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Julia Kugel Rates The Coathangers' Five Albums

Bonnie Stiernberg

On the release of their new live album, the guitarist looks back at the garage-rock trio's 12-year career, which is definitely not "a joke."

In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.

If you've read even a single article about The Coathangers, chances are you're aware they started "as a joke." It's the kind of detail music journalists tend to pounce on and then bat around endlessly, one that makes for an easy "look how far they've come" narrative. But the more it's repeated and dwelled upon, the more misleading it gets, and eventually the implication becomes that the Atlanta garage-rock trio's 12-year career is some sort of elaborate goof—or worse, that it's a joke to them.

That, of course, couldn't be further from the truth. Even at their silliest—songs like "Nestle in My Boobies"—Julia Kugel (a.k.a. Crook Kid Coathanger, guitar), Meredith Franco (Minnie Coathanger, bass), and Stephanie Luke (Rusty Coathanger, drums) have always been laser-focused on learning their craft and continuing to grow. That's why, after five full-lengths and over a decade of touring, they decided it was time to put out their first live album (LIVE, out now via Suicide Squeeze) and capture a sound they hadn't yet been able to replicate in a studio.

"We always wanted to bring the feel of our live shows to records, and every time we're in the studio, we're so concentrated, you know?" Kugel says. "We can never get as loose. We've always been a live band. That's where we shine. That's where we feel most comfortable. We wanted to just give that rawness of our live shows on a record."

Recorded during a two-night engagement at Alex's Bar in Long Beach, California (though comprised entirely of recordings from the second night because, as Kugel puts it, on night two "we just fuckin' went in there and did it"), LIVE spans The Coathangers' entire catalog and got the band and fans alike reacquainted with some old favorites.

"We've kind of brought back 'Gettin' Mad and Pumpin' Iron,'" Kugel says. "We don't usually put that one into sets, but we brought it back and now it's in our regular rotation because it's so fun to play. And we sort of did a collection from every record of our favorite things that we wanted to play."

With that in mind, we asked Kugel to rank the band's five albums. And since she believes the band has gotten better with time, she ranked them chronologically—an order she insists will be outdated once they release the new LP they're "maybe two more days" away from finishing. "The new album will take over the top spot," she promises. "It just keeps getting better and better."

Noisey: This was your first record, and you've said before that when you first started out, your goal was never really to be a band; it was more just to hang out and have fun. So tell me a little bit about the decision to make this record and your expectations coming into it.
Julia Kugel: You know, Rob's House [Records, an Atlanta-based label] approached us and they were like, "Hey, yo, we want to put out our first full-length on the label," and we were like " Us?" [Laughs] "Okay." We were all very wide-eyed about the whole situation. So we had a friend that was an engineer at a studio called Nickel & Dime, where, like, Johnny Cash once played and the B-52s once recorded, so he told us we could have an open night shift at a discounted price, so we went in at, like, 8 PM and recorded all night. And then the next night we went in there and just played all the songs live a couple times and got the best take, and everything was so carefree. It was very easy. We just got a couple friends to come in and play on it with us; we partied at the studio and made the record and really had no expectations. We wanted to make something cool, and it wasn't a joke to us, but I don't know if we even expected that people would hear it or care about it or have opinions about it. And then Bradford Cox, he did the cover for it, and we were like, "Cool, this is awesome," and sort of set it out into the world. We had no idea that we would make a second record or anything like that, but it has a lot of joy. It has a lot of innocence in it. We were just saying whatever comes through on our minds, and I think that really comes through. And it's cool because as we started understanding that people were gonna listen to it and have opinions, we started putting a little more caution into what we put out there. So I think that's the beauty of it. It's not sloppy, but it's definitely a first record. [Laughs]

Is there anything that you'd do differently on this record, looking back on it?
Yeah, there's some mixing things. I would turn down some things. But, you know, I think no, because every record is a snapshot of where we were at that time, and that's who we were. If we were to re-record that record, yeah, I would do a lot of things differently. I would play with some of the tones, I would make it a little less—you know, I was screaming at a very high pitch at that point. [Laughs] Because we were in a practice space where we had no PA, so the only way to hear myself over instruments was just to be at a higher decibel and a higher pitch. Same thing with Stephanie. We were kind of just discovering what we had. I mean, we'd never really recorded before. It was all very overwhelming.

Do you feel ahead of your time with "Tonya Harding" after she was back in the spotlight recently with I, Tonya and that Sufjan Stevens song about her?
Yeah, she was always in my spotlight. [Laughs] I watched the Olympics and I remember distinctly her going up to the judges, crying over the shoelace and stuff. We had watched the E! True Hollywood Story and the lady actually said "the girl's kind of a sideshow" and I was like "Ahh!" And that's the first line of the song. So yeah, it's pretty cool that it's circled back around, but I guess everything does.

What makes this one number four in your mind?
So, once Suicide Squeeze approached us like, "Do you want to put out another record?" we were like, "Oh man, we're gonna put out another record!" And I love this record, actually, because it's so weird. It's very weird. We got sort of really trippy with our songwriting, and we recorded it in our practice space. We were very nervous recording it. We were just very on-edge because it's the second record and we kinda had set the tone for what we were like with the first one as, like, "a party band" and blah blah blah. And we were like, "Well, we're more than that, and we don't just sing about 'Don't Touch My Shit' or boobs or whatever," so lyrically it's a little bit darker or a little bit more personal, and just a little more conscious of the fact that it's gonna be out there in the world. So I feel like there's a little bit of timidness in it with a lot of weirdness. Which I really enjoy. I actually listened to it—we all sat around and listened to it—before we did Nosebleed Weekend, and I was like "Ah, man, we're weird!" [Laughs] And that was really inspirational. It's sort of like no boundaries, and that's what's so cool about it: it's still us, but we went into a slightly different direction. It's kind of like what the cover looks like, in space. Oddness.

Did listening to it before recording Nosebleed Weekend have an influence on how that record turned out? Does going back and picking out what you liked about old albums impact future writing?
Yeah, it always does. I'm weird. I always do that before we start a new record. I did it before we wrote this new one. I go back and I listen to our old records because after we record and mix them and all that, I never listen to them again because it's too draining, you know? Like, we go on tour and start writing and just do our thing, so I'll go back through like I was first starting out listening to this band, like, "Who is this band, and where can they go?" So yeah, I think it definitely influences the writing because it's just sort of revisiting a mindset and remembering where you've been and where you could go further to expand on it or to go in a completely different direction. It wasn't distinctly like, "Oh, remember this song? We should do another song like this song." It's more like "Oh wow, we wrote that?" Sometimes we'll hear one of our songs we don't even remember, like, "Oh, this is cool—oh god, it's us!" It's so far detached from now.

So the first two records have intros and outros, and then on this one you dive straight in with "Hurricane." Was that a big decision? It really sets the tone for the rest of the record.
Yeah, I think it was just a little more straightforward. With the intros and outros, it's almost like we're making a little clipart project on the record, and it felt very scrapbook-y. And with this record it was like, "let's do this." Even the cover is so direct. When we saw that picture, it was like that was how we felt—very strong and sort of naked. Exposed but not. That is the way we felt at that time. And so it was very exposed to just go ahead and go into the music and not have an intro and outro and just go with it. I feel like that record is really when we started honing in on our sound and our assertiveness as a band. All the songs are stronger, and the recording's stronger, and you can tell we're getting more confident in our playing. Yeah, that record rules. It was really cool to do that one.

How big a factor was recording in the Living Room on this one? Did it help take things to the next level?
Absolutely, yeah. Going into a real studio and having Justin [McNeight] there to be like, "No, let's do it again" to really push us to get the right take. And just the sound was better than recording in our practice space, for sure. They had good equipment, they had good ideas, it was good vibes, and we also felt a little more professional, obviously. So it's a better record.

Yeah, it feels like you're starting to venture out of your comfort zone on this record with stuff like "Tabbacco Rd."
Yeah. I feel like we always—we had "Bloody Shirt" on the first record—we always had a slower song, and we never put limits on what kind of band we were, but we just kept getting better, and I think that's why all the records [on this ranking] are in order. It just keeps getting better. I feel like we work harder and we are more confident and we just are getting better and better. For me, that one is the jump-off point to the Coathangers of now.

This one was your first record without Candice Jones [a.k.a. Bebe Coathanger, who left the band in 2013]. Did you have to make some adjustments in the studio because of that?
We had to make all kinds of adjustments. Mental adjustments because we had one less member, so in a way we felt like we had to prove that we could do it as a three-piece. And we also had to fill in the space that she had been occupying, you know, the extra sounds, and so we kind of had to step it up as musicians as well. We had to get a bit more interesting guitar, and the drums had to do some extra, and vocally, stuff like that. So yeah, it kind of refocused our energy for sure because it was like, "Aw hell no, this isn't going away. We're gonna continue." We sort of huddled together and made it work. It felt like a real triumph for the three of us to make that record, and that carried with it a lot of strength, I feel like, compared to Coathangers with a keyboard. It was so much more rock 'n' roll. Just tighter. And it was the first time we actually put ourselves on the cover of a record, so that was a big deal for us too.

Yeah, and it felt like the general reception to it when it came out was "Oh, the Coathangers are getting serious on this record. They've matured lyrically." How did you feel about that? Because like you said, you've always had those elements, but it seems like they were more at the forefront on this record.
Yeah, and they were. And we just kept growing and trying to be better, and I don't know, there was a lot of personal tensions—not between us, but in life—and when you're in a band, we had probably been in a band at that point six or seven years, there's just a focus that comes with it. And we did try to be better, and again, we were in the Living Room just working our butts off to make a really cool record that showed the world that we could be a three-piece and it would be viable and it wasn't the end of us. There's a determination in that record that I'm sure came out as us being serious, because we were serious. People would always go "oh, I hear you started as a joke," and it's like, "well, not like ha-ha.” [Laughs] It was like "not serious," but it was always serious to us. It was our expression. It was how we felt. It was us sonically. And so that's how we were during Suck My Shirt. We were like fucking bulls in there, like, "We're gonna do this," and yeah, it was serious. And it's cool that people started saying, "Oh, they're serious." It was like, "Yeah. Fuck. We've been doing this for a while. Hell yeah, we're serious."

What do you think makes this one your best record so far?
Yeah, best record so far because we're working on the new one, and it fuckin' sounds awesome. It's because we did take time; we took time, we went and recorded in LA, and so we wrote in LA. We'd only lived in Atlanta, and recording in Atlanta was very distracting because our lives were there. When you tour all the time and then go home, you're expected to sort of catch up on the life you've missed. So we were like, "Okay, we're gonna do this, we're gonna devote our time to this band and this record and do this in LA." And so we stayed and practiced in this little fuckin' hole and wrote and wrote and wrote. We'd wake up and go and write, and that was really focused on writing the record. And then working with Nic [Jodoin], who was an extra crackin'-the-whip kind of producer, like, "What are you doing? Do it again." We were like a machine. We were soldiers.

So I think you can hear it, and it's so cohesive, and it sounds really good, just the recording and the mixing and mastering. And it's a complete story from beginning to end, whereas some of the others were a little disjointed. This one is just a solid good record, and not to be dorky, but I think we all actually listen to it after we recorded it. After it came out, we'd be like, "Fuck yeah, I just listened to the record. It was so good." And all of us had that conversation, where that had never really happened before. We were just really proud of our songwriting and that we had achieved it. Because it was a quite difficult process, and it taught us a lot, and we went through a lot making it, so there's a sense of pride in accomplishing it. Plus, the songs are really good, and it was how we felt at the time. Being in California just has a different vibe, you know? It has a heaviness that was different. It was less spastic. It was cool.

Could you tell as you were working on it, while you were in it, that you had something special? Or did it hit you after the fact?
I think it was after. When we were in it and recording, we were so in it—again, because we had secluded ourselves—so we had no sense of reality because we didn't have our friends and family around. We didn't have an anchor, so we were floating in this LA-soaked space of studio and recording, so I don't think we really realized what we had done until after even I think the record came out. Once it happened and it came out, it was like, "Oh man, yes!" That's when we realized we had done something really, really good we should be proud of. Because then we went back and touched back in reality. Because we were really just pushing ourselves to be great, to be better than we had been before, but we didn't know if we'd achieved it or not until it came out.

It feels weird to call this a breakout record after you've been doing this for ten-plus years, but it did kind of introduce you guys to some new audiences.
[Laughs] Yeah, it was!

How did that feel, getting that sort of response to it?
Fucking awesome! Because we charted on the charts, some big things were happening, and it was like, "Hell yes! Hell yes." After all this time, in a way it was our breakthrough. I don't even know what we're breaking through because we've been working in the business for so long, but it's like every time it just keeps getting better and better, and with the [Parasite] EP and everything that comes out afterwards, it just feels like people are growing with us and a lot of times, what I've heard from people that have seen us from the beginning even, they're just so proud. They have a sense of having made this journey with us, and they become new fans. They become our fans again, and that's really cool, and I'm glad people are enjoying it and they can go back and relive our journey up to here because definitely each album shows you where we came from.

What would you say is the biggest lesson you've learned over your decade of recording that you were able to apply on Nosebleed Weekend?
Never let anyone bully you into doing something you don't want to do, on a record or otherwise. Trust your vision. Trust what you want, because that's the only thing that matters, that you get across what you're trying to do. I mean, you listen to people you trust, but you don't let them bully you, ever. That's the biggest lesson I have learned through recording. And also, don't be a little bitch and give up. Don't be a little bitch. Like, yeah, it's hard, but if you're a little bitch, then you're just gonna have a little bitch album. No matter how hard it is—and it's been hard—you just keep doing it. You gotta be determined, and it's always easier when you've got a little sense of joy with it. You can't let it fuckin' get you down. You've gotta walk away and laugh at something. You can't give up on it, but you can't beat it to death. There's a balance between those two.