Kill Rock Stars songstress Thao Nguyen stopped by to sit down and talk with QRO.She talked about making her latest record, We Brave Bee Stings and All (QRO review), The Get Down Stay Down, their tour with Xiu Xiu, playing colleges & festivals, Cat Power, Party of Five, and more…
QRO: How has this North American tour with Xiu Xiu (QRO photos) been going?
Thao Nguyen: Oh, it’s been going well. We’ve pulled great crowds in all the cities, and the venues are fantastic – much better than we could have asked for, for a headlining tour, it we’d done it at this point. So we’re grateful that they were willing to take us along.
QRO: How does it compare with the dates you did in Europe in January with Willis [Thompson, drums]?
TN: That was really short, for one – it wasn’t even two weeks.
Willis and I traveled by train. A lot of the venues we played were quite nice, actually. The turnouts were smaller, but still impressive, to us. We were pleasantly surprised.
It was more and less stressful, because we had to use public transportation to get our gear to the venues. And, you know, we were also on a different continent, all the language barriers. This is easier, and harder, in its own way – a month and a half is pretty grueling.
QRO: When you were in Europe, did you notice the weak dollar?
TN: I noticed it more when I came home and looked at my back account.
QRO: You’re at Fordham University tonight, played Purchase College last night, Bard College on Saturday, and Bennington College last Thursday. Why so many schools?
TN: This isn’t our tour, personally, but schools are a very friendly environment, compared to the club circuit. One, financially, it’s more stable – especially if you’re headlining. A lot of the demographic that, I guess, both of our music appeals to are in college.
And a lot of it, when you play a college, you’re invited. You like to go where you’re invited.
QRO: Are you going to be playing any festivals this summer?
TN: We are – some are pending, some are definite.
We’re doing a festival in Ireland in May, and then we’re coming back, actually, the day after our last day in Europe. So we fly from France straight to Portland, ‘cause we’re gonna play Sasquatch!.
QRO: Do you do anything differently, when you play outdoors?
TN: No, but we might have to consider that.
Playing larger venues like that, in the open-air, with larger crowds, is not actually my ideal. I haven’t done it that much. I don’t really like to attend those kind of events, as a music listener, because I think a lot is lost. And you can’t get as much connection with the crowd.
QRO: How was making We Brave Bee Stings and All?
TN: It was incredibly gratifying and incredibly stressful.
We worked on our producer’s schedule, because he’s very busy. It was fragmented – we recorded the first four songs in August of 2006, and we didn’t get back into the studio with Tucker [Martine] (Decembrists, Surfjan Stevens, Mudhoney) until about eight months later, to record the remaining seven songs.
And both sessions were under a week. The seven songs, we did in under ten days. The guys were writing their parts in the studio, I was writing songs still. We didn’t want to have to push back the release date anymore, because it had been such a pregnant pause, so we just had to push it.
And it’s raining constantly in Portland, it’s cold and you’re depressed and miserable. But I don’t regret any of it.
QRO: Your bio said you started writing music to accompany TV shows like Party of Five…
TN: Yeah, that’s not true… ‘Cause I joke around a lot. I need to start learning that that doesn’t translate well. I said that as a joke.
I used to watch TV a lot, and I thought it would be cool, when I was young, if one of my songs was used in a dramatic excursion on Party of Five. I don’t watch TV anymore, ‘cause I watched so much as a kid.
QRO: Do you have any material you’ve written since Bee Stings?
TN: I do. I have a few songs. I’m a really slow writer, so it takes a while to compile an album. But there are some that we’re work-shopping right now, that I’m not completely convinced are finished. But, given the time, I’ll manipulate them.
QRO: How did you land on Kill Rock Stars’ The Sound the Hare Heard compilation and tour (with Surfjan Stevens, Colin Meloy of The Decembrists, Laura Viers, Krist Krueger (Southerly – QRO interview), and others)?
TN: That was Slim Moon, who founded Kill Rock Stars, and, at the time, was still head of Kill Rock Stars, asked for the contribution. And I met him, he was managing Laura Viers (QRO album review), and I opened for her. I sent a link to the old record, any song from that, and afterwards, we sort of cemented our relationship.
QRO: How was that tour?
TN: That tour was tough, ‘cause we were playing… the conditions were just constantly challenging. I remember calling Slim from the road, and he was like, ‘Listen, I promise no tour will be as bad as this.’ But it’s just due paying…
QRO: Do you now live in (Kill Rock Stars’ home of) Portland, Oregon, or do you still live in Falls Church, Virginia?
TN: I live in San Francisco. I’m sort of homeless, actually – I lived in San Francisco until very recently, and my lease ended, and I had to go on tour, and it doesn’t make sense to keep an apartment there. But in between tours, I go back. If I get a minute, I wanna get a place again, for a few months at least.
QRO: When you played The Knitting Factory (QRO venue review) on February 4th, you mentioned you ran into Cat Power during a radio spot. What was that like?
TN: That was hilarious. It was just kind of surreal, because so many comparisons are made between us. But it’s funny when people say your influences are bands that you’ve never heard. But, to be honest, I’m not familiar with her music, at all. I think she has a great voice – But it’s funny when people say your influences are bands that you’ve never heard.
QRO: How did you meet The Get Down Stay Down?
TN: Willis and I went to college together, where he started playing drums for me. Frank [Stewart] recorded and produced the first record, played guitar on it. And Adam [Thompson, bass], we met on tour, in Richmond, Willis and I, and we started playing with him.
When I was asked to go on the Kill Rock Stars’ The Sound the Hare Heard tour, we went together.
QRO: Does Adam still have his ski-cap and muscle shirt?
TN: Yeah, he does, he wears it constantly. Well, not the muscle shirt – it’s been cold lately.
QRO: Are there any songs you really like playing live?
TN: I like playing “Beat [(Health, Life and Fire)]” a lot, because we fiddle around with a little. It’s probably my favorite song on the record.
QRO: Are there any songs you don’t like playing live, don’t play anymore, or can’t play live, because of the arrangement?
TN: There’s stuff from the old record that I don’t play anymore, ‘cause I don’t remember. People request it, and I have no idea.
“We Go” is one that we play very rarely, just because it’s slower. It’s always hard to decide whether or not a crowd will go with you. You have to find the right environment, or I won’t play it.
QRO: Do The Get Down Stay Down also live in San Francisco?
TN: No, they all live in Virginia – we’re all from Virginia. And my mom lives there, so I go back a lot, but I wouldn’t choose to live there. But I go back to rehearse with them, whatever, on tours…
QRO: What cities or venues have you really liked playing in?
TN: The Music Hall in Williamsburg (QRO venue review) was fantastic, awesome venue, really good crowd.
What else? We like playing Phoenix. Chicago was a good time, San Francisco.
QRO: Were there any when you were in Europe?
TN: We liked Club Paradiso in Amsterdam a lot. Nice venue – it’s a converted church.
Germany, anywhere in Germany, just because the crowds are awesome. Berlin…
QRO: Are there any particular special cities and places coming up on this tour that you’re looking forward to?
TN: We always like going through the southwest, nice weather. I’m really excited to go through San Francisco, ‘cause I live there. Where else? It’s always good to go back through our hometown…
Any city has been fantastic on this tour. Passing through any city is better this time around.
QRO: Do you have a favorite tour story?
TN: The first night of a tour, we had borrowed my mom’s mini-van and parked it on the street, and the next day, it was towed. And we had checked and double-checked the parking signs; we couldn’t understand why it had been towed. So we had to borrow equipment to play the show; it was awful – I don’t even remember what happened.
It had been totaled, it had been hit in the night, the left side had been bashed in, and they had to tow it. And we had to haul ass across the country…
QRO: Some of your songs, there’s more of a… not a ‘political’ edge, but a ‘purpose’ behind them – but they’re also can be very upbeat. Do you ever feel that can be conflicting?
TN: I think I’m interested in the juxtaposition of writing more of a pop sound, but more of a darker undercurrent. And that’s just ‘cause that’s where my interests lie. I like darker lyrics, I like darker, personal songs, but I like it to sound catchy. I strive for that.
Thao Nguyen & The Get Down Stay Down playing “Travel” live @ The Knitting Factory (Tap Bar), New York, NY: