Monolith Q&A: Thao with the Get Down Stay Down

Thao with the Get Down Stay Down's latest record, Know Better Learn Faster, carries a wide menu of influences. Like the ensemble's previous work, the album draws from traditional American folk precedents, as well as snippets of other sounds that range from old Motown to '60s pop. The blend comes largely from the tastes of the band's lead singer and guitarist, Thao Nguyen. Originally from Virginia, Nguyen blends the traditional and the contemporary in her high-energy guitar lines and plaintive vocals. In anticipation of their appearance at this year's Monolith Festival, Westword questioned the Get Down Stay Down's leader about the amphitheater, the band's touring schedule and her contributions to a girls' rock and roll camp in Portland.

Westword (A.H. Goldstein): The last time I saw you play in Denver, it was in the cramped confines of the hi-dive. Obviously, it's a much different space than Red Rocks. Can you speak to the appeal or the drawbacks to playing in such a massive venue for the festival?

Thao Nguyen: I guess the thing that we embrace from Monolith is the incredible history and reputation that Red Rocks has. It's such a beautiful venue, and I was lucky enough to see a show there once when I was traveling around. It's one of those places where, as a musician, you hope you might be lucky enough to play one day in some capacity or another. It's such a privilege.

As far as the scope of it, I think for our band and our style, it's a little harder for us to play a larger venue, an outdoor venue because sometimes the connection with the audience is compromised. But it's always a challenge that we're excited about. You just have to win them over somehow. We just try our best.

It's a totally different vibe from a club show. We play at festivals under ten times a year. We play at club dates all of the time. There's a different atmosphere and novelty about it.

WW: It does seem to boil down to audience rapport. Your music seems to rely a lot on that participatory vibe, something that's rooted in that folksy and hootenanny dynamic. Are you going to mix up the setlist at all in a bigger venue like Red Rocks?

TN: I think I always tend to want to play more of our high energy songs, just because I think with more distance and a greater likelihood for disconnect, it's more fun for us. Plus, you know, you often don't have your full set time. I would much rather play our high energy stuff.

Also, we'll be incorporating a few songs from our new record. We're flying in early to rehearse and iron those out. I think we'll be debuting a few.

WW: I'm sure that's a bit nerve wracking.

TN: A little bit, yeah. I don't really feel comfortable with something until we've played it a lot live. But, you don't get to play it a lot if you don't play it at all. We have a friend of ours flying in as well and he's going to fill out - he's sort of our auxiliary musician. So, it will be a four-piece.

WW: Are you familiar with the Denver scene in terms of what's going on musically and culturally? Is this a place you like to visit?

TN: I'm not so much, but that doesn't say anything except that I don't know what's going on anywhere at any time. I do enjoy Denver a lot. Unfortunately, I only get down there when I'm on tour passing through. I would say that I know the inside of the hi-dive pretty well. That's it.

WW: Are there any fellow acts that you're looking forward to seeing at the festival?

TN: I actually don't know what the lineup is. I've just been really busy with the new record - I haven't been in the world for a while.

WW: I spoke to Hutch (Harris) from the Thermals, who will be at the festival, and they said they sort of deem you an honorary Portland music scenester, even though you were based in Virginia and you're now in San Francisco.

TN: That's so kind of him. I didn't know the Thermals were going to be there. I'm thrilled to see them. We just finished our music video in Portland, and Hutch and Westin (Glass) were actually in it.

I'm a big M. Ward fan as well, I think he's an amazing player.

We spend more time in Portland than we do anywhere, because that's where we record. Our manager and our label are both located there. We know a lot more people in Portland than we do anywhere else. It feels like I'm there a week every month.

I just did the rock and roll camp for girls camp in Portland in July.

WW: They just did a similar event here. What was that experience like?

TN: It was incredible for me. I think it was one of the most significant events in a long time. It's totally working with the kids, and also the environment that's fostered at the camp in Portland, how incredibly positive it is and how it's based on these open-minded, supportive, feminist ideals for these girls.

It's basically building self-esteem through music and through interaction and through team-building with others. It makes you want to conduct yourself in a more dignified manner and to help move towards a greater good. It's funny that I'm saying these things, I normally don't say things like this.

It was such an honor to be around their energy and to love music the way they love it. I think playing music for a living sometimes, you get a little cynical and you kind of lose sight of why you started.

WW: Speaking of how you got started, I wanted to ask some basic questions about your roots and your influences. I see your material as a real path to roots and folk music. What is it about the acoustic sound and the folk structure that appeals to you as a musician?

TN: Guitar-wise, I've always been a huge country/blues fan, just technique and sound, and the way that those chords progress. (It's) how intricately they're played, but they always help the movement of the song. I've always loved that style of guitar.

I'm a huge Motown fan. I've always liked how bright and happy the songs sounded, but how a lot of the content was darker, and it was all about heartbreak, which appeals to me.

I love Lucinda Williams. She's an amazing influence for me. Again, it's the influence of a woman playing music - very important. It was just folk in general, more of the old country.

WW: It seems like there's a resurgence of traditional folk sounds in the indie rock scene. Groups like the Get Down Stay Down, the Avett Brothers, and even the Fleet Foxes with their Alpine harmonies, seem to draw from that source. Do you see this popularity as cyclical?

TN: I think that there's an appeal to more of the folk bent because of the more visceral components of it. I think the people who like more acoustic tones also might like more abstract sounds. It's just a matter of you can't like one thing all of the time.

There is something with acoustic music that feels like there is a sincerity and starkness to it, it's very warm and accepting. These are all comforting tones to hear - and the more plaintive, simple lyrics. That's what I like about this kind of stuff.

WW: With that sound as a basis, how does the new album, Know Better Learn Faster, show artistic development and evolution? What has the recording process been like?

TN: I do think that it is definitely a reflection of us growing as a band, and a more mature interest in composition and sound. The process was pretty intense, I think. We were bound by time and budget, which has always been an issue. There's the pressure of that, and of being on tour for a really long time. At the point we were going in the studio, I'd only had a month to really work on the record.

Thankfully, because of all that touring, I think we really honed in on our sound more and became more confident and comfortable with what our trio sounds like.

We're starting to come to a higher energy show, and I wanted to convey that on the record. I'm starting to become more of a high energy performer, I suppose, and I wanted to convey that as well. Falling in line with a heightened intensity, a lot of the record is about the end of a relationship and so there's definitely a lot more emotion there. It's more acute emotion that was coursing through when I was writing and when I was recording.

WW: So it was a cathartic experience?

TN: Sometimes. But sometimes you don't want to think about it anymore but you have to.