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Julia Kugel: “When you’re a musician, there's no separation between work and self. That’s why criticism is so gnarly, because they’re criticizing you as a human”

Julia Kugel
(Image credit: David A. Smith/Getty Images)

To hear Julia Kugel, co-founder of the Atlanta-born punk rock band, the Coathangers, play the guitar is to hop into a metaphorical elevator, press all of the buttons and get transported to song after song, floor after floor, of raucous, brain-shattering music. Whether Kugel is letting a heavy chord ring out or letting bouncy rhythms take over a room, she is supremely effective and very much present.  

The Coathangers, who formed in the Peach State in 2006, have released a number of LPs, including a recent deluxe edition re-release of their debut eponymous full-length

Today (September 15), the band have dropped a cover of Blondie’s One Way or Another, which they recorded with Debbie Harry’s blessing. The Coathangers released the song as a split single with Southern California rockers L.A. Witch.

We caught up with Kugel to talk about the new cover release, playing with Harry in New York City, how she found her own sound on the electric guitar (versus the acoustic), the emotions the instrument brings forth, her favorite amps and why for many years she was all about just plugging in and playing.

When did you first feel drawn to the guitar?

“I started out with piano when I was a kid, five or six, or whatever. And then when I was 15, I got a guitar for my birthday. Mostly mom thought it would be a good idea because guitar is easier to play in your room than a piano, you know?

“So, I started with an acoustic guitar and playing classical with my fingers. I mean, I would fall asleep on my guitar [whilst playing it]. It was like a world opened up to me and I was able to finally write songs. My relationship with the guitar is that it allows me to write. It’s like my gateway to songwriting. 

“When I was 21, when the Coathangers started, that was the first time I ever picked up an electric guitar. I was always a very quiet person and I didn’t want to be too loud. But then I finally – I was inspired to just let it out. So, the electric guitar is the first time I ever played with a pick. 

“I learned the formation of a power chord and I was off on my adventure of being where I am now, which was a different form of expression. Whereas the acoustic guitar was my inner-most thoughts and my quiet thoughts, the electric guitar allowed me to express my frustration, my aggression. It was a safe way to do that.

“I always say, if I did what I do on stage on the street corner, people would probably think I was insane! If I was just sitting there barking at people – but doing it on stage is this magical place where you can do that and people live vicariously through you, in a way. They let out their aggression.

“So, the guitar, I have had a long journey with it in discovering myself as I’ve switched to different guitars.”

I record almost everything. At least for me, the first time I play something is the most exciting and the best

Can you talk about more how the guitar opens a door to songwriting for you in a way that other avenues don’t?

“Well, I write differently when I write on different instruments, for sure. I’ve written songs purely on drums and on piano and on guitar. I am drawn more to the guitar because it’s just been my friend so long. 

“This is how I know I need to write a song – I have to pick up the guitar, it is like a door opening that you didn’t even know that you needed to say what you’re saying. 

“I’ll just start playing – like, I love an A minor. I’m obsessed with minor chords; it’s the Russian in me! And I’ll just start playing and then really a lot of times, words will come out that I didn’t even know were in there. And I try to do a lot of stream of consciousness things. I think that’s the most therapeutic. 

“When you start, like, ‘I’m going to write a song that sounds like...‘ it feels different than when you’re just opening the door to your stream of consciousness. Really allowing that. And then letting the melody go where it will. 

“I mean, I record almost everything. And it’s always in the first time you play something – at least for me – the first time I play it is the most exciting and the best. Then when I go back to try and rework it and add a prechorus or something, it starts getting tedious. 

“For me, it’s just being in that moment, that meditative moment where I’m allowing the things I wouldn’t say in ‘real life’ or something that I’m holding back and just giving it that space to live. 

“A lot of times something magical happens – I mean, you know, it could just be something magical for me. It doesn’t mean it’s going to make it on a record or something, but it could. And I hold onto everything and all of it’s really important.”

Julia Kugel of the Coathangers playing guitar next to an acoustic drum kit

(Image credit: Scott Montoya)

How have you worked to get better at the instrument, whether by undertaking finger technique exercises or watching other player’s fingers nonstop?

“I watch everyone and I’m inspired by people that are amazing guitar players. For me, what I’m drawn to is people who use guitar in unusual ways and make unusual sounds. 

“Gang of Four was a huge influence for me because it was so abrupt and it was so straightforward and they dropped out. Joey Santiago from the Pixies, there was just that straight acoustic and then he would just be going off into some crazy world with the electric on it. 

“I think, for me, it’s always trying to push the guitar past what is typical, what is normal. That’s helped me with my songwriting and has helped me find my own style. Because I didn’t really even learn covers, I straight up went into writing my own stuff. In a way, because I was intimidated, and in a way because I didn’t want to be distracted by trying to copy other people’s styles. 

“But I am liberated and inspired by people that feel free on the guitar and aren’t following some kind of formula. I’m definitely not a shredder and I don’t know how to play Stairway to Heaven or Free Bird, but I recognize that as being amazing. It’s the groundwork for where guitar is now.

“I’m inspired by people being unique and different. I always watch people’s hands and I watch a lot of bass players. When I write I kind of write bass parts, especially for Soft Palms, my latest project that I’m doing with my husband [Scott Montoya]. It’s really liberating to use the instrument in different ways. 

“Of course, Sonic Youth was very inspirational to me, too. That challenge to make art – making art is really important. Also, the Ramones – there’s nothing wrong with a solid, two-and-a-half-minute song with three chords. That definitely inspired me. I think simplicity is something that inspires me a lot.”

How did the Coathangers first start to play and how did your then-hometown of Atlanta impact the group?

I know everyone wants to talk about our gender but Atlanta didn’t really care, at least in the scene

“We all lived in Atlanta. Some of us are transports, some of us were raised there. And we just started kind of fucking around at my house. We had a drum set and a keyboard – we had a keyboard player at that time, so it was a four-piece at that point. We were just four friends that had something to say, and were frustrated. 

“This was in the height – we formed at a rally. There was a lot of this sentiment from the second Bush era of the Patriot Act and people coming in and watching you. 

“There was a lot of stuff being revealed, and I was in college and was very upset about a lot of stuff. I was studying women’s studies and psychology. So, we just wanted to be a band and we started playing. But not really with an aim of playing out. 

“The community actually – I mean, talking about whether Atlanta inspired us. Of course, the people in other bands were like, ‘You should play shows.’ Because we shared practice spaces. We we were like, ‘No, that’s okay.’

“But then we finally played a couple shows and got asked to put out a 7” and were approached to put out a full-length. We played with a lot of people that were extremely supportive of us and really didn’t make us feel any different because of our gender, or anything like that. I know everyone wants to talk about our gender but Atlanta didn’t really care, at least in the scene. 

“It’s always the press that wanted to know what it was like to be girls. So, that was a very welcoming thing. It was like we were part of this group, this community and we were all a little bit fucked up. Just kids being sad kids and having a lot of fun and being there for each other.”

How does the guitar help you get the right emotions or sentiments out that you need to write or perform with the Coathangers, an especially rebellious-sounding punk rock group? 

“Oh, there’s nothing like it! Just cranking it and just feeling the power, the volume and the sustain, you know – you hit it and it just sings for you. I love going crazy on it and making my own little weird noises. There’s a song that I play the slide on but not in a traditional way, more like an ambient thing. I can just get lost in it! The Coathangers would not exist without the electric guitar!

“It is much more effective relaying a message with a Mustang screech in it for you. It’s the backbone of the whole thing. For live shows, for relaying the message of the songs. When I play the songs acoustic, they’re kind of sad. But when I play the songs on electric, they’re empowering. So, that’s a huge difference! Because we write a lot about loss and pain and all those human things that we go through, and confusion.

“So, putting it with an electric guitar makes it feel like an anthem instead of a lament.”

It’s interesting, because there’s so much power, sustain and buzzy fuzz when you play, but there’s also often a bounce.

“Thanks! For me, that’s a sense of urgency. Doing that little strum pattern that doesn’t sustain feels to me a little bit more urgent, like I’m not rushing but like I’m really eager to tell this story, to say this. And it feels so good to strum that way. And to play fast! 

I’m not a gearhead by any means, I just know what I like and I know what I want to sound like

“Playing fast – you get yourself wound up and then you get the energy. I mean, I love live shows. Being in the studio is one thing. But it can be so tedious, because when you’re in the studio, you’re thinking for forever. But when you’re at the show, you’re thinking now. I love now. Now is where I want to be!”

Speaking of the studio, are there pedals, specific guitars or amps that have helped you to record? Or ones that help you to play live, or helped you hone in on the sound you want for the Coathangers?

“I was always a purist in a way where I didn’t believe in pedals for a long time. I was just being young and ignorant and stuck in my ways. I saw people not be able to play shows because their pedalboards went out. And being stubborn, I was like, ‘You should be able to plug and play!’ So, that’s what I did. I just plugged and played whatever I had. 

“As far as the studio, I pretty much have always played my Mustang. There have been times where I’ve over-dubbed with some Gibsons, to give it some grit. I’ve always played out of my Vox AC15. In the studio, there have been some other amps I’ve plugged into, just a variety of vintage on-hand studio amps to layer the guitars. 

“I’ve never relied on pedals for my live shows. Now I’ve got a little booster so that the solos could pop out a little bit more. I’ve started playing around with EarthQuaker pedals, which are super cool. But I find that live, the more straightforward I have it, the better and even my band mates respond better to it.

“The way I went and picked out my amp is I brought my guitar and I plugged into every amp at the store and I listened. With one [the Vox AC15], I was like, okay this is mine, I love this. This goes where I want it to go. So, I’m not a gearhead by any means, I just know what I like and I know what I want to sound like.

I also like Vox AC30s. I like Fender DeVilles. They’re pretty righteous! Whenever they’re available on the back-line, I like those. I stay away from the Marshalls, because I feel like they’re maybe a little too metal. In the studios, we’ve worked with people who will suggest little odd little amps and I’ll plug in and do some over-dubs with that to give it more texture.

“My natural tone tends to be a little tinny. So, to give it some depth, we’ll go into other amps. But I don’t remember what those are! They’re a bunch of weirdo little vintage amps – some of them are really small.”

The Coathangers released a split-single today with L.A. Witch where you covered Blondie’s song, One Way or Another. You had a chance to perform with Debbie Harry of Blondie. What was that like and how did you approach recording the cover track?

“Our last show right before the pandemic was with Debbie Harry in New York for New York Fashion Week. So, we had to learn Blondie songs and during our last song – which was Dreaming – she came out and I got to sing it with her and I got to look over at her and see this legend. And she smiled at me and she’s the coolest, raddest woman I’ve ever met! It was so inspirational and so wonderful. 

When you’re a musician, there is no separation between work and self. It is what it is, it’s like your soul. That’s why criticism is so gnarly because they’re criticizing you as a human

“Then 14 days later, the world shut down. What it means to be able to record this cover is almost like that memory that lives in all three of us is out on a 7”. That experience where we couldn’t have imagined being able to reach heights like that, to be able to play with someone that’s so inspirational and for her to compliment us and just be so cool! 

“We’re always downgrading our accomplishments but this definitely was a highlight in our world and in our careers. So, when the opportunity came up to record this song, it was a no-brainer. It’s the first time we recorded in different cities on two different coasts. It was pretty amazing to revisit separate recordings together and to give each other what we had. It was awesome!

“I approached it by wanting to celebrate the original but then in the bridge I kind of made it my own. I went into an '80s thing, which I was really stoked on. I don’t know, it was really easy and a natural feeling to do it. I’m stoked on how it sounds.”

The Coathangers have been together for 15 years. How does your chemistry and the songs you write impact the way you think about your own future or your identity? And, in the end, what do you love most about the music you make?

“It’s hard for me to see too far into the future right now because everything is uncertain – and I hate to use that word. It’s just up in the air. So, I mostly am thinking about – I don’t know, having this almost two years off has made me think about a lot in retrospect. Because we’d been moving forward so – for 15 years, we hadn’t stopped touring. 

“So, I’m actually reflecting on what this band has meant to me as a human and as a whole and as some kind of an adult! How it and those relationships have formed me for better and for worse into the person I am now and what that means to actually not be around each other 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s weird! And there’s the question of what we’re going to be like when we get back together and play.

“That’s as ‘future’ as I can get. We will have evolved separately. And then when we get back together, how that’s going to transpire and interact – I have a feeling it’s going to be like riding a bike, you just snap back into place. 

“But I don’t know, we’ve never done this before. We’ve never taken a break in 15 years. Even when we were taking a break, we were recording records. It’s not really a break, it’s a break for the public.

“My favorite thing about being in this band and creating the music that we’ve created is that it’s like a timeline of our evolution. I’ll just speak for myself but I can listen to every record or watch every video, even some of the interviews and photo-shoots, I can see where I was at that time, personally. 

“It’s like a timeline in music for how we’ve evolved as humans. When you’re a musician, there is no separation between work and self. It is what it is, it’s like your soul. That’s why criticism is so gnarly, because they’re criticizing you as a human, you know? So, having lived through all that, it makes me feel stronger and proud of all of us for having survived.

“A lot of times, people were as deterring as they were supportive, you know what I mean? People have been both. To survive that long in the business, you really have to have a stiff upper lip and a really strong body constitution. I’m just blown away that it’s really happened and we were able to achieve the things we were able to achieve and inspire people to start bands and be wild.”

  • One Way or the Highway – the Coathangers' dual release with L.A. Witch – is out now via Suicide Squeeze Records.