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[Cellars]
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Closing time
Throwing Muses decide to go out with a bang
BY BRETT MILANO

It wasnít love or glory that got Throwing Muses back together. It was a bag of cookies, which singer/guitarist Kristin Hersh sent to bassist Bernard Georges to charm him into playing. " I had these songs that sounded stupid whenever I tried to play them alone, " the former Rhode Island dweller recalls over the phone from her current home in Palm Springs. " What I realized was that I was still writing songs for my dead band. So I sent a tape to [drummer] David [Narcizo] and one to Bernard; in his package I put some of his favorite cookies from Trader Joeís. He calls them the Ďdevilís feedbag,í because he puts it right up to his mouth and eats them out of the bag. So he calls up and says, ĎIím playing air guitar around the room, cookie crumbs are flying everywhere, weíve got to make a record.í Thatís what did it. "

As far as Hersh is concerned, the cookies arenít the only sweet thing about Throwing Musesí reunion. Sheís made it no secret that the outfit, which she formed two decades ago, was the first love of her life, and that it broke her heart to split it up in 1995. Sheís proven as much by never really letting go. There was a compilation CD in 1997, and a string of annual reunion shows, billed as the " Gut Pageant, " that began at the Middle East three years ago. And sheís continued to play Throwing Muses songs, going as far back as the first albumís " Delicate Cutters, " at most of her solo shows. This year thereís finally a new album: called Throwing Muses, as was their 1986 debut, it was released simultaneously last month with Hershís latest solo disc, The Grotto (both 4AD).

To support the new album, the Musesí í90s line-up of Hersh, Georges, and Narcizo is playing a six-city reunion tour that hits downstairs at the Middle East tonight and tomorrow (Thursday and Friday). For the Cambridge shows, theyíll be joined by original Muses member (and Hershís half-sister) Tanya Donelly, who after a decade-long estrangement from the band that saw her front her own band Belly and launch a solo career appears on the new album. But Hersh insists that the new album is a last hurrah rather than a comeback. " I still have to remind myself that thereís something to be happy about, but I keep remembering that itís not forever and I donít really have them back. We just played Glasgow and had a great show, but it felt horrible because it was the end of the UK tour. As much as I realize that there are bigger fish in life to fry than a band breaking up, being together is a fundamental need for all of us. "

" We all grew up together, so itís literally and spiritually a family, " explains Donelly in a separate conversation. " So it was a difficult situation for all of us to leave. It was probably easier for me because itís farther behind me, but I donít think Kristin ever felt that she got it out of her system and really finished the Muses. But she seems to feel that way this time, so Iím pretty sure this is really it ó if she ever goes out with another band, it probably wonít be this one. "

As with most cult bands, Throwing Musesí legend has outstripped their commercial impact. The original line-up was a pack of high-school misfits still in their teens when the debut album was made ó as Hersh puts it, " We had time to polish our craft because nobody invited us to any parties. " Yet those self-proclaimed geeks came up with something pretty remarkable: it wasnít just loud guitars and screaming, it wasnít just lopsided art folk punk, and it wasnít just intense romantic confessions ó it was all those things combined in a fresh, nervy way. Their debut, which went unreleased in America until Rykodisc issued it as part of 1997ís In a Doghouse compilation, led to a string of Sire/Warner Brothers albums and a couple of minor radio hits ( " Counting Backward " and " Bright Yellow Gun " ). Some were poppier than others, but they all maintained the scary/beautiful tension of the debut.

So why did they break up? In a word, money. In four words, they didnít have any. By 1995, the band, a trio after Donelly went on to help form the Breeders and then front Belly, couldnít afford to stay on the road. " The fact is, we didnít sell any records, " Hersh says. " We got way more press than we deserved for the number of records we sold. We even got too much radio play. But people needed to do other things, like eat. On our last tour, weíd lost our road crew and were touring in a van, and we couldnít live like grown-ups when we were off the road. "

Thatís why she takes it with a grain of salt when younger artists like Sleater-Kinney and Cat Power ó to name two of the most obviously Muses-influenced acts ó are brought up. " Sure, itís a nice kind of band to be, like the Velvet Underground, where you didnít sell any records but influenced people who did. The problem with us is that we never played the game. We should have written more stupid songs. They like it when you do that. If weíd done more photo shoots, it might have been different. And we dressed so badly. Thatís why we got a little bigger when grunge happened. Even the French were like, ĎOoh la la, queens of grunge!í But I also remember [Sire president] Seymour Stein asking me if I could be a little less Kristin Hersh. That actually made me feel a little guilty, like wow, who do you want me to be instead? "

I suggest that would probably make her more determined to be herself. " Youíd think that, " she responds, " but Iím more wimpy than you know. I actually tried to tone down my own little whatever it was for a couple of years until it came galloping back. "

The irony is that the new Throwing Muses is the most commercial-sounding album theyíve ever made. Itís loud and raw enough to fit in with the current garage revival, yet loaded with the skewed hooks the Muses have always had in them. Recorded over three weekends with no rehearsal, itís full of big, loud guitar licks, and the mood is positively joyful at times, not a familiar state for this band. Yet Hershís " whatever it is " is still evident in the oblique lyrics and coiling melodies. Sheís famously noted that her songs come to her in a trance-like state, blasting in her ears fully formed. " Itís still a mysterious process, embarrassingly so; and I make it my point to stay out of the way as much as possible. It still gets creepy now and then, but I choose not to be creeped out by it. Iím starting to see it as a good thing, a blessing. And the songs donít make me say such icky stuff anymore. "

Appearing on about half the tracks, Donelly falls into her old role: instead of just singing harmony, she wraps countermelodies around Hershís tunes. " It was probably a little more moving than we expected, " Hersh says. " I walked into the studio and saw that her eyes were full of tears. So of course I immediately welled up myself, because weíre old and lame. " Although there were never any reports of bad blood between the two, Donelly did manage to stay out of the picture for most of a decade. " I think we needed to work on the friendship for a few years and not have the musical element involved, " Donelly says. " The break-up was amicable, but there were a few things that happened afterward, with Belly doing so well so quickly. There were some years of tension and awkwardness, understandably. So I think we just needed to hang out and talk about our kids for a few years. " Although Donelly will be singing some of her own songs from the old Muses albums this weekend, she isnít comfortable enough to do " Green, " a bitter break-up song that was the bandís first radio hit. " I just canít sing that one yet ó not to be dramatic, but for whatever reason I havenít made peace with it. You have to come full circle before you can sing words like that again. "

In recent years, itís been Hersh whoís written the twisted love songs. The best of her solo albums, 2001ís Sunny Border Blue, had some of her edgiest writing; it was practically a concept album about sex and alcohol. " I was living in the desert at the time, and there isnít much to do out there besides sex and alcohol, " she explains. The subject matter of the new The Grotto is more upbeat ó many of the lyrics concern her long and apparently stable marriage to her manager Billy OíConnell ó yet the sound of the acoustic disc is eerier than the lyrics might suggest. " Thatís probably because a lot of it was written in the first trimester of pregnancy [Hersh now has four children]. I was getting violently ill, for four months I couldnít even keep water down, and I couldnít sleep because I was so nauseated. So I think that lent a nice creepiness to the record. "

Both Hersh and Donelly have new projects under way, with Hersh starting work on a second album of Appalachian folk songs to follow up 1998ís Murder Misery and Then Goodnight. Donelly is working with ex-Fuzzy member Chris Toppin to put together an alterna-rock childrenís album, with contributions from Bill Janovitz, Ramona Silver, and the first collaboration of ex-Neighborhoods leader David Minehan and his wife, former Salem 66 frontwoman Judy Grunwald. And thereís talk of a Muses DVD to be recorded toward the tourís finale in Los Angeles ó at this point, the bandís May 12 date in Seattle would appear to be the Throwing Musesí official last show ever. " What weíre doing now is really walking our dog, not trying to please anybody but ourselves, " says Hersh. " That makes for complete abandonment when we play, which is how it should be. We accept the gravity of the situation, and weíre having a party around it. "

Throwing Muses will celebrate Throwing Muses tonight and tomorrow, April 24 and 25 (the April 24 show is officially sold out), at the Middle East, 480 Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square; call (617) 864-EAST.

Issue Date: April 25 - May 1, 2003
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