San Francisco-based Thao & The Get Down Stay Down is back with the band’s fourth record, “A Man Alive.” Since its release earlier this month, the record has been praised as the band’s most musically experimental and intensely personal record to date. Produced by tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus, the album showcases both musical and thematic sides of Thao Nguyen that her fans haven’t heard before, with a visceral, honest, and at times ambivalent exploration of her relationship with her estranged father. Third Coast Review spoke to Nguyen by phone the day after she and the band returned from playing a series of shows at SXSW, about how it feels to talk so publicly about her difficult relationship with her dad, examining mortality in her music, and what surprised her about finishing the record.
How was SXSW?
Thao Nguyen: It was good; it was bananas. It was busy. We played about 12 shows, which is a lot, the most we’ve ever done there. But it worked; everything worked. It was fun. SXSW was the first thing we’ve done for the new record. It was definitely an immersive trial by fire experience, which is great.
You’ve been doing a lot of press for the new record, which is very personal and delves deeply into your relationship with your father. What has it been like to re-tell the story of the record over and over again?
You’re right, I have been talking about it a lot. What I think has been interesting — it’s taxing in a way, but it’s also rewarding in a way — it is such a personal and painful thing to talk about. That stuff doesn’t go away, and I am glad that the sincere truth of it is still there. It does get emotional to talk about, for sure. And I know that in some press I have done, my voice has caught. We’ve done live interviews where words catch in my throat a little bit, and I am more emotional than I would like to be, but I knew going into it that it would be tough to talk about.
Have you been hearing from fans who have also gone through some of the experiences and feelings you explore on the record?
Yes. It’s starting to happen, and it’s so gratifying. And you can’t predict those things and you can’t expect that to happen, but I think that’s one of the reasons I’m willing to go there, is because of that kind of vulnerability. If you show vulnerability, people will respond in kind. I think that’s really the most important part of this kind of communication is this willingness to open up. People have come up at shows, or they’ll get in touch… And even when I’ll do interviews, depending on who the writer is, I will also see music writers opening up, and we talk on a more realistic basis about family, and whatever, and it’s really great to have more of an authentic interaction.
This record seems like such a departure from your past three records, both musically and thematically. How does it feel for you to look back at the records you’ve made over the years compared to where you are now?
I see each record as a document of that time, or just a function of where I was and the level of experience I had at the time, and what was happening in my development as a human. I know and can tell exactly where I was at, and that’s such a privilege to have such an in-depth portrait of yourself at these different times. But I do think that this most recent one is by far the most honest and well thought-out portrait, or capturing of a moment, and I would hope that each record I felt more and more confident and it felt like I was improving as a writer and a person.
Mortality is a big theme that comes up a lot in the record, from the first single, “Nobody Dies,” with the chorus, “We act like nobody dies,” to the name of the record, “A Man Alive.” How do you think about mortality and how did it keep coming up for you when you were writing these songs?
Yeah, I think that it’s a function of getting older, and in particular, like the song “Nobody Dies” – which is one of the first songs I wrote for the record – that comes from a very specific grappling with mortality. I was having breakfast with a very good friend of mine who has a similar relationship with their dad; they’ve been estranged for a long time and they’ve had very turbulent relationship. She heard he was very sick, and it’s such an intense space to be in, and I hadn’t thought about my dad consciously in a long time. I saw her start to struggle with whether or not to get in touch and what happens when our parents die, and what kind of peace can we come to. So that’s what happened with “Nobody Dies” and that set the tone for the record.
I was raised Buddhist and I try my best to stay that way, to stay as close as I can, and so I appreciate the discussion and the acknowledgement of death. I also appreciate capitalizing on life. But in this very huge way, I have not capitalized, and neither has my dad, and not to say we ever will… And I don’t know what kind of life that he leads, but I do know it’s not a healthy one, so I do understand that he’s closer to death than not, as are all of our parents. I have friends dealing very closely with the mortality of their parents, so it was just something that was coming up very consistently, and that kind of frivolousness with which we’ve led our lives… it seems like a very peculiar and at times very ungrateful way to go about things, but at the same time, you can’t force what you can’t force.
And the title of the record, “A Man Alive” is about how absurd that reality is, that my dad and I are both alive still, and yet there’s such an impasse.
There’s also a lot in this record and in your past records about the physical body, and the body as a metaphor, like in the song “Guts,” or in the album’s final song “Endless Love,” where you sing about how you wish you could physically carve love out of your body.
I noticed that. I started writing about the physical body and the manifestation of the body in my early twenties, when I was understanding that I was making shitty — now I would call them unwise — decisions. Just the way you inhabit your body consciously and unconsciously has always been very compelling to me, and also, at points in my life, a great source of concern. Detachment from the body and the reasons why have also been very important for me to figure out and understand. I think that’s the way it is for everybody: how you accept yourself and how present you are, and why you are not, and what those reasons are, and what in your history or biography, what in your experiences has made it so. I think in this record and at this point in my life, I’m been the most present I’ve ever been. There’s a lot more feeling in the body and in my sentient self, and so now I can say things like, I do want to carve out this pain, because I actually can feel it, whereas before, there were more nods to numbness.
When you started the record, did you have any concept of where you would end up with the album and whether or not it would change your feelings about your relationship with your dad? Did anything surprise you about that process?
I think what has been really fascinating for me was that at the end of the record, I understood that there was no one intention behind it, besides the expiration of whatever was compelling it. But within the songs, you can hear this overarching optimism. When I first started writing the record, I thought it was going to be more of a one-note kind of celebration, finally of forgiveness, and transcending myself and entering this new state of what I thought at the time was being a better version of myself. And in songs there’s that want of forgiveness, but then also there’s songs where very clearly I am not interested in that, and that’s really honest too. So by the end, I was just so glad to realize that I needed to do that entire thing, that every song needed to happen, but… does it make me want to get in touch with my dad? Actually no, it doesn’t. And making one record, writing songs for four months, isn’t going to bust open your life and re-correct this course that’s developed over your entire life. So to accept that was really freeing. I’m so glad for the experience of going there and being so sad and exploring that grief and anger, but also it’s really nice to not have any intention behind it, and I don’t have any answers to why. The fix is that there’s no fix. The fix is to understand that there’s no fix.
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down plays at Thalia Hall with SAINTSENECA on Friday, April 1st at 8:30pm. Buy tickets on the Thalia Hall website.