“Where are the cupcakes?”
It’s a simple enough query and appropriate in certain situations, many populated with donkeys needing tails and ponies needing riders, but one rarely posed to D.I.Y. diehards moments after the cessation of a screeching sweat-soaked show. Frequently facing the ill-timed confection question, along with an endless stream of musical and wardrobe suggestions, is the workaday reality of The Coathangers, Atlanta’s rambunctious party punk quartet.
“When we first started playing shows, we started the confetti and the balloons and the face paint because we couldn’t necessarily rely on our killer performance,” says keyboard player Candace Jones. The initial buzz focused on their antics and appearances and they were somewhat understandably tagged as a novelty act. Their salacious early tunes cemented that reputation in the minds of many.
Their early shows were loose affairs of perpetual instrument swapping amid a confrontational blur of confetti, baked goods, and general goofiness. Now, four years later, the band, Jones along with Julia Kugel (guitar), Stephanie Luke (drums) and Meredith Franco (bass), have distanced themselves from their earlier tactics while remaining tethered to their original intention of manufacturing inclusive mischief, actualizing amusement for artist and audience alike. Says Luke, “We might not be bringing the cookies but we’re still bringing the party.”
The members of The Coathangers have only ever been Coathangers; this is their first and only band. In 2006, they decided to start a band while making the 10-hour crawl from Washington, D.C back to Atlanta after attending a political rally. That none of them had any previous musical experience and the fact that they had to acquire and learn their instruments were marginal inconveniences.
“In band years, we should have been retiring. When most people are giving up and going to college is when we started,” says Luke.
The band was quickly equipped after a few pawnshop plunders and a Code of Hammurabi-approved exchange in which Luke purloined a drum set from a fellow who had recently stolen her bike. They set about making a racket immediately, forcing themselves to play shows while their sound was still taking shape, feeding off the energy of the exploding Atlanta scene that was propelling other bands to international acclaim. Their enthusiasm and willingness to lay it all out on the line was an authentic extension of the group’s existing bonds.
Reflecting on their inexperience, Jones says, “It ended up working for us. A lot of people have been in bands since they were 15 so they’re jaded; we’re wide eyed and fresh and completely green at this being a profession.”
In addition to rigorous touring (America all the time, Mexico and Canada whenever possible), a unique origin and outlook has helped The Coathangers reach their current position. Their sound has matured from a barrage of post-riot-grrl squawks to something more coherent that playfully incorporates elements of lo-fi garage, syncopated vocal chants, and New Wave-inspired keyboard parts.
They have released two full lengths and are currently in the process of writing a third, their second for Suicide Squeeze. “This is our real record,” says Luke; “we’re doing pre-production and really taking our time.”
Inspired by the focus and meticulousness of many of their former tour mates, the band is in a much more self-aware and constructively critical mode. Says Jones, “We don’t want to rush. We’ve evolved since the last record.”
They have evolved in their technical abilities, a well as in other ways unique to a unit that was a group before it was a band. The instrument swapping has lessened in their current incarnation, but the reasoning behind it and lessons learned from it play a large role in how they interact with each other and how they process writing and performing. Themes of respect and empathy often come up. “It’s good to know how people feel when they’re playing, how they actually physically feel. When everyone experiences that, it helps keep us a democracy,” says Luke.
All four share vocal and songwriting duties, furthering the deviation from typical internal band mechanics. The goal of the songwriting is often to amuse each other and challenge each other in a process that’s not competitive, but collaborative. Humor still plays a key role, but it’s more of a means to an end at this point, a method rather than the goal, as they tackle new musical challenges. “We might not say it in a serious way, but it is serious to us,” says Luke.
Along with a tour centered around shows in Austin, the group has a remix 7” featuring Dan Deacon and Judi Chicago slated for release this year. After a spring run with the Thermals, they will hunker down and ratchet up the intensity on writing and preparing for the studio, continuing their evolution.
Says Luke, “The goal is to write a really epic record that we really love.” If past endeavors are any indication, The Coathangers will have no problem epically slaying it on this one.