MUSIC Mention the name Corin Tucker, and for many people, what comes to mind is a voice: the charged vibrato that was one of the signature elements of the sound of Sleater-Kinney. But before Tucker formed Sleater-Kinney, she'd sung differently in other bands, such as riot grrrl pioneers Heavens to Betsy, where her guitar was tuned lower in a manner that made it possible to tap into submerged feelings and experiences.
The new album by Corin Tucker Band, 1,000 Years (Kill Rock Stars), makes it clear that Tucker is more than just the tell-tale voice of Sleater-Kinney — she's a songwriter who can add another wrinkle of emotion to a song with a change in tone, as on "It's Always Summer," where the annoyance that briefly grips her voice on the line "It's always something" makes the hope in the chorus of the song that much sweeter. Working with producer-arranger-instrumentalist Seth Lorinczi and drummer Sara Lund, Tucker has fashioned a record that moves through different themes and sounds, evoking everything from Carole King piano ballads to acoustic Led Zep to Nuggets-worthy guitar riffage.
To a degree, the heart of 1,000 Years can be found just before the halfway mark with the one-two punch of "Handed Love" and "Doubt." According to Tucker, the first song is the sort of just-divorced scenario Tracey Thorn explores in different ways on her recent solo album Love and Its Opposite (Merge). There's something a little wilder and darker to Tucker's approach to the subject, with the past's failed pleasures as alluring as a drug, and a sense of menace in the spaces and silent moments around her voice's quiet, minimalist dance with a keyboard. The same tension between restraint and abandon tells a different story in "Doubt," a love song to rock 'n' roll that affirms that no worthy responsibility can fully kill off a love of the boogie and the beat. I recently talked with Tucker about the new album.
SFBG You've been based in Portland for around 15 years now. How has it changed?
CORIN TUCKER It's so different. If you went down the street where I used to live, Alberta, it's completely different. It's unrecognizably built up. Sometime I wonder, how do people make their money here? The recession has been brutal in Portland and Oregon because we don't make something concrete. The timber industry was our industry and that's gone now. I guess we make Nike and Adidas.
But in terms of culture and film and arts, Portland is growing. The music scene has totally grown.
SFBG One thing the Sara Marcus book Girls to the Front (Harper Perennial, 384 pages, $14.99) re-reminded me of is the fact your lyrics with Heavens to Betsy had more of a storyline than a lot of riot grrrl recordings. While your new album doesn't sound like Heavens to Betsy, it also feels rich in narrative.
CT That's something I enjoyed about making this record. I relate to storytelling in songs and working on the lyrics to paint a little picture. That's is sort of my natural songwriting style, and it's something I return to easily.
SFBG Was it difficult to choose the sequencing of the songs? I wonder because the album moves through different terrain and different sounds, including your voice — you sing differently from song to song.
CT The record wound up having more variety than I expected when we began. I expected it to be quieter and acoustic — a straightforward solo album. But as Seth [Lorinczi] and I worked on it, we naturally drew on our different musical backgrounds.
SFBG In a way, the way the guitars were tuned in Sleater-Kinney seemed to place your voice in a certain elevated spot. On 1,000 Years you might have a wider ground to stand on as a singer.
CT I wanted to use different voices on the record. Not necessarily different characters, but different sides of my voice that I didn't think people had heard before — or if they had, in Heavens to Betsy, that was so long ago. Part of the challenge and opportunity of making a solo record is figuring out how to give it enough variety so that you can take people through a journey.
SFBG One song I want to ask about is "Handed Love." I like that it's elliptical, and I get a dark feeling from it.
CT I think that might be one of my favorite songs. It has an interesting evolution. I started writing it on guitar and vocals, and it was pretty flat and straightforward. It was a mid-tempo rocker.
The song is sort of looking at relationships from the point of being a little bit older and being a female. I have a couple of friends who are newly divorced and I just kinda put myself in their shoes. It seemed like a difficult thing to navigate, when you have your heart broken and have to keep it together.
Seth had this idea [laughs], 'What if we do this song with only 'ooo' vocals in the background?' There's this really beautiful choir part that comes in at the end, and that's where we began recording it. He stripped away all the guitar and we had this vocal chorus and a drum machine. Then it kept evolving. Finally, he tried a Wurlitzer organ and I loved it.
SFBG That song and the follow-up track, "Doubt," both have great moments where the sound is sort of stripped away. I get the sense that you had fun working with Seth.
CT It was a really enjoyable process. We just set it up as this project we were working on, and there was a lot of tinkering. The door was wide open in terms of what we could do and how we would look at things. He's talented as a musician and as a producer and arranger.
SFBG Because it was a solo project and because you were working with him, was there a sense that songs could change as you worked on them?
CT Definitely. When I wrote "Half a World Away," it was a ballad on guitar — very quiet and super slow. Seth had this idea that we should rock out. We started working on it, and he had this idea of taking the guitar parts and making them sparse and prickly and fast. Then when we started playing with Sara Lund, she brought a whole new dynamic to the song with the percussion. She brought in these African bells, because the song is about Lance [Bangs, Tucker's husband] going away to Africa, and she had all these ideas about illustrating angst with percussion. That song became something I really love that is completely different from the original demo.
SFBG One other song I wanted to ask about is "Riley" because it has such a classic rock riff. Do you know a Riley?
CT No. He's more of a fictional character.
SFBG I know a Riley.
CT You do? Is he down and out?
SFBG No, he's a funny Filipino queen.
CT [Laughs] In 2007 and 2008, it just felt like such a dark time — so many friends had lost their jobs, or were getting divorced. Seth and I talked about Patti Smith literally every day while we were recording. Just Kids (Ecco, 320 pages, $16) came out while we were making the record, and she's such a great inspiration. She's one of those people who can write songs that are about friendship and helping your friends through something difficult. That song is really inspired by her and Lenny Kaye.
SFBG "Thrift Store Coats" starts out a lot like most people's idea of what a solo recording would sound like — a voice and a pretty piano arrangement. But then suddenly it turns loud and powerful.
CT I have to give credit to Seth. He thought we could draw people into the story and the lyric and then have the whole band come to the stage and add power and a sense of protest.
SFBG I know your son is named Marshall in part because of Marshall Tucker Band — is Corin Tucker Band a nod to Marshall Tucker Band?
CT Yes, it is. The funny thing is that my daughter Glory thinks that every mom has her own band. At soccer practice the other day she started a band with her friend — who is one — called Glory Tucker Band.
CORIN TUCKER BAND
With the Golden Bears
Mon/11, 8 p.m., $17
859 O'Farrell, SF