.
Kristin: Honestly, I’m not even sure what that is...a live thing? But thank you!
Kevin: I saw you mentioned the new EP With Love From the Men’s Room was written around the time of Vic Chesnutt’s passing. How did that affect the songs? Is the EP now fused with Vic in you mind, or is it a separate thing?
Kristin: All the songs are about Vic, his funeral and that hard time. Hopefully, they don’t sound like it, but for me personally, that record IS Vic.
Kevin: Because of the sound and ethos of 50FootWave, one would assume that the band’s natural habitat would be the DIY punk scene. Is it, or is there another “habitat” that the band feels more comfortable in?
Kristin: Fippy’s gotta be DIY because that’s the only way to get shit done nowadays. It’s also impossible to not wave the loving "fuck you" flag when you get the opportunity!
Kevin: Which current bands do you admire? And why?
Kristin: The Moore Brothers, from San Francisco, are the most well-versed in their own musical language, I think.
Kevin: What musical experience do you think was the most transformative for you?
Kristin: Just playing guitar. Banging on a piece of wood and hearing muscles and air work together. In my book I talk about a car accident that made me start hearing music, but before that, I fell in love with the instrument itself. That addiction is what keeps me working today.
Kevin: I saw an interview clip with you talking about being a mom and a musician. Do you still think the rock world is a kid-friendly place?
Kristin: It is in my experience. We’d show up at a rock club with our kids and these door guys who looked like Hell’s Angels’d be standing there grinning, arms full of coloring books and Whole Foods candy, drawings our kids did at the last show displayed in the back office. Very sweet.
Kevin: What has been the biggest challenge being a musician/mom? What is the biggest perk?
Kristin: The road is not a healthy place to live: you can’t always find clean air, food or showers and sleep is a precious commodity. That’s heartbreaking for me because it means I often have to spare the children these hardships and make them live without a mother for months at a time. Those are the times I wonder whether or not it’s worth it.
Kevin: Is it harder or easier to be a musician/mom as the kids get older?
Kristin: Babies are easy on the road. They nurse and sleep and they don’t notice the scenery changing every day. Older children notice, but they can also be engaged by the travel, so it’s sort of a toss-up. Trying to afford plane tickets for everyone, though, often means it isn’t possible to bring them.
The studio is more like an office job; they visit, realize it’s boring, then don’t ask to go back. Although loud electric guitar coming out of the speakers will put all 4 of them to sleep (I toured pregnant all 4 times)
Kevin: What is one the biggest mistakes you have made that you don’t actually regret?
Kristin: I could have tried harder to pull off the talking-Warner-Brothers-into-thinking-we-warrant-marketing-money-’cause-we-dress-cool-and-write-pop-songs-disguised-as-art/angst thing, I guess. But if I’d ever been famous, I wouldn’t have been allowed to stick around, working in the corner of the music business all these years.
Kevin: What is the strangest thing that ever happened to you while on tour?
Kristin: See the essay "A Throwing Muses Memory".
Kevin: Here are a couple of questions about CASH Music, inspired by your original 2007 essay. In that, you wrote that “I often feel there is an inverse relationship between quality of output and material success in the music business.” Why do you think that is?
Kristin: Monetizing music means that it’s a denatured product. The same thing happened to food and sex when corporations started to think they could make money off of those private worlds. I think Top 40 is literally a perversion of the impulse to make noise.
The recording industry is actually targeted toward people who don’t like music because they’re easy to fool. Lowest common denominator music is the sound equivalent of McDonalds and porn, you know? I just don’t believe people are as dumb as corporations think. And they’re way more idiosyncratic in their tastes and opinions.
Kevin: Damn, what a great answer! You also wrote: “To that end, I think I need to engage in a grassroots kind of capitalism, choosing principles over profits, values over image, ideals over marketing. I have to create a permeable membrane between artist and listener — I’m a craftsperson, after all. The church of the rock star that the music industry televangelists hawk has always been anathema to me anyway.” Do you still believe these things? Do you feel like you have created a successful business model? Do you believe it is sustainable?
Kristin: It’s proved itself sustainable as a model so far and listeners seem to like being involved in the recording process, but I don’t like having to ask people for more than they can afford. I honestly thought that some of the rich rock stars who say I influenced them would help pay my recording costs, or listeners with disposable income, but the Strange Angels [supporters in her subscriber-based, direct-to-consumer model] seem to be people who struggle to pay their rent. At least they make it possible for me to work and give music away, but I’d like to come up with a model that is easier on the hardcore listeners.
Kevin: Five years into this venture, what are the most important things you have learned?
Kristin: That I still have to bust my ass to maintain focus, even though I’ve extricated myself from the traditional recording industry. Nobody’s attached to the marketability of my product any longer and yet I need to work in a vacuum and remain unconcerned with the music’s effect in the world or I get in the way of the process. Self-consciousness is the enemy of visceral response; the music doesn’t resonate if I allow thinking to interfere.
Kevin: If you were to run into your 18-year-old self on the sidewalk today, what do you think she would think of your current self?
Kristin: I haven’t changed at all. It’s very sad!
Kevin: This is a big one and I hope it makes sense. I heard an interview where you talked about the difference between “brain words” and “song words,” and you said that your solo songs wrote themselves. Can you explain this idea of “song words” further?
Kristin: Lyrics are percussive melody to me. I described the songwriting process in Rat Girl as best I could, but it isn’t something I’m able to "explain".
Kevin: Do the 50FootWave songs write themselves?
Krstin: Yeah. I don’t write a song unless it needs to be written.
Kevin: Most of your songs seem very autobiographical, but the idea of the song writing itself seems to undercut that. Can you understand the idea of “song words” as partly defensive: that is, you don’t have to be fully responsible for the lyrical content (esp. if it appears autobiographical) if the song is writing itself? I once had a talk with Steve Albini in which he claimed that he wasn’t responsible for the lyrics in Big Black because he wrote them while in the “character of the song.” I’d like to hear you reflect some more on the notion of lyrical ownership and responsibility, if you know what I mean.
Kristin: I’d agree with the defensive thing: it’s not my fault!
In the book, I describe it as a removed voice who cares enough to show me my life pictures arranged to make its own point. In other words, I’ve lived all the stories, but it wasn’t my idea to tell them.
Kevin: I have two daughters (Barrow, 7 and Strummer, 4). They often want to submit their own questions when I do interviews. So these last four (unedited) questions are from them. First, is the boy dancing in the “Clara Bow” video one of your sons?
Kristin: My son Wyatt. He sometimes dances on stage with 50FootWave -- wearing earplugs!
Kevin: You’re hair was dark black, then blonde, then dark black. Do you dye it? What color is it now?
Kristin: It’s really blonde, but I dye it black because life on a tour bus can be VERY boring.
Kevin: What is your favorite thing for breakfast?
Kristin: Green apples and tea.
Kevin: Who is your favorite musician?
Kristin: It’s a tie between my bandmates. Really! Kevin, how’d you get girls?