The Coathangers' Julia Kugel on the time her band dressed a pony like a unicorn for a show

The members of the Coathangers -- an act that emerged from the same Atlanta underground scene in 2007 that had previously produced bands like Black Lips, Deerhunter and King Khan and the Shrines -- started playing out before really even learning to play their instruments. In true punk-rock style, the gals threw themselves into the world of live music with a devil-may-care attitude. The Coathangers have an unabashedly playful sense of humor, which has made many wonder if they're a joke band, which they're not.

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In 2011, the Coathangers released their third and most recent album, Larceny & Old Lace, and the record reveals a surprising musical depth for a band that seemed to embody the virtues of spontaneity and playing a few songs for laughs. In advance of the band's show this Sunday with Guitar Wolf, we spoke with singer and guitarist Julia Kugel about some of her bands antics, being from Atlanta and more.

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Westword: Why did you bring a monkey to your first album release show, and what kind of monkey was it? How did things go with it at the show?

Julia Kugel: We had hired a pony. The theme of the first CD release was "Dreams Come True." Because it was a fluke that we got to release a record. So we were really into having a pony dressed as a unicorn. We made them little horns made with felt. They just threw in the monkey for free. It was a little monkey. I don't remember exactly what kind. It was awesome, and it was so weird. It's hard to top that now.

How did you meet The Black Lips, and how did they encourage you early on, and subsequently?

We met them just hanging out in Atlanta. Five years ago, we went to our first South By. We had just started being a band, and someone said, "Are you going to South By?" "Uh...sure!" We just packed up our stuff and rented a van. We didn't have any shows set up, and had no idea what we were going to do. We saw that Fader was having a party, and we told them we were on the list, but they said, "We can't find you."

We totally bullshitted our way into the party. It happened to be that Black Lips were going to [play]. They went on, and we threw beer cans, and they knew Atlanta was in town. Afterward Cole [Alexander] said, "Hey, I have your CD in my guitar case. I love you guys. Do you have a show?" And we said, "No we don't." Then Cole asked if we wanted to play a house show with them that night.

New York Times was following them at that time. It was so terrifying. I think it's the most terrified I've been being in a band. All these punk rock kids were in the house. They were all, "What the fuck are you gonna do and blah blah blah." "I don't know..." Their live shows, and being from and Atlanta and making it, has been very inspirational. Plus they're just nice guys. We played their CD release in Atlanta last time.

Larceny & Old Lace is a reference to The Golden Girls, and from there to that play Arsenic and Old Lace. Why did you pick that as a title, and what about The Golden Girls that you always enjoy the most?

The companionship and the solidarity of the The Golden Girls is what I like the most. We had kind of decided on this image when we were on tour in New York. One of our friends had taken this picture, and we were inspired by it. And we were watching The Golden Girls, and it was an episode with Mickey Rooney in it. The episode was "Larceny and Old Lace." It sounded awesome, but if I hadn't said it was from a Golden Girls episode, no one would know.

There's a really wiry guitar and dub sound on parts of Larceny & Old Lace that is reminiscent of the Pop Group, Bush Tetras and Delta 5. Were there musical influences that were more predominant in your lives as you wrote material for the new album?

Not anything in particular. Obviously Gang of Four and Delta 5 influenced me and Meredith Franco, our bass player, a lot. But we all listen to almost completely different music. We all come from really different backgrounds. Some of us are into hardcore and punk rock and others into indie rock. I think there's a blend. To me, the record is really dance-oriented. In our late teens, we loved the Rapture and dance rock like Gang of Four. In writing this record, the only thing we thought about was making it more musical than we had before and keeping it light. Keep it not feeling so dark.

Keep reading for more of our interview with Julia Kugel of the Coathangers

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On the bio for your website there is a reference to Huggy Bear. How did you become familiar with their music, and in what ways did it affect how you've approached making your own music?

I'm not personally aware of Huggy Bear, but once we started being a band, people started telling us people we may have been influenced by that we didn't know about. No comment [laughs].

For "Johnny," there's an interesting synthy sound. Was there a particular feel or mood you were trying to achieve by including that sound, as well as the piano, beyond the sort of frantic tone of the song?

Basically, with that song, we used a slide to make it really extreme sounding. Candice [Jones] was using a noise, almost like a Theremin, on her keyboards to give it a sense of chaos, while Meredith and Stephanie [Luke] kept things steady. The beautiful thing about the keyboard is that she can do so many things with it. For some of the songs, it creates a more melodic song and for others, a more chaotic sound. It's almost like things falling apart for that song.

The cover art for the new album is a mixture of vintage photographs and more recent photos that look older. Did you have creative input on that artwork, and what about that look appealed to you?

The cover art is our friend from New York that's a picture of this girl who looks really strong but she's in a vulnerable position. The pictures on the back, one is us, and the others are all family members. All old family pictures. There's one of my grandmother. Basically it's because a lot of the songs are about that. The very last song, "Tabacco Road," is about Stephanie's grandparents. They actually did met on Tabacco Road. That's why we wanted to put pictures on the album of people that really matter to us. Kind of like honoring them. I love old pictures anyway. There's something haunting about pictures aren't posed.

How would you characterize the cultural climate in Atlanta for making art and music?

Atlanta is rough. It's a hard place to live in. One, it's really isolated. Once you live Atlanta proper, you're in this world of Republican mentality. Atlanta is this island of liberalism, and also of a lot of violence and poverty, so you're always aware of your environment. Where we live and hang out, where music actually gets made, the Atlanta we care about, comes from this humble place, so the people that live here like to enjoy ourselves and party, and the shows tend to be rowdy. There's a lot of hip-hop, R&B and rock and roll, and you're always surrounded by lots of different sorts of music. So it's not all country. There's room for everybody.

People who don't live in a city assume things about the music scene or scenes that exist there. How would you say people have reacted to the relative level of success, or perception of success, and outside attention you've received over the last few years?

I think it's definitely the perception of success. Here, out of all cities, we feel like we're watched more. In some ways, you're more aware of people going, "Why are you blah blah blah." I think that's to be expected no matter what. Especially if you never leave the city you're in. If you just keep playing the city you're in, that's cool for you, but if you want to succeed on a bigger level, I think you have to tour. The people that know us, know how hard we work, and they're so proud of us. They remember us from our first shows. On the other hand there's that talk of how, "They must be sleeping with this guy" and that kind of thing. But the people that actually know us have been really supportive of what we've done.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.