San Franciscan rock band Thao & The Get Down Stay Down are no strangers to SXSW. This year, they visited Austin with their new album (number four, no less) A Man Alive, and although their tour schedule for the record is already starting to ramp up, the band’s front woman and songwriter Thao Nguyen remains remarkably cool, calm and collected about it all.
Sitting at an outdoor table at a breakfast joint on the west side of Austin’s downtown district, we soak up the Texan sunlight as Nguyen reflects on A Man Alive‘s recording process and how making the band’s fourth studio release has changed their dynamic, if it has.
“I think the band, for this one, we’re all having a lot more fun and we’re challenged in a way that is very rewarding and productive.” she says. “There is a bonding factor for tackling this project together and I rely on them so much and so heavily in so many ways, for sure. Obviously, we’ve been a band for a few years now and Adam, our bass player, has been with me from the beginning, so almost ten years. We get more familial every day.”
The album, recorded at Tiny Telephone Studios in San Francisco, was produced by Tune-Yards‘ Merrill Garbus and according to Nguyen, the final result saw the band head in some creative directions they’d not yet been down. The sounds they reached and formulated for A Man Alive were the ones she’d been wanting to angle at for some time.
“We’ve been more of a rock band that was pretty straight forward and this time around, there’s a lot more of a synth and electronic presence.” she says. “The most exciting part is getting to bring this new record to life and getting to perform these new songs. We’re incorporating a lot of aspects to our live show that, until this point, haven’t existed. “
“I’ve always wanted the music to rest and rely upon beat and bass,” she continues. “We took a roundabout way of getting there; in a way, it’s been a natural progression and in a way, it’s also been something that I’ve always wanted.”
Now that A Man Alive has been out for a few weeks and the band is well and truly in tour mode, Nguyen is optimistic about the next bout of touring that the band is set to undertake. Hitting most of the US and Canada in coming months and into the US summer, she notes that the concept of touring America is one that’s become easier and easier to deal with, with each album.
“I think that we’ve been able to strategically hit it in different legs.” she muses. “Typically, when we do a record release tour, we’d do major cities and ‘major markets’. You’d do larger cities and you wouldn’t necessarily hit a lot of places going through the country and then, on after that initial larger tour, there’d be smaller two to three to four week tours that are focused more regionally.”
“The difference that we appreciate the most is that in smaller cities that don’t necessarily get a lot of bands coming through, the appreciation that the audience has and the energy they meet you with is really special. We love playing the larger cities as well, but there’s something really cool about being able to bring live music to a place that doesn’t always get live music.”
On progressing as an artist and indeed, taking the output of Thao & The Get Down Stay Down forward with her bandmates, Nguyen admits that there is an obvious pressure ever-present for them to always be on the ball, keeping an eye on the stakes. With A Man Alive particularly, she notes that the live shows they’ve been working on for this material have been challenging, but in a way they’re relishing.
“You know, the pressure for this record is to live up to the sonic standards of it,” she admits. “Before, I think our live performances have been more exciting than what’s on the record. I think it’s important to have that challenge, to be able to make sure to up the ante.”
“I think that, if nothing else, it’s quite fortunate that the music you want to be making also reaches people, so that you can continue to make it. It gets a little complicated, depending on what your intention is. I think people can sense that as well; if it’s not coming from a sincere place, they’ll be less attracted to it.”
The concept of relaying some very real intention with this music is such an intrinsic one when thinking about A Man Alive as a full album. Nguyen has said in the past that the record details her relationship with her father and indeed, her upbringing with and without him. In terms of how her musical tastes and path towards music came together, Nguyen opens up about how she became attracted to the art and the initial experiences of bringing her very ‘solo’ experiences as a writer to a band dynamic.
“I would say that the way I formed as a musician was a pretty insular experience.” Nguyen says. “I played music by myself and maybe one friend in high school. I always was writing and playing guitar on my own; I’d never claim to be a part of any scene. Also, I lived in the suburbs and my mum never let me go out! I didn’t have a car and people would have to come pick me up…it just got to a point where I spent a lot of time alone playing music. I mean, the fact that we’re still doing it says something about how supportive people have been; it’s always happened gradually enough that we’re just so grateful to be doing it and we’ve kept going.”
“There’s difficulty in communicating about music, because I’m self-taught,” she admits. “There’s a lot of fundamental things, a lot of fundamental vocabulary that I don’t possess and I’ve never been that interested in. Everyone else in our band actually went to school for jazz, which is the exact opposite! The reason that I, in the beginning of my career, fell more into folk music or more in that category…I didn’t mean to be, I always wanted to be in a band and I always wanted to be propelled by that rhythm, it’s just because I played alone and I had a guitar, that was it. In that way, I was ready and I have always been ready to do that.”
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down’s new album A Man Alive is out now. Hit up their website for more information!
We’re hitting the road very hard, as hard as they’ll let us hit it! We’re finishing SXSW and then a few days later, we’re starting our US tour; we’ll be hitting most of the US and Canada and then on into different markets for the summer. Whatever comes!