It’s all too easy to toss around the term supergroup, and in fact that’s the sixth word in Filthy Friends’ Wikipedia entry. Here, though, the label fits. The original incarnation of the Portland, Oregon, quintet included core members of five of the most influential bands of the late 20th century: Nirvana, R.E.M., Sleater-Kinney, Ministry, and King Crimson.
Krist Novoselic and Bill Rieflin have since moved on, but the current version of the band still includes members of Pacific Northwest fan favourites the Fastbacks, the Young Fresh Fellows, and the Minus 5, as well as R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker. Only new drummer Linda Pitmon lacks a substantial rock ’n’ roll pedigree, but she was handpicked by Rieflin to replace him in the drummer’s chair, and the group hasn’t suffered for the switch.
Together, Tucker, Buck, Pitmon, Scott McCaughey, and Kurt Bloch have an extensive discography. But it’s not the spilt singles or the gold records that matter here: it’s that Filthy Friends really are friends, and while their new release, Emerald Valley, has a pointed message to put across, they mainly make music for fun.
“I think that for us the magic of the band is actually the camaraderie of playing music with your friends, and with other people,” Tucker explains in a telephone conversation from her Portland home. “That’s something that I have discovered is really essential to my mental health, period. The kind of community that I’ve built up around music and friendship when I was a young person is one of the most important things that I’ve done for myself, and I find myself returning to it really gratefully, whenever I get the chance to do it.”
That camaraderie is evident in the band’s performance videos. Buck and Bloch have wildly different but utterly compatible guitar styles; think Keith Richards and Mick Taylor, or Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, for example. McCaughey and Pitmon make for an unflashy but solid rhythm section. And Tucker, nominally the lead singer but also a capable guitarist, is an electric presence at centre stage, with her wide-eyed, incantatory delivery.
What’s surprising, though, is that on Emerald Valley the five Friends sometimes sound more “classic” than “indie”, with hints of Brit blues-rock coming to the fore on the title track and more than a little grinding, Stones-y grit powering “The Elliott”.
“I’m not sure that’s really a conscious decision,” Tucker says. “I think it’s more that we were just enjoying the alchemy of the music that was coming together kind of naturally. And even when I write songs that are a little bit more punk rock, like ‘Last Chance County’, there is almost like a classic-rock vibe to us all playing together that fleshes out the song in a way that I think is cool. But the thing I like is that we’re open to any style of song. We like variety, and we all have eclectic tastes.”
The classic-rock sound certainly works for the songs on Emerald Valley that variously celebrate, mourn, and analyze the working-class culture that Tucker grew up with in Eugene, Oregon, and Grand Forks, North Dakota, small towns where MAGA–hat wearers outnumber liberal-arts students by a significant majority. The new record is in part a reaction to the 2016 election of Donald Trump, which Tucker says is less unfathomable than it might seem.
“When we’re trying to look at answers for why the election went the way it did…we have to recognize that we really have serious suffering going on in this country,” she explains. “You know, people who are worried about their future, their ability to put food on the table, and that needs to be part of the discussion as well. The kind of have-and-have-not society that we have now has gotten much worse, I think, in my lifetime, and that desperation is fuelling a lot of the turmoil that we’re experiencing.”
The singer-guitarist is not without hope, however. On the anthemic protest-rocker “Pipeline”, for instance, she’s been galvanized by how her two children—one in high school, the other slightly younger—and their friends have been responding to the climate crisis. Her son’s girlfriend, she reports, recently helped organize an Extinction Rebellion–like student strike in Portland, and her 11-year-old daughter wants to know what she can do, as well.
“They really see the intense effects of climate change and environmental destruction with these fresh eyes,” Tucker says. “So I’m really inspired by that passion, and I guess I’m trying to bring that perspective to the lyrics on this album.
“We need to act on that urgency,” she adds, noting that music is a wonderful way to get a message across in a subtle and transformative way. “We can’t just sit back and say ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do,’ because I think that’s suicidal.”
Filthy Friends play the Rickshaw Theatre on Friday (May 10).