Out of The Woods

by: Jennifer Sabella for The Columbia Chronicle

Sleater-Kinney’s new sound reflects change

For the past three years, many fans of the female rock trio Sleater-Kinney have been wondering where the Portland band has been hiding. From giving birth to recording in studios, Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss have been keeping busy and they hope their latest record, The Woods, will answer any burning questions.

The Woods, set for release May 24, is heavier, angrier and more powerful than anything the band has attempted in the past. Tucker’s intoxicating vocals, Brownstein’s lengthy guitar solos and Weiss’s pulsating drumbeats have never sounded more intense.

The band’s new sound is one of many changes they’ve made during their three-year hiatus. Sleater-Kinney left their longtime label Kill Rock Stars behind for the bigger Sup Pop Records and is gearing up for a tour that hits Chicago June 16.

The politically charged One Beat, released during the Iraq war, left no question about what Sleater-Kinney thought about the conflict. The song also showed the band’s contempt with a music industry that seemed to be plummeting downhill. The problem with the new record, according to Tucker, is how to address the side that lost in the election—their side.

“Music has a soul to it and a meaning to it,” Tucker said. “I think part of where the anger on this record comes from is seeing the corporate takeover of rock music that’s happened, especially in the last 10 years. Seeing how completely meaningless most of the rock music of today is, we’re just presenting something that actually has content to it. I think the political content on this record is really subtle and it’s exploring the interior of the side that lost in the election. It’s more subtle, but it’s definitely there.”

Political subtlety is something different for Sleater-Kinney, as well as their new, heavier sound. For a band that has been around more than 10 years, an experimental album can be a death sentence, leaving long time fans alienated and newer fans confused. But Sleater-Kinney, with the help of indie-rock producer Dave Fridmann (the man behind the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev and Mogwai) pulled off the new album brilliantly, tucking anti-Dubya rants and frustration with the music industry under a blanket of heavy bass and distorted guitar solos.

“We really took a year to write this record,” Tucker said. “We threw away a bunch of material and we wrote a lot of stuff. We had somewhere we wanted to go with it. I think the amount of passion on this record is kind of surprising after 10 years.”

The musical quality in The Woods is a result of the band’s 10 years together, Tucker said. But Brownstein and Tucker started their musical love affair nearly 13 years ago.

“Carrie and I met in 1992 at a show of my first band, Heavens to Betsy,” Tucker said. “She ended up moving to Olympia, [Wash.,] and joined the band Excuse 17. Our bands played together for a couple years. We started the band, Carrie and I, really just for fun. We liked each others’ talent as songwriters and guitar players.”

Weiss joined the band in 1996, after Sleater-Kinney’s previous drummer didn’t work out, and they’ve been recording albums and touring together ever since. Unfortunately, many critics and fans haven’t been able to let go of Tucker’s riot grrl roots— something that Tucker said is often difficult to deal with.

Riot grrl was a music movement that peaked around the same time as grunge in the outskirts of Seattle. Bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy were known for their hardcore punk sound, laced with a feminist agenda. Although Tucker embraces her past as a riot grrl, she said Sleater-Kinney does not fit into that category.

“I think that [Sleater-Kinney] has tried to be a three dimensional band,” she said. “Our gender is part of our identity, but it’s not the only thing we want people to notice about ourselves and our music. It can be frustrating for us to feel, like in people’s final analysis of us, as, ‘Oh it’s a girl band.’ We have a lot going on as human beings and being women is part of that, but we’ve really worked hard in our musicianship and our writing over the years and we want that to remain with people as well.”

Musicianship is something that came with years of working with the same two women, Tucker said, but the band has also found recent comfort in their new label, Sub Pop Records. Bands the Postal Service, Hot Hot Heat and The Shins are all on the Seattle-based label, which provided some much appreciated change for Sleater-Kinney.

“[The change] has been a really good difference of having a very motivated team of people that works really hard as record label. I mean, [our previous label] Kill Rock Stars is a great record label, but its definitely more of an artists’ label and there are only a couple people there,” Tucker said.

“So, Sub Pop has been good for us because they have a team of support people who can help us with promoting the record, selling the record and touring—all of the different aspects of being in a band. It’s been really great to have that support behind us.”

Sub Pop’s ability to save the band time is important, since time is something that is short for the band’s members. They recently wrapped up a short European tour for The Woods and start a U.S. tour in late May. Despite long tours, having a family while being in a band isn’t so bad, Tucker said. She has a 4-year-old son, Marshall, and is married to filmmaker Lance Bangs.

“It can be difficult but it also can be really fun to have them come along and get to go places,” Tucker said. “My son is four now and he’s looking forward to getting on the tour bus and bringing his toys along. He’s a really good traveler, so that part of it is fun.”

Sleater-Kinney concerts have few rivals. Tucker said the best part of being in Sleater-Kinney is playing live, which makes for one hell of a show. The band has a reputation for leaving audiences dumbstruck.

“I just really enjoy performing with Carrie and Janet,” Tucker said. “They’re really talented, and I think we have great chemistry on stage and it comes through.”

Traveling the world is also a perk. The band recently played Bergen, Norway. Tucker said it was one of the most interesting places she’s played. Japan and Australia are also hot spots for the band.

As the band gears up for another few months on a bus, fans need not worry. Tucker said she hopes the future of Sleater-Kinney will be a bright one.

“I think this record is going to present some really great opportunities,” Tucker said. “We’re looking forward to it.”