Thao & the Get Down Stay Down may have made quirky, crowd-pleasing numbers their calling card with songs like “Bag of Hammers” and “Travel,” but in new album We the Common (out this week on Ribbon Music), minor chords and their subsequent sentiments ring truer here than a sing-along chorus ever could. Thao and the gang have changed a lot since 2009’s Know Better Learn Faster, and We the Common introduces a flamboyant horn section, discordant strings, imperfect guitar strains, and an explosion of cymbals and hip-hop-inspired beats. As she prepared for the debut of a record likely to shock and stun her loyal listeners, we picked Thao’s brain about what went into the creation of her latest effort—and what exactly “just fuck it up” means in a studio context.
What are were thoughts when you heard the final mixes of We the Common?
Thao Nguyen: I was relieved that what I had envisioned and what I had been hoping for and working towards had come to a fruition that I was pleased with. I was relieved that there wasn’t more anxiety listening to it, because you don’t really know until the end if everything’s going to turn out the way you hoped. This record by far I feel the most proud of, and I’m confident that I was present for the whole process, that I did in fact try as hard as I could. That was the initial reaction. I think it’s a much bolder sound—and it’s a departure, but in a way it’s something I’ve been working towards.
Did you have a creative mission behind this record?
My mission was to better convey what I think my strengths are, and I think those lie in a raw energy and a loose vitality. I would never claim to be refined. There’s more of a sense of celebration, optimism, and also a kind of recklessness and a looseness I wanted to convey. The vision was that it would sonically be much more rhythmic and beat-heavy and grittier. It’s more honest-sounding, because those are the sounds I’m most interested in. I’m a big fans of ’90s hip-hop—I don’t know how obvious it is when you’re listening—and the way I was writing the songs, it was very reliant on a fast beat. Everything else would be layered on top. I had that in mind throughout the writing of the record. Of course there are songs that aren’t that way, but we definitely to pay tribute where it made sense to do so.
In my notes I have “DIRTY GUITARS -> HIP-HOP -> COUNTRY?” written down from listening through We the Common, so I can see that! That’s a great checklist list of flavors to get down on the album. I don’t remember ever hearing a brass section on a song of yours before, and it really worked here. What song on the record did you have the most fun messing around with?
I’ve always loved a brass section, but this is the first time we incorporated one in a way to my satisfaction. I’ve been getting a lot more into New Orleans jazz and New Orleans’ music in general, and I definitely wanted to bring out. The sonic moment I had the most fun with, the one I found the most fulfilling … I basically wrote the song so that this particular moment could happen in “Move,” which is on the latter part of the record. There’s a section where I basically scream “To be free!” and everything kind of goes bonkers. When I wrote that, I knew that I wanted that to happen, and that was one of the most gratifying things to make because it turned out as I had envisioned, even though that’s just me going crazy and screaming. When we were constructing the other instruments behind it and arranging those, to make the most fucked up noise they could within these perimeters, I spent a lot of time asking the session folk who came in and the string players who came in, whatever they were doing, we just needed them to fuck it up more. You’d be surprised how many times I ask people to do that.
To “just fuck it up” more?
I’m okay with that. The record is really eclectic, but there’s a pervasive vibe throughout it that belongs to a huge party—and I bet that only magnifies once you take it to the stage. How has your live show changed with the incorporation of your new songs into the set list?
You know, we’ve only played a few of these songs live, maybe three times. So I don’t know exactly. I did play three or four songs live in San Francisco and I could tell that the way they were received in a kind fashion, so I had confidence that with the new record we could sort of engage people in a way that I had been wanting to. I think that it’s really important to have fun during our shows. I wanted to accelerate it to the next place I could, which was for people to dance and scream when appropriate. I noticed that people were moving more, and that encouraged me to keep going in this direction. A lot of the songs came out the way they did because I wanted to infuse our live show with a bit of a different vibe.
I can’t wait to see it. Are you bringing the brass on the road?
The larger cities will have brass, and we’ll work to incorporate a full section as we go along. I’m really excited to tour; it’s been awhile, I miss being on the road.
I noticed Joanna Newsom’s cameo [“Kindness Be Conceived”] on We the Common, and you did a record with Mirah not too long ago. Are we going to see some friends on the road with you? What are you plans for incorporating your collaborations into the show?
I would be honored if Joanna ever graced the stage with us, but scheduling it would be pretty impossible. I would love for that to happen. Whatever cities we all happen to be in, if we could all get onstage together we would. I know if Mirah were in the same city she’d definitely hop on and she sings on a few songs on the record, too. One of the most enjoyable parts of the record is the collaborative energy, so I’d love it if we could ever recreate that live.
We’re talking about strong collaborations with other inspiring women in rock. How have your collaborations affected your creative output? Have they left a mark on you as a songwriter and a performer?
I think it’s incredibly important, if not necessary, to have people that share this experience with you, that know the ins-and-outs of the job, and also the difficulties and challenges that exist—being a touring musician and being a woman and knowing that demographically speaking, there’s not a lot of representation out there. I think it leads to an immediate bond. Everybody that I’ve worked with, I think they’re incredibly talented and they’re an influence, be it more latent or overt. I mean we’re all friends, so it’s always good to hang out and check back in. it’s an honor to have worked with such fine musicians who are awesome women. Mirah is an amazing songwriter, and there are definitely elements to my songwriting that I think have been influenced by her music. Merrill (Garbus of tUnE-YaRdS) and I call each other when we’re just at wit’s end and need a voice of reason to say, “Keep going!” Sometimes, it’s just nice to speak with someone who’s been through it, or you just alternate and take turns being the one to deal with your shit, and then you get back on board. It’s important.
What do you think is the biggest risk you took with We the Common?
It was a different level of vulnerability, on one song in particular. It happened the way I wanted it to, and if people take issue with that, whatever. It was so important to me that the song “We The Common”—it’s for Valerie Bolden, the woman I wrote the song sort of about and who it’s for. Valerie Bolden is a woman who’s in prison, and I do prison advocacy work at this prison in California. Both people on the inside and outside are a part of this coalition; it’s called the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Anyway, we do visits and advocacy work, and there’s a lot of reform work happening. Basically, the song, a lot of it borrows from and is inspired by the conversations that Valerie and I had when we first met. The risk is it’s about this woman in prison and how hopefully shocking and inhumane and corrupt things are that are witnessed. But at the same time, it’s not about that—it’s about people taking up for one another and general commonalities, you know? I think I’m afraid of going down the rabbit hole of trying to honor her and also respect her privacy while bringing awareness to what I was writing about. At the same time, I’m trying not to become the spokesperson for it, but not because I don’t care about it. My concern is just what will happen and if it’ll get spun in a way it’s not respectful.
Thao is on tour this spring with Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside. Click here for dates!
By Hilary Hughes
Photo via Stereogum