In the writing of their latest full-length, Little Rope, guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker persisted through unexpected hardship, and imbued their sage punk approach with refreshed depth.
“There is a comfort to it, in the choreography,” Carrie Brownstein tells me on a call. She’s talking about playing guitar, as she explains how, in the making of Sleater-Kinney’s new album Little Rope, she focused more on her connection with the instrument than on her other role as vocalist in the band. “I know what to do with my hands and with my body on guitar. It also is such an act of love to play. Sometimes it’s frustrating, sometimes it’s meaningless, and you’re just playing sort of in the same way you would meditate or just chew gum. But it felt almost prayer-like, or, like I said, like love to just play.
“The note bend emulates the human experience so perfectly,” she continues. “It’s not static. You can be in one spot and have to bend to an experience. And I love that about guitar, that it can go in and out of these static moments.”
Of course, Sleater-Kinney’s music doesn’t really contain static moments, exactly—there might be quieter sections here and there, but even then, it’s fervent and kinetic. And, as Brownstein and co-bandleader/guitarist Corin Tucker have been in the punk scene for over 30 years, they know how to write in a way that not only captures the spirit of the genre, but expands its dimensions.
Brownstein and Tucker have always shared the roles of guitarist and vocalist in Sleater-Kinney, but on Little Rope, Tucker took on more vocal responsibilities than in the past.
Little Rope opens in the eye of an electrical storm on “Hell,” with a calm introduction that soon shifts to a wailing, mid-tempo upheaval. As the album continues, it speaks in elemental punk with a helping of pop-rock savvy, but when you’re fully in tune with it, it’s more like walking through a home that’s being consumed by a chemical fire. The flames are explosions of blue and green, and it smells like burning wood and acetate, but as you walk through unharmed, you realize it’s all been expertly staged. “The thing you fear the most will hunt you down,” the duo soothsays on “Hunt You Down,” as Brownstein later confides in the verse, “Sorrow hides outside the door disguised as luck / It looks me in the eye / It seems to know me.” More colors in the fire are heard in “Say It Like You Mean It,” with its catchy refrain belying its heartbreak, and the album’s closer, “Untidy Creature,” which starts heavy and raw before moving into a brief but pensive reflection as Tucker sings, “You built a cage but your measurements wrong.” It’s that kind of prismatic emotional topography that makes it clear how Sleater-Kinney has been going strong for all these years.
“I know what to do with my hands and with my body on guitar. It also is such an act of love to play.”—Carrie Brownstein
The writing of the album, which eventually became their 11th studio full-length, started as far back as 2021. “The first song was ‘Untidy Creature,’” shares Brownstein. “That had a very classic writing process to it, where I have a riff and Corin has a vocal line, and we just meld them together. We are often skeptical of that, because we’ve been doing that for a long time. But it really captured this loss and longing and vulnerability that would end up being very present across the album.”
In the fall of 2022, Tucker and Brownstein had around six or seven songs down, and were planning on writing about five more, when Brownstein received life-altering news. While recording in Los Angeles, she got a call from Tucker—the U.S. Embassy in Italy had been unsuccessfully trying to reach Brownstein and her sister, but managed to connect with Tucker, who is Brownstein’s emergency contact. A few calls later, Brownstein finally got in touch with her sister, who then relayed the message that their mother and stepfather had been killed in a car crash while vacationing in Italy.
In the midst of processing the tragedy, Brownstein decided to stay the course with the making of Little Rope, and found relief in continuing to create music for it. “I just wrote copiously,” she says. “I really needed the routine of it, and to sort of posit myself in time and space. Grief is so incoherent, so disorienting. I needed the songs to be the language that I didn’t have.” (“Hunt You Down” was one of the songs that came after the accident, and was written about it specifically.)
“Grief was unfamiliar,” she adds. “I had never been thrust into it in such a primal way. Suddenly it was such a nascent, uncomfortable feeling for me, and guitar was such an antidote to that. It made me appreciate the instrument for its malleability, for its expressiveness. I started doing all the fundamental things that are so obvious to guitar players. I felt like I was experiencing them in a new way.”
“Grief is so incoherent, so disorienting. I needed the songs to be the language that I didn’t have.”—Carrie Brownstein
Tucker shares, “I could tell that Carrie really wanted to finish the record. She didn’t want to just not have anything to do. So we finished things; I gave her ideas and she would sit and rework things all day long, eight hours a day. That became the pathway for how we dealt with what had happened.
“In a way it added to the album’s sense of purpose,” Tucker continues, “of feeling like, ‘Can we make this world strong enough to handle life’s ups and downs? Can we make this outlet enough of a joy and also enough of a container to handle your worst moments?’”
Carrie Brownstein's Gear
When songwriting, Brownstein and Tucker are suspicious of the songs that come easily, and those don’t always make it onto their albums.
Photo by Tim Bugbee/tinnitus photography
- 1972 Gibson SG
- 1973 Guild S-100
- 1977 Fender Thinline Telecaster
- 2014 Old Style Guitar Shop custom-built semi-hollow
- Fender Deluxe Reverb
- Klon Centaur
- ZVEX Super Hard On
- EarthQuaker Devices White Light
- Roland Double Beat
- Eventide PitchFactor
- Strymon TimeLine
- Maestro Fuzz-Tone
- Catalinbread Belle Epoch
Strings & Picks
- Ernie Ball Power Slinky
- Jim Dunlop .6 mm
Brownstein taking solace in the guitar also meant reducing her contributions to vocals, as singing felt too vulnerable for her at the time. As a result, Tucker took on more of those responsibilities than in the past. “It made me dig deeper and find a more passionate and diverse range of singing styles to bring variety to the album,” says Tucker.
For the album’s production, Brownstein and Tucker worked with John Congleton (St. Vincent, Swans, Mountain Goats), who pushed Tucker to reach a “higher emotional peak” with her voice. “There was just an atmosphere that [created] a need for a strong intensity with the performances,” Tucker shares.
“Say It Like You Mean It” was one song in particular that required some additional effort. “John’s reaction [to my vocal part] was like, ‘I don’t think that’s really strong enough.’ Which of course made me really, um, frustrated,” she laughs. “So I just summoned my patience and said, ‘Alright, let me think about it.’” The next day, she came back with an idea of singing the melody in a higher register. “The crescendo of the song then had a larger trajectory. It had somewhere else to go.”
“In a way it added to the album’s sense of purpose of feeling like, ‘Can we make this world strong enough to handle life’s ups and downs?’”—Corin Tucker
When it comes to guitar playing, Tucker doesn’t have much of an emotional connection with gear, while Brownstein, on the other hand, happens to have a passion for it. Her main guitar is a 1972 Gibson SG, “from the dubious and inconsistent Norlin era,” she says. It has a thin neck that makes it more playable for her, and “a smooth tone with a hint of growl.” Another one of her axes is a ’70s Guild S-100. “It always surprises me with its versatility. I think it’s going to be dark and grimy, but then it will have more dimension and levity than that. I also appreciate the vibrato bar on it, which allows things to get ugly and weird.”
Brownstein is the proud owner of a Klon Centaur, along with a Roland Double Beat, Catalinbread Belle Epoch, and Eventide PitchFactor, among a few other pedals. “I would say that distortion is still my favorite. It’s the first language I really understood in terms of guitar—that raw power, that small dose of corrosion,” she elaborates. “I also love chorus, flange, and harmonizers. Basically, things that make the notes thick and rubbery. When we start writing a new album, I usually go pedal shopping. Even if I don’t end up using the effect on the song, I like the way it makes me rethink the guitar and how I play it. I love the way effects pedals can expand your vocabulary and make you think about single notes or melody in a different way.”
Corin Tucker's Gear
While Tucker doesn’t love gear as much as her guitarist cohort, she always uses a 1965 Fender Showman amp head to achieve her Sleater-Kinney tone.
Photo by Tim Bugbee/tinnitus photography
- Gibson Les Paul Tribute Goldtop
- 1965 Fender Showman 2-Channel 85-watt with 4x10 cabinet
- Catalinbread Formula 5F6
- Eventide H9
- EarthQuaker The Warden
Strings & Picks
- D’Addario .010
- Jim Dunlop Nylon Gray .73 mm
And although Tucker doesn’t have that same connection with her musical equipment, she shares that she’s “created a very specific sound for Sleater-Kinney—a very low-end sound for a guitar.” To achieve that sound, she uses a 1965 Fender Showman 85-watt black-panel amp head with a 4x10 cabinet. Recently, the Fender head was stolen, so she went out and bought the exact same one to replace it.
It’s worth noting that Tucker and Brownstein have been a musical pair for the entirety of Sleater-Kinney’s run, which has spanned 30 years (the band was inactive between 2006 and their reunion in 2014). Before founding it together in 1994, Brownstein was in Excuse 17, and Tucker, Heavens to Betsy. The latter two groups were part of the early riot grrrl scene that originated in Olympia, Washington, and the greater Pacific Northwest, and while Sleater-Kinney has come to be viewed as riot grrrl as well, Tucker and Brownstein think of themselves as slightly post riot grrrl because of the more specific timeline they were there to witness. When asked about their roles as leaders in the queer punk scene, Brownstein says she sees early-’90s queercore bands like Team Dresch, Tribe 8, and Pansy Division as being more “unabashedly queer at a time when it was so scary to be that.”
“If we do have a voice at all for people, it’s to say, ‘You’re not alone, and we are with you.’”—Corin Tucker
Tucker expresses, “We think it’s really important to speak out about queer and trans issues in the U.S., especially right now when so many of those rights are being rolled back and people are being trespassed upon. If we do have a voice at all for people, it’s to say, ‘You’re not alone, and we are with you.’ And it’s wrong that young people are losing gender-affirming care in some states. We think that’s awful.”
Aside from that advocacy, Brownstein says of being seen as a role model, “The most productive thing I can do to protect any goodwill that I’ve accrued [laughs], is to, one, be kind and compassionate, but also continue to push myself and put things out in the world that hopefully people connect to.”
One of Brownstein’s main guitars is a 1972 Gibson SG, seen here.
Photo by Debi Del Grande
Speaking of that kind of connection, although I have kept my identity a secret until this point in this article, I have been a fan of Sleater-Kinney for years, and shared that with Brownstein at the beginning of our conversation. Other fans out there will be pleased to know how kind she was in her response. She shares, “Fandom keeps you open, porous, and curious, and all the things that should be required as a human being, and certainly will help to ward off cynicism. So I have a lot of empathy and understanding for people who might place that on me, because I do understand that that is a way of guiding yourself through the world. I understand the language of fandom because I turned to it so much, especially when I was young, as a way of explaining my own predicament before I had the words to explain it on my own.”
“It’s part of what I love about music and art, is that it occupies a space that asks more questions than it provides answers.”—Carrie Brownstein
Throughout our conversation, Brownstein displays natural modesty, takes her time to carefully articulate thoughts, and shows sensitivity towards my own self-consciousness while speaking with someone I admire. One subject that comes up is her relationship with spirituality, as she uses the words “prayer” and “meditation” in describing her guitar playing. She shares that it has a new presence in her life after her mother and stepfather’s passing, and elaborates on how it relates to her music.
“I don’t know how you’d be a creative person or a person steeped in music and not have some sense of otherworldliness, like some sense of the liminal or the in-between, or some conversation that transcends the everyday,” she says. “It’s part of what I love about music and art, is that it occupies a space that asks more questions than it provides answers. There’s something spiritual about that.”
Performing live on The SoCal Sound radio show, Brownstein sings lead vox on “Hunt You Down” while Tucker chimes in on the choruses, as both carry the song’s minimalistic, incisive guitar lines.
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On his YouTube channel you will find weekly breakdowns of your favorite stoner, doom, and sludge metal songs; demos of badass doom gear; and the occasional dip into music theory and other guitar related items. His passion is to help you learn and understand songs by your favorite doom metal artists in hopes that it will leave you with a better understanding of the genre as a whole, and a greater ability to write killer songs of your own.
Seeking a “hard reset,” Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi lead their rambling roots-music collective though an ambitious new four-part opus that tells Layla’s side of the story.
Sometimes the universe brings together timeless energies that seem destined to explode into a beautiful new creation. All they need is the right people to harness them and unlock their potential. In the case examined here, those energies included an ancient Persian love story, a legendary ’70s rock album, the sometimes-painful realities of relationships, and a worldwide pandemic. The people are the wife-and-husband guitar duo of Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, along with the 10 other members of their Tedeschi Trucks Band (TTB). The creation? A four-part multimedia masterwork titled I Am the Moon.
As their fans know, Tedeschi, who’d built her career on stinging Tele tones and one of the most soulful blues voices in modern music, and Trucks, an electric slide prodigy who first made waves as a solo artist before joining the Allman Brothers Band, met in 1999, fell in love, married, and started a family. In 2010, their careers united as well when they formed TTB with a rotating cast of equally exceptional musicians. Many tours, four studio albums, a Grammy, and eight Blues Music Awards later, TTB has become something more akin to a rambling roots-music collective than a band.
Tragedy struck the ensemble in February 2019, with the death of original band member and multi-instrumentalist Kofi Burbridge (brother of former TTB bassist Oteil Burbridge). The group was devastated. Then, while still dealing with the loss of their dear friend, Covid put a hard stop to the entire music industry. Something had to give.
Tedeschi Trucks Band - I Am The Moon: Episode I. Crescent
“After the loss of Kofi and Covid, we felt like we needed to hard reset to figure out where we were,” Trucks observes. Away from the road, Tedeschi and Trucks poured their energy into the relationships that matter most—their own family.
“When the lockdown happened, our son was moving on to college,” Tedeschi says. “There was a real sense of, ‘This is our last real hang time with him.’ It was really nice to be in a place with our kids where none of us could go anywhere, and we actually got to spend real quality time together.”
According to Tedeschi, sending their son off into the world inspired one of I Am The Moon’s songs, “La Di Da.” But Covid and a difficult goodbye were only two of the energies coalescing into what would be TTB’s most ambitious project.
Meanwhile, Mike Mattison, TTB vocalist and guitarist, was immersing himself in the seventh-century poem Layla and Majnun, credited to Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi, and the 1970 album it inspired, Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. The band had already been examining the musical side of these works and had recorded a live rendition of the Layla album, with guest Trey Anastasio, at the 2019 Lockn’ Festival. That performance was released as Layla Revisited Live at Lockn’ in May 2021. The poem is considered the East’s Romeo and Juliet. It follows two lovers through a timeless tale of passion, joy, separation, and death. Eric Clapton and Duane Allman’s collaboration focused heavily on Manjun’s side of the story. And Mattison wanted to give it a twist.
Initially, TTB’s members began to work on the I Am the Moon album cycle apart during lockdown, but they amassed at Derek and Susan’s home when it was time to record.
Photo by David McClister
“He had been kicking around this idea of taking the Layla concept and flipping it on its head—thinking about the story from Layla’s perspective,” Trucks says. “He reached out to everyone in the band with a suggestion that we all dig into the poem while we’re at home, before we could really get together. The concept was to keep everyone tight.”
With the members immersing themselves in Layla and Majnun, the creative juices quickly began flowing. But to capture the results, Tedeschi and Trucks would need to bring the entire band together. So, after a whirlwind of quarantining, vaccines, and negative test results, TTB’s players moved in with Susan and Derek. “They came down and lived with us, the core of the band,” say Trucks. “Once a few of the songs were written, that creativity started really inspiring everybody and sparking ideas. It had its own gravity at that point. I’ve never been a part of anything quite like it.”
“It was nice having no rules and no time constraints and being able to let things flow and happen organically.”—Susan Tedeschi
Many songs and arrangements were created in the moment, right on the studio floor. According to Trucks, that gave the recordings the energy of being onstage. “We track with the core of the band. It’s two drums, bass, me and Sue, and keyboards. Sue’s usually in a vocal booth, either with a guitar and a quiet amp in the room or an amp in another room. I’m set up in the same room as the drummers with a big tent around my amp. So, it felt a lot more like it feels onstage when we’re exploring.”
While many songs were brought in by individual band members, Tedeschi agrees that the relaxed, open environment was crucial to the songwriting process. “It was really cool to hear some of the things that the other musicians were coming up with,” she says. “The boys would play the riff or something, like on ‘All the Love,’ and it was really fun to sing against. I was trying to take in everything that was going on in the moment, as well as the poem. So, as Derek was saying earlier, it was nice having no rules and no time constraints and being able to let things flow and happen organically.”
Derek Trucks’ Gear
Trucks’ primary instrument for I Am the Moon was the fourth prototype for the Gibson Custom Shop’s Dickey Betts SG VOS.
Photo by David McClister
- Gibson Custom Shop Dickey Betts SG VOS prototype No. 4
- 1965 Gibson ES-335
- 1960s Supro tuxedo finish
- Vintage National resonator
- Vintage Gibson Roy Smeck acoustic
- 1930s Gibson L-00 with DeArmond pickup
- Various vintage Martin acoustics
- Early ’60s Fender Deluxe
- 1950s tweed Fender Deluxe
- Leslie cabinet
- Vintage Echoplex
Strings & Slide
- DR Customs
- Coricidin bottle slide
That freedom also applies to Trucks’ solos. “They’re all improv, mostly,” he says. “The solos are live on the floor because they’re what’s leading the track at that moment. Some of the solos you definitely think about more than others, but a lot of them, they happen naturally. That seems to be the best way.”
Though Trucks’ thick tone and inimitable slide work are all over nearly every song, Tedeschi’s rhythm playing drives the whole project. And when the two cut heads, as on “Playing With My Emotions,” it’s pure blues-rock magic. “‘Playing With My Emotions’ was actually in the moment,” Tedeschi remembers. “Derek looks over at me and is like, ‘Play!’ I’m like, ‘Oh, okay.’” [laughs]
“I haven’t used any Echoplexes or Leslies and things like that on our stuff. One of these days, I’ll get into it.”—Susan Tedeschi
“It’s fun when, thematically, that makes sense,” Trucks says. “But it wasn’t written or scripted when we went to that. Me and Sue, we play the dueling-guitar stuff live. An old friend, Colonel Bruce Hampton, would call them guitarguments.” [laughs]
“Playing With My Emotions” perfectly illustrates both players’ approach to tone. Trucks is all about his signature, driven slide sound, which is perfectly offset by Tedeschi’s cleaner-yet-still-biting Tele.
Susan Tedeschi’s Gear
Tedeschi played her 1970 Fender Stratocaster for the sessions. TTB fans regularly see this guitar, as well as her longtime favorite, a ’90s Telecaster, in concert.
Photo by David McClister
- 1990s Fender Telecaster
- Late 2000s Gretsch White Falcon
- 1970 Fender Stratocaster
Strings & Picks
- DR .010s
- Fender Heavy
- 1964 Fender Deluxe Reverb
- 1968 Vox Clyde McCoy wah (gift from Jorma Kaukonen)
“I was using my Tele through my ’64 Deluxe [Reverb],” she says. “Whatever came out in that moment is what you got. I had every intention to go back in later and re-do it, but it never happened.”
If you’ve seen Tedeschi onstage, you’ve probably seen that Telecaster. It’s also featured on the cover of her breakout solo album, Just Won’t Burn. But, as Trucks remembers, the Tele wasn’t her only go-to for these sessions. She also played her 1970 Fender Strat, and a Gretsch White Falcon on “Circles ’Round the Sun.”
Trucks employed a wider range of instruments to cover the music’s acoustic, resonator, and electric tones. “I think on ‘Fall In,’ I’m using a National that we ended up running through an old Supro amp,” Trucks says. “And I have this old Supro [a 1960s tuxedo model] guitar that I use as well. We used a lot of different acoustic guitars. I have a 1930s Gibson L-00 that has an old DeArmond pickup, like Elmore James, that I used a few times. I think on ‘Emmaline’ I was playing that. I have an old Gibson Roy Smeck. And there are a few old Martins that we use.” In the studio, Derek goes for early-1960s Fender Deluxes.
“Me and Sue, we play the dueling guitar stuff live. An old friend, Colonel Bruce Hampton, would call them guitarguments.”—Derek Trucks
Although they use similar amps, Tedeschi and Trucks take wildly different approaches to their sounds. “I haven’t really done a ton of experimenting yet,” said Tedeschi. “I haven't used any Echoplexes or Leslies and things like that on our stuff. Those are all really fun, but for the most part, on this record, I’m playing vibrato or a wah. One of these days, I’ll get into it. I don’t know why I haven’t. I do enjoy doing that.”
While sticking to tones with plenty of vintage vibe, Trucks explores a bit more. His only rule is it has to sound great in the track. “A lot of times, me and Bobby T [longtime TTB recording engineer and road manager Bobby Tis] would experiment,” he says. “I would always have a second amplifier upstairs being recorded for some extra room sound. A lot of times, we would put a vintage Echoplex on it for a little bit of smudge. I would use that old Supro sometimes with that setup. I would plug into the Leslie quite a bit, too, for certain overdubs or a song like ‘Circles ’Round the Sun.’ It think that song is my guitar going through my Deluxe and an actual Leslie, which is a pretty great sound. Then there’s one or two songs where I took the solo on a tweed Deluxe. But it’s funny. You can get a sound on the floor that sounds incredible, and then you take a solo and you realize it’s either too little of something or too much of something.”
Rig Rundown - Tedeschi Trucks Band
Trucks’ standout moment comes early in the four-album collection as he guides the band through the only instrumental, I Am the Moon: I. Crescent’s closing track, “Pasaquan.” Clocking in at over 12 minutes, the song is part Allman-style jam, part Middle Eastern melodicism, and part Floydian expanse. With a song like that, Trucks knew the band had to nail it. It had to sound electrifying.
“I didn’t want to play it more than once or twice in a row, ever,” says Trucks. “I wanted to make sure that, when we did capture it, it would be spontaneous. We really took wildly different approaches each time we played it.” Trucks also took an uncharacteristic approach to both his gear and technique on “Pasaquan.”
“I used a 1965 335 on it and tuned down to D. I realized there was no other way to get that sound. It’s made for that tune. And it’s all fingers. Over years of being onstage with the Allman Brothers, you’d have to improvise quite a bit in different ways, so you get your chops up for that.”
About the chapters of I Am the Moon—I. Crescent, II. Ascension, III. The Fall, IV. Farewell—Trucks says, “We had this episodic concept pretty early on, and we had the album titles pretty early on. We were listening to a lot of vinyl, and I started realizing that all of our favorite records were cut for vinyl, which is 35 or 40 minutes. We knew we had the right amount of material for that, and it worked.”
“We track with the core of the band. It’s two drums, bass, me and Sue, and keyboards.”—Derek Trucks
All four episodes were released a month apart to let listeners absorb each album of the saga to its fullest. But together, a beautiful story of love, distance, creation, and saying goodbye unfolds. This approach to releasing the albums paid off, and fans embraced the music faster than any previous TTB title.
“When we did the first show of this summer tour, I think we played two of our old original tunes, and then we did the whole Crescent record, start to finish,” Trucks says. “We were a little bit shocked at how well it went. Usually, when you break out new material, there’s a little bit of air that goes out of the room. This time around, it seemed like people connected with it pretty early on. Even when we’d get done playing the new stuff and go back to some of our older stuff, it didn’t have the same weight.”
“The poem was interesting, because you have a lot of different correlations with family and how everybody’s affected by each other,” she says. “Here, Layla is in a situation where she’s in love, and she has to be able to let go of it. She has to be able to say goodbye even though she doesn’t want to. I thought it had a parallel to being able to let go and say goodbye to my son. It was the perfect story and the perfect concept for that time.”