NAME: Thao Nguyen
PROGRESS REPORT: Releasing her third album, Know Better, Learn Faster, on October 13. Recorded at Portland’s Sound Foundry and Jackpot! Studios, and producer Tucker Martine’s Flora Studios.
If you saw Thao Nguyen with her band, The Get Down Stay Down, more than once during their nonstop touring, you’d see a band getting more comfortable with their own performances. If you saw them late in their tour, you’d also have seen what Nguyen calls “the bro-down showdown,” a rowdier audience responding to the rowdier band. “I think one of our strengths is a more energetic show. Or that’s what we aspire to. It was a goal of mine to kind of convey that energy on the next record,” she says. But there were less fun things she wanted to get across on the record too.
As Nguyen’s procrastination pushed the new album further away, some motivation struck her, hard. She broke up with someone. “It was happening simultaneously, but I didn’t plan it that way,” she explains. “So for once it wasn’t too hard to come up with subjects and content, because it was addressing the collapse, the personal explosion I was going through.” All but two of the songs on the record are about her break-up, but as on We Brave Bee Stings and All, Nguyen and her band contrast upbeat songs with sadder, wry lyrics. The album’s title is a reference to that: “What’s funny is that you can’t [know better]. By the time you know what you’re supposed to, it’s too late, you already fucked it up,” she laughs. While the new record isn’t exactly cathartic, it’s got a stronger rhythmic drive–songs use stomping and clapping, and a new edge to Nguyen’s smokey voice, to convey what she calls, “an undercurrent of frenzied helplessness.” You can hear it especially on songs like “Bed,” where lines like “It’s good to see you,” sound like soft threats delivered from clenched jaws. But other songs dwell on the “helplessness” aspect; they’re sad songs that sound like sad songs. Besides her band, lots of guests came in to help: Andrew Bird played some violin, Laura Viers sang backup, and Decemberists member Jenny Conlee, along with Blitzen Trapper’s Earley, played additional instruments.
Of course if Nguyen was interested in meeting someone new, she’d wouldn’t have to look further than the bro-down showdown in the front row. Or not. But she says except for a few weird situations (bros bodychecking her band, guys trying to speak to her in various Asian languages) the increased number of tough guys at their shows hasn’t been a problem. “It’s just more of a party, which we didn’t expect,” she says. “I would have brought a whip, but I think they would have gotten the wrong idea.”
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