Stephanie Luke of The Coathangers Is “Not Hiding, Not Holding Back” on Side Project NRCSSST’s Debut Album (INTERVIEW)

Stephanie Luke has been the drummer and contributing songwriter with the influential Punk and Garage Rock band The Coathangers for going on 14 years, and has always brought flair to backing vocals, but she’s recently also teamed up with Dan Dixon of PLS PLS and Dropsonic for a new musical project, NRCSSST. Their self-titled debut LP arrived via Slimstyle in February, having squeaked a few live shows in before the pandemic. They are joined on the project and album by Chandler Rentz of Snowden on drums, André Griffin of PLS PLS on keys, and Danny Silvestri of Trances Arc on bass. Dixon’s studio at their home proved to be a welcome refuge during lockdown where they could tease out songs and final details to bring the album to life. The result is an album that will be tremendous live but brings the Rock and even Hard Rock energy of their showmanship home at a time when music fans need it most.

Stephanie Luke recently spoke with me about the leap to fronting a band and plunging into often “dark” lyrics to make sure NRCSSST comes from a place of honesty which they hope will connect with audiences most directly.  

Hannah Means-Shannon: Congratulations on putting out the first NRCSSST record, a totally new project, when managing to have done anything in 2020 seems like a miracle. 

Stephanie Luke: It was fun to do something different, out of my lane, then we thought, “Maybe we’ll actually do something with this.” Dan has a studio out back, which was just sitting there, and why wouldn’t we do something? His band wasn’t able to do anything either. We both were supposed to do South by Southwest last year and we’re all slowly losing our fucking minds. We’re all starting to get weird. 

HMS: How much of the album had you worked on before the pandemic?

SL: We had kind of recorded about half of it before, but as far as the going over things, the weeding out, the changing shit up, that was during Covid. It was funny because we didn’t put any pressure on ourselves. Usually everything’s supposed to be in a cycle, like, “You have to do it at a certain time or you’ll never make it in this industry!” But it was so nice to be able to do what we wanted and take the time.

Dan really pushed me to explore other options with my voice. You get used to doing something in one way for so long, because Coathangers have been together for 14 years or something crazy. I had gotten into the mindset of, “I’m the rusty voice! Yeah!” But then, I thought, “It would be nice to try and sing.” Meaning still in my voice, with my weirdness, but different. We just did whatever we wanted. We were singing his vibe with my vibe, which are quite different vibes, but at the core of it, we are both just Rock ‘n Rollers at the heart of it. That probably sounds super cheesy.


HMS: I think that’s spot on because this is very much a Rock album. I think that there’s a lot of attention to bass and bass lines on the songs, as well as the metallic aspects of guitar, and I wouldn’t like to categorize the songs too much, but I definitely think they are Rock, and Hard Rock at times, but in an alternative or independent vein.

SL: Yeah! It’s so hard to put a label on things these days. We wanted the album to sound cohesive, but we didn’t want all the songs to sound the same. There are some songs that are a little more Rock, then there are some that are more dance-y. We were thinking about making another music video and then we realized how dark the lyrics are! But for me, with writing, it’s always been very personal stuff and emotionally-charged stuff. Even on the last Coathangers album, that’s true. I feel like everyone goes through pain and I feel like that’s a very human thing, and it’s hard to put a level on things. Obviously, losing a cat is different than getting cancer, but in some ways, pain is pain. I just wanted to write lyrics about that. Dan is very good at making that stuff more general when it comes to lyrics, too, so I’m not just talking about my own pain. 

But otherwise, we just wanted to make a Rock record. But it was a matter of trying not to pocket ourselves into one dimension of music. I feel like I don’t even know what music is anymore. If I’m listening to the radio, it’s NPR. There are so many good musicians and bands out there, but you don’t hear it on the radio anymore. I’m going to turn 40 this year, and I feel like I don’t know how Spotify even works. Zero jokes aside, I borrowed my mom’s laptop because I’m going back to school, and I had to sit and learn PowerPoint. I sat and cried about it! 

HMS: Radio play is a whole mystery, too. But what seems to me to be happening with streaming music is that all the genres are falling apart and falling together, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. 

SL: They are! Also, I just want to hear what the kids are putting out, but where do you even go to do that? It’s still hard to discover stuff. We used to have college radio here [in Atlanta] and that got taken away. 

HMS: There’s a lot of information and it’s hard to decipher and organize to make choices. Like the internet itself, the more access people have for release, it’s harder to navigate that information. 

SL: It’s not a bad thing, but everything is oversaturated. Just putting stuff out online might also take away from just being in a band. I also miss just being able to go out and find out about new bands at shows. Things being taken away really does make you appreciate them more.

HMS: I definitely have discovered bands just by going to small local shows to check them out and I hope that continues. 

SL: Oh, please bring them back! 

HMS: What about playing live performance for you? I know that for Coathangers, live shows have been a huge part of the focus and creative growth of the band. For NRCSSST, I think you managed to play a few shows before things went crazy.

SL: We did. It was terrifying because I was sober and I’d never played shows sober before. Also, I’d never been lead singer up front the whole show. I literally didn’t know what to do with myself. One show, I was eating snacks on stage between songs. But now that we’ve finished the album, I feel like, “Rawwwr! I really want to give it to them!” Fuck feeling intimidated or shy. I feel like a lot of musicians are insecure but now there’s catharsis. I was overthinking things. I had also just never done this before without the girls. They are something similar to a safety blanket.

HMS: I’m sure the physical space of being in the front is totally different, too.

SL: Yes, but in a good way. It put me outside of my comfort zone. But I was thinking, “Oh my god, what have I done?!” I’m also six feet tall, so on stage, I didn’t know what to do with any of this. Having Dan by my side always made me feel more comfortable up there, but it’s like anything that comes with practice. It’s about getting into that routine. But we got a taste of it, then it was taken away from us. So much does come from playing live shows.

HMS: These are all songs that would be wonderful live. They all seem geared towards that connection.

SL: Yes! Definitely. At one of the shows, I did have a girl come up to me afterwards and say, “One of those songs made me cry!” I’ll take it. It’s nice to be able to have that human connection through music. Music has always done that for me.

HMS: You mentioned having to think about yourself vocally for this album. Did you have to build your voice up at all or were you able to jump to a full album of recording okay? 

SL: It was basically Dan telling me to stop forcing it, to relax, and see what would happen. The biggest thing for me was finding my vocal range so I’d be comfortable. This girl can’t sing up high but as long as I’m not out of that range, I could figure it out. Dan was very Producer-like about it, and instead of building my voice up, it was more like chilling it out. 

HMS: The vocal performances on this album are really interesting. I haven’t heard anything like this before, honestly. It’s really great to hear different vocal approaches out there.

SL: It’s really nice to hear that, because growing up, I was always considered to have a “deeper, masculine voice”. I was thought of as being tall like a dude and of talking like a dude. And only as an adult can I realize, “Wait, that’s not a fucking bad thing.” Also, things were different in the 90s. But seeing all these movements coming back up about gender and equality, and women just sticking up for themselves has been really exciting to see. A lot of fucking badass bitches are doing badass shit on every level! And they are young. The genre we were in back then was always more of a boys’ club so it’s a big deal. 

HMS: There’s a lot of energy there. And as we were talking about regarding the internet earlier, the access to releasing music has been a great equalizer, leveling things. I wanted to ask if you’ve been writing songs all your life. I know that everyone in Coathangers contributes to songwriting, but I wasn’t sure how you approach songwriting.

SL: Me and Julia, when we first started out, would sit outside a coffee shop and write songs together. I’ve got a lot to say apparently! Music gave me that platform. I was a nerd, then I got into Punk Rock, and got to watch everyone else scream about it. That’s why we started the Coathangers. We thought, “We want to be the ones screaming shit! We’ve got shit to say.” 

That’s how it happened with NRCSSST too. Me and Dan would write together. Though there are some songs where he wrote lyrics, he did the musical arrangement and everything. He used to play in a band called Dropsonic and he’s a phenomenal guitarist, as well as playing piano, bass, and drums. So he’s a one-stop shop. When we started, The Coathangers didn’t know how to play our instruments, so here it was nice to work with a different kind of musician who has this amazing ability to write songs and produce different types of music. I’ve been very grateful to write with Dan. We want to start writing some more songs again. We’re ready to get back into the groove.

HMS: Let me also ask you about the video for “Don’t Know Me”, the whole idea of which is crazy and interesting, and the performances are hilarious. When did you do all this?

SL: We did it back in October and we knew that we had to be super fucking safe about it. We couldn’t do too much, but everyone involved was from the Atlanta music scene, and friends of ours or musicians. My sister was in it. We made sure everyone had gotten tested and it was in a big space called Aisle 5. We had the place to ourselves and did it all in five hours. It was super fun. Dan came up with the idea for it. 

There was a show called “Stairway to Stardom”, a legit late 70s, early 80s type of thing with this creepy old dude and his wife. It looked like it was filmed in his wife’s basement or the local VFW hall. You can find it on Youtube. We watched all of these people who were for real about wanting to become “stars”. We wanted to make the video kind of funny, too, that was serious but not too serious.

HMS: It’s a great framing device for live play because it’s kind of fictional and not fictional at the same time.

SL: Exactly! We wanted to play as a band in the video because that’s what people want right now since they can’t go to shows, but we also wanted to have a fun storyline to it. We’re trying to come up with another story for a video. 

HMS: That song seems very relatable to me, though I’m not sure I’m interpreting it the way that was intended. I was thinking that with social media, the way that we relate to each other means that we have a lot of acquaintances who are not close friends, but social media gives the impression of people knowing each other better than they do. And then sometimes people tell us who to be based on what they think they know about us, which is so limiting. 

SL: Yes, pretty much! That’s really good. It’s also about people who you’re close to who maybe you’re not friends with anymore. Maybe things fell through. And you think, “Man, I thought you knew me, but obviously you do not.” It goes vice-versa, thinking, “I thought I knew you, but definitely not!” It’s about people judging and not really knowing you. And then you have to tell them, “You know what? You don’t know me. Get the hell out of the way!” 

HMS: It can be liberating to have a sense of pushback on that. It feels like a positive thing to say that sometimes. 

SL: It’s almost like standing up for yourself sometimes. 

HMS: What about the song “All I Ever Wanted”? There’s plenty of critique in there about jobs and modern life and a sense of being stuck. What I like about that is that it goes both ways and seems to criticize human beings for not knowing what they want. It’s not a prescription to fix things but a commentary on reality.

SL: Yes, it’s not a prescription. Sometimes you get stuck without noticing it, and then you think you know what you wanted, but you think, “Maybe I wanted something else.” It’s also about getting stuck in a certain idea of who you think you are or being stuck in a small town but wanting something else. But you look at the clock and think, “Oh, shit, it’s been ten years.” 

HMS: You mentioned that you think the lyrics are pretty dark on some of these songs, but a number of them have a sense of discomfort that might be important. You’re pointing out that things aren’t comfortable but maybe that needs to be pointed out.

SL: Yes, it’s open-ended. I’m trying to keep everything on a basis that everyone can relate to. I don’t want people to think we’ve got it figured out because sometimes there isn’t an answer. The album is more about storytelling and making sure we’re not hiding behind anything or holding anything back.

Photo credit: Allyson Reeves

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