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Q&A: Thao Nguyen

By Nazirah Ashari on June 24, 2010


Q&A: Thao Nguyen

At first sight, Thao Nguyen looks more like a hip-hop fly girl than an indie-rock darling. In a loose white top, grey skinny jeans, low-cut Asics, a trucker cap and aviator sunglasses, Nguyen pulls the look with attitude; it's not much of a surprise to find out that some sick rapping by A Tribe Called Quest was playing on her iPod. When asked about the kind of music that she listens to, Nguyen confesses her love for hip-hop more than anything: “I grew up listening to The Fat Boys and MC Lyte. I always wanted to be in hip-hop but there’re a lot of reasons why that wouldn’t work out. Then there’s De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, you know, like older hip-hop." She takes and breath and, laughing, adds, "We were just listening in the car and talking about if En Vogue got back together with Queen Latifah…and Missy Elliott. I would love to collaborate with them! But that’s like fantasy stuff.”

It's soundcheck for her first show with friend Mirah at Los Angeles' Bootleg Theater. The two are touring North America with a newly-formed band called Thao and Mirah with The Most of All. Nguyen holds with her a half-empty jar of maple tea, which she refers to as her secret of staying healthy on tour. “I drink it every day. I steep it overnight and I drink it the other day. It’s a blood cleanser and it has a lot of minerals.” This mix of Zen-lifestyle with a hip-hop look and indie-rock occupation certainly makes for an interesting combination. 

Born and raised in Virginia, Nguyen spent some time in New York and Portland, and now resides in San Francisco. Musically, she has come a long way since the release of her underrated debut, We Brave Bee Stings and All in 2008. But it was the release of her critically acclaimed sophomore album, Know Better Learn Faster (2009), with fellow bandmates Adam Thompson (guitar/bass) and Willis Thompson (drums) (better known as The Get Down Stay Down) that led her to new-found indie success. Mixing lyrics about romantic frustration with catchy melodies and Nguyen's somewhat-accented coo-coo voice made the band's solid and energetic performance a must-see event.

Currently in the midst of the new tour with singer-songwriter and friend, Mirah, this summer finds Thao and Mirah with The Most of All travelling across North America. Nguyen explains, “What we’ll be doing --and what we’re doing now-- is tackling each other’s songs that exist already.” Known for her signature wet-hair look and loose yet driven stage presence, Nguyen sits with FILTER at the Bootleg to speak about her polished new look,  the activist in her, her Vietnamese background, the band’s recent tour to Japan and a previously unannounced recording project with Mirah.

So this is not really a 'Thao with The Get Down Stay Down' tour. This is a 'Thao and Mirah with The Most of All' tour. How did that come about in the first place?

Thao Nguyen: Mirah and I both live in San Francisco, she just moved there and we did a festival together. We didn’t know each other before that; we had some mutual friends and they thought we should get in touch and work together on a music project. Noise Pop─which was the San Francisco festival─asked me to play and they asked me if I want to collaborate with anyone, if I wanted to do anything special, so I asked Mirah if she would and she said yes. It worked out well and we had a great time, and we thought it would be fun if we could smash the band together and go on tour.

This tour will last until mid-July. That’s a long period. How does it feel to be on such an intense tour all over again?

It definitely wears on you. I don’t think it’s a sustainable lifestyle. I don’t think I’d be on it for no more than three weeks because after that the schedule gets pretty… you just become exhausted. And it’s hard to play a show every night and deliver the way that you want to sometimes. You’re travelling and play in a different city every night. It’s hard to stay healthy. It’s hard to eat well. It’s an incredible experience. You go out with your friends and you play music for people and often it’s amazing, but the lifestyle is not suitable for that length of time.

The band recently released the music video for “Body.” Unlike the band’s previous videos, you look really polished in it; with the make-up and all. What do you think about that? Is this a sign that you’re on your way to stardom?

I think that was just a one-time deal. I’m not really…[Laughs] In a way I’ve never done that before so it was interesting. It’s fun. We were game to do whatever Diana Agron, who directed it, what her stylist’s interpretation of it was and it happened to be a much more polished than what we used to do ‘cause we’re pretty scruffy. But it was fun. I don’t particularly want to do that every time, I don’t know if I would be interested in being that polished again because it’s not necessarily a realistic representation of us. And I think that it’s important to recognize the difference, if I could I would let people know… Diana brought in her stylist and you sat in a chair for an hour and just let someone… Anyone who sits on a chair with machines can look that polished.

I’m not so interested in feeding into the idea of what women should look like in the media. And I’m not saying that this video perpetuates anything. We had a good time, we get dressed up but that’s the end of it. And it was nice to see our band receive that kind of aesthetic treatment.

You work closely with Oxfam America and you’re Oxfam’s Sisters of the Planet Ambassador. How did you get involved with that?

I first got involved when Oxfam America got in touch with our band and asked if they could set up table at our shows on our tour. And on that same tour, we stopped by their headquarters in Boston and I met the people and we all took a tour of the office and learned more intimately about what they do. They’re incredible and I think I was struck most with their respect for humanity in an effort to help but without any condescension.

I think that’s incredibly important and that they’re about empowerment…they give aid but they give aid in a way that is empowering, that doesn’t perpetuate any sort of power dynamics that go on and I think they try not to. They’re also a very transparent organization. You can see where the money goes; you can see how they spend it. Anyway, I’m just struck with how responsible they are as a non-profit, as an NGO. Our relationship has just become stronger and they asked me to become Sisters of the Planet Ambassador; I was honored and I will serve with pride and it’s an ongoing relationship and I look forward to see what else I can do to help.

Have you always been an activist inside?

When I was at college, I majored in sociology and women’s studies and my intention was to go into women’s advocacy work. I was an intern at a domestic violence shelter and I worked at different homeless shelters. I was planning to go into that field and music sort of popped up and I realized that I was much more effective in music.

I just knew that I could be more effective in music than in that field, because… to be honest I couldn’t handle it. You know, when I worked at the domestic violence shelter, I knew that I couldn’t confront that kind of reality every day on that level without being really fucked up about it just because of my personal background, so when the music took over I sort of pledged to myself that I would always maintain a foothole in that world and to be as active as I could be and to use whatever notoriety or any status that I could in music for what I cared about. It has taken awhile but things are more stable now so I feel like I can devote more of my attention to it.

That's such a great cause, but yet again when looking at your music, you don’t exactly sing about that subject matter. You talk about more personal stuff…

Well, I’ve never been a political songwriter. I’m not interested in including politics in a blatant way. A lot of the stuff I wrote about has to do about how grew up, my family, so there’s elements of all that … the reason why I’m so interested and so focused on the empowerment of women is just because I’ve seen the personal implications and consequences of oppression on a family level. So I do think that it’s not overtly political but they say that it’s like… personal political. I don’t think I like to discuss it directly.

Have you started writing new materials?

I’ve started very lightly because we’ve been busy preparing for this tour. The next thing I’m doing is a side project. I don’t think it has been announced yet but Mirah and I are going to do a record together in San Francisco in August. The next record with The Get Down Stay Down probably won’t be till the winter or something. So I haven’t started writing for that.

What can fans expect from these projects?

Our goal is always to grow as musicians. That has always been my personal goal. I wanna be playing a lot more instruments on the record and I think maybe a deeper attention on musicality. Maybe less pop songs. Sometimes I’m curious to see what else I’m capable of. I still like to make the song accessible it’s just I don’t think… I’m not gonna do another “Bag of Hammers”.

The band recently went on tour in Japan. How was Japan?

Japan was incredible, it was amazing. I would love to go back. We only played three shows in Tokyo. We were there and we did promo and the rest we just did interviews for a few days. The crowd is fantastic, so incredibly attentive and so quiet. They’re dead silent but you can tell they’re listening and paying attention. Dead silent but in a good way. In a way it feels like you’re playing to people who are listening which is really hard to come by. They’re just so respectful. It’s the most attentive crowd we’ve ever played for.

I loved Japan. There’s a sort of patience and a really gentle spirit around it. Tokyo is a really crowded and busy city but it is so calm in comparison to any other city I’ve ever been in. I think it’s the patience of the people and the different sense of courtesy and really what I think it is is the difference between a society built on Buddhism and Shintoism versus Judaism and Christian. On the sidewalk there’s a million people walking and there’s a bottleneck and instead of pushing, everyone just closed down, you slow down and then you move through that patch where else in other places they could jostle and elbow instead of pushing. But anyway the food was incredible, everything is incredibly efficient.

You’re originally from Virginia but you have a Vietnamese background. Have you ever tried to incorporate any Vietnamese sounds or cultural elements into your music?

Not in an overt way. This is a part of my biography as much as anything else is, you know. I bring it to what I do but there’s not an overt effort to incorporate that. And it was hard because when I first started it was always about my ethnic background--because, you know, they need an angle. But I’m not interested in paddling on that platform because I don’t write about being Vietnamese. If it’d be one thing, it’s my songs are about where my family’s from.

I grew up in the suburbs. I have a basic American upbringing. But I don’t deny any part of my background. I’m weary of that tag just because I think it’s pretty reductionist. But now I am more open to it but I think it’s more important for people of color to be doing things that are not expected. I want people to know that it’s possible. There are so many stereotypes that prevail… I don’t mind talking about it or anything but I just don’t want that to be the only thing. It was just that in the beginning it was a concern.

What about your bandmates, The Get Down Stay Down? Can you describe Adam [Thompson] and Willis [Thompson]?

These two are the sweetest guys ever. We’ve been through a lot as band. And they started with me. We’ve been a band now for almost four years and they’re incredible musicians but more than that we take care of each other. And when you spent this much time with people you become family. And I’m deeply grateful for them. And they’re tall and handsome. [Laughs]

You worked with Tucker Martine and Andrew Bird on Know Better Learn Faster. What would be your other dream collaborations?

I loved Lucinda Williams when I was a young teenager. I would love to work with Lucinda Williams. And Dolly Parton, I wanna play guitar for Dolly Parton.

If you could describe yourself and your music in five words, what would they be?

Restless, self-deprecating, dirty, loose, and released. F


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