Photo by Shane McCauley
By Lily Doolin, WERS Blog Editor
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down went viral over the past few weeks after the release of the music video for their single "Phenom" – off their latest album, Temple – the first-ever music video to be done over Zoom. Before the release of the record, WERS Blog Editor Lily Doolin spoke to lead singer Thao Nguyen about the reasoning behind the Zoom video, as well as the creation of Temple, the band's first self-produced album.
We’ve been so excited here at 88.9 for the new album, Temple, and I wanted to start off by asking you about the production of the record. I read this is your guys’ first self-produced album. What was the process like, and how was it different from your previous experiences together?
Thao Nguyen: Yes, it is officially our first self-produced record. I had co-produced that side project I’d done with Mirah [Yom Tov Zeitlyn]. We had co-produced [that project] with Merrill [Garbus]. But yeah, this is the first one for this, our main band [The Get Down Stay Down]. It was just sort of an automatic feeling. As I started writing the songs, I knew that I wanted to produce the record and I knew that I wanted Adam [Thompson] to co-produce with me, because we’ve been in the band together for so long and I trust his ears and his process so much. It just seemed like the natural progression and the next iteration of what we would be doing.
What was the genesis of and inspiration behind Temple and the songs on the album?
TN: It was such an arduous, difficult songwriting process. I didn’t have lyrics for the songs for a really long time, so I was spending a lot more of my time making beats and building out the tracks. From that kind of track building and talking to Adam about [it], we basically created a lot of the beds of the songs. It was easier to develop the song and leave me to work on the lyrical content later because it was such difficult content, and if we waited for me to write lyrics we might never have a record. In that process of me getting more involved in the beat production and then pulling Adam in to start constructing the songs… that’s what led us toward that production route earlier on.
Did you find that creating the beats informed the songwriting?
TN: It did help, it helped me develop the vocal melodies. I would say half and half – half of the songs are on the record as they were initially conceived of groove and beat wise, and then the other I would sort of develop a beat and a bed and solidify the vocal melodies and different guitar melodies that I knew I wanted, and then Adam sort of heard different things. A lot of them exist very differently than they were initially conceived of.
Listening to the first two singles, this album has a different vibe from your others, both sonically and aesthetically. What would you say personally sets it apart from the others?
TN: It’s true that it’s different from most of the other albums we’ve made, but at the same time it feels the most sonically truthful. I was there and completely present from the beginning. The differences might be that we followed our intuition and our initial instincts a lot more than we have in the past. I do think that this album is different because it’s a combination of beats and layers that I’ve just developed over time, and then it’s Adam’s ear coming in and hearing a completely different bed, but with different thematic melodies and riffs. It is darker, but it’s all the things we’ve wanted… it’s the way we’ve wanted to record and the sounds we’ve wanted to make, but you know you only get there when you’re ready to get there (laughs).
It definitely feels like you guys are reaching a pivotal moment as a group. What was the specific inspiration behind the latest single, “Phenom”?
TN: That one, “Phenom,” is an example of one that I was building that beat and that riff. That guitar riff that you hear at the end that builds and builds, that was the first nugget of that song, and that was one that I was building the beat using… just running basses through different pedals and doing way more percussive, muted bass riffs that could then sampled.
Content-wise, that was one of the ones that I knew… to me, it’s sort of in the lineage of “Meticulous Bird” from our Man Alive record, and I knew I wanted a song on this record that had that same kind of intensity, that had that same reckoning with the abuse of power, especially given these few years of a shit show (laughs). It’s kind of an imagining of a dystopic universe, it’s the scorch of the earth coming back and bringing to bear the narrative perspective as a witness to that kind of… revenge (laughs).
I feel like I have to ask – because it totally blew up all over the internet – about the incredible Zoom music video for this single. I’m sure it’s not what you originally imagined it to be, but how important to you was it to figure out how to do a music video for this and to get that out there?
TN: You know, I was concerned because we knew we wanted “Phenom” to be the second release after “Temple.” It fleshed out and helped present what the album contains, and it was really important for me to have “Phenom” be the next thing out, but the original shoot was canceled. But I knew it was going to be very physical; I had already approved the treatment of the original “Phenom” video, and it was going to be a very physical dance video. So then when that was canceled, I didn’t know the fate of the song. I didn’t want to release it and just have a lyric video r have just a static photo or whatever. Of all the songs on the record, this is the danceable, maniacal, chaotic one.
My manager Joe was the one to suggest we try to move it to Zoom and luckily the original director and choreographer Erin [Murray] was able to transpose it to Zoom. Of course, that was never going to be the plan and it never would’ve been, but there was something about trying to convey this level of restlessness and disgust and disdain while confined in this medium. It’s very well-aligned with the sense of helplessness that you feel when you see all of the abuse of power and corruption that we see and wish we could fix and we can’t. So, it was in a way very appropriate to channel it while we’re all trapped at home.
Looking at the tracklist of this album, what’s a song that either taught you something about yourself or about your songwriting process, one that felt very pivotal to you?
TN: There are a few. I think [with] “Temple,” my lyric writing was… I tried to evoke and be way more specific with imagery, and so that was something that I haven’t typically done, but that was very important to me – to convey my mom’s life in images. Before, when she told stories… any kind of knowledge I have of her before the war and before me, it’s in these snapshots, so that was really… I really appreciated that challenge.
You know, there’s a couple of songs that are just straight up loves songs that I’ve never done, so that was nice too (laughs). It’s nice too to just be fully emotionally present and very forthright.