Search The Line of Best Fit
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Tacocat lead image

Between punk rock and a hard place

02 May 2019, 08:00
Words by Cady Siregar
Original Photography by Helen Moga

Against a backdrop of political punchlines and peak meme culture, Cady Siregar discovers how Seattle punks Tacocat are the real, rainbow deal

Seattle indie-punk quartet Tacocat has always been a political band, be it through their socially aware, lyrically biting songs disguised as catchy, bubblegum-infused numbers or representation. A band made up of four best friends who met by way of art school and mutual connections over a decade ago, Tacocat is highly involved in their home town’s queer scene and artistic community.

Led by vocalist Emily Noakes and rounded off by guitarist Eric Randall, bassist Bree McKenna and drummer Lelah Maupin, the foursome bonded over the riot grrrl movement and similar political ideologies, and Kevin Costner’s Waterworld. They have since built a reputation for their colourful, rose-tinted, vibrant punk songs that touch on subjects from gentrification in Seattle, mansplaining and the joys of the first day of menstruation. Amid an ongoing global political crisis, the band’s energy and sickly-sweet surf-rock are a breath of fresh air.

On their latest full-length (and Sub Pop debut) This Mess Is a Place, however, Tacocat’s political lyrical outlook extends past the gentrifying Seattle condo-dwellers, crimson waves and Internet trolls to a more general state of mind. Having released their previous studio effort Lost Time just seven months before the 2016 presidential election, their subsequent tour of the United States was characterised by an ill-feeling and a general sense of unease in anticipation of what was to happen that November.

“It was markedly different touring the United States during that period,” recalls Noakes. “Certain, awful things suddenly became okay to say. People weren’t pretending to be misogynists anymore. They weren’t pretending to not be racist. I could feel things changing, and I think we all felt it. Like, woah, I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

This Mess Is a Place was written in the aftermath of the outcome U.S. presidential election, a band trying to make sense of their surroundings through feelings of loss, disappointment and searing disillusionment. After taking a brief period to regroup and try to formulate how Tacocat could write and create art in a time of political and societal dystopia, This Mess Is a Place is a record that explores feelings of cultural cynicism and biting social commentary through a lens of wry optimism.

“The election happened and we were just trying to write for the first time in this new landscape,” Noakes continues. “It was really hard. There were just so many different feelings of confinement. When I finally started [to write], it was a personally depressing time. It also felt like our community was depressed as a whole, as well as our larger sense of identity as radical people. So I just got right back down to how I felt at that moment.”

Tacocat refuse to get lost in the disillusionment, however. Their lyrics are more penetrating, and their ideas are no longer limited to just the confines of the liberal bubble that is Seattle. The band’s subject matter applies to a larger, more general worldview, and their positive outlook shines through their vibrant and colourful musicianship.

It’s something that comes across with the band’s visual aspect as well. The members of Tacocat look as if they have been puked on by several rainbows, and the band’s shows are high-energy, chaotic punk parties. Even when they’re singing about questioning power structures or the struggles of the service industry, they manage to look as if they’re having the time of their lives.

“We usually are!” Noakes says. “I guess that’s how it all plays into our sound. It’s also the kind of people we are since we met each other quite a while ago. We’ve been super tight friends ever since, and we try to be fairly optimistic.”

Much like Seattle compatriots Chastity Belt, Tacocat write about social issues through a humorous lens. They infuse comedy into their feminist lyrics. “Sew a scarlet letter on my bathing suit, ‘cause I've got sharks in hot pursuit / All the girls are surfin’ the wave” Emily iterates on ‘Crimson Wave’. It allows the band to seize control of whatever they’re talking about and to fight injustice with humour.

“I had a typically extremely angry youth. I was thinking that everybody was so sexist, everything was so bigoted,” says Noakes. “But I realised that my best power was this ability to make fun of something, or to see the satire in the moment or the character or to put something like a caricature. Doing that seemed to give it less power, and gave me more.”

While punk bands typically rely on rage and caustic soundscapes to deliver their message – certainly a rising crop of newer post-punk bands enjoy spitting out lyrics chastising class warfare and their general sense of disillusionment alongside distorted, feral guitars – Tacocat take the opposite approach.

“And it’s not to say that feeling super angry or sad when you’re writing isn’t a very valid way to do it,” she continues. “It just doesn’t come naturally to us. What does come naturally is being able to laugh at certain situations – otherwise it’s going to kill you.”

"The Joke of Life" perfectly encapsulates this sentiment. As the song title suggests, the band lament how reality has turned into the punchline of a terrible, horrible joke. It laments living in a world where it is difficult separating satire from what’s real, and where every news headline seems as taken straight out of The Onion. Where does the fantasy stop and the reality begin?

“The joke is that the joke is already a joke,” Noakes sings. “No space left in between when the pros and the cons are the same / Can you tell the nightmare from the dream?”

"The right’s making memes, the left’s making memes. People are just writing fake garbage and posting headlines without reading the actual article. Facts don’t matter the way that they used to.” - Emily Noakes

Indeed, with the goings-on of every news cycle, it seems as if life has turned into a meme. With every further descent into the post-apocalyptic, dystopian society, it’s getting harder to distinguish comedy from breaking news. Just take a cursory look at the Twitter timeline of the current president of the United States, or every Fox News headline taking every chance they get to lambast Democrat Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez. Or how a British MP gets chastised for drinking an alcoholic beverage from M&S on the tube, while the actual Prime Minister gets away with racial profiling and unjust deportations on an almost daily basis.

The descent into a global political crisis has also seen the world enter its peak meme-age, though memes have grown into an iteration of anarchic folk propaganda. Political memes have a long-lasting, potentially detrimental, effect as they influence one’s outlook on life. By reducing a political tragedy or event of political upheaval into a meme, it gets reduced to something for comedic effect as a way for the masses to better cope with their distress. Hillary Clinton’s top tweet is a meme but so is what cost her the entire 2016 election: her emails.

“Fake news is old news at this point, but it [writing that song] was just me thinking how horrible it was that everybody’s making memes,” Noakes explains.

“Everybody. The right’s making memes, the left’s making memes. People are just writing fake garbage and posting headlines without reading the actual article. Facts don’t matter the way that they used to.”

Being from Seattle has shaped the band’s identity. Already having overseen the riot grrrl movement in the 1990s led by Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, Seattle’s foundations have continued to embed the framework. The city is also, not to mention, the home of iconic record label Sub Pop – responsible for the rise of the grunge movement for signing the likes of Nirvana and Soundgarden – and is a welcoming, creative and diverse community of queer and POC artists.

Seattle, like other progressive and creative cities, is also a liberal bubble, something that the band has admitted. Though smaller than metropoles New York or San Francisco, it can still manifest as a closed-off echo chamber. Tacocat, however, refuse to be contained in the political liberal vacuum.

“I remember we were about to travel to Durham and someone had put on Facebook that bands needed to boycott going to North Carolina to teach these legislative dudes or whatever a lesson,” Noakes remembers from their 2016 tour.

“I just thought that that was so the opposite of what needed to happen. I guess if you're Bruce Springsteen, that's fine. That's a move that's actually going to affect more of the people that like your music. But not everyone who lives in a certain place has the option to leave. Or maybe they want to try making wherever they live into a better place.”

As active voices in the queer and liberal community, Tacocat’s music and leftist ideology resonate with younger fans, especially those who live in states that don’t necessarily allow them to.

“We’ve been really lucky on most of our times going through Southern or conservative states that most of the kids who come to our shows are really in line with the ways that we think,” says Noakes. "It’s really heartening to see. I think that’s why it’s important to tour and important to go to smaller cities and places where not everyone thinks how we do.”

Of course, touring certain conservative-leaning states in the South as an openly liberal band isn’t easy. You can’t understand some bands wanting to avoid traveling to some areas of the South for their own safety. But Tacocat is determined to connect with their fans who live in states that aren’t very welcoming, even if it means that they encounter abusive behaviour and aggression along the way.

“It was just really surreal [touring the South],” recalls Noakes. “We've been touring for about a for 11 years and it just felt… there were just so many more really bold, really disgusting billboards. There are these really [awful] bumper stickers, and it became this weird feeling. I’d get this prickly sensation of what was ahead. This feeling of, what if he does get elected, and what does that mean?”

During one point of their 2016 U.S. tour in support of Lost Time, the band experienced instances of bigoted behaviour. One time, a band of friends they had toured with were on a break at a gas station somewhere in the South and were decompressing by skateboarding in the parking lot. Noakes describes a moment a man in a truck arrived and calling them homophobic slurs due to the way they were dressed.

“The woman who ran the gas station came running outside and started screaming too. But she wasn’t screaming at the guy - she was screaming at the band! Not at the guy who was threatening to kill them,” remembers Noakes. “Things like that do happen in certain areas, and it’s so surreal. But it does happen. We’ve seen lots of horrible things on tour.”

‘New World’ is Noakes re-imagining a completely new society where bigoted things like this don’t happen. In classic sci-fi fashion, the song has Noakes describe what, in her mind, a new world would be like, should our current iteration of Earth as we know it suddenly crumbles and the human population is forced to take up habitation on a new and other planet.

“I woke up today and everything was different, didn’t have to feel bad for a change / I woke up today and everything was better, put together, rearranged,” she sings.

For Noakes, an ideal new world won’t have ugly buildings and parking tickets, for one. No more 9-to-5’s either, making way for things a chance at redemption, and “the bottom made to be on top”. It could be a subtle hint towards flipping of class structure, a complete upheaval of society, allowing us to start fresh.

“I just kept thinking, what would you do if everything was different?” asks Noakes. “It’s based on this concept of somehow, everything is changed. How would you want it to feel? Just feeling tender about wanting to make a new world to make my friends happier. I felt this sense of yearning."

Tacocat - or at least their frontwoman - are noted sci-fi fans, and ‘New World’ isn’t their only nod to the genre. 2016’s "Dana Katherine Scully" is an ode to Gillian Anderson’s iconic X-Files character, with her “no-nonsense attitude”. She even began the 'Scully Effect', a phenomenon that inspired more young women to choose fields in science and medicine. The title of the band’s previous record is a reference to the series pilot, which explores the concept of lost time.

What the track title isn’t a reference to, however, is Aldous Huxley’s 1932 dystopian novel Brave New World. The novel explores the idea of a future World State comprising of genetically modified citizens, anticipating scientific developments to create a utopian society.

"It's not specific to that novel, although that novel was in mind, as was Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Songs of a Distant Earth’,” explains Noakes. “It’s the classic sci-fi concept of how we destroyed the world and now we’re all getting a spaceship to go to the next option.”

Creating music and art is the musician’s main form of catharsis and a way to deal with the relentless, brutal news cycle where every day brings about a new dystopian tragedy. But Tacocat’s political unrest dates far beyond 2016, from when they first moved to Seattle and before the city became the liberal, creative hub that it is today.

"A cool privilege of being a band for so long, and moving up a little bit in the ranks of venues, is having more choices." - Emily Noakes

“When we first started as a band, it was very different [in Seattle],” recounts Noakes. “It was the era of indie rock specific to men. Watching it change and grow and turn into this totally boss movement has been amazing, but it’s still a struggle here.”

Seattle wasn’t always so inclusive of POC and femme-identifying bands. Though now Tacocat use their platform to promote female-fronted and queer acts by only booking festivals that have a diverse bill, they weren’t able to do so when they first started in Seattle – since there were so few of them.

“You couldn't even choose to play with a female fronted band because there weren’t very many around early on,” says Noakes. “We’d be the novelty band at any kind of bill.”

Now, though, the landscape is changing, with the emergence of bands like Chastity Belt and La Luz – artists like Lisa Prank have moved there in recent years. For Tacocat, it’s important for them to be autonomous in promoting diversity in music by only choosing to play festivals whose bills are diverse and representative of minorities. They, for one, take it upon themselves to reject offers to play festivals with notorious all-male, all-white line-ups – as doing so would be enablement.

“At our first show ever someone screamed at us Taco Pussy,” she laughs. “A cool privilege of being a band for so long, and moving up a little bit in the ranks of venues, is having more choices. We’re getting able to have the autonomy in saying, ‘No, we're not going to play with this band or someone who we've heard might be an abuser.’ I don't ever want to get lazy and just be like, yeah, let's just play with you know, five dude bands.”

This Mess Is a Place is Tacocat’s debut on Sub Pop after releasing their two previous records on imprint Hardly Art. Will a step up to a bigger, more major label hopefully allow Tacocat to continue to be self-governing with their decision to play only certain music festivals, and to use their platform for the better?

“Definitely,” is Noakes’ reply. “I think we wanted to move everything up in scale. It offers us the ability to be doing a little bit more of what we've already been doing – but on a broader scale."

When you see blacked-out festival lineups that only showcase the female musicians, leaving just a handful of names scattered amid an ocean of blankness, you’re left to wonder if it is a joke – or just how a festival like that was able to be curated with so few women. Part of the responsibility, of course, lies with the festival organisers and bookers, but you’re also left to think if the responsibility also lies on the male acts who do agree to perform, despite knowing that there is such an unequal gender balance – or perhaps they are just simply ignorant of the gender bias.

This kind of ignorance and complacency is touched upon in ‘Rose Colored Sky’. In it, Noakes calls out those who have been able to breeze through life without having to experience any kind of systematic disadvantage due to their privilege.

“You haven’t done anything wrong / Because you haven’t anything!” she sings. “No expectation, no maze to navigate / No failed examination, first prize just to participate!”

In the song, the vocalist elaborates about how her marginalised experiences have shaped her identity, and how she can’t ever imagine not being on the battleground. She then elaborates on her frustrations of how, in the wake of the 2016 elections, there was a mass scramble in her community – about how benefits needed to be thrown, fundraisers needed to be held – though it always seemed as if it was only the women musicians being asked to do things.

“That was something that bucked me,” Noakes says. “We were getting asked to do all these benefits for these really important causes. But then I was like, wait a minute… what if someone else raised money for us?”

As a female musician, there is an expectancy to speak out on political and societal issues such as sexual assault, domestic violence #MeToo movement.

“Writing ‘Rose Colored Sky’, I was very frustrated,” she states, emphatically. “I was thinking, I should say something about this. I should say something about that. People expect us to. But nobody’s asking any dudes to do anything! No one’s asking Fleet Foxes to say anything political.”

“I also feel complicated about having an old dude line up raising money for anything,” she continues. “It kind of felt ironic in the fact that what would we do if we weren’t talking about this stuff all the time? What would it be to be a dude who just gets to write songs about whatever they want anything at all, and have people just take that at face value.”

She brings up a good point. One of the main reasons as to why male bands don’t tend to write political songs is that they don’t experience as much injustice as women do; the benefit of their privilege.

“I do feel if we just came out with an album that had literally no any kind of political reference whatsoever, that that would feel weird for us,”

But would Tacocat even be happy to write songs with no political outlook? Here, then, comes the often awkward balance of balancing your political ideals with your gender, and feeling more inclined to speak out about societal injustices as a minority. But where, then does the balance fall, if you want to focus on being, say, a female band who is outspoken and political – but without paying too much attention to the fact that you are female, leading to the unimaginative questions of “What is it like to be a woman in music?”

“I do feel if we just came out with an album that had literally no any kind of political reference whatsoever, that that would feel weird for us,” admits Noakes. “It would also probably feel weird for other people.”

“I think it's really important that communities rallies behind communities and that people take the time to help others who that might not understand certain concepts so easily" - Emily Noakes

To Tacocat, the representation of their band is important. The frustrations of having the balance of being a female-fronted band and a band who don’t want to focus on their gender politics, however, does get difficult. How do you continue to be a feminist band without having your gender be your whole identity - when it should just be about the music?

“It’s hard. There are always two sides of the coin,” says Noakes. “On one hand, we’re feminists and it’s my whole identity. We’re talking about it all the time. Every single thing about us is extremely feminist and political. But there’s the other side of the coin where it’s like… I am a feminist who plays guitar, but I would rather you just focus on my skills. Don’t talk about my gender at all.”

So how can we, as a society, do better? Is there any possibility of becoming better? Is it possible to achieve a "New World" full of hope and light? Do we have a chance of improving for the betterment of humanity? Is there a way back at all or us? “I do think so,” Noakes admits.

“I think it's really important that communities rallies behind communities and that people take the time to help others who that might not understand certain concepts so easily. Just reviewing about getting on the same page. I think it’s a very important aspect of anything going forward in the future or here.”

Coming from the landlocked state of Montana, Noakes was given a whole new outlook on life when she moved to Seattle. Her entire worldview was changed, and she began to learn more and more about the society around her – but only because she herself accepted that she needed to grow and learn.

“The ability to learn is crucial,” she continues. “I do think that one privilege our side has is education. Sometimes we don’t realise it. It’s not everyone’s job to self-educate. But sometimes you do need to take a step back and think, okay, maybe everybody has a different way of dealing with this kind of thing. It can be really that there are people who genuinely want to join in helping, and they genuinely want to learn, and they genuinely want to be involved. But it can be really intimidating if there's no entry point for you because you just aren't quite up to speed on all of this new stuff.”

The ability to be able to accept that you need to learn, and to be open to learning, is not just the focal point of Noakes’ personal philosophy, but the band’s as well.

“I hope our legacy as Tacocat is to be a gateway for people. I want to inspire younger kids to start a band,” she says. “I didn’t see anyone ever doing that when I was a kid. I didn’t even know that you could. I just want to keep learning and being flexible, and listening. Everybody could do with a lot more listening. I want to be inclusive and intersectional, and always just being open to learn.”

Whatever a ‘New World’ might turn out to be, one thing is for sure. It definitely has Tacocat.

This Mess Is a Place is released on 3 May via Sub Pop
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