Tacocat’s Emily Nokes talks to TGA about playing a Bernie Sanders rally, how Seattle’s culture is being eroded, and how their new album Lost Time has more bite than their last
Seattle, Washington has long been an epicentre for creative expression, especially in the field of music. But Seattle, like many urban centres these days, is faced with major gentrification, which some feel threatens the beating heart of the city. For bands such as Tacocat, who are involved in the queer, punk and artistic communities there, this could be the death knell for a vibrant culture.
Lead singer Emily Nokes explains, “Right now, we’re having some serious growing pains with these ugly condos getting built where neat old buildings and businesses used to be”.
A major bugbear of many Seattle residents is the rise of tech industry ‘bro culture’, a subject Tacocat tackle in I Hate The Weekend, from their third album Lost Time (Hardly Art). The song relates the ordeals of people in the service industry dealing with ‘bridge and tunnel’ (a pejorative term for people from outlying areas of urban spaces who travel to cities on the weekend) rowdies.
“The tech-industry assholes who live in the condos are even worse,” says Nokes. “Rent goes up in the old apartments and artists get edged out of the queer neighborhood that is getting less and less friendly. Still, it feels like something we have to fight for as long as we can!”
And fight they do. Tacocat have been around since 2007, but 2016 might finally be the year that is ready to hear what this team of talented wags (we’re not talking footballers’ wives here), who use humour and sarcasm to make their lyrical and instrumental points, have been saying for a very long time indeed. On the surface they’re upbeat, and they’re so infectiously fun that it’s difficult to imagine that they could ever experience negativity at a show. But Emily pops that particular assumption bubble.
“We’ve played so many weird and bad shows it’s hard to pinpoint just one,” she says. “I think generally some of our worst shows included venue folks and/or sound guys being jerks for no reason, zero people watching us, broken equipment, playing with very mismatched bands (like, getting paired with very masculine or sexist bands), or all of the above. Thankfully those kinds of shows haven’t happened in a long time! Oh, and any time you have to play (usually while hungover) before 4pm, that’s the sign of a very hard show!”
Their whimsical surf pop is favourably reminiscent of All Girl Summer Fun Band. Their original and hilarious videos have helped to build their reputation, gaining them a huge following in the meantime. Last year, they found themselves the objects of one particular pop star’s affections in a nod to their Crimson Wave video on a grand scale: the same dancing sharks from their fabulous ode to being on the rag turned up as backing dancers during Katy Perry’s 2015 Super Bowl half-time show. Others might be undecided as to whether this was flattery or straight-up rip-offery – but Tacocat took it in their stride, and it was a sign that their visibility was on the upswing. And one upshot of their burgeoning popularity was the opportunity to record the theme song for the reboot of early-noughties cartoon, PowerPuff Girls.
“Cartoon Network emailed us out of nowhere, which was really crazy,” Emily says. “Of course, we said yes! It was a process of recording a few rough versions, speaking with the team over the phone, and working with a composer who flew from LA for the three-day recording process. It was very professional – more pro than anything we’ve ever recorded, with a lot more accuracy! Lots of practicing and getting the timing as perfect as we could.”
The first track on the new album shows deep nerd-love for an X-Files icon: Dana Katherine Scully, executed in Fifties-style beachy guitar flourishes.
“Around the time we were recording,” Emily says, “I started re-watching old episodes of The X-Files and just got really into the Scully character. I didn’t realise it as much when I was young, but she really is a feminist icon of the 1990s, but in a math/science/power-suit sort of way. Sort of the opposite aesthetic of Riot Grrrl punk, but no less fierce.
“I went on a pretty big sci-if book bender the last year or so also – anything by Philip K Dick and this really excellent Seattle-based author named Neal Stephenson (I highly recommend his latest book Seveneves), as well as classic feminist sci-if like Octavia Butler and Joanna Russ. I personally dig how sci-fi often explores gender or the absence of gender in these alien or futuristic scenarios. And the idea of new societies and what that means – if we could start over, what would we do away with? What mistakes would we avoid?”
Their music is frequently categorised as fun and playful, but it would be way too hasty to write off Tacocat as light-hearted and throwaway. Behind each song is a sharp-edged sword that cuts to the quick. For every Horse Grrls – an ode to the horse-obsessed girls we either were or knew of when growing up, there is Talk – a song that begs people to get off their phones and engage together face-to-face in real life.
Confronting issues such as attacks against women’s health issues (Plan A, Plan B), gentrification (I Hate The Weekend) and mansplaining (Men Explain Things To Me), Lost Time also touches on a major current issue: internet trolling. Acclaimed journalist, Lindy West, who wrote the liner notes for the album and who speaks out about feminism and body image, has long publicly discussed the vitriol spewed at her over the internet.
“Lindy is such a badass,” says Emily. “She faces more disgusting, unspeakably horrible idiots than maybe anyone I know, but she’s so smart and hilarious – they just can’t touch her. I can’t imagine how it must feel to be in her position, constantly facing a gauntlet of misogyny, but she marches forward and inspires so many women. And I do believe more people are finally listening to women who speak out these days, and taking them seriously. I can’t wait to read Lindy’s book Shrill – I hear it’s A+. It will be waiting in the mail when I get home from European tour!”
Compared to previous albums (Shame Spiral, NVM), Lost Time brings with it much more bite.
“It’s definitely a bit moodier, but moody in a good way,” explains Emily. “I wish there was a more positive word to define that feeling! I keep describing it with colors; if our first album, Shame Spiral, was bright yellow and NVM was hot neon pink, then I feel like Lost Time is a nice dark purple dotted with iridescent glitter. The drums are more massive as well, and I think the music and lyrics overall are a nice progression from our other albums. Erik Blood (producer) really took it to the next level – I love the way it sounds”.
Pacific Northwest groups such as Girlpool, Childbirth and Chastity Belt count among Tacocat’s contemporaries who all cite the Riot Grrrl movement of the early Nineties as a major source of inspiration in their own musical endeavours and politics – whether they expressly touch on Riot Grrrl’s preoccupations in their music or they simply appreciate what Riot Grrrl stood for as devoted fans. The band are proud fans of the movement’s iconic bands.
“Bratmobile is probably our favorite as a band, and we love Bikini Kill of course,” Emily offers. “Bree [bass] even has a Bikini Kill tattoo! I really like The Frumpies as well, and Huggy Bear. The influence of Riot Grrrl has been an integral part of our community and music. The ability to speak loudly about whatever you want, and play in a band even if you’re not already ‘technically skilled’, or whatever, at instruments. They paved the way for people to just go for it!”
Theirs is a band that is on the vanguard of current pop culture and personal politics. Recently invited to play a Bernie Sanders political rally, Emily describes it as an incredible experience: “Playing in a baseball stadium – [the Seattle Mariners’] Safeco Field – was really surreal and kinda funny, but Bernie’s speech later on was magic. I’ve never heard a politician talk patiently about issues that me, my community, and real people also feel passionate about. It felt very real. We all cried. It was an honour. And the secret service was so handsome and sweet!”
The American political landscape is an unavoidable subject, especially with controversial business mogul-turned-politician Donald Trump the presumptive nominee for the Republican party in the upcoming presidential elections.
“It does feel like the American left and right sides are more stretched apart than ever,” says Emily. “We’re making huge strides in general, with gay marriage and other basic human rights, but then we’re still arguing about abortion? And other ‘issues’ that should have been figured out before I was born? LGBTQ/women/POC [Protection of Civilians] policies are all over the place – high highs and low lows. And then we have an actual racist, sexist, classist, bigoted candidate basically trying to say that repugnant personality is ‘okay’ for the average white male? It’s horrifying.
“But then I try to focus on the good, and the ways in which people are speaking up and having their stories and voices heard. I could talk forever on this, but radicalism seems to eventually sink into the mainstream where it’s finally seen as the norm – it just takes an aggravating amount of time for some people to clearly see what side of history they should not be on. Perhaps a real revolution will happen in the meantime!”
Whether or not the revolution will be televised, streamed or otherwise, one thing is sure: TGA wants to spend the revolution partying with Tacocat. And the perfect Tacocat party? Well – Emily says, glossing on the blithe veneer once again – that would involve: “Best friends, best music, lots of dancing, a good theme that is strictly enforced, decorations, and maybe some karaoke. A smoke machine and laser lights couldn’t hurt!” Sign. Us. Up.
Catch Tacocat live on the following dates:
22 – Berlin, DE – Westgermany
23 – Gent, BE – Cafe Video
27-30 – George, WA – Sasquatch Music Festival
15 – San Francisco, CA – Bottom of the Hill
16 – Santa Barbara, CA – Velvet Jones
19 – Los Angeles, CA – The Echo
20 – San Diego, CA – Soda Bar
21 – Tucscon, AZ – Club Congress
22 – Phoneix, AZ – Valley Bar
23 – Sante Fe, NM – Meow Wolf