FOREWORD: I found it extremely difficult to get an interview with Sleater-Kinney frontline Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker. Album after album went by with no luck. Damn, I really tried reaching out. I caught these iconic feminist punk mavericks at Manhattan’s now-defunct club, Tramps, where they belted out tracks from ‘97 apex, Dig Me Out.
Eight years and four well-received albums later, The Woods broadened S-K’s scope without getting bogged down in desecrated jamming. But they disappointed some faithful fans with its elaborately elongated compositions. Anyway, I finally got newly recruited drummer, Janet Weiss (of keyboard-heavy pop eccentrics, Quasi), to do this ’05 interview. Within a year, the gals disbanded. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Swindling the name of a popular road in former home base, Olympia, Washington, Sleater-Kinney may be underground rock’s most ambitious combo. Forming at the height of nearby Seattle’s grunge scene, the liberated trio almost single-handedly carried the torch for estrogen-fueled punk independence throughout the late-‘90s. Continuing to take chances over a decade hence with little serious competition, raggedly charming singer-guitarists’ Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker (incipient drummer Lora Macfarlane was replaced by Janet Weiss) gained attention delivering boisterously somersaulting rock scrums coalescing guttural call and response wails with responsive choral tantrums.
The universally revered all-female outfit preliminarily brought a stimulatingly chaotic assault and fervently amateurish immediacy to DIY autonomy, lifting the deeply felt feminist empowerment and authoritative railing of seminal local riot grrrls Bratmobile, Bikini Kill, and Team Dresch (at odds with misogynist cock-rock suckers) to inform their veritable individualist attack. Persevering despite a few surprisingly cordial concessions to near-mainstream possibilities, Sleater-Kinney has nevertheless managed to retain their rowdy energetic roar and roughhewn action-packed minimalism, exuding the mindful emphatic adolescent romp and desperate emotional bloodletting influential ‘70s-commenced punk lasses Poly Styrene, the Raincoats, the Slits, and Delta 5 once relished.
Following a formative self-titled debut, the first condemnatory words uttered on Sleater-Kinney’s magnificent ’96 breakthrough, Call The Doctor, were ‘they want to socialize you/ they want to purify you/ they want to dignify you/ analyze and terrorize you.’ Its portentous provocation and sociopolitical snubbing hearkened directly back to the Sex Pistols snottily steadfast sneer, Never Mind the Bullocks.
Throughout, Seattle native Brownstein and Eugene-bred Tucker’s torturously haunted nagging voices and unbridled wiry 6-string mingling charged forth with gale force intensity, building a frantically gritty urgency frothily underlying the imminently claustrophobic maelstrom. Raspy scintillating plea, “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” with its sniping dovetailed harmonies, remains the most riveting, best-known composition concocted by these distressed damsels. When all the hit and run frenzy subsides, the restrained “Heart Attack” shows off a lighter side that’d affect some latter recordings.
By ‘97s equally fierce Dig Me Out, Quasi percussionist Janet Weiss came aboard, supplementing the ululating quavers and strangulated sentiments with skin bashing, cymbal slashing fury. ‘Motorific’ sonic grumbler “The Drama You’ve Been Craving” and feedback-sizzled “Heart Factory” complement the flanged riff circularity of battering-ram “Words And Guitar.” Though Sleater-Kinney still fire up the amps, oft-times more controlled verses counter the anticipated explosive choral flights.
Originally from Hollywood, California, Weiss found solace listening to L.A. radio as a teen, gravitating to Portland (the threesome’s current hometown) after a stint in San Francisco. A big music fan, she joined a nondescript band “off the cuff” at age 22, learning their songs in two weeks time.
“I was in over my head on tour having not played drums regularly beforehand,” the gracious black-haired Weiss offers following a ten day European jaunt playing festivals and clubs. “I then met Carrie and Corin through a mutual friend. We got together and sounded great. We were enamored by the rawness of punk and the early ‘90s were influenced by that rebelliousness. The first song we worked on, “Dig Me Out,” they had wanted to put drums to.”
Widening impulsive conviction, more elaborately extensive arrangements, and improved tempo and setting variations consume ‘99s artfully disparate fourth album, The Hot Rock. Sleater-Kinney’s usual frontline screaming yelps take a back seat to actual tenderhearted singing while the pro forma confrontational edginess becomes sideswiped by contemplative sympathy as their archetypal doubt and despair reveal more questions than answers.
“I haven’t listened to that album all the way through in years. I was upset by the way it sounded,” confides Weiss. “It was a hard record to make and emotionally wrenching. I didn’t like the drum sound. So many parts were really rigid.”
A convenient holding pattern ensued with delectable ’00 pop bromide, All Hands On the Bad One, a consistently harder rocking affair that’s less idiosyncratic, yet more vulnerable and conventional, scandalously exploiting the cuter side of S-K’s appeal. Hand-clapped cavort, “The Ballad Of A Ladyman,” even utilized violin, a sign of the broader instrumentation soon-to-be decorating future endeavors.
Guest keyboardist Steve Fisk (storied Seattle producer), string arranger-cellist Brent Arnold (now a semi-successful solo artist), Quasi’s Sam Coomes (theremin), and, on the thumping shakedown “Step Aside,” trumpet, alto and tenor sax, alter the sweet ‘n sour soulful sass of noisier insurrection, One Beat. Personal tribulations as well as 9-11’s tragic circumstances (befitting the restive “world explode in flames” explication) embolden the implacable lyrical poison. Tucker’s double duties as working mother vitalize the impatient “Faraway,” demandingly chirping ‘7:30 nurse the baby on the couch.’
“No Sleater-Kinney record will ever be totally positive because of the two viewpoints of our main writers. Carrie’s always gonna have a dark outlook at the end. Corin’s more hopeful. The contrast is built in. Their take on 9-11 was even different. It was impossible to make a happy record after your whole country is turned upside down,” Weiss admits.
Back with a new producer and coarser cacophonous concussion, the gal pals returned in ’05 for valiantly distorturous scrambler, The Woods. Opening skewered parable, “The Fox,” brings fuzzy guitar suss to a scavenging romp not unlike ex-Helium front lady Mary Timony’s exploratory hot licked solo projects.
“She’s definitely a comrade. We’ve toured with her for years and are great fans. That’s a comparison no one minds. She has that weird allegorical fairytale styling,” Weiss agrees.
Discontent lingers across the cynically auspicious neo-Classical folk-inaugurated barrage, “Modern Girl,” placing earthy harmonica next to buzzing amplifier clamor to thicken its resolve. Lyrically vindictive “Jumpers” seemingly ponders a nervous breakdown. And the protracted finale, “Night Light,” develops into an unexpectedly unrefined long jam where Weiss gets to display her limber chops.
“I got to flex my muscles more,’ Weiss says about the experimental closer. “It allowed me to try different things. The more space there is, the easier it is to fill. We did that in one take. It’s two songs combined with an unplanned middle improvisation. We thought, ‘Where is this going?’ It’s very of-the-moment.”
The feeling of being completely fed up and close to the edge of lunacy drifts inside heavily aggressive, sometimes autobiographical renouncements. This ballsy approach invariably suits The Woods mood shifting dissatisfaction.
“It’s not the most settling of times, inwardly, outwardly, politically, or sonically. We felt the same things and wanted to ground people by not making a passive record. A lot of bands are being quiet and doing what’s expected of them and we wanted to be defiant,” Weiss confides. “It’s slightly uncomfortable to listen to our own records. But I’ve enjoyed the last two more than the previous ones.”
Instead of having mainstay John Goodmanson at the helm, S-K decided to change producers in order to capture The Woods’ ferociously rambunctious heft. According to Weiss, Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips/ Mercury Rev) had the requisite tools to devise a more abrasive, over the top craziness.
“The songs were more expansive and there were guitar solos. We wanted to really rip people’s ears open and wanted someone to push us to make something different then One Beat and as good.”