For the four girls in Atlanta's the Coathangers, starting a band wasn't about paying homage to any sort of musical deity, nor was it about some kind of artistic/musical vision. For Julia Kugel, Stephanie Luke, Candice Jones and Meredith Franco, it was just about doing something with friends that sounded fun.
"We all went to this anti-Bush rally up in D.C., and it's like a 10- or 11-hour drive, so we had a lot of time to talk," explained Luke, the Coathangers' drummer. "We were kind of inspired by the whole event, and we were like, 'Wouldn't it be so much fun to just start a band and be able to do whatever we want, and say whatever we want?'"
So the four girls, who are all close friends, started gathering instruments.
"When we got back into town, I stole a drum set from a friend of mine who owed me money because he had stolen a bike of mine," said Luke. "At the time, Julia and Candice were living together, and I set it up in their living room, and we just kind of started fucking around with making noise."
Luke had never played drums before, she explained. Kugel knew acoustic guitar, but had never really played electric. Jones had played keyboards "a little bit, but not really," said Luke, and as for the bass ... well, it was pretty much forced onto Franco. "I had an old bass that a friend had given to me a long time ago that I'd never picked up, and so I was like, 'Here, you play this,'" said Luke. "'You have to play bass. You have to because you just have to.'"
So all four girls began learning their instruments, piecing together original punk, pop and/or rock songs from the get-go.
"I grew up with friends in bands, and they would always practice other people's songs, and we did not," said Luke. "I think that's kind of how our sound came to be, because we weren't taking from anything else—we were just taking from making up our own kind of sound, and I think that's what makes the Coathangers different, and maybe to some people, horrible. It's kind of a nonsound sound. It doesn't really stem from anything. It stems from us."
This is something the Coathangers are insistent upon: being themselves, sounding like themselves and staying entirely true to what is good and fun for them.
"I think our chemistry is what makes us," said Franco. "We're all on the same level, because we all started in this together, and we're all growing together."
The result is a little messy, a little raw and a little sweet, but always delivered with an energy and enthusiasm that sounds much more thought-out and involved than the members of the Coathangers would have you believe.
On the band's first, self-titled album, songs with titles like "Don't Touch My Shit," "Shut the Fuck Up" and "Nestle in My Boobies" gave many the impression that the Coathangers were angry militant feminists with a very focused agenda. But, explained Luke, the reality is much tamer: They are just a band of friends who happen to be girls, singing and sometimes screaming about things that piss them off or that they find funny.
"I think when a girl is up there screaming, it's just like, 'Oh my god, what? A girl is up there screaming!' Well, guys scream in bands all the time, and they don't get the same response," said Luke. "... We're feminist, but I think that people forget that being a feminist means equality—it doesn't mean anti-man. Being a feminist is being all about equality, and I know that's not necessarily how the world works, but I think Julia said it best yesterday when she was like, 'Being in a girl band has helped us as much as it's hurt us. We've gotten positive attention and also negative attention, so it's just as equal.' That's just how it is."
Franco added, "People take our lyrics too seriously sometimes. Like even with 'Nestle in My Boobies'—people went crazy about that song, putting all kinds of meanings onto it, but there isn't anything even remotely serious about it. It was just about me nestling in Julia's boobies one time, because she's taller than me. Really, that's how it came about. It's just silly stuff like that."
Silly stuff aside, the Coathangers are keenly aware of what they are saying and how. They are an all-girl band that doesn't focus on the fact that they are all women, but they don't try to hide it, either. On their most recent album, Scramble (Suicide Squeeze), the anger is still there, but expressed in much more focused and muted ways. The most striking titles on Scramble are "Gettin' Mad and Pumpin' Iron" and "Arthritis Sux."
Explained Luke, "I'm still just as pissed off as I was two years ago or whatever, but I think we've learned to say it in different ways."
Which is, after all, why they started a band in the first place—to say whatever they wanted, however they wanted. And as a group of close friends who started playing music together, they are an incredible example of individual equality in action.
"How we are on stage is who we are as people," said Luke. "It's amplified to an 11, of course, because we're all jumpy and excited and drunk or whatever, but we try to just stay true to who we are and put that out in the music we play."
What this means for the Coathangers is that they try to be a band the only way they know how: switching around instruments if the feeling strikes. Shooting Silly String at their audience if the feeling strikes. Passing out balloons to their audience. Writing punk songs beseeching the large-footed upstairs neighbor to "Stop stompin' around, stop stompin'!" ("Stop Stomp Stompin'").
"We kind of have a party at every show," said Franco. "I mean, I would like that if I went to a show."