Thao Nguyen, the frontwoman of Thao With the Get Down Stay Down, is a new and innovative voice in the indie music scene. We got a chance to chat on
the phone a few weeks ago as she and the band traveled across Texas to play a show in Lubbock. We encountered quite a bit of technical difficulty as, apparently, cell reception in the desert is questionable, at best. Once things settled, we talked about bee stings (both literal and metaphorical), our moms, writing, and bad pop music. Check it:
Dese’Rae Stage, PopWreck(oning): Don’t you guys really love playing there [Lubbock, TX]?
Thao Nguyen: We do. We have a love affair. We played there last time and I don’t know what happened, but so many people showed up and they were incredibly warm and enthusiastic. It was definitely one of the most fun shows we’ve ever played. So, we said we would come back. They’ve kept in touch a lot. They kept writing MySpace messages. They wanted us to come back.
PW: You were raised in Virginia. How did you get started and how did your upbringing influence your music?
TN: It’s funny because I grew up in the suburbs and you’d think that wouldn’t foster much, but I was so bored and lonely that I just played music all the time. That helped a lot, actually. I was pretty isolated from friends. That’s a nice way of saying I didn’t have any. So, I hung out by myself a lot. When I got to high school, I started playing open mic nights around the area and honed my craft on stage with middle aged drunk men.
PW: Your guitar arrangements seem to have a lot of a country/blues feel to them, so I wanted to know who your influences were there.
TN: That particular style and intricate picking is what I tried to mimic. I never tried really learning songs ‘cause I knew that I couldn’t really get there and it was bad for my self-esteem to keep trying, so the best I could do was borrow from it. If you asked me to play a country/blues song, I probably wouldn’t know what to do with myself.
PW: Anyone who really stands out?
TN: Not to be cliché, but Robert Johnson, for sure. Also, Appalachian country picking. I listened to a lot of The Carter Family and Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe.
PW: Your lyrics definitely have a literary bent to them. Who are your favorite writers?
TN: I’m glad you brought that up because, as a listener, they’re [lyrics] incredibly important to me. I’m a huge fan of Grace Paley. She is, by far, my favorite writer. I think she has this incredible economy with words. Every time I read her, I feel bad because I can’t do that. I like Lorrie Moore a lot. Birds of America–is that what the story collection’s called? Incredible. When I was growing up, I liked a lot of Hemingway. Basically, I don’t like it when people use a lot of words. I’m totally into anyone who doesn’t and I try to be like them.
PW: What sort of space do you need to be in to write?
TN: Well, it’s certainly not tour, I’ll tell you that much. I haven’t written shit. There’s just no time. You become so primal that you just want to eat or sleep and there’s no creative energy at all. I don’t need much, I just need to be alone. In an empty room, maybe. Hot tea. And then maybe some wine. I didn’t know it would become so coveted and rare, but just being alone and having any sort of time.
PW: Happy or sad? What’s the best?
TN: It’s better to be sad. They say it and it’s true. I’ve always been much more productive when something was wrong.
PW: You met Willis in college. How’d you guys all get together? Do you still have a fourth member of the band?
TN: No, for now it’s a trio. Extenuating circumstances. No ill will, just obligations of real life. You know, kids and stuff. Willis and I met in school and we met Adam on our first tour in the southeast for our first record. We played a show with him, ‘cause he has his own thing called The OK Bird. We started hanging out and a few months later, the offers for the Sound the Hare Heard tour came. We invited him along and we’ve been drinking Beefeater ever since. On the first tour, he brought a really big bottle of Beefeater, but we’re all different now. We drink a lot less. We have to or else we’ll die.
PW: How did you guys come up with the name The Get Down Stay Down for the band?
TN: That has conflicted roots for its origin. I thought I made it up, but it was a collaborative effort between Willis, myself, and another friend of ours on that first southeastern tour. It’s really not that amusing of a story. We liked the repetition and the phonetics of it were good and the meaning was cool…er than other ones. It was, basically, the one that sucked the least, you know?
PW: You probably hate this question: who would you compare yourself to?
TN: I’ve always struggled with that question. I don’t know. It seems audacious. Oh, I don’t know. Can we avoid that?
PW: I was thinking about one of my favorite artists and the way she created her own technique for her instrument. I feel like you’re doing that with the hand claps and the beat boxing and the toothbrush. Tell me about that. Where did that come from?
TN: I think all of that, anything that we end up doing or anything I end up incorporating, is a mechanism to save us from boredom—on my part and for the audience, as well. All of that comes from trying to keep it fun and engaging enough that we all wouldn’t rather go to sleep, but still remaining true to the song and not forcing anything. That’s the main objective.
PW: You said at a show once that you wish people would throw toothbrushes at you during shows.
TN: Yeah, totally. I would love for that to happen. We’ve acquired two in the past three days, actually, which is more than we ever have before.
PW: “We brave bee stings and all” is a lyric from “Swimming Pools.” What about that phrase was significant enough to make into an album title? Is there a story?
TN: Yeah, I think so. I think that lyric has manifested itself on several levels. The first was pretty literal: I was stung. Several times. There’s a whole story to it. I don’t know if you want to hear it.
PW: Bring it.
TN: We were loading into Willis’s mom’s house after that first tour, our very first tour. I aggravated a patch of bees and they started to sting me, so I dropped everything and ran into the house. I thought that one had reached my nether regions and so I went into the bathroom to release it, but then a bunch of them followed me in there. I dropped my pants and they all stung me on the ass. And I thought, ‘That’s like life.’ Then, on a more metaphorical level, it was originally…”Swimming Pools” is about the strength of women and the women that I’ve grown up with and been fortunate enough to encounter. My mom, especially. I’ve seen her have to fight everything and put up with so much bullshit and those are the bee stings. But then it applies to the album in general, too. It’s about all of us, with no distinction of sex or what have you, what we endure and what is self inflicted. Those are bee stings, too. And it’s not really “braving.” That’s kind of sarcastic.
PW: It’s alliteration. It works.
TN: Yeah, that’s pretty much why I did it.
PW: I’m glad you brought up your mom. It seems that a lot of your work is influenced by your mom, so I wanted you to tell me about her.
TN: Oh, sure. Well, she raised my brother and me in trying circumstances. She always battled everything on our behalf–any sort of challenges that she encountered and whatever kind of pain or hardship. The ultimate source of any kind of compassion and humanity I have, I think, comes from that. She’s never complained. It’s remarkable. And she works so hard. She still works seven days a week from, like, eight [in the morning] to eleven at night. She owns a laundromat. When I go home, I still work there. I show up and I fold some clothes. I grew up folding clothes for other people.
PW: I like moms. Moms are good.
TN: Oh, yeah. Totally. They’re the best. And they always know everything. Even when you swear they don’t. How is that?
PW: I have no idea. My mom gets such a kick out of things. You know, because I’m crazy or whatever, so she tells me. She’s like, “You’re wrong and I’m right and this is what I think.” She just gets such a kick out of it because I have no problem coming back and being like, “I know, Mom. I’m an asshole. You were right.”
TN: Totally. I do the same.
PW: I feel like we should at least give them that. Alright, changing gears. You’ve played shows with Laura Veirs, She and Him, and Rilo Kiley. That’s a pretty big start.
TN: We did a couple of shows with The Indigo Girls, too. That was last year.
PW: Any good tour stories?
TN: If you expose yourself to this much random shit, things are gonna happen all the time. At this point, I can’t remember.
PW: Can’t trump getting stung in the ass, right?
TN: No. Who could?
PW: I don’t know, that shit doesn’t even happen in fiction.
TN: They’ve all been very gracious to have us along. It’s been a pleasure.
PW: You’re just finishing up your headlining tour.
TN: Yeah, we have about a week and a half left.
PW: What happens then?
TN: We have a few days off and then we go on tour again. We’re starting to wind down. We have a one-off at Florida State, a couple of festivals in the northwest, and then we have a midwest college tour. Then the band is off in October; the dudes are done. I’ll have a solo thing for a few weeks and then we have to do the new record for the winter time. We’ll be in the studio starting in February, but I have to write the songs first.
PW: Which you haven’t done.
TN: Which I certainly haven’t done. I’ve just been looking for a place to be. My whole fucking life. Touring is a really unnatural way to live.
PW: Tell me about the solo thing. Are you coming to New York?
TN: Yeah, it’s the Hotel Café Tour, which is based in LA. A bunch of songwriters all share a van and we roll around on the same bus. I’m joining up on the east coast and then I’ll be making my way back out to the west coast. So yeah, I will be in New York.
PW: What have you been listening to lately?
TN: Well, our sound engineer has been rockin’ these sweet reggae mixes that are like straight DJ mixes. Those have been amazing. We’ve been listening to the radio. We heard a really awful NPR story–the worst we’ve ever heard. It was about gas prices and they used field recordings of cars honking. It was utterly disappointing.
PW: Are you in love with Miley Cyrus yet?
TN: I would love to say that I knew about her before a lot of people did, so I’m not just jumping on a bandwagon. I’m driving that wagon. I’m driving it. Yesterday, Bobby Brown came on the radio. I’m totally into pop music—well, older pop music. Early 90s, late 80s shit, I’m all about it. I loved The New Kids on the Block.
PW: Yes! I got to touch Donnie [Wahlberg] and Joey [McIntyre] recently. I turned into a screaming fan girl, then called my mom. They came over and touched me and I just lost my shit.
TN: I am so jealous. How do they look now?
PW: They’re just grown up. They’re older. I think Joey’s 35 now and he’s the youngest.
TN: Oh my God, seriously? That is fucked up.
PW: The best part about it was that the first thing me and my friends did when we were done was call our moms.
TN: The moms, I think, are the only ones who would understand or remember.
PW: Totally. Anything else to add to that list?
TN: As far as who I like? We were listening to Pet Sounds the other day and we just finished listening to The Talking Heads. Yeah, that’s it. I’m still angry about the stupid NPR story.
PW: The last question is hypothetical: if you were headlining your dream tour, who would be supporting you?
TN: Really? Supporting me? Wow.
PW: You can do this. It’s totally gonna happen.
TN: I will do this. I will do this. I just keep thinking of who I want to support me in my life. You know, it would be bad ass if the backing vocalists were Neko Case, Erykah Badu, and Nina Simone–if she was alive. They would be doing their own thing. I love it when people are on the same bill and they cross pollinate. I really like that sense of community and, as an audience member, I love seeing that. So anyone who opened for us, I’d just want them to play with us.
New Yorkers: catch Thao on the Hotel Cafe tour with Rachael Yamagata, Meiko, Samantha Crain, and Emily Wells on 10/30 at The Bowery and 11/1 at The Music Hall of Williamsburg.