10 years in the trenches with the Coathangers
ATL punk rockers prove what goes around comes around
The Coathangers’ “Nosebleed Weekend” record release party
with Paint Fumes, Bad Spell, and Paralyzer
$15. 8 p.m. Fri., April 15. The Star Community Bar, 437 Moreland Ave. N.E. starbaratlanta.com.
Call it punk rock justice.
In the summer of 2004, Stephanie Luke was back in Atlanta. She had moved to Los Angeles after graduating high school in 2000 to work as a tour manager. After wrangling a burgeoning pop punk quartet called Amity on a string of Vans Warped Tour dates, she felt it was time for a change. She enrolled in classes at Georgia State University and began studying art history.
She spent her days hanging out at the GSU dorms Downtown, or crashing with a couple of friends in Decatur — Julia Kugel and Candice Jones. She bought a BMX dirt bike to move around the city. “That bike was badass,” Luke says. “I spent like 300 bucks on it, and I just rode it wherever I wanted to go. It was awesome.”
One morning, however, she awoke to find her bike gone. Stolen by a thief in the night. She had no idea who could have taken it. Several weeks later, while visiting a friend in Athens, Luke spotted her missing bike poking out from her friend’s boyfriend’s closet. “I thought, ‘That bastard ganked my bike!’”
Rather than call the cops or confront her friend, she cased the joint. A drum set was shoved into a corner. Various clothing items and household debris were piled on its heads. Without saying a word, she loaded the drums into her car and made the drive home down Highway 316. “I remember saying to myself, ‘This is fair, and I think he’ll get it,’” she says.
Apparently he did. “We never ever spoke of it,” she says. “I think he understood what I had done. It just kind of worked out like that.”
She laughs about it now, but in hindsight, it was a pivotal moment in her life. Before that day Luke had never played the drums. She hadn’t even really considered playing music. Walking away with those drums set in motion a series of events that led to her bashing away as the drummer for Atlanta punk rock mainstays the Coathangers.
The group began as a four-piece: Luke, singer/guitarist Julia Kugel, bassist Meredith Franco, and keyboard player Candice Jones. Jones left the group in 2013 and the Coathangers have soldiered on as a trio ever since.
Kugel’s and Franco’s stories about how they started playing music are a bit more wholesome. “I wrote a song in second or third grade called ‘I’m a Dreamer,’” Kugel says. “I still remember it. I wrote music on a piano and then I wrote the words. My chorus teacher liked it and we all sang it together.”
Kugel lived in Minsk, Belarus, until she was 7 years old. Around 1990 her family came to the United States where they settled in suburban Roswell and later Alpharetta. Her mother played piano and would often sing with her. “She always did harmonies,” Kugel says. “I wasn’t that good. She would say to me, ‘Be quiet on this one.’ I took piano when I was a kid, and when I was 15 I bought my first guitar. It was the day after prom. That’s when I started taking guitar lessons.”
Kugel taught Franco how to play bass in the Coathangers’ early days. Since then, she’s developed a singular style that has evolved around her natural tendency to strum upward when hitting the strings.
Kugel, Luke, Franco, and Jones played their first show Oct. 21, 2006. It was an early Halloween party in a Kirkwood house where photographer and Sealions singer/guitarist Jason Travis lived.
The Coathangers’ ballistic-energy performances quickly established the group within the local music scene.
Naturally, when four friends with zero experience playing live start a punk band there’s a learning curve. The music was shrill, abrasive, and riddled with onstage fumbles. It was a pure embodiment of punk rock spontaneity, bursting with all the highs and lows of ramshackle garage-punk grit. Songs were simple to the point of being juvenile. But the band was clear from the beginning that this was about having fun.
The Coathangers joined the thriving Rob’s House Records DIY house show scene, playing with Black Lips, Deerhunter, the Selmanaires, Carbonas, part-time local Jay Reatard, and countless touring acts. “The early shows were raw and unpredictable,” Travis says. “The band has always had so much fun on stage and it shows. Having been friends with them it only made sense that we hung out and played shows together. Sometimes I’d play bass on a song while Meredith took over vocal duties. Sometimes they would bake cookies or bring prizes to hand out. They made it a party at every show.”
Despite the celebratory atmosphere of their performances, the Coathangers drew ire, mostly from anonymous trolls on blogs. The group’s all-female lineup in a male-dominated music scene sparked knee-jerk criticism over their still-budding musical skills and stage presence. Others saw potential in the music.
“I saw the Coathangers’ second show when they played at the Drunken Unicorn, and I loved it,” says Mark Naumann, whose Die Slaughterhaus label released the first Black Lips single and helped enable that era’s thriving garage-punk scene. “The Coathangers opened the show — these four girls got up on stage and they were sloppy and raw, but there was so much promise there. I want to put out bands that I like and are doing cool stuff and that’s what I saw in them that night.”
Soon after that 2006 show, Die Slaughterhaus released the Coathangers’ debut 7-inch featuring the songs “Never Wanted You,” “Spider Hands,” “Tripod Machine,” and “Don’t Touch My Shit.”
One of the group’s earliest songs, a party punk anthem dubbed “Nestle in My Boobies,” was perceived as a playful feminist mantra. But the group has never wielded an agenda. Other early Coathangers songs such as “Tonya Harding,” “Wreckless Boy,” and “Shut the Fuck Up” were cautionary tales that channeled exuberant energy and intense themes of karma.
Criticism, sexism, long stretches away from home, and intense personal sacrifices have marked the band’s 10-year history. Through it all, they’ve released albums and singles, and toured the world. Time and experience have tempered the members’ anxieties over their image and their musical abilities. Those who doubted their skills in the beginning will get a face full of the Coathangers’ sharpest songs to date with Nosebleed Weekend, out April 15 via Suicide Squeeze. And though the group lost a member to the hardships of life as a touring musician, for Luke, Kugel, and Franco, perseverance has paid off.
THE ALBUM TITLE Nosebleed Weekend was born somewhere on the road between Bulgaria, Serbia, and Romania. The Coathangers were trapped in a van traversing Eastern Europe’s vast, mountainous expanses and Franco’s nose wouldn’t stop bleeding.
“It was gushing, every single day,” she says.
The combination of the high altitude and medication created a nightmare situation for Franco. To stop the bleeding, Luke and Kugel cut up tampons and stuffed them into her nose.
“You don’t see a whole lot of QuickTrips on the road in that part of the world,” Luke says. “We had to make due with what we had in the van. And it worked!”
The words “nosebleed weekend” were uttered. The phrase caught everyone’s ear. Kugel made a note of it on her iPhone. “We had a hard time coming up with the title for the album before this one,” Kugel says. “We all were just like ugh ... Suck My Shirt. OK, that’s the name of the album. Let’s go with it!”
Talking about it now, the new album’s title track means something different to all three members of the group. “It could mean a lot of things,” Kugel says. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Why is my nose bleeding?’ Did you do too many drugs? That’s what you get. Did you say something to someone you probably shouldn’t have said and got punched in the nose? You probably had it coming.”
Nosebleed Weekend reaches beyond the garage-punk fuzz that reached an impasse with 2014’s Suck My Shirt. After more than a dozen records, the only way to stay on the upswing was to hone their in-studio performances and sharpen their songwriting. Some of the songs on Nosebleed Weekend are among the Coathangers’ strongest to date, most notably “Perfume” with its sultry ’70s Euro punk strut. The grimy riffs of the album’s title track and barreling rhythms of “Squeeki Tiki” with Kugel’s apocalyptic lyrics swell with veiled tales of overcoming hurdles. Like all timeless pop songwriting, the album’s title leaves plenty of room for the eyes and the ears of the beholder to find their own meaning.
Nosebleed Weekend is the first Coathangers album with cover art featuring an unadulterated photo of the members’ faces. It wasn’t an easy thing for them to do.
“We reached a point where we all asked ourselves what the fuck have we been doing?” Kugel says. “We all had a tiny panic attack about it, and then we were like, ‘Let’s own this.’ It really was a big step for us.”
Anxiety over their image stems from the group’s earliest days. In 2007, the Coathangers sat down for their first interview with then CL music intern Ellis Jones, who’s now Editor-in-Chief of VICE.
“I remember one of the first questions she asked us was if people only cared because we’re cute,” Kugel says. “From that moment on we kept our image off our records. We didn’t want to use that to sell anything, and from that moment on I wanted to do everything in my power to be the opposite of cute.”
During live performances, the group was known for unleashing balloons on the audience and throwing confetti, which was also misconstrued. “We did all of those things to take the audience’s attention off of us by giving them a distraction,” Franco says. “We wanted it to be a party, too, but we were so nervous during our shows back then that we did anything we could to take the pressure off of us.”
Over the years the trio outgrew any lingering apprehension over their image. “We finally reached a point where we were comfortable enough to do it — comfortable enough to say, ‘Fuck off! This is who we are!’ It was so straightforward that it was scary to do it.”
JASON TRAVIS DRUMMER SUMMER: Stephanie Luke (right) and the Coathangers tearing up EstoriaFest in 2010.
JASON TRAVIS GUN CONTROL: Julia Kugel (left) and Meredith Franco mean business.
JASON TRAVIS COUCH TRIP: Hangin’ out backstage at the Bottletree circa 2008.
PERRY JULIEN/CL FILE BANSHEE SCREAM: Stephanie Luke having a moment on stage at the Drunken Unicorn.
JOEFF DAVIS/CL FILE PUNCH OUT: The Coathangers circa 2009, rolling in style.
JASON TRAVIS SKELETON CREW: The Coathangers strike a pose at the first show they ever played, a 2006 Halloween party.
JOEFF DAVIS/CL FILE BLONDE AMBITION: The Coathangers throw down with the first lady of Atlanta, Blondie of Clermont Lounge fame.
PRESSURE FOR THE COATHANGERS was mounting both on stage and off. While on the road playing shows after releasing their third album, 2011’s Larceny and Old Lace, the group began discussing plans for an upcoming European tour. Trail of Dead had made the Coathangers an offer to share a bus for a string of shows. While in the van together discussing travel plans, Jones announced she wouldn’t be going along. “Julia was driving and when she heard that she shouted, ‘What!’ and almost ran off the road,” Franco says.
Luke says it was the saddest news they could have heard at the time. “It felt like we had lost a limb,” she says. “We were shocked. At first there was a little bit of anger — this is not just about one person this is about the group. But it worked out for the best because she just wasn’t happy doing this anymore, and if one person isn’t happy, none of us were happy.”
Jones declined an interview for this story, but according to the band, she left the group because she’d had her fill of the instability that comes with life on the road. “We’re not like Coldplay,” Kugel says. “Sometimes we get paid well and sometimes we don’t, and that’s difficult to deal with.”
When faced with the same decision, Kugel went the opposite route. “I was going to get married, but I had to not do it,” she says. “I left my relationship, my house, and my dog.”
For Kugel, conflict arose between what it meant to be a wife and what it meant to be a musician. “I can’t speak to him, and I can’t see my dog,” she says. “These things are huge life decisions. It was painful, but I’m happy now. It took a long time to process all of these thoughts and emotions: Who am I? What do I do? But it parallels this 10-year relationship with the band and how I’ve been able to change and grow within it.”
Her experience is chronicled in the song “Squeeki Tiki” on the new album. The song kicks off with Kugel leading a chant: “You can have it. I don’t want that shit. It’s just a bad memory of what I did.” The song is an exorcism of heavy emotions lingering after ending her 10-year relationship. That squeaking sound heard throughout the song? That’s a toy that belonged to her dog. “Sometimes when I’m singing it, I want to be more emotional than what it connotes,” Kugel says. “It such a fun song, but it’s really heartbreaking.”
The “Squeeki Tiki” mantra mirrors one of the group’s earliest singles, “Don’t Touch My Shit,” with a more relaxed disposition. “I am a lot less angry about things in my 30s,” Kugel says. “‘Squeeki Tiki’ is the direct opposite of where I was when I was 22. I don’t need that shit. I’ll get more shit. It’s completely open and candid, and that’s the attitude shift from doing this for so long.”
IN MAY 2015, the group went into Valentine Recording Studios near West Hollywood to begin working on new songs. Producer Nic Jodoin, a French-Canadian transplant from Quebec City whose credits include Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Specter at the Feast and Spindrift’s Ghost of the West soundtrack, was hired to produce.
It was the first time anyone had used the studio since founder Jimmy Valentine closed it more than three decades ago. After converting the space from an old dentist’s office into a recording studio in 1963, Valentine, a WWII vet with a music and electronics obsession, recorded countless acts including Bing Crosby, Burl Ives, Frank Zappa, the Beach Boys, and Kenny Rogers. The studio was used for recording comedy, country, and rock albums, as well as film soundtracks and plenty of television work.
Over the years, Valentine became fixated on cars, particularly Nash Metropolitans. He opened another business called Jimmy Valentine’s Metropolitan Pit Stop, which began taking up more and more of his time. Eventually, the recording studio became a storage area for spare car parts. But the studio was still his baby, and rather than dismantle it, he simply sealed it off.
Valentine died in 2008. Jodoin was aware of the studio’s history and facilities. He contacted Valentine’s family and convinced them to reopen the studio. He became part owner and began restoring the vintage equipment.
The Coathangers are the first band to record in the revived studio. Adjusting their process to working without the amenities of modern technology took some getting used to. Hiccups and technical glitches cropped up at nearly every turn. “The ghost of Jimmy Valentine was there every step of the way,” Franco says.
“This was the right time to work with the Coathangers in this amazing place with all of this amazing gear, but yeah, we had to work out a lot of kinks,” Jodoin says. “But because of that we were able to spend a lot of time recording here. We got comfortable with the place which gave us the luxury of taking our time and making sure we did everything right.”
It was the first time the group had worked with a hands-on producer. Jodoin took the opportunity to push the women to the limits of their abilities.
Kugel recalls spending long hours perfecting the guitar tones for the album’s opening number, “Perfume.” She speaks with exhaustion when recalling the maniacal attention to detail that led to playing the song’s riff for days on end. “We worked on that guitar tone the entire time we were there,” Kugel says. “It was never done! I did that riff for hours and hours. We recorded it, I thought, ‘Yes, that sounded great!’ But Nic would just say, ‘Again.’ He said it every time! It was maddening. And when we would come back the next day the first thing he’d say was, ‘I don’t think we have that guitar tone yet. We need to do it again.’”
Luke recalls a similar struggle with perfecting the album’s drum parts. “I have never had anyone make me work for it,” Luke says. “I was doing these drum rolls that were better than anything I had ever played in my life, and each time I said to myself, ‘I know I can do better.’ It was all because Nic was paying such close attention, and pushing us so hard to perform at the best of our abilities.”
Nosebleed Weekend follows the blueprint laid out by previous Coathangers albums, but adds depth to aspects of the group’s allegiance to three-chord songwriting. The new music expands beyond punk’s boundaries to embrace a full-bodied rock ‘n’ roll sound. The album finds the Coathangers turning in smooth and muscular performances that color in the black-and-white fuzz of Suck My Shirt. Confidence pours from songs such as “Nosebleed Weekend,” “Watch Your Back,” and “Burn Me” — a trio of songs that emerges with venomous power at the album’s halfway mark. Here, the group seamlessly blends its signature grumbling bass and rumbling guitar and drums with sophisticated grooves that never lose an ounce of momentum. In a catalog filled with albums and singles, Nosebleed Weekend is by far a Coathangers masterpiece.
“The crazy thing is that, when making the record, you can listen and find the songs to be smart, or they can touch you, they can be just like lyrics to any old song,” Jodoin says. “But every song on this record has a really deep meaning. They all come from somewhere that’s really personal and emotional. They pick up on all these things around them and it was amazing to watch them channel that into their songs. It was a challenging album to make, but it was an amazing experience.”
But no matter how far the group’s sound and vision has evolved, the Coathangers still exude the same core values that have propelled the group from the very beginning: Friendship, sacrifice, and an unyielding truth — what comes around goes around — resonate behind every word, every painstakingly crafted guitar tone, and every drum roll.