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Sleater-Kinney Make Rock & Roll New Again
They record for a small indie label. They
live up in the Northwest somewhere. They
spent like eight days in the studio. So how'd
they manage to record what sounds like the
album of the year?
By Chris Nelson
One evening last September, the three women of Sleater-Kinney watched as a bunch of ordinary, punk-loving kids gloriously snatched a victory for themselves. The occasion was the College Music Journal conference (CMJ) in New York, an annual series of concerts and panel discussions saturated by scores of bands, talent hawks, promotional pushers, and other industry types. Fans can also attend, unless of course they happen to get sacrificed in the shuffle. Sleater-Kinney, a punk trio hailing from the great Northwest, landed a coveted slot on one of CMJ's showcases.
"People kept saying to us, 'Uh! There's going to be all these industry people there,'" recounts guitarist and singer Corin Tucker. "But it actually turned out that some of the more famous people, like [Sonic Youth's] Thurston Moore couldn't get in"--playful triumph washes over Tucker's voice--"because the kids had gotten there three hours earlier and pushed their way to the front! It was so great!"
"I hope it continues like that," says the 24-year-old Portland, Oregon resident. "That we make a commitment to young people who get really excited. That's what's really inspiring when you play a show."
Tucker offers that, for her, the CMJ trip was an astonishing illustration of the impact Sleater-Kinney had made with its 1996 album Call The Doctor (Chainsaw). "We were rushing about in cabs in New York City, and playing sold out shows, and just being like, 'Oh my god!' Everything sort of ignited. [At the showcase] it was like 110 degrees and people were just begging to get our autographs. It was completely out of the blue, because we come from [the Northwest] where people are just more low key."
Over the next several months, Tucker, guitarist and singer Carrie Brownstein, and new drummer Janet Weiss received praise for their art through channels less dramatic for them, but more accessible to the rest of the country. Greil Marcus deemed Call The Doctor "a punk breakout of unparalleled ferocity, body, and balance, and the best album of 1996." The album landed among the top three records of the year in the annual Village Voice critics' poll. Ray Rogers compared Call The Doctor to Horses and Nevermind in Out magazine. "It is raw and fresh," he wrote, "dissecting fear, alienation, and sickness with candor, vulnerability, and brute force."
Where does a band go with praise like that? Sleater-Kinney went back to the studio and turned out something even better.
In keeping with Sleater-Kinney's pluralistic disdain for hierarchy, one might say that the recently released Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars) builds upon Call The Doctor, rather than bests it. Rock 'n' roll fans, however, would say simply that Dig Me Out is simply an awesome work, or that it "kicks ass."
As both a member of Sleater-Kinney and a rock fan, 23-year-old Carrie Brownstein falls between those two views with her own assessment. "I think it's a stronger album for sure," she says of their third full length disc. "I think we really captured a lot of the energy and excitement of playing together. We did that a little bit on Call The Doctor, but I also think that these songs have a different feel."
A different feel indeed. Like its precursor, Dig Me Out features expertly crafted stories of heartbreak and survival. Through it all, Brownstein and Tucker refine and develop the vocal and guitar interplay that's defined their sound since they first unveiled the song "Call The Doctor." But Dig Me Out also contains several genuine celebrations in which they turn a joyous, devouring gaze on objects of physical desire, audiences, and rock & roll itself. To be sure, their music is as incendiary as the best of punk, but this time around Sleater-Kinney prove they know how to get down and shake it as well as stand up and smash it.
Dig Me Out's title song opens the album with Tucker and Brownstein's guitars dovetailing into a single riff propelled by a rumble from Weiss. As Tucker takes control of the song with her clarion voice, the listener is reeled into sensations of both attraction and repulsion. The emotional pain Tucker expresses in her lyrics of sores and holes is designed to induce discomfort; yet there's clearly an attraction to the sheer energy and personal power that she projects. It's an effect similar to that created by Johnny Rotten with the Sex Pistols' "Holiday In The Sun," but with a much larger measure of attraction.
With "Turn It On," the band paints a surprisingly fresh face on punk using standard rock & roll tactics. Weiss first offers a hint of traditional rock with her hand claps and tambourine, but it's Tucker's voice on the chorus that drives home the larger point. "It's too warm inside your hands," she sings. "It's too hard, it's too good / It's just that when you touched me I could not stand up." It's as if Tucker is the latest voice called to tell the world that what punk has too often lacked is sensuality. She not only carries the message, however, she rectifies the situation.
If by some act of God the listener has misunderstood Sleater-Kinney's intent, Brownstein makes it deliciously clear with "Words + Guitar." Here Tucker first throws her voice into a dizzying spiral of nonsense, like she's gone insane from the power inherent in rock that she now holds. Amidst the celebration, Brownstein boasts, "Can't take this away from me / Music is the air I breathe... Well you want it or you don't... It's the thing you'll never know... Rock you till you're good and dead / Rock you till there's nothing left."
The heart of Sleater-Kinney's new musical drive rests in the hands of 31-year-old-drummer Janet Weiss. As a more traditional rock & roll pounder than her predecessors, Weiss provides the foundation that Tucker and Brownstein's bass-less work both deserves and demands. "She's the first drummer that matches our energy," says Brownstein.
Adds Tucker, "Musically, she's completed our band. She's become the bottom end and the solidness that we've really wanted for our songwriting."
Weiss not only rises to the challenge of Sleater-Kinney's music; she has the power and prowess that dare Tucker and Brownstein to do more.
Dig Me Out producer John Goodmanson, who also worked on Call The Doctor, points out that along with Weiss, Brownstein, too, fills in cracks that could appear without a bass player. "Carrie's playing is solid, it's real rhythmically functional. She locks up really good."
Goodmanson adds that being bass-less is at times an advantage to Sleater-Kinney. "The awesome thing about having no bass player is you can make the guitars sound as big as you want. Usually you have to clear all that room out for the bass, so you can hear the bass line. With no bass there, you can just go for giant guitar sounds that you wouldn't normally be able to go for."
The combination of Goodmanson's production, Weiss' power, and Tucker and Brownstein's musical and lyrical deftness ensures that Dig Me Out will be one of the best albums of this year. The experience of listening to this record is all together like being blasted in the shower with water that is too hot: It's exhilarating and invigorating, but not without a touch of pain. Sleater-Kinney has, using minimal ingredients, created a rich rock & roll album, full of mature, complicated songs that explore both desire and hurt. On each of their three albums, Sleater-Kinney has upped their own ante. With each album they've also argued persuasively for their position as one of the most important voices in '90s rock.
In a sense, the band's move toward a rockier sound on Dig Me Out is a turn toward home. While both Tucker and Brownstein were nurtured as musicians by the postfeminist Riot Grrrl movement, they, along with Weiss, each have roots of varying depth in older rock & roll.
"Janet has a lot of influences that are based in traditional rock & roll and I do as well," says Brownstein. She lists the Rolling Stones, Beatles, and Kinks as particular inspirations. "But I also love a lot of blues music. I love Lightnin' Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Billy Boy Arnold, Bessie Smith. I have tons of blues records."
Tucker received her earliest exposure to rock & roll first hand, from her musician father. "He was always playing music," she remembers. "He was really into the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith."
Despite such erstwhile musical tempering, it wasn't until 1991 that Tucker was driven to start her own band. In numerous interviews, she has described the impact of that year's February 14 Bikini Kill show with the same awe and reverence that her parents' generation remembers the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.
"They made everyone in Olympia, Washington, very uncomfortable, and that was extremely liberating to me," recalls Tucker. "They were so obviously only trying to please themselves. They were so inspired that their awkwardness and amateurism at playing their instruments was completely--it didn't matter at all because of the force of their words, and their spirit, and what they were trying to accomplish. They inspired so many young women."
Tucker, a student at Evergreen State College at the time, took the ball and ran. She formed the duo Heavens to Betsy with drummer and bass player Tracy Sawyer. Together, they added their voices to the burgeoning Riot Grrrl movement of sonically and emotionally raw, feminist punk. Over the next few years, Heavens To Betsy released one album (Calculated, 1993) and several singles.
In 1992, Brownstein had her own revelatory experience at a Heavens to Betsy show in Bellingham, Washington. After transferring to Evergreen, Brownstein became friends with Tucker, and in 1993 formed her own band called Excuse 17. Sleater-Kinney, named for a road near Olympia, first took shape as a sideline endeavor for the two friends, but soon became their main focus.
One reason for the current excitement over Weiss joining the band is that Sleater-Kinney has had a less than stable history with drummers. Tucker and Brownstein recorded a slate of singles and compilation tracks with Misty Farrell on skins before visiting Australia in 1994. While down under, they both recruited Lora Macfarlane as their new drummer and recorded their self-titled debut album for Chainsaw Records (Villa Villakula released Sleater-Kinney on vinyl). Macfarlane made the US commute to record Call The Doctor in the fall of '95, but the band understood that its intercontinental membership was too cumbersome to survive. By the time Call The Doctor was released last spring, Sleater-Kinney had enlisted Toni Gogin to play live shows. Weiss, who plays in the band Quasi with ex-Heatmiser member Sam Coomes, nestled into the Sleater line-up in '96."
"One of the first songs we wrote for Call The Doctor was 'Call The Doctor,'" recounts Brownstein, "and it has a lot of vocal interplay. And we really liked that dynamic."
"Call The Doctor" opens with a simple you vs. them accusation from Tucker. By her second verse, Brownstein has joined her--not with back up singing, but with a self-standing verse of her own. Together, the two women express a single character's outlook from different vantages: "This is love and you can't break it / In a formula or make me" declares Tucker. Behind her Brownstein asserts, "This is not really me at all / stunt girl, daring twirls, watch me fall."
"I don't think we were even very conscious of it at time," says Brownstein of their writing technique and vocal execution. "We knew we liked the contrasting melodies, but we didn't actually know we liked the contrasting sounds, and that dynamic, until we heard it back recorded. We definitely made an effort on Dig Me Out to work with that."
Producer Goodmanson explains that accurately capturing Tucker and Brownstein's dual technique can be difficult. "It can get really tricky, because you can favor one instead of the other really easily. So we'd try to do things distinct from each other so that you can really hear the two parts going. We always used different mikes for the lead vocal and for the second vocal, or different kinds of processing to make those things really distinct. To make it so you can hear both things at once."
On Dig Me Out, Tucker and Brownstein sound as if they are working confidently with a skill they've refined, rather than discovering that skill for the first time. Together the two singers achieve far more than what either could individually.
Take, for instance, "One More Hour," where their intertwined voices magnify immensely the loneliness the song's character is about to encounter. One can almost hear Tucker crying in the studio as she wails, "I needed it," while behind her Brownstein offers her attempts at consolation. Or consider the verses on "Little Babies," which amp the song's sensuality by interspersing explicit come-ons from Brownstein between Tucker's luring promises of comfort. "I feel like my voice grounds the song when we sing together," says Brownstein. "Like the conscience and the subconscience in the way they talk back and forth to one another."
"Corin and I speak a very similar musical language," she continues. "It's gotten a lot more coherent since we've been writing together for a couple years. We're really in tune to what sounds good and what the other person is thinking musically."
Kill Rock Stars owner Slim Moon, who has worked with both Brownstein and Tucker for several years, sees their growth differently. "My own perspective on it is that it's not by leaps and bounds. What was amazing was how much talent and skill they already had at the starting point. There's been growth--Corin and Carrie finding each other and playing together was a brilliant thing. But I wouldn't say that they were stumbling in the dark and suddenly hit on this great thing. I think they were always great, separately or together."
According to Brownstein, though, she and Tucker have thus far accomplished their best work as a duo. "Corin and I are a songwriting team," she stresses. "If you were to separate our guitar parts I don't necessarily think they would fully stand on their own. Our songs--especially on this album even more than on Call The Doctor--aren't really complete until the other person has put their part over it, and their vocals."
By Tucker's estimation, Sleater-Kinney's audience is nearly as important to the sum of the band experience as she, Brownstein, and Weiss are. "Part of the magic for us is that we don't have this cheesy stage act where we're always having audience banter, and we're always being really entertaining. Or that we're always in a good mood. I play shows all the time where I'm sick, or I'm in a terrible mood, [as well as] shows where I'm extremely happy. I think that allowing yourself to not only be human, but have interaction with the audience where that comes through, keeps it interesting. And allows people to be inspired themselves."
Tucker tells a story about one such interactive show in Seattle during Sleater-Kinney's recent mini-tour opening for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. "There was this guy who was standing right in front of where I was, kind of sheepishly smiling and dancing around. One time when we were tuning, or looking at the set list in between songs, he yelled out, 'Can I have some water?' I had like four bottles of water in front of me because I was really sick. I was like, 'Umm...actually no. I need that.'
"But he was talking to me like I was a person, not a rock star," Tucker continued. We were friends. Fans that love us consider us their friends, and we are. Later on during the set he yelled out, 'Can I join your band?' I didn't know what to say, and I said, 'Well can you dance?' And we got him on stage and he started break dancing during the set.
"It was amazing. It was so fun--having that kind of element of we can do whatever we want. We're not interested in having it be like TV, in having a set thing that we do every night. We're in a place where we're trying to provoke people to think and act with us. I think that having those kind of moments is really great."
Brownstein adds that she sees Sleater-Kinney's ad hoc dancers as "a physical representation of us really merging with the audience." She astutely observes that, "When we have people come up suddenly the rest of the audience feels more at ease to really get into the music and to dance. It's saying this is just as much about you as it is us. It makes that connection pretty clear."
For the time being, Sleater-Kinney continues to play the club sized venues that are conducive to inviting audience members on stage. Despite the ever increasing attention bestowed on the band, it's unlikely they'll be making the jump to arenas that might preclude such interaction. Nonetheless, if any band could manage that move completely on their on terms, it just may be Sleater-Kinney.
"I think the thing that people don't realize is how far the independent world has come," says Tucker, "and how far we've come with it. We're already in the huge magazines that major label bands are dying to be in. And we're playing in the kinds of places that major label bands are dying to be able to fill.
"We have all these amazing opportunities because people have so much more power than they realize, and that's what I find so distasteful about the music industry. They create this idea that you can only do things one way. And that's by signing a standard contract and giving up your power to this label, and not having ideas about how you want to play music, or create music--turning into this industry that turns out plastic things for people to consume.
"We've been able to go really far with what we have, and we want to play that out."
Thus, though they were approached by more than a few major labels, Sleater-Kinney released Dig Me Out on the fiercely independent Kill Rock Stars imprint. Although their home for Call The Doctor, Chainsaw Records, is just as independent as Kill Rock Stars, Tucker says KRS has the resources to ensure the band better distribution.
Producer Goodmanson notes that Kill Rock Stars also afforded the band a generous amount of studio time for an indie label. "The record before this one [took] four days [to record]. And this one was a whole eight days."
He laughs as he recalls that "when they were being pursued by a bunch of major labels, Carrie called me up a couple times and asked me what I thought about a couple things. I was like, 'Wow, you guys might get to make a real live record this time.' I was thinking [the band would record for] four or five weeks. She goes, 'Wow. So the last record was four days. What do you think--like seven or eight days?' "
The bottom line of Sleater-Kinney's business philosophy has less to do with allegiance to small labels than it does with maintaining control of their art and lives. "Even if we signed to a major label someday, we don't have to do everything as is the standard rock path. You can demand more. You can take that power for yourself and do something that's interesting, and that makes other people become interested in it."
At this time last year, punk kids and critics were just beginning to spread the word about Call The Doctor. One of the first things that many fans did was memorize the words to "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone." "Pictures of me on your bedroom wall," sings Tucker in the chorus. "I'm the queen of rock & roll."
She says that song was "about the ridiculousness of becoming rock stars, and stepping into shoes that are larger than life."
It should be clear by now that the three women of Sleater-Kinney already are modern day Joey Ramones for some untold number of girls, and boys; are they prepared to fill those larger than life shoes?
"I think that it would be one of the hats that we would wear," replies Tucker. "I think that we have a lot of different costumes that we can wear as we get more popular and we try out different stages, and different personas when we're on stage. It depends on the what kind of mood we're in or what kind of space we're in. I could be like Bette Midler for a night, and just do a totally ridiculous self-parodying, rock star diva thing."
Sleater-Kinney's ability to wear many hats, like their expression of many desires on Dig Me Out, is a clear measure of their artistic development over the past several years. With three records and a few bands now under their belts, Tucker and Brownstein have established the confident foundation in their songwriting and performing that allows them to venture into unexplored territory.
Brownstein emphasizes that her confidence has been hard won. "I don't think that we just had one good record in us--we've really worked at our songwriting, and we are a good collaborative unit. The excellence of Dig Me Out is not so bewildering to me. We've really worked hard. I can't express that enough."
She adds that the hard work has indeed paid off. "It feels good to make a record that is a little bit more celebratory, and alive. It's a really good feeling."