Tacocat: Better Hills to Die On

The Seattle punk-pop band hasn’t lost its luster — or its rage.

By the band’s account, Tacocat had no choice but to write This Mess Is a Place.

“This Mess” refers to, well, everything in the Trump era, namely the actively dying planet and our astoundingly awful political climate. “A Place” could refer to Tacocat’s hometown of Seattle, to America, the world, anywhere and everywhere in which populist and far-right ideologies have found a crater-sized foothold. The U.K., India, and Australia top the list.

“For this album, it was the first time that everything changed so drastically, just worldwide, especially nationwide, and especially liberal community-wide,” frontwoman Emily Nokes says. “After the election, it felt so starkly different than it had ever felt before. It was just naturally how it was feeling at the time and still feels and will always feel now that the curtain has been lifted.”

“A lot of our songs on the first couple albums are, like, the personal is political. This one is more political-political,” bassist Bree McKenna adds.

Not that Tacocat was ever the apolitical type. Formed in 2007 by McKenna, Nokes, guitarist Eric Randall, and drummer Lelah Maupin at a time when booking DIY shows on MySpace was still a marketing strategy for new bands, making a statement via deliriously fun pop-punk was always the modus operandi.

Nokes was an observant, take-no-shit lyricist from the start, although she and the band were careful to strike a balance between the personal and political. Their debut album NVM sent up period stigma but also bemoaned the doldrums of seasonal affective disorder — all with the brightness turned up to eleven via 1960s girl-group pep, scuzzy surf-rock shine, and maximum late-’90s radio-rock playability. On Tacocat’s endlessly replay-able second album Lost Time, Nokes shifted the focus to asshole techies, internet trolls, and mansplaining, but also celebrated horse girls, The X-Files, and skinny-dipping.

This Mess Is a Place is still immediately recognizable as Tacocat, but the band’s approach has changed with the times. Pre- and post-Trump feels too obvious a dichotomy, but it’s impossible not to see its effect on the music. Tacocat’s feminism and political concerns are more macro than ever: topics include wealth inequality, privilege, the construction and maintenance of power structures, and trying to find the bright spots amid the joyless exercise of being remotely informed in 2019.

Among Tacocat’s bright spots are super-sized margaritas from the lovably tacky Seattle restaurant in “Meet Me at La Palma,” and how the local DIY scene (the very same one in which the band cut its teeth) survives despite gentrification and a housing crisis. And that scene is no longer as male-centric as it was when Tacocat started.

“It was actively not-very-supportive. A lot of the write-ups we got early on had a lot of angry comments about how no one would care about us if we weren’t female or had female members,” McKenna says.

“As we got more visible, some of the visibility and the privilege of visibility was being able to have more autonomy with the bills we could make. So it was building a bill that you wanted to see in the world,” Nokes says. “As in, ‘I want to see this band and this band and this band together, and not just us opening for five dude bands as the novelty band that has three girls in it and a funny name, ha ha.’ ”

But Tacocat’s capitalizing on its own visibility didn’t stop at gender-tokenism. Its members have been all-ages advocates for years, convinced that access to art shouldn’t be mitigated by drinking laws. But this kind of advocacy is no small feat in a state with overly strict laws concerning under-21 shows.

“For a city that prides itself on being like, ‘Wow, we legalized marijuana and gay marriage and all this stuff before anyone else did,’ we have some of the most backwards, weird, puritanical liquor laws that exist,” Nokes says. “Don’t even get me started.”

By McKenna’s account, Washington law is so restrictive that all-ages shows end up costing the band and venue triple what a typical over-21 show would, due to extra security and a statute that requires corralling underage patrons in a separate, roped-off area. That extra cost ultimately raises ticket prices, keeping the show inaccessible to anyone without cash to burn.

“It just treats kids like they don’t know what’s going on or they’re going to be like, ‘I saw an adult drinking a beer! I’m going to figure out how to do that too!’ ” Nokes says. “When we play on the East Coast, it’s the good ol’ fashioned fat Sharpie X on your hand and you’re good to go. You can ID people at the door, and if that causes a problem then you’ve got bigger problems.”

But Tacocat still loves Seattle, puritanical liquor laws and warts and all. (Several of these warts, including the city’s inevitable crash landing into the Pacific whenever the Cascadia fault decides to shake things up a bit, are elaborated upon in “I Love Seattle” from Lost Time.) DIY lives on. The band’s practice space is cheap. The progressive community of women and queer people they’ve built survives. And what would Tacocat be without Seattle?

Said question is only one of several going concerns for the band.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about, ‘What are we doing? What are we saying? What do we stand for?’” says Nokes. “The biggest lesson that I’ve learned is to always keep learning. To never shut off and never just die on some hill that you thought you were going to die on five years ago.”

Tacocat with the Paranoyds, Wednesday, June 26, 8 p.m., at the Chapel, 777 Valencia St. $18-$20, thechapelsf.com

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