Call of the Wild

By: Mia Lily Clarke for The Guardian, June 8th, 2005


The influential rock critic Greil Marcus called them the 'best band in the world'. Now Sleater-Kinney have made their finest music yet.

 


Upstate New York in the wintertime is full of hazards: any moment a blizzard might hit the storm-prone east coast or there's the risk of getting shot. No wonder Janet Weiss, drummer with the Oregonian rock trio Sleater-Kinney, hardly ever went outside in the five weeks she and her bandmates were recording their album in a remote woodland studio. "It was the height of bear-hunting season," she explains. "Even a brief walk was impossible. If we went out for any reason, we'd have to put on bright orange vests so we could be spotted through the thickets and snow."

"We felt extremely isolated during our time there," adds singer/guitarist Corin Tucker. "We picked The Woods as the title because it relates to where we recorded it, but also because we liked the fact that it has multiple meanings. The woods represent something very scary and dark, both physically and emotionally, but also enticing and mysterious. And wild."

Since Sleater-Kinney formed in Washington State in 1994, they have hit a succession of highs and stamped an impressive imprint on rock history. Initially the band was just Tucker, then singer with the punk duo Heavens to Betsy, and guitarist Carrie Brownstein, then guitarist with Excuse 17. They had a brief love affair and held their first rehearsals in a student garage. By the time Weiss joined in 1997, they had released two albums; by their fourth, The Hot Rock, in 1999, influential rock critic Greil Marcus was championing Sleater-Kinney as "the best band in the world".

Now on their seventh album, they have stayed true to their punk-political roots: their lyrics address topics such as gender inequity and mass consumerism, and their sound is consistently fierce and exuberant. Their fanbase is loyal and steadily growing, but the trio admit to feeling occasionally restricted by the expectations of their audience. Brown-stein, who has the reputation as the most outspoken member of Sleater-Kinney, recently aired her frustrations in US music magazine, Magnet: "We are sick of people feeling they know who we are and what we're capable of. I remember thinking in the studio that I'd really love to make some of our fans kind of angry."

Weiss smiles at this remark, but shares Brownstein's opinion. "I think people attach themselves to the songs they were listening to when they first fell in love with the band. You can't blame them for wanting more of that. But it's our responsibility to do what we feel is right at the time. This record is rebellious. We wanted to push ourselves to make something aggressive and ballsy, not something our fans could vacuum the floors to."

Before recording The Woods, the band experienced what they call "a seventh-album itch". They took a break, during which Brownstein, who has a linguistics BA, immersed herself in "cooking and academic research", Tucker spent time with her family, and Weiss went on tour with Quasi, the group she formed in 1993 with ex-husband Sam Coomes. They left their long-time record label, Kill Rock Stars, last year, and switched to Sub Pop, a larger independent label located in Seattle. And then they set out to reinvent their music.

Those familiar with Sleater-Kinney's previous work are likely to find The Woods an unsettling departure from the prickly pop and serrated, high octave tirades that shaped their popularity during the 1990s. And yet this is the group's most accomplished material to date. The trio are often praised for their explosive live shows, yet their earlier albums had a tendency to feel tight and one-dimensional. In contrast, The Woods sounds free and exhilarating, dark and complex. It's no surprise to discover the band drew inspiration from the meltdown live energy of The Who's Live at Leeds, Jimi Hendrix and early Pink Floyd.

"We knew that things needed to be different this time," Tucker says. "We needed to be revitalised if we wanted to keep going."

A significant factor was their decision to part with long-time producer John Goodmanson, who worked with the group on five albums, and work instead with Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev producer Dave Fridmann, who they felt had a "free and unruly" attitude to recording. They are pleased with the result but, as Weiss points out, "nothing to do with the creation of this record was smooth and simple. There were a hell of a lot of tears in the studio."

"It was really hard," Tucker agrees. "I was on the edge. It would have been a very different record if we had made it in Portland, Oregon."

As the only member of Sleater-Kinney with a family - film producer husband Lance Bangs and four-year-old Marshall - Tucker drew on the difficulty of being away from her son to spark the visceral energy needed to record her vocals. She is at her full throttle finest on The Woods, her voice veering dramatically between tyrannical hollers and shimmering, howling sopranos. After the powerful tug of the opening track, The Fox, the listener is pulled into the multiple stories that the record has to tell: tales of a teenager jumping from San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge; wry observations on contemporary romance in the deceptively breezy love ditty Modern Girl; and a devastating insight into domestic life on Night Light ("How do you do it/This bitter and bloody world/Keep it together and shine for your family").

"It's really hard for anyone to shift gears and exist in another part of themselves," says Tucker. "I knew that I needed to do that, but it took a lot of trying before I was able to. My husband is really supportive, and he took our son on vacation so that I could concentrate on writing lyrics. I wanted to do something to match the music, so the lyrics I wrote had to be suitably daring."

The final section of The Woods contains some of the finest material Sleater-Kinney have recorded: an 11-minute opus titled Let's Call It Love that features a series of Brownstein's stingingly sweet guitar solos before collapsing into a striking, unedited improvisation. Led Zeppelin comparisons are inevitable, and Tucker and Weiss admit to absorbing the band's back catalogue during their time in the studio. "We were in our pyjamas in the room upstairs listening to Zeppelin over and over at four in the morning," says Tucker, laughing. "We were totally obsessed."

"We had to inspire and excite ourselves with a challenge, and we've done that - thank goodness," says Weiss. "I don't think we would have made this record if we didn't feel we had material that was worth making. We wouldn't have bothered to get so freaked out and uncomfortable. We did it because we knew we had a shot at making something worthwhile."