Interview: Corin Tucker on the Making of Filthy Friends' New Record, "Emerald Valley"

A few years ago, Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney teamed up with R.E.M.'s Peter Buck to write an album's worth of songs. Enlisting guitarist Kurt Bloch (Fastbacks), bassist Scott McCaughey (The Minus 5), and drummer Bill Rieflin (Ministry), they formed Filthy Friends, a supergroup of sorts, and released 2017's Invitation on Kill Rock Stars.

Filthy Friends - Emerald Valley (out May 3)

Unlike a classically defined supergroup, these were really a group of friends who'd all worked together in various ways over the years. Most prominently, Buck and McCaughey work together in The Minus 5, which has also counted Rieflin and Bloch among its long list of collaborators. Invitation thus sounded like a group of highly experienced rock lifers gathered to serve the songs, with nothing to prove but that they could make a great set of music.

Two years later, the friends have reconvened, now with drummer Linda Pitmon (Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3) replacing Rieflin behind the kit, for Emerald Valley. The group's modus operandi hasn't changed, but Tucker seems lyrically driven by new motivations.

She has called the title track “a sort of manifesto” that takes stock of “where we’re at and feeling like I can’t believe we let things get this bad.” When Tucker sings, “And humans think we own this place?” on “Emerald Valley,” she is singing the thesis for the record. What follows is a set of songs whose lyrics detail the negative effects of oil pipelines, ICE, deforestation, and unemployment.

Supporting these heavy lyrical themes are creatively lush three-guitar arrangements that play to the strengths of each of the Filthy Friends guitarists' instrumental voices. Check out “Only Lovers Are Broken,” with its early/mid-period R.E.M.-style intro, played by Buck, and follow the thread the guitarists weave together throughout the song for proof that Tucker, Buck, and Bloch create a formidable guitar section.

We caught up with Corin Tucker to discuss the making of Emerald Valley. Below, she explains how the Fender Musicmaster she used on the record allowed her to explore her own melodic lead playing in ways she hadn't before, and much more.

Emerald Valley is out this Friday, May 3. For more info, go to the group's Kill Rock Stars page here.

Filthy Friends - "Last Chance County"

This is the second Filthy Friends record. Can you tell me a little about the writing process?

We'd been working on the songs for a few years, and we take a multi-faceted approach to songwriting. The majority of the songs are ones that Peter writes the music for. A lot of time the guitar part is an entire song. He brings it to me, and then I usually try and come up with vocal melodies and ideas and guitar arrangements.

Some of the stuff on this record, like “One Flew East” and “Last Chance County,” I brought to Peter, and he's great with that as well. He's really open in terms of any kinds of songwriting that gets us to the actual goal of having an album. We write a lot of stuff and some of it we don't use and some of it we didn't record, and then we recorded more songs than we needed because that gives you a stronger base to make an album out of.

Do you work in person?

Oh yeah, it's all in person. That's the way I want to write. It's easiest for me. I enjoy it more. I can do the songwriting with files, but for this band, I really enjoy doing it in person.

What's your process like working on guitar parts together?

We have really different styles. Peter is an excellent rhythm guitar player. From his playing in R.E.M., his style is more ornate, and I kind of thought he was more of a lead player. He's actually really a song engineer and a very good one. As a songwriter, I really like to keep things simple, so I don't like to play parts that compete with what he's doing or what Kurt [Bloch] is doing. Kurt's an incredible lead player.

If I'm writing a song, like “One Flew East” or “Last Chance County,” I'll play the chords and Peter has to figure out how to work around it, and he's great at it. But on a song like “Emerald Valley,” he had this beautiful song written on guitar. I play underneath it to add deep-ness and resonance to what's happening, and I do throw a lead solo on the bridge. It's different because there's a lot more players than in Sleater-Kinney. It's more of a balancing act with the guitars, but it's really fun and interesting.

What's the arrangement process like with the other members?

The whole band gets together—Linda Pitmon, and Scott McCaughey and Kurt—and they're such accomplished players and they're so great at what they do. There's a such an element of restraint and serving the song that I really enjoy. Everyone has been around the block enough that no one has to steal the spotlight. It's more about how we bring the idea of the song to fruition. How do we make it as moving and as arresting as we can? Kurt is really great at that as a guitar player. He really nails it artistically every time.

When the band gets together, how long does it take before it's up and running?

We did two or three rehearsals in May, then we came back in August of last year to record, and when we come back, people have different ideas, like, “What if we try this?” and “I'm gonna change that part here.”

That's really important when you're working on a record, that people are up for that and that they're good at that. It strengthens the song and the record so much. Even in the studio, people are having different ideas and changing things. I think that's super important.

Filthy Friends - "The Arrival," live on KEXP

Can you tell me a little about the recording process?

We recorded the record at Type Foundry here in Portland with Adam Selzer. It's two different rooms and a control room. It's a nice studio—it's big. We did use the computer because I was like, “You guys, we have to use Pro Tools.” Peter loves being totally analog, and I get that and I understand that there's a benefit to that, but it's small and the benefits of using Pro Tools are huge.

It was 10 days of full-on tracking and singing. All of the parts. We just worked super hard and got it all done. We all record live and get the basics down. Sometimes I would replace my guitar part if I wanted to do something different.

We'd record with the drums, which is really important to this band, and Linda is an excellent drummer. She works twice as hard as anyone else. She practices and is super on-point at rehearsals, so it's really about getting a great drum track on each song and then people can fix things if they need to. I'm glad it's live—we want it to sound like a band.

Are any of the vocals live?

“Last Chance County” is the scratch. I just liked how it sounded.

What are your favorite pieces of gear on the record?

Peter, Scott, and Kurt are such gear nerds, but I'm just kind of like, “Oh, that sounds good.” We did push Peter to use the Vox AC30, and he plays his Rickenbacker, the Rickenbacker from R.E.M. That guitar—it just sounds so good. It's like a magical sword in his hands.

So that must be that guitar that's on the intro to “Only Lovers Are Broken.”

Fuck yeah. That guitar is just a jolt of so much great music. It's super joyous to play with.

What are you playing on the record?

Peter gave me this Fender Musicmaster guitar. He's got a million guitars and he's extremely generous. I was complaining about my guitar—it was too heavy and my back hurt. So he said, “Try this one,” and it's really cool.

What is it about the Musicmaster that affects your playing so much—is it the lighter weight and the shorter scale, or just being a different guitar than you are used to?

It's both. It lends itself to a different melody. It really sings out when you're playing a lead and sounds so much better playing a high lead, so I experimented more with that on this record. On the song “Angels,” I'm kind of floating around what Kurt does and that guitar adds to the sadness of the song, which I really like. It adds a bittersweet melody to the high notes.

It's a smaller-sized Fender guitar, and I love it. It's really different, and it makes me play differently in this band, because I usually play a Gibson Les Paul and I'm usually a rhythm guitar player, almost a bass player, in Sleater-Kinney. In this band we don't need that, so this guitar lets me try different things. I can noodle around a little bit more, so that's super fun.

Any amps or pedals of note on the record?

I have this Catalinbread 5F6 Formula distortion pedal that I really like. I like the way it sounds. It's not too overdriven, but it boosts everything in a way that's like an electric jolt.

For amps, I was mostly using a Deluxe Reverb or maybe a Fender Twin. Just basic Fender things.

Catalinbread 5F6 Formula
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Fender Deluxe Reverb
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Fender Twin
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What kind of mics do you prefer for your voice?

I pretty much use a Neumann, and most engineers just have that ready to go. My voice goes into the red really easily, so they kind of prepare for that and use a fair amount of compression.

You have a new drummer on this record. What's different now about having Linda Pitmon on drums?

She's a rock solid drummer, very much has a Minneapolis, driving, Replacements kind of thing and very much can really kick into a full rock song, which is super fun. She can be really laid back too, like on “Pipeline,” where we're trying to do something really spare, she can do that too. She's fun to play with and she's very consistent as a drummer.

There's some really great layering on this record. Is that a piano doubling the bassline on “Angels”?

Yeah, Scott played that. That's one of the joys of playing with everyone is that they've got so many layers of abilities. Scott is incredible at serving the song. He will add this beautiful under layer of something, a bass part or a piano part that just adds to the strength of the song in a really beautiful way.

Something I like about getting older and still playing music is trying out different roles. With different songs you might you might even have different roles, and that's a new way to grow.

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