"We've literally slept in dog beds!" - Julia Kugel on the Evolution of Atlanta Punks the Coathangers
Since 2007’s self-titled debut album, Atlanta punks The Coathangers have come a long way. The band started as four friends playing music together with no serious aspirations and a mortal fear of playing live, and ten years later, they’re looking back at five full-length albums, a dozen 7”s, multiple tours all over the world, and a brand new EP, Parasite, released in May on Suicide Squeeze Records.
While staying true to their punk and riot grrl roots, their oeuvre has edged toward the more polished and less screamy side – sort of. Kugel describes Parasite as a moody record. As soon as she thought she was done with screaming, the current political climate had her howling again. The result is the perfect mix of aggression and self-described “house-cleaning music.”
Kugel sat down with me in April at Brooklyn’s Sunnyvale club’s green room – a covered up back alley with a couple plastic seats, a tub of PBR, lots of forgotten 2x4s and an abandoned wheelchair – to talk about life as a Coathanger.
Anna Blumenthal: How’s the tour been going so far?
Julia Kugel: Dude, it’s been great. We’ve met some really nice people. We finally figured out touring - who to bring, how to plan for it, how long to do it. We do shorter tours now. It’s like, fuck that noise, a whole US tour, six weeks on the road…we’re over it. We just figured out what works for us now. We used to do stupid stuff, like six, seven weeks, in really poor conditions. We’ve literally taken the beds from dogs to sleep on them. I don’t even know why we kept doing it, we just kept going. I feel like you wanna punish yourself when you’re in your 20s, and when you reach your 30s you’re like, “Um, is that gluten-free?” (laughs) ‘Cause you can only abuse your body for so long.
AB: You’ve had basically the same lineup except for one member leaving in all the time you’ve been together. What’s the secret to a long, happy band marriage?
JK: (laughs) I think it’s ‘cause we didn’t set out together to be a band. We were friends that played, and we never let the bullshit of the industry disrupt that. And we never had a captain of the ship. For some reason we were compelled to keep going. It gets dark sometimes, but you just keep going and you know you love each other, and in the end, it’s like, “What are you gonna do? Leave me?”
We just all really wanted it, and hell, it could be so much worse. If you take yourself out of the complacency of being in it, you just think, “Am I gonna work retail?” I’d rather complain about something stupid than complain about life.
AB: You’ve also been making a lot of progress, so you’re not doing the same thing you were doing ten years ago.
JK: Yeah, that feels good. You’re not spinning your wheels. You feel a progression. Looking back, all of a sudden we have five records.
AB: Yeah, I was looking at how many singles you have too – you have tons of records!
JK: Tons of music, tons of stuff and always going forward even though there was no reason. It’s not like anyone at any point was like, “You’re stars, we wanna put you in an ad!” We kept going like the little engine that could. And we’ve made so many friends, gotten to travel, great conditions, bad conditions, doesn’t matter, you can get to see a lot of life. It’s all worth it. I’m not complaining.
AB: Congrats on your new EP, Parasite. Can you talk about the inspiration behind it?
JK: (laughs) Well actually, to chime in on how touring wears on your body, we all got parasites from touring. Last year we were everywhere, all over Europe, Australia and New Zealand. I don’t even know when we got them. So the song is about parasites. But we wrote it and recorded it right at election time, so then it took on this other meaning, a metaphorical meaning for what was happening. Parasites can ruin your life. People who stress you the fuck out, that’s parasitic. People should be lifting each other up. We wrote five songs, and one is an old version of “Down Down” [which appeared on Nosebleed Weekend].
It was really fun cause there was way less pressure making an EP then making a full-length. We had a really good time making this EP. It’s a one-sided 12”, and there’s an etching on the back. Our friend Helena did the artwork. It kind of has a nautical theme, inadvertently, cause there’s “Parasite,” and then there’s a song called “Captain’s Dead,” and there’s a song called “Wipeout,” and “Down Down,” and then “Drifter,” so we were thinking about it and Sirens [the cover image] seem to tie in.
AB: I read that you started as a joke band playing a house show. Were you surprised by the reaction you got?
JK: We weren’t a joke band. I think it says that on our Wikipedia page. It’s definitely a repeated thing. We started off playing in my living room. We took the music part of it seriously but we didn’t take ourselves seriously so to us it was a joke, and we used it to express our angst. Then someone was like, “You should play a show,” and we were like, “No, we’re cool.” We were fucking terrified of shows for the first three years. We didn’t expect any of it to happen. It was always serious, we just didn’t know it was gonna be our lives, like this. It was all out of nowhere.
AB: Was it the first band for all of you?
JK: Yeah. All of our first bands. I played classical guitar, so it was the first time I ever used a pick, first time I ever played electric guitar. For me, the noise aspect was really fascinating, 'cause with acoustic guitar, I feel you focus more on melody, and the electric lends itself so well to noises and weirdness. That’s still what fascinates me most about the electric guitar.
AB: What kind of gear do you use?
JK: Well, for Coathangers, I only use boost. I’ve always been anti-pedals. This is why getting this Transmisser is a big step for me. I’ve seen people stop playing shows because their pedalboard went out, and that’s so annoying to me - or was. I used to be much more opinionated.
I thought you should plug in and play. Then having toured and having seen people use pedals as instruments, I just got it. It’s part of the sound. They could do it without it, [but] it just wouldn’t have the same feeling.
So when our keyboard player left, I felt more of a responsibility to add other parts and other textures, and that’s when I got my boost and I tried out some other pedals. I got the Transmisser 'cause EarthQuaker was kind enough to donate to Studios For Schools, which is my fiancée Scott’s non-profit, and I went and played with all the pedals.
AB: What is Studios For Schools?
JK: Studios For Schools is a non-profit in Long Beach. They turned this closet in a high school into a recording studio for the kids, and Scott got them a board. They raised enough money so they have a fully functioning studio. They even have a teleprompter that he built. EarthQuaker donated some pedals. I played with the Transmisser, and it took me into another world! And that’s the thing about pedals, when you play a bare guitar for so long and then you do start discovering pedals - I sound like I’m playing so much.
AB: The Transmisser is so crazy that you could sit with it for hours.
JK: Dude, have you ever done that? You record it, and you’re like, “I just made the fucking most amazing thing!” What’s cool though about performing with [it] is that you can have a different show every night.
AB: Has it helped you with songwriting?
JK: Yeah. Absolutely. I haven’t really been home that much since I got it, to be honest with you. This year has been a lot of touring. When I played it, I was already hearing stuff, layering and all that cool stuff.
AB: Can you talk a little about the evolution of the band? You had a really raw punk on the first record [2007’s The Coathangers] and now it sounds more polished.
JK: I hope so. I haven’t really listened to the first one in years, I don’t even know what that sounds like. I just listened to Nosebleed Weekend when I was at home and I really enjoyed it. For me they are so hard. Every one of them has been really hard.
AB: Hard to write?
JK: No. Hard to go through, because it’s forever. The first one not so much, ‘cause we didn’t really think. We recorded it in two days. And we just played them all, sang over all of them and boom, that was it. It was like, “Isn’t it cute, we have a record!” And then they were like, “Do you wanna put out another one?” And we were like, “Another one?” The first one was so (screechy loud voice) “Hey guys, this is us, we’re loud!”
I’m usually in there mixing and mixing and mixing, I’m listening and listening and I listen to the test pressing, and that’s it, by the record I’m like, “I know what I sound like,” but it’s really interesting to revisit it. It surprises me that I would be really into it. I was like, “Dude, if I heard this I would like this!” I have to listen to Suck My Shirt again, but it feels really good cause every one of [our albums] are different.
Suck My Shirt is the first one where it was all three of us, so it was almost like our first record. Then this one [Parasite] was like, let’s just make it sound real warm, do it analog, ‘cause we recorded it in this really old studio [Valentine Recording Studios] from the 40s in LA. It was amazing. California just gives you a different vibe.
I bet if we recorded in New York it’d be a different vibe. It was really nice to be chill. I feel like that record has enough aggression, but it sounds good and something you can put on when you’re cleaning. I was tired of screaming. And then all of a sudden all of this other shit happened, and we were like, “Fuck that!” I was like, “All I wanna do is scream!” Parasite came out of nowhere. We were very moody, and we would give in to our moods. And, god, we don’t want to make the same record twice. We don’t want to make anything that sounds the same. But I don’t want to ever change the sonic evolution of it, it should always sound like us.
AB: Are you trying to write different styles of songs, like less aggressive songs, or is it not that conscious?
JK: It’s whatever comes out. Sometimes it’s stuff I think is aggressive, and then my bandmates will start playing something else and we’ll go there, or I think it’ll be softer and then it becomes aggressive. 'Cause it all really happens when we all get together and start playing. There is a bit of pressure from other people, like “Last time, blah blah blah did really well” so it’s like, “Cool. Good for blah blah blah.” I’d probably be lying saying it wasn’t like, “Oh, we should make a fast one.” 'Cause you don’t wanna make a bunch of sad songs, if you’re us at least. But you just try not to, 'cause anytime you force it sounds forced.
AB: Do you write everything?
JK: We all share. Sometimes someone comes in with a full song or someone comes up with lyrics or a bassline. I write completely different on drums. That’s why switching is so fun, and it challenges everyone. People are like, “Why would you do that?” Because it’s fun! Because I wanted to do something different.
AB: What kind of guitar do you play?
JK: A Fender Mustang. And I have a Vox AC15. The guitar was a gift. It’s short scale and it’s the easiest guitar to play. [When I was looking for an amp] I brought my guitar and I plugged into every amp at Guitar Center, and I liked everything about the Vox AC15. I like DeVilles too, and Hot Rods. I like anything that has distortion on it, ‘cause I hate that clean sound. But I’ve never been a gear head. I just know what I like. And even though people might say it’s ignorant, I think some of that gear talk might discriminate against certain creativity. “Oh, you don’t know this or that." It’s used to edge people out of conversations. It’s like, “Cool, you know that – well, write a song.” I’d like to know more about gear. It just doesn’t fill up a majority of my time.
AB: What’s the best show you ever played?
JK: We were in Bulgaria and we played in a town square, and when we got there, everyone was like, “Oh my god, the rock band is here!” We were in Plovdiv, a 7,000 year-old city, and everyone came from the town. There were young people and old people, and I’m talking 80 years old, dancing like crazy on stage, kids on shoulders. They brought roses, and they were just so stoked, and I never in my life felt more like, this is joyful. They fucking know how to party. I definitely cried.
And when we play the Girls Rock camps, that is always amazing. We have a song called “Don’t Touch My Shit” - it’s just screaming. And we changed it to “Don’t Touch My Stuff,” and I passed out a bunch of microphones, and these 6-year old girls, they’re screaming, and they loved it, and we were all crying. 'Cause especially as a little girl, you’re not supposed to yell, you’re not supposed to scream. You’re not supposed to be loud, you’re not supposed to be aggressive. The stage is really the only place I’ve found where you’re allowed to act like a fucking insane person and people are like, “You were amazing up there!”
Anna Blumenthal handles Sales and Artist Relations for EarthQuaker Devices. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, plays guitar in Party Lights and bass in Sit N Spin, DJs 60s soul and R&B at various Brooklyn bars, and has seen Cheap Trick over 30 times.