The Coathangers’ Stephanie Luke on the early days, matching outfits, and stealing a drum kit

coathangers, stephanie luke, female drummers, punk bands, atlanta

by Kat Jetson
Photos by David Barron

The Coathangers are always in forward motion. The band includes singer and guitarist Julia Kugel, bassist Meredith Franco, and drummer and vocalist Stephanie Luke. Together, the three are relentless in their push and reach. In the dozen years since its inception, the trio has risen from unpredictable Atlanta party punks to nuanced and infectious, globetrotting sonic hurricanes. The band’s voice is fierce and melodic. They are the ultimate go-go girl gang —which bodes well for a group that records and tours the world with great consistency.

It’s hard not to fall in love with a band that has a song where one of the main instruments is a squeaky dog toy!

All of that time together, and you might think there’d be some interband tension, but there’s none of that here. No pitting women against other women. The band is a full democracy with a broad spectrum of ideas about their sound and vision—whether that includes having friends involved in video-making (it’s more fun that way!), or what to wear onstage (it’s always rad and matching!). And while the Coathangers are good screaming fun, there’s infinitely more here than meets the eye—or ear.

A live album documenting two nights of shows recorded in late 2017 is slated for a spring release, and an LP of new material is also in the works. In the meantime, we sat down with she’s-mostly-the-drummer-but-also-plays-guitar-bass-and-apparently-violin-too, Atlanta native and resident Stephanie Luke, who shared her view from behind the kit.

Tom Tom: You did something a while ago for Tom Tom, but it’s time to kick it up a notch and revisit.

Stephanie Luke: Hell, yeah. I’m a big fan of Tom Tom. Everything they do is so positive towards women and for everyone, and it’s just very nice.  

The intro to nearly everything that’s written about the Coathangers mentions that you started as kind of a joke or party band. At this point, it’s slightly disrespectful. It’s as if people assume you don’t practice or take this seriously.

Yeah, it’s one of those things that we wish would kind of die, but, it’s also no big deal, because it’s a part of who we are. And we did start out as kind of messing around and seeing if we could do it. We saw friends’ bands that were punk bands and stuff, and we were like, “We can do that!” Or we could at least attempt to do that. So, ya know, it’s not a huge insult, but it’s one of those things where it’s like ”Okay, let’s move on.”

Was there a tipping point for you where you were like, “Okay, let’s really do this”?  

I used to live in Hollywood. When I was younger, I went to the Musician’s Institute for music business and I started tour managing for bands. I was trying to get my feet wet and figure it out, because at the time, that’s what I thought I wanted to do. Tour managing is one of the hardest jobs anyone will ever have.

It’s also the most thankless.

Totally thankless, and you’re constantly dealing with artists and different personalities and trying to keep everything together. I’d always wanted to play drums. I always wanted to be in a band. Music was my life, but I was kind of pussyfooting around. Trying to play drums and trying to start a band was very intimidating, and at that point—2002-2004—there wasn’t a lot. There were so few females, you know? And if there were any, they were doing merch, or tour managing, or driving. There weren’t a lot of females actually playing. And I got tired of Hollywood. It defeated me. L.A. won. [laughs]

I’m from Atlanta. I’m too sensitive, and I couldn’t deal with all the personalities [in L.A.], so I moved back [to Atlanta], and was like, “Do you guys wanna do this?” Julia is an amazing guitar player. She played classical guitar and piano. We just started fucking around and playing at her place. Then she moved in with me, and then we got Meredith and Candice involved. One thing led to another. We got a practice space with some friends. Then we got a house show. Then we got our first real show. Our friend Mark who helps run Die Slaughterhaus Records asked us if we wanted to put out a 7”, and we were like, “You’re joking right? Like, you have to be joking.” And, he wasn’t. We just kept growing from there. It was very gradual, which I think is really good.

female drummers, coathangers, stephanie luke, atlanta, punk bands
L to R: Stephanie Luke (Rusty Coathanger), Meredith Franco (Minnie Coathanger), Julia Kugel (Crook Kid Coathanger)

And your sound has definitely evolved. Can we talk about your stage names? Every great punk band has members with those clever nicknames. [Julia is Crook Kid Coathanger, Meredith is Minnie Coathanger, and Stephanie Luke is Rusty Coathanger.]

Back when we started, it was like, maybe I don’t want everyone to know my real name , and now [with the Internet] things have changed, so they’re gonna know anyways. But also, who we are onstage isn’t necessarily who we are offstage, you know? People think we’re totally nuts, but then we get offstage, and we’re like, “Is it time to go to bed yet?” [laughs] We’ve been doing this for a while, so we’re tired. We just want to go home.

Can we talk about the matching Coathangers band shirts that you wear onstage?  

We all have such different personal style, and the matching shirts were what we could agree on. I’m amazed when I see people onstage wearing a leather jacket. Like, Guitar Wolf—they’re wearing leather pants, and they can do it. But I am not! And it’s sort of like marketing.

It’s brilliant, actually, because it stands out, too.

Yeah, and it’s comfortable! We’ve tried to up our game as far as, like, what to wear onstage, but it can be kind of difficult to figure out something that’s comfortable to play in every night. Now we’ve got these jumpsuits that a friend made for us, and those are actually pretty comfortable. And as far as I’m concerned, I don’t want women or girls to think that you have to look pretty onstage to have fun and be in a band. I have nothing against other women who dress up. That’s amazing! I’ve seen girls play drums in heels, and I’m like, “Fuck yeah, that’s amazing!” Good for you. You can look good, but you don’t have to necessarily look girly or all done up to be in a fun, semi-successful band. Don’t want to be too image-based, you know?

What is the strangest thing you’ve seen out in the audience from behind the drums?

It’s kind of fun to watch. I once saw this girl punch a guy right in the nose. I’ve seen altercations where I’ve stopped playing. I get up, and I’m like, “You! Somebody get this motherfucker out of here right now.” There’s no way, because I’m seeing men be inappropriate to women. I don’t even have to know what they’re talking about. You can tell when something is happening that’s not right.

So then it’s gotta be weird, right?

Yeah, but it’s not all bad. Just being able to see Julia and Meredith bop around is really fun. I try not to look too much into the audience, because then I get distracted and nervous. It’s also fun to see people crowd-surfing and just having a good time and smiling. But then it also sucks when you see someone on their phone, or with their arms crossed. Just leave. Go to the bar.  

What’s the strangest place you’ve heard one of your songs?  

I know that we were somewhere in Europe or Japan. I want to say it was at this bar or something, and we were like, “What is this? Oh, shit! That’s us, dude!” We couldn’t believe they’d have it all the way out there. So, I guess that would be it.

It’s amazing that for a moment you didn’t recognize your own song.

Oh, that happens a lot. Even in Atlanta. We have certain bars that we go to, and they have jukeboxes, and they’re very kind to put us in there. But sometimes, they’re old songs that we just kind of forgot about. And it’s like, “What is this? Oh, shit, it ain’t that bad!” And I know that a couple of [Roller Derbies] used our stuff, and girls rock!

Do you have a favorite lyric of your own?

I’m really a fan of most of the lyrics in “Down Down.” Julia wrote the lyrics to that. “You’ve got those vertigo words, telling me what I deserve, and it’s making me feel down, down, down.” There are some old ones, too. There’s one in this old song, “She took her face off once again, she thought it’d make such a pretty little friend.” And it was referencing, you know, not necessarily peeling your face off, but taking off your makeup at the end of the day and not really liking what you see anymore.  

Good ’n creepy.

A lot of our lyrics can be really dark. But it’s very cathartic being in a band, and you can get out what is bothering you. It’s harder to write when you’re happy. I think we’ve all gotten to a point in our lives where we’re all, for the most part, pretty happy. It’s not how it used to be. We’re not as tumultuous as we used to be in our twenties. For the next album, we’ve been talking about writing about other people’s stories. We’re so tired of talking about ourselves.

Who we are onstage isn’t necessarily who we are offstage, you know? People think we’re totally nuts, but then we get offstage, and we’re like, ‘Is it time to go to bed yet?’

Live, you all switch instruments for a couple songs. Is that because Meredith and Julia are like, “Well, fuck! I want to play the drums, too!”

Sometimes I have this idea, but I can’t play drums and sing on it, or Julia has a drum beat that she wants to play. It’s also to remind each other how hard the other one’s working, that no one gets to the point where someone thinks they’re doing more. That’s what I saw when I was managing bands—someone was always mad at somebody else, because they thought they weren’t pulling their weight. Every instrument is hard in a different way. I mean trying to learn guitar is the hardest fucking thing I have ever tried to learn, but it’s fun to switch and show other females who maybe want to play [that] you can play anything, if you practice it long enough.  

Every time someone doesn’t think they can play drums, I just say “Meg White.”  

You don’t have to be John Bonham, you know. It’s just about keeping the beat and having a good time.   

You don’t need to be the queen of paradiddles.

Yeah, yeah. I’m not good at a lot of that stuff, either. Every time we write new stuff, I’m always trying to push myself to get out of this 4/4 box I’m in.

But I think that’s kind of your band though, too, right?

It’s like doing art. Just go for it. And if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. But, if you don’t try, then you’ll never know. Even worse is regretting what you don’t do. There are plenty of things I regret that I did do, but at least I tried it. Otherwise, there are too many what-ifs. Everyone forgets that every good musician started shittily, unless they were a prodigy. I didn’t start playing drums until I was 25. So, fuck it, ya know? Just go for it. I took a couple lessons at a local music shop. I played saxophone and violin when I was younger, so I had a sense of music.

female drummer, punk bands, atlanta, coathanger, stephanie lukeSo did you buy your first kit then?

Funny story. When I was in college, my friend’s boyfriend’s roommate stole my BMX bike. I had saved up and spent a lot of money on it. I wasn’t a very good biker, but it was an expensive bike. Someone stole it, and I found out it was one of the dudes from that house because I found it in a closet when I was at a party at their house. And I was like, “Son of a bitch!” Next day, I decided that I was taking their drum kit. They were in a punk band and had this shitty set. I was like, I dare them to say anything, because my bike is worth more than their drum set, but I want their drum set more than I want the bike back. My friend was like, “Fair enough,” and she helped me load the drums into my car.

Better than straight up buying a kit, because that’s just tons of money.

Well, my sister bought me a set for Christmas, and that’s the one I used for the first seven years. It was this tiny Gretsch Catalina kit, and I looked like Mario Kart behind it [laughs], because it’s, like, an 18” kick drum. But it was the cheapest one, and it was the one she could afford. I had that forever, and I ended up giving that kit to this little girl who has been coming to our shows since she was, I want to say, like six. And her dad would bring her to these punk show, and now she plays drums. I did keep the snare, though, because that’s kind of personal.

It’s like your little wooby. Have you ever see that John Hughes movie from the ’80s, Some Kind of Wonderful?

I don’t know. That sounds familiar.

Mary Stuart Masterson is in it. She’s a drummer and wore these fully fringed, leather drum gloves, and she carried around her drumsticks everywhere.

Oh, my God. I’ve heard about this movie, but I haven’t seen it. I’m gonna start doing that, but I have to get the gloves. [laughs]

Next time I see you, I hope you’re carrying sticks in your back pocket and wearing red, fringed, fingerless leather drum gloves. I kind of expect it now.

I think I gotta just go for it. No day like today.

Keep Up With The Coathangers

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