“The time you’re onstage — that’s what you live for. Everything else is just getting there.”
Being labeled as a leading voice of the riot grrrl generation can be a tough mantle to uphold, but Corin Tucker takes it all in stride.
In fact, the powerhouse Sleater-Kinney guitarist/vocalist was more than happy to try on a new hat by fronting the indie-rock supercollective dubbed Filthy Friends, which includes luminaries like Peter Buck of R.E.M. on guitar, Scott McCaughey of The Young Fresh Fellows and The Minus 5 on bass, Kurt Bloch of Fastbacks on guitar, and Bill Rieflin of KMFDM on drums. (Linda Pitmon of Zuzu’s Petals and The Baseball Project is taking over the drum chair for the band’s upcoming live dates.)
Their debut album Invitation, out now in various formats via Kill Rock Stars, marries the Filthy Friends’ collective ’80s sensibilities with all their postmodern tendencies to create an album that’s very much of the moment. “We tried to do that, whether consciously or subconsciously,” Tucker admitted to Digital Trends. “The fun thing is, we all have so many interests and influences, and we’re not afraid to just go for it, you know? ‘That’s like a Television song? Cool! Let’s try this!’ There’s no reason not to just play, and that’s really what we’re doing. I think you get that sense when you’re listening to the music. It’s not taking itself too seriously. It’s just meant to try different things.”
Digital Trends called Tucker at her homebase in Portland to discuss how to keep songs feeling current in today’s ever-changing socio-political climate, the current status of Sleater-Kinney, and how to challenge yourself as an artist whenever you play live.
Digital Trends: People have described your vocals at various time as being “operatic,” “powerful,” and “having a wide range.” Going into recording Invitation, did you have a sense of, “I want to sound different on this album”? How did you approach your vocal tracks?
Corin Tucker: I think I just really wanted each song to have a unique voice. I wanted to try a bunch of different things, so on a song like Makers, I went for a vocal approach that really took the song in a certain sonic direction. I wasn’t afraid of each song being different from the other — and it was really fun to do it that way, actually.
I like getting different vibes from every song on the album, to be honest. By the way, one of my favorite lines of the year is from Ain’t Much of a King: “Ain’t much of a king if he can’t keep you around.” I immediately visualized Anthony Scaramucci [the short-lived White House communications director also known as “The Mooch”] the first time I heard you sing that one (Tucker laughs). But each new day I hear that song, a different person fits the visual bill for it.
(laughs again) It’s wild! It’s such wild, crazy times that we live in.
Do you feel the meaning of some of the album’s lyrics change day to day, given the socio-political rollercoaster ride we seem to be living through right now?
They weirdly do. I remember being really worried after the election and feeling like that song wasn’t going to make sense, but once we started playing it, I went, “Oh, this is a fight song.” We’re still fighting, and we’re still arguing about all these issues that are no less important to anyone.
In a way, I’m sort of clinging to some of the songs, and what they mean. And they do mean something slightly different every day, with all that’s going on.
As a mom with two kids, do you feel a different responsibility as an artist now, in terms of what you write about? Do you feel more protective of them?
It’s been hard thinking about all of the gross, sexist stuff that’s been said. It’s bizarre, for sure. Sometimes with my daughter, it will be like (in a sing-song voice), “Oh, we’re not listening to the radio today!” Or she’ll pick up The New York Times, but some things aren’t even printable in there. So, yeah, it’s a bizarro world, I think.
Sometimes you have to take breaks from it with your family where you don’t have the news on or even look at it, so we’ve gone on a lot of hikes here in Portland.
You’ve sure got the right terrain for it out there. I was in Ridgefield, Washington back in June and went, “Oh yeah, this is how it should be.”
Yeah, we’re spoiled with how beautiful it is out here. I think there’s refuge in nature.
What can you tell me about the subject matter of the album’s first song and video, Despierta?
We actually wrote that song back in 2012. We’ve been working on these songs for several years, off and on. But that song was more of a general thought in my mind how the country was really changing geographically, politically, and culturally, and how upsetting that seems to be to certain people.
It’s the story of looking at things from a different perspective, maybe from someone who’s grown up here as a young person and is just coming into her own, and is telling off the status quo and the people in charge. She was hoping for some kind of change in the last election, but things didn’t turn out that way. (chuckles)
I think all of those kinds of feelings, frustrations, and anxieties can come through when you’re in a band. You throw things out there and go through different things in different songs. It’s just a really good place to put all of that.
As a guitar player with your own signature sound, how do you and a guitar icon like Peter Buck work out who plays what on any given song?
Once we started playing Ain’t Much of a King, I went, “Oh, this is a fight song.”
Each song is different, so it depends on what the vibe of the song is. With a song like The Arrival, Peter had this riff, which he showed me went like this (sings riff). So I said, “Love it! Let’s blow it up like this.”
And that’s what I like about doing a record like Invitation — having those ideas, and then whittling them down and editing them on the fly, which Peter is great at doing, and totally comfortable doing. That was something we were able to do throughout the writing and the recording stages.
Is there one song that benefited the most from that kind of post-op editing, something that needed an extra little TLC?
I think Faded Afternoon was one like that. I really love that song, but it definitely benefited from a little editing. It originally ran a little bit long, so we cut out a couple of parts, and it just got better and better once we whittled it down a little bit.
I almost want to call you “Michelle Stipe” when you’re singing that one, but that’s not fair to either of you.
(chuckles heartily) I am such a big fan as well, and sometimes I’d think, “Oh, this song has an alt-country vibe.” I grew up listening to Michael Stipe’s vocals and they influenced me, although I’m a really different singer than he is.
Have you ever discussed doing an R.E.M. cover with Peter?
It was meant to be a celebration of what we accomplished.
I don’t think so. The Baseball Project [another band Peter Buck is in, with Scott McCaughey, Steve Wynn, and Linda Pitmon] did The One I Love in Norway, with [R.E.M. bassist] Mike Mills singing it — and I got to sing Mike Mills’ part [i.e., “Fire!”].
That was a really fun treat for me. I like to have a little role in the stuff that comes up like that, but we don’t really have any desire to cover any R.E.M. songs. [The One I Love was R.E.M.s first Top 10 single, from 1987’s Document.]
That other band you’re in that begins with an S, Sleater-Kinney, seems to be in our permanent listening DNA now. I have to say Live in Paris [recorded in 2016, released in 2017] felt like a celebration of a pretty impressive legacy.
I hope so! It was meant to be, like you said, a celebration of what we accomplished. When we came back on our reunion tour, we felt like we were playing some of our absolute best shows we’d ever done, so we felt like we needed to record it and share it with people.
Good call there. Is Sleater-Kinney officially on the shelf, or do you feel you can come back to it whenever you feel like doing it, even with all the projects the three of you have going at any given time?
Oh yeah. It’s still going, definitely.
Oh, nice; that’s good to hear. Is vinyl the best way to listen to Invitation?
Well, I highly recommend it! (both laugh) It definitely sounds the best, in my opinion. Plus, I just got to see the clear vinyl in my office, which is so nice. There’s a regular black vinyl edition, and then the limited edition is this clear, greenish vinyl, which is awesome-looking. It’s super-fun, and it’s a really quality product that does sound unique. I love being able to get special-edition vinyl and put it on my turntable.
What kind of turntable do you have?
It’s an old Technics.
Oh, nice. Technics are some great, vintage ’tables. Are your kids getting into vinyl at all?
Oh, not at all. Everything is digital or on the phone or on YouTube, which is a totally different world — and that’s fine. It’s a different generation.
They’ll come around. (both chuckle) Back in the day, I’m sure you must have bought some albums based only on what the cover looked like or what label it came out on, like SST.
Oh, absolutely. It was some kind of scene that spoke to us in a certain way. And yeah, you’d buy some records that weren’t great and you’d eventually weed them out, but sometimes you got something that was just so cool and unique.
What album or single did you pick up on a whim that turned out to be a winner?
I love the X-Ray Spex [the cult-fave ’70s British punk band fronted by the late Poly Styrene]. I remember one of the first times we went to England, and going into a record store and finding a 7-inch of The Day the World Turned Day-Glo (1978). It was like, “Oh my God!” I still have it. It was definitely a wonderful find.
I see six live dates on the Filthy Friends tour schedule total so far. Will you guys add more shows at some point?
We’re more inclined to pick and choose a weekend here and a weekend there. We all have super-planned schedules — especially with me, having two kids. That’s front and center in my life. If we can, we’ll work some things around that, because everybody’s cool with it.
Are you more comfortable now doing it like 10 days on/10 days off instead of, say, six months straight of touring?
Oh yeah! Even with Sleater-Kinney, and even if I wasn’t a mom of two, I don’t think I could handle doing more than three weeks at a time. Just mentally, it can be tiring.
The myth of the endless rock star party doesn’t happen on the road that much anymore. You really can’t risk having an off-night in any way.
Yeah. And for anyone who’s been doing it as long as I have and we in the Filthy Friends have, you have to be serious about it. You don’t want to do a bad show. People have bought a ticket and taken time out of their lives to come to the venue, and the worst thing in the world is to not be able to give them a great-sounding performance. You do actually have to do the work to have it sound good — and fun.
For anyone who wants to do music throughout their whole life, the party is the show. The time you’re onstage — that’s what you live for. Everything else is just getting there.
That’s a good point. As somebody who has a pretty deep catalog, can you pinpoint a song that has to be in every show you do?
Hmmm. Not really. I think a lot of musicians, myself included, like the “novelty” of trying new things. Being a writer, I’m always interested in writing something new, and seeing how that works.
Another thing I love about performing — every show is different and every audience is different, and you have no idea how they’re going to react to the material you have. Sometimes people really connect with a certain song, and you’re like, “Oh! That’s surprising!” Or they don’t (chuckles), and it’s something that you thought would totally go off — and then it’s like (in surprised voice), “Huh!”
But I like that, because it keeps you on your toes, and it challenges you. It’s always different every night.
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