Carrie Brownstein is the punk die-hard of the band, the last one to move to Portland, Oregon, after years of commuting to rehearsals from the bohemian stronghold of Olympia, Washington, where she founded the band with Tucker in 1994. Drummer Janet Weiss joined in 1996, completing the lineup. Brownstein is one of the few bona fide guitar heroes around, the only person who can do a real Pete Townshend windmill besides Pete himself. She’s charismatic in person, too, although she’s horribly jet-lagged after getting in late the night before from the band’s European tour. She leads me through the streets of downtown Portland in her torn and frayed raincoat and unwashed hair, cool and rumpled, a shabby punk-rock Lt. Columbo.
She steers us into a coffee shop she likes, Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief playing in the background. She’s earnest and cerebral, with a contagiously loud laugh. Like a lot of naturally intense people, she has a habit of tilting her head sideways when she’s trying to be friendly, yet when she gets impassioned, which is usually, her eye contact could wilt flowers. “We’re not just a feminist band or a punk band or a girl band or whatever,” she says. “I mean, we are, but we’re not only that. We’re all those things at once.” It’s no big surprise that she’s not impressed by the state of mainstream rock. “It’s pretty amazing that the resurrection of rock couldn’t have been more boring. ‘Another white guy with a guitar comes along to save us, thank God!’ But where are all the girls? What happened to them?”
When Brownstein and Tucker started playing together in 1994, as students at Olympia’s Evergreen State College, both were already active in the local music scene: Brownstein with her band Excuse 17 and Tucker with her duo Heavens to Betsy. Tucker named the band after a local road (pronounced slayter, not sleeter), but neither of them took it very seriously. “In Olympia at the time, there was a very non-monogamous musical community,” Brownstein says. “Everyone played in, like, ten bands. It was really casual for Corin and me to say, ‘Yeah, we should play music together.’ I just remember sitting in my living room writing a song, ‘You Ain’t It,’ and we just thought it was funny, bratty and weird.”
But the musical connection was different from their regular bands. “It felt a little like something had opened up, “Brownstein says.” I remember we were playing this song, and we had our mikes set up facing each other, and over her part I started singing this counterpart. It was ‘Call the Doctor.’ We just stopped, and she was just like, “That is so awesome, you have to keep doing that.’ That song was a complete turning point. It just felt like I had fused with her. This bolt of lightning had gone from my chest to hers. And we just said, ‘Oh, my God, when we sing together, what is that?’ It was just … I couldn’t even name it. It was so big.”
The connection turned romantic. “We started going out and playing music right around the same time,” Brownstein says. “It was short-lived. We were really young. We were a lot more in love with the band.”
Tucker and Brownstein went to Australia together to play their first live shows in the fall of 1994. For three months they gigged at bars for the price of crashing on the floor, got no sleep, played their guitars in two different keys. The night before they flew back to the States, they stayed up all night recording their first album. As soon as they got back home, they quit their other bands. “The door opened for us as songwriters,” Brownstein remembers. “The other person had given us something we never could have had with someone else. It was exciting.”
It was painful as well. Call the Doctor and the band’s next album, Dig Me Out, are full of heartbreak, especially “One More Hour,” one of the saddest songs ever written. “Well, that song was about me and Corin breaking up,” Brownstein says, her face clouding over. “And that time for me is not particularly sad, but her take on that is really devastating. People responded so much to ‘One More Hour,’ and I was always like, ‘Yeah, I like that one too,’but two years later it just hit me, wow, how sad that song is. It’s like, ‘This song is so sad. Corin was so sad. All these people are relating to the song, and I’m totally blind to what this song’s about!’ Thank God we don’t write songs about each other anymore.”
Corin Tucker has the kind of voice that fills up a room. For some people, it’s just a shriek, too much to take, a deal-breaker. For others, though, it’s a soulful wail that makes other singers sound halfway there. We’re meeting for burritos at La Sirenita, the finest taqueria in northeast Portland, Tucker’s stomping ground since she left Olympia in 1996. She lives here with her husband, Lance Bangs, and their two-and-a-half-year-old son, Marshall Tucker Bangs. Being a mom and a self-described housewife hasn’t mellowed her. As Weiss says, “Corin will be riot grrrl until she dies.”
She has a warm, self-deprecating sense of humor that you wouldn’t expect from her music, but she reminds me of a character in a Dashiell Hammett novel — somebody whose pocket you wouldn’t try to pick if you cared about the condition of your fingers. She has fond memories of her band’s early days. “That’s when I discovered punk, as a nerdy, slightly intellectual person,” she says. “When I was growing up in Eugene [Oregon], the punk rockers were into mohawks and drugs and crime. And then I moved to Olympia, and it’s suddenly sweater punks. People who drink tea and have long intellectual discussions, starting bands without any musical ability. I was like, ‘My people!’ It blew my mind.”
Her son was born nine weeks premature, a terrifying experience that inspired the One Beat song “Sympathy.” In the CD booklet, Tucker wears an old Marshall Tucker Band T-shirt. “It was one of those jokes my husband and I had. We just joked, ‘It would be funny to name a kid Marshall Tucker Bangs.’ But then I felt, ‘Hey, I really like the name Marshall.’ “
“He’s a total boy,” Tucker says about her son. “He loves cars and trucks, squirting us with the hose. He loves to play the drums. ” Tucker’s husband was the director of photography on the latest White Stripes video, and he asked Meg White for one of her spare drum kits. When Tucker got home from the European tour a couple of days ago, she found Marshall rocking out. “There’s this huge drum kit in the middle of the living room,” she says. “A huge Meg White cherry-red Ludwig kit. And Marshall is playing and screaming, ‘Drums!Drums!’ “
After lunch, Tucker takes me on a tour of Portland, driving around to point out some of the local punk landmarks. We end up at the first house where Tucker lived when she hit town. A couple of her friends, social workers in Portland, still live here. They drag me outside to show me a spot on the sidewalk where Tucker wrote her initials in the cement one hot summer night in 1997. We all stand in a circle on the sidewalk, giggling at the spot where she and a friend wrote “C.T. + L.B.,” “Sleater-Kinney,” “6/97” and “Dykes Rule” in the concrete. It’s a funny moment of time travel, back to the days after Dig Me Out first dropped, a moment when the band was just starting to take off. We’re all cracking up, Tucker the loudest.