Corin Tucker of Heavens To Betsy and Sleater-Kinney sat down with ‘Starting a Riot’ host and She Shreds Media founder Fabi Reyna, and she brought her guitar. You’ve heard snippets of that conversation throughout the podcast, but we thought you might like to hear more about Corin’s experiences in Olympia, how her bands started and how she developed her unique sound.
Special thanks to JT Griffith, Polaris Hall, Nathan Fasold and Black Book Guitars
FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:
Fabi Reyna: Cool. Is it time?
Julie Sabatier: I think it’s time.
Reyna: Do we start?
Sabatier: Do you want a countdown?
Corin Tucker: Yeah.
Reyna: I would like fireworks and...hello. Hi.
Tucker: Hi, Fabi.
Reyna: Hi, Corin.
Reyna: Corin Tucker and I first met in 2011 when she was on the cover of the first issue of “She Shreds” magazine. Being in punk bands and touring up and down the Pacific Northwest throughout my late teens and early twenties, I feel like I just sort of knew Corin Tucker as an icon. Of course, I was already a fan of Heavens to Betsy and Sleater-Kinney. But I really got to know her when I joined the band on their 2021 tour as a third guitarist, Corin isn’t only an incredible guitarist, singer and songwriter. She’s a wealth of knowledge, hilarious and full of incredible stories. So, I was really excited to talk with her for “Starting a Riot.” You’ve heard snippets of that conversation throughout the podcast, but figured you might like to hear more. We sat down with our guitars in case a little riff inspiration came through and I started from the beginning: what was it like when she and her friend Tracy Sawyer first started Heavens to Betsy in their hometown of Eugene, Oregon?
Tucker: Well, I think that, you know, Tracy and I were friends in high school and we had always had this fantasy about being a band and in fact, this is crazy, but the summer before high school we went to Athens, Georgia. We took the train across the country. We went to Athens, Georgia and it was basically a research project of another scene that I wanted to understand, like how bands worked there and how people did that life. And we went there, Tracy was probably 16; I was 17. It was insane when I look back. We went there, got an apartment, lived there, met everyone we could going to shows that were under-age. We bought a drum kit in Athens that Tracy still owns today and we put it on the train and we took it home and we were like, “yeah, we’re gonna, we’re gonna have a band someday!” So, I mean, it was like, in a way, it felt like a pipe dream, but because Olympia was so plugged in to that idea of like, how do we change music to “revolutionize it,” was kind of like how the Olympia speak was, they wanted to have inclusivity, they wanted to have amateurs, was really exciting to the kind of music scene there, because it was very anti-corporate music industry. And so for us to be like, “yeah, we’re a band,” you know, and then to get that show in front of like Beat Happening and Fugazi and all these people that I admired — Mecca Normal, you know, to play that, it was, that was like, yeah, it was like actually making it a reality.
Reyna: How did you get the motivation to just go and do things? You just went to Athens, you just decided to have a band, you just decided to buy a drum kit. What inspired that?
Tucker: I mean, I think it’s a lot of things. I mean, I think that it was a lot of encouragement and a lot of privilege that I was able to be from a family that fully supported me. And my dad gave me a guitar and bought me an amp — a used amp, but still. I think when I look back, that’s so critical. And I also was just always a really stubborn human being, you know, because I just, I felt like I never fit into the kind of stereotypical pretty girl or whatever in high school. That just wasn’t me. And I desperately wanted to do something that was meaningful and different and also let me tell my own story. And I saw it. I literally saw it that night on stage with those women doing it and I was like, “I want to do that.” And I mean, I don’t know how you feel that unless you’re young. I look back and I’m like, I was just a kid, you know, and, and I was lucky enough to be, to have people be like, “ok. Yeah. Let’s make that happen.”
Reyna: So, I want to get a clear painting of what was happening in Olympia when you set foot there to be at Evergreen College. What did it sound like? What were the conversations about? And how did you feel as someone who was already sort of tapped in but not fully immersed? So, what did being fully immersed in that culture, how did that then influence what Heavens to Betsy became for the rest of the duration of the band?
Tucker: I think I was really welcomed into that scene. I started going to every single show at the North Shore Surf Club in Olympia. I was just very lucky because right away, I put out a single with Bratmobile like a split seven-inch on K [Records] and Calvin [Johnson] was like, “Well, let’s make this happen.” And Molly Neuman recorded us in at Evergreen. We recorded a few songs. So, I mean, we couldn’t have been in a more like supportive scene where people were, like, “Yeah, let’s just, let’s just make this happen!” You know, I think sonically, it was like a very simplistic. I still like writing that way. I still feel like that’s sort of my core writing abilities. Let me just, if I think about (plays guitar) this is a song called “My Red Self” (plays beginning of song) That’s one of the first songs I wrote and it’s really, really simple, but I still feel like that’s kind of how I relate to putting music together. I don’t like clutter in songwriting.
Reyna: 100%. Ok, I’m going to go back a little bit just to understand again the timeline. You’ve been an Olympian now for a few years. How does your voice change? How does your connection to being on stage and holding a guitar and your whole confidence with that evolve? And what do you notice is changing sonically in the way that you play?
Tucker: I think I played more shows with other bands and there were only two of us in Heavens to Betsy, right? Just one guitar and one drummer. And I think we wanted to be, we wanted to take up more space sonically. And so it’s definitely on the full-length record that we did with [the label] Kill Rock Stars as I tried to branch out you know, and there’s like a song called “Axemen” on there that, let’s see if I can remember it. (plays part of the song) and I switch to the chorus and it’s full on power chords at this point. (continues playing) So, it just took that kind of simplistic songwriting and it added the bar chord, which is still what I do today, to be honest, I’m just a bar chord fiend. That’s really. Because I’m singing the whole time. It’s really about my voice when I songwrite and it’s really about trying to tell this story. I added the bar chord. I added getting louder on the chorus, you know, and that was kind of like that, that whole period of Heavens to Betsy, was, yeah, the kind of like louder almost getting to the point of grunge rock at that point, you know. Yeah. So it was just like a louder amp, couple more pedals, that kind of thing.
Reyna: You were just like, how do I get louder and louder and louder without adding more band members.
Tucker: Basically. And also my voice got louder too because as the guitar got louder, my voice had to keep up and I had to get above. I mean, when we played shows, there was no sound system half the time.
Tucker: If there was an actual PA that was like a really big deal, but, but it could barely carry my voice. So I learned to really sing over that kind of loud guitar. And so my voice definitely got louder
Reyna: Right right right.
Tucker: and more insistent.
Reyna: And that’s, yeah, definitely. That’s amazing. OK, so the tuning, the tuning also has a big, it just compliments your voice really nicely. So when did that start?
Tucker: So in Heavens to Betsy, I mean, first of all, let me just be clear that I never really learned how to traditionally play guitar.
Tucker: You know, like I was just like, no, I was so stubborn.
Reyna: Me either.
Tucker: That’s not true. You’re, like, fully classically trained.
Reyna: But like that was, I was like, I feel like nothing, does it really, when you’re 14 and you’re classically trained and then you’re 19 and you’re playing punk music, I don’t know, they’re so different from each other.
Tucker: True. But like, I honestly don’t know all those traditional chords. And so I just tuned the guitar, in Heavens to Betsy, I literally tuned it to my voice in a way that I thought was like, I never even used a chromatic tuner in Heavens to Betsy. I just, you know, my dad taught me how to tune it by ear and I just did it that way. And when we, when I started playing music with Carrie for Sleater-Kinney, we had to, like, figure it out because she was like, “What? How do I...? What is going on with your guitar?” And I was like, “Let’s tune down because that’s cool, right?” Because that’s what Sonic youth does, Nirvana. It was all about those bands had that alternate tuning, you know, it was like, they were the guitar gods that would go, like (makes guitar sound) and, tune to some interesting tuning. And I was like, “Well, let’s tune down because that’s very metal,” and we tuned down a step and a half to C-sharp, but a standard tuning. So it’s really not that different at all, you know, and we just stayed there. We were like, “oh, that’s different.” It made our songs different. When we started writing music, even the first record, it was like, oh, well, it, it sounds different than other bands because it is this weird tuning. And so we just have stuck with it for, like, 30 years.
Reyna: It’s amazing and it’s true. I mean, it makes your sound so uniquely you. I want to move into when Sleater-Kinney began and how you and Carrie met in the first place. How did y’all meet? What was happening at the time?
Tucker: I was playing a show with Heavens to Betsy and I played the show and then was in an argument with, like, six guys. This was at The Show Off Gallery in Bellingham, Washington. And after I kind of finished arguing with those guys about being a sexist, Carrie walked up to me and, she was like, “Hello, I would like some more information about riot grrrl and...” (laughs)
Reyna: That’s so good!
Tucker: And I was like, “ok, yeah, you give me your address,” and I took down her address in my lyric book and never wrote her back. But we had this conversation where she was like, “Yeah, I’m going to Western and I’m going to drop out because I can’t stand it. I want to move to Olympia.” And I was like, “You should move to Olympia. You absolutely should do it.” And she did. (laughs)
Tucker: And we, yeah, we started hanging out in Olympia. And she was in a different band, right? So she was in, Excuse 17 and I was in Heavens to Betsy. And, so our bands would, like, play together and go on tour together. And I just was like, “She is a smoking guitar player!” She was really different than, I mean, I am like, very like a rhythm guitar player, basically. I write melodies but they’re basically, it’s almost like a bass player how I play guitar and she was the opposite. She’s very notey and riffs and all this cool stuff. And I was like, “Hm, I wonder if we could play together.” And we did and it was, I just got this, like, zzzt! It was two really different players playing together. And I was like, “This is cool, let’s record this, let’s make a song,” and it just started happening, despite our other bands which we eventually broke up with and started Sleater-Kinney. So we went to Australia.
Reyna: My favorite story.
Tucker: We were like, I was like, “We should go to Australia,” because that makes sense to write a record in a foreign country. And we did. (laughs)
Reyna: Amazing Scorpio.
Reyna: That’s amazing. And I’m curious if you can think of like three songs that can sort of define your evolution from beginning, like when you first started as Sleater-Kinney to when you were the most active and playing shows and touring and all the things to now?
Tucker: That’s funny, I think, well, I mean, I think of like some very early days, I would say there is a song from our first record called “Be Yr Mama” where Carrie is playing this riff that’s like (singing) da na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na na. And I literally remember running — we were staying at Laura’s house in Melbourne and I heard her, I was like, in the other room, I heard her playing that riff and I was like, “Keep playing that!” And I started, you know, she was like, da na na, na, na na and I joined in on guitar and I could play, I just brought those bar chords in. And I was suddenly, like, just suddenly it was like a rock song, you know, and it was just like this big sound. It was big.
Tucker: And we played the show, we played this show in Adelaide over, I swear to God, like a bar, like a saloon, and we borrowed this metal band’s equipment to play the show and we suddenly had like huge amps, like giant stacked amps and we played that song and it just, the room went, like (makes explosion sound) everyone was dancing, everyone was freaking out. And I was like, this is it like, it was literally that moment where I felt like we were greater than the sum of who we are, with writers because of the different abilities that we had, we were able to make this song that was like big and sounded like a rock song, you know?
Reyna: Amazing. What were the chords? What was, what were they?
Tucker: So it goes... (plays part of the song)
Reyna: Yes! Amazing. Yes! Wow.
Tucker: I mean, you can hear the Bikini Kill in that song.
Reyna: Totallly. I mean, it’s full energy.
Tucker: It’s full energy.
Reyna: It’s full energy. That’s awesome. That’s so awesome.
Tucker: But it went from this combination of full rock and then I’m trying to think of what other songs would be kind of more, you know, tell you about like different eras of Sleater-Kinney. I think “I Want to Be Your Joey Ramone” is a really big song for us because we always also played with all those archetypes of different rockers.
Tucker: So, this is like a more melodic kind of picking song (plays part of the song) I’m singing Carrie’s part on that, on that verse,
Reyna: Got it. Got it.
Tucker: But yeah, it was, it was kind of adding in a little bit of like the melodic kind of note thing that I think we really liked doing, just a little bit of that, before it got to the chorus. We loved bands like Television, all those New York bands — New York Dolls and, all those really notey, Gang of Four, like all those, those, those awesome, like guitar notey bands. And I think as we kind of went along in the evolution of songwriting, we tried to add some of that in, into what we were doing and I think of a song like “No Cities [to Love]” where we do add that stuff in which and I’ll play you the main thing (plays part of the song) So, that’s like the kind of basically the bass line that I play through the whole song. But I love it. It’s very like, melodic and rhythmic and I think it’s just taking my sort of rhythm songwriting and just kind of like stepping up in terms of making it a little more complicated and going underneath Carrie singing.
Tucker: Yeah, but I think just giving yourself a little bit more space in terms of the songwriting as we kind of went along in years and, and tried different things. Yeah, we just tried to kind of add some of those different flavors of bands that we liked over the years.
Reyna: Right. It sounds like being immersed in that really special moment of the beginning of riot grrrl, and the energy that opened so many doors for so much exploration of culture and of politics and being able to feel confident in a way that maybe many hadn’t before and the explosion of experimentation that was able to come afterwards maybe and I think to sort of wrap up the conversation, I know that you have kids now, you know, who are experimenting in their own, in their own cultures. So, what do you, what are you seeing, what are you excited about what the doors that riot grrrl and the doors at Sleater-Kinney post-riot grrrl opened up for people today — conversations, sounds, ways of being?
Tucker: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s so many more doors that are open now for musicians, you know. I think, you know, thinking about what my kids are into and the music that they listen to, there are just so many different artists that they go and see and it’s just, it’s not that big a deal to see a female artist now who’s completely in control, or a trans artist. I took my daughter and her friend to see Cavetown at Crystal Ballroom and it was off the hook. It was so off the hook.
Tucker: It was like a trans explosion. It was amazing.
Tucker: It was like every trans kid in Portland was there to see that show
Tucker: And it was so great. It was like, you know what? It just, it was like full open arms acceptance. And that is, to me, that’s the power of music as, you know, let’s just open that door and it is, it is a connecting thing. I mean, it sounds like a cliché, but it does connect people from different walks of life in a way that you don’t expect.
Reyna: Right. And I guess also let me not put words in your mouth. Like, is it, do you feel that correlation between riot grrrl as a movement and that change and access happening today?
Tucker: I mean, I think it’s one of many, one of many movements, right? I mean, there was ACTUP right? That was like the huge influence I think on riot grrrl was the kind of really fierce gay activism that happened around AIDS in this country. There’s civil rights movements or Black Lives Matter, I mean, there’s so many different movements that just demand for the culture to change. I think they all kind of bounce off one another and I can see their effect on the next generation, like my kids’ generation and how they are in the world is different. Yeah.
Reyna: Amazing. Is there anything else that you want to say about just your sound and any of your experiences or anything that you feel like hasn’t been mentioned as far as riot grrrl’s contribution — you and your community’s contribution to women having more access to performing?
Tucker: Yeah, I’m excited there are more women performing. I think there’s just still farther to go in terms of women doing all aspects of the music business and having those percentages up in terms of producers, running your record label, you know, doing the business stuff. I think that’s changing now, but I just, you know, I think that it’s good to see that more women being included in every aspect of music.
Reyna: Right. And also, personally, playing with y’all and, and being able to see more of the back end too and the guitar tech world and all of that, you know, it’s really interesting. Yeah, the huge gap that you see from the performers and the artists and the visibility there and we think that we’re going and we’re moving forward in a big way and then on the back end it’s like, whoa, where are the people? Where does that visibility connect to back here? And I really appreciate the intention by Sleater-Kinney and making sure that that visibility is on all aspects. So yeah, agreed. Nice!
Reyna: Thank you.
Tucker: Yeah, absolutely.
Reyna: ″Starting a Riot” is brought to you by Oregon Public Broadcasting and She Shreds Media. Thanks to all the members who make podcasts possible at OPB. This podcast is hosted by me, Fabi Rena. Julie Sabatier produced this podcast and I’m gonna hand the first part of these credits over to her.
Sabatier: The songs you heard in this episode were “My Red Self” and “Axemen” by Heavens to Betsy. Thank you to the band members and to Terrorbird and Kill Rock Stars for allowing us to use those songs.
Reyna: You can find a playlist on our website OPB-dot-org-slash-starting-a-riot. Our theme music is composed by Ray Aggs. Listen to their solo projects and their bands, Trash Kit, Shopping and Sacred Paws. Our editor for this project is Sage Van Wing. Our sound engineers are Nalin Silva and Steven Kray. All mixing and mastering by Steven Kray. hanks to JT Griffith and the team at Liminal Music for help with music rights and special thanks to Nathan Fasold and Black Book Guitars for loaning us two amps for the interview with Corin Tucker.
Sabatier: And thanks to Polaris Hall for hosting that interview. The other songs you heard in this episode were “Be Yr Mama,” “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” and “No Cities to Love” by Sleater-Kinney.
Reyna: If you like our podcast, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and leave a review. It helps people find us.