Notes From The City - The Kristin Hersh Interview

By Londonist_Laura Last edited 168 months ago
Notes From The City - The Kristin Hersh Interview

Notes From The City

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I reviewed Kristin Hersh's spellbinding album preview show at the Arts Theatre last time and on Tuesday night I got the opportunity not only to watch her perform a powerful acoustic set with The McCarricks but to meet her in person. We had quite a chat...

First of all how are you, how are the shows going, are you enjoying yourself?

I haven't had any shows really because it's a promo tour. I'm about to start the US promo tour in a couple of days and that's a month and a half - the US is really big!

So I hear.

Yeah! [laughs] So it's these, you know, fake shows.

Yes. But last week's show at the Arts Theatre wasn't very fake.

It was a preview show though, mostly for journalists and psycho fans...

I was there.

[laughs] They don't even know the record so it's different, it's not really a tour. Plus we don't actually know the songs yet [laughs].

Well that wasn't obvious.


No, it was fine.



Are you enjoying playing the new material in public? Is it the first time you've done that?

It's good to know that you can. This record is, it's not more intricate but it's unusual for me in that I'm usually attracted to more fluid timing, more messy fragile fucked up acoustic stuff. This was very strident, all played to a click which is unusual for me because my counts are usually more in the 3/16. But I had to serve the songs and so necessarily the production reflected this strident quality - big and clear. That said, the overdubs had to balance that out, the overdubs are incredibly idiosyncratic, bizarre timings, layered sound approaches that are difficult to recreate live. So it was a bit of a science project to try and recreate it, and I'm not sure if that's really what we should be doing [laughs].

What's your favourite song off the new album?

'Day Glo'. It's a song about getting poor [laughs] and having to wear day glo clothes but still sink in to the background. I didn't know why I wrote it. I thought I was writing about the weekend Billy and I were engaged, it was in Santa Barbara, we were living in LA. He dragged me up for this weekend in Santa Barbara and didn't tell me why (and that was why). I'm a tomboy, I didn't get any of it! And on the way back we pulled off in to Paradise Cove, this beach in Southern California, it's where the end of Planet of the Apes takes place...the Statue of Liberty. Um, and jumped in to the ocean, it's fucking freezing - I have this water thing, I always have to be in the water - crazy waves, even the surfers wouldn't touch these waves, and I was immediately just sucked out to sea. And I thought I was too strong for that, see this? [flexes arm] I have big muscles!

Good muscles!

But I'm this big!! [indicates a very small thing with her fingers]

I know!!

I was just like, bo!!!! Billy tried to grab me, he said it was like a dead body, I couldn't fight the current at all. I thought that I was writing about that and then all this water stuff happened to us and our house flooded...

I heard about that.

And you know, our friends in Katrina and everything, water water water. But I couldn't figure out why I'd be talking about getting poor and day glo clothes and still being in the background and then it happened and we had to buy everything from the kids at Goodwill and it was all these ridiculous day glo colours and we were these invisible people, just like all the other poor people. It's a good lesson to learn, not that I'd ever been really rich, but I'd never had to...I'd never had nothing at all before, and I appreciate Day Glo for being there before it happened and being the scrim that I saw all that through. It made it, I want to say almost meaningless? It didn't seem to matter so much. 'Day Glo' had already made it pretty, so it was okay to live that way.

I was recently re-reading a book you did an interview in. Do you remember "Never Mind The Bollocks" by Amy Raphael? You did a piece in it, it was published in 1995 and I was 14 and I read about all these girls and I was like "I'm going to play the guitar, it's going to be so cool"...

And it worked!

I know! You said that the first time you really thought sexism existed in the music business was when you were promoting Hips And Makers. I was wondering whether you'd found that had changed in the last 12 years since you did that interview, has it been a problem for you or have you ignored it and just carried on?

It's never been an overt problem for me because I've never positioned myself as female. I have a feeling...every now and then Billy will say something to the effect of "that's sexism working against us" and I appreciate that in an overview but personally I haven't had to deal with it except in my own philosophies. We did this photo shoot for this record that a woman did for nothing, she's a photographer who...everyone works for me for nothing because I have nothing! And she paid for studios, for makeup artists, for stylists, for everything and I just said yes. She's a good person. And the session looks like glamour shots to some people, which I was surprised by. I had a liver infection, I was so ill I didn't even know what was going on and the only time I felt comfortable during the session was when they let me lie down on a couch because I was in so much pain and that's the back cover of this record. Dave Narcizo said that's really the only face that looks like you is when they let you lie down. And we had our fans, especially the lesbians, saying did somebody make you do this? How do you feel about this? And it looks...someone in Germany just said it looks like Christina Aguilera! And I had no idea, I guess I was being styled in such a way that would put people off. And that's the only time that I start to mess in my head with what sexism in the music business has done to people. Absolutely appreciate that fashion as a business can kill people.

You said in that interview that you hate fashion - do you still feel the same way about that kind of thing?

I appreciate the idea of all these people thinking that something is beautiful at the same time. But fashion as a business, like music as a business, is very dangerous I think, as a commodity. I've watched anorexic friends die because of fashion and I've watched people lose their daughters to fashion. I've watched women lose their sense of humour, which sounds subtle but it's not, it's everything...because of the industry, fashion, saying that one thing is beautiful. One kind of person is beautiful. One meatbag is beautiful.

Billy O'Connell, Kristin's tour manager and husband enters the room looking for champagne - it's run out.


What's your favourite thing about London?

Kristin: Everything, we love London right now. We have had just the best vacation of our lives this week. It's supposed to be a promo tour but America's rough right now, nobody wants to be there.

I was going to ask what it feels like being an American in London. I mean, it's not your responsibility what your government does, obviously, but does it feel weird coming over? Do people react funny to you?

Billy: It's a relief.

Kristin: It's a relief, exactly. It's really Bush, destroying our country. Americans are crazed with anger right now, even the Republicans. The whole country is furious.

Billy: He's not a Conservative.

Kristin: Yeah, he's not even a Conservative!

Billy: He's a religious Conservative who spends a fuckload of money to do stupid and terrible things.

Kristin: And so America's just scary. There's the rich and the poor and all the violence that happens because of that and coming back to London - I've been coming here for 20 years - this is more home than America is right now. I love America, I love the land, the geography and the people, but the politics are so bizarrely frustrating and they're causing such enormous social conflicts right now that this is just such a relief like you said. Just to see what a good job y'all are doing. Like, everything - architecture is intact, the organic food is intact. You know, that diverse. Everything is so much smarter here right now. I really appreciate Americans - the people - but they can't maintain the culture in an intelligent way without the support of the government. I remember London as being this crumbling empire, I was really worried about 10 years ago and now I just think that they're doing exactly what they should be doing.

What do you think of My Space? I know that you have your Free Music site...

Kristin: We've passed a million downloads now. Mudrock called me and was like "We have a hit record and no money!" [laughs]

So have you investigated My Space? Do you have a profile on there and all that?

Kristin: We do but somebody else is handling it for us because our website is so influential...we had one of the fastest and one of the first music websites and we've put all of our resources in to that. Actually Fletch, the 50 Foot Wave videographer and photographer was just like "Ah, let's do it for you". Billy's getting more interested in it. The band, 50 Foot Wave is really interested in My Space but I haven't caught up to it yet. I really like the idea and the band is enjoying it.

Billy: Social networking is a great concept, a really great idea, but the noise and poor technology that is My Space is bullshit. People deserve a lot better than that. Everything breaking every two days is bullshit. And people deserve a lot better. The social networking thing is not so complicated that it needs to break but My Space was launched on the fly and they're moving everything around and trying to fix what's broken on the fly and they break the entire site, or they break your page on an every other daily basis. Ridiculous. So at we try to have a lot better customer service than that, we try to have more respect for the users than that, we try to be more predictable.

Kristin: It would be good to reach people who don't buy in to the standard radio play + press = record sales but we've kind of done that at our website and with the free downloads.

Billy: I get the My Space thing but it's much more effective for us to do it through our website. I mean, as a matter of fact at Throwing Music we had this thing called The Place which was personalised individual pages linked to one another and we had that from 1995 to 2000. It was a miniature My Space and we ended up flushing that away for something that was just a more simply moderated community that was less difficult to stay apprised of. We just wanted to make it easier to get the information you wanted.

Kristin: Billy can do anything. He just did everything first and so trying to use somebody else's technology's just like "Ah, all right"!

Billy: Well, we're at My Space but it's not our priority, our priority is Throwing Music because we think that the Throwing Music mailing list can do everything and more than My Space can do for us. But I understand the social networking thing and I really appreciate it.

Kristin: It's an attractive idea to try and reach the people that also reject popular culture as a commodity, you know?

Billy: Also to say that we're family with you because you appreciate what we do. So we're family.

Kristin: Right.

Billy: That's attractive and that's really smart. So when I can approve a friend request for anybody - and we approve every single request that comes in, I don't care how objectionable it is or how objectionable it seems - we approve every single request because in most cases it's somebody who wants to be family, so we're creating family. And by doing so, by saying yes to everything, sometimes we say yes to things that are inappropriate but it doesn't matter. On the whole we're saying yes to the idea of family, and if we can say yes to the idea of family then we're doing what we set out to do in the first place. With Throwing Music, with, with everything that we've done on the internet so far. It's just to say yes to the idea of family.

Kristin: Because we've incorporated the disenfranchised, and those fans watched Throwing Muses die for lack of funds and don't want it to happen again. Those fans come to shows and shove money in our CD box without taking a CD. It's a really lovely position to be in and like I say, people work for nothing.

Billy: And many more than those fans have downloaded 50 Foot Wave's "Free Music" EP which has now had over a million downloads. That counts for a fuck of a lot for us, just knowing that that stuff has been taken by a million bodies. Taken by a million pairs of ears. That's worth a fuck of a lot.

Kristin: What else is music? So we gotta go deal. I can't expect money for music. The idea that somebody would take it in and make it a part of their personal soundtrack is an honour.

Billy: Money's not their problem, it's our problem.

Kristin: Right, exactly.

Billy: And there are enough people who sympathise with us, in our position, to help us out with that.

Kristin: Right, so the people that have money give it, and the people that don't still deserve music. That's the point.

Images of Kristin at FOPP courtesy of Joseph Lee.

Last Updated 20 January 2007