Interview: Corin Tucker
When Corin Tucker first appeared, fronting Heavens to Betsy 1991, her ability to viscerally connect with an audience and fill a room with her voice was immediately apparent. Starting with that group, continuing through her 12 years in Sleater-Kinney and now, with her more mature solo work, Tucker’s songwriting consistently pushed listeners into messy emotional territory, coupling nuanced storytelling with haunting refrains.
While Kill My Blues includes songs that explore what it feels like to be a mother and a wife, it also takes stock of the current state of grrrldom: “Groundhog Day” references Excuse 17′s song of the same name, “I Don’t Wanna Go” is dedicated to the memory of punk feminist pioneer Natalie Cox, and “Newskowin” is a dance number for grrrls (and their allies) of all ages.
I spoke with Tucker via email a few days before I saw her band play a fantastic show in Brooklyn. The new album came to life, and by the end of the show I was in the front row, skanking uncontrollably to a vibrant and lively cover of The Selecter’s “Three Minute Hero” with an old friend. It was the first time I’ve seen The Corin Tucker Band and not compared them to Sleater-Kinney. I look forward to what comes next.
Kill My Blues is so different than 1,000 Years. It sounds like you wrote the new album after touring, thinking about it would feel to play the songs live. It also sounds like a solid group with experience playing together rather than a singer/songwriter with a back-up band. Can you talk about the difference between the two records in terms of process?
We did decide to write collaboratively for Kill My Blues. I think on the first couple of tours, we came together as a band and realized what our strengths are. With the addition of Mike Clark to the band, he and Sara Lund formed a really strong rhythm section. We did a couple of dancier covers on the tours, and people seemed to love really dancing and moving around. We sort of said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to write a record more like that?”
Listening to Kill My Blues I hear a lot of the ’90s – especially Sleater-Kinney, Unwound and Circus Lupus – because your musicianship is so distinctive. But I also hear ’80s pop, from Pete Townshend to Talk Show-era Go Go’s to The B-52′s and Blondie. There’s even a song that kind of reminds me of Big Country, which is not a bad thing. This mostly just makes me wonder what your contemporary musical influences are.
I think most of our influences do come from earlier eras, truthfully. I do like current dance music, like Daft Punk, and current artists like PJ Harvey, Fiona Apple. There’s definitely a Slits album up on the wall in Seth’s studio, and I think they were sort of a guiding light. I think there’s a lot of music we referenced like Patti Smith, the Replacements, Blondie and everything else you mentioned above. I’m not sure about Big Country though.
Clearly, “Groundhog Day” is a reference to the Bill Murray movie. Before we talk about the song itself – do you remember when everyone in Olympia got obsessed with this movie in the ’90s? What was going on? Anyway: Assuming you are fans of the movie, what do you like about it? Do you think it has a hopeful message or is it just depressing?
I love that movie. In the end of the movie, Bill Murray finally gets it right, doesn’t he? So that’s positive.
In my reading of “Groundhog Day,” the song, you’re frustrated with the lack of progress women of our generation have made. Does this frustration make you question the narrative of progress that is so often applied to feminism? What if things aren’t getting better for women? How should we get off what Kathleen Hanna calls the feminist “hamster wheel”?
I think we need to start thinking differently, just like Bill Murray has to in the movie. Maybe feminists need to work harder at building coalition with other activists to achieve our goals.
Certainly I think that more women need to have political power. Women are only at about 19 percent in Congress but are 51 percent of the population.
What do you think would change if we had a woman in the White House?
I think it would just crack open the glass ceiling. It would just really give us a chance to see a woman in the highest job in the land. It wouldn’t change everything overnight, but it’s the symbolism that is important for people.
Is there a story behind Kill My Blues you’d like to share? It feels solid as a love-as-redemption tale, but I’m wondering what shape “the blues” is for the Corin Tucker Band in 2012, as the country is facing epidemic unemployment and heading towards another presidential election.
I think “the blues” for me is more personal. It’s about feeling really grateful for my family and my close friends, that love keeps us going through all the ups and down of life.
Tell us about “Newskowin.” I am kind of hoping this is a true-story song, but either way I’d love to know what made you decide to name a song after Newskowin, Oregon Also, the video is really cool and looked like a lot of fun to make.
Well, the first verse is true, it’s about going on vacation with my best friend’s family when we were 13, to Neskowin. Her family got to use a condo one week a year, and that year, I was the friend that got to go. It seemed very fancy to us at the time. The rest of the story about our “adventure” is just made up in my mind. The song is meant to describe that change for girls when they leave childhood behind and live in a woman’s body for the first time.
“I Don’t Wanna Go” is my favorite song on the record, but after I realized what the lyrics are, it’s been difficult to listen to it. It seems to be about a mother who dies of a terminal disease and leaves behind a young family. I’m guessing it’s at least partially inspired by Natalie Cox [who died in 2010 after a battle with a rare, aggressive form of cancer].
It is about Natalie. It is for her, it is also for all of her friends.
Where do you find the emotional courage and strength to write a song like that, knowing that you’ll be expected to play it live night after night?
That song tumbled out of me at the practice space one day. Different people pray in different ways. I pray in my songs, sometimes. It was so hard to watch and read Natalie’s blog about battling cancer and yet she was so graceful and so inspiring as well. She continues to inspire me.
Who is Constance? Real or imaginary? It’s haunting – it reminds me a bit of “Candy’s Room” on Darkness of the Edge of Town crossed with Turn of the Screw by Henry James.
Constance is imaginary, but it definitely touches on the idea of my children growing up and leaving home.
Who is Joey?
Joey Ramone. But this song incorporates a lot of musical and personal grieving in it too. Joey came to a Sleater-Kinney show once at Irving Plaza, but he left before the show ended, so I didn’t get to meet him.
Portland has changed a lot in the past 10 years, and has recently gotten a lot of attention – with both the Keep Portland Weird festival in Paris
as well as the success of Portlandia. How has that impacted your community in Portland? Is it something that people talk about on tour more than at home?
I think Portlandia has brought international interest to the counterculture of Portland and the Pacific Northwest in general. I get asked about it in press interviews, but I don’t think it has really affected my daily life that much.
What bands do you feel a kinship with in terms of the Portland music scene and/or feminist community?
I love Quasi, Wild Flag, the Thermals, Hungry Ghost, Rebecca Gates, the Jicks, the Golden Bears – all my friends, basically. I don’t go to shows very much these days, but I still feel a community with the folks playing music.
What bands are you most excited about that you are playing with on this tour? Have you been surprised by any of your opening bands?
We’ve had some amazing ones. In Milwaukee, Pussy Collector opened for us. Three 19-year-old girls, and one disgruntled 30-something man wearing a Star Wars t-shirt and playing bass. Rachel, the lead singer, had a shaved head and a mini-dress on and shouted lyrics like, “I broke your bong, you burned my thong, white trash love affair.” Amber, the guitar player was wearing a plaid kilt with fuzzy red leg-warmers, her guitar had a tail, and she was wearing a coon-skin hat. It was their last show ever, because Amber is going off to school.
In Birmingham, Alabama, a band named Belle Mina opened for us, all young women. They reminded us all of Tiger Trap, they were all great musicians, and their songs had fantastic pop sensibilities.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I think the interesting thing about this tour is finding young women all across the country that have been inspired by the activism and music of riot grrrl, the Northwest independent scene and the international pop underground. Young people get it, and they use it in their own work in a different way. They reincarnate that spirit.