Olympia, Washington’s Naomi Punk is a band both born of the great Pacific Northwest punk rock tradition and consciously divorced from it. Singer/guitarist Travis Coster, who is also a visual artist with numerous fliers and album covers to his name, met guitarist Neil Gregerson and drummer Nic Luempert when they were teenagers going to warehouse shows in the Seattle area. They internalized both the aesthetic and political lessons of their regional forebears — everyone from the Sonics to Bikini Kill to Nirvana. But from those building blocks, they’ve created something entirely different, slicing up punk’s various elements and rearranging them like one of Coster’s handmade collages. This is especially evident on their sophomore full-length Television Man, which tinkers with canonical reference points while channeling punk music’s cathartic energy to new ends. We spoke with Coster about gender, spirituality and whether there’s any hope for the youth of America.
I noticed a lot of religious imagery in the lyrics of Television Man. Are you guys actually religious, or is it a metaphor for something else?
We don’t really give a fuck about God, I guess you can quote me on that [laughs]. I feel like I’m interested in spirituality and spiritual things, not necessarily just as a metaphor for making art. To me, it’s a really big space to explore philosophically. It feels more real for me to comment on that than to try to write a song about politics, or the minimum wage or stuff like that. I’m pretty into altering my spiritual state through art. That sounds corny.
Not at all! I also hear a lot of repetition, which something that plays a big role in religious music.
It’s interesting that you mention that. I never really thought about it that way before, I kinda just like really simple stuff.
I also noticed a lot of imagery of some sort of powerful female figure…who is she?
Often when I’m working on lyrics, I feel like I’m writing about myself from outside of myself. So I’ve written about myself as a female in a lot of lyrics, which is different from writing about like, a femme fatale or something. I actually made up the name Naomi Punk a long time ago as a drag name for myself. I feel like the themes I’ve been exploring in this band have been really motivated by my interest in exploring the interior of my soul. It’s about human beings, living through a new kind of abstract freedom.
It seems like these things go in cycles. Kurt Cobain subverted a lot of the macho bullshit in rock ‘n’ roll, and then that fell out of fashion with the garage rock revival. Maybe it’s starting to swing the other way again?
It’s funny, a lot of bands I was really into when I was a younger, I feel like they were subverting the masculine-hetero complex that had existed in traditional punk music. But I feel like that hetero masculine vibe is back in fashion in punk music right now. I’m not disagreeing, I just think it’s really interesting to think about how counterculture is supposed to be the opposite of mainstream culture, but a lot of counterculture is more regressive. It’s weird.
I feel like [gender] is interesting as a subject to explore, and not just as a way to play out identity politics in a pop band. I think it’s interesting in a way that doesn’t have to be defined in an essay or something.
Speaking of identity politics, riot grrl is a huge part of the Pacific Northwest punk scene. Were you exposed to a lot of that growing up?
Yeah, for sure. It’s so revered in the Northwest. And I’m like “Yeah, it’s cool, but it’s not like a weird exotic thing where it’s a specialized issue.” People are like “Whoa, women are cool, they can rock out too!” and I’m like “Yeah, dude. I don’t know what else to say. I’m not a total shithead. I read about philosophy and stuff.
I feel very conscious about being in a band made up of three men. I feel like the art speaks for itself. Part of the influence is political, but I feel like it’s implicitly political. And the way we present everything, it doesn’t need to be something where we wear a shirt that says ‘I’m a feminist’ or something. Kurt Cobain already did that.
Let’s talk about your lyric, “my generation is dead.” Do you really believe that or are you being hyperbolic?
When I look around my world and I see what the future is, I feel like it’s not my world. I feel like it’s some other world, and I don’t want to be a part of it. The future is like Portlandia and weird gentrification and everyone having a cultural buy-in. It feels completely dead sometimes. But it’s not [that I'm being] nostalgic for like, ’70s punk culture, cause back then, they were really depressed — and their generation was dead, too. Maybe it’s another symptom of myopic thinking. I’m just having these thoughts as someone who’s in their 20s. I think about my generation, I just get really depressed.
I think counterculture in America is completely dead, and it’s sad for me to think about that. We’ll play a warehouse show, and there are 17-year-old kids coming up to me asking me how to get signed to Captured Tracks, and I’m like, “Dude, the last thing you need for playing punk music is getting signed to a record label when you’re 17 years old.” Seriously, this is the state of things. It’s kind of a drag to me. I’m more interested in participating in some way that can convince people they don’t need to be part of the mainstream or have some outlet that makes money to be a legit art venture.
You’ve been touring with Parquet Courts, and I see some parallels in how you approach music. Are there any contemporaries that you are excited about?
In Olympia there are a couple of really good bands we’re in sync with, the same way we feel a strong affinity with Parquet Courts. There’s this band Gag — I don’t feel like we’re making the same kind of music, but we vibe with them. I think the three of us listen to a lot of different music — a lot of electronic music, too. Music that doesn’t really fit a narrative about there being a new punk scene. I don’t know if it makes sense to people to say, “Yeah, I went and saw this Stravinsky stuff that I’m really into.”
Those are always the most interesting kinds of influences. Maybe the only ones worth talking about? I also picked up some snatches of ’70s and ’80s radio pop on your instrumental tracks.
I like Fleetwood Mac a lot. Radio pop from the ’70s is pretty cool. Gary Numan and shit.
I feel like people don’t talk about those short instrumental tracks on your record enough.
They’re always my favorite, to be honest. Some people think they’re just filler tracks, but I feel like they’re the main tracks, kind of. We worked on them a lot! They took a lot of time. They’re written to complement the music and build on it.
You use the word “punk” in your name, and the image on your album cover is a stereotypically “punk” image. Are you interested in conversations about what that word means, or are you making fun of the people who care about that?
We were talking about it the other day. We were like, “Which is cheesier, ‘punk’ or ‘metal’?” and I was like, “I think punk’s cheesier.” Metal hasn’t been corrupted by art stuff as much, and metal can be commercial, but it embraces the commercial, whereas punk pretends to reject the commercial, but still is commercial. I just think it’s an interesting subject, and I think it’s cool to force people to think about clichés in different ways.