Throwing Muses - Biography
Throwing Muses pioneered a style of catchy, hook driven post-punk in the 1980s that greatly influenced what would come to be called alternative rock in the 1990s. Along with similar American bands like the Pixies, REM and Sonic Youth, Throwing Muses’ music laid the blueprint for much of the college and indie rock that followed. Led by stepsister duo Kristen Hersh and Tanya Donelly the band’s sound blended the caustic and the pretty, melodic pop with avant-garde song structures, shifting tempos, odd chord progressions and Hersh’s alien, disarming vocals. While often overlooked, Throwing Muses’ inventive music continues to wield influence over today’s indie rock.
Hersh and Donelly formed Throwing Muses around 1981 while the stepsisters attended Rogers High School in Newport, Rhode Island. Both women sang, played guitar and wrote songs. Drummer David Narcizo joined and the group made its first recordings in 1983. The band self-released an eponymous EP in 1984, but it was the second self-release, the more widely circulated The Doghouse Cassette, that scored the group a college radio hit with “Sinkhole.” These recordings caught the ear of the 4AD label and the band, now based in Boston and including bassist Leslie Langston, signed with the UK imprint.
Throwing Muses released its self-titled proper debut in September 1986. Consisting of nine songs penned by Hersh and one by Donelly, the album immediately set the band far out on its own. Blending frenetic post-punk, melodic folk and jangling power-pop influences, the quartet boiled down these elements into something totally unique. Hersh’s idiosyncratic style, both lyrically and musically, defines the band. Her writing is imbued with a strong sense of the unstable. This is reflected musically in her erratic guitar playing and in Narcizo’s inventive sense of rhythm. The instruments push and pull each other as tempos shift and structures fold in on themselves. Hersh struggles with bi-polar disorder and her lyrics reflect this, dealing with topics like identity, pain and anxiety with stark yet surreal imagery on tracks like “Vicky’s Box” and “Delicate Cutters.” Her singular, emotive singing voice adds to the sense of urgent disquiet. Donelly’s contribution, “Green,” is a shimmering love song that seems straightforward in comparison.
The band received instant acclaim in the UK, cementing its popularity with two EPs in 1987, Chains Changed and The Fat Skier. Working with producer Gary Smith, the band released its second full-length, House Tornado, in early 1988. Again dominated by Hersh’s fluid, unpredictable songs, augmented with two Donelly contributions, the record expands on the ideas explored on the debut. Tracks like “Marriage Tree” and “Colder” boast elliptical structures and little in the way of conventional melody, but Hersh is as arresting and emotive as ever. The record produced a college radio hit with “Juno” and the band toured the UK with the Pixies.
1989’s Hunkpapa saw the band’s sound become slightly more conventional. Hersh’s songs featured a greater focus on melody and traditional verse/chorus/verse structures, evident on the catchy lead single “Dizzy.” Donelly contributed two tracks with the tribal-prog stomp of “Dragonhead” being one of the album’s most interesting moments.
The band’s fourth album remains one of its best. 1991’s The Real Ramona is a classic of early alternative rock. Hersh’s songwriting is at its peak here. On songs like the stunning “Counting Backwards” and “Two Step,” she has perfectly corralled her unique, daring sense of structure with accessibility and an infectious sense of melody. Donelly’s two contributions rank with her best work, boasting a shining sense of pop melody on the unforgettable “Honeychain.” The Real Ramona features Fred Abong on bass after the departure of Langston.
Co-founder Tanya Donelly left Throwing Muses after The Real Ramona, first starting the Breeders with Pixies bassist Kim Deal and later fronting her own band Belly. Abong followed Donelly and Langston returned to Throwing Muses for the band’s fifth record, Red Heaven. Recorded as a trio and released in 1992 the record features a raw, more muscular sound than The Real Ramona. Hersh is in fine form, sounding fierce, wounded, angry, fragile and powerful on tracks like “The Visit,” “Pearl” and the aptly titled “Furious.” Husker Du and Sugar frontman Bob Mould shows up for a duet on the plaintive “Dio.” With Red Heaven Hersh leaves little doubt that she is the heart and soul of Throwing Muses. Langston left the band again after the recordings. He was permanently replaced by Bernard Georges.
In 1994 Hersh released her solo debut with Hips and Makers. Co-produced by Patti Smith guitarist and rock legend Lenny Kaye the album features a stripped down, mostly acoustic set of songs driven by Jane Scarpentoni’s lyrical cello. Intense and haunted, this is some of Hersh’s best work. The album was a success, led by the single “Your Ghost,” a duet with REM’s Michael Stipe.
Throwing Muses returned in 1995 with the critically acclaimed University. Lead single “Bright Yellow Gun” found its way to commercial radio and the group was featured in Rolling Stone. Unfortunately sales didn’t coincide with the critical praise and following 1996’s Limbo, Throwing Muses went on indefinite hiatus.
Hersh has remained active, releasing solo records and performing. Throwing Muses have reunited several times to perform, notably in Hersh’s “Gut Pageant” events, and once to record a self-titled album released in 2003 that features the return of Donelly on backing vocals. Hersh and Georges formed 50 Foot Wave with drummer Rob Ahlers. In 2009 the band was rumored to be recording songs for a new record.