Eat 'em And Smile - Spin Magazine by Caryn Ganz, June 2005
After a storied history as beloved feminist rock icons, Sleater-Kinney were restless and uninspired. So they dismantled their sound and recorded the most anarchic album of their career. Was the struggle worth it?
Most people assume the Pacific Northwest is shrouded in overcast, rainy skies. In truth, the showers come in drizzly fits and starts that roll in several times a day and then quietly vanish, often giving way to timid sunshine. Locals don't tend to carry umbrellas, but Sleater-Kinney singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein always pack a knit hat. Just in case.
Brownstein picks me up at my hotel in her silver Audi wagon, journeying over to this drearily misty side of Portland's Willamette River from the sunny east side, where she, singer/guitarist Corin Tucker, and drummer Janet Weiss live. All three Sleaters drive station wagons - sensible vehicles for an extremely sensible band, the type of band that likes to be in bed by 11 P.M., and after 11 years together (nine with Weiss), still takes a very hands-on approach to even the most microscopic career details, all the way down to checkbook balancing.
But the trio has had an unnerving past year. After nearly a decade of stability, both their longtime publicist and booking agent retired, basically dissolving the band's business operation. America remained at war, and President Bush was reelected (the band spoke out in opposition to the administration). And while a retro-rock revival thrust guitar-based music back into the spotlight, Sleater-Kinney, who had made some of the most thrilling guitar rock of the '90s, were bored of their sound and their practical, organized worldview.
"I was sick of us," says Brownstein, 30. "We needed to be shaken up, we needed to just wake up in the morning and not feel like we were going to do the same thing."
The "same thing" included six critically acclaimed albums, from their jarring, self-titled 1995 debut to the 1997 masterwork Dig Me Out to 2002's biting 9/11 response One Beat. Their tours were successful and they had ferociously loyal fans, many of whom saw them as feminist heroes. But everything about Sleater-Kinney had always been tightly focused, and now they were feeling suffocated. So they left the small punk label Kill Rock Stars and joined semi-indie powerhouse Sub Pop (which is 49 percent owned by Warner Bros.). They hired a new producer, Dave Fridmann (the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev), and yanked themselves out of their comfort zone to record their seventh album, The Woods, in the wilds of western New York. They also remade their sound as a raw, pointed squall that meanders in and out of jolting moments of fuzzy improvisation.
"Maybe you'll never feel settled when you're listening to "The Woods," Brownstein says over Spanish coffee, a caffeine and alcohol concoction that makes her wince with each sip. To discuss the album, Brownstein has brought me to Huber's, the oldest restaurant in Portland, a grand room with a gilded ceiling and a bartender who sets ablaze our drinks with a flourish of his wrist. "I was in the Gap recently and Interpol was playing, and I was, like, I couldn't be more happy that we made a record that will never be played in the Gap."
From its knives-out lyrics to its brutal sonic palette, The Woods is potentially, even intentionally, alienating: Tucker's singing is wildly insistent, Weiss' fills are thunderous and harried, and Brownstein's riffs are aggressively dissonant. The Woods' first single is the biting "Entertain," about which Brownstein has penned an explanation in her often inscrutable, academic style, scribbled on the back of a page torn from The New Yorker. A linguistics major, she communicates in almost studiously constructed sentences and seems acutely aware of how her words might be interpreted.
"This is what I wrote down." she begins. "Artificiality versus authenticity. Mimicry versus strong influence...If politics and violence and personal tragedy and our news and art is all entertainment, then everything is on the same level." She later calls out a more specific source of her ire - contemporary bands that use nostalgia "like a whore," as she spits on "Entertain." "People just suck it up, like. 'Man, I miss the late '70s.' Have you listened to a Gang of Four song recently? These new bands sound like Gang of Four - if Gang of Four sucked."
The following afternoon, Tucker, 32, transports me in her sturdy blue Volvo wagon to the city's legendarily gargantuan bookshop. Powell's, and echoes her bandmate's sentiments. "From the beginning, this has been about making something that's not concerned with pleasing other people. Music that's not about, 'I'm a girl and cherry and happy.'"
Though Brownstein's rigorously thoughtful front makes her difficult to read, Tucker is more open, favoring a kind of free-form self-analysis. "I've come into my own, and I'm more in my skin than I've ever been. I'm waking up and feeling really alive, proud of my body and this amazing thing I can do with it," Tucker says, her wide eyes moving from a spot on the ceiling to meet mine. Four years ago she married filmmaker Lance Bangs and had a son, Marshall Tucker Bangs (half-joking named after the Marshall Tucker Band), whom Brownstein is currently babysitting. "Birth is an intense thing to go through, and it often brings out a lot of stuff that has been locked up in you. I was wreck for about six months."
It was the band's close-knit, familial loyalty that held them together during that difficult period in 2001, when Tucker cared for her nine-weeks-premature son while co-writing One Beat. Despite their new preference for reckless, artistic upheaval they still ardently protect their privacy, excising a fundamental piece of Sleater-Kinney lore when recounting the band's history - the fact that Tucker and Brownstein dated during the band's early days. They sidestep any suggestion that their romantic involvement had any influence on their legendarily intense relationship songs.
The two met in 1992 while students at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, when Brownstein was a member of the snarly trio Excuse 17, and Tucker fronted the lo-fi trashy Heavens to Betsy. Brownstein had grown up in Seattle and developed a passion for guitar while attending a sort of real-life rock'n'roll high school (her classmates included Pretty Girls Make Graves' Andrea Zollo, Sunny Day Real Estate's Jeremy Enigk, and Modest Mouse's Dann Gallucci). Tucker came of age in Eugene, Oregon, admiring Sinead O'Conner and Aretha Franklin, before she made the move to Olympia. The pair's casual side-project became a full fledged obsession during a 1993 trip to Australia that followed Tucker's graduation from Evergreen (Brownstein remained a student for three more years). But after recording two albums and touring with different drummers, they still lacked a permanent third member. Weiss, a no-nonsense, Hollywood born-born former ad-agency art buyer who'd picked up the drums on a whim at age 22, auditioned for the spot in 1996.
"She came over to my crummy little basement, and she had learned all the songs from (the band's second album,) Call the Doctor," Tucker says. "She just blew us away." The addition of the pounding, Keith Moon - idolizing Weiss came just before Dig Me Out, a collection of breakup laments, feminist anthems, and songs about simply loving rock'n'roll, catapulted Sleater-Kinney far beyond the security of their hometown scene. They began to sell out theaters rather than clubs. Critic Greil Marcus proclaimed them "America's best rock band" in Time magazine. "I've never seen a band go from selling 10,000 to 20,000 records to selling 100,000 records without freaking out about the attention," says Kill Rock Stars founder Slim Moon. "Starting then, and throughout the rest of the '90s, Sleater-Kinney were more critically acclaimed than anybody besides Radiohead, so the nature of the attention put them on the spot."
"We started to feel a little overwhelmed," Brownstein says. "I also remember feeling a little guilt because bands from here don't do this. During riot grrrl, there was the press/media blackout (instigated in the '90s as a reaction to media distortions of the young, radical feminist scene). I definitely felt that we were going against the grain." As Tucker explains, "Suddenly we were popular and successful, and I wasn't really that social as a person, and there were these people coming up to me, like, 'I love you,' or 'This happened to me, and your music did this for me.' I didn't know how to handle it."
Weiss also struggled to penetrate Tucker and Brownstein's musical partnership. "There were a lot of factors involved with my trying to integrate into the band," Weiss, 39, says by phone from Belgium, where she is touring with Quasi, the organ/drums duo she founded eight years ago with ex-husband Sam Coomes. "Part of it was their really intense friendship and connection. They do seem a little bit like soulmates when you hang around and play music with them."
After 2002's One Beat - Sleater-Kinney's "overtly political record," as Brownstein says - the band's interests and experiences broadened. They became drawn to the mind-bending sounds of classic rockers Pink Floyd and Deep Purple, and they went out on an arena tour, opening for longtime admirers and Pacific Northwest neighbors Pearl Jam.
"It suddenly made us, ten years into our careers, have to prove it every single night," Brownstein says. "I would literally watch a couple eating a hotdog and be like, ' If they set that hotdog down and look at me, then we have played a good show,'" says Brownstein. "We would jam into Dig Me Out," and it was in that moment that people started watching us, and it felt amazing."
By the time the band stepped into the studio with Fridmann, Weiss had firmly nudged towards a more improvised approach. "You have to learn how to hear what's in your head and translate that and think quickly," Weiss says. "It's not always about planning everything out note for note." Says Brownstein: "If I'm the glass is half-empty and Corin's the glass is half full, Janet just smashes the glass."
Brownstein especially cuts loose on The Woods, bathing herself in feedback and stepping out front solo on virtually every track. Tucker doesn't hold back either, howling with frantic abandon on the opener "The Fox" and the spazzy space-out "Let's Call It Love," straining her voice to almost uncomfortable levels. "I've always loved Corin's vocals, but I've never felt so happy to be in a band with a singer that not everyone likes," Brownstein says. "Thank God people are going to think she's annoying." Says Tucker, growing a bit sensitive at the memory of recording" "My vocals are desperate and weird sounding, which Dave really pushed for."
"We were all pretty ruthless," Weiss says. "I was being bossy, and Corin got flustered and was totally like, 'Back off!' Two seconds later, she thought up the vocals to 'Let's Call It Love,' and I was like, 'See! It works! The more I irritate you, the better you get.'" Fridmann trusted that the band could handle such confrontations. "I think a lot of the guy bands have more closed lines of communication," he says, "and Sleater-Kinney are open with each other and respect each other enough to say what they thought and deal with it right then."
Although the band met its goal of generating ten unruly tracks for The Woods, the recording took its toll. "I honestly do play like it's the last show every time," Weiss says. "There's no fooling around, thinking we'll be a band for another ten years. It's the personal stuff that's most precarious for us."
Sleater-Kinney often talk about injecting artistic chaos into their normally rational lives as if it's just another delay pedal for a guitar. And if there's a way to control such unstable creative energy by merely thinking about it a lot, they may have achieved a scientific breakthrough. The real test, however, will be whether their somewhat intellectualized disruptions can continue without tearing them apart personally.
"On this record there's such a sense of clawing through something dark, just wanting to come out the other side with any kind of clarity," Brownstein says. "I think it's important to have these journeys."
On The Woods track "Jumpers," the band sings about being on the brink, trying to decide if going further is worth the risk. "Don't push me, I am not okay," they warn, before the song broods and builds to a screeching halt. Getting to the edge has been a breakthrough for Sleater-Kinney. But how far can they go without pushing themselves over?