It wasn’t 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 Joe’s. He calls them the ‘devil’s feedbag,’ because he puts it right up to his mouth and eats them out of the bag. So he calls up and says, ‘I’m playing air guitar around the room, cookie crumbs are flying everywhere, we’ve got to make a record.’ That’s what did it. "
As far as Hersh is concerned, the cookies aren’t the only sweet thing about Throwing Muses’ reunion. She’s 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. She’s 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 she’s continued to play Throwing Muses songs, going as far back as the first album’s " Delicate Cutters, " at most of her solo shows. This year there’s finally a new album: called Throwing Muses, as was their 1986 debut, it was released simultaneously last month with Hersh’s latest solo disc, The Grotto (both 4AD).
To support the new album, the Muses’ ’90s 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, they’ll be joined by original Muses member (and Hersh’s 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 there’s something to be happy about, but I keep remembering that it’s not forever and I don’t 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 it’s 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 it’s farther behind me, but I don’t 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 I’m pretty sure this is really it — if she ever goes out with another band, it probably won’t be this one. "
As with most cult bands, Throwing Muses’ 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 — 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 wasn’t just loud guitars and screaming, it wasn’t just lopsided art folk punk, and it wasn’t just intense romantic confessions — 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 1997’s 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 didn’t have any. By 1995, the band, a trio after Donelly went on to help form the Breeders and then front Belly, couldn’t afford to stay on the road. " The fact is, we didn’t 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, we’d lost our road crew and were touring in a van, and we couldn’t live like grown-ups when we were off the road. "
That’s why she takes it with a grain of salt when younger artists like Sleater-Kinney and Cat Power — to name two of the most obviously Muses-influenced acts — are brought up. " Sure, it’s a nice kind of band to be, like the Velvet Underground, where you didn’t 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 we’d done more photo shoots, it might have been different. And we dressed so badly. That’s why we got a little bigger when grunge happened. Even the French were like, ‘Ooh la la, queens of grunge!’ 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. " You’d think that, " she responds, " but I’m 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 they’ve ever made. It’s 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, it’s full of big, loud guitar licks, and the mood is positively joyful at times, not a familiar state for this band. Yet Hersh’s " whatever it is " is still evident in the oblique lyrics and coiling melodies. She’s famously noted that her songs come to her in a trance-like state, blasting in her ears fully formed. " It’s 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. I’m starting to see it as a good thing, a blessing. And the songs don’t 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 Hersh’s 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 we’re 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 isn’t comfortable enough to do " Green, " a bitter break-up song that was the band’s first radio hit. " I just can’t sing that one yet — not to be dramatic, but for whatever reason I haven’t made peace with it. You have to come full circle before you can sing words like that again. "
In recent years, it’s been Hersh who’s written the twisted love songs. The best of her solo albums, 2001’s 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 isn’t much to do out there besides sex and alcohol, " she explains. The subject matter of the new The Grotto is more upbeat — many of the lyrics concern her long and apparently stable marriage to her manager Billy O’Connell — yet the sound of the acoustic disc is eerier than the lyrics might suggest. " That’s 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 couldn’t even keep water down, and I couldn’t 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 1998’s Murder Misery and Then Goodnight. Donelly is working with ex-Fuzzy member Chris Toppin to put together an alterna-rock children’s 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 there’s talk of a Muses DVD to be recorded toward the tour’s finale in Los Angeles — at this point, the band’s May 12 date in Seattle would appear to be the Throwing Muses’ official last show ever. " What we’re 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 we’re 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.