A few weeks ago, Atlanta, Georgia garage punk stalwarts The Coathangers released a song called “F the NRA,” from the band’s upcoming sixth album The Devil You Know (out next Friday, 8 March). It lent the distinctive lo-fi style they’ve crafted over the course of five LPs to the gun control debate which currently rages across the USA, and as such, it made for some of the most politically direct music the band had ever made. As frontwoman Julia Kugel wrote for Talkhouse, the song “provided a personal catharsis and a sense of empowerment in the wake of the immense feeling of helplessness that was weighing heavily on us as we coped with continuous reports of mass shootings.”
Gun control, however, isn’t the only social issue the band is dealing with on The Devil You Know. Today Noisey is premiering “Step Back,” another new track and video (watch and listen above), on which The Coathangers take on addiction, and the complex feelings which come with seeing a loved one in its jaws, this time in squarely personal terms. The track’s steady bass and percussion mirror the sympathetic, stabilising hand its lyrics offer (“You’ve gotta step back / You’ve got to give it up”) – it’s a gentle appeal rather than an angry yell, offering love and clarity over judgement.
I called up Julia to talk more about the track, its compassionate message, and addiction’s particular pervasiveness in the music industry.
Noisey: Hey Julia. Can you tell me a little bit about the message “Step Back” hopes to convey?
Julia Kugel: It’s a story about wanting to get someone back from drug addiction, and encouraging them to take that first step – to take a step back, and figure out what it’s all about. The song wants to give a compassionate ear to those who are struggling with addiction, and those that are watching someone struggle. You know, basically, it’s like “Come on, let’s do this. Please come back. I want you back; I’ll help you, but you have to want it.”
I know that the song goes some way to explaining this, but from your point of view, how does it feel to be watching someone you love in the grip of addiction? How did you go about trying to communicate that on the track?
It’s frustrating, and sad, because there’s a sense of loss, and a slow loss at that. There’s a helplessness. And after you encourage someone so many times, you have a tendency to want to give up yourself. And it’s something that you, as a friend, should try not to do, even though they might have given up on themself. But it’s such a complicated situation to be in – that’s why the song is soft. You can’t be screaming at someone with a drug addiction. It’s a soft-spoken plea.
It offers an alternative to the way that people often approach addiction narratives I suppose. The compassion is often missing.
Compassion is everything. We can all be there, that’s the funny part. Mothers, brothers, sisters, young kids. We can all slip into addiction and it’s quite easy. Even alcohol – it’s been accepted for generations. You shouldn’t feel like you’re so much above those people that are struggling with it, because you could be there too.
I feel like addiction is an especially big problem in the industry because of the lifestyle it encourages. What are your feelings on that?
It’s definitely encouraged, and it’s definitely celebrated. It’s really, really strange, because people think it’s cool, and maybe it makes you a better musician – but it’s dangerous to feel that way. The music industry also celebrates mental health issues, and leaves people to their own devices without offering help, because they’re intimidated, or they don’t want to interrupt their artist’s process, or the artist feels like they can’t be an artist without the drugs or drinking. It’s so ingrained into the industry, and it’s very strange. I don’t know how we could change it – maybe it’s just having that conversation: it’s not cool, it’s not safe, and it doesn’t make you better. It doesn’t make you a better artist.
I was just scrolling on Twitter and I saw Mitski had posted a tweet talking about just wanting to be actually fed by promoters, rather than just being given like, a load of beers. When you put it like that, it’s pretty stark. It doesn’t exist in any other industry.
And you can be drunk doing all parts of the job! You have an interview at noon, and you have a drink. And that’s totally fine! There’s no other job that I know of like that, where it’s totally fine to be plastered. Like, you stumble on stage and fuck up, and everyone’s like “Yeah! Right on!” It speaks to class as well, because if you were on the street and you were doing that, and you were a homeless person, those same people might say, “You’re a fucking loser, go get a job.” But if you’re on stage, somehow, it’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen. People should just maybe take a minute to think about what they’re applauding.
Have you engaged with other art which deals with the issue of addiction? Did any of that inspire you to make your own?
You know, I think it’s been more just hanging out with people that are sober. It’s quite eye-opening. When we started out in our twenties, partying was definitely part of what we did. We partied hard, but then having met musicians like Dennis Lyxzén from Refused, who’s vegan straight-edge, you see that he really delivers. When you meet people that are doing it in a sober fashion, you see that it’s possible.
With the last track from this album campaign, “F the NRA,” you were obviously engaging with the gun control debate. In your piece for Talkhouse, you and other musicians spoke about the value of being direct and outspoken about your politics, which seems like what you’re doing here, on the topic of addiction. Are you hoping to engage directly with other social issues on this record too?
Saying “Fuck the NRA” is the most forthright and direct thing on the record. You can’t be more direct. Usually we try to be artistic in our expression on social issues. But if you look at “Hey Buddy” [another new track from The Devil You Know], it’s quite direct as well, on women’s issues and trans issues – it’s sort of inspired by that. You can taste these issues, but we want to make sure you’re not overwhelmed with the flavour of “Fuck everything!” We definitely want to have a positive spin on it – like, there’s a solution to this shit.
No-one wants to be preached to – we never want to be preaching. But “F the NRA” in particular – or any of the songs really – is about how we feel. That’s the beauty of being an artist: you have the voice.. And it’s the first time we’ve really had to figure out how to address it publicly – we wanted to also have a thoughtful statement behind it, because we are thoughtful people. We’re not just being like, “Fuck this, fuck that.” We’re actually upset, and want change, and feel like this is the only way to have a catharsis.
Finally, what are you hoping to achieve with this new record – what do you want listeners to take from it?
Every song relates to the saying The Devil You Know. It’s like looking at devils – the issues in your life that you’re ignoring in order to not face challenge, or having to change, or having to face the unknown. Maybe in a roundabout way, listening to the record and getting to understand the meaning behind all the songs people will look at themselves, and the world around them, and maybe change some stuff.
The Devil You Know is out 8 March via Suicide Squeeze, and you can find Lauren on Twitter.