Presenting “Under the Covers,” a new column that takes an in-depth look at album covers drawn by comic book artists, and the musicians who hook up with them. We’re kicking off this column with a two-fer: musician Kristin Hersh and Gilbert Hernandez of Love & Rockets. Gilbert (affectionately referred to as “Beto” through the interview) drew the cover to the 1996 Throwing Muses album Limbo, and most recently, the cover to Kristin’s memoir Rat Girl.
|Kristin will be reading from Rat Girl next Wednesday, October 6, at Elliott Bay Book Company, on Capitol Hill, at 6:00PM. Get more details here.|
Janice: So, all the way back to the very beginning, how did you first discover Gilbert Hernandez?
Kristin: When we moved to Boston as teenagers, underground comics seemed more… We could relate more to underground comics better than we could relate to underground music, which at the time hadn’t grasped the indie-aesthetic yet. It was still a boys club, and, I don’t mean to be insulting, because I really admire a lot of those people, but we couldn’t relate. And underground comics were so fragile and gutsy, and they used light and shadow the way we used light and shadow. We just fell into that world, and sympathized with these artists who we really couldn’t find analogs for in music.
And, my favorite was Gilbert. When we lived in and made records in L.A., I remember reading Heartbreak Soup over and over again, and having that get me through the terrible recording of The Real Ramona, which was a nightmare to record, personally and professionally. It was sort-of an interesting nightmare, but still. L.A. plus nightmare does not equal a happy girl. Heartbreak Soup somehow embraced the hell and the heat, and yet spun it in this beautiful, gutsy fashion that I think allowed my record The Real Ramona to not suffer the affects of the horrible recording process that it was. And I was always grateful to Beto for that.
Throwing Muses actually broke up when we made that record, and when we re-formed, we decided that the music business had no business destroying us. So, we would be a band that didn’t give a shit because we were a band that didn’t give a shit. And all we were gonna do was play music until we ran out of money, and that was our version of heroism. That was as heroic as we can get. So, when we made our final real studio album, I called Beto and said, “You have to do the cover, because it would mean everything to me if you did.” And he did!
He and his wife Carol came over to our apartment, and hung out with us and our little boy, and talked about what we wanted, listened to the music, and it was… I can’t tell you how moving it was to have the cover of Limbo be in Beto’s hand. All the detail, and the pain, and the… energy, I guess? He can somehow draw energy in a static impression, like a photograph that he gives you. These moments that he can capture are somehow living and breathing. I was so honored to have him do that for Limbo, because it was a very sad time for us. We knew we had run out of money to be on the road or in the studio, and so we were technically no longer a band. And I think it was our best record. It was bittersweet and very touching to have Beto commemorize it that way. And I’ve now seen pieces from that record cover tattooed all over people’s bodies, on so many people. Which is great! It’s permanent, and living and breathing.
Janice: Did you meet when you were in L.A. recording The Real Ramona?
Kristin: Oh no, I was still just a fan. It was during Limbo that I reached out to him.
Janice: What was his response?
Kristin: I think he said, “Sure,” which was not the response I expected! I was ready to talk him into it. He was like, “Okay,” and I’d go, “Now wait a minute, that’s too easy!”
My book — it’s called a memoir, but it’s really just one year, 1985-86, from one spring to the next. So, really, it reads more like a non-fiction novel. And the title itself is very comic-book-y, and I wanted it to be read more as a graphic novel. It’s very image-centric. I think graphic novels are far more beautiful than memoirs, because, you can’t escape the world in a graphic novel, and a memoir, you can let your brain kind-of runaway and leave the story for a while. But in a graphic novel, you don’t have that option. So, I wanted people to read from image to image to image, and one way to spin the book that way was to have Beto do the cover. The first few pictures he drew… I didn’t know he was going to draw me, that was not what was —
Janice: I was wondering if that was the original plan!
Kristin: I didn’t know what he was going to do! I just wanted him to do what he wanted. [ laughing ] And he drew me with these beautiful luscious lips and y’know, I look like someone from Palomar. You’ve met me, I don’t!
So, he sent his first sketches in to my publisher Penguin to begin the dialogue, and they just said, “Okay” and picked one. And he was like, “No, no, no! Wait a minute! This is the first draft!” So, of his own accord, he redrew the cover and it looks so much like me. I mean, he made me a little prettier than I am, which was kind of him. But he captured the spooky, worried look that I always have in my eyes.
Janice: That’s exactly what I thought when I saw the cover! I was like, she looks worried.
Kristin: [ laughing ] Yeah! I always look worried!
Janice: Was it a similar situation with Limbo where you just said, “Do whatever you want”?
Kristin: I believe so. I think that the only input we had in Limbo was to choose which piece was going to be on the cover.
Janice: So, he submitted several pieces?
Kristin: And it could’ve been any of them. One was our tour bus driving away…
Janice: Which is in the booklet!
Kristin: Right, right… It was a very difficult decision. So, I left it up to my drummer, who’s a graphic designer and smarter about those things. But the most popular tattoo is the little girl jumping rope.
Janice: The “Ruthie’s Knocking” girl! [ Ed. note: I was wrong about the title, as you can see above! ] So, that was just another of the drawings that was in the batch he gave you to choose from?
Kristin: Yeah! Can you believe it? I mean, how could you choose? They were all incredible. And he’s so easy to be with and to talk to, and Carol is so great. It was a very comfortable working relationship, if you can call it that. I just always felt such a kinship with him because he seems to be on his own planet as we are.
Janice: I couldn’t agree more. Would you say that perhaps the guy on the cover is maybe “Mr. Bones?”
Kristin: Yeah, exactly! That’s what we always called him. I never named that song. I was in my studio, which was next door to my house, and I had been working for too long and lost track of time. And, I’d worked through the dinner hour and written the song, that seemed to be about someone who had died and therefore had no weight anymore. You know that frustration when someone dies where they’re not tangible to you? You know that your energies can still meet, you know that your memories will never leave you, but to lose someone’s weight and pressure and earthliness is the real loss. And there was just this song that was a little confusing, and I couldn’t quite finish it. And I just kept going for hours and hours. And my little son walked in, knocked on the door, and said, “Um, it was dinnertime about an hour ago, and you’re still my Mom. Kids need to eat.” I said, “Okay, all I have left to do is name the song. What’s a good name for the song?” And my son Ryder, having never heard the song, said, “Mr. Bones.” It’s like, holy crap! That is a good name! And so that man on the cover became Mr. Bones.
Janice: Sometimes when I look at the cover, I think the guy looks scary. And then sometimes I think he looks sad. I think that says so much to what Beto brought out of what was going on behind-the-scenes with the album in his art.
Kristin: Aw man, that’s an incredible thing to say. And so true. When you’re sad, you get tough. And you know you’re not going to function unless you can be scary to some people. And that is sort-of what happened to us. We were almost destroyed. But instead, we got tough. And, we did have to scare some people, but like my son Wyatt said, “When you do something, you make a mess.” And it’s my favorite thing that he’s ever said. He’s said a lot things that I really love, but I thought, “Ah, that’s it. If I never did anything, I wouldn’t have made all these messes.” It’s gotta be worth it. And that’s where the scary expression comes in. ‘Cause we made a lot of messes, and yet, we had to. It was important to do what we did.
And, we’re now in the studio again, something I never thought would happen, making another Throwing Muses album. And it’s bewitching. It’s in these little pieces, and the pieces come and go, and then, come back and reappear in other songs, and it’s sort-of like a “Throwing Muses Jackson Pollock” or something. We’re just so enchanted by it! We’re kinda lost and in love at the same time. And we wouldn’t have gotten here and be able to do this if we didn’t make a big mess and get a little tough because we got sad. It all comes down to Mr. Bones. [ laughing ]
Janice: What about with the cover of Rat Girl? I thought it was interesting that it’s a very stark black cover, and of course, it goes with your eyes, but you kind-of have this halo of blue around you. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, and while I haven’t read the book yet, from what I understand, that period was sort-of difficult for you. I wondered if he was interpreting the hope against that black…
Kristin: Oh, that’s nice! Yeah, it is a difficult period in the book. It’s actually my diary from when I was eighteen, and eighteen-year-olds are generally pretty resilient and hopeful and almost simple. So the book is kind-of hopeful and simple. It ends up being sweet more than anything else, which I don’t think anybody would expect. It was a year where lots of things began, but nothing really kicked in yet: the band was signed, I was diagnosed bipolar, I was pregnant with my first son… that sounds like things happening, but really, it was just things starting. And while you can’t call a disease “hopeful,” to start anything means, “Okay, I’m gonna say that I’m on a journey,” and that in itself is hopeful.
When Janice Headley isn’t assisting the programming department at KEXP, she works at Fantagraphics, publishers of some of the world’s greatest cartoonists since 1976. As a teenager, she listened to Throwing Muses albums while reading Love & Rockets comic books, so she’s especially happy to bring you this column.