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Interview: Thao & Mirah

It’s been pretty well documented that Kasey and I are pretty big fans of both Thao and Mirah. Their albums get a lot of play when we are at work in our kitchen and during our home-cooked meals.  So, as you might imagine, we were very excited when they agreed to sit down with us for the first official Turntable Kitchen interview.  We caught up with them outside the New Parish in Oakland where they were playing a set as part of their tour promoting their excellent new collaborative album aptly titled Thao & Mirah.  We relaxed and talked about macrobiotic knishes, pizza in Connecticut, favorite childhood albums, memorable childhood food-disasters, the uniqueness of the San Francisco music scene (including working with John Vanderslice and tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus), strange food-competitions, Top Chef, tour activism, and so so much more.  Read on.

Thao & Mirah – Folks

TK: When I was a child, I’d get really excited to go to my cousin’s house to listen to the Muppets record.  That record reminds me of childhood.  Are there records that remind you your childhood?

Thao: I don’t have records, but I have songs.  Marty Robbins’ “El Paso”, Smokey Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” and the Fat Boys’ “Wipeout.”  Marty Robbins my dad loved, and he would sing that song all of the time.  Smokey Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me” was the first song I heard that I remember stopping everything and laying down next to the speaker and just listening to it.

Mirah: You never told me that.

Thao: And the Fat Boys’ “Wipeout” is because my brother had a Fat Boys cassette and I would listen it over and over again and “Wipeout” was the first song on it, on the ‘a side’, and I loved it.  And I remember watching their movie that they made too, which at the time I thought was awesome, but is probably terrible.  But I haven’t checked.

TK: And you probably shouldn’t.  I don’t have any specific knowledge of how it holds up, but generally speaking…

Thao: Yeah, it doesn’t sound that good.

TK: Mirah, what about you?

Mirah: Well, when you said the Muppets one.  I thought of… I really loved “Really Rosie.”  We had that record and I watched the movie a lot.  I was in the play in first grade.  That was a big experience for me.  And I recently got the LP and DVD for my 5 year-old nephew, and I got to watch the movie with him.  Any children’s album and animated movie by Maurice Sendak and with music by Carol King is going to be good.  And it was so good.  I still love that.  And Stevie Wonder’s “Songs In the Key of Life.”  When I was a baby… I would listen to it from the time I was born I think.  I’d recognize myself in the music immediately because there is a little baby crying.  And that was nice.  And also… which Leonard Cohen album has fire with chains.

Thao: Is that Bird on a Wire?

Mirah: I don’t think that one is on that album, but I just remember looking at that record cover a lot while listening to it as a kid with my sister.

TK: Was it your sister’s record then?

Mirah: It was my dad’s record.

TK: Are there foods that remind you of when you were a kid?

Thao: Certainly.  Yeah.  My family is Vietnamese, and both my mom and my grandmother are amazing cooks.  My mom would always make dishes that I loved… that she hasn’t made in awhile.  But I guess she doesn’t have time ‘cause when I’m coming through town it is for one day.  There was this dish that my mom made with purple potatoes it was like this rice potato soup with shrimp and scallions.  I haven’t had that since I was maybe 10 or something.  That, and really well-marinated pork cutlets.  She is an amazing cook.  This one time she made this, [to Mirah] I don’t think I told you this, there was this rice…

Mirah: I’m glad we’re doing this interview, I’m learning a lot.

Thao: … it was this rice pocket.  It was made of rice flower and it was this thick shell and in it there is ground pork, marinated ground pork, with different strands of mushroom… the type of mushroom that is more like a sheet, but it is a strand…

Mirah: Not enoki…

Thao: No.  I can’t remember.  Well, I wouldn’t know the name in English anyways, but anyways it was so good.  And… wasting food was never an option. And I had orange juice with my dinner and I accidentally knocked the orange juice into this rice thing with ground pork… it was just swimming in orange juice, and I was besides myself, and my mom was out of the room, and I was so guilty… so I ate the whole thing.  And she come in and was like: “Why is there orange juice on the plate?”  And I said: “I ate it.”  And she said: “Why would you eat that?”  And it tasted horrible, and I still remember that taste, but I just had to do it – I couldn’t waste it.

TK[to Mirah]: So what about you?  What foods remind you of child hood?

Mirah: Well, the most obvious answers is La la’s Natural Brown Rice and Vegetable Knishes.  It was the family business.  My parents were macrobiotic hippies, and my dad for a bunch of years delivered Rolling Stones magazines for his job, and since my parents were macrobiotic they always had brown rice and vegetables around, and my mom’s family is not Jewish, but my dad’s family is Jewish, and my mom – she’d wrap up the leftovers in a pastry shell and bake it and gave it to my dad so he could eat it while driving.  He was like “Hey, this is like a knish.”  They fed them to us and other friends, and everyone would be like: “This is the best thing I’ve ever had!  You should start a business!” And then they did.  And that is what my parents did for 20 years. And the bakery was in our basement, and it is the quintessential Zeitlyn food.  It’s not a traditional recipe from any other sect… it’s just Zeitlyn’s.

Thao: And it put three kids through college.

Mirah: Yeah, well…. So did a lot of loans.  Actually, I think “The Garden” on “So You Think You Can Dance” did… because that is how I paid off my loan [laughing].  So, yeah, that was a big food.

TK: So, obviously both of you come from families with some interesting backgrounds in food.  Would either of you consider yourselves a “foodie”?

Mirah: I don’t know if I am like steadied enough to call my self a foodie.  I really love food, but sometimes when foodie people start talking about foodie-foodie things… and fancy ways and names… I don’t actually know what they are talking about.  And actually that is how I approach most things in my life.  It’s very intuitive and I just make it up as I go along, and so sometimes I feel a little left out of being able to claim foodieness officially.  And I’m a really good cook.

TK: For what it is worth… I don’t think you need technical knowledge to be a foodie.  You just have to love food and like to cook.

Thao: So yes.  Yes, I would say.  Definitely.  I would say the same, I’m not as well-versed as others, but I do have a deep appreciation for food, and I do love to cook.

TK: If you’d be interested in sharing any of your recipes with us, we’d love to have them.  They can be loose – like “a handful of this – a dash of that.”

Mirah: Well, I can’t give up the secret recipe for the spice mixture for the knish.  That is top secret.  That is in the vault with the Coke recipe and who else guards their recipes…  I read some article about how the Coke recipe was developed and guarded.

Thao: It was on This American Life.

Mirah: You’re right.  I listened to it.  You’re right.

TK: Do you cook at home?

Thao: Yes.

Mirah: When I’m home!

Thao: I think that the major, major drawback to a tour is that you can’t cook.

Mirah: Although last tour we had a hot plate and a water kettle and a cooler and a pantry bag.  It was a lot to haul in and out of the green rooms and hotel rooms, but it really saved our…

Thao: It really did.  There was quinoa.  And Mirah made fantastic Miso soup with vegetables.

TK: What do you cook when you are at home?

Thao: I feel most comfortable making soups.  I actually have this…

Mirah: I know what you are going to say.

Thao: I have this vision of what I would do after music, but I can’t tell you what I would name it.  I would want to open a soup restaurant.  But I can’t name it because what if someone steals it…

Mirah: Yeah, you can’t.  Put that in the vault [laughing].

Thao: But I don’t know if I’ll ever actually do it, but if not I’m just going to hold on to it until I think I’m going to die – and then I’ll tell someone.

Mirah: I’m a real fan of simple foods.  I’m kinda a whole grains and vegetables type.  I make a mean Apple crisp.  And I can make it fast [laughing].

Thao: That is true.  I like cooking fish, and making the different sort of batters that are healthier.  I like cooking fish and soup.

TK: Do you listen to music while you are cooking?

Thao: Yes.

Mirah: Music and I really love listening to the radio.

Thao: I listen to NPR or Motown.  Or soul music in general.

TK [to Mirah]: Do you have a go-to record for in the kitchen?

Mirah: Well, when I had my records in my home, which I don’t right now, I would often… I’m kind of a “leave the same record on the turntable for a long time” person.  Like I’ll listen to the same side of a record over and over.  It goes through phases, but definitely there has been some Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions moments that lasted for weeks.

TK [to Thao]: I think I remember seeing something on your Twitter account about a mishap involving a coffee maker and soup?

Thao: I don’t know if it was a mishap so much as there was one tour where … we all love food, and Adam our bassist for the Get Down Stay Down is an amazing cook.  He would qualify as a true foodie cause he reads the New York Times and reads all the menus and recipes and catalogs them in his mind and can just conjure them whenever he wants.  We had this thing patterned after Iron Chef and it was called “Wassoup!”  The idea is you make soup in the hotel room, and there are competing teams and you can only use the equipment in the hotel room.

Mirah: Who was the other team?

Thao: It was going to be Adam versus me.  But instead it became more of a group effort and there was no competition.  But the idea was that you’d cook and in the heat of the competitive moment you’d say  [leaning way forward] “WAS’SOUP!” to intimidate each other with your culinary acumen.  But there was no competition, it turned out we just made soup.

Mirah: What was the mishap?

Thao: I don’t remember a mishap.

TK: There may have been nothing about a mishap.  I mainly recall you tweeting about making soup in a coffee maker.

Thao: Yeah.  And then we made toast in between two irons.

Mirah: You had two irons?

Thao: Well, it was a suite with connecting rooms, so we had two of everything.  And we had to go downstairs to the lobby to steal one of the bowls that had business cards in them to make soup with.  It’s all on video – our friend has it.

TK: That is a Top Chef winning preparation: making toast with irons.  I don’t know if you watch Top Chef [Thao nods with a knowing smile], but Dale won a challenge making sandwiches using irons.

Thao: I wonder if he saw it.  I wonder if our video leaked.  I love Top Chef.  We fly a lot for work, and I try to only fly Virgin America because I know they definitely have Bravo and Top Chef.

TK: Do you have a favorite Chef-testant?

Thao: The woman from D.C. because she is so sweet, so nice.  I can’t remember her name.  And she is just so positive.  She didn’t win, but they brought her back.

TK: Carla?

Thao: Carla!  God bless that woman.  God bless her heart.

Mirah: I really don’t qualify as a foodie because I’m not sure I’ve ever watched that show.

TK: I don’t think you have to watch Top Chef to be a foodie.

Mirah: Ok.

Thao: But you know what I mean?  Everyone else is so catty, but she just loves everyone and loves food.  Anyways [laughing].

Mirah: Did she win?

Thao: She is in the new round of Top Chef, but it is hard to keep track because I only see it on the plane.

TK: Does being on the road create difficulties for people who like to eat healthy food?

Mirah: Yes!

Thao: There is nothing more disappointing, I think, that having to sate yourself with something you don’t want.

Mirah: We were just in L.A. and we were staying in a hotel in downtown L.A… and I haven’t had a problem in L.A. before.  I thought it was ok that I didn’t have my kitchen setup because we are in California and there is great food everywhere.  But we were just in downtown L.A. and I went in to five different places like a grocery store, a fancy French bakery, a little market, and I couldn’t find anything to eat.  And it is also hard when you know you are going to be hungry later, but you are not hungry at that moment.  And then it starts becoming unappealing.

TK: It is true.  But you also get to occasionally discover cool restaurants, right?  Have you had any cool restaurant discoveries while on tour?

Thao: Yeah.  There is this amazing restaurant in St. Louis that I cannot remember the name of.  But they…

Mirah: The frozen custard place!?

Thao: Yeah!  This place called Cold Stone Creamery… it’s really obscure [Mirah laughing].  No.  This place is a restaurant, and it was organic and all the meat was sustainable.  They had this amazing garden in the back of their place and an amazing chef.  But I can’t remember the name of it [laughing].  That place is awesome.

Mirah: There really is a famous custard place in St. Louis.  [To TK] Do you know that place?

TK: No.  I haven’t been to St. Louis since I was 16.

Thao: Miya’s Sushi in New Haven is some of the best sushi I’ve ever had, and it is sustainable fish.  And this chef is really experimental in what he does.  And half of the menu is for students – so it is really reasonable – and the other half is for people who wanna go big.  That’s enough reason to go to New Haven I think.

Mirah: I really like the food at the… [to Thao] what’s the place in Montreal?

Thao: La Sala Rossa.

Mirah: It is nice when the good food in the city lines up with the venue you are playing, which is kinda rare.

Thao: And I love good pizza.  I’m always on the lookout.  And New Haven has amazing pizza: Stella’s.

Mirah: And Montreal has great bagels.  The only bagels I’ll really bother eating are in Montreal.

TK: I was in New Haven recently.  I didn’t make it to Stella’s because they were closed the day I was there.  I forget the name of the place I did go to, but the pizza there all seems amazing.

Thao: Right.  And they have a competitor.  And they started from the same owner.  Brothers.  There is all this folklore around it.

TK: The first time you collaborated on stage was about a year ago for Noise Pop in San Francisco.

Mirah: Yeah.

TK: How did the collaboration come about?

Mirah [to Thao]: You tell the story!

Thao: We have a mutual friend named Lauren Ross who is a colleague of our’s as well, and she heard that Mirah was moving to San Francisco and so she put us in touch and we thought it would be fun to work together.

Mirah: And also our friend Merrill who co-produced the album.  She was moving to the Bay Area the same month I was moving here.  And Thao and Merrill had known each other already.

Thao: Right, and so this idea was being vollied around and we didn’t know what could happen with recording, but what was coming up was the show that I had with Noise Pop and I asked Mirah if she wanted to do a collaborative set.  And that is how we started.

TK: Did the idea of doing an album come up after that show?

Thao: It came up… a tour and an album came up because…

Mirah: I think the first time we got together to play music we were like “We should [snaps] do everything…”

Thao: Yeah, it was fun, and we were like “Why not?”  And then all the things happened.

Mirah: Which is amazing because how many times do you think of ideas… you have the grandiose plans but it just sort of stays in fantasyland.  It helps when Thao got to call Kill Rock Stars and be like “What do you think of the idea?” and they were like “Great!  Here is your budget.  Here are your dates.”  I mean we were like [makes expression of confusion/surprise] “Ok!?”

Thao: Ok, I guess so!

Mirah: I guess we should write some more songs.

TK: It sounds like Kill Rock Stars was supportive of the idea.

Thao: Yeah, they were.  They were totally supportive.  They were very excited.  They were game to give us money [laughing].

TK: Mirah, do you have a favorite Thao song?

Mirah: Favorite Thao song…

Thao: You don’t have to choose one just because I’m here.

Mirah: Wait, what is it called.  The one with all of the silence that we don’t do.  We’re not doing it on this tour.

Thao: “But What Of The Strangers”?

Mirah: Yes!  That one!  It’s called “But What Of The Strangers.”  It’s so good, and it is really fun to sing together on stage, partly because there is so much silence in it, but when it comes in it is just perfect.

Thao: We don’t do it so much because my shows aren’t known for a lot of silence.  You know?

Mirah: But mine are.  So it worked out last tour.

Thao: Yeah.  But I don’t do it with the Get Down Stay Down because the settings are pretty rauckus.  A lot more so that I don’t know if people… you can’t be hearing hollering and stuff during the silences or whooping.

Mirah: When you are playing at the oyster festival sponsored by the beer company it is hard to do the quieter songs.

TK: Thao, do you have a favorite Mirah song?

Thao: I do.  I have many.  But I must say that “We’re Both So Sorry” is my favorite Mirah song.

Mirah: You love that song.  You always make me play that song.

Thao: I have requested that it be a part of our set every time we play.  Cause now I get to sing on it which is rad, but I do love that song.  And there are so many.  “Cold Cold Water.”  I’ll say it.  I really like that song too.

Mirah: Thank you.

TK: You’ve been in the Bay Area for about a year now, right?

Mirah: Well, Thao has been here for longer.

Thao: I’ve been hear for almost five, but I’ve been on tour for a lot of that.  But the past couple of years I’ve been around more.

TK: Do you find that there is a connection between the food and music scene in the Bay Area?

Thao: The most I can say about that is, I think, that so many people I know who play music love food.  And I think that both stir people, and invoke the same excitement and connection.

Mirah: They are both very social things.

Thao: Very social and very intuitive.

Mirah: Thao and I each got to do a benefit dinner with our friends at ATC, Air Traffic Control, and that is the group that is helping us incorporate activism.  They are helping us be more organized in incorporating activism into our shows and our touring.  Cause it is someone but Thao and I care a lot about, but there is a lot of coordination with things.  Anyways, ATC is helping us do that, and they had come up with this idea of hosting dinners at their office space, they have a nice office space in the Mission, and the idea was to have a musician who likes to cook make dinner, a benefit dinner, for an organization of their choice and then play music, so a little dinner theater, and Thao did one.

Thao: Yeah, I did the pilot.  And then Mirah did the one in October.

Mirah: That went pretty well.

TK: So what did you make?

Thao: I made a soup.  A stew.  There were other dishes.  Zucchini salad. The dessert was poached pear with ginger, honey drizzle.

Mirah: I made three kinds of fresh ravioli.  I have a friend who makes fresh pasta.  I had an idea to make fresh ravioli, but I knew I needed help doing that because I’ve only made fresh pasta a couple of times.  So I made three kinds of raviolis with different squashes.  There was roasted red cabbage, and an arugala salad with shaved fennel and golden beets and a lemon-shallot dressing.  And there was a soup with giant fava beans and truffle oil.  The dessert was chocolate cake with a little ganache and homemade blood-orange sorbet that I make.

TK: Last question.  What is the best thing you discovered this year: food, music or otherwise.

Thao: I’m going to go with a restaurant in San Francisco.  Since Janury, or in the last twelve months?

TK: 12 months.  I’m not going to lawyer you on this one.

Mirah: I’ll actually answer.  I actually feel like the best thing I found this year because I’m new to the Bay Area, is meeting musicians who live here. Getting to meet Thao and Merrill, and working with Merrill was amazing and working at Tiny Telephone.  And John Vanderslice coming in every morning and checking in on us.  I lived in Portland for like 6 years and knew a lot of the people before I moved there and met people during my whole 6 year stay there, but I didn’t actually feel like I was getting to know a lot of the musicians and to feel like I was part of some scene until right before I left.  And somehow I’ve ended up lucking out and moving to the Bay Area and getting to work with and meeting so many people already.  That feels amazing and successful.

Thao: I’m going to go with it even though it is maybe older than a year.  And everyone says this.  I think Outerlands.  It is really great restaurant.  And I really like the vibe.  I don’t want to be one of those people, but I am.

Mirah: They just got a new chef.  I read an article about it.

TK: My wife will love that you said that.  She loves Outerlands.  We live in the Sunset.

Thao: I really want to spend more time eating around in the Sunset because there are so many amazing things out there.

Note: If you enjoyed the interview, you might enjoy checking out TK’s pictures and videos from Thao & Mirah’s first live collaboration at Noise Pop by following this link.

Posted by Matthew Hickey

MattNekoRecords

Matthew is the music editor and co-founder of Turntable Kitchen. He’s addicted to vinyl records, pour over coffee, craft beer, small batch bourbon, and pan roasting pork chops.

  • nicole

    Great interview, Matthew :) You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me is one of the best songs, everrr. It actually just popped up on our Temptations Mother’s Day Pandora station, which turned out to be a real crowd-pleaser.

    They must really be foodies to make soup and toast in a hotel room! I can’t say I’d be all over that one.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Nicole! It was a fun interview to take. Oh, I also love the Temptations. When Kasey and I were last in Ohio I was on a Mission to find a cheap copy of the Temptations greatest hits on vinyl – which I later discovered at Amoeba in SF for only $2!

  • nicole

    Nice!

  • http://profiles.google.com/langeallison Allison Lange

    The custard place in St. Louis is Ted Drewes.

  • http://www.atthesinema.co.uk MissSinema

    Have you heard Thao and Mirah’s cover of ‘Love is a Battlefield’? It’s bloody amazing, I have to say.
    Check it out here if you get a moment: http://atthesinema.co.uk/?p=4994
    Thanks :)

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