For many, the latest music video from Bay Area-based band, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down (for the song, “Phenom”), has been the highlight of quarantine. Released April 3rd, the work was one of the first prominent pieces to utilize the now-ubiquitous Zoom meeting technology. It also demonstrates a number of creative achievements, perhaps chief among them is the artful physical rage displayed by the performers in the Brady Bunch-esque video panels. The release offered in the work, which was itself released in support of the band’s next LP, Temple (out May 15th, pre-order), is bolstered by the track’s at times-feral feel. It’s a tone front woman, Thao Nguyen, has mastered and mixed in with her prolific melodies, one that she shows off with renewed confidence.
“There’s a latent part of me that only comes out in music,” says Nguyen. “And I would be bereft without it. When I’m on stage, people have said that I’m a ‘rabid animal’ and I take that as a compliment. To have the opportunity to channel the kind of disdain and frustration and disgust with the abuse of power and all this bullshit, it’s really – I’m very grateful.”
Before the recent COVID-19-related shutdown, Nguyen had plans to make the video for “Phenom” in a more traditional manner. But then, California, like much of the country, disallowed public gatherings, so Nguyen’s team had to change on a dime. The visceral, through-the-screen-nearly-tangible eruption near the end of the video – where Nguyen moves as if possessed by all the great emcees that have come music before her, shifting and writhing like a break-dancer – is a tremendous scene. But it almost never happened.
“When I was writing and recoding the song, I knew that moment would exist,” Nguyen says. “But I was thinking I would be on stage doing it. I knew we needed that outlet at the end. So, that coincided with Zoom. It’s very appropriate in this time to use that medium to convey being so frustrated and feeling so hopeless and watching the devastation, which could have been prevented.”
While “Phenom” and the video for it are both standout achievements, there are a plethora of those on Temple. The record, which Nguyen co-produced with longtime band mate, Adam Thompson, showcases Nguyen’s propensity for beat making. Nguyen is, after all, a life-long hip-hop fan. Now in her mid-30’s, she grew up in the 90s and early 2000s, absorbing some of the genre’s best production and lyricism. And while Nguyen may not consider herself a rapper, per se, the music certainly has a large influence on her output and signature swagger.
“I’m a huge hip-hop fan,” Nguyen says. “That has always had a really large influence on my lyric writing and the cadence of the lyrics and the way I present them in my performance. If I do have any bravado or swagger, it’s going to come out in my music and on stage.”
Nguyen, who started teaching herself at 11-years-old, began playing a guitar her father left behind in the house after he’d left the family. As she got older, Nguyen worked in the North Carolina Laundromat her mother ran after school and on weekends. In between customers, she would practice playing. Nguyen, who considers herself a songwriter first and foremost, is also a seeker of ideas. When she was young, she aspired to be a writer (an ambition, she says, she still harbors). Lyrics remain important to her; she cares about the power embedded in words. Despite her drive and ambition, however, Nguyen has felt plenty of challenges.
“With Temple,” she says, “a lot of it had to do with what I was willing to talk about in public. And a lot of that had to do with not wanting – the reservations that my family had about me being out publicly. In my personal life and in my professional life, outside of the press, I’ve always been out. But we’re private people and just, culturally, there are so many things at play. In the end, the good daughter often does too much and sacrifices a lot. So, it’s been a career-long tug of back-and-forth, a struggle of denying that part of myself.”
To date, Nguyen, who grew up Buddhist, says, Temple is the most complete representation of her as an artist and as a person. More so than ever, Nguyen says, she is comfortable presenting herself in full. And in the same way that she felt a sense of relaxation when she visited temple as a young person in her Buddhist family, perhaps this record can be a place where she can feel relaxed again. The place where her latest work can exhale.
“A lot of it is about what kind of shame we carry,” Nguyen says, “what kind of shame I’ve carried. You can’t shed that until you look at it. That’s part of the temple space, as well.”
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down released its first official record in 2008 (We Brave Bee Stings And All). Some 12 years later, the creative and personal evolutions feel, for Nguyen, remarkable in the best of ways. In the years since, she has married her partner, bought a house and released the Official Video Of Quarantine. Maturing as an artist clearly suits her – rabid gnashing teeth, loving home and all.
“It feels incredible,” she says. “I can’t tell you how oppressive it can be to care about how people perceive your work and what kind of traction it gains – because you have to make a living from it! It’s amazing how much you can stand in your own way because you’re afraid. Fear has been such an unfortunate and large presence in my career and in my life. Some of that won’t go away until you have more time and experience. But I’m just so glad to be out from under that.”