[Get Tix to Tacocat at the Aladdin on 6/28 HERE]
Punk enthusiasts are already familiar with Tacocat; for anyone who isn’t, it’s time to tune in. Today, when social responsibility and vocal leadership are traits at center stage, the band’s core message of equality, feminine empowerment and individualism rings crucially true.
Tacocat’s debut album, Shame Spiral, dropped nearly nine years ago. At the time, as bass player Bree McKenna told us, they played wherever they could book a gig. That meant traveling the country playing house parties and venues that didn’t always fit their progressive perspective. But as is the transcendent beauty of art, the music always attracted a core demographic that wanted to rock about the right things. In early May, the band put out its newest album (and Sub Pop debut), This Mess is a Place. It marked the next step in the group’s ascension and provides an elevated platform for their particular brand of punk.
Driven by sharp hooks, a tight rhythm section and strong vocals at the forefront, Tacocat has built an established sound. Earlier albums found the group taking a “gang” vocal approach, reinforcing heavier moments with multiple voices. This Mess is a Place takes on a more refined tenor. It’s concise. The instrumentals snap together. It’s less aggressive without being saccharine – a trap many punk bands fall into when the tempo slows down. The message shines clearly through: the world isn’t fair, and it’s your responsibility to use your privilege to help others.
As the band kicks off its next tour in support of This Mess is a Place, McKenna spoke with us from the sticky South to talk about how the album came together, their focus on the “why” behind the music and perks of working with Sub Pop.
ELEVEN: So where are you right now? North Carolina?
Bree McKenna: We’re in North Carolina. It’s very hot and humid here – it’s like 80 degrees.
11: Where are you playing next?
BM: We’re playing in Durham tomorrow night. Tonight we’re playing the Pinhook, which is one of our very favorite venues.
11: How come?
BM: It’s very friendly to the feminist queer theme – sometimes in the south that environment is really cool. To have a safe space for everyone who enjoys our music…
11: I was going to ask a little later, but this is a good time. As you’re touring around the country and booking venues, is that something you’re thinking about?
BM: It is something we can look to now, now that we have the privilege of having options. When we first started as a band, we were just playing wherever they would book us for a show. We’d end up playing like a weird frat party in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. There’s definitely places we’ve preferred to other places, and we’ve always tried to play with bands who are LGBTQ, feminist bands, and people of color. We’ve prioritized playing with bands that are sort of like-minded people in our community.
11: Is that hard? It seems like, given the current climate, that it wouldn’t be too hard to find bands that share that viewpoint. Do you have a pretty robust network at this point?
BM: We actually do. It took a long time… As a band, we just hit our 12-year mark. We started this band when we were, like, kids – we grew up in this band. It’s crazy how over the years, playing so many shows, we were able to just kind of weed out who wasn’t a fit to play with, and it just got better and better. And now I feel really stoked about where we’re at and who we’re able to play with.
11: You mentioned before that privilege of being able to pick where you play now. What are some of the most empowering factors with that? Do you enjoy not having to go back to some of these places, or do you think there’s some sort of power in being able to go back to places that maybe weren’t the friendliest and being able to be a piece of culture for them?
BM: I like trying to find an environment that people who like our music are going to feel comfortable at. That hasn’t always been the case at all our shows.
11: Another thing I was wondering, in line with that, is about the newest album. Do you think it’s possible at this point for any public-facing artist to make anything other than some sort of a political statement, or like a piece of art that has some kind of activism attached to it? Do you feel like you have a responsibility?
BM: Yeah, I don’t think it really is. Doing nothing is a political act in itself, in this time we’re in. It’s just trying to do the right thing and stand up for people. It’s just the right thing to do, with any privilege you have.
11: On the new album, This Mess is a Place, there are a lot of songs that track different kinds of privilege and different kinds of people, and I’m wondering, as you start to make this album or make art in the future, how much do you focus on the message versus art for art’s sake?
BM: Oh, yeah, that’s a good question because during the process, the way and state of the world right now, it was kind of hard to imagine the kind of record we’d make. Every record we’ve made as a band was always slow and organic – always just a response to the world. We thought really hard about how we wanted the record to turn out. It’s a response to the toll of our current state of affairs. It ended up turning into a big piece about that kind of mentality, and I think it’s really a holistic piece of art just from how we felt about it.
11: I was reading an interview that you did last year, and someone had mentioned an incident at a gas station. It was after the 2016 election, and the band talked about how there was this sort of “strength in numbers” in terms of it being OK suddenly to be homophobic or racist. In this new album, there is a lot of subject matter about embracing singularity and being comfortable with who you are.
BM: Any of the groups you align yourself with, you have to be comfortable with yourself and think about where you want to align yourself and what kind of forces that is going to group you with.
11: Let’s talk about the new record. First record out on Sub Pop – what has that been like? What is the difference now?
BM: I do think it reaches a wider audience. We were on an imprint of Sub Pop for our last two records – Hardly Art – and they’re amazing; they’re very well-curated. They do an amazing job. It’s been interesting to see how Sub Pop maybe cast a wider net, and the people who do check out Sub Pop. When I was a teenager, I was super into grunge and all that, and Sub Pop was a big deal. It’s been exciting. It means something to all of us, individually.
11: In terms of the working process, did anything change between Lost Time and This Mess is a Place?
BM: It always is kind of exactly the same. Our creative process is kind of layered, and we just sort of talk about stuff… we’re all into talking about song structures and editing each other. It’s always been kind of the same; it’s just that we’ve grown as musicians – and I love all our albums, but they all sound just a little bit different. This one compared to the first one is just very different. We were all about gang vocals, and direct, topical punk subjects. But, yeah, I feel like this one is more sensitive to how we’ve grown as musicians. It feels like – we’re just very proud of it. It feels like an improved quality.
11: What would you point to if you had to point to a few things that demonstrate that? Is it improved musicianship or the production quality?
BM: I don’t think I’d put a ton of value in musicianship, but we did improve skill level and stuff just from playing together so much. This band has been kind of a slow process. We’ve been going for 12 years, but it’s still been like a slow process. But it feels great as a completed project; we’re really happy with it.
11: What was the hardest song to finish?
BM: The hardest song… I mean, some of the last ones always end up being our favorite ones. “Grains of Salt” was one of the last ones we were working on, and that one we were tweaking quite a bit, like, oh, maybe this part should be longer or shorter or in a different key or have a different vibe. That one was kind of a little more mid-tempo than some of our faster punk stuff, but it feels like a fun party song to us. About staying true to yourself. That one took a little bit longer, but turned out to be one of our favorites, like, ever.
11: I feel like a lot of musicians end up feeling that way – that breakthrough moment when you finally wrap it up and it ends up being a favorite, or the one that resonates the most.
BM: Yeah! It’s just funny. I think we wrote it barely a month out of recording, and it ended up being the song that made the album feel really good. Kind of the same for “New World” – central to the album.
11: As you’re touring right now, are you mostly doing the new album, or are you mixing and matching? How are you deciding what your sets look like from night to night?
BM: At this point we have so many songs! We’re playing a couple oldies. It feels nice to have a big menu to choose from. We’ve sort of added or taken away a couple old ones to mess with. A lot of people want to hear, like, “Crimson Wave” every night, or we’ll do a couple singles from the last two albums before This Mess is a Place. We play “I Hate the Weekend,” we play “Bridge to Hawaii” – we’ve thrown in a few wild cards. We’re also playing 5-6 songs from the new album, and that’s been really fun.
11: So it’s changing every night?
BM: Well, this is a new tour on a new album, so we’re kind of tweaking it. Eventually we kind of find the master setlist – how we like to do things, what transitions well, what feels good – but right now we’ve been just feeling it out.
11: At this point, it seems like you’ve probably got a broad spectrum for your audience – people who grew up with the old stuff, people who like the new stuff…
BM: Totally. And we have old fans that have been coming for years, but a lot of new ones!
11: I wanted to ask about the album cover. I saw on the back that all the drawings were done by members of the band?
BM: Yeah! It was kind of a funny—we were hemming and hawing about what we should do for the album cover. The last album we had the two drawings of cat clocks, and Lelah Maupin [drums] and Emily Nokes [vocals] had arranged them. On this one, we were like, “What if we all drew each other?” after many failed ideas about what to do. We ended up doing portraits of each other in our many different styles – me and Eric being the sloppier ones on the cover – and they did the same thing, arranged it on the cover. It’s so sweet. I love it.
11: It’s a really cool, personalized touch. Do you ascribe any other meaning or correlation to the album?
BM: I mean, it does look like a big mess. It’s, like, us in a big mess. “This mess is a place” is something – I think it’s something we saw on a bumper sticker – it’s kind of a dumb thing we say when we’re on tour, like when we’re hungover or in like a jam or something, and we’re like, “this mess is a place, I guess.” And when it came time to name the album, we were just like, someone brought that up, and I was like, yeah, that’s a great idea. It felt right.
11: So I asked you what the hardest song to finish was, but now I want to know which song you all got together on and it just happened, like, immediately?
BM: I feel like “The Problem” came out really fast. It’s more in our older punk style, and it felt like a familiar song to play. It just kind of worked out fast, using a songwriting style we were familiar with – less tweaking.
11: Does it surprise you when it happens super easily like that?
BM: It totally does. Writing songs can be frustrating sometimes. We have a good dynamic together, and we have a lot of trust together. Even with that, it can take us kind of a long time to write songs. When it happens like that, it just feels fun and great.