It’s no surprise that Filthy Friends’ debut record, Invitation, is so self-assured. The band is helmed by two songwriters with impeccable pedigrees: Sleater-Kinney vocalist/guitarist Corin Tucker and former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. But Invitation vibrates with energy in completely different ways than the (dozens of) other records the pair have released previously.
Although fans of R.E.M. and Sleater-Kinney will find familiar touchstones throughout—Buck’s ringing guitars on “You and Your King,” Tucker’s stinging, soul-punk vocals pushing through “No Forgotten Sun”—Invitation overall has a very different, distinct sound and approach.
“Come Back Shelley” has the strut of early ’70s glam, complete with swaggering piano and stacked harmonies. The stripped-down title track, meanwhile, is a quirky, torchy song with acoustic guitar spirals and a whimsical tempo that recall Randy Newman’s soundtrack work.
Buck and Tucker have been in one another’s musical orbits for a long time. Buck has known Tucker’s husband, filmmaker Lance Bangs, since Bangs was 19 and attending the University of Georgia. (Bangs later shot videos for R.E.M.) Buck was—and is—a “huge” Sleater-Kinney fan, and first saw that trio live in 1997. “I’m super excited they’re back together and working, and doing new stuff,” he says. “The world needs them now.” Tucker, in turn, is a big R.E.M. fan who cites 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant as a favorite.
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At one point, Tucker and Buck connected at a Belle and Sebastian show, and she eventually ended up contributing vocals to Buck’s first two solo albums. When the pair sat down to write songs for what eventually turned into Filthy Friends, Tucker says they discovered they had “really different skill sets, which complement each other in an interesting way.”
Rounding out the Filthy Friends lineup are three of Buck’s long-time collaborators: bassist Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, R.E.M.), drummer Bill Rieflin (King Crimson, Ministry, R.E.M.), and guitarist Kurt Bloch (Fastbacks, Young Fresh Fellows).
Filthy Friends is already formulating plans for album number two—”We’ve already written 10 or 15 new songs, so we’re talking about when we’re going to start recording the next one,” Buck says—in parallel with some select fall tour dates.
Both musicians are busy with other projects, of course. Tucker says, “we’re thinking about doing some Sleater-Kinney stuff this fall,” while Buck says that he and Scott McCaughey “kind of accidentally ended up in this Norwegian band” called The No Ones, and just wrapped making a record with them. However, at the moment, Filthy Friends is their number one priority.
“This is a band,” Buck says. “I can’t really stress it enough. The five of us are a band.”
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Corin, what was your reaction when Peter called you for this project? Was there any hesitation?
Corin Tucker: The practical side was, like, ‘You have too much going on,’ but the other part of me overruled it. As complicated as my life is, and as hard as it is to travel when you’re a mom of two, that stuff all has been nice to negotiate. It’s more about being in a cool, creative project than anything else, and it’s a chance for me to grow musically and work with someone who is so experienced and so successful and has all these other experiences to draw upon.
What surprised you the most when you guys did start writing songs, both about the way that he works and how you guys work together?
Tucker: He’s more traditional than I am, because I never even properly learned how to play guitar. I learned on piano, and then I jumped on guitar when I was a teenager. I never even learned more than a handful of chords. I was too impatient, too rebellious, and Sleater-Kinney all happened too fast. I don’t really have that kind of traditional musical language. And so Peter will say, ‘Well, what about this chord or this chord or this key?’ And I’m just like…[blehhh] you know? [Laughs] But he’s completely egalitarian in terms of songwriting and working together and making decisions. The door is wide open in terms of how I want to rearrange things, or if I want to change a chorus or add something or subtract something. I’m really particular about that as a singer, and he encourages that. And that, to me is kind of the clincher, if somebody likes working on the fly and is able to be open to someone else’s ideas.
It’s such a generous way of looking at music, too.
Tucker: That’s exactly what I was hoping for, is someone that is really interested in actually working together and getting my input. I’ve worked with a couple of people that are really persnickety [laughs]. And I don’t enjoy it. And he’s not like that at all.
Peter Buck: Whenever I’m writing with someone new, it’s just like making a friend, or having a conversation with someone. You’ve got to share what you have in common, and you forge a relationship. I’ve been in these [recording] situations where I don’t even know the other guy’s last name, but even if it’s only over the space of an afternoon, you can forge some kind of personal relationship. That’s kind of how music works for me. I’m completely interested in having her tell me where she wants to go, and surprise me, and tear things apart, and start over. You’re always hoping to learn something.
What made you such great songwriting collaborators?
Buck: This whole songwriting thing is so…I mean, I’ve done it for so many years, I don’t really think about it. It’s something you can’t really think about. When we first started writing, I was just throwing all of these things at her, to see if this was of any interest. Her interests, musically, are way broader than you might expect if you just heard Sleater-Kinney and nothing else. I mean, she’s familiar with Broadway musical stuff and folk music… It was kind of interesting to see where our mutual tastes fell together. She works like I do: really quickly, really spontaneously. If someone says, ‘OK, this doesn’t work, try something else,’ there’s no fear about throwing something away and starting over. I wouldn’t be one of those guys that like spends a week on one song. It just doesn’t work that way for me.
It’s always inspiring when you bring up an idea, and someone else immediately has an idea to accompany that. She’s like that. I’ll bring her a chord change, or a riff, or something, and she’ll have a melody and then we’ll start throwing things together. It just felt like the songs were really good immediately.
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At what points did you guys differ in your approaches to songwriting?
Buck: I don’t know if there was ever really a point where we differed on things so much as I noticed that I’d give her a piece of music and it just didn’t seem inspiring to her, and I just kept that in mind. For me, it’s not as if there’s any right or wrong. You bring stuff in and you work on it, and sometimes it’s not going to be great. And sometimes someone’s going to hear something that you might really think is cool, and they’ll not think it’s cool. You just go to the next thing.
Corin, as the music was coming together, in what kind of new directions did that kind of take your vocals and lyrics in? Can you pinpoint anything?
Tucker: I was intimidated at first to jump into a totally different kind of music, but I really had to trust my instincts and my subconscious and see if I could find a voice that would fit the song, which is kind of how I go about things generally. But I just really trusted my initial gut feelings on each song, and found a voice and a story and just went for it.
Between everyone in the band, you’ve released so many records, but Filthy Friends doesn’t sound like of your any other projects—which is really hard to do, I think.
Tucker: Yeah, that was the thing that I was excited about. I feel like there is a unique chemistry that happens. That’s what’s really fun about it.
Buck: One of the things that you’re ultimately going for when you’re working with people is that first excitement you had when you were in a high school band, except you’re way better musically now. You know? Everyone’s high school band sucked. But that’s what you’re looking for, that first-time excitement. It is weird how it works, because if you played a Sleater-Kinney record and an R.E.M. record, you would think, ‘Well, there’s absolutely no common ground.’ But the fact is, there is a huge amount of common ground that doesn’t necessarily pop up in either one of our bands.
What were some of those common musical touchstones?
Tucker: We all are huge fans of bands like Patti Smith and Television and Velvet Underground. I feel like we’re all different people, and we all bring in something different to the music. Peter would mention like, ‘Well, what about this song as being kind of like a T. Rex-type song?’ One of the songs, I was like, ‘What if it sounded like The Church?’ It’s fun to have different flashes of things we like and throw them into the mix.
Buck: We both were super inspired and ignited by the whole 1976, ’77, ’78 thing in past. Just recently, we’d talk about, you know, Poly Styrene, or a particular Fall single that I love, and she digs. But then we both bumped into each other at Springsteen shows, and Radiohead shows.
On ‘Windmill,’ Corin sounds just like Patti Smith. It was striking to me.
Buck: Patti was a huge touchstone. I saw this amazing series of shows. She did four nights in Atlanta, two sets a night, in February of 1976. And I went all four nights, all eight sets, and actually got to say hello to the band and talk to them. It was hard to go back and listen to your Little Feat records or whatever after that. And I still like Little Feat, but you know what I mean.
I’ve been lucky enough to play with her a fair amount over the years, and you never know what’s going to happen. It’s always like being plugged into some universal power source. It’s really amazing. And there’s a lot of pressure, because she expects it to really consume you. She can’t be up there alone. She expects you to be right there with her, which is great.
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Corin, what made the lyrics you were writing right for this particular set of songs, as opposed to another project?
Tucker: For me, I really try and find what I feel like would be the voice for the song. It’s not a logical process at all. It might be that I’m thinking about something, or worrying about something. For ‘Despierta,’ I was obviously thinking about the changes in this country and the election, and thinking about how the United States is changing. But to get to all of that, it really has to be the voice in the song. The narrator has to be really strong. Everything has to work around that character. I know that sounds weird. To me, I have to find the words that would fit into her mouth, for that particular song.
Peter, did Corin’s lyrics push you into any kind of surprising directions as a musician?
Buck: We’d be throwing things back and forth. The first I’d hear is a melody that she’d sing and would hum it, and go back and forth. But as the lyrics started coming, I started noticing thematically, there was some things that were circulating. Part of that had to do with living in the time we’re living in. All these songs were written before the election, so it doesn’t have anything to do with that. It’s just, there’s a point when you’re writing a bunch of songs where all of a sudden you get to understanding that, ‘This is a body of work, and this is where it’s pointing.’ Maybe you can therefore start pointing yourself at that direction also.
Musically, Peter, what did you learn from Corin as a musician?
Buck: She just doesn’t have any fear about anything. I like to think of myself that way; I’m not sure I am. Creatively, she just isn’t afraid to jump in feet first. When we’re on stage, it’s the same way. She doesn’t hold back. It’s great to know that any time we’re working, it’s going to be full on. It’s really inspiring. Each time I do something, I hope I’m supposed to be learning something.
Corin, what did you learn from Peter?
Tucker: I’ve grown a lot, and I would really like to grow more as a musician. Like I said, I never really buckled down and learned to properly play the guitar, and that’s something I would like to do at some point. [Laughs] I pick things up really quickly, but I feel like there’s a whole language that I could probably buckle down and learn that would be very useful to me.
Buck: She’s a really great guitar player. She does what a great guitar player should do: She plays great music. I really like playing with her playing guitar. She wasn’t playing guitar at first, and I kind of kept pushing it. ‘Don’t you want to play guitar?’ She was like, ‘I’m really enjoying singing.’ I’ve been trying to make sure that she’s getting some guitar in, because it changes the perspective a little bit. Most of us, it’s our personal style and our personalities that tend to show up in whatever instrument we’re playing.
What’s next for Filthy Friends?
Buck: Right now, we’re just excited playing clubs. We’ll see where it goes. I mean, I don’t even know how this world works anymore then. I was telling Corin, ‘If you wanted to form a successful band in 1980, I could tell you how to do it. I don’t really know how to do it now.’ It’s a different world. But we’re pleased that people are offering us shows.
Tucker: We’re two different songwriters, but we really like the process of creating something that brings people joy. We’re both into trying different things and seeing what happens live. [Laughs] That’s my favorite part like, ‘Is this going to work? Are people going to like this?’ It’s almost like winding up a toy and seeing if it’s going to work. And that’s kind of the whole point: If we can play a good show and have it all work at the live show, and if people respond to it—that’s something that we both really enjoy. And so we’re both just coming up with ideas to try to make that work.