At the behest of producer Gary Smith, who would later lead the Pixies to fame, the band moved to Boston and became regulars on the burgeoning college rock circuit. Two interviewers from a Rhode Island School of Design campus magazine introduced the Muses to the Cocteau Twins and suggested they contact their label, legendary British outfit 4AD. Amazed by the sound of dream pop – “It was like heavenly music”, remembers Donelly – Throwing Muses sent some early demos to co-founder Ivo Watts-Russell. Watts-Russell, recalling Nick Cave’s birthday bash, began a crossover pas-de-deux with the Muses, talking about everything and anything besides signing them because, as he ruefully mentioned, 4AD n did not sign American bands. But soon the pretense was dropped, the Muses were indeed signed, college rock producer Gil Norton was assigned to work with them, and it all began.
Not that everything went well. Launch muses is an idiosyncratic and uncopyable debut album, but it is also the product of internal and external tension. To make the album cohesive, Watts-Russell removed most of the goofiest tracks and American tracks from the band’s repertoire. Hellspawn songs don’t always translate to full band arrangements – Narcizo often found himself drumming along the lead line, Langston wrote basslines that turned the arrangement into stubble, and then Donelly found himself ‘ Vicky’s Box”, loud and thick compared to its cassette counterpart. This was new for the band – even the studio rented by Watts-Russell was lavish and disorienting compared to the band’s upbringing in the commons and crashes college pads.
Hersh, meanwhile, had become pregnant with her first child, Dylan, while still suffering from severe PTSD from her biking accident. He was diagnosed with what was called manic depression at the time. While that didn’t stop the recording sessions – “I think it’s illegal to fire a band just because they’re pregnant,” Hersh said of recalling Langston – she held back for the vocal takes, terrified that the demonic roar of the songs could somehow get through to her unborn child. She stopped taking the lithium she had been prescribed because the tremors it gave her made it too difficult to play the guitar. The result was a lengthy recording process and a seemingly endless amount of takes. At one point, the band was nearly kicked out of the studio to make way for Deep Purple.
A more fundamental tension was Tanya Donelly’s role in the band. She was as prolific a composer as Hersh – until 1991 The real Ramona, she was still working on her backlog of teenage demos, but during the early years of The Muses she only had one to a handful of songs per album. The press tended to see more resentment in this than actually existed. Despite images of Hersh and Donelly being less and less poppy, respectively, Donelly was actually the more introverted of the two, at least as far as interviews go. She said distributing the songs on the Muses albums was more about logistics than feeling left out. Donelly wrote her demos as herself, instead of envisioning them as Throwing Muses tracks (unlike the songs she had written for her 1993 debut with Belly, which she had envisioned as Breeders’ next album but that she couldn’t get a cut). She has a track on Launch muses, “Green”, a tribute to a first love who died young. The song shows the first signs of its surreal imagery: the memories merged into a bodice-tearing form (“Then there were candles, and a phoenix burned my bed”), and the pivot line, “Kneel in my ashes, knead them”, an eerily striking metaphor for his all-consuming first love. The tempo is that of the assembly of a morning after: two repetitive guitar figures ticking, drumbeats like tiptoes, finding their way to emotion. Langston’s bass plays the other part: sneaking under the track, into its own cool, carefree world.