Corin Tucker Band's new record, 1,000 Years, began with the same surprise turn that started Corin
Tucker's career back in 1991, ended Sleater-Kinney's 11-year year run in 2006
and inspired the punk-feminist rocker to redefine herself as a stay-at-home
It was early 2009, and Tucker was performing at a benefit
show in her hometown of Portland, Ore., airing out a couple of new songs.
Another benefit -- and another pair of unheard tunes -- followed a few weeks
later. The reaction from friends, fans and perfect strangers was unanimous.
"Everyone was saying, 'Oh, it'd be cool if you made a
record'," Tucker recalls. "So I thought, Yeah! I should!"
A year and change later 1,000
Years reveals the one-time Riot Grrrl as she is nearly 20 years after she
began her career: as a full-grown Riot Woman. Old enough to trace the
complexities of adult life, love and family, but still young enough to know
Cue the wrenching rhythms and hard-angle melodies, the
slashing guitars and wildly passionate vocals. Only now the hard edges come
nestled in lush weaves of acoustic guitars, keyboards, interlocking percussion,
even cellos and violins.
Which places 1,000
Years deep into Tucker's creative headwaters -- another addition to her
20-year catalogue of restless songs for restless spirits.
"That's the artistic, itchy personality," Tucker says.
"You're constantly trying to do something different."
Tucker's own restless existence came into focus in idyllic
Eugene, Ore., an emerald-hued college
town whose population trends toward students, academics, hippies and loggers.
Raised by a well-known research psychologist and his medical technician wife,
young Corin grew up harmonizing along to her dad's folk guitar stylings. Dad's
music always came laced with politics -- the elder Tucker found his greatest
inspiration in the Pete Seeger songbook, and followed the modern folk tradition
through Dylan and up to R.E.M. "They were like total children of the '60s,"
Corin says of her parents.
And their ideals found a new home in Corin, at least when it
came to her sense of the connection between music, protest and the pursuit of
social justice. So while she didn't quite take the time to learn guitar in her
father's house, Corin's departure for Evergreen College in Olympia, Wash.
kick-started her musical ambitions. Something was going on, and she knew
exactly what it was.
"There was a music
scene up there, this whole riot grrrl revolution, and I wanted to be a part of
Every town in the Pacific Northwest had its own punk bands,
clubs and scenes. But in the Olympia of the early '90s the most exciting bands
were by, for and about women. Bikini Kill, Team Dresch, dozens of others. Some
were gay, some were straight, some were in college and some were working class.
Some could really play and some really couldn't (yet), but nothing could
overwhelm what they had in common: the burden of being a woman in a
male-dominated society. The music that emerged - fast, jagged, full of fire -
gave full voice to a community of women whose feminist theory was loud enough
to rattle the windows and shake the ceiling.
Riveted by the sound, Tucker became a regular at riot grrrl
shows. She met and hung out with the women and knew that in their ass-kicking
communitarianism she'd found precisely what she'd been looking for. "We were
like, I can do it! Watch me!," Tucker says. "We were all these big talkers who
were full of bravado." By the end of the spring Tucker told her friends that
she was in the process of forming her own all-woman band, Heavens to Betsy. "I
came up with the name and stickers and the whole thing," she says. The only
thing Tucker had put off doing was writing any songs and inviting someone else
to join the group. Nevertheless, when a college friend, Michelle Noel, called
to invite Heavens to Betsy to zip back to Olympia to play the women's night of
the International Pop underground festival being held there, she didn't blink.
"I said okay, and started writing songs."
Tucker recruited Tracy Sawyer to play the drums and bass,
while she projected her own powerful vocals and rudimentary-but-growing guitar
chops into songs that took on the world
with a slashing intensity. "You tell me to calm down," Tucker snarled in
the anguished love song, "Me and Her." What's your fucking problem?"
Heavens To Betsy had no problems whatsoever. Accepted
immediately in the top rank of Olympia's riot grrrl bands, Tucker and Sawyer
rode their distinctively raw songs (and Tucker's rocket-powered vocals) into,
and then beyond, a litany of new musical
horizons. A 7-inch single came first, then a full-length album. Critics
swooned, fans flocked to shows in far-flung cities. Barriers trembled, then
collapsed. Still, no band lasts forever, and by 1994 - also the year Tucker
graduated from Evergreen - Heavens to Betsy had run its course.
But Tucker's music career was just getting started. She had
already started jamming with another Olympia singer/guitarist, just for fun.
And once Tucker and Carrie Brownstein played a few experimental shows they both
knew they had found a uniquely powerful partnership. "We could just tell," she
recalls. "It just blossomed into a whole new band."
Named for a nondescript road near Olympia, the duo at the
core of Sleater-Kinney picked up a drummer, Lora McFarlane, in Australia (where
they'd gone to hang out with some far-flung friends), came home and hit the
punk club circuit in the Pacific Northwest. A self-titled album came in 1995,
followed a year later by "Call the Doctor". The band was neck deep in the young
band trenches now, fighting the usual battles for airtime, stage time, an
audience, a decent soundcheck. McFarlane left the band, replaced by a chain of
drummers who led eventually to S-K's permanent stick-woman, Janet Weiss.
A third release, "Dig Me Out," came in 1997, making waves
big enough to project Sleater-Kinney onto a national stage. Sales got bigger,
tours went farther. "The Hot Rock" hit the Billboard charts in 1999, and 2000's
"All Hands on the Bad One" charted even higher. The band played to riotous
crowds in Europe and the United Kingdom, and the United States' most
influential critics (Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau) took notice. In 2001
Marcus capped a Time magazine feature by declaring Sleater-Kinney the best rock
band in America.
"We went through a lot of crappy situations and stereotypes,
and knocked them down together," Tucker says. "We became a force to be reckoned
More tours, more fans, more songs, more albums and an
ever-expanding collection of fans. Sleater-Kinney made videos for MTV, then
popped up on NBC's "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" and CBS's "Late Show with
David Letterman." Was this really the right place for a punk-feminist outfit
from the mossy basements of Olympia, Wash.? Tucker was never quite sure.
"We all had a moment
of pause when we started appearing on TV shows, it's so easy to get overwhelmed
by all that. Making music that is really truthful is what's really important to
me. I do my thing and if people are into it, great. But I'm not going to
conform to anyone else's idea as to who I should be."
Meanwhile, real life continued, everyone grew up. Tucker
settled down with filmmaker Lance Bangs, and in 2000 the couple traveled to
Iceland to be married. Their son was born in 2001, and became a fixture on
Sleater-Kinney tours. The personal bonds between Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss
-- all of whom had relocated to Portland, Ore. - remained strong, but the
musical relationships began to feel more strained. Sessions for 2005's The
Woods stretched for months, and as the band prepared for another season of
touring in 2006 they agreed to give each other a rest for a little while. A
summer-long swing across the country concluded with a pair of final hometown
shows at Portland's Crystal Ballroom.
"I had some other
things I wanted to do, Janet and Carrie had things they wanted to do. We all
wanted to take some time away from the band. But we always called it a hiatus,
even when everyone else called it a break-up." It's talk like this that makes
the Sleater-Kinney world's ears prick up and take notice. Does this mean the
once-and-future best band in America (pace Marcus) is going to reunite? Tucker:
"I don't know. But I feel like - we're getting there!"
Maybe because these last few years have been so rewarding.
She and Lance produced a daughter in 2008. She spent a little time designing
and running a website for a business her dad had started, but mostly cared for
her young family. She hung out in the playground, got to know her neighbors,
pushed people on swings, caught them at the bottom of the slide. She saw Lance
take off for weeks-long shoots, and remained happy that she wasn't the one
heading off for another months-long tour.
And yet the music in her life, and between her ears,
Experiences became feelings, which worked their way into
Tucker's imagination. Melodies emerged. Chords, words, ideas. A few new songs,
which she couldn't resist airing out at those benefits in early 2009. And we
now know where that led: To an explosion of even more new songs -- acid-etched
portraits of the grown-up world, with all of its hopes, fears and frustrations
Not every song is entirely autobiographical - just try to
guess which of the songs were written as potential contributions to the Twilight: New Moon film. "They didn't work for the movie, but I kept them
anyway." No need to change the lyrics, either: "The themes work exactly. The
monsters, beasts and demons, all those things working on you. I think there's a
lot of personal angst in that story."
The feelings reverberate from song to song. In the emotional
chill that hangs over "1,000 Years," in the tense long-distance love letters at
the heart of "Half A World Away" and "It's Always Summer." Yes, Lance travels a
lot for his work. But, Tucker hastens to add, "I just want to say how much I
love my husband. . . there are moments when I'm raising two kids when he's gone
and I'm just trying cope. But like in "It's Always Summer," the real message
is, I'm waiting for you and it's going to be okay in the end." The happy ending
is more difficult to imagine for the unemployed parents at the heart of "Thrift
Store Coats," inspired by the real agonistes of some recession-rocked
neighbors. " So many dads in our community were losing their jobs, suddenly
there was this terrible sinking feeling. It's been brutal in Oregon."
So the musician picks up her guitar and lets her fingers
search for a glimmer of light. This time it didn't have to come with so many
hard edges. Sadness, frustration, even outrage could come in a variety of
sounds and textures. "I wanted to be completely open in terms of
instrumentation. I thought it'd be cool to do some acoustic songs, to create
something quiet that could be powerful at the same time."
Fortunately, her central partners in the project - producer,
arranger and multi-instrumentalist Seth Lorinczi, percussionist Sara Lund and
vocalist Julianna Bright - were perfectly equipped for this challenge. Lorinczi
was especially instrumental in helping Tucker develop a quieter kind of
emotional intensity, projecting her songs into elegant arrangements that added
keyboards, acoustic guitars and some elegantly-arranged strings to the musical vocabulary.
"I'm fortunate to work with him," she says. "He brought so many amazing ideas
to the songs, it was an entirely new foray."
Still, some things remain the same. Consider the piercing
clarity of Tucker's voice, the sudden eruption of a snarly guitar, the
perpetual struggle for spiritual balance, even in the midst of economic
catastrophe and the life-shaking travails of domestic bliss.
"It's a challenge to
have a musical career and to be a mom, but it's awkward for every working mom,
so the story continues," Tucker says. "I can't do a crazy 3-month tour now.
We're definitely playing shows, but it's more like a week here, a week there. I
don't have the mentality that I'm going to change the world. I've enjoyed the
movements I've been a part of - I think I did something for them, too. But now
I'm more moderate in my career goals. I want to enjoy my life. I don't have to
turn it over to the machine."
Corin Tucker is nobody's machinery. She's a wife, a mother,
a songwriter, a singer, an artist devoted to identifying the sound of real
life, and turning it into music. She's the woman at the heart of "1,000 Years,"
and her sound is true.