Sleater-Kinney cultivates new sound
NEW YORK -- The woods is a place that itches out different feelings for different people - a playground, a danger zone, the unknown.
For Sleater-Kinney, the independent three-person band out of Portland, Ore., naming their seventh record "The Woods" cuts a particularly apt metaphor. It's not just that the group hails from the Pacific Northwest, a region ringed with old growth timber and the retreating logging industry. It's also because this record represents a new patch of growth for the band with a sound that's both dense and dewy. "The Woods" comes without a compass and erases most of the earlier landmarks the band had carefully constructed over the years.
Poet Robert Frost may have summoned his courage at the intersection of two roads in a yellow wood, but deliverance for Sleater-Kinney came at a Pearl Jam concert.
The band (Carrie Brownstein on guitar and vocals, Corin Tucker on guitar and vocals, and Janet Weiss on drums) had been selling out mid-sized clubs for almost a decade when they were tapped to open up for the alt-rock superstars' 2003 stadium tour.
To hear Brownstein tell it, the tour became almost a vision quest that helped the band find itself again. By this time, Sleater-Kinney were certainly beloved within their circle of post-punk fans, but also a little predictable and not just to their adoring audience. They were getting bored with themselves as well. "I was getting a bit tired of knowing what we were going to do before a recording session," Brownstein says.
Playing in front of people who saved babysitting money to buy a ticket to your show is very different from playing in front of people who paid that same money to see someone else. Says Brownstein: "When you play to an audience of people who don't know your music and don't care and are waiting for another band to get on stage, you can't play half-good or at half the energy level," she says. "But our reaction to Pearl Jam's audience was that we're going to have to play better than we normally play. It forced us to turn back toward ourselves to remember the kind of connection we have with each other."
On the Pearl Jam tour, the band began foraging into the psychedelic with improvisations between songs. Surprisingly, the audience got into it. "It was in those moments when we weren't playing a song, when we were relying on the familiarity and musical language between the three of us, when we became totally insular, that the crowd would get on their feet or put down that bag of popcorn that they were chewing on and look at us," says Brownstein. "And I thought, 'This is really weird, we aren't even playing our songs-we're just playing for one another.'"
When it came time to make their next record, that experience stuck with them and influenced their writing. Brownstein says that while previously they started with a structured song palate, this time they used a looser frame and built on that.
For the first time ever, they used a record producer from outside their scene - Dave Fridmann, who has worked with the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev. "We were ready for someone to come in who wasn't necessarily a fan," Brownstein says. Fridmann had them record live to capture a full performance sound rather than punch in effects later. "It was exciting because we never knew what was going to happen," Brownstein says. "Which is what we wanted."
The result is a record that, with its thundering meanderings and wooly filters, at times brings to mind both Big Brother and the Holding Company and Led Zeppelin's fecund 1960s backdrops. "Modern Girl" has an airy 1970s AM radio feel and a bright chorus of "My whole life was like a picture of a sunny day." At first listen, it sounds like a happy song, until you unpack the lyrics and realize that, duh, if your life is like a picture of a sunny day, it's not officially sunny. Only one song - "Jumpers" - lays claim to the vintage Sleater-Kinney sound with its jabs of harmony, brisk singing and marching beat.
"People are already telling me, 'Oh, I walked into a store and they were playing a demo copy of your record and I had to ask, 'Who is this?'" Brownstein says. "That, to me, is great after our seventh release."