Guts and Glory

Thao Nguyen gets more adventurous and vulnerable on triumphant latest album, A Man Alive

click to enlarge Thao Nguyen worked with tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus on the latest Get Down Stay Down LP.
Thao Nguyen worked with tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus on the latest Get Down Stay Down LP.

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t’s clear from the opening moments of “Astonished Man,” the first song on Thao & the Get Down Stay Down’s excellent new album A Man Alive, that something has changed. We first hear frontperson and main songwriter Thao Nguyen’s modest but expressive voice before it’s engulfed by a funky drumbeat, jagged guitar lines and distorted bass, all of which comes on more like Beck-era Odelay or 1990s beat-mavens Luscious Jackson than the often stripped-down Folk-driven ditties that dominated the San Francisco-based outfit’s first three full-length records.

The newfound adventurousness continues through the next 11 songs, and not just sonically — Nguyen for the first time overtly delves into the estranged relationship with her father, who left the family when she was a child. On “Guts,” perhaps the most nakedly personal song in an album full of them, Nguyen declares that “I got the guts/I don’t need my blood,” before admitting, “You know I’m easy to find/You won’t come get your girl/I want peace enough for two.”

CityBeat recently connected with Nguyen by phone to discuss everything from her decision to have longtime friend and tUnE-yArDs mastermind Merrill Garbus produce A Man Alive to her appreciation of the fact that people actually pay money to hear her perform.


CityBeat: The first time I saw you live was in 2008 at a smaller space in Cincinnati. I think there were only about 25 people there, and the band was pretty stripped down and informal. It’s always interesting to see how bands evolve both in terms of their artistic arc and in the type of crowds they get and venues they play. How do you think your approach has changed since then?

Thao Nguyen: I think it’s pretty much the same. I think what’s changed is just with growing older I have become so much more appreciative of what we get to do, and the fact that we get to make a living doing it is incredible. It’s really important to me to present a show that’s worthy of people’s time and money. It’s really important to remember that people can choose to do anything and that there’s no reason they should be at your show. I’m grateful that I get to make a connection with them. I always wanted to make that connection from the very beginning, but I was also in my early 20s and drinking too much, probably, and not as respecting of the privilege of being able to play for an audience as I should have been.

CB: I think tUnE-yArDs opened for you on that same tour. How did you meet Merrill (Garbus)?

TN:

We met in 2007 when we were on the same bill and she was with a different band. We became friends immediately — you just kind of immediately know when you have a certain connection with someone. 

CB: Why did you want to work with her on the new record?

TN:

A multitude of reasons. One is sonically, of course. Merrill has always embodied this kind of fearlessness that has always inspired me with a very upfront, affecting sound. She has no qualms about doing whatever she needs to do to create the sounds she hears in her head. I’ve always been inspired by that. I wanted some of that. I wanted distortion and blown-out feeds and a really upfront, powerful record, which is what we as a band were looking for and was an optimum goal

. 

Sonically, there is that, but more importantly this is a really personal record and I couldn’t have made it with a producer who didn’t know me very well and that I didn’t trust completely, and that’s where our strong friendship comes into play.

CB: Speaking of the personal aspect — why were you interested in tackling that subject matter this time out?

TN: You know, it’s funny, I wasn’t interested in tackling this material at all, but it just lined up with whatever was happening in my personal life. It was just time to explore it and I was a lot more open to considering this relationship with my dad and how it has informed my entire life and how much emotion and grief and sadness (it created). All that stuff has been there, but I just wasn’t ready. When I starting writing songs for this record, it was clear that every song was about this in some way. And then I decided to just go with it. But I had a lot of reservations about being so vulnerable on record.

CB: Do you write most of the songs by yourself and then bring them to the band to flesh them out?

TN: I prefer to have the basic bones of the song complete and then we’ll bring it into the studio and we’ll all get into a live room together. Sometimes it’s very clear what the song is and what it will be. Other times it will shift drastically and we’ll change the tempo, and change the time and sort of hone in on the groove.

CB: How do you know when a song is done?

TN:

Yeah, it’s tough. Sometimes you have to be excessive and add too many things, and then realize that you’ve gone overboard and then strip them away. Sometimes you don’t know you’re done until you know you’ve overdone it, and then you have to pull back. Other times it’s just that you’ve said everything you need to say, and emotionally you’ve hit every high and low you needed to hit. But there’s no true science. You just go with your gut. 

CB: The kind of jubilant sonic approach on the new record is an interesting juxtaposition to the lyrics…

TN: Well, the sonic aspect was there before the subject matter. Towards the end of the last tour cycle it was clear that on the next record I wanted to sort of move the songs away from being quarterly based and based on guitar and stringed instruments. I wanted to reimagine it, so that was already in the works. I know there’s a lot of introspection in the record, but there’s also a lot of liberation and vitality and joy in that kind of freedom and that kind of honesty, and that’s captured in a very energetic and vibrant way. That was just as important as dealing with the subject matter.


THAO & THE GET DOWN STAY DOWN plays Thursday at Woodward Theater. Tickets/more info: woodwardtheater.com.


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