Riot Grrrls Raise Awareness
Corin Tucker ’94, lead singer in seminal Northwest rock band Sleater-Kinney, and I have a few things in common. We both fronted original riot grrrl bands— Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile, respectively—in which we drew attention and criticism related to that strain of third-wave feminism. Lifers in musical forms of creative expression, we also share a birthday, November 9 (though she’s arguably more successful and I’m inarguably a few years older).
I met Corin at a YMCA camp in her hometown of Eugene, Oregon, while we were both still in high school. We gravitated toward each other immediately as kindred subcultural spirits. With inquiring doe eyes and cherubic cheeks, Corin struck me as peculiarly curious and sincere.
A few years and transformations later, I joined forces with my dorm room neighbor, Molly Neuman ’93, to start our band-in-theory, Bratmobile. We cobbled some songs together for our first show on Valentine’s Day, 1991, in Olympia. At the venue, a determined young girl with chopped-up hair and horn-rimmed glasses approached us with Super 8 camera in hand, asking if she could record our show for a school project. I hardly recognized Corin, who had grown up to be a diligent Evergreen student exploring identity and representation. I was proud to know her.
Allison: What kind of kid were you in high school!?
Corin: My father was a college professor of psychology and an intense intellectual. We were always discussing and debating things. I was an argumentative, straight-A student and rubbed people the wrong way. There seemed to be a tendency for females to present themselves as not quite as smart as the guys—to be cheerful and just talk about the light stuff, which was the antithesis of my personality. I didn’t have the time or interest in small talk or pretending things were great.
A: I appreciate that about you. You’re very sincere and honest, and I’ve always trusted that.
C: That’s something that was important about the kind of punk rock culture that we gravitated toward. Honesty was valued. Coming from 1980s corporate culture, people were always in salesperson mode. Especially as a female, you're groomed for retail, making coffee, and presenting things in a wonderful way. That’s an awful way to prepare human beings for the world.
A: When I met you again a few years later in Olympia, you were in college and seemed so grown-up and self-assured. What motivated you to go to Evergreen?
C: I was looking for a school where I could develop my intellect—a place that also shared my values in terms of looking at the world differently and questioning things. I wanted an education that was tailored to my own individual drive. Evergreen was really the perfect college for me in that regard. I was a very self-motivated student. I really wanted the freedom to be given a project and find my own voice within it.
A: At the first show I ever played, you approached my band Bratmobile about being filmed for a school project you were doing. Can you tell me about that project and what program you were in?
C: I was working on a video for my first-year core program called Society, Social Change and the Expressive Arts. My main advisor, Laurie Meeker, was a huge influence on me and an incredible mentor. The video I worked on was originally a two-person project about the Seattle music scene. I was 17 and going to punk rock shows that were geared toward male, macho culture. I felt physically unsafe a lot of the time, and there just weren’t that many female performers on stage. I was ready for a different ideology that included me. I heard about Bikini Kill and others speaking out in the Olympia music scene and split off from my partner to make my own video about what soon became known as riot grrrl.
A: What was this film called and where is it now?
C: It’s called A Riot Grrrl Tells Her Own Story, and it’s in the Riot Grrrl Collection at the NYU Fales Library. They use footage from it in the Punk Singer and Don’t Need You documentaries.
A: You started your first band, Heavens to Betsy, while you were at Evergreen. I remember crying at your first show, which was so raw and powerful. What got you thinking that you could pick up and play music?
C: My dad was very supportive and played music with me as a child. He taught me to play a little guitar, but I wasn’t very disciplined about it. He even made my first guitar, which he has now repossessed. When I saw Bikini Kill and Bratmobile play for the first time on stage—people like me doing something I’d always wanted to do—I saw that I could do that too. That changed everything for me. I had a big mouth and told everyone I was in a band called Heavens to Betsy. Our friend Michelle Noel ’99 asked us to play our first show the summer of ’91 at “Girl Night” at the International Pop Underground festival in Olympia. I thought, “Oh, shit. Now I have to write some songs!” The Olympia environment gave women spaces and opportunities and encouraged them to perform. That was incredibly important to the work we did. Later, going out as a musician into the larger world, I expected that to be the norm, and it absolutely wasn’t.
A: The lyrics you wrote in Heavens to Betsy were pointedly politicized. You confronted sexism, classism, and racism in everyday life. What inspired you to tackle these topics?
C: I was drawn to other artists who take on tough subjects in music. That’s the kind of writer I wanted to be. I’m very direct. Since I don’t have an interest in small talk, I especially don’t have any desire to do it in a song. Songwriting is a leap that you just have to take. The Olympia music scene at that time also gave us the opportunity to try many different things. Pre-internet expression wasn’t well documented, so I could try out different voices and characters in songs and not be held to it.
A: You have one of the most powerful voices I’ve ever heard. How did you get up the guts to belt it out like that?
C: Young people can be incredibly brave and willing to take risks. I tried a lot of different things with my voice. Sometimes it grated on people’s nerves, but somebody in the audience would always be drawn to it. I was lucky to be part of such a supportive and encouraging music community at a young age.
A: You were studying film, but clearly you ended up taking the path of music. Did you think your life would turn out this way? Did this trajectory develop at Evergreen?
C: I saw myself on the path to academia and thought I would be a filmmaker. The passion I felt for the expressive arts took me by surprise. The Olympia music scene was certainly tied to Evergreen, where I got some of my first performance experiences.
A: I found the open-structure learning environment at Evergreen quite challenging. It made me realize I wasn’t the alternative type of learner I thought I was. How did things work out for you during your time at Evergreen?
C: The Evergreen style of learning suited me well and provided me with many different experiences. My second-year program, Political Economy and Social Change, was very structured and extremely challenging. My third year, I took Recording and Structuring Light and Sound, which encouraged the creative expression that I crave. I made a couple of films; I did performance art. Sometimes when we were supposed to write papers, I would talk my professors into letting me write poetry. I thought, “This is amazing. This is college?”
A: I remember you were living in some kind of communal, three-to-a-bed situation in the dorms. Tell me a little about campus life at Evergreen.
C: We had six girls in that apartment, E108. I was a terrible roommate. I would make a giant vegan meal and then go out to a rock show without doing my dishes. I remember when we all got the stomach flu at the same time. We were very close. We would all go into the computer lab together— this was pre-internet—to type up our papers and print them out. I heard about this thing called email during my last year there. We also would go dance at a café on campus called the Corner that turned into a disco after- hours. I’m still friends with a lot of people I went to college with.
A: How did you meet Carrie Brownstein ‘98 and start Sleater-Kinney?
C: Carrie and I met when she came to a Heavens to Betsy show in Bellingham, where she was going to school. She introduced herself and gave me her address. I never wrote to her, but she showed up at Evergreen soon after. I was a couple years ahead of her in college, and we became friends. Carrie started a band, Excuse 17, with Becca Albee ’96, a good friend of mine. Our bands toured together and I poached Carrie away from Excuse 17. It was a big scandal and wasn’t very nice of me.
A: Did your romance with Carrie have anything to do with that?
C: The romance part happened near the beginning of the band and was pretty short-lived. It was Olympia, and everyone wanted to know everyone’s business. Being in a band with someone you used to date, no matter what sexuality or gender, can be difficult. But it can make for some great songs. We've made it through so many different things in our lives. Strong musical collaboration and chemistry can’t be easily found somewhere else.
A: Were you both still going to Evergreen when Sleater-Kinney started?
C: I had graduated, but Carrie still had a couple more years. She would somehow work out going on tour during her programs. It was crazy—she would do journal and paper writing on tour. It’s amazing that she graduated.
A: I consider Sleater-Kinney to be kind of post-riot grrrl. To different degrees, you both had that experience under your belt with your previous bands and were ready to move forward. You seemed purposeful in what you were doing with this new band. Can you speak about your intentions with Sleater-Kinney?
C: We were ambitious and wanted a larger career outside of our little music scene. Both of us came from being fans of bigger bands who weren’t main-stream but still had rock careers. Why couldn’t that be us? We wanted to see the world and meet other like-minded artists.
A: You broke away from the norm in our punk scene with your music career trajectory. You’ve made a living off your art while maintaining a socially responsible, political edge. How have you been mixing your music with cultural activism and what are some of the activities you’ve been involved in?
C: We’re critiquing and trying to change the culture that we came from, especially within the music scene. Creating an in-your-face rock band was a fun way to steal rock and roll and use it for our own purposes. Being in a band gives you this platform to speak out about things. Mostly, people just ask you to play benefits. We did a benefit with John Cameron Mitchell in support of gay marriage in New York and played on a Hedwig-inspired benefit album for Harvey Milk High School [in the East Village]. Our drummer, Janet Weiss, recently organized an amazing benefit with bands and speakers for the ACLU in Portland. It’s a creative way to raise awareness around different issues.
A: Looking back, what was it about Evergreen that may have given you the skills, knowledge, and confidence to be a change-maker in society?
C: Evergreen exposed me to incredibly inspiring artists and thinkers. Professors like Laurie Meeker and Sunera Thobani had a big influence on me. Amazing guest speakers came in to talk about their art and lives. For example, I was introduced to the work of filmmaker Barbara Kopple, who made Harlan County, USA. Also, Evergreen students and alumni in the punk scene encouraged and motivated me. All these strong women and independent artists inspired me to have the guts to be an artist myself.
Allison Wolfe co-founded the band Bratmobile, the fanzine Girl Germs, and third-wave feminist punk movement riot grrrl. She recently got her masters in arts journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in Los Angeles. Allison continues to sing in bands and is working on an oral history of riot grrrl book and audio archive..