Kristin Hersh: Life on the road and fame

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Photo by Peter Mellekas

Kristin Hersh has been a staple of the alternative music scene since the ’80s. With her uncanny ability to combine intense, gritty guitar playing with excruciatingly honest lyrics, it’s easy to see why.

Hersh has been touring throughout the US in support of her latest album Possible Dust Clouds supported by bandmates from Throwing Muses and 50 Foot Wave. She’ll be playing live well into the fall and even has a show in London in November.

Recently, we caught up with Hersh to talk about the tour, life on the road, and the price of fame.

So you had a tour that started on June 19th, and you’re accompanied by bandmates from Throwing Muses and 50 Foot Wave. How is that going?

It’s my dream band. These are my heroes and my best friends in the world. I have spent most of my life on a bus with these people and not a day goes by that I’m not excited to see them again, even if they’ve only been gone for an hour. I think that’s why the band sounds good too. I have to say I trust them, and I ask a lot of myself because of their involvement. I ask a lot of myself. If you are with people that are, let’s say less evolved than you wanted them to be, you might not strive for excellence. I just trust these people, I trust their lives, I trust their orientation, and I trust their musical literacy.

You said you spent a big portion of your life on the road. How are you able to maintain a balanced lifestyle?

I guess I don’t. I mean it’s just a f**ked up life, but I don’t know what else to do. It’s wonderful for one, and I am going to say it’s not easy. Yes, there are people who accompany us on the road, say making a documentary or whatever, and it does sound romantic no matter how many times you say well no. The romance carries them into it but not through it, because they don’t have music to feed off of and they just fall apart. It’s very difficult for some people to live sleep-deprived, hungry, dirty, lonely, homesick; I give up everything: friends to food. But, there’s this lightness that comes from finding out you can pass wants from needs. And when you do, it’s so free. You find out that your needs are so minimal as long as you have music every day.

I can’t imagine myself not doing this. I guess you know music is a b**tch Goddess. You have to serve it when it’s sitting there in front of you. And as shy people, we ask each other why on earth we’re the ones on stage. But it’s because a stage just facilitates the listening process. We’re not there to perform. We’re there to do the work, and our audience knows that. And I think they’re really doing the work. They’re the ones that have to take the ride, to trust that we’re not gonna f**k them over by sucking. As a listener, you trust a musician. We really try not to suck. A lot of people suck on purpose, and that’s the only way you can succeed in the business. But we don’t want to succeed in the business; we want to succeed in music.

Would that be something you would say to younger musicians?

Yeah, there are very few musicians in the music business, in the recording industry. It doesn’t want musicians; it doesn’t want music. You know I went in enthusiastic and open-minded thinking they would facilitate sharing the sound that I felt was an important effort. So while music is a spontaneous human impulse, they have corporate ties that to the extent where it’s not food anymore it’s just candy, and you can’t mistake one for the other. The industry is selling candy, but apples grow on trees. We have to turn to each other for the apples and understand that this business is trying to rob you. And then people that participate are trying to show off, so they’re performers, they’re not songwriters and not musicians. We’ll step into it, but usually, we step away when we realize what’s going on there and what we’re asked to do.

Photo by John Boydston

But in light of this, you’ve had a pretty long career, a very diverse career. How have you kept inspired?

[Music is] a language that doesn’t stop, and it doesn’t necessarily value your participation. Music just is, so we listen, and we spit out our favorite take on it. There’s just this ongoing relationship, I suppose, between the essence of the sound and the sound we make out of it.

 So it’s a kind of give and take?

I think it’s just the music giving and taking. I don’t know the answer given, but it’s to a musician, music is what this place is. It’s a hyper, technicolor dream of what this all is. So there’s no way you could encapsulate that, all you can do is grab a little piece of it and kind of celebrate it, make some noise about it and then hope you get some more.

But those moments where you can tap in will not share themselves with ego distractions like fame and money. That’s just putting yourself down though so that it’s sad for you and people who are biologically predisposed to assume that someone who plays a song for you or comes on to you is about love, which is probably all of us. Unless you really see through all the marketing, we think they’re being nice, and so we attach to these rock stars, and rock stars should never have been. Music is just breathing. I shouldn’t be turning money for it. Nobody should.

You can play your own music and [the] rockstar should never have happened, because there are hotel maids that are far more likely to be in a state of grace and not distracted by things like fame and money, and the idiocy of thinking some people are bigger than others, are more important than others. The hotel maid is far more likely to hear a real song than the rockstar whose room she’s cleaning.

So we need to sort of turn that equation upside down I think. 

Is that something you work into your music?

Absolutely. Yeah. That’s all I’ve ever done. So I was very confused by [rockstars’] behavior, baffled for so long because I simply wasn’t oriented to think the way they do. Anyone who would participate, which is a lot of people, they’re always willing to whore themselves out. They think I get money, I get fame, I get the stuff everybody wants, but that’s awful — all those things. And you have to suck to do it.

Boredom is what’s going to kill you, and that’s the most boring thing I could think of. It’s not sustainable, something like that. There’s no reason for it anyway. It’s just lousy music, and no one is born a lousy musician. They do it on purpose to make money, to get famous. They’re just willing to suck. I have better things to do; everybody has better things. Yeah, I’m not going to be rich or famous, and that means I’m gonna be a musician.

Last question, what type of gear do you use? 

Well, I switch it up a lot between 50 Foot Wave, Throwing Muses, and “solo, which is also a power trio.

I’ll bring my Strat and my Tele or Les Paul and an SG, then an ESP X-Tone for an acoustic/semi-solid tone that can also take effects. X-Tones don’t have a ton of character, but it’s a serious workhorse of a road guitar. My pedals are mostly doctored to keep the beer commercial thing away, or built for me by smart gear-head friends, but I always have three different overdrives, a plate reverb, compression, EQ, tremolo, and a boost or octave pedal. I’m totally married to my Electro-Harmonix fuzz-wah that drowned in a flood and came back to life f**ked up and cool.

I feel like I can work with almost any amp, but again, beer commercial is the enemy. And sometimes you sacrifice balance for character. I’m liking deeper amps like a Fender Bassman, Twins and Vox’s I find are generally sort of grating. Gear-wise, I try not to be a sissy, though. If you’re playing music instead of fashion, it’ll come through.

Tour Dates:

Aug 23  Boston, MA – City Winery (as Throwing Muses)
Aug 24  Boston, MA – City Winery (as Throwing Muses)
Aug 30  San Diego, CA – Soda Bar (as Throwing Muses)
Aug 31  Pasadena, CA – Pasadena Daydream Festival (as ThrowingMuses)
Sept 06  Pioneertown, CA – Pappy + Harriet’s
Sept 08  Phoenix, AZ – Valley Bar
Sept 09  Albuquerque, NM – The Launchpad
Sept 10  Denver, CO – Hi-Dive
Sept 12  Omaha, NE – Slowdown
Sept 14  Minneapolis, MN – Cedar Cultural Center
Sept 15  Milwaukee, WI – Shank Hall
Sept 17  Cleveland, OH – Music Box Supper Club
Sept 19  Pittsburgh, PA – Crafthouse
Sept. 21 Indy, IN – Holler on the Hill Fest
Sept 20  Columbus, OH – Rumba Cafe
Sept 22  Chicago, IL – Schuba’s Tavern
Sept 25  Seattle, WA – Tractor Tavern
Sept 26  Portland, OR – Mississippi Studios
Sept 29  San Francisco, CA – Bottom of the Hill
Nov 10 London, UK – The Jazz Cafe

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