Throwing Muses Buck the Label System: 'We're Dancing on Its Grave'

Throwing Muses

The last time Throwing Muses released an album was a decade ago. But the influential band-U.K. label 4AD's first American signing in 1986-hasn't been on hiatus. Leader Kristin Hersh, drummer David Narcizo and bassist Bernard George were still writing and gigging together, weaving Hersh's surreal monologues into the sinewy, guitar-driven salvos that helped define the sound of '90s alt-rock. While they were taking time to manage their other artistic careers (Narcizo is a graphic designer, George a titanium welder) and their families (Hersh has four sons, ranging in age from 10 to 27), that's not what held back a new music release.

"We're really big losers, and we don't want to be in a business that celebrates winners," Hersh says with a laugh. "If the choice is between doing lousy work with the winners or not working at all, you're morally bound to work in private, which is what we've been doing. Until we could be listener-supported and circumvent the recording industry, there wasn't a way."

Throwing Muses // New & Old

2013: Sunray Venus (Demo)
1991: Counting Backwards

The Muses and Hersh walked away from labels for good six years ago. Sire dropped the band after 1996's University failed to meet the label's expectations of what a female-fronted alternative band could sell in the era of Jewel. The group released two LPs after that, Limbo on Rykodisc in 1996 and Throwing Muses on 4AD through Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA) in 2003. Four years later, Hersh co-founded Cash Music with L7's Donita Sparks, a nonprofit that gives artists the digital tools they need to market and sell their music directly to fans.

"Not much has changed in the industry," Hersh says. "It ate us alive and then collapsed. Now we're dancing on its grave."

The method the band eventually found to release its new material combines Kickstarter economics with the growing refocus on tangible product and special content-a "cult of the object that's coming back," according to Scott Pack, publisher of HarperCollins' experimental imprint Friday Project. On Oct. 28, Throwing Muses' ninth album, Purgatory/Paradise, will be released as an art book with a CD through HarperCollins on Friday Project in the United Kingdom (where the band still has a large following) and It Books in the States. An interactive e-book/music app will follow on Nov. 11, along with a digital release through retail outlets and Throwing Muses' website. The project was funded directly by fans through Hersh's subscription service Strange Angels, which lives on the Cash Music platform.

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The book format isn't just a unique delivery mechanism: It inspired the album's content. Purgatory/Paradise features 32 tracks and additional music (like instrumentals), plus photography and essays, visually assembled by designer Narcizo. It was inspired by-and for the most part, created in-the small town of Narragansett, R.I., where the band members grew up and first met. The album title is a reference to an actual intersection in the town.

"The only way we know how to work is to hide out on our own planet," says Hersh, who speaks in the conversational poetry of her writing. "It's a nice planet, and it has images and stories and humor and heartbreak. Everybody has a planet, obviously, but ours has always been a soundtrack. This time we included the other senses."

When taken as just a soundtrack, Purgatory/Paradise is still thrilling. With 13 tracks clocking in at less than a minute-and-a-half, it barrels through Hersh's fever dreams with the elegance and urgency of the 4AD golden age. "This is our masterpiece, the record we're allowed to die after making," Hersh says.

The team first tested the "art book" format in 2010, with Hersh's last solo album, Crooked. Also released with Harper's Friday Project, it sold 2,000 copies in the United States (according to Nielsen SoundScan) and exceeded those sales in the United Kingdom, according to Pack. This time, the band opted to replace Crooked's unique download card with an actual CD (it was cheaper to manufacture) and partner with a U.S. publisher, It Books, to manage domestic promotion, marketing and placement in record and book shops.

"I'm never far from getting in a fight about the idea that the album is still super-relevant. I would wrestle Bob Lefsetz in Jell-O to prove that," Cash executive director and band co-manager Jesse von Doom says. "The album is more alive than ever; it's not constrained anymore. It doesn't mean 12 songs in 45 minutes. It might be 32 songs, a whole bunch of photos, some essays."

Throwing Muses will tour behind Purgatory/Paradise, but probably not until 2014, von Doom says-and not crammed on a bus. The band will focus on major cities, perhaps playing multiple dates in single markets. "If you can't find a way to keep bands active and creating great art when they do have families and don't want to be on the road 180 days a year," he says, "you're failing music on the whole."