Obviously We’re Girls: The Coathangers Talk Gender, Stage Fright, and Velvet Walls

The Coathangers

The Coathangers are tired of being your resident girl band.

“Do we get put on all-female bills that sonically don’t make sense, but because we’re female we’re put on the bill?” guitarist Julia Kugel asks. “Yeah, we do. And it’s so frustrating because you want to be on a bill with people who are in the same vein of music, even if they happen to be male.”

Kugel is understandably frustrated. Pop culture may be embracing feminism with unprecedented enthusiasm, but it’s still not all girl power and feminist solidarity on the ground. Between dodging outdated misogynist ideas about “girl bands” and tolerating breathless inquiries as to their own feminist leanings (you know, as though confirming whether or not a band identifies as feminist will close the wage gap), it’s tough to be a band comprised exclusively of non-dudes in 2016.

Especially because The Coathangers don’t see their feminism – and yes, they are feminists, just in case the reproductive rights-referencing name wasn’t a dead giveaway – as a separate part of their lives. “The personal becomes the political. We just live the way we want to live and it happens to be along the lines of feminist ideology,” Kugel says. “We believe that everyone should be able to do whatever the hell they want to do. If a bunch of girls want to play harder and scream and be assertive, then that’s what they should be able to do.”

It’s funny she should mention that, since that’s exactly what The Coathangers are known for doing. Formed in Atlanta in 2006, they cut their teeth in DIY venues and house shows, including the famed Rob’s House, a punk house-turned-label that released the band’s self-titled debut in 2007. The quartet (which shrank to a trio in 2013 following the departure of Candice Jones) established their no-fucks-given brand of punk early on – “Never Wanted You” and “Nestle In My Boobies” were among the band’s first singles, the latter released on a split EP also featuring Deerhunter.

Their confidence didn’t come instantly, however. “When we first started playing, we were so terrified we didn’t move at all,” Kugel says. “For about two years, I was just trying to get over stage fright.”

The band decided to cure their stage fright by tackling it head on, and adopted a relentless touring schedule. Life on the road remains the trio’s norm today, and Kugel admits she’s rarely in Atlanta where all three members still live. Nor is she depressed about the amount of time she spends on the road, given how it included a support slot on Refused’s American tour earlier this year. “They’re our Swedish brothers now,” Kugel jokes of the experience.

For The Coathangers, returning home – on the rare occasion it happens – means catching up with friends and family, making it a less than ideal spot to record an album. “When you’re home, it’s really hard to concentrate and write because you’re never there,” Kugel says. “You can’t just be like, ‘No, I’m going to need two weeks for no one to talk to me.’ ”

When it came time to record their fifth album, Nosebleed Weekend, the band decided to not piss off all their friends and opted for a change of scenery. Having recorded the majority of their discography in Atlanta, the trio headed West to write, record, and mix. The band rented an AirBnB in Los Angeles, dedicating long days to writing the album. “We’d wake up, go write, take a lunch break, go write,” Kugel says. Grueling writing sessions eventually gave way to recording at Valentine Studios in the San Fernando Valley. By Kugel’s count, the band was the first to use the studio in 38 years.

“It was all old equipment and old tape and yellow velvet walls,” she recalls.

Whatever it was – maybe it was something in the water, air, or velvet walls? – Nosebleed Weekend emerged as the trio’s most sophisticated album to date. It’s also their most sinister, with a not-so-subtle darkness lurking behind the band’s razor-sharp punk riffs. Few tracks surpass the three-minute mark, and more than a few of them are classic Coathangers kiss-offs. Take, for instance, “Burn Me,” a thorny, guitar-driven number that calls out a guy’s tendency for being a wishy-washy, overdramatic scrub. “Watch Your Back” is a throbbing punk number, while clapping completes the flirtatious fun of “Hiya.” “Dumb Baby” plays nice with pop-punk, as Kugel’s bright guitar keeps space with drummer Stephanie Luke’s driving beats. The garage-punk sound the trio is known for remains intact, but it’s more precise, pop-oriented, and devilishly fun.

So, if your only takeaway is the band’s gender, then you can’t hang with The Coathangers. Kugel isn’t going to lose a wink of sleep over being pigeonholed, but she might use it as a means of empowering younger female musicians.

“People are just fascinated and they want to categorize,” she says. “If we can use our gender for something positive, like girl power, then fuck, OK.”

Fuck, OK indeed.

The Coathangers play with Death Valley Girls, LA Witch, and Dirty Ghosts, play at 9 p.m., Friday, Aug. 19, at The Independent. $15; theindependentsf.com. 

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