NOTS might not be on your radar, but they should be. With the alarming crash of cymbals and screech of guitar, songs like "New Structures" and "No Novelty" will shake even the most apathetic listener. Each track sounds an alarm. Inspired by the poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa and Pablo Neruda and the prose of Anne Carson, the themes that their newest record, Cosmetic, unpacks are in a way as prophetic and relevant as ever. Before the disappointing results of our dystopian election, before mass uncertainty became part of our daily routine, Hoffmann and her bandmates released a nine-track map for coping with our modern plight, a soundtrack for resistance, an anthem against propaganda, indifference, and hate. They are exactly what we need right now.
I spoke with Natalie over the phone in October about Cosmetic, X-Ray Spex, and how poetry, politics, and collage keep her inspired even when she's on the road.
Dianca Potts: Your sound is often described as punk, post-punk, or garage. What about each of those genres resonates with you most as a musician and as a music lover?
Natalie Hoffmann: Each of those genres implies that someone is breaking the rules or doing something different. Being unscripted is really important to me when it comes to music, especially with post-punk. It's so eclectic because it has elements of punk, prog, and psych [rock], and there's also the element of recording things yourself, making the artwork and putting out the record yourself. It gives you creative control, which is so important.
DP: You pulled a lot of inspiration from literature and philosophy on your first album, We Are Nots. Which thinkers and writers influenced you most while working on Cosmetic?
NH: While working on this one, I read a lot of poetry, especially this one book called Neon Vernacular by Yusef Komunyakaa. It's incredible. In it, he addresses the idea of alienation while living in the city and the experience of being surrounded by people but not knowing how to connect with them. He also addresses things on a larger political scale, too, through free verse. I was also reading Canto General by Pablo Neruda and Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red. I read a lot while we were on tour, which also had a huge influence on this album. Being on tour is a strange way to experience America, you know? You're seeing the country, but you're ending up at the same place every night, so it's familiar in a repetitive way.
DP: Did you see any overarching themes in the works that you were reading and what you saw on the road during the tour?
NH: I kept coming back to the theme of the entertainer or the theme of someone having to put on a show in order to gain attention, and how that attention can also distract an audience from asking questions. That theme came up often for me in a lot of things that I read, especially in Pablo Neruda's work, which is where the title for Cosmetic came from. He has a line in one of his poems about how the government is a cosmetic form of propaganda for the people, that it's a distraction. You can't help picking up on that in the news. It's rampant.
DP: In addition to music, you're also into photography and making collages. Do you feel like there's a thematic overlap in what you explore through each medium?
NH: On this album I wanted to write new songs, and I felt really trapped by the idea of playing guitar. I just felt sick of it and stressed out, so I switched to bass and even played this shitty keyboard and wrote part of "Cold Line." When it comes to writing music and poetry that doesn't necessarily become a song, I know the idea that I want to explore, but it comes out in a better way if I try to translate it into a completely different medium, like collage or by taking pictures. It gives me a different avenue to understand it. A lot of the lyrical themes that are present in NOTS's lyrics are also present in my collages. Sometimes I'll free-write on the road and then write that into a song and then get frustrated with that and then make a collage out of it and then turn that back into a song. Each medium definitely informs each other. They've been really helpful to me.
DP: What was different during the recording process for you this time around?
NH: The guitar was a big [struggle] on this one. I had to take a step away from it and play bass for a little while. I also didn't want my vocals to sound the same as they did on We Are Nots. I wanted to get more creative and push things a little more. As far as the whole band goes, a hard part for all of us was deciding when a song was finished. We always record our songs on our phones. We'll have the first version recorded on our phone and we'll get so attached to it, but we can never figure out how to make it sound that way again, and then it turns into something else, so deciding when it's done or deciding when it needs to be a little more loose and free was a little bit tough for us. But once we figured it out, it opened up a lot of creative avenues for us and helped us to break away from what our first record sounded like.
DP: While I was listening to Cosmetic, bands like X-Ray Spex, Bratmobile, and the Slits came to mind. Maybe it's just projection on my part, but I feel like your album continues a lot of the conversations that their albums started. Who were some of the bands that shaped this album?
NH: It's funny, because I got really into X-Ray Spex, especially Germ Free Adolescents. I listened to it a ton a while ago, and then I brought it back out while we were working on Cosmetic. Poly Styrene's vocals will always be an inspiration for me, and it's not that I necessarily think that we sound like that, but just the whole way that she delivers her vocals is so incredible to me. I didn't realize how much of an impact that album had on me until I listened to it again recently.
DP: What was it like translating "Inherently Low" into a music video?
NH: I wanted to capture the feeling of constant motion that I hear in "Inherently Low" and wanted to make sure that [a sense of] tension and uncertainty was present in the video. I edited this video in the aftermath of the election and the tension and fear that came with the results certainly played a part in the visual outcome of the video. America has elected someone who has openly campaigned to keep us low. To keep us completely divided. To keep us at war. I don't think that I, or anyone, can fully process the weight of what is to come, but this video is an attempt to translate both what the song is about, and how I've felt since the election results.
DP: You're part of the Goner Records family and the Memphis music scene. How has that community shaped you, so far?
NH: Being a part of the Goner family is so great. It is really a family. We just did Gonerfest and we get people from all over the country, from Australia, Germany, and Japan. I know that it's easy to get so focused on your own perception of how something is sometimes, but Goner has always been great for us, and they really care about good music, and they won't put something out unless they like it they. They don't have any industry bullshit. They have a great creative eye, in my opinion. I forget that they have this huge reach internationally, and they've gained huge respect, and rightfully so. They've always put the music first. It's been an incredibly positive and nurturing experience for us. They've never tried to control us or turn us into something else.
Dianca Potts is an assistant at Lenny Letter.