The Coathangers started as a joke between friends.
They had all protested George W. Bush in Washington D.C., in 2006. “On the way back home we were like, 'Wouldn't it be funny if we started a band?'” says guitarist Julia Kugel.
Because none of the members of the fledgling band really knew how to play their instruments, they figured out their own musical vocabulary and started playing their own version of punk, one that defied many of the genre's trends.
The Coathangers are raw, explosive and iconoclastic, like a punk band should be, but there is a thoughtful tenderness that pushes the music beyond simple outrage. The band became a way for friends to have fun together and to exorcise their collective frustration and anger in a productive way.
As the bandmates aged, their ferocity shifted. By the time of 2016's Nosebleed Weekend, Kugel had become tired of screaming all the time, and on that record, her actual singing ability shone in songs that lost neither irreverence nor incisive airing of their concerns.
The band's older volcanic energy and newer, more mature songwriting instincts merge on 2017's Parasite EP. And the sources of anger are now more nuanced for Kugel and her bandmates.
“When we wrote 'Don't Touch My Shit,' it was literally about a roommate messing with our stuff. It still holds true now in some ways, on a larger scale. Maybe a metaphor for something else. We used to write literally about stuff that pissed us off. 'Get Mad and Pumping Iron' is about how I used to get so mad I had to go lift weights to calm it down. Whereas now it's more about general life experience and perspective about what you're pissed off about. Sometimes it's yourself. That wasn't always the case. It used to always be someone else's fault. Now it's, 'Oh, damn. It might be me.' The older you get, the more comfortable you get with admitting maybe it's you. When we were young, it was more, 'It's us against the world.'”
The Coathangers have never been an overtly political band, not wanting to be preachy. But Kugel feels that the music reflects life, and part of that is the politics.
Coathangers drummer Stephanie Luke attended the Women's March in D.C. this year. It reminded Kugel of how her band started in the first place, helping the group reconnect with what's important.
“For a while, we were touring and in this bubble, and you can get to where you focus on, 'Where do I eat, and where's the green room?' and you can forget things are happening — and all these issues have been happening,” says Kugel.
While there's plenty to be angry about, with seemingly daily childish stunts with global consequences on the part of the Trump administration, Kugel acknowledges that while anger is a good impetus to channel into creative work, the emotion also has its perils when it lacks direction.
“It just festers inside you and reveals itself in odd ways you're not even aware of,” says Kugel. “We're so lucky to be able to play music and get it out and scream and thrash around. When you have to bottle it up, you explode on your wife or your kids or yourself, and you start overcontrolling your food intake or not controlling it at all, doing drugs heavily and not recreationally. When you have no release with something positive, nothing good will come out of it. That's why people need therapy. Music and art are part of that. When you're angry, you're probably hurt or scared. You need to figure out why you're getting angry, and the only way to do that is to get angry to figure out what you really feel. It will become a sort of emotional or physical cancer, and it will eat you alive, and it won't let you live as beautifully as you should.”
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The Coathangers let plenty of that anger out in various ways on Parasite, including a defiant inclusion of what some bands might consider a mistake at the beginning of the song “Wipeout.” When so much frustration and anger directed inward can come from failing to adhere to unrealistic standards and pressure to conform, leaving in the mistake is not only humorous, it's a signal to fans that it's okay to not be perfect in ways defined by others and to learn the very real habit of laughing at and with yourself and your friends.
“It's genuine, because we could hear laughing and, 'Oh, oops,'” says Kugel. “I think when you're in the business for so long and everybody wants you to make perfect records and use computers – we don't need to make everything perfect, and we left that 'oops' in there because it felt real. Everything about it is, 'This is it, this is us, and sometimes we fuck up.'”