Radical Imagination: Big Joanie in conversation with Corin Tucker
Sleater-Kinney. Big Joanie. The former are legends of US alternative rock, still capable of brilliant performances and searing socio-political commentary. The latter, a righteous force in contemporary British punk.
Despite being generations apart, the throughlines between the two bands are clear: both are steeped in DIY values, possessed of a justified anger, and unbending in their zero tolerance approach to regressive societal forces. They create music that demands you pay attention. But, crucially, you can tell they’re having fun.
Sleater-Kinney and Big Joanie go back a while. To February 2020, specifically, when Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein extended an invitation to the London-based band to support them at their show at London’s Brixton Academy. For both groups, it was a celebratory moment (they laugh recalling their shared afterparty in the green room but refuse to go into detail); a gig that cemented both group’s influence across age groups and demographics. When, two tumultuous years later, Sleater-Kinney hit on the idea of asking artists to contribute to Dig Me In – a covers album honouring the 25th anniversary of Dig Me Out – it was a no-brainer to include Big Joanie. The band rose to the challenge, contributing a “dramatic” – their words – take on Things You Say.
Now they’re united once again, this time over Zoom. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it quickly becomes apparent that Corin Tucker and Big Joanie’s Stephanie Phillips, Estella Adeyeri and Chardine Taylor-Stone share similar thoughts about the future of equality. Listen up.
Crack: How did you first come across each other’s work?
Stephanie Phillips: I first heard Sleater-Kinney around The Woods era. I was also going through the Kill Rock Stars back catalogue. [The label was] one of my obsessions as a teenager – I learned to play guitar along to Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill. For me, it was a big reference point for Big Joanie, because [Sleater-Kinney] were one of the main bands that inspired my thoughts on songwriting, and what a band could be.
Estella Adeyeri: I found [Sleater-Kinney’s] One Beat in the library after hearing the name from music magazines. When I later joined the band, Steph cited Sleater-Kinney as one of her big influences, as a guitar player, in particular. It was quite surreal to end up supporting them.
Chardine Taylor-Stone: I came to Sleater-Kinney much later – I was very much into British indie and punk, and started to connect to the riot grrrl movement a bit later. By that point, my understanding of it – from what I could find on the internet – had become stereotyped, rather than what it actually was. My perception was, ‘Oh, this isn’t really for me.’ It felt American.
Corin Tucker: Riot grrrl felt like it died in the US in, like, 1994. It was a movement that was so strong and got so much press that it [ended up being] ravaged by the press. It became ridiculed in a lot of ways, so the movement shut down because of that. When we started Sleater-Kinney, it was at the tail-end of that [era], and we were like, “Well, we want to do something that’s different, more experimental, and touches a lot of different musical influences and genres.” We never identified as a riot grrrl band, and I don’t think many bands did after that point, because the press was awful.
"People try to put us in that box. But we want to bring something new into the world – we want to make art" - Stephanie Phillips
Crack: Do you think the music press has got any better over time?
CT: We don’t do much press anymore because with social media you can reach people with your own voice at any time. Back then, we did all the press that we could, because that’s how you got to people. I mean, you could make a zine and staple it together and hand it out! But, you know, that’s a lot of work.
CTS: When we supported you at Brixton Academy, one of the things I really liked about your performance was the ‘yeah, we are a rock’n’roll band!’ energy. Carrie doing her 80s kicks! And being able to push yourself as a musician.
CT: We didn’t want to get stereotyped, in terms of, “Oh, I know what this sounds like, I don’t need to listen to the next record.” We always wanted to do something that’s unique and pushing those boundaries.
Crack: Does Big Joanie fall victim to these stereotypes too?
SP: Because we call ourselves a Black feminist punk band, people take that very literally. Like we’re sitting around in a room thinking about how to write a song about hating white men. People try to put us in that box. But we want to bring something new into the world – we want to make art.
Crack: Earlier, you mentioned your momentous Brixton Academy show together. That feels like such a long time ago now…
CT: It was such a great night – the last hurrah before the pandemic.
CTS: Looking back, you forget it did sound like the apocalypse was coming. It was a very scary time, but because so much has happened politically – like [the loss of] abortion rights in the US – I just don’t know if we’ve had time to process what happened, because we’re already having to fight something else.
CT: It’s been incredibly distressing. Almost my entire life, Roe v. Wade was protecting abortion rights in the US.
SP: You must have some sort of hope – that’s why you get up every day. It’s not an isolated viewpoint that we deserve human rights, but it’s hard to get across. In the UK, I think people are very complacent, and when we talk about politicians, people say, “Oh, they’re all the same.” But it could get much, much worse – and it has. There’s a lot of work to do.
Crack: It seems like your values guide your musical output. How do you best harness this practice for change?
CTS: Music has a huge role to play. Not necessarily lyrically – I find that a bit tedious – but in terms of what you’re talking about on stage. The nature of music is to bring people together and you have this opportunity to reach out to those who might not be actively political. It’s much more powerful than people give it credit for.
CT: Sleater-Kinney just played Riot Fest in Chicago, and almost every female act that was on stage asked people to vote and mentioned abortion rights. Registering people to vote at concerts reminds people that voting actually matters in the US.
SP: In the UK, it feels like you’re just choosing the lesser of two evils – though it would make a difference to have Labour [in power]. But you still have to do the radical things, because you’re looking for long-term change to the structure of society. Even if we got a left-wing or centre party in, they don’t recognise harm done to Black and Brown communities; they don’t support the working class. What is it that Angela Davis said? You have to be radically imaginative. The wildest dream – even if it seems ridiculous – is still possible.
EA: It’s good to communicate to people that it’s a multi-pronged attack. Electoral politics is just one of the methods we’re using to fight for the world that we deserve.
Crack: Lately, more lip service has been paid to making the music industry a safer, fairer place, but not much seems to have changed. What should we be fighting for?
CTS: It would be nice to have fewer men working in it, for a start. My primary concern is the back-end: managers, label owners, sound, tech. We try to work with women or people of colour as much as we can. If we can’t find the people, we’ve started bringing people on tour with us to shadow male friends; supporting women to get that experience.
EA: When we look at the upper echelons of the industry, they’re still older white men, and they’re not providing the space for people to move up.
CT: It’s being conscious about who you’re working with, and holding other people accountable for that kind of hiring as well. When we started out, it was a really intense music scene, the shows could get violent – sometimes women would get beat up. I do think there’s more awareness about physical safety now. Providing real security is really important at any show or festival, and making it explicit – it’s a big step forward from where we started. But those at the highest echelons – who are making the money – remain the same.
CTS: What was your favourite gig before you blew up?
CT: There were gigs on the Dig Me Out tour when that record was just hitting the US. We did [New York club] CBGB and it was totally insane – there was garbage and dog shit. It was full punk mode. But we did it: we played, we slayed, it was super fun. Then, after the show, a fan walked us to Two Boots and we got pizza.
SP: That show’s on YouTube, I’ve watched it a lot of times! I take away a lot of security from your career – there’s so many ways to be a band and be creative, and keep going. Decades into your career, you’re still doing amazing things, and still very nice people!
EA: It’s very powerful to see longevity in an industry that combines sexism with ageism. I have so many generations of friends who were all at that [London] Sleater-Kinney show. I’m waiting for the time that Big Joanie can say we’re releasing our tenth album, so it’s good to have a model to follow.
Crack: Big Joanie, what did you take away from recording a track on the covers record?
CTS: Your voice on Things You Say is insane, Corin.
SP: I couldn’t reach those high notes!
CTS: I think we damaged our voices in rehearsals trying to do our Sleater-Kinney impressions. Did you always sing?
CT: I did, but I never pursued any kind of vocal training. I just started performing in bands and went for it really loud because that was the music of the time. I did eventually take a vocal lesson because I was losing my voice so badly on tour.
CTS: Even though we come from a DIY punk background, we do actually have to care for ourselves as musicians – our voices, our bodies. Sometimes there’s that thing of, “If you’re a punk band, you’ve gotta go in, you’ve gotta be wasted every day on tour and smash stuff up.” But if you’re serious about your craft as a musician, you do need to start taking it seriously. It’s our work, it’s what we do.
Big Joanie’s Back Home is out now via Daydream Library Series