Corin Tucker really needs no introduction but interview convention asks that we write one anyway, so here goes: she’s an Oregon-based indie-rock veteran who made her name in early riot grrrl band Heavens To Betsy, before going on to form one of the most innovative, respected and game-changing rock outfits of all time in Sleater-Kinney. Her wild, riotous yowl, fret-mashing skills and outspoken feminist credentials have made her an icon in both the music world and some feminist circles. She released her first solo album, 1,000 Years in 2010 under the name The Corin Tucker Band, and followed it up with latest album, Kill My Blues, earlier this year, putting out both records on Olympia-based label Kill Rock Stars.
We’re a little belated posting this interview, since it took places in the weeks leading up to 2012 US presidential elections that saw Barack Obama face down the Republicans’ bumbling Mitt ‘Binders Full Of Women’ Romney, and while Tucker was expectedly articulate on how politics had informed her latest album, it is wider, timeless themes – of death, life, girl/womanhood, the power of music and the experience and benefits of being an older musician (and mum!) – that she concerns herself with on Kill My Blues.
I’ve been bouncing to the new album all week. Will we get to see you tour it over here in the UK?
I wish there were plans to come to the UK, but there aren’t. I love the UK, I love Europe, but it might be a bit too much for us.
Both of those.
So how did the songwriting process happen on this album? I believe this record was written in a more collaborative manner [as opposed to 1, 000 Years, which Tucker wrote mostly by herself]
Yeah, we took our time writing the songs. A lot of them together, in an Oregon shed space we use. We wrote a lot of the music there, or we would get together at one of our houses. The shed is behind the house of a friend of ours, named Andrew Price. He’s actually in our drummer Sarah Lund’s other band, Hungry Ghost.
It really feels like a band at work here, in a way that maybe wasn’t so present on the last record
It happened naturally after we’d been out touring 1,000 Years. We did a tour for that where Mike Clark joined us to play bass and keyboards, and we all sort of got to know each other better on the road, playing all those shows together. We really started clicking as a band and writing new stuff, and that all came together for this new record.
You handled all the lyrics yourself?
All the songs are by me except ‘Outgoing Message’, which our guitarist Seth Lorinczi wrote with Julianna Bright, his personal and musical partner. She’s in The Golden Bears and is an amazing singer. For that song, Seth came up with the music and I was having a hard time coming up with a vocal for it, and so Julianna just came up with it. I thought it worked really well.
Were there any major events or influences informing the lyrics on this album? There seems to be an existential bedrock to the content: life, death, relationships, moving up/on. Seems like there’s a lot in there!
Yeah. I think that there’s a sort of good stretch of time that this record deals with, and you know… [pauses] I think that over the course of us getting together as band we’ve kind of checked in. We’ve all been playing music for a long time, and the difference between playing music when you’re twenty and when you’re forty is huge. There’s been heartbreak, people we’ve had to say goodbye to, and there’s been some really joyous things. Getting to play music again is really fun and exciting, and I think this record is taking stock of everything and kind of saying ‘Wow, I’m glad to be here and with good people, and I get to play music and I feel really grateful.’
Feels like an affirmation of life
For sure. You cannot appreciate at twenty how temporary everything is. But at forty? Oh yeah; it’s real. I think there’s that sense on this record that I feel really grateful to have what I have. I think music is part of expressing that.
There’s a real political ire and frustration in the opening song, ‘Groundhog Day’, where you call everyone out on the lack of progress, particularly around women. I thought it was a bold, call-to-arms way to open the album. With the election looming, I’m guessing politics is on your mind
It was definitely something I needed to get off my chest. I was feeling really frustrated that the women’s movement in the US feels really stalled. The issues that we were talking about when I was twenty – reproductive rights and equal pay for equal work – are still on the agenda today. And if anything, the right-wingers are even more energised now than they were back then, and it’s frustrating that we have to go round and round on those issues each generation. There are other things I would like us to get to. My fear is that there has been so much pressure in the US that young women really focus on their careers, and they’ve struggled economically – which is understandably at the forefront is our minds – but I still feel there needs to be feminism, and that we don’t sort of forget about working on these issues and keeping these things alive.
We’re watching aghast over here at the Tea Party and all the attacks on women’s reproductive health. It seems massively regressive. But with this resurgence of attacks on women there also seems to be a rise in ‘90s inspired activism – Pussy Riot being a notable example. Do you think punk feminism has the power to really change things?
Well, I think Pussy Riot is amazing. They’re super inspiring and it’s astonishing that they’ve used riot grrrl as an influence and bought a lot of attention to the oppression in Russia right now. I think there is an awareness that is achieved by art and activism, but we aren’t going to be able to affect real social, political change without political power. That is something that is sorely lacking for women in the US. I was watching a female New York senator on TV the other day, and she was saying that women are 18% of Congress, and 51% of the population. I think that part of the problem is that a lot of the traditional roles of power and still being held by these old, white men for the most part. We are extremely fortunate to have Obama become president, but in a lot of ways his hands are tied because there are so many conservatives in power that he’s been unable to fully enact change here. There’s a lot of frustration about that. I think for the US to move forward the core of what needs to change is campaign finance and the lobbyists that have all the money in the system. The lock on corporate and political power in America is really deep; it’s not a true democracy when you have to have so much money in order to be in power. It leaves the majority of people out.
There is a difference between power in the arts and power in real terms. Do you think women can achieve that kind of power through the arts, and that politics through music might filter though in some way, or is that too tenuous?
I think that the arts and politics are linked, but it is somewhat tenuous, and I think that we can’t just say that artists are gonna be able to change people’s minds. That everything’s gonna change overnight and that we’ll be liberated. That’s naïve. But I do think that people’s minds are changed by social activism, and that they can have their minds opened by art. I would cite the gay rights movement in the US. That has moved forward a lot in my lifetime. People’s minds have been opened by activism in this country, by people talking about gay people and gay people talking about their stories. That’s a movement that’s really come forward, but the legal battles in order to have true equality for gay rights – that’s a fundamental part of change and has come after a lot of the activism. So I think that women need to not slack, I guess [laughs and adopts faux stern accent] Don’t slack off, ladies!
But something music can do is open dialogues, right?
Absolutely. And the power of that should never be underestimated.
So what are the dialogues in Kill My Blues? Is there a theme to this album? The album title and the lyrics of its eponymous song (“There ain’t no substitution for love in your veins / I feel it rush through me and silence my aches”) seems to speak of a strong, almost violent cathartic transformation happening
I think you just kinda hit the nail on the head. That, for me, has always been the great thing about music. It’s almost like meditating. It helps me find my way when I’m processing different things in my life. It’s been really joyful, to be in this band and get to know everybody, and I feel like we got something started with the last record, and here [on Kill My Blues] we got to this really enjoyable place where we’re firing on all cylinders. You can’t underestimate the importance of doing something you love in your life, you know?
You called 1,000 Years “middle age mom music”. I think there’s a longstanding narrative in music and the arts that says age and motherhood softens mother-artists of their creative power, but I’ve interviewed tons of women – binders full of women, if you like – and have found that rather than sap them motherhood tends to empower them in very deep ways and allows them to deepen and further their work. Was that your experience?
I think that it’s an incredibly deep life experience to be a mother. It’s really made me think about the world differently, and be a more thoughtful person. But I think that it almost makes me feel more open to the world and love. I guess that sounds really sappy, but it’s true. You have so much love for these creatures on this planet that everything matters more. It’s not just your life that matters, it’s theirs, and future generations. It almost multiplies the intensity of your actions.
And your music?
Definitely. I do think there’s some exhaustion about being a mom for the first few years. But now my children are a little bit older I do feel that I’ve made that investment and I’m reaping the rewards of having these wonderful people in my life.
That’s what your solo album progress sounds like, with 1,000 Years being kinda gentle and introspective in a quiet way, whereas Kill My Blues is an explosion of passion and feeling.
Yeah. It’s almost like you’re in this cocoon when you have a baby. It’s a domestic world, a lot of hands-on work, and very challenging. That was the cocoon for the first album, and starting that band with other parents, you know. As the children have got older, we’ve cooked our little stew I guess [laughs]. It’s like, you let something simmer for a while and the flavours get stronger and stronger.
Society has this idea that women over a certain age have nothing to say, or that past a certain point there’s a devaluation that denies the experience and wisdom that older women have. With that in mind, what are some of the good things about being an older musician and a veteran of indie-rock and riot grrrl?
There are a lot of benefits. You’re more flexible as a human being. You’ve been through a lot, you’ve seen a lot, and you can draw on your experiences in a way that helps you strengthen your writing and your work in wonderful ways. You have the patience to go deeper with your writing, to take criticism so much better, to try new experiences. I mean, I’m feeling it. I’m having awesome opportunities, now more than ever. And it’s because I’m older that I’m more open to trying different styles and instrumentation. All of that gets better as you get older as a musician.
Being older may inform Kill My Blues, but songs like ‘Neskowin’ seems very much about young, adolescent female energy. It seems to capture that time when your body is changing and you’re out there, tasting the world, working out who you are. I wonder how much of that song is about you and your experiences.
It’s absolutely me. Totally. It’s me and my best friend from when I was thirteen, who I am still friends with today. We did go to Neskowin, which is a tiny hamlet on the Oregon coast, and it was kind of a big deal. Neither of our families were very wealthy, but her family would get to go and use this condo on the coast for the week in the summer. It was a real treat. It was very posh, as you might say in England. We felt like we were really living it up. But the rest of the song is all in my mind. We never went downtown together, but we did wear eight different outfits a day. You’re just so new in this body, which is just, like, bursting with sexuality when you’re a thirteen year old girl. I guess I looked back on that because my son is about to become a teenager himself, and so it reminded me of the huge changes that you go through at that age, where your mind is still a child but your body is becoming an adult. Especially for girls. For me, there was this really sweet time, before high school, before the more intense social pressures, where it was like ‘WOW! Everything is changing.’ That’s a really huge part of women’s sexuality. There’s still this kind of traditional fear of women’s sexuality. It’s all rooted in this Victorian idea of the dirtiness and the shame and all of that, that women are…
…in need of policing?
Yeah, and I feel like that mentality is at the root of some of the religious ideology that seeks to control women’s bodies today.
There’s a religious, church feel on ‘Constance’, with its “God’ll love you till the end of time” hook and church organs.
That song is actually about my husband’s grandmother, Rita Bangs [Tucker is married to filmmaker and video producer Lance Bangs], who passed away two years ago. She was this incredible woman who was a nurse in the 1950s. She and her husband started the ambulance service for smalltown Ithaca, New York. She drove an ambulance every day and there are literally hundreds of stories about her saving people’s lives, of pulling people out of burning buildings, delivering babies – I mean hundreds of babies. She was this incredible person, very mild-mannered, very Catholic, mom of seven. But she was really inspiring, just incredibly empathetic and accepting of everyone she met, no matter who you were of what your background was.
You also pay homage to another departed hero on Kill My Blues, in the song ‘Joey’, a tribute to Joey Ramone. What prompted you to write that song now, eleven years after his death?
[sighs] Well, I have another connection to him. Sleater-Kinney wrote a song about him – ‘I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone’ [off their 1996 album, Call The Doctor] – and I think he came to one of our shows once in New York, but I didn’t get to meet him because he was really sick and he didn’t stay. I guess the song is part of taking a look around at this point in my life and feeling sad about the people who have passed away but also feeling grateful about still being here. It’s about the passage of time, in some ways.
You and your Sleater-Kinney band mates are still active and creating life-affirming music. Janet and Carrie are obviously busy with Wild Flag, who have toured over here in the UK. Could there ever be any joint tour where UK fans could get to see you and Wild Flag on the same lineup?
Well, I don’t know.
Would it be weird?
I don’t think it would be weird [pauses]. Yeah, it might be weird [laughs]. Not that we’re not friends or anything but, you know, we were in a band together for ten years. I really like Wild Flag and I’m really happy that everyone’s doing well, and I’m really enjoying what I’m doing so it’s all good.
Is it a Kahlil Gibran-style ‘Let there be spaces in your togetherness’ deal?
You know, sometimes it really is what you need. Like, you do your thing, I’ll do my thing.
I’ve been writing about zines a lot lately, mostly because I’m busy organising a zine fest. Were you involved in zine-making during the riot grrrl years?
I wrote for a riot grrrl fanzine in Olympia [Channel Seven]. I had a fanzine called G Force, and then I did this one on the Dig Me Out tour called Hey Sound Guy, where I took a picture of every sound guy that did our sound and wrote a review of them [laughs]. It was funny.
Finally, is it true that it’s you on the picture that graces the front cover of All Hands On The Bad One, and that you had to be carried out of a gig after picking a drunken fight with a bouncer and passing out? I read this somewhere on the internet ages ago and always wondered if it was true.
Oh man [laughs]. I wish I could say that was true because that’s an awesome story. But it’s a found photo. That’s such an awesome story though.
Both albums from The Corin Tucker Band are available on Bandcamp, and at the bargain price of $7 (£4.30) too!