Music Heals: The Coathangers on Witnessing Addiction, The Struggles of the Road, and The Devil You Know

Interviews, Music Heals
05/23/2019
Dusty Henry
photo by jake hanson

Sometimes the world around you can feel helpless. The darkness of everyday life can be consuming, easy to internalize. But to make a change and course correct means facing it all head-on.

Atlanta punk outfit The Coathangers does exactly that with their latest record The Devil You Know, released earlier this year via Suicide Squeeze. The band describes the album as "honest and confrontational" – the songs addressing the internal and external "devils" in our lives, whatever the may materialize as. On the song "Step Back," it's watching someone succumb to heroin addiction. With "Hey Buddy," it's airing out against sexism and homophobia. "F The NRA" probably speaks for itself. 

When the band stopped by the KEXP studio, we talked about reckoning with these hard truths and burdens. But the conversation expanded far beyond that. For as dire the circumstances can be in the songs, The Coathangers seek out levity in the darkest moments many of us encounter because, as guitarist/vocalist Julia Kugel says, "otherwise you'd cry all the time." For a band who's known for writing ripping punk anthems, they also write with empathy. 

As KEXP's Music Heals: Addiction & Recovery programming event is upon us, we chatted with the band about what it's like watching someone succumb to addiction, the struggles of making healthy choices on tour, and – above all else – approaching the world with compassion. As with their music, the conversation could get heavy and honest (but if you make it through till the end, we do also talk about puppies!). The devils you know can't always be avoided, but The Coathangers are looking them in the eye and speaking their truth. 



KEXP: So your new record, The Devil You Know just came out a couple of months ago and I was reading that was the first time in a while where you able to take a break after touring to regroup and refocus a little bit and then taking that time over the summer before you started writing the new album. What was going on in that time between stopping touring and beginning of recording?

Julia Kugel: Sleeping. Reconnecting.

Meredith Franco: Family.

JK: People that we missed out on because, you know, we're gone a lot. Rekindling a friendship with each other. Because you're in a working relationship and 24/7 with someone. So that was like an important part of it. It was like, 'Hey, buddy! How you doing! I haven't seen you. I've been with you 24/7.' 

Stephanie Luke: We actually have stuff to talk about because we haven't seen each other for forty days straight.

JK: It was just regrouping to being a human being again, like a whole human being where you have things that you do and connections and stuff like that. It's important. Touring definitely takes a chunk of that away.

 

When you guys came back together, were you guys in the same headspace of where you wanted to go with this next record? You've been touring so much in your live sound is so phenomenal. How were you trying to come off of that and channel that into this new record? 

JK: I think we definitely were in similar headspaces because we sort of chatted beforehand and made sure we were all in the same [headspace]. And we had some chats beforehand – before we started writing.

SL: I feel like we just knew we wanted to step it up a little bit but maintain the Coathangers aesthetic. 

JK: And also want to play every song live. No filler songs, no just studio songs... We wanted to play every song live and like to play every song live. Our live record actually reminded me personally about what it was all about because that live record came out in between when we were having our break – we were putting out a record [laughs]. It reminded me like, 'Oh yeah! Those are the songs we want to play live!' So why wouldn't we just write a record of songs we want to play live? So that's kind of what we wanted to do and to try to have fun with it and not overthink, and not put pressure unneeded pressure on everything. 

You've called the record "honest and confrontational." I'm curious what you mean by that and how it plays out in the songs?

JK: Which part, the honest or the confrontational part?

I guess both! Or how do those ideas work together on the record?

JK: You confront yourself when you're honest. That's the whole thing about it. The devil you know is you, in a way. Although there are allusions to other devils that are in your life or whatnot. Being honest, you confront yourself and then you end up confronting other people. Songs like "Hey Buddy" and "Step Back"... you're saying exactly what you want to say and sometimes you feel really vulnerable doing that or very emotional with it. "Step Back" for me was very emotional, even when we were writing the lyrics. We were all sort of like choking up because it's such a common experience.

MF: I still get teary-eyed. 

JK: To be dealing with not wanting to lose someone. 

 

I'm curious about that song in particular. You've described the song as about trying to get someone back from addiction and watching the struggle that comes with it. You hear a lot of first-person narratives but to hear from the other perspective, of being around someone with an addiction. How did that song kind of come about and materialize? You're taking on such a heavy, hard topic.

JK: The song's about like heroin addiction, in particular. We individually and together have had people that you're watching... You're watching them and you just... And you don't want to come off judgmental and you don't want to come off bossy and you're not trying to say anything except for like, 'Just, man, just please stop.' It's like the true story of someone we know fell down the stairs at their mom's house. When you reach like levels like that, it's like man, what is it going to take? And then the chorus, I wanted to whistle it but I'm not a good whistler [laughs] but that's kind of how you feel. You're like, 'Well, I guess it'll just be what it'll be. Just know I'm here for you and I'm rooting for you.'

But there's a hopelessness that you feel when you when you're dealing with someone with an addiction. And it's not a judgmental thing. That's why I think a lot of people hide their addictions because they feel like they're gonna get judged but we're not judging. None of us are safe from it. We can all be susceptible to being addicted to something. It just... it is what it is. I don't want to see people go.

With writing a song like that, are hoping to broaden that conversation on how we talk about addiction?

JK: Honestly, I don't know that we ever think about the social repercussions of our songs. They are what they are when we write them and then we sort of have to have the discourse that goes along with it. It's obviously always thoughtful, even in the silly songs. There is a thoughtfulness that goes behind it, but I think it's just about getting it out there. And that's just me, for me personally. When Stephanie was writing the lyrics to "Hey Buddy,"  it was something that she really felt passionate about speaking out about. Whereas I think a song like "Step Back" is definitely a personal experience. It is important to speak about I guess, but it didn't come out intentionally like that.

Yeah, there's one thing I've appreciated about your band. Over your whole career, you've had this really great balance. You write these badass punk songs and they tackle all these different topics,  but it sounds like it just comes naturally. It's not something you're sitting down and being like, 'We have to write a protest song.'

JK: Right. No, it's because we're mad. [laughs]. It's because we're angry about something, that's why we write it. It's hard not to get caught up in like stylistically wanting to be like, 'Oh we should write a fast song! We don't have enough fast songs on the record!' Or something like that. But that didn't happen on this record in particular at all. It just all comes out. Some things you want to scream and some things you wanna say softly.

When I think about the themes of a song like "Step Back" or "Hey Buddy," I have this admittedly arbitrary assumption when you hear a song about a heavy topic I assume it's going to be this slow languid, ballad type of thing. But these songs have so much such bite to them, especially "Step Back." How are you thinking about channeling the emotion musically? Do you think about how the lyrics and the music work together?

JK: I think so. I think about how the music and lyrics work together. But sometimes it just happens naturally and you don't really understand why it works.

MF: "Step Back" was kind of like that.

SL: It's kind of this bittersweet... "Step Back" to me, it's got this kind of sweetness to it. It's like this sweet sadness but you're still bopping around to it and then you're like, 'Wait, what the hell is she talking about?' But I think that's good. Because then maybe it forces you to actually like listen to the lyrics and then you can still enjoy the song. 

JK: I think "Lithium" is the most intentionally melancholy song because it's just about trying to find a way out, but otherwise we actually laugh a lot [Rusty laughs]. We're very happy people. I think we write from that place. It's a good opportunity to express stuff in an upbeat sort of way, so we definitely don't try to write down-tempo music. But it happens sometimes. But mostly when we all play together, there's an energy that comes out anyway.

Even with a slow song like "Step Back," if I played it on my own, you might be like, 'Oh, that's kind of sad.' But when we play together it's got a different vibe to it. When we're together, it's more energy. I think that's why the live record works so well because it's like... That is it. That's what we are. We are that.

I mean that's like the human experience, right? You can deal with heavy stuff but still... 

JK: You've gotta laugh about it, otherwise you cry all the time [band laughs]. You'd just walk around crying all day long. 

SL: You'd get nothing done!

Your music, in particular, I think about it being kind of cathartic. Do you find it cathartic to play these songs? Especially the new songs?

JK: I find it cathartic to play shows. Songs like "Springfield Cannonball"... It's a very personal song and I have definitely cried during the set.

MF: When we played acoustic that time, I think we all were crying.

JK: It's insane how when it touches when that memory really comes back to you and the songs make it right. It's like, 'Damn, why did I say that? That's cutting! That cuts me!' [laughs] No it's cool. It's cool to have meta-experiences like that where the song actually speaks to you. 

 

You've talked a bit about in other interviews about the need for compassion, particularly in addiction narratives. Could you talk a little bit more about that and how you've seen that play out maybe in your own experiences? The music industry famously has a lot of struggles in this area. 

JK: In compassion? Oh yeah [laughs]. I think it's definitely a personal choice at some point. Compassion. If you take the the the hunger out of the music business, then there's a lot of very sensitive people walking around just ready to express themselves to each other. I don't know if I can speak on compassion in the music industry effectively... 

Or compassion on addiction and how we talk about this, especially with artists.

JK: Yeah, the judgment part and the lifestyle excuse and all that stuff. I don't know. There's a line you walk between being empathetic and then also drawing lines and saying you can't cross that line. Once you do, there's gonna be repercussions. That's a really difficult addiction line right there. But we've all dealt with it and it's like, 'Dude this is too far. Now this is the line.' And then you see people that go, 'Okay. Alright,  then I won't do that.'  Because that's happened too...

The conversation is really important. Conversation not in a judgmental way but in a 'Hey I care about you' way. Because people do want to be good if they can help it. At least taking a step back. You don't have to go all the way to sobriety bill. I know it's far away, but taking a step back towards that place is as is possible. I think that's the compassion with the conversation, but the person has to want to – has to respect that compassion.

Do you feel like there are ways that not just artists but media could be better about talking about addiction and how we frame these topics?

SL: I mean media, you know, it's like 'a part of rock and roll is drugs sex and rock n roll!' So it's like they make it like convenient for you to fuck around and fuck up all the time. Because that's part of who you are, right? And so it's like, 'Oh, well it's okay if you fuck up all time.' Audiences sometimes even want to see that. They don't want to see some boring, perfect person on stage. They want to see full destruction. They want to see you all messed up because they're just trying to escape their lives just like you are. You just get paid for it and they have to pay for it. Sometimes it's real and sometimes it's not. Some nights you remember and some nights you don't.

It makes you question why am I even doing it if I don't remember it. But it's like at the same time, some people have problems with and some people don't. For some people it's more of a struggle, for some people it's more like a show. It's something that they can just go in and out of you. For others it's just like this constant, 'Well, how do I not fuck up today?' So it's just different for everybody.

There are very few people who want to go to a show and be sober and watch a bunch of sober people on stage. And that's what Rolling Stone and all these corporate b.s... That's what they want. They want you to go crazy and they want that destruction. So I think media definitely feeds into that and makes it look cute and makes it look fun and fascinating. You're an artist if you're all xanned up or whatever. It's weird. It's like a catch 22. They make it glamorous. It's been happening since the beginning of time! 

JK: Since the jazz age! And you feel like it makes you more creative. I mean, I've been victim to this. It makes you relax more, it makes you connect more and all those things are true. It does make you do that but... 

SL: Sometimes, but then sometimes it doesn't. Like I'll write a song all messed up and then the next time I go back it listen to it and I'm like, 'That is dog shit. That is the worst thing I've ever heard.' [laughs] But what I was writing, I was like, 'This is fucking amazing. This is gonna be a hit!' It's all illusions.

JK: Having stints of sobriety, even if it's like just a week or a month or something, it kind of makes you realize that it is all an illusion. When I'm sober I'll outlast everyone that's fucking doing every line the room. I'm like, 'What, are you guys going to bed?' [laughs] But I think that comes with age. Having done it. We came into this totally as a party band. We liked to party and so we spent like a good like...

MF: So sue me! [laughs]

JK: I picked the right job! I get to drink any time of the day! I do whatever I want! This is perfect for someone that likes drugs and alcohol. And then you do it for 10 years and you're like, 'Oh cool, okay I've done that. And then you sort of push those boundaries and do the bad things and then – hopefully, naturally – if you're not in an environment that really pulls you down, you can kind of be like 'okay, I'm cool.' 

SL: And then you start losing friends. Then the reality starts setting in. It's like... Holy hell. 

JK: People die! People die from doing drugs. You don't actually understand that. In your 20s, I really don't think you understand that. And until you're like, 'Wait, you could die? You die!?' It's insane. And once that starts happening, then you're like, 'Woah, I don't want to die.'. 

JK: There's a way of doing everything and everyone doesn't have the same way. Everyone's got their own thing. People get addicted to food. People get addicted to the Internet, how about that? 

 

It's so easy to romanticize these stories and, like what you're saying, clean living or making good choices isn't it as celebrated or eye-grabbing

JK: It's not as eye-grabbing, that's for sure... 

SL: And it's just difficult to be healthy on tour in general. You're constantly at gas stations and then you see the inside of the van and then you see the venue and there's the bar. And then maybe you get a ten dollar buyout and you try to find something that's not a bag of chips. And then there's some free water. 

JK: And I'm also at a bar.

SL: And then you've got like six hours to kills. So you're like, 'Well...' ...  It's just a difficult cycle and it's difficult to be healthy in general especially on tour. 

JK: It's not difficult to be healthy on tour if that's the kind of person you are. If you come in and you're like, 'I just only drink juice and water and I read books and I exercise' and whatever else you kind of thing you do. You don't have to be like goody two shoes or whatever. But if you are someone that likes to drink and then you're trying to change your lifestyle on tour into juicing? You're gonna have a hard time. [20.9s] Everything that you're not supposed to be doing is right in front of you going 'Hi! What's up?! All your friends are here doing that thing!' 

SL: Every night you see a different group of friends. So you see your Philly friends, but then the next day they get to sleep in and not go to work and then you see your Chicago friends. And I'm not complaining. This is living the dream. We're very lucky to be able to do that, but then it's just like day after day after day and then it's next thing you know you're like, 'When's the last time I peed? When's the last time I drank a bottle of water?' It's just one of those things where, like [Julia] said, if you're trying to live a healthy, beautiful lifestyle then touring eight months out of the year... it's a little bit difficult.

JK: Trying to find even space for yourself to center is difficult. You're always around people's energies.

KEXP: I'd reached out to you guys for our piece on what artists want on their rider other than alcohol, and you said...puppies! Has anyone ever followed through on that?

JK: Yes! A few times. We got twin puppies. They even auditioned puppies. They had resumes for puppies and they picked the two cutest ones. That was in Canada. Oh my god, that was so awesome.

MF: And flowers. We have flowers [on our rider].

JK: Flowers are nice. A lot of people come through on the flowers. We had one stuffed animal. We had a couple of stuffed animals. Just like things that make you feel nice. And actually class up the joint! Some flowers it's like, okay you're in some box somewhere, put some flowers there and you're like, 'Oh okay, this is good. I'm winning.'

SL: 'I'm not in a basement of death with dicks drawn all over the wall!'  Also, lamps are cool. Candles... Any kind of low lighting. 

It's amazing how much of an impact that it sounds like it can have. 

SL: It's the little things! 

JK: It's like when we started asking for vegetables and stuff getting them. Because, you know, you can ask for things and people just don't fill it and they give you a case of water and some drink tickets. But when they do and they give you the things you want, and you're like... 'I'm eating a cucumber! Ahh! Life is good!'

It seems like something like that is like a good way to help promote a healthier lifestyle for artists. It's nice that you can ask for those things but it feels like the norm is 'Here are your drink tickets. Maybe some water.' 

JK: Maybe it's that we need to see the artists as humans too, not like some cattle that just came in to play your club and you just herd them in here and you herd them in there. It's like, 'Woah, these people might have just sat in a van for seven hours.' It's interesting, I was talking to a promoter in the U.K. or whatever and he was like, 'Maybe we should like put a window in there.' and I was like, 'Yeah! Are you kidding me right now? Maybe you should have a window in the green room!' It's like going to when people do take care to be like, here's a kettle and some coffee and you're like, 'Oh, there's tea here!'. 

SL: Yeah because that kind of facilitates wanting to do drugs. Like if I'm in this dark, dingy, urine soaked basement, I kind of wanna get fucked up as possible because I just want to transcend to a happy place that I probably can't get from a bottle of water or one drink ticket.

JK: I do think that's a good point. It's what makes you want to get fucked up and escape an ugly dark situation. Even though you're using something kind of dark to get out of it, but that's the coping skill that you know. I think like just putting some light and some good vibes.
 

 

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