“Hi, this is Anthony Ha from The Stanford Daily . . . Is this Corin?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Oh . . . wow.”
Not the most professional way to start an interview, but hey, I was talking to a member of Sleater-motherfucking-Kinney! I’ve always been a geeky fanboy at heart, so it was inevitable that hearing the voice of Corin Tucker – whose powerful singing dominates many of Sleater-Kinney’s finest recordings — would reduce me to virtual incoherence.
Quite possibly the best band playing today, the group has been riding high on a crest of critical adulation since “Call the Doctor” (1996) and “Dig Me Out” (1997). The reception of the moody, experimental “The Hot Rock” (1999) and its poppier follow-up “All Hands on the Bad One” (2000) was more mixed, but One Beat, the band’s recently released sixth album, finds Sleater-Kinney back at the top of its form, fueling its still-growing musical sophistication with fiery defiance.
I showed up a little late to this party. I still know basically nothing about the riot grrl movement from which Sleater-Kinney sprang in the early-’90s; when I first picked up a copy of “All Hands on the Band One” last year, few things could have been farther from my personal experience than, say, Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna on stage, shrieking, “I might make you rape me!” Still, “You’re No Rock’n’Roll Fun” and other standout tracks from “All Hands” piqued my curiosity.
My next purchase — the angry, distortion-heavy “Call the Doctor” — was even better, but it was “Dig Me Out” that felt like a revelation. Bob Dylan once compared listening to Elvis with breaking out of jail, and that description is the closest I can get to recapturing the intensity of the first time I heard “The Drama You’ve Been Craving”: Tucker yelling, “Kick it in!” while fellow vocalist/guitarist Carrie Brownstein interjects, “Out!”, both of them pulled forward by the slashing guitars and Janet Weiss’s propulsive drumming.
While the band’s recordings feature intelligent, often pointedly political lyrics, the music is the key to both its politics and its emotional power — I love the dialogue created by Tucker and Brownstein’s intertwining voices, but far more important is the way words, guitars and drums join to create a feeling of liberation, of feminism and the need for social change as felt knowledge rather than abstract ideas.
Sleater-Kinney delivered that feeling in spades on Sept. 23 at the Fillmore in San Francisco. Most of the tunes played were tracks from the Sept. 11-influenced “One Beat,” including the bubbly “Oh!”, the mocking protest song “Combat Rock” and the “shake a tail for peace and love” anthem “Step Aside.” There were also old favorites from every Sleater-Kinney album since “Call the Doctor,” the juxtaposition of the raw “Call the Doctor” with the polished, complex “Step Aside” served as a good demonstration of how much the band has grown in the past six years.
For me, the concert was a chance to jump up and down to the music of my favorite band, chanting “Dig me out, dig me in, / Outta my body, outta my skin,” along with Tucker, free from but not unaware of all the troubles of the world. However, for the girl behind me, who sang “Call the Doctor” ’s opening lines (“They want to socialize you, / They want to purify you, / They want to dignify and analyze and terrorize you!”) with the passion and feeling of a true believer, the concert was clearly something deeper and more personal; for many, Sleater-Kinney is not just a damn good band, but a truly necessary one.
A month earlier, I spoke briefly to Tucker about the new album, protest songs and her feelings about Sleater-Kinney’s growing exposure in the mainstream media.
INTERMISSION: When you were writing “One Beat,” was there a conscious decision to do a lot of songs that addressed Sept. 11. in some way?
CORIN TUCKER: Um, there wasn’t really a conscious decision to do that. I think that it was just such as an overwhelming presence in our minds as we were trying to write songs, that we felt that we really needed to deal with it, and that we really needed to write about it. Especially “Combat Rock.” That was the most conscious song in terms of the intense wave of nationalism and patriotism that was happening. It was really frightening. We were just surprised that people weren’t speaking out about it more than they were, and we decided to write about it ourselves.
INTERMISSION: Given that there’s such a nationalistic, flag-waving attitude, were you worried at all about the response to that song?
TUCKER: Yeah, we were. I remember at the time saying, “This might be a really controversial song.” But we just felt like we need to do it, and that free speech is really important, you know, that we need to recognize that. For us the whole country is, “Go war!”
INTERMISSION: Both on “One Beat” and on your albums in the past, a lot of your songs have been about how music is one of the really big forces in dissent and protest. Could you talk a little bit about how you see the role of music in dissent?
TUCKER: I think that we might describe ourselves as cultural activists, in terms of the fact that the culture around us is really important, although we might not necessarily be involved in political activism, in terms of putting people on the ballot or whatever. Just making music and making art that speaks out about the world around you is really important and it’s been historically important. So I think that we ourselves are inspired by that music and art. We in turn try to carry that sensibility with us when we’re writing songs, without carrying it too heavily and putting the message before the music — I think that we want to write about something that moves us.
INTERMISSION: When you write songs like “Step Aside” or “Words + Guitar,” which focus on the liberating power of music, are there any bands or types of music in particular that you have in mind?
TUCKER: For me, personally, on “Step Aside” I was thinking about Lulu. Janet said, “We need to write a dance song for this record,” and it was kind of her idea: “Go and write something really danceable for this record.” So Carrie and I came up with a really bare bones idea, and then we all came together, and we had to work on it a lot to come up with it. And we started getting a really ‘60s sound to it. That was when I was, like, “I wanna sound like Lulu!” We’re really influenced by so many bands, I think, in general.
INTERMISSION: Although you’re definitely not “mainstream,” the band has been covered in the New York Times and Time Magazine, and I was just wondering how you felt about that kind of mainstream exposure. Are you worried about being defanged and co-opted the way riot grrrl was?
TUCKER: I think that we sort of see both sides of it. We’re sometimes worried that a writer or the magazine or whatever is not going to get what we’re about, but at the same time it’s important for us to have exposure, to get out there and sell records and also introduce people that might not be in a subculture scene to our ideas and music. I think that we sort of take it with a grain of salt. We’re most concerned about our music, and that’s what we’re worried about; the press stuff is much more secondary.
INTERMISSION: On each successive album your music has become more adventurous and has started to incorporate a lot more styles. What kind of factors feed into that?
TUCKER: I think that we all have really different tastes in music and an eclectic sense of the things that we like, and we try and bring that back to the band. We do realize that this is our sixth record and that we want to try something different, so we try to take risks with different styles and different types of music that we like and try and appropriate that into our writing.