Thao and The Get Down Stay Down: Interview
“What you put out is never what you want; it’s always just on the way to something else.”
Thao Nguyen is quite a mover. The chanteuse recently moved to the Mission District of San Francisco, which has lately been gaining press attention for an ascending regional sound that has not been seen in the city since The Dead Kennedys did records in the Tenderloin. Her latest album with her band the Get Down Stay Down, Know Better Learn Faster, dropped this month, making a move from a simple folk approach to more complex and electrical compositions. Even her live act has moved to a more formal routine from her usual standards. In a phone interview, Thao discusses those moves, her relationship with the Get Down Stay Down, and Andrew Bird's amazing feats of wonder.
So how is San Francisco treating you?
I love it. I'm always grateful to be here because I'm out of town a lot. It's always a pleasure to be home.
You moved from Falls Church to San Francisco. What triggered that move?
I grew up in Virginia, and went to college at William and Mary in southern Virginia. The summer of my junior year, I got a service grant to do some volunteer work, and a couple of friends and I moved to San Francisco for that summer. We just lived in the Mission District, and I interned at a skill center for the homeless. I fell in love with the city then. I decided that when I could, I would move back and live here.
Well, why not stick around in the D.C. area?
I've always known, very early on, that I would leave that area as soon as I could. I've never been attached to that area, and I was very curious to be in a different environment.
What else drew you to San Francisco?
I like the pace. It's an urban environment, but I love the laid-back pace. And it's beautiful. It's gorgeous, and you can walk anywhere. If you wanted to leave for a more natural landscape, you can get there in 20 minutes. I love the ocean and the bay being right there. And the farmers' markets. I love those, especially since there are a few of those in the Mission a week.
Nationally, San Francisco is finally gaining some recognition after being quiet for some time. How do you feel about things developing there, especially in the Mission?
I don't know if I'm that qualified to speak about that. I'm only around a week out of the month, and I'm not that involved in the music scene. It's not because I don't want to, but because my work prevents me from being involved with other musicians. But I think it's fantastic. I think San Francisco sometimes gets a bad rap for not being considered a main player for certain aspects of art and culture. That's the impression I get from people who immediately think of New York or Los Angeles -- but not San Francisco -- as part of any sort of avant garde movement. But there's always been some scenes or pockets of new culture here, and it's great that we're getting some recognition from it.
All right, let's talk about Know Better Learn Faster. It comes so quickly after We Brave Bee Stings and All. Was there much difference in the recording experiences between the two?
Yeah, there was a bit. Both were under the gun, constrained by time and scheduling. So, there's that inherent stress in trying to get something important to you done in a finite amount of time. But with this new record, we've had the benefit of being on tour for almost 2 years. We were more comfortable with our identity as a band and what sounds we wanted to play.
"I think that if you get into a more specific mindset, that is, putting on a show that's capable, and you're in a venue that helps facilitate that, then it's all the more successful."
So, the band has a bit more influence in this album?
It's much more of a band effort. I wanted the songs and what was conveyed to have an emotional intensity and energy that we all needed to be on board for. Also, we're able to communicate with each other better because we've had this much time to become familiar and adjust to each other's wavelengths. The last record we made was recorded after only 2 months of us being a band. It was a much more comfortable experience.
Ah. In that way, it seems like the record's title, Know Better Learn Faster seems to have a deeper connotation to it.
The title is meant more as the catch of being unable to know any better or learn faster before it's too late.
How did you feel about the songwriting process this time around?
It was a pretty intense period of writing. We had just been off the road and we were due in the studio in about a month. I had only one or two songs that I thought would be on the record, and I had to write the rest very quickly, in a very concerted effort.
Listening to the new album, I feel there's more of an electric aura to it, more so than your last album. Is there any reason to draw more electrics into the effort?
I think it's just a function of the fact that I play a lot more electric guitar now. When I was writing for this record, there were many songs that I wanted that sort of energy and fury that you can't really achieve with acoustic guitar tones. Of course, live I play more electric guitar than I do acoustic now. As the guitar player in the band, I was drawn to having more of a presence with my playing.
Now, in the song “Know Better Learn Faster,” I just wanted to know: Is that theremin or a saw I'm hearing in there?
It's actually Andrew Bird playing violin and whistling in the break there.
I see. So that's whistling I hear in there. I thought it was a theremin…
Andrew Bird is incredible. I can't believe his body could make that noise.
That is impressive! Anyway, those elements, and the horn section in “Body,” shows that you're adding more complexity to your work. Was this just something you've always wanted to put in, and now had more access to resources?
It was a pretty natural progression from the last record and what we've been doing. What you put out is never what you want; it's always just on the way to something else. This record is more along the lines of the kind of steps that I'm interested in and what we as a band are more attracted to. It is an earmark of where we're headed and where we've been in the maturing of our sound. Also, it follows us as musicians. It's more indicative of what we're interested in, technically.
You seem to have taken a more routine approach to playing live. How is that working out for you?
I think, because we've been on tour for the majority of the past few years, we just have sort of fallen into what works best as far as being able to put on the best show that we can. Partaking a routine helps you better prepare, and gets you into the mindset of performing these songs for people. So, in a way, having more of a structure helps us to be better performers.
Has being in San Francisco helped with that approach?
I've played in… let's see, Swedish-American [Hall], Great American [Music Hall], the Independent, Bottom of the Hill, and Café du Nord. Yeah, I think that, with the venues we get to play in, at this point it's about as good as it could get with being a touring professional musician. We normally play at the Independent now, and that helps with our show. I think that if you get into a more specific mindset, that is, putting on a show that's capable, and you're in a venue that helps facilitate that, then it's all the more successful.
Last question. I'm just curious about this. The order of tracks has “Oh. No,” followed by “Fixed It!” Was that intentional?
It wasn't, but then I'm really glad that it ended up like that, because I would like to say that it was intentional. It was more a transition from one sorrowful song to one energetic song. It just happens that it went well with each other. But I do wish that was intentional because I do like how that turned out.