Angry Fun: An Interview With Tacocat
, August 2nd, 2016 08:08
Following Lost Time's release earlier this year, John Freeman catches up with the Seattle band's singer Emily Nokes to find out why their sparkling third album is driven by a desire for satire and rooted in deep-down rage
Earlier this year, on a slate grey Sunday afternoon, I found myself in a church in Salford. This is an unusual occurrence. Suddenly, at their allotted hour, four people leap on to the small stage that is temporarily blocking out the altar, dressed head-to-toe in skeleton costumes and sporting various shocks of lime green and electric blue hair. They proceed to play 30 minutes of the most joyous punk-pop – songs seemingly about menstruation, hating the weekend, loving Seattle and mansplaining – and I feel my heart swell. I have just entered the world of Tacocat. On a Sunday afternoon. In a church.
And, the Tacocat world is a glorious place – the four-piece, hailing from the aforementioned US city and formed in 2007, are one of those gangs that make the lay punter long to join. It's a riot of colour, fun, wit, noisy melody and a withering disdain for a world of misogyny. It all makes me want to be in Tacocat – although I doubt they would want to accommodate a grumpy 46-year-old with a fixed early-to-bed routine.
Therefore, several weeks after the Salford church baptism, I have to make do with a Skype video chat with lead singer, Emily Nokes. She introduces me to her cat (I assume she likes tacos as well, and palindromes, but I don't ask). The cat is called Dr O (after a Roky Erickson song, 'Bloody Hammer') and is huge (or maybe Emily is tiny). Unnervingly, Dr O flicks his tail menacingly throughout the interview as my questions become increasingly lame.
We are discussing Lost Time, Tacocat's third – and brilliant – album. Building on the bubblegum rock of 2014's NVM, and produced by Erik Blood, Lost Time is unselfconsciously bold and stuffed with pop hooks the size of Holland. It's a party record with an underlying agenda that has the band's burgeoning songcraft happily setting tracks about The X Files and high-school horse girls with Nokes' laser-guided dissection of internet trolls, the gentrification of Seattle and sexual politics side by side.
Nokes talks about Tacocat's recent theme tune for the Powerpuff Girls reboot ("it sounds like me, but in outer space") and the bond between the band members: "We have been best friends for as long as we have been in the band – I cannot imagine being in a band and hating each other like Metallica."
I cannot imagine anyone hating anything to do with Tacocat. Lost Time is their time – starting now.
I'd like to start by asking you about Powerpuff Girls. You recently provided the theme tune to the reboot of the children's TV series. How did that come about and why did you want to be part of the project?
Emily Nokes: Well, I really like the writing on Powerpuff Girls – which is very feminist. Cartoon Network just emailed us out of the blue. We assumed it was fake but, over the course of about eight months, we went back and forth and ended up working with an LA composer to make exactly one minute and 30 seconds' worth of music. He flew in and had us read sheet music. We were like, "Well, so, we don't do that" and we ended up doing a sloppy punk rendition of what he had written. He then made it into the most professional thing we have ever done. It was fascinating to see how he worked.
Do you like the end result?
EN: It sounds great, like Tacocat in a video game.
So, let's go back a little. How did you guys initially meet and what were those first few weeks like as a band?
EN: We all met when we were really young. Eric [Randall], who plays guitar, was the only person who had been in a band previously. The rest of us were learning: Lelah [Maupin] was learning how to drum, Bree [McKenna] was learning how to play bass and we were really, really sloppy. I was just yelling, or maybe singing-yelling.
Did you have a vision for Tacocat? What 'gap' in the musical firmament were you trying to fill?
EN: There was no real vision. We were just trying to have a fun band that would play parties and have an excuse to go to crappy bars. At the time in Seattle, there were a lot of sombre dudes playing guitar music. We wanted to go back to a time when, for example, Beat Happening started and you didn't have to be super good, you just had to do it. In addition, we were very influenced by riot grrrl and we liked Jonathan Richman for not being overly serious.
Lost Time is your third album. Looking back, how has the Tacocat sound evolved?
EN: Our earliest phase now sounds to me almost like kids' music. Bree told me the other day that her favourite band was currently 'old' Tacocat. I thought it was too embarrassing to listen to, but I went back and played some stuff and the songs were so simple and funny. We didn't aspire to sound like anything – it was more about playing to our ability level at the time. We would write songs about Anna Nicole Smith or candy – and it was just as good as we could do. A lot of our music comes from conversations. Lost Time has a much more serious side to it, which is how things feel right now. So, we are more inspired by what is happening around us than any specific music style.
How have you developed as a lyricist?
EN: I used to write the lyrics to be able to shout in our standard punk songs. Then I learned how to sing, which meant we had more opportunity to weave melody into the songs and the lyrical aspect developed from that. When we started, it was just about, "What rhymes?" and now things are a little more advanced and complex.
I love that many of your songs address serious issues, but are presented in a fun and humorous way. Why do you take this approach and is there any danger that the power of the message could be lost?
EN: I think, from the beginning, we felt we had to make it funny, because that's the way we talk and what our sense of humour is like. However, we are making fun of issues through deep frustration, be it with masculinity, misogyny or the patriarchy. That stuff is so old and so ridiculous that it seems more appropriate to make fun of it than be super angry. Many women are so angry. Their anger is almost on a loop and is never going to disappear. Also, it's an anger cycle – and when you project anger at these people, they just project it back. However, there is something powerful about making fun of certain things. By making fun, you can crush people's ideals and take back some control. So, it didn't feel right to make that many angry songs. Any angry songs we tried to make just sounded like a different kind of music. It was hardcore, which is not what we are. It became important to make our point that way, as it was reaching people in a way that, perhaps, anger hadn't been reaching people.
However, I never want to make it seem that anger is 'over'. Deep down this all still does come from anger. Even the satire at the sheer ridiculousness of some of the issues has to come from a certain amount of rage. I still think it is really important to be angry. For some feminists or LGBT folk, that's all they have – sheer anger. Whereas I cannot do that in my art, I never want to make it seem that I don't appreciate that anger. Some people are better at it – we play with some bands that have an angry energy and it is awesome. Although, I don't necessarily want to see that from five white dudes being all 'woe is me' in a hardcore punk band.
As Tacocat's fanbase has grown, have you become more aware of the impact of your lyrics and does that affect what you write?
EN: I think it does a little bit. When we discovered that people were listening to us at all, and knew all the words to the songs, it did affect me. While there are a vast number of issues to be written about – especially about intersectional feminism – that I cannot quite speak to, it does still weigh on me that people will hear my words. Many of the songs come from conversations with my female friends. I used to think it was just me being cranky about certain situations, but the more I talked to other women, I realised it was a common annoyance. Therefore, a lot of the songs come through realising these are shared experiences, whereas before I would write a song because I like candy or cats or pizza.
The subject matters of your songs tend to be very specific. I love the clarity of your communication. Is there any downside to being so transparent in your lyric writing?
EN: Yes, definitely. The only way to make any real money is if a car commercial or a video game want to use your song. However, nobody wants songs about periods. Sometimes we are told that we should have songs that were a little less obvious, but it is difficult for us to even think about how that might work. I cannot think how we would write something vague or abstract. So maybe that is the downside of being very overt in our lyrics.
One of my favourite songs on Lost Time is the glorious 'I Hate The Weekend'. What made you dislike Saturdays and Sundays so much?
EN: The songs refers to how our neighbourhood in Seattle has changed so much. There are condos everywhere and all these awful, awful entitled rich people. They get so drunk and they are so disrespectful. They tip horribly and are always puking in sinks. They are worse than any of the punk gutter rats that we know. They are the worst behaved people in the neighbourhood and then they get to go back to work on a Monday. It doesn't matter to them; they are not invested in our area at all. That song is about that '80s mentality of 'working off the weekend', which is that capitalist bullshit of working 9-to-5 and then having a two-day permit from your job to run wild. We decided to do an anti-weekend anthem. In addition, our rent is going up – $200 per month – so we have nowhere to live and nowhere to play. It's all shitty – but that's how it is everywhere.
Regarding Seattle's music legacy, is Tacocat in any way influenced by the city's history?
EN: Well, we all love Nirvana and we all love Hole. Sometimes I will get drunk and go to the Kurt Cobain bench outside his old house. People still tape joints and flowers to the bench. It's quite kitsch. The record label we are on is a little sister to Sub Pop, so we visit the building and absorb Green River and Mudhoney. It's still cool to see Mark Arm in the street. Aside from that, there is an element of [the idea] that we are all still making music under a rain cloud and we are a little bit protective of our city. We are a music city that is a little bit off the map – we are not LA, New York or Nashville. If I lived in LA, I don't think I would do anything apart from lie under a palm tree.
Finally, what might album number four sound like?
EN: Well, there are a lot of different factors that might affect the next record. With NVM, we were still in a good mood and it was happy pop music. With Lost Time, the mood reflects the change in culture and the environment we are living in. Therefore, when we get down to writing the next album, it could well be very angry.
Lost Time is out now on Hardly Art. Tacocat are touring the US and play the City Hall Plaza in Seattle as part of the Out To Lunch series on August 11; for full details and tickets, head here