Memphis quartet Nots traverses the upside-down psychogeography of modern America

Stranger things

Oct 12, 2016 at 1:00 am

We live in a time when popular metanarratives are either being unraveled on a global stage, or else taking a turn for the weird. Just look at the stories that have captivated our imaginations over the last decade. A supernatural child of MK-Ultra unlocks the door to a dark parallel universe. Ruling-class families vie for power in an elaborate chess game where the only rule is self-preservation. Mulder and Scully reappear on the scene.

Like the rest of us, Natalie Hoffman, lead singer and guitarist for the Memphis, Tenn.-based punk quartet Nots, has been swept up in this larger pattern. But unlike most, she seems keenly aware of the effect her surroundings have had on her consciousness. Hoffman has spoken previously of using dystopian literature as fodder for her songwriting, channeling Philip K. Dick's The World Jones Made on "Insect Eyes" from their debut album We Are Nots. Her lyrics are frequently bleak, cynical, or absurd, and speaking to her on the phone from the band's home in Memphis, I leave the conversation feeling as though the world we actually inhabit is just as strange as that of science fiction.

The band consists of Hoffman, drummer Charlotte Watson, bassist Meredith Lones, and keyboardist Alexandra Eastburn. This Wednesday, Oct. 19, they appear at Marble Bar in support of their new album, Cosmetic.

Metro Times: How did you and Charlotte [Watson] first start playing together?

Natalie Hoffman: Charlotte and I met in Memphis. We both moved here for school, and we kind of both ran around with the same circle of people. I was here for art school, so I was hanging out with the crowd that went to Memphis College of Art, and she was here for philosophy at Rhodes. We met at a party and started talking about music and movies, and just spontaneously and drunkenly decided we should play music together.

MT: Can you give us a brief history of the Memphis music scene, as you have experienced it?

Hoffman: Yeah, so I came here 9 years ago so. There was lots of stuff going on. It was pretty rowdy, but I actually didn't get out too much. I'm actually sort of a homebody in some ways. I went to a lot of Barbaras shows. There was this band called the Magic Kids that kind of formed after the Barbaras. There's always been a bunch of punk stuff going on, but I was sort of later to that train. Then I started playing music with Ex-Cult; I played bass. And there's True Sons of Thunder, they've been around forever. They're great. And Charlotte was playing drums with the Manatees at the time.

There was one point where I was in three bands. I was in my other band called Moving Fingers. So we were all playing tons of shows all the time. A lot of these people have just sort of been playing as long as I've been here. There's another band called the Sheiks that's really good. They're a garage band, rock 'n' roll sort of thing. And then Jack Oblivian, of course. I've gone to see the Oblivions here a couple times, which is great, and Jack is great. And Reigning Sound. They actually played last night. They're also playing Gonerfest. People tend to do something and sort of do it for a long time.

MT: What's the story behind your appearance on the local Memphis morning news? That video is amazing.

Hoffman: It was really early. I think it was like 9 in the morning. And none of us are morning people, so I had to wear sunglasses. And we were all out the night before, of course. So we got there early and tired and hungover, and everyone who works the news is like super peppy, because that's their time. So we got to talk to them and we got to play punk music with them pretty loudly. It was just a pretty funny experience all around. I don't think they realized what they were in for when they booked us. I think they might have thought we sounded a little sweeter.

MT: Did they cut your last song short on purpose, or was the intention for you guys to play them out?

Hoffman: No, they cut it short. I'm pretty sure I say something that's not proper for news in that song, and I'm not sure if they heard that or they just cut us off because they were done with it.

MT: Do you think your music goes down better with the coastal crowd, or the rest of the country?

Hoffman: Definitely Cleveland, Detroit, Memphis, Atlanta. Something about what we're doing people get it. Those are our favorite cities to play. Of course we love playing in Memphis. It's not like we struggle in New York or the coasts, but it's just so different. I'm not sure how to describe it. Maybe it just doesn't resound quite as much. And that's not true for everyone of course —everyone watches the show in different ways and whatnot. I will say every time we've played, even when the shows are small, in Cleveland or Detroit we have a really good time. I don't know what that means.

MT: This is a very Detroit-centric question, but are you a Stooges fan?

Hoffman: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Fun House is my favorite Stooges album, because the B-side is just insane. I feel like the Stooges were really good at being a really catchy rock n' roll, pre-punk band, but they also were really good at pushing the boundaries and making some completely insane and difficult to categorize music, and I've always respected that about that band. Of course their stage presence is incredible. There are a few bands where you hear the music and you feel like, a really good visceral reaction, and the Stooges has always been that for me. Especially listening to live Stooges. They didn't give a fuck if people just didn't get it. Like "We get it, and we made it so here you go." Memphis has that attitude too.

MT: Is there anything in the popular media that fed into the new album? Or just stuff that you are particularly enjoying?

Hoffman: As far as the album goes I watched a really good interview with David Simon. I love The Wire. That show is kind of older now but, there's a really good interview with him on Democracy Now! about "Two Americas" and how this country is really split. Half the country is profiting off of it, while the other half is just completely being trampled by that. That was really influential for a lot of the lyrics on Cosmetic.

MT: What were you reading?

Hoffman: Human Landscapes by Nazim Hikmet, which really takes a stark look at people and their stories, and it doesn't romanticize people whether they're poor, rich, or whatever. It really does a good job sort of showing people existing within this pattern and system that has been set before them. And also it's just beautifully written. I was reading another book called Neon Vernacular by Yesuf Komunyakaa. That book is incredible. It's got sort of a beat poet vibe, but not quite as pretentious as it can sometimes be. I read a lot of short stories. I've got a short attention span sometimes. I read some of the Pablo Naruta book Canto General. It's hard to remember everything. I read some cinema critiques. I read a lot in the car.

MT: You and your synth player Alexandra Eastburn produced the "Reactor" video. Why do you like using archival footage?

Hoffman: So the "Reactor" video I put together from stuff that was on the Internet Archive and then Allie gave me a couple of old videos she shot while she was working and traveling. I think I wanted to create sort of a narrative where I was looking for a lot of contrast between human bodies, like hands, and machines, sort of playing on that idea of mass production again. Which I think is why I like archival footage. I like to make collages so all of that's from mass-produced pieces, magazines or whatever. Or just like... garbage [laughs]. And then the Internet archive I thought was really cool because it felt like making a collage to me. Music videos are such a pain in the ass. Unless they're really well done I'm not into the whole "Let's make a story with the band [thing]." You know, we've kind of done that but that's not really what we're about.

MT: How do you think living in Memphis has affected your perception of what's going on in the country?

Hoffman: I think we're really not insulated here. I don't know, I haven't lived in Brooklyn or San Francisco, but I kind of get the suspicion that the general populace might be a bit more progressive. I'm sure there are parts that aren't, but in Memphis and in Missouri you really get to see every side of the coin. Memphis is interesting because it's the only Democratic, consistently democratically voting city in Tennessee. The rest of Tennessee is red, and Memphis is consistently blue. You get a mixed bag of opinions here, and it's interesting because people want to talk to you about what's going on in the country. I'm a bartender and a server so I get into these conversations. You naturally get into these conversations with people that get really big really fast, and you're both just sitting in a bar. It's interesting. In my experience talking to people, of course you run into people who are strictly like, "I'm voting for Trump, I don't give a shit," and there's nothing you can do. Or it's hard to talk to that person because they're so racist.

But then you get people who have their opinion, but they really want to hear yours and they really want to talk it out. We're big talkers in the South, of course. But I think it's interesting. I don't feel insulated at all. I mean I am insulated. Everyone is, you know. But how I go about my day I get to run into a lot of different kinds of people with all sorts of opinions. So that definitely has had an effect on how I process everything. And of course Memphis is just a really working-class city — working-class and just downright poor in some areas. So everybody is just busting ass trying to make things work here. So that factors into people's opinions. And the Midwest, as you know, is like that too.

MT: Do you have a real life story that was the basis for "Black Mold"?

Hoffman: Oh, I do. I had a house; me and a bunch of my friends lived in a house in Memphis that became infested by black mold, and it was making everyone sick. So I lived in a casino hotel for a week because it was the cheapest place. We went down to the casino to stay at the hotel for like three days, which also really influenced my mind while I was there [laughs], and a lot of the songs on that album. Our landlord lived in another city, so he had to send people. It was this big mess and the house was making us sick, so we all moved out really abruptly after I had been living in the casino. And of course I'm working and everything, and also gambling obviously since I'm staying at the casino. It was ridiculous. So, yeah, we moved out, and then the landlord tore apart the house and got this black mold out, and now people live there and they seem fine. Scary! Of course I was reading a bunch about black mold because I was worried about it, and that influenced the lyrics of the song. Yep. Based on a true story.

Nots perform with the Johnny Ill Band on Wednesday, Oct. 19 at Marble Bar; Doors at 9 p.m.; 1501 Holden St., Detroit; Tickets are $12 in advance, $14 at the door.