Thao and the Get Down Stay Down are back with a Tune Yards produced mega-album.
It’s been three years since indie-rock band Thao and the Get Down Stay Down have released an album, which will be their fourth to date. However the delay hasn’t diminished the group’s signature energy and attitude, in fact the latest album from Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, produced by Tune Yards’ Merril Garbus, takes it to a whole new level. On the phone, front-woman Thao Nyguen is quick, considered and manages to explore topics sensitively and insightfully within a short amount of time: all qualities that have translated clearly into her new record.
The Californian born singer, who grew up playing guitar in her mum’s Laundromat, has previously taken inspiration from wide reaching themes. In 2013, their album “We the Common” was inspired in part by Thao’s volunteer work with the California Coalition for Women’s Prisoners; in 2016, the latest release moves closer to home.
Ahead of the album launch, we caught up with lead singer Thao Nguyen to discuss hip-hop, the end of creativity in San Francisco and kids today.
What was the inspiration behind the album?
Well, I knew that professionally I was bound to make another record, contractually bound. When I started writing songs for it, it turned out that every song I was writing was about the relationship with my dad. And it became clear that this record would be for the most part, or probably in its entireity directly or indirectly, about the trajectory of our relationship.
How did you find the experience of taking something so personal and rendering it universal?
Painful. I had a lot of misgivings, and there were a few songs that I wrote that didn’t go on the record because they felt like a really vulnerable and straight -forward treatment (of the subject). Too straight-forward for my liking. It was really emotionally intense, but also a very freeing and educational process. It was sort of like the momentum of it, and the truth of it meant there was no way out expect through it
It must have been a cathartic thing to make the record. How do you find the relationship with the songs now? Are you still struggling with them or no longer immersed in the themes in the same way?
It really depends on the song. It’s an interesting document… in some of the songs I’m really hopeful and there’s a forward movement and sense of optimism, that progress is being made. In others though the impasse is still there. I realised that a few months of concerted song writing couldn’t break through a lifetime of estrangement. But I think once you record the album and start performing it live you have to have a different relationship with it, a more detached connection. My preoccupation now is performing it well and making sure we engage the audience. You know, giving it away.
How do you manage the detachment element whilst giving a passionate performance every night?
The detachment is just enough so you don’t cry in front of strangers! But the energy and liveliness and the vibrancy is always there. In part that comes from the fact that you’re performing it in front of people. I find that live shows are very reciprocal. It becomes a symbiotic and communal relationship. And when we do it live I’m just so excited that we all decided to be there together.
Yes it’s a very magical, almost spirtual energy
When it works!
Exactly. Have you ever had something go horribly wrong?
I remember a show when I was wearing a dress and these guys came up and starting taking pictures underneath the dress…Things like that are beyond the pale. And then you have the typical thing, especially if you’re supporting another band, where there’s a barricade of teenagers on their phones just waiting for the main act, and I don’t have whatever transcendental state you need to be in to completely not lose your shit.
You just want to throw the guitar at them?
Oh my god, yeah (laughs).
Seriously! And they don’t even buy the music… It takes so much control that sometimes, I don’t have any. I have sort of stooped down, left the mike, gotten right in front of them and mimicked them texting in a spurious way, which I’m not proud of. I don’t justify it but at the same time I don’t apologise.
Speaking of control, your sound in general is spontaneous, lively and energetic. Is this something that as a band comes naturally or is it something that you’ve focussed on making?
In this record there was definitely a concerted effort to capture the energy of our live show. We did a lot more tracking live in the studio. I wanted to be raw and spontaneous and vocally more unhinged, which is more what I’m like live.
That’s especially apparent on the track Nobody dies –
It was really freeing to scream that! We had a few of us come in and scream “nobody dies.” That was one of the cathartic moments that the record offers.
That song feels political in many ways. I was interested in whether you think music still has that power to change and affect listeners, given that today people engage with music in a different way?
In do think music still has that power but in a less literal sense. Lyrically I don’t foresee a song being successful in the way that a Bob Dylan or an early Neil Young, you know direct lyrics that are very topical. I think capturing the sentiment and channelling a frustration and an anger without referencing concrete events is more likely. I think the way people listen to music is personal, they’re with their music all the time but only they can hear it. The level of ethicacy is still there but there’s no real way to measure the level of dissemination.
So what were the main influences on the record?
There were a lot of very broad … from early 90’s east coast hip to more current stuff, and early 60s soul music played a part as world.
What’s it like now working and living in SF? Has the tecchy side of the city affected the creative side?
I don’t know a lot of artists who still live in the city, when I first moved here ten years ago, there were a lot of musicians in the city but most have moved out now. It is a great sadness of mine to see.
A Man Alive is released 4th March via Ribbon Music
Words: India Doyle