So expressive and personal is Thao Nguyen’s album We Brave Bee Stings And All that it could have been a coming-of-age story. But despite all the handclaps and talk of ice cream and cannonballs, she doesn’t paint herself as a folksy wide-eyed naïf with a guitar. The Northern Virginia native turned West Coaster is full of deceptive sophistication with a satisfying dark streak. Backed up by her band, The Get Down Stay Down, she’s at work on a sophomore release set for October. In advance of her homecoming show at The Black Cat, Thao spoke with Decider about her time in the D.C. area, her upcoming record, and stealing from children.
Decider: Do you stay in touch with the D.C. music scene on the West Coast?
Thao Nguyen: I was never a great authority on the D.C. music scene. All I can recall of the scene is when I played open mic nights at Iota and Jammin' Java, and the drunk old men. Growing up in the suburbs, I was constantly in my room watching sitcoms.
D: Did the sitcoms have any affect on your music?
TN: I like to say that I was raised by sitcoms, and that my personality is comprised of different characters. Darlene from Roseanne, Denise from The Cosby Show, Uncle Jesse from Full House, a little Jessie from Saved By The Bell—but not the episode where she was addicted to sleeping pills.
D: Your stage style can be ferocious and loose. Is this part of a philosophy about stage performance or just something that happens?
TN: I keep it loose, like a date. [Laughs.] I think the strength of our band is the live show. We’ve played a lot together—eight or nine months last year—so the actual content of our performance is pretty steady. I think it’s really important for the audience to feel connected, and when it’s good it’s this amazing, symbiotic relationship. I try to give as much as they can give. We’re not avant garde and we make no claim to be revolutionary, but I think we are sincere.
D: How do you feel, then, about bands who mostly rely on stage theatrics?
TN: I wonder, when they did open mic nights, did they do that then? It’s a very fine line to negotiate how to be over the top and convincing and commit to it. People can tell when it’s forced. It takes a certain kind of person to pull it off, and I’m not that person.
D: You primarily play the archtop guitar onstage—is that the instrument you started with?
TN: I started on classical guitar. Up until spring of last year, I played only acoustic live and electric recording. When we become a trio, I thought it was important to fill out the sound more. It actually freed me up as a player and I prefer it now.
D: You also have fairly strong opinions about female guitarists?
TN: If you’re a woman musician, that is your qualifier. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “You’re good for a girl.” My only issue is, when that stereotype and stigma already exists, sometimes it’s perpetuated by people who may not really play guitar. You somehow need to transcend that division of gender. I mean, do whatever you have to do, you know? Sometimes I say things in interviews and then I see them in print and I think, "What an asshole."
D: You’re in the middle of recording the new album?
TN: I don’t know what it’s like to pass a kidney stone, but I’ve heard it’s painful. And that’s the thing that came to my mind. It’s been a lot more involved and intense. Our live show is better represented because on the last album, we had no live show. We were barely a band. This record is more of a response to things. Basically, it’s a heartbreak record—clichéd, but you can’t help it if that’s what you’re doing.
D: Does it have the same “small kid at the big kid table” vibe that Bee Stings has?
TN: There’s a sense of youthful optimism in Bee Stings, even though it’s a melancholy record. This is more youthful "what the fuck am I doing." I’ve always felt for little children because I love the way they fashion sentences—their vocabulary is limited. They have to navigate around to get to the meaning. It’s a shame we bypass that when we gain more words. In a way, it’s less honest and less direct. It’s something that I appreciate about kids, and I will steal from them at will.