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Throwing Muses Week: Providence Music Underground

Throwing Muses in 1985 | Photo by J. Narcizo

Can you go home again?

Back in high school, I distinctly remember vowing to leave Providence and never come back.

Since then, I’ve ping-ponged back and forth so many times it’s a wonder I don’t have whiplash. And yet — there’s something about this town that’s magic. Weird magic, but magic nonetheless.

And for me, the town’s allure was solidified through music.

Two bands in particular formed the soundtrack to my Providence adolescence: Throwing Muses and Coat of Arms.

Keeping Providence Weird

Mid-80s Providence was your typical post-industrial city — economically downtrodden and pretty damn culture-deprived. But, like anywhere, there were beacons of hope around if you took the time to look for ‘em. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that comics and music got me through high school.

I’ve seen the Muses enough, and in such far-flung venues, that I no longer even truly associate them with Providence (or Newport), or think of them necessarily as being a local band. Coat of Arms, on the other hand, bring me right back to Providence, c. 1987.I’d just moved back here from California. I’d started to get into weird comics (the weirdest I got at the time was Love & Rockets —I know, NOT WEIRD. But, context is everything, and I lived in a tiny cultural wasteland) and I figured it was time to branch out into music.

I became friends with the school’s lone acid freak, who got me into the Velvets and Eno. (That was a slow process, but I got there eventually.)

Somewhere along the way I bought a slew of cassettes by local bands like Sleep that Burns, Stained Rug Theory, and Coat of Arms.

Coat of Arms: Party Band for Weirdos

Coat of Arms stood out. They had a rep as a party band, but they also weren’t afraid to use instruments not seen in your typical 4/4 lineup (flute, banjo, violin).

And their sound was comparatively sunny-sounding and all-American, fitting in nicely with their contemporaries (fIREHOSE, Pixies, Muses, Lemonheads). Songs like “Common Ground” and “Indoor Poolz” were giddy and effervescent, equal parts power-pop and kitchen-sink glam. (“(When I) Touch You There” went all jangle-pop on us.)The band’s reach often exceeded their grasp, but that was part of the fun. Thankfully, their one-off reunion in 2006 didn’t add any gloss to the proceedings. (And no, the cheekily earnest cover of “Borderline” didn’t count.)

Throwing Muses: Fearless + Beautiful

Back in the socially awkward years of late high school, Throwing Muses’ first album and the subsequent Chains Changed EP were the most cathartic albums I owned.

Although I was also a big Joy Division fan, I preferred the conversational, open-ended quality of singer/songwriter Kristin Hersh’s often harrowing narratives — they were fearless but also approachable, humane, sharp. They felt like real life to me.

I don’t think I’d ever seen a songwriter write so matter-of-factly, and so un-self-pityingly, about some of the bleakest experiences of her life — or with such wry humor.

The Muses didn’t really fit in to the Providence scene, and maybe that’s why I loved (love) them so much. But then, I’ve always loved the outliers, the outsiders and the oddballs.


Coat of Arms singer Pip Everett’s got a couple of bands going right now: The Hope Anchor + Everett Bros. Moving Co. Follow The Hope Anchor.

Pip also just recorded a track (or two?) for Tanya Donelly’s next Swan Song series. Not sure when it’s coming out — check Tanya’s website for release dates.

The Hope Anchor
Throwing Muses on Twitter
Tanya Donelly on Twitter


Throwing Muses Week: Dave Narcizo on Designing ‘Purgatory/Paradise’


It’s Throwing Muses Week here at Warped Reality (I can hear you now: “Isn’t it always Throwing Muses Week?”) — starting with a sneak peek at the design process behind their beautiful new album, Purgatory/Paradise.

ThrowingMusesWeek02David Narcizo tackles design problems every day at Lakuna, the graphic design studio he owns with his wife, Misi.

But designing Purgatory/Paradise, the lavish new book of essays + music by Throwing Muses, the groundbreaking band he’s drummed for since 1984, presented a special set of challenges: “I had to be careful not to overthink it,” he tells me over coffee at his Newport, RI studio.

In the 10 years since Muses’ last album, the band has become fully-listener supported with the help of CASH Music, a nonprofit that makes open-source tools for musicians. (Muses singer Kristin Hersh is a co-founder + board member.)

Free from music industry constraints, the band could release music whenever — and in whatever form — they wanted.

And with 32 songs — culled from a whopping 75 — recorded over 10 years, something special was in order.

But what?

It’s one of those great — and daunting — creative questions, acknowledges Narcizo.

“I’ve been lucky enough to have [Throwing Muses] my life for 30 years,” he notes. “Part of that good fortune is the chance to combine my current job (Lakuna Design) with [the band] — it feels like the beginning of another chapter in Muses world.”

Take it away, Dave…

Learn to Let Go of the Past

The Throwing Muses collection Anthology (4AD, 2011) had a complete design that was scrapped.

Early on in the process I shared some sketches with Vaughan Oliver [legendarily cantankerous designer of multiple Muses sleeves].


Now, in the early days of the Muses we were surprised by how off-putting we were to people. We thought if we put photos of ourselves on the sleeve — show we were “normal” — that it would change the perception of us. Vaughan would argue vociferously against it — he always wanted to preserve the mystery.

So with Anthology, I wrote to him and said, “Hey! There’s not a single picture of us in it!” And he wrote back: “What a mistake you’re making!” [laughs]

So I scrapped that design and reworked it to include all kinds of ephemera that was personal to the band: tour itineraries, ticket stubs, etc.

Use Process to Take a Step Back

I always design a cover opened. One thing I remember Vaughan saying was, “Don’t worry about the cover too much” — he was basically saying, “The cover doesn’t have to be the main event.” That was freeing to me.

With Purgatory/Paradise, I wanted the cover to have a vintage book feel to it — I wanted the light to feel magical but not spooky.

Prompts Are Good

Kristin sent me a list of words to get me started on the overall look + feel: colors, names, places, objects.

TMusesPurgParaSpreadsThen I received all the essays. I realized there were a LOT of words.

I knew I was going to need buckets of assets.

Some of them are mine, some are K’s. I created collages behind the text, some specific to what she’s talking about, some more allusive. I didn’t want to be too precious about it.

There are lots of photos of Newport in there. Like Brenton Point — we joke that it’s our “photographer date spot” because it’s where we ALWAYS took photographers. Chains Changed was shot there.

It was a lot of trial and error until I settled on collage out of necessity — to treat every page like a separate layout.

The intro is more geometric. When it gets into songs the look is more collage-y.

I had to be careful not to overthink it. When it’s about you you’re less willing to go with one idea. I was trying to exercise restraint.

Evolving Beyond the Album (While Still Loving the Album)

One of the things that K and I have been talking about a lot recently is that it’s taken us a long time to get to this place — we’ve evolved past the album.

It’s odd because, almost more than anything else we’ve done, this record really feels like an album.

And yet, at the same time, I feel I’m ready to let go of albums.

I don’t think we have to think in those terms any more — we can record and then, maybe after the fact, decide, “Oh, this all works together as a collection. We’ll package it up and then make it something tangible that people can have.”


Maybe it’s one song, maybe it’s a piece of design —or writing. Releasing “stuff” — whatever form that takes — when we feel like it.

Bands should never break up. We’re always going to be around, in some form.

Shows in 2014?

Bernie [Muses bassist] hurt his thumb, so we’re going to play shows in 2014.

Jeff Craft, our booking agent, is going to try to book us into places that are just unique and fun — like the De La Warr Pavilion [a Modernist-era concert hall] in Sussex, or the Islington Assembly Hall.

The first show that’s been announced will be part of NoiseFest in SF.


Throwing Muses on Twitter
Lakuna Design
Kristin Hersh

Celebrating 20 Years of Belly’s STAR


Belly’s Star sounds so bright and timeless, it’s hard to believe it’s 20 years old. You heard me right: TWENTY YEARS!

In honor of this milestone, Belly singer/songwriter Tanya Donelly has released her original demos for the band’s classic debut, packaged with 4 new songs as part of her Swan Song Series marking her unofficial-official “retirement” from the music biz.

Recorded onto a reel marked “Breeders Demos” (the sequel to Pod was originally meant to showcase Tanya’s songs), the demos have been bootlegged across the internet but never officially released as a matched set.

The demos have a delicate, hushed quality (Donelly calls them “quiet and spidery”) that is really special. If you haven’t heard them, treat yourself to the whole set — a steal at $4.

To celebrate, I’m posting my Belly interview from the very FIRST print issue of WARPED REALITY, published a few months after Star came out.

Nice-T: Tanya Donelly Gets Her Own Band at Last

Tanya Donelly and her band Belly breezed into the press conference wearing white tuxedos and corsages. “It’s a contest to make ourselves as uncomfortable as possible,” laughed lead singer and songwriter Donelly.

TanyaSmilingSmall“…and to hope that it rubs off on you,” quipped bassist Gail Greenwood to all of the journalists present.

A short while later, one intrepid reporter got up and asked the band,” How was prom?” — to which Tanya mock-tearfully replied, “I’m still a virgin, so it didn’t go so good.”

Alright, so prom was a bust, but things are definitely going well for Belly.

Since its release in January [1993], their debut album Star has sold more than 200,000 copies.

Tanya’s winsome and dark fairy tales, partnered with her strong sense of melody, have garnered the band both popular and critical acclaim.

So what does all this success mean to the band?

“It means we can afford some new duds,” laughs drummer/graphic designer Chris Gorman, referring to the bands’ formal attire.

For Tanya, it means being (at last) in the spotlight — an exciting but sometimes nerve-wracking prospect.

For 8 years, she was second guitarist and occasional songwriter for her stepsister Kristin Hersh’s band, Throwing Muses.

For one album and an EP she did the same for Pixie Kim Deal’s band the Breeders.

In 1991, after Throwing Muses’ Real Ramona tour, she decided to strike out on her own. She recruited Muses bassist Fred Abong and childhood friends Tom and Chris Gorman — Belly was born.

Tanya is adamant that she wasn’t creatively “stifled” in the Muses: “It was the kind of situation where the two songs you heard were the two that I’d written that year,” she explains. “I had just recently started to write more. And any small tensions that did happen — well, I left before it could get weird.”

Tanya notes that she could not have left the Muses before that. Not only did she not have enough songs, but she wasn’t ready to form her own group, either emotionally or practically.

To her, being the center of attention means “having to show you’re a fun person all the time.”


But she’s learning, thanks to Gail, who’s extremely funny and with whom she shares an excellent rapport — and to her own growing confidence as a songwriter and performer.

Tanya isn’t letting all this “flavor of the month” status in the fickle alt-rock world — Buzz Bin on MTV,Rolling Stone photo shoots, Gap ad — go to her head.

And the band’s live show is gelling too. When I saw the band at CMJ in October, Tanya seemed shy and barely talked to the audience.

By contrast, at a recent show at the Paradise in Boston, Tanya joked between songs, even going so far as to have the lighting engineer illuminate the big zit that she was “cultivating” on her nose. “I rub butter in it every day!” she laughed.

What does the future hold for Belly? The next album is going to be more collaborative,” promises Tanya. “We’ll be doing nude performance art,” quips Tom. “After that,” continues Tanya, “I don’t know — we don’t have a lot of foresight. We’re just touring for a while, and then we’ll be making another record, and then we’ll be touring again!”

I’m sure that the next time around, prom will be perfect — or as Gail would say, “Kill-ah!”

Buy Tanya’s Swan Song Series on Bandcamp.


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