It's perfectly natural to be skeptical about any band that blows up before it has even left the gate. Huddled around a corner table at the Righteous Room on Ponce on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the four ladies who make up Atlanta's latest post-punk sensation, the Coathangers, all chatter and nod enthusiastically in agreement. Even they are hesitant to embrace the wave of hype the group has received and don't fully understand why it has happened so quickly. It takes no prodding at all to get them to acknowledge that a good part of the attention has something to do with the fact that they are one of few all-girl bands in Atlanta. And while gender has been an ally in the group's swift ascent, it is also a burden.
In less than a year, Julia Kugel (guitar/vocals), Stephanie Luke (drums/vocals), Candice Jones (keyboard/vocals) and Meredith Franco (bass/vocals) have grown from a band of girlfriends who couldn't really play their instruments to a formidable musical act. Their songs are simple, powerful punk-rock party anthems infused with giddy, girly energy that sways between juvenilia and avant-garde primitivism. The group's self-titled debut full-length drops Tuesday, Sept. 4, as a joint venture between Atlanta's punk/garage-rock stalwarts Rob's House Records and Die Slaughterhaus Records.
On the local level virtually every music rag has raved about the Coathangers, and in New York the group has played sold-out shows opening for the Black Lips. This sudden wave of attention has divided listeners into legions of lovers and haters. Most music critics can't say enough to flatter the band. But mention the Coathangers in any bar in Atlanta, and you'll get an earful of piss and vinegar from surly men and women – most of whom nervously change their tune when asked for a quote.
Most of these beefs can be chalked up to jealousy and jadedness over the simple fact that this is a girl group that's making music to have fun. Indeed, the Coathangers are not Fugazi, and by the group's admission they strive not to take themselves too seriously. "If people want to hate on us for that, that's fine. But we've been ourselves from day one," Luke says.
Even as musicians, women must contend with the issues of workplace equality and self-expression that have driven feminists for decades, Luke explains before citing the Palo Alto, Calif., punk band the Donnas and the image reshaping that sucked the life out of the band as a prime example. "They started out true to themselves," she says. "They were playing shitty but fun punk-rock songs, and they wore jeans. When they got signed to a major they got marketed as this sexy girl band. It was all overdone with the makeup and the image, and that's when the music started sucking."
She underscores her point about women being marketed differently than men by posing a question. What if someone took a local male group, like the punked-out Carbonas, and tried to alter their image to fit a boy-band mold? "It's ridiculous! No one will ever try to do that, nor would the Carbonas let them," she continues. "I hope no one ever tries to do that to the Coathangers. But when it comes to girl groups, people expect it and know that it's usually all about fashion and being sexy."
As a fellow musician, former SIDS bassist Erin Carmichael echoes Luke's frustration and applauds the Coathangers' efforts to break the cycle. "It's frustrating when people focus more on your looks than your music," she says. "What does that say about your musicianship if nobody notices that first? It's hard to be known as just a chick in a band when you really want to be known for being a bad-ass bass player."
The strongest point of contention regarding the Coathangers arises over the song "Nestle in My Boobies" and its caterwauling chorus: "They're soooo comfortable!" Listeners either love it or hate it, and it provokes all sorts of questions about sexual objectification, female empowerment and artistic integrity.
Brad Hurst, who owns the Hoss Records label and performs under the name R Mexico, is not a fan. "'Nestle in My Boobies' strikes me as just a novelty. It's like a third-grade version of Peaches," he says, referring to the female artist who has built a career on blurring the line between genders in songs such as "Fuck the Pain Away."
Hurst makes a legitimate point, but what is it that separates "Nestle in My Boobies" from a serious song such as Bikini Kill's "Suck on My Left One," which is something of a riot-girl battle anthem?
"The difference is intent," Hurst continues. "Kathleen Hannah [of Bikini Kill] knew exactly what she wanted to say. If you tell people that you're just messing around with a song like that, it sets the bar pretty low, and you should expect some sniping."
Emily Maxwell, an employee at Wax 'N' Facts Records in Little Five Points, is a self-proclaimed Coathangers fan. She admits it was difficult to warm up to the group at first, mostly because of the "chick band" stereotypes. But ultimately it was the group's charisma during live shows that won her over. For Maxwell, "Nestle in My Boobies" is just plain fun. "I am a pretty hardcore feminist while still being able to function in the world and laugh at stuff that's funny," she says. "Even if you are a feminist or you want to be objectified, at some point you probably want to have your boobies nestled. Who doesn't? It's awesome. Get over it. Sure, it's juvenile, but with the Coathangers it's not every song – which is what makes it fun. It's absurd to hate on them for that."