Interview: Thao & The Get Down Stay Down

Thao Nguyen from Thao & The Get Down Stay Down interviewed by KQED Arts' Amanda Roscoe Mayo about her new album and the upcoming Noise Pop 2013 Music Festival in San Francisco. Thao & The Get Down Stay Down are playing Great American Music Hall on Saturday March 2nd. This show is also the official album release for the new album, We The Common and the kick off for their U.S. tour.


Amanda Roscoe Mayo: So let’s talk San Francisco for a second… why did you decide to land here?

Thao Nguyen: I moved here about 6 years ago, spent a summer in college out here when I was 20 and decided to make it my home base. There wasn’t any particular thing about it, I just knew it was going to be my home.

AM: What are your favorite haunts, coffee shops, and places to hang?

TN: Farmers markets, spend most of my time procuring fresh produce. Outerlands in the Sunset. I don’t drink coffee much because it makes me crazy but Blue Bottle is really good.

AM: Are there any spots you take your friends when they are in town visiting you?

TN: I’m mostly on the road so I don’t get a lot of visitors. I’d probably take them on a run through Golden Gate Park ending at Ocean Beach. Then we would go to Trouble Coffee. I love the view from the top of Bernal Hill. I also really love the book stores in San Francisco, Dogeared and Alley Cat Books are my favorite.

AM: Noise Pop is a great festival in my opinion because it really does a good job of showcasing Bay Area talent by pairing them with appropriate national acts. You and Toro Y Moi are the big San Francisco acts, how do you feel about headlining at a festival like Noise Pop in your home base?

TN: Really grateful for the opportunity, excited to launch the record and the new tour in San Francisco. It’s such a family affair because my manager is a close friend of Noise Pop, they’ve helped me in my career tremendously. They’ve helped me sort out the trajectory of my career, a lot of the people on the record will be performing live with us since they can’t come on tour with us. So this particular show, which is launching the tour, is going to be really special. Great American Music hall is my favorite venue to play anywhere.

AM: Festivals in general are becoming a huge part of the indie music scene, and Noise Pop is more along the lines of Fun Fun Fun and SXSW than the typical outdoor all day festivals, but that being said, what is it that you as a musician like about playing festivals if anything?

TN: Festivals are a tough one, the larger outdoor festivals are definitely big, it takes a certain level of energy to be part of those. I find it to be quite stressful but exciting to be playing with so many other amazing bands. The pace of it is really difficult. Not the best opportunity to showcase what you can do. Festivals like Noise Pop maintain the intimacy. There is a reasonable negotiation. People show up for everything and stay for the whole show. It’s community based, and everybody are friends. They’ve done a great job of preserving the integrity of the intimate live show and the respect for the musicians playing.

AM: This idea of writing songs from life is a central theme for the writing and interviews surrounding We The Common…can I ask you what the biggest impact on your life was once you decided to settle for a bit?

TN: I began volunteering with California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), and a weekly empowerment group once a week. To have time to be home and be part of the community and work with really incredible people who are struggling is a really powerful and pervasive system.

It’s powerful to collect and harness this collective energy I have been witness to and try and be a better version of yourself.

AM: How did you arrive at the title for the album?

TN: The title track on the album, We The Common (For Valerie Bolden), is the main voice I wanted to convey and try to emphasize from my work with CCWP and my visits to the California State Prisons and that extends to the whole album. 

AM: Tiny Telephone has come up in so many interviews I’ve done. It seems to be the go to place for Bay Area bands both big and small. Most of the bands I’ve talked to state that they choose Tiny Telephone because of the recording on tape, they wanted the moments of chance in music to be captured and not edited out. What was it about Tiny Telephone that drew you to that recording studio?

TN: I’ve recorded there before, John Vanderslice is really good friend and is amazing. He created a comfortable, cozy space. In the end it’s how comfortable you are in the environment, it’s such a sweet/warm place to be. The location is convenient and atmosphere is important to me when recording.

AM: To build on that question, I sense this capturing of the raw recording in an attempt to help the listener feel like they are having a live experience is a bit of a response to the over production of main stream music. As a seasoned musician who has toured most her of her adult life do you feel like this is something you are considering as a way to hold yourself in view as a creatively independent artist?

TN: More so than the aversion to high level of production, it’s not in my personality to spend time on things in that sense. I don’t have the patience to sit there and re-sing and layer things. I like the straightforward sound. It’s not in my set of inclinations to toil in that manner. The intention of this record, more than previous records, is in the strength of the band as a live band. I’m going to contradict myself a little here though; I’m a huge control freak about the actual writing of the songs. Lyrics are the most important parts of the songs. I’m maniacal about the lyrics, but no one sees that. Songs are written when I bring them to the band, and then arrangement becomes a highly collaborative effort.

AM: Is there anything you’d like to add or say to the good folks of the Bay Area?

TN: I’d like to show gratitude for KQED. I love the programming and what they do for the community of San Francisco. I’m a supporter of the station and very much appreciate my earthquake kit and chamber tickets.


Thanks so much for the KQED shout out Thao. We love you too! Thao & The Get Down Stay Down are performing at Great American Music Hall as part of Noise Pop 2013 on March 2nd. Check KQED Arts throughout the week of February 26 – March 3rd for coverage and concert photos.