Return Of Riot Grrrl Rock: The Sleater-Kinney Interview

Sleater-Kinney find renewed inspiration in the mid-'90s Riot Grrrl movement.

By Michael Goldberg
I n the novel "High Fidelity," Rob, the main character, who owns a used record shop, is arguing about pop songs with his girlfriend, Laura. Rob can't understand how Laura could like Art Garfunkel better, or at least as much as, soul star Solomon Burke. "I know I sound like your mum, but they're only pop records," Laura says. "And if one's better than the other, well, who cares ... There are so many other things to worry about."

Grow up, Laura is trying to tell her 36-but-still-acting-like-he's-19-year-old boyfriend.

Laura is right of course, but she is also wrong. "My life was saved by rock 'n' roll," Lou Reed once sang.

Sleater-Kinney defy Laura's logic, and they confirm Reed's sentiment by making music that matters. Music that must be heard. Music that is a call to action.

This post-punk, post-riot grrrl trio from the Northwest has delivered another album, All Hands on the Bad One, and it's the kind of audio communique we haven't gotten in quite a while. (Think The Clash. Think Nevermind, think Zen Arcade.)

All Hands on the Bad One is an all-points bulletin, a rock state-of-the-union address. Sleater-Kinney — singers/guitarists/ writers Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein and singer/drummer Janet Weiss — know that these are bad times. This is the age of Woodstock, where women were raped and exploited. This is the age of Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock, of adolescent, testosterone-driven sexism. This is the age of the co-optation of what is real by corporate America. "And for all the ladies out there I wish/ We could write more than the next marketing bid," Tucker sings in "#1 Must-Have."

So they wrote and recorded an album that deals with all of that. And, of course, lots more. There are layers upon layers of meaning in the songs on their album. Sleater-Kinney are artists. They know how to summon up the raw, rebel spirit of rock and get it into their recordings, but they're also sophisticated poets. All Hands on the Bad One is a rockin' album, but it is also beautiful poetry. Even as they take on evil in song after song, they do it in a way that is artful, elegant and transcendent. "We're just putting it on the line," Tucker said when I interviewed them. "We've been doing this for long enough that we feel like we can say whatever we want. Sort of like the truths, as we see them. We love playing music but also there's some really nasty things about it at the same time."

I met with Sleater-Kinney in a Portland, Ore., sushi restaurant in late March. We spoke for several hours. Legendary Seattle photographer Charles Peterson (Nirvana, Pearl Jam) took photos.

We talked about the new album. About the struggle to get respect for their political rock 'n' roll. About how they've been misunderstood, and about what they have to say in some of their new songs. And we talked about the Ladyfest event that will take place in August in Olympia, Wash., where female artists, including many bands, will gather to experience each others' art, and for inspiration.

The Interview

Addicted To Noise: Several of the songs on your new album, All Hands on the Bad One, seem like they're about coming to terms with the success that you've had. I'm thinking of lines in the song "Ballad of the Ladyman," such as "They say I've gone too far with the image I've got and they know I'd made a mint with new plastic skin and a hit on the radio," which is obviously sarcastic, but at the same time you have had to deal with how people are reacting to their perceptions of this band.

Corin Tucker: I think that we are playing with that in a way, definitely. That song is ... it's almost making fun of how people see us, how people see what you're supposed to be when you're a woman in rock. That whole idea seems really bizarre to me and really obtuse without much kind of room for personality. And I think this band is really unique. So, in a way, to me, when people think that about us, I think it's really ridiculous. Someone said to me, I did this email interview the other day that was like, 'What do you think about people saying, with The Hot Rock, that you really sold out and that it was a really commercial album?' I was like, 'What? The Hot Rock?'

Carrie Brownstein: You're like, 'Nobody liked The Hot Rock!' [Laughing]

Tucker: I know. I was like, 'That was our least commercial album ever.' But people's reactions are so not what you think they would be. It's like, why even bother responding to them sometimes?

Brownstein: That song was also a character study though, right?

Tucker: Yeah, but it does seem it's literally about that, though.

Janet Weiss: "Ballad of the Ladyman," is that what you're referring to?

Addicted To Noise: Yeah.

Tucker: There's kind of a story behind it. When I got the inspiration for that song, we were playing this convention in England called the Bowlie Weekender. It was this insider indie rock convention. It was put on by the people in Belle and Sebastian and they picked all the bands. All the bands were great and it was really, really fun. And we were treated really well.

But at the same time, in a way, it was also this reminder that people still look at us differently than they do other bands. They had this message board up in the merchandise room that's an anonymous message board. We were all staying in little chalets or whatever and we had our own cabin and we were cabin 216. Someone wrote this message to us that was like, 'Cabin 216 ladymen.' And we were like, 'What?'

It was meant to be a funny thing, but in this other way, it was really this naming of us. It was a subtle way of saying, 'Oh, you're different because you're a woman band and because you're in some ways political.' It's still seen as threatening to people. It's not like we had this weekend where we just relaxed with everyone and just hung out. I think, in some ways, people are still a little bit guarded when they're around us. I don't know what they think. It was just this uncomfortable thing to recognize that it still, in some ways, can be a boy's club.

Addicted To Noise: You addressed that on this album too, really explicitly in "Male Model." ["You don't own the situation, honey/ You don't own the stage/ We're here to join the conversation/ And we're here to raise the stakes/ Now do you hear that sound?/ As the model breaks/ Take the stage!/ Let the image of him fade away .../ It's time for a new rock 'n' roll age/ History will have to find a different face/ And if you're ready for more/ I just might be what you're looking for."]

Tucker: Yeah, those lyrics are pretty specific.

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  Photo: Charles Peterson  
(( Vocalist Corin Tucker. ))

"It takes a lot of energy to try to get people to a point of neutrality." — Carrie Brownstein

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