Berkeley post-punks Naked Roommate: “Knowing when to stay minimal and when to get maximal.”

Original photo: Polaroid by Katie Beata Bryan. Mixed-media collage by B.

Creatives Amber Sermeńo and Andy Jordan (from beloved Oakland band, The World) are behind Naked Roommate—a project with punk spirit, a dance heart and progressive post-punk thought. The band also features Michael Zamora (from Bad Bad) and Alejandra Alcala (Blues Lawyer and Preening). Their record Do The Duvet is on our list of most played releases at Gimmie HQ for 2020. We interviewed Amber and Andy.

Naked Roommate are from Berkley, California; what’s it like where you live? Can you tell us a bit about your neighbourhood?

AMBER SERMEŃO: We got a high walk score of 91, 8th highest houseless population in the country and great sandwiches.

ANDY JORDAN: We live right on the border of Oakland/Berkeley, so we have both NIMBYs and regular people.

How did you first find music?

AJ: Or how did music first find me, right? I’ll say that the first music I was into was The Wild Tchoupotoulas, an LP of medieval Andalusian music and Mekons, or so my parents report. That’s when I was three, in 1983.

AS: For me, it would have to be cruising in L.A. with my ma. There’d always be C&C Music Factory, Ace of Base or Prince on the radio.

What excites you the most about making music?

AS: When something that could’ve just been a fart in the wind gets caught and turned into something that makes people dance. Seeing that is incredibly gratifying

You both started the band; how did you first meet?

AJ: On a deserted dance floor in San Francisco, surrounded by unsavoury types.

AS: Haha, oh god… Yeah that was back in 2007. Anyway, that was silly. Years later we bumped into each other at a bookstore his dad worked at. I guess he was a little more charming in that setting. That’s when we really started hanging out.

What’s the best thing about making stuff together?

AJ: I guess the question answers itself, or I’d rephrase it to say: the best part about making music is doing it together.

AS: I’m not gonna lie and say it’s a wonderful experience. It’s pretty hard sometimes. We’re both hard headed so it’s a process. When barriers break and he sees what I see or vice versa it feels well worth it. A more permanent manifestation of our struggles and growth. I think it’s special to have somewhat of a record of that.

I know you had band The World; how was Naked Roommate born?

AJ: I had been working on a bunch of recordings at home and rather than contaminate them with my confused vocal approach, I had Amber sing over them.

What’s the story behind the band name, Naked Roommate?

AJ: No story. It was as simple as might be expected: we were the naked roommates one day, and upon referring to ourselves as such, we paused and said, “ha ha”!

Can you tell us about the recording of your album Do the Duvet? You recorded over few months, right?

AJ: We took our time. We recorded where we practice, in the studio behind Michael’s house. Our bunker-clubhouse. Although now we practice outside the bunker, in the bricoláge garden. To record, we used analogue tape plus digital. The initial performances were done in a few takes, ‘(Re)P.R.O.D.U.C.E.’ was just an improvised thing we did while the tape was rolling. We liked it so it ended up on the record, with a few overdubs and some editing here and there. The recording and overdubbing process helped us form the songs. We experimented with everything, figured out what worked and went with it.

AS: Clubhouse is a good word for it. It got filled with books and various objects to prompt ideas and we got into our habits. That being everyone forming songs while I hung out outside with Michael’s partner Katie smoking cigarettes. Once they had something I’d hop in there, riff some gibberish, and sometimes even words. Then we’d have a song.

What were some things that you tried doing on this album while recording that you think worked really well?

AJ: Knowing when to stay minimal and when to get maximal.

Amber, can you tell us about writing the lyrics for the LP; what’s your writing process?

AS: I just “bleee blahhh blooo” until words start forming over the song. What comes out is sometimes surprising but often not. I know my brain fairly well by now. Interesting though, how gibberish and non-sequiturs can form a solid theme and you’re like, “oh so this narrative has just been waiting to come out of me from somewhere in there. Had no idea.” Sometimes it works out well. But my favourite lyrics have happened when the rest of the band helped form them too, like in ‘We are the Babies’. And you know Andy wrote the lyrics to a couple of songs on there. ‘Repeat’ and ‘(Re)P.R.O.D.U.C.E.’. I think he has the opposite approach to mine but it all works.

How did you approach the vocals on the record? Did you have an idea of how you wanted it to sound before you started?

AS: I’m better at knowing what I don’t want to sound like and avoiding it. Whatever else comes out I’m open to. I guess what I admire more is honesty, at least in a vocal delivery. You know, embracing idiosyncrasies rather than striving for technicality. So yeah, I’m not scared to show my weaknesses as a vocalist. What would be more terrifying is sounding bluesy.

What feeling do you get from playing live? Do you miss it (since everything’s been locked down with the pandemic happening)?

AJ: When things go well, it feels great. I just saw a YouTube video of us performing in February, it feels like much longer ago. That made me miss playing very much indeed.

AS: I’m actually a pretty anxious person when it comes to public speaking. But I must like the torture or else I wouldn’t find myself fronting bands so often. So, I’d say the tension and relief. Having the endorphins and calming them outside with a smoke. Am I turning this interview into a Marlboro commercial? Well now I have. But really the best is seeing a crowd move. That’s elating. So, when shows become a thing again y’all better get movin’. It’s about the only payment we get besides a couple of drink tickets.

What bands/albums/songs have you been obsessing over lately?

AS: Chronophage is one of my favourites right now and Chano Pozo’s percussions are timeless

AJ: I’m 40 now, so I only listen to Jazz, Dylan, and the Velvet Underground. As far as new stuff goes, I haven’t been paying enough attention but Natalie from Nots has a new band called Optic Sink, and I dig that. 

Do you have any other creative outlets? When not making stuff what would we find you doing?

AJ: I’ve been known to do some origami. I have four different dragons and three dinosaurs memorized. I also draw and design the records I make. When not making stuff, I’m reading stuff. Or biting the Big R, which is beatnik slang for working.

AS: Yes, the house is FILLED with origami. I for one do everything, half completed in my corner. So yeah, I really need the discipline of collective projects to make things happen. You’ll actually find some clay sculptures I did for First World Record in the insert and on the cover. That’s one thing I completed besides music.

Please check out: NAKED ROOMMATE; on Instagram. Do The Duvet via Trouble In Mind Records.

Thao and the Get Down Stay Down: “Temple was the creation of a space in where I can exist as my whole self”

Handmade mixed-media collage by B.

Thao Nguyen is an Oakland-based musician that is about to drop the most honest, beautiful and self-healing record of her life. Temple finds Thao comfortable in her own skin and sees her finding the courage to finally publicly come out as her whole self, confronting the shame, grief, division and silence she has felt in her life, making for a collection of powerful songs. The album is in essence pop but goes beyond that with elements of hip-hop, funk, folk, with punk roots. Temple is a celebration of living life on your own terms!

THAO NGUYEN: I’ve been screen printing in our garage. I took a screen printing class because I had this idea to offer a tea towel as part of our merch bundle – this was pre-pandemic – I would screen print a tea towel for them. It’s reclaiming my name because kids used to call me “Towel” when I was younger and it was really traumatic. I’ve been screen printing all day.

Nice! It’s cool that people will get to have a handmade little piece of you in their kitchen.

TN: Thank you so much for saying that! I hope they turn out OK. I hope it’s just enough that I’m doing it myself. It’s harder than I thought it would be [laughs].

My husband and I do screen printing in our garage, hand-making things is so much more personal and special.

TN: Totally! It’s been so fun. Do you have trouble with the ink drying up sooner than you think it will and then it gets hard to have a clean print?

Yes! Parts of the screen can get clogged a little, we still haven’t worked out how to combat that, we just try to do the prints as quickly as possible.

TN: [Laughs] Yes! I gotta move faster. It’s getting hotter here, that thickens the ink up too.

I noticed that during the song writing period for your new LP Temple you spent a lot of time in the kitchen baking sourdough bread.

TN: [Laughs] I did. Song writing can be so painful and take you to such dark places, also there can be very little return on a lot of effort. It was so nice to do something tactile and to see your work result in something, besides a song that you don’t know whether it’s good.

With bread I think it’s a food that can be really comforting too.

TN: Oh yeah! It’s been remarkable. Luckily I had already stockpiled a lot of flour from the song writing time, rolling into the pandemic we do have enough flour to keep baking.

What does your new album Temple mean to you?

TN: Temple was the creation of a space in where I can exist as my whole self. It’s the culmination of a whole life that I’ve lived in a very divided way. It has a lot to do with claiming my own life and still belonging to my family, and trying to find out how to still belong to my family and culture while being publicly out. I got married in the process! It was a real culmination of life and a celebration of that.

Congratulations on getting married! I can definitely feel that celebratory vibe on the album. There also seems to be a real feeling of freedom on it.

TN: Yeah, there is. It was like a bloodletting! [laughs]. There are moments of heaviness but also lightness and shedding a lot of the past and ghosts.

On your last album A Man Alive you were talking about your father, and on this record the first song, the title track, is celebrating your mother.

TN: Yeah. They have had drastically different influences on my life. My mom has always been so steady and consistent but, she has her own complex life. I wanted the chance to honour that and make her refugee story to be beyond that, to give her a fuller humanity.

Was it scary to put all of these thoughts and feelings out there?

TN: Oh, terrifying! Absolutely! It took years to make this record, it took probably a year and a half just to get the gumption to write the songs that I knew I had to write. Now it feels almost surreal like it was someone else’s turmoil and toil. It took a lot! I said that I didn’t know if I would make another record because it was such a herculean task to me to confront all these things.

I think sometimes listeners don’t quite get how intense it is for some artists to tap into their pain to write a song. Writing things from an honest place you have to confront yourself and what’s happening in your life, it can be scary.

TN: Yeah. It’s the artists own decision to do that, it was mine. There wasn’t another option for me. It’s the type of work I am drawn to. You hope that people will spend some time with it but it connects how it connects and it finds who it needs to find.

Have you always been creative?

TN: I think so. Growing up I didn’t have a lot of resources. When I started playing guitar that’s when I felt I could tap into creativity, I was about twelve. Before then I watched lot of television [laughs].

I know that some of your favourite writers inspire your lyrics, this time around it was James Baldwin, Octavia Butler and Yiyun Li; what was it about each?

TN: James Baldwin, his language and his eloquence and succinct manner is so remarkable. He’s such an incredible, incisive writer, whenever I reference him it’s the present tense, he is such a presence for so many people. The way he wrote about injustice and abuse of power and systemic inequality, the way he wrote about race, about being queer—it was all inspiring. A real source of courage for me.

Octavia Butler, the way she imagines and created these dystopic realties; this near future dystopia that we have actually been living in now. That was before all of this was happening though, there was already so much to work with as far as the corruption in the world and destruction of the environment and society. She’s a luminary, a prophet.

Yiyun Li, the way she has an incredibly powerful, very potent style of writing that isn’t dramatic at all but it’s devastating to me. The way she writes about families and familial relationships. She writes about Chinese families. I found a lot of similarities and commonalities that resonated with me and my Vietnamese family.

I’ve always liked how in Octavia’s stories she always has fascinating, strong female characters.

TN: Yes. ‘Phenom’ the song that draws the most from Octavia, the narrator of that is the voice that I imagine as one of her strong characters that leads the army of the scorched Earth to come back and bring to bear.

Have there been any books that have had a profound impact on you?

TN: So many, yeah. I love panoramic, cross-generational, sweeping narratives. The first one that I read like that was The Grapes Of Wrath or East Of Eden. More recently, Grace Paley, all of her short stories. I discovered her in college through my roommate; she influenced my song writing a great deal when I was starting to song write more seriously. Her economy with words is something that I have always admired. She’s a general influence.

For the last record, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, oh man there’s one passage in it where the son is getting on the bus and leaving… that influenced the creation of A Man Alive. There were a few sentences within that that just broke me. From there I could access the emotions that I needed to write the record.

Sonically when you started out writing this record, did you have a vision for it?

TN: Not so much. I knew that I would produce it, and produce it with my bandmate Adam [Thompson]. Whatever happened sonically it would be represented in a more truthful was, a more accurate way than any other, because we were doing it. I wanted to be creating more beats. I knew that there would be a strong rhythm and prominent groove and beats. I wanted a lusher soundscape.

I really love the song ‘Marrow’ on the LP; can you tell us a little about it?

TN: ‘Marrow’ I wrote leading up to marrying my partner. The songs aren’t necessarily chronological but they do follow things that lined up with what was happening in my life at the time. ‘Marrow’ is about saying: here I am, you know all these things about me and you accept me still [*gets teary*].

There’s a couple of songs on the album that make me cry every time, one is ‘Marrow’ and the other is ‘I’ve Got Something’. I like ‘Marauders’ too because it’s the most sincere, whole-hearted love song I’ve ever written.

Were those songs hard for you to write?

TN: They were! Especially ‘I’ve Got Something’ it deals with basically getting to a place where I had to be willing to no longer be a part of my family in order to have my own. There are a lot of scenarios that can end up in estrangement, fortunately that wasn’t mine. It’s really hard! How do you belong to where you come from? How do you belong to yourself? And, what are you willing to risk? How much can you deny of your own life?

Last question; what are some things that make you really, really happy?

TN: I love that question! I really love cooking. I love baking bread. I’ve been really into growing vegetables, I know that probably sounds really, really cliché at this point. The only solace I’ve been able to find is really getting into growing our own food. I spend most of my day trying to figure out how to keep the seedlings alive [laughs] and trying to figure out how to make compost. Just this morning the mint had this rust kind of fungus thing, I have to figure that out. It’s a whole other world of being in tune with the food we grow and eat. It’s so awesome! It’s something that I always wanted to do but I’ve always been so busy with tour. Even if I tried I wouldn’t be fully focused on it and I’d come back from tour and it would be dead.

Please check out: THAO & THE GET DOWN STAY DOWN. Get album Temple on Ribbon Music. Thao on Instagram.