Throwing Muses have long been admired for their groundbreaking indie rock and their refusal to compromise artistically. As the first American band ever signed to legendary independent British label 4AD, whose roster included such iconic '80s bands as the Cocteau Twins, Bauhaus, and eventually the Pixies, Throwing Muses were a force to be reckoned with in the '80s and far beyond.
The Muses just released their first new album in 10 years, Purgatory/Paradise, and are gearing up to release an ambitious book of the same name, which is a key element of the entire words-and-music package. The book contains striking photographs taken by the band, featured alongside poetry and prose written by Throwing Muses frontwoman Kristin Hersh and graphic design by drummer Dave Narcizo.
"I released my last record as a book, and it seemed like the right thing to do," explains Hersh. "I don't think anyone values that little plastic disc anymore, if they ever did. I like the idea of music as a gift. And it's not a gift if it isn't valuable. So you make it valuable and beautiful, like a book."
Purgatory/Paradise contains an ambitious 32 tracks, which the band spent the past decade working on. "The material was written over the last 10 years – we were working, but not in a way the industry cares about. It was self-imposed exile, because we were tired of being asked to dumb down our product," says the singer, who co-founded CASH Music, a non-profit that provides a free digital platform for musicians that allows them to cut out the middleman and connect directly with their fans to sell and promote their music and other creative endeavors.
"4AD helped us and we did what we could within the industry," Hersh says, reflecting on the band's early days. "Then [4AD founder] Ivo [Watts-Russell] sold [the label]. Now we're listener-supported through CASH Music…it funded my solo record and now the first Throwing Muses record. It offers free software tools to anyone in the music industry. It's full of great hardworking people who really do care about the quality of the music."
Hersh said that the writing was on the wall for Throwing Muses to become independent after a major-label experience left a sour taste in the band's mouth. "We grew up on Warner Bros., and that's where the difficulties began," she explains. "When we were 14 years old and starting this band, we knew we didn't belong in the music business. We couldn't find an answer to the 'suck in order to succeed' equation." So the band spent the past several years working independently and doing things their own way.
The resulting album is as challenging and interesting as anything the band has ever produced – 32 tunes that are lean and mean, showcasing Throwing Muses' unique hybrid of rock and folk, with lyrics that are poignant lyrics and sometimes scathing. The album features members Hersh, Narcizo, and bassist Bernard Georges, but key founding member, Tanya Donelly – who later became famous for her turns with the Breeders and Belly – is no longer in the band.
The book is a worthy companion to the music, offering curious fans and listeners the chance to learn more about the origins of the songs, the band's artistic process and to get inside the mind of the band's enigmatic frontwoman. It also offers up some striking visuals, including several gorgeous shots of their home base, Rhode Island. "[Drummer] Dave is a graphic designer as a day job," says Hersh. "He used photographs we took on the island and on tour to reflect the thematic elements in the songs and the essays. You have to present a keyhole view of the universe. Because the theme of the record is the confines of the island versus the confines of the planet, we all supplied photographs from tour and from home."
Throwing Muses plan to hit the road behind Purgatory/Paradise soon – in fact, they were supposed to be out on the road already, but their bass player injured his hand. As a result, the band had to postpone their tour, and will likely head out in early 2014.
Meanwhile, Hersh reflects fondly on some touring memories from the band's early days. "The Pixies were our favorite band; we were like one band split in two," she recalls. "I talked Ivo into signing them [to 4AD] and we toured together. They were very American, like us. We'd sing folk songs about being lonely in the van together."
Now that the Pixies are on the road again, perhaps a former 4AD labelmates reunion show is in the cards. One can only hope!