Bloody Well Right!
The Coathangers Make Atlanta Proud
Deride me as a nasty ol’, cranky, mean-spirited dickhole all you want, but I’m beaming right now. I just listened to their new album two more times in row, and I can’t help it. In all the years – several decades now – that I’ve been writing about music in Atlanta, I honestly don’t believe I’ve ever been prouder of any band than I am The Coathangers.
Because eight or nine years ago, I think it’s safe to say that no one – certainly not the band members themselves – ever expected them to accomplish anything close to what they have. Jokey and amateurish in those early years, they seemed to be the sort of local scene goof that would fizzle out once the novelty of it wore off. And yet, they kept at it. They sacrificed for the sake of the band. They worked their asses off. They toured hard. They signed to a solid indie label. They developed their own sound. They actually took it seriously, even when many others didn’t. And they kept getting better. And better. And better still.
Now in their tenth year together, they are poised to share with the world their fifth album, Nosebleed Weekend. Even if you didn’t already realize it, it’s clear upon hearing it that a great deal more time, work, care and passion were invested in this one than any previous, and that they’ve reached a pivotal point where their abilities can bring their ambitions to full fruition. A lot went into it, and it shows, in the most satisfying ways. The arrangements are outstanding. Anyone who’s been scared off by their sometimes screechy, barky voices in the past won’t have that excuse anymore – their singing has noticeably improved, greatly. Without losing any of the eclectic, inventive musical qualities that make them so special (who else in this hip-hop-heaving hell-hole would think to use a rubber ducky as a scratching substitute?), The Coathangers have crafted an album that could be enjoyed by anyone, whether already a fan or not. Which is weird, because it’s actually a pretty weird little album. It’s just that it’s so enjoyably catchy that you might not notice how unconventional it really is.
“I know for me, personally, and I think for most of us, we never listen to our records after we’re done with them… But this one is really easy to listen to, for some reason,” offers guitarist Julia Kugel. “But we actually listened to Scramble when we were out in L.A. [working on Nosebleed]. And I was like, ‘Dude, this shit is so weird and so good…’ It kind of re-inspired me personally just to be a little bit weirder! It doesn’t have to be so straightforward. ‘Cause you do get sort of in a mindset of ‘This is not punk enough. This is not loud enough. This is not aggro enough.’ And I was like, ‘Well, shit – we’ve never put out records that were so aggro. What am I doing to myself? I like the way this sounds!’”
Meeting with the ‘Hangers one recent evening at Victory Sandwich Bar in Decatur, I tell them that, for the most part, my favorite songs of theirs are the ones that sound the least how the band is too often described – punk, angry chicks, riot grrrl, etc. Hell, there’s as much B-52’s in their sound as anything else, and the best part about that is, it’s probably a band none of them has ever given a flip about! But Julia bringing up 2009’s Scramble is significant. Their second album, it was also their first for their current label, Seattle-based Suicide Squeeze Records, and it was the one that really prompted everyone to reevaluate The Coathangers on the band’s own terms. As Julia puts it, “The first [self-titled] record, we were like, ‘La la la, this is bullshit!’ Then it was like, ‘Oh, shit – people are gonna listen to us!’” Scramble was a huge creative leap forward from their debut, a total eye opening transformation, and in a way, each album since then – 2011’s Larceny & Old Lace, 2014’s Suck My Shirt – has been some sort of refinement of or small advancement from that point. Until now.
Written and tracked in Los Angeles (the first time they’ve ever recorded outside of Atlanta), Nosebleed Weekend is another huge creative leap forward. You can credit producer Nic Jodoin for some of that, certainly – the quality level he insisted on was high, and he worked them ‘til they reached it. There’s a sheen to his production that hasn’t really been there on previous Coathangers albums, but fret not – it’s not overwhelming, and it sounds cool as fuck. But the bulk of the credit must go to The Coathangers themselves. They made the decision to sequester themselves in Los Angeles for weeks at a stretch in order to focus on the writing and crafting of the album, giving themselves time to compose and demo and rewrite or rework every song until it was to their complete satisfaction, which is a luxury they’ve never afforded themselves before. And no, Suicide Squeeze didn’t front the money for that, nor did they panhandle online like so many bands – they saved up from nearly a year and a half of relentless touring, and worked jobs here in Atlanta when they were off the road, and paid for it all themselves.
“We’ve always paid for everything,” stresses Julia. “No one’s ever been like, ‘Hey, here’s a hundred thousand dollars!’”
“A hundred dollars would be nice!” laughs drummer Stephanie Luke.
Although you can hear elements of other bands in their sound, I’ve really never heard another band that sounds like The Coathangers. That is as true now as it was when I first heard them some nine and a half years ago, and I’ve always maintained that it’s because they had to make it all up themselves. Sure, Julia had studied a little classical guitar, and Stephanie could knock out a simple beat on the drums, but for all intents they didn’t know what the fuck they were doing – and it worked to their advantage. They also never did what lots of bands do, and learn by playing other bands’ songs. They wrote their own material right from the start. They never played a cover until they had to, after volunteering for 500 Songs for Kids several years in a row, forcing them to learn Bo Diddley, Britney Spears and Kinks songs, at least to the level that they could knock out one shambolic performance of each. Nowadays, of course, they’ve made The Gun Club’s “Sex Beat” their own, including it often in their shows.
They remember their first “official” show at the Drunken Unicorn in the fall of 2006, as well as a warm-up set at a coke-loaded Halloween house party shortly beforehand, after being talked into it by their friends in Barreracudas precursor The Hiss, a band that included Coathangers bassist Meredith Franco’s brother Ian. “We had a practice space. For some reason we were like, ‘Let’s get a practice space, and never play shows.’ I had a microphone taped to a lamp post. With duct tape,” recalls Kugel. “And we’re practicing, and [Meredith’s] brother was like, ‘We’re gonna cruise over and see what you guys are doing in there.’ So, Milton [Chapman] was there, Ian, I think Adrian [Barrera] and Todd [Galpin], and they said, ‘Show us something.’ And we were like, ‘No, we don’t want to!’ But we played two songs, which were probably something so stupid, and Milton was like, ‘We need to tape this. You have that Silverlake sound!’ And Stephanie was the only one that knew what the fuck that meant. She’s like, ‘Aw, that’s awesome!’”
“They also got us at Nickel and Dime [Studio],” Meredith adds. “We had 24 hours. That’s where we did the first seven-inch.”
Once they got used to playing in front of people, The Coathangers swiftly dived in head-first, totally transforming into road warriors and even boldly invading South by Southwest less than six months after those first gigs, before they’d ever released anything.
“Stephanie had toured with other bands,” Julia points out. “I was pretty set in my little world, but she was like, ‘I’m gonna book a tour!’ We had the map out, and dry erase marker. I didn’t even, honestly, know geography that well, and I was like, ‘What?? I’m from Russia, I don’t know…’”
“[Stephanie’s] like ‘We’re going to South By.’ I’m like, ‘We are? OK…’” laughs Franco. “We met Kurt Loder that time. Remember, we met Kurt Loder at that party?”
“He gave us his phone number,” confirms Kugel, “and we had it pinned up on our practice space wall!” The band had burned a CD of a handful of songs rudimentarily recorded on a single microphone (the one duct-taped to a lamp post?) and were giving ‘em out. “I spent a couple weeks sewing all the felt covers, and then spray painted them with a coathanger on it. And put the CDs in ‘em. We gave one to Andrew W.K. Whatshisname from OFF! we met at that party too. Keith Morris.”
“And he came and saw us play the next year,” reminds Stephanie, proving that such D.I.Y. diligence sometimes pays off.
“It’s really weird, ‘cause we were so naïve and so just stoked to be there [at SXSW], and get drunk – ‘Oh, free punch? Yeah!’ ‘Oh, free Sparks?’ Remember Sparks? What a fucking horrible idea that was,” says Julia. “But that’s kind of when the heyday of South by Southwest [was], before it got really sort of corporate and laser beam things all over the place and techno noise everywhere.”
Those early Coathangers tours would find the little-known band, all then in their early-to-mid-twenties, fueled by sheer youthful energy and enthusiasm rather than funds or even food, with Stephanie’s sister Emily acting as their unpaid tour manager.
“She literally got the worst conditions: fighting, angry, drunk. You know the things you do when you’re 25 that you’re just out of control. That was us,” says Julia.
“These were the days of sleeping on dog beds,” adds Stephanie. “I was stealing beds from dogs! Getting fleas. And sleeping at the venues. Splitting a Taco Bell entrée. Sleeping in the van…”
Julia remembers a particularly lean breakfast six or seven years ago when the five of them – including Emily Luke and original keyboardist Candice Jones (who left in 2013) – got stuck penniless in Mexico and had to split one egg five ways. “We didn’t even have enough pesos for that, but the lady felt bad for us,” adds Meredith.
Yeah, such pitiful scenes are the sorts of things that only bands in their late teens or twenties can realistically endure and have the same enthusiasm for carrying on the next day. Their obvious, genuine love for each other helps, a lot. But then as now, when they can at least (usually) afford one egg apiece for breakfast, if not a side of hash browns too, I’ve always admired The Coathangers’ dedication and work ethic.
“You have to sacrifice a lot of shit,” advises Kugel. “I just feel like there’s no other choice but to go at it full throttle.”
But of course, full throttle in your early-to-mid-thirties means a different thing. Stephanie recalls how Thomas Alvarez from the California band Audacity told her, “Seriously, you guys are one of the hardest partying bands I’ve ever met in my life!” It’s a reputation they’ve acquired from many years of, well, hard partying. Nowadays, when more often than not they’d rather just smoke a little weed and watch TV after a show rather than drink and do drugs with strangers, “people get mad at us for not partying,” says Kugel. “‘You’re not gonna drink this?’ ‘No, I just don’t feel like it. And why am I explaining myself to you?’”
“I think we’ve become a little bit more responsible,” Stephanie emphasizes. “‘Cause it’s like, people remember. People take pictures, and it’s like, when younger girls are coming up to me, fucked up, and I can tell that they’re not 21, and they think it’s cool, there’s a little part of me that dies a little bit. Because, I want you to rage and fucking have a good time, but I also don’t wanna be responsible for your bad decisions!”
Yes, our party girls are growing up. It wouldn’t surprise me, actually, if one of them gets married in the next couple of years, like Emily Luke just did to Ryan Davis of the Zoners. Stephanie’s been with Bryan Malone (The Forty-Fives) for something like three years now. Meredith and Jared Swilley (Black Lips) have been a cute-as-pie couple for a year and a half. And Julia has been living in Long Beach, California for six months with her boyfriend of four years, drummer Scott Montoya of The Growlers. In fact, they’re buying a house out there, which they’re obviously going to have to make payments on. Adult lives. Adult concerns. And although they’ve accomplished a lot in these ten years and amassed a considerable fan base, they are far from household names.
“I’m not gonna lie,” Stephanie tells me, “I wake up some days and I have an anxiety attack because I’m like, not ‘What am I doing with my life?’ but ‘How can I buy insurance?’ You know? Because I’ve never had the dream of, ‘I want to get married and have the kids and the white picket fence’ and all that, but it’s just more of, like, ‘OK, I’m about to be 35 – I have nothing for it.’”
“This is where the money issue comes in,” agrees Julia.
“Because,” says Stephanie, “I don’t wanna be a bartender for the rest of my life. “
Julia: “Unless you own your own bar!”
“Not that there’s anything wrong with bartending,” continues Stephanie. “But I’ve been bartending for 12 years. And I’m not a really good bartender! I make a delicious Jack and Coke. But I’m not one of these crazy mixologist people.”
“Well, you know what happens is, you can always open other businesses,” advises Julia.
“I’d like to be my own boss,” agrees Stephanie. “I think we all would.”
“You can do that. You can make stuff. You can be creative,” encourages Julia. “That’s the beautiful part about being in America, is that you do have opportunities and avenues of making money.”
“It’s just the touring might not be able to continue as much,” Stephanie admits. “And that’s fine. But I don’t think this’ll ever stop. I know that we’re gonna be busy for the next, at least, two years… Which is very exciting!”
“But at the same time,” says Julia, “maybe we won’t be touring eight months out of the year. That’s fine. I totally think it’s feasible. But at the same time, when we tour, we make money! So, if we can play two shows a month, and make enough – and this is possible, with the way things are going – that’s pretty much the goal right now. I don’t wanna be famous, but I wouldn’t mind having money.”
“It’s just, the older I get, the more mortal I know I am,” Stephanie says.
“In the movie Parenthood, there’s a grandma that’s talking about rollercoasters, and she’s like, ‘Some people are afraid of rollercoasters.’” Julia says. “And she’s like, ‘You have to enjoy the ride.’ You have to, at some point, just enjoy the rollercoaster ride and take it for what it is. ‘Cause you’re never gonna control anything, And nothing’s ever gonna go exactly how you want it to.”
“And there’s no finish line. I had to start telling myself that, because I was always thinking very black and white, you know. I’m a control freak,” Stephanie confesses. “But with this band thing, it’s like, it’s such a huge part of who I am. If I didn’t do it, I think I would be completely lost.”
Julia: “We’d be different people, absolutely.”
“Because, I’m not gonna start another band after this,” continues Stephanie. “There’s no fuckin’ way! If I do, I’ll write music with other people and have a good time, but there’s no way on God’s green earth I would ever try to take it to this point again.”
Julia: “‘Cause who the fuck would wanna start over at this point?”
“And there’s nobody else I could be around!” Meredith pipes in.
“Yeah, who’s gonna put up with my shit?” asks Stephanie. “Nobody’s gonna put up with this shit!”
“Not starting out playing small shows,” Julia argues, “and having to sleep on the floor. At 35? Uh-uh. You can only do it when you’re twenty. Who starts out playing big shows?”
No one, I answer, unless you’re already very established.
“And then your second band sucks,” replies Julia. “A supergroup of Slash and somebody else I couldn’t give a fuck about. No thank you. I’d rather start working a real job than be in Velvet Revolver.”
Yep. Couldn’t be prouder of this band!
Photo by Matt Odom.