Thao & The Get Down Stay Down on “Temple” and Life Under Quarantine | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Thao & The Get Down Stay Down on “Temple” and Life Under Quarantine

Growing a New Record and Garden In a Lifeless Time

Jun 01, 2020 Photography by Shane McCauley
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Thao Nguyen, founder and leader of Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, has recently released her fifth album with the group, Temple, on Ribbon Music. The daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Nguyen began writing songs at an early age in Northern Virginia. Her first album with the band was 2008’s We Brave Bee Stings And All. Nguyen has slowly revealed more of herself through her songs, leading up to 2016’s A Man Alive, which focused on her absentee father. Shortly after A Man Alive’s release, Nguyen and her mother were the subjects of a short documentary, Nobody Dies: A Film About a Musician Her Mom and Vietnam. The film documents Nguyen’s mother’s first trip back to her home country and also shows more of Nguyen herself. Temple gets even more personal, with several key songs focusing on the relationship between her and her partner. Though the band’s tour plans are currently on hold, Nguyen is noted for her energetic performances and her recent music videos have been both timely and cutting edge. Always one to be involved in multiple projects, Nguyen also hosted the popular Song Exploder podcast for the past year. With California still under stay-at-home orders, Under the Radar was fortunate to have a moment to catch up with Nguyen from her Oakland home. Mark Moody (Under the Radar): I know it’s been a little bit since your last album. So maybe just quickly on your time with Song Exploder. I know you were able to talk with everybody from Sheryl Crow to Slipknot [laughter]—a little bit of a range there. So just wondering how that experience was and how you knew it was time to move along? Thao Nguyen: Right. Well, when I signed on to do it, it was only for the year. Hrisi [Hrishikesh Hirway], who created the podcast and is the host, asked me just to guest host for the year. So we knew going in that it would have a set ending. And it was such great timing. It was such a remarkable opportunity as I began to write and produce the record. It helped keep me motivated and disciplined and inspired because you can, basically, pick the brains of a lot of really amazing artists and producers and just absorb their own process of making a record. And it was everything from getting production ideas to different approaches on how to write lyrics and maybe reconsider how I was writing songs. And what about your favorite episode? My favorite episode? I really enjoyed the interview with Nakhane, who’s a South African artist. That was very early on. I think that was one of my first interviews. And he has such charisma. And it was so cool to learn about his background and what had compelled the creation of his record and the release of the record. Sheryl Crow was really cool. And I think my nerves showed [laughs]. I mean Tuesday Night Music Club was a huge album for me. I think I was in the seventh grade when that album came out. I can’t remember. But I love her as a multi-instrumentalist. She was one of the few examples that I had growing up as a woman who’s producing, who’s a multi-instrumentalist, who’s a songwriter. I forgot to ask a very important question. And then we couldn’t get her back. [Laughs] It can be tough talking to your heroes sometimes, I guess. Right. [Laughs] So moving on to Temple. I know the soundscape there is a little bit different than your prior records. Not as percussive of a feel. More kind of a relaxed groove-oriented thing. So maybe if you just comment on the sound of the album. Yeah, sure. On Temple, I was more interested in having a fuller, more lush sound and interested in leaning into the grooves that come more instinctively to me and more intuitively to me, and a lot of them started out as just a bed that I created using muted bass or different riffs. Using guitar and bass as more percussive elements, developing the grooves. I’m always most focused on lyrics, but I definitely [was] for this album. It was so important that I be able to communicate everything more explicitly and more specifically. And I wanted to convey a kind of celebration and joy, but those things that have traveled through grief and sorrow. Yeah, I definitely get all that mix in there. I was going to ask about one of those. So you still focus on family on several of the tracks, and “Temple” is obviously about your mom. But maybe if we talk about “Marauders” for a second, it seems to get more personalized about yourself, but maybe also the lineage passed down from your dad. You know, “Marauders” is actually the most straightforward love song that I’ve written. But in that, nodding to the weight and baggage a person brings into a relationship, and what you ask your partner to bear and work through with you. I think my favorite song is “Marrow,” the closer, musically. But also, you just reveal so much on that song. Maybe a little bit like “Marauders” in terms of what you bring to a relationship. But could you talk about this concept of grief being an innate part of somebody? And it seems like maybe this song is also a bit playful, maybe tongue-in-cheek about “Will you marry me still?” and “I’m coming for you,” just a lot going on there. Right. Yeah, I think that “Marrow” and “Marauders” are in that same vein. And again, it’s acknowledging what I have asked of my partner, and basically apologizing for all the ways that I’ve denied elements of myself, and what I’ve asked her to deny. What’s funny is the chronological sequence of the album and arc of it, it’s sort of aligned with my real life. And I wrote “Marrow” and a few of the last songs leading up to us getting married. I knew I wanted to end the record with it because it’s an acknowledgement of all we’ve worked through. Oh, that’s cool. Yeah. I’ve been married a pretty long time. So I feel like everybody brings baggage into relationships, and it’s kind of unavoidable, so that resonated with me. Thanks. Were there any thoughts of delaying the release date of the album? I know a lot of others have been doing that. No. We missed the window. Really considering that “Temple,” the single, had already been released. Everything was already in place. I think it may have been a little bit later had they not already set the release date, and we would have considered it. But just the point in time the pendulum had taken hold. And then also, who knows how long we would have had to wait to release it, if we had waited? Right. I know Laura Marling, she moved her release date way up. So it was interesting. People had different approaches to the situation. So the “Phenom” video, how did that come about? I mean that is pretty amazing you were able to get something out that quickly and capture the Zoom era. I do Zoom calls all day long. Oh my God. I’m sorry for you. Yeah. No. It’s not always fun. Right. Well, the original video was scheduled to be shot in LA. And it was going to be a dance video because of the physicality of that song and what I wanted conveyed visually, it was going to be a dance video. And so the original director and choreographer and the producer agreed to jump to Zoom and transfer it all to Zoom. And we brought on another director to help with this new dimension of this technical morass. And it was urgent. My manager suggested on a Monday. And we delivered on the following Tuesday. Because we knew we were working with such a novel form. I’m really glad we got it out when we did because we had an energy that we could capture. Because it’s still out early on in the pandemic that many people didn’t know what would happen exactly. That wasn’t the kind of despondency that I, myself, feel. And also the fatigue of that medium. The way that accumulated. So I’m glad it happened when it did.

You made it fun by passing things from window to window and stuff like that. It was really cool. What about your tour? I know you still have dates out there, but is it all up in the air? I mean that’s out of my hands at this point, but I think they’ll be canceled very soon. So maybe if we could just jump to some more general COVID-19 related questions. So can you tell me, where have you been under lockdown and with whom? I assume lockdown is still going on in California? Oh, yeah. Definitely. The restrictions are easing a little bit. But we’re still under shelter-in-place. We’re in Oakland, California. In our house with my partner. And we’re here, just have been here. We’ve picked up gardening. I don’t really know all of the things..…but it’s like cliché now and a little bit embarrassing to admit. But I’m doing all of that. I’m fermenting, whatever. All of that. What has the daily routine been like? And are you making time to read or watch movies, TV series? Yeah. I did before, just the first couple of days. But then things really kicked into gear with promoting the record and making videos. We made the Zoom video. But we also made one for “Pure Cinema.” Which also was remotely done. And I’ve been entirely focused on promoting the record. And now I’m starting to relax a little bit. I know you’ve done a couple of livestreams. I was able to catch one of those. But I didn’t see the Thao TV For Kids. How did that go? That was so stressful. That’s the same energy I was talking about. In the very beginning, there was this almost chaotic energy. I was like, “What can we do? And how can we do it? And how do we present this immediately?” And I got swept up in that. I have a lot of friends with kids. And they were freaking out. And it was really stressful. And there were so many things about Instagram Live that I didn’t understand and still don’t. And you have all those kinds of lag. But my intent was just to interact with kids. And so it was only going to be a kids Q&A. So they submitted some pretty wild questions. Maybe even some about your music? Barely. They were like, “What’s in bones?” And then I go, “I actually don’t really know.” And then I had to look up stuff. One kid asked “What do you see when you die?” It got more intense than I had planned. So not a full-time gig for you? Oh, no. There’s people who broadcast every day and have kept that up. That’s very impressive. I can’t imagine trying to get content together. So how have you felt about the state and local government handling of things there? I’ve been quite impressed with the Bay Area in California and the leadership and how quickly they acted and how science-based they have been. I find them to be way more proactive and accountable and responsible than other local governments I’ve heard about. I feel lucky to be within California. No, I understand. I’m in Florida. It’s a little bit of the Wild West even though we’re on the east coast. Right. How would you say the local leadership is handling it? I would say on a local level well, but state level, not so well. So it’s one of those where the governor’s pushing kind of like Georgia, to open all the wrong types of businesses, but I think the local officials and businesses have been a lot better about it. I stopped asking people about the federal government. That’s just not worth the time. [Laughter] Yeah. Oh, God yeah, not enough time in the world. One thing that’s becoming clear out of this, unfortunately, there’s been a disparate impact along socioeconomic and racial lines as a result of the disease and unemployment levels as well. I mean, do you see anything positive at all coming out of this whole crisis socially? Socially, I’m inspired by what’s happening at a really local and hyper-local level with ideas of mutual-aid being implemented on a wider basis. I think the way individuals and communities are stepping up is really remarkable. And unfortunately, that comes from them not being able to rely on state or federal authorities. On a federal level, I’m hoping that there can be some legislation enacted that can somehow pass under the wire that now is the opportune time to protect citizens. But I’m not sure. Yeah, I think the best-case scenario is to appreciate what’s happening on a hyper-local level and try to participate in those community bonds. Sure. That makes sense. All right. Anything else you want to pass along to our readers? Just if there are musicians that you’re fans of, please find ways to support them.

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